August - September 2023
Karl Mordo came with the night, catching Stephen off his guard. The blast threw him clear across the courtyard, over the neighbor’s well-tended garden and through the brick wall that had separated the two properties for sixty odd years. Stephen felt a rib break but did not let himself register the pain, instead rolling to break his momentum and throwing two spells, one defensive and one offensive, at the direction of his attacker.
It took him a moment to recognize the other man, so changed and embittered despite the short years since they last saw each other. Stephen was exhausted, and seeing a ghost from a time before Thanos exhausted him even more. He fought the urge to sag into his knees. “Master Mordo.”
“Master Strange.” Mordo gripped the Staff of the Living Tribunal tighter and said, “Or shall I call you Sorcerer Supreme?”
“I am not worthy of that title,” Stephen raised a spectral blade with his left hand, calculating possible angles of attack even as he catalogued his own injuries. They had just returned from the riots in Cairo. He felt the weight of the last few weeks as he pulled more energy from stores he did not know existed.
“No,” Karl agreed, advancing as he whipped the Staff, “no, you’re not.”
Stephen surged backward when Karl lunged for him, shields sparking against the Staff’s onslaught, offensive spells on hold. Once close enough, he pulled the wards of the London Sanctum around him like a blanket, using its ancient energy to protect him as he gathered enough power for an offensive spell capable of destroying the Staff.
He didn’t want to, but he saw the flat shadows in Karl’s eyes. He knew those shadows. Karl was prepared to kill him. Karl would kill him.
I have a duty, he told himself, I cannot die. He threw his arm down and, with single-minded intent, cut the Staff in two. The backlash threw both men back. Stephen stumbled against the Sanctum’s shattered doors.
The wards should have alerted them already, Stephen thought. Where’s my backup? I need to stall.
Karl rose from the rubble with a snarl. Somewhere at the end of the street, a hapless civilian was calling for help. Stephen knew they wouldn’t come in time to intervene—the world was still in chaos, resources far too scarce and emergency services too overwhelmed to respond to every call—but nevertheless he acted accordingly, spinning his arms to shatter reality and envelop them in the Mirror Dimension. This was not going to be a quick fight. He needed to minimize the collateral damage.
“Even after all this time, you do not see,” Karl spat, deprived of his best weapon but not his determination. “The laws are in place for a reason, Stephen. We cannot simply break them whenever we want. There are consequences.”
Stephen bared his teeth, hissing, “Don’t speak to me of consequences, Karl, I know better than anyone what kind of consequences come out of—”
“Do you?” Karl yelled as he threw spell after spell, blade after blast. “Do you?!”
Stephen dodged and dodged and knew he couldn’t keep dodging forever, but the thought of killing Karl Mordo was—no, he thought, whipping out golden ropes of power in hopes to restrain this man who was once his mentor and friend.
“You and your Avengers, you don’t know what you’ve done. How many times must you break reality before you understand the damage you wreak?”
Karl Mordo had always been better at hand-to-hand combat, but Stephen grit his teeth against the pain and met his opponent fist for fist. Blast after blast bounced against shields, his ropes futilely reaching for Karl who knew just how to avoid them.
“This painful new world you’ve made for the rest of us to suffer, it’s broken, and it’s your fault. It’s your responsibility, Sorcerer Supreme.”
Something in Stephen snapped—something that had been holding him in check since he was brought back from the burgundy fog of the Soul Stone dimension—and with a roar of anger, he exploded in a surge of pure energy. Karl was thrown back again—Stephen sent another blast—and back again—another blast—Stephen pinned him down and kept him down and pierced two limbs to the ground with shimmering blades—
“K-Kill me if you dare,” Karl Mordo snarled at him, teeth stained red and eyes shining with spite. “Kill me, but it ch-changes nothing. You saved nothing. B-Because of the stone, th-the world was already b-broken and you—”
“I saved trillions,” Stephen snarled back, blind with a nameless black emotion that choked his throat. “I saved the universe.”
“You c-can’t erase past mistakes,” Karl told him with a wet, gurgling laugh. “You c-can only make new ones. I th-thought you of all people would know.”
Before Stephen could stop him, Karl wrenched an arm free and stabbed his own neck, yanking sideways for a quick end. Stephen stood there staring at him, at the life blood leaving his arteries, at his broken body, broken by Stephen’s own hands, Stephen’s unchecked strength. Recklessness. Failure.
When Wong finally came to fetch him, all the anger had fled, leaving only empty truth in its wake.
“As long as there are those who can remember what was, there will always be those who can never accept what can be. They will resist.”
( Thanos, Avengers: Endgame )
“He was going to surface one way or another,” Wong told him later as they sat pondering over a pot of tea. “It was only a matter of time.”
Time, a concept. Stephen didn’t even know what to do with it anymore. It was the exhaustion talking, he knew, but every time he tried to close his eyes to sleep, he saw Karl. Dead, broken, murdered. His first mentor, one of his few friends. Wong seemed to be taking it with better stride despite having known Karl Mordo for longer, but then again, Wong was not a doctor.
“I swore an oath, you know,” Stephen quietly told Wong. “How many times I’ve broken it by now, I can’t even count.”
“You’re not a practicing doctor anymore,” Wong gently reminded him. “Drink your tea.”
Stephen brought the steaming cup of pu-erh to his mouth and sipped. The earthy sweetness grounded him. He continued, “Practicing or not, an oath is an oath. I was such an asshole to everybody when I was a surgeon that I’m sure they probably all thought I didn’t take it seriously, but I did.” He looked down at his trembling, scar-riddled fingers. “I do.”
“I know,” Wong sighed. “Whatever words Master Mordo spoke to you in misguided anger, do not let them mislead you. You have done your duty and you continue to uphold it every day by protecting reality. You helped save the universe, Stephen, at risk to your own life. You can’t claim many virtues, but integrity is one of them.”
Stephen snorted. “I don’t think I have to thank you if you’re insulting me and complimenting me in the same breath.”
“Nothing less than you deserve. Now are you going to bed or not? You should, but if you’re not, you can at least help reposition the wards you broke.”
“I didn’t break them, the Staff of the Living Tribunal did.” Stephen stood, bringing his tea with them as they descended down creaking steps to the London Sanctum’s basement.
“Well, you broke the Staff, so you need to take responsibility. Master Aurora, welcome and thank you for your expertise,” Wong greeted one of the visiting masters from a smaller enclave in Iceland subordinate to the London Sanctum’s master. White-blonde hair, glacier-blue eyes, small frame but a thrumming, powerful aura. A candidate for mastery over London, Stephen recalled with some surprise at her youth.
“I am pleased to serve,” she trilled, for the lack of a better word, and bowed in respect to her seniors. “The keystones are intact, so it will not take much time.”
Sending their now-empty teacups away, Stephen reoriented his mind towards the task of ward-setting and forgot about Karl Mordo for a little while longer. Wong was right, of course. He would continue to uphold his duty, no matter what a dead friend had to say about the matter.
When he closed his eyes to reach out to the keystones holding the hum of ancient energy, Stephen heard the Ancient One’s voice again, an echo of a memory:
Death is what gives life meaning.
Well, what meaning was he supposed to draw from this one?
Three weeks prior, a master sorcerer wielding the same brand of magic as Stephen’s order had attacked Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. They had been in Detroit, helping settle an unprecedented level of armed public unrest after rival gangs decimated by the Snap were all brought back into a city that had moved on. New versus old, squabbles over resources made scarce by the global economic collapse, gun violence spilling from block to block in territorial urban warfare—Rhodes eventually sent in Avengers help when it became too much for the easily overwhelmed local law enforcement.
It caught them by surprise, Sam had reported. The man had a magic staff, Bucky said. Wanda happened to be with them, a girl adrift after the final battle, clinging to the closest comrades who would tolerate her. Wanda was the only reason they walked away with only minor injuries.
“I’ve taken care of the matter,” Stephen reported to Rhodes a day after Mordo’s death, speaking through a portal he didn’t want to go through. He didn’t need to step foot in the new Avengers Compound, still being rebuilt. That would set a nasty precedent. “He won’t be a problem anymore.”
“So it was one of yours after all?” Rhodes shook his head at Stephen’s stony expression. “Hey, I’m not shifting blame or anything, I get it. Sometimes people go rogue. As long as the threat is accounted for and taken care of.”
“It’s done,” Stephen restated with emphasis. “Personally. With my own hands.”
Rhodes met him eye to eye, an understanding passing between them. The man then nodded at him and smiled. “Great to hear, Doctor Strange. Keep in touch.” Stephen nodded, lifting a hand to close the portal. Before he could do so, however, Rhodes asked, “Hey, by the way, did he say why he attacked Sam and Buck?”
“I believe he intended to attack and eliminate every one of us party to the use of the Stones to manipulate reality.”
Rhodes snorted, “You tell him Thanos started it first?”
Stephen then had to admit, “Technically, our Order’s leader used the Time Stone before Thanos was even in the picture. I did too, when I took the stone over from her.”
“Yeah, well,” Rhodes sighed, reclining against his office chair, “sometimes we gotta break the rules for the greater good.” And then, in a quieter voice, he adds, “Tony taught me that.”
Stephen nodded his agreement. “We must keep our eyes on the endgame.”
Rhodes looked up at him and asked as the portal was closing, “Oh yeah? What’s the endgame look like? Don’t tell me this is it.”
Stephen then smiled, but it was a sad one. The portal closed before he could give a response.
Pepper Stark insisted on funding the Order, so Wong took the much-needed money and put it to good use. The Sanctums were now fully repaired, Kamar-Taj had resumed normal operations, and Wong, as Kamar-Taj’s keeper, initiated the next batch of novices. Stephen returned to his post as the Master of the New York Sanctum, for the moment choosing to ignore the looming selection of the new Sorcerer Supreme. The selection was mere ceremony, of course, one they hadn’t been able to do prior to Thanos’ arrival; Stephen already knew the votes would be for him.
I don’t want to leave New York, he realized while ambling along an abandoned path in Central Park. Dawn threatened on the near horizon, staining the skies above him pink and purple and blue. Trash littered the park, soda cans and bits of paper and plastic bags strewn around everywhere the eye could see. He recalled a time when this city looked much nicer and looked forward to a time when it did again: with a wave of his hand, he gathered all the trash into neat piles next to an overflowing bin.
He stuck his hands back into his jean pockets, clenching them against the cold. Autumn took over the east coast early this year. He left the park and headed for a deli he used to frequent when he still worked ungodly hours at Metro as a resident; hopefully the owner was still alive and making those amazing Cuban sandwiches.
The deli was just about opening when he got there, the aroma of fresh-baked bread beckoning him inside. The owner greets him with surprise. “Buenas dias, doctor! Long time no see!”
Stephen blinked back, equally surprised. “Yeah. Uh, a Cuban, please?”
“Sure, sure, I make special for you, doctor!” the man happily responded with a thick Puerto Rican accent that brought Stephen back to simpler days before he was a sorcerer. And as if one reminder wasn’t enough, the universe gave him a second one.
“Stephen? My god, Stephen, is that really you?” a familiar voice said from behind him.
Stephen turned to find himself facing— “Oh. Christine.”
“Oh, Christine?” she scoffed, fighting a smile. “After all these years and the shit you put me through, that’s all you have to say?”
Stephen blinked in surprise, “I, uh. Sorry?”
“That’s more like it, but careful, don’t hurt yourself,” she teased, smile pulling wider at her lips. She looked older, the lines around her eyes more pronounced. Her hair was pulled up, her face devoid of make-up, her scrubs telltale of a long shift just about over. She tucked her hands in her scrub jacket’s pockets, a nonchalant motion that again tugged Stephen back into the past. She used to do that too when she wore his scrub jackets, stole them really, complaining that he kept his recovery bays too cold. “Got a moment for breakfast, or do you have something… more important to run to this morning?”
Shrugging, Stephen motioned to one of the tables by the window. “Just like old times.”
This time she smiled completely. “Just like old times. Let me guess, you got the Cuban? I was gonna change it up today, but fine, I’ll order the same thing—buenos dias, señor, un pastrami por favor?”
Stephen slid into the booth with his own food. Didn’t they use to sit here too? This exact same spot, with this exact same view, looking over the halfway empty streets of a slumbering city, their city, the one they tried to save one patient at a time.
Christine sat down and pushed her jacket sleeves up, procuring a bottle of hand sanitizer which she shared with him. “So, what have you been up to?”
“Oh, you know,” Stephen shrugged, “safeguarding reality, fixing a broken universe, that sort of thing.”
She grinned. “That sort of thing, huh.”
“It’s that sort of gig,” Stephen nodded, pausing when the owner came to give Christine her sandwich and drink. They probably looked strange to the old man now, Christine still in her scrubs but Stephen looking nothing like a doctor anymore. He wore black jeans, a t-shirt, and one of his old battered leather jackets; he probably looked more like a homeless person than a doctor at this point. “How’s Metro?”
“Same old, same old,” she shrugged, taking a distinctly unladylike bite of her sandwich, the characteristic hunger of an overworked medical professional. “I swear I’ll grow old in that place.”
“Tell me they’ve at least made you a Professor,” Stephen frowned, noting that her jacket still had her old credentials embroidered in white.
“Ah, yeah, two years ago. They kind of had no choice since McDonagh went and—he—” Christine suddenly looked down, “he couldn’t do it anymore. His whole family disappeared in the snap, and. They found him—at his house. He didn’t answer calls or pages. So.”
“Ah.” Stephen vaguely remembered the guy, unremarkable and normal, genial and nice, kids and wife.
“It’s—not uncommon,” Christine took another bite of her sandwich. “After—everything.”
“Right, of course,” Stephen nodded, looking through the window at the world passing them by outside. Despite his waning appetite, Stephen forced himself to eat. He no longer had the money to be wasting food, after all.
“Stephen,” Christine quietly called his attention; something in her tone made him turn. “I know there are things you can’t really tell me, but… was there no other way?”
Stephen inhaled, exhaled, and calmly answered, “No. This was the only way.”
She held his gaze for a moment longer than necessary, and then turned to look out the window too. “I see. That’s unfortunate.”
The two of them exchanged no words for a while, only enjoying their food in silence. Christine split her water bottle between the two of them since Stephen forgot to order a drink. He wordlessly took the pickles she extracted from her pastrami sandwich.
“Do you remember,” she smiled again, “all those years ago, ER rotation, I dared you to finish an emergency C-section, the next one that rolled in through the doors?”
“You didn’t think I could handle it,” Stephen snorted. “I made you eat a whole pickle.”
“I hated you for a week,” Christine laughed. “You were such an asshole to me and to that poor mother too! Abysmal bedside manner! You told her your skills were wasted on her baby—you’re lucky she didn’t remember it afterwards, you jerk!”
Stephen smiled because she laughed, and then his smile softened into a sad one again, the only kind of smile he seemed to be able to manage these days. “I’d go back and be nicer, apologize if I could, but.”
“Would you?” Christine asked, leaning forward on her elbows, eyes sparkling with interest. “And would you mean it?”
“I was an asshole,” Stephen admitted with a shrug. “Still am, most days.”
“But now at least you acknowledge it! And I call that progress. Whatever kind of training they gave you at that… that place, I mean, it worked.”
“I still have a lot to learn,” Stephen confessed. “I learn more every day.”
“But you’re still an asshole,” Christine giggled, mirth shaving years off her countenance. “I don’t think that’ll change.” With the sun rising to slant golden rays across her face, Stephen could almost pretend they were fifteen years younger, fresh out of Columbia, hungry for a challenge and itching to spread their wings.
But they didn’t have to be young again. The possibility was here before them, another chance, a proper attempt at a relationship this time.
His hands clenched under the table. He had to remind himself that he couldn’t fix past mistakes; he could only make new ones. He’d already put her through so much grief for so many years.
“No, you’re right,” Stephen looked down and then away, “assholes will always be assholes, isn’t that what they say? I’m the most self-centered, narcissistic person you’ll ever know.”
Moment broken, Christine reclined against the seat with a short laugh. “I don’t think anyone can compete with you there.”
He spent another hour with her and savored every moment of it, until she was yawning between every other word and had to be put to bed, else she would fall asleep on a park bench on the way home. Stephen walked her to her brownstone and resolved to remain her friend, at least. But for a few moments, when he steadied her by the elbow, he allowed himself to briefly pretend.
The clamoring wards ripped him right out of a shadowed dream. He bolted upright, pulling the Cloak over his shirt and rushing to the door with his shields out. Peter Parker stumbled off the Sanctum’s front step and on his ass.
“Whoawhoapleasedon’tblastmeit’sjustPeter! Peter Parker!” the kid babbled; Stephen dropped his shields and sighed. “Hi Doctor Strange! Sorry, there was no doorbell!”
“That doesn’t mean you try to break in. Ever heard of knocking?”
“I wasn’t tryna break in I just tried the doorknob also knocking is so 1990s you need to get a StarkNest!” Peter bounced back to his feet, vibrating with enough energy to power Manhattan. “You know what that is, right? Like, a home security system. Wait. How old are you exactly, Doctor Strange, er, sir? Not to be rude, just, just for reference!”
“What did you have, three gallons of caffeine or crystal meth?” Stephen shot back, exasperated.
“Um, ice cream? They had pints of Stark Raving Hazelnuts on sale so I bought a bunch from the store yesterday!”
Heaving a large sigh, Stephen stepped back into the foyer and allowed the boy inside, unwilling to hold a conversation on the sidewalk at such an inopportune hour of the morning. While the wards assured they remained unnoticed, he only had sleeping clothes on and it was cold outside.
“Whoaaaa. Your hideout might be the best one yet, Doctor Strange, this is so cool, what are those?”
“Welcome to the New York Sanctum, what business brings you to the Order’s abode? And make it quick, I haven’t had coffee yet.”
“Oh! Um,” Peter cleared his throat, straightening and clutching his backpack straps in a way that made him look like an elementary-age kid instead of an almost-adult Avenger. “I would like to formally invite you to Morgan’s Fifth Birthday Party—”
“—which is also the unofficial Avengers reunion marking a year—well, almost—since the final battle,” Peter continued, undeterred. “Mr. Rhodey—er, War Machine—would like to check in with everyone to make sure that we’re all on the same page and, um. Thor and the Guardians are stopping by since they’re in the quadrant. Oh, Captain Marvel will also be there! You gotta come, Doctor Strange!”
Stephen turned around to find Wong descending the stairs with books in hand. “No.”
“Yes,” Wong insisted. “You’ve been cooped up in here like a hermit. Get out there. Socialize.”
“I don’t need to socialize—”
“Do I care?” Wong cut into him. “As the newly elected Sorcerer Supreme, you need to ensure strong ties and good relations between our Order and the rest of the world. Now that we’re public knowledge, we need to manage that knowledge. Being seen with the Avengers—the saviors of the universe—it’s good optics, Stephen. Go.”
“Good optics?” Stephen spat, even though Wong was right.
“It won’t be that bad,” Peter said, and when he turned around, Stephen immediately knew it was a mistake to let the kid in. That face. Damn it. “Morgan’s really curious about magic, maybe you can show her a few things, who knows, she might grow up and be an engineer-wizard! Witch? Oh, and there’ll be great food and booze too, they told me to tell you that. Well, not just you, but like, tell the adults that. Because adults like alcohol. Yeah.”
Stephen ran through several different ways he could shut this conversation down and realized none of them will work. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. When.”
“Yus!” Peter fist-pumped at exactly nobody, before once again collecting himself and reciting, “September fifth, 2pm, at the Avengers Compound! No dress code, and Pepper wants to remind everyone that Morgan doesn’t like square-shaped things right now—hopefully it’s a phase—so please don’t put your gifts in boxes!”
“Gifts,” Stephen groaned, turning to Wong. “What do I give a five-year-old?”
Wong shrugged, amused. “A toy?”
“Morgan loves puzzles!” Peter suggested. “And dogs and wolves and cake! But don’t get her more cake. There’ll already be a huge cake.”
“Right, fine, I’ll think of something,” Stephen sighed. “Anything else?”
Peter looked up at him and fidgeted for a moment… and another moment… and—
“Can I look around your hideout please?”
The ‘NO’ died on Stephen’s tongue when he saw the boy’s face again. Damn it.
“Do not touch anything without permission, or I will not be responsible for putting you back together when an artefact dismembers you.”
“Yessir!” Peter saluted, marching up the stairs after him. Stephen kept an eye on him for the morning, ensuring that he didn’t fall headfirst into the Cauldron of the Cosmos or trip over the Lance of Yaggai and skewer himself by accident.
The entire time Peter was exploring the Sanctum, Stephen told himself that one day, someday, he would look at Peter Parker and not immediately think of that disaster on Titan, or the boy’s sobs when he sat defeated next to Tony Stark’s corpse on that final battlefield.
The Avengers Compound was almost completely rebuilt, barring a few landscaping issues. Stephen noted the young poplar trees planted along the driveway as he portaled in near the gates; it gave him time to walk to the venue and collect himself along the way. He was no stranger to parties, but the kind he used to attend were adult parties and his behavior as a neurosurgeon never earned him any invitations to his colleagues’ children’s parties. Whatever, they’ll have to take what they get, they invited me.
It was likely the Avengers pitied his apparent awkwardness, mistaking it as social ineptitude. In truth, he owed his awkwardness to the fact that it was he who condemned Tony Stark to that end. Effectively, Stephen sent the man to his death, unknowingly and without warning. The rest of the Avengers didn’t know that, of course, given that none of them were on Titan except for the boy.
He didn’t know how much Peter understood of what happened on Titan. Peter did not show even an ounce of animosity or anger towards Stephen despite the boy’s apparent love for Stark as a father figure, so perhaps Peter didn’t understand… ah, but it won’t do to underestimate that one, Stephen thought. If anything, he could tell genius when he saw it.
Perhaps Peter was simply choosing not to dwell on it. By doing so, Peter was already better than Stark and Stephen combined. Stark was no longer here to tell him that, so maybe Stephen should—no, no no no, we’re not going there, bad thoughts. Best not to get attached. You’re in no position to make commitments, Stephen Strange. You’re the Sorcerer Supreme. The only commitment you can make is to this reality and its safekeeping.
He used to not be this maudlin. He used to be fine on his own. He didn’t know where it started, but somehow, at some point during the past few years, he began to care. Now he cared too much.
“Doctor Strange, you came!”
Peter Parker zoomed towards him, for the lack of a better descriptor, and dragged him to a gathering of people clustered around tables set out in the open green space. There were pastel colors and balloons, unicorns and cartoon dogs. An actual dog too, winding around people’s legs with unbridled enthusiasm. A puppy.
“Hey, doc, how you doin’?” Rhodes greeted him, followed quickly by Sam. Whatever response Stephen had to offer was drowned out by the rumble of the Milano landing in the near distance. A subsonic boom from somewhere above warned of something entering the atmosphere at speed—likely Carol Danvers, briefly home for this timely reunion.
Soon enough the crowd became much too loud and cheerful, a confusion of back-slapping and handshaking and insult-slinging. Stephen began to wonder if this was an adult party after all.
After ten more minutes of raucous greetings, Pepper used a whistle to calm everyone down. “Everyone,” she laughs, “everyone, really, thank you for coming to see Morgan!”
Reminded of the five-year-old birthday girl who was and has been gleefully riding Peter’s shoulders for the past twenty minutes, everyone promptly shouted exuberant well-wishes and delivered their gifts: the puppy from Rhodes, an A.I.-equipped robot companion from Peter, a stuffed winged horse from Thor, and a pair of realistic angel wings from Banner. Sam Wilson gave her a charm bracelet, Bucky Barnes a matching necklace, Wanda a dress, and Harley Keener a potato gun. Clint Barton brought his brood along and gifted Morgan a predictable miniaturized bow-and-quiver. Peter Quill’s gift of a music box was well-received, with compliments and decoration from the rest of the Guardians. Carol Danvers brought her home reinforced boxing gloves that resized to her tiny fists, enchanted by some strange magic from somewhere in far space.
“A girl needs to know how to throw a proper punch,” Danvers teased the little girl with a smile. “When you’re old enough, it’ll help you keep the boys in line.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Stark had FRIDAY programmed to sabotage every single wanna-be boyfriend Morgan gets when she’s older,” Peter quipped, to everyone’s agreement.
“Tony does tend to shoot first and ask questions later,” said Rhodes.
“I want Peter to be my boyfriend!” Morgan declared, making Peter’s Aunt May and Pepper both laugh.
Peter predictably blushed but didn’t dare contradict her. Not today. “Doctor Strange, your turn!” the boy deftly deflected, turning to Stephen, who had remained at the edges of the crowd for good reason.
Stephen sighed, put down his drink, and approached with his gift. He took Morgan’s tiny hand and tied a red braided cord around her wrist. “A bracelet? What’s it do?”
“It calls me to you,” Stephen told her. “When you’re scared, or lonely, or hurting, you can touch this and call my name. Wherever you are, I’ll find you. Whatever happens, I’ll come.”
Everyone settled with a hush. Pepper crouched behind Morgan and murmured against her temple, “What do we say, love?”
Morgan bit her lip and looked up at Stephen. “Thank you.”
Stephen solemnly nodded. “You’re welcome.”
Pepper mouthed ‘thank you’ to him as well, which distracted Stephen such that it was Peter who first got to wipe Morgan’s tears.
“Oh no, Morgan, hey,” Peter swooped in and scooped the girl up, who then began to sob in earnest. “Hey, baby, what’s wrong?”
Concerned, Pepper also rose, crowding closer to Morgan same as everyone else. It took the child a while to quit sobbing long enough to use her words. Stephen cursed himself and wondered if he had scared the child. I was never good with children; there’s a reason I’m not a pediatric neurosurgeon.
“I—I w-want my D-Daddy. T-That’s what he said too. He s-said he would always be wi’ me. I want—I don’ want any gifts, I jus’ want my Daddy!”
She burst into fresh tears and so did Peter, Pepper, and Aunt May. Rhodes looked away, breathing stuttering as Bruce’s uninjured hand landed on his shoulder. It took all of Stephen’s control not to flee for the safety and darkness of the Sanctum.
He conjured handkerchiefs for Pepper and May. “I’m sorry,” he told Stark’s wife, uncertain if it was even right for him to speak to her when he—
Pepper shook her head. “No, no, it’s just, she’s been—she’s finally starting to understand that it’s—permanent. It’s not—not your fault. And thank you for your gift, really, it puts my mind at ease. Thank you.”
Stephen wanted to tell her to stop. She had nothing to thank him for. Nothing to thank and everything to blame.
To everyone’s surprise, it was Thor who managed to stop the tears. Thor looked better, having lost most of the weight he put on over the last five years, although the marks of intense grief were still palpable upon his face. Thor crouched in front of Morgan, who clung to Peter’s shoulders, and said, “Hey, now. Hush, little princess. I know for a fact your Daddy wouldn’t want you to be crying because of him on your name day!”
Peter gently handed Morgan over for Thor to carry with a single arm. “Thor’s right, Morgan. You shouldn’t cry on your birthday.”
Morgan tucked her little chin into her chest and frowned so fiercely that for a moment Stephen can see Tony Stark’s fierce determination superimposed upon her delicate face. Thor jostled her good-naturedly and said, “I bet you miss him every day.”
“Lots and lots,” Morgan sniffled. “More than three thousand.”
“I miss my father too,” Thor told her, “and what’s worse, unlike you, I was a very naughty boy when my father was still alive. But I know he always watches over me even today, so I try to be braver than I am and stronger than I feel.”
Morgan laid her cheek on Thor’s shoulder. “D’you think Daddy watches me too?”
“I know it,” Thor assured her with all the confidence of an Asgardian immortal. What betrayed him was his quivering smile. “Friend Tony was a stalwart warrior. He fought with great honor and would never renege on a promise he made to his own daughter. You might not be able to see him, but like he said, he’ll always be with you.”
He will always be with all of us, Stephen agreed, his sacrifice the glue that holds this broken world together. He stewed on that for the rest of the party, sitting next to a quiet Bucky and a brooding teenage Groot until things wound down enough that he could slip away.
Who are you fooling, Stephen Strange? he berated himself. You didn’t save anything. Tony Stark is the one who saved everything.
Not for the first time, Stephen wished he could speak to the Ancient One once again and ask her how she managed to live like this. The guilt was going to eat him alive.
“Here we are, trapped in the amber of a moment. There is no why.”
( Kurt Vonnegut )
It was a bad situation. Stephen was beginning to realize just how bad. He attempted to distract himself for the next few weeks, going to extreme lengths to occupy every single waking minute with something that didn’t involve Tony Stark, or Peter Parker, or Morgan Stark.
Unfortunately for him, the universe had other plans.
While reviewing the literature for Christine who asked him for a professional favor, Stephen stumbled upon an article Stark wrote on quantum mechanics, published posthumously on Nature. On his way to meet Christine for breakfast the following week, he tripped on a book that fell out of one of the Strand bookstore’s sidewalk shelves, a book that bore Tony Stark’s smiling face on the cover. When he decided to stay in to avoid any further such encounters, he found Stark’s lost shades while cleaning the Sanctum’s foyer.
“Seriously?” Stephen sighed, holding the shades in his hand and clearly recalling how Stark had removed it just before the battle against Thanos’ children began. “How did this even get in here?”
“What was that, Master Strange?” Acolyte Haruki called from where he was dusting the paintings overhead.
“Nothing,” Stephen said. “The universe is just conspiring against me, that’s all. No big deal. Perfectly normal. Business as usual.”
Stephen folded the shades and pocketed it, resolving to deliver it to Peter later. Peter would be preferable over Pepper at this time. Or maybe even Rhodes. Rhodes would be easier to deal with.
The entire day, he tried not to listen to his own thoughts when it whispered, I could give it back to the man himself. To Stark himself. I could.
It was a bad situation. Stephen ignored how bad and went to sleep.
Thinking about it, Stephen realized something crucial.
Thinking about it, he looked at the future from when they were on Titan—and he looked only at the future. They were all so focused on winning what battle was about to come to them that he didn’t think to look at the past. The past was, after all, lost territory.
But technically—technically speaking—if he went back a little bit before Titan—even just a little—the possibilities would change, wouldn’t they, because he was looking forward from a standpoint a little further back than before. Just the same as he would better appreciate the entirety of a painting from five meters instead of five inches away, he would see more options if he stepped back into the past and then looked forward.
“Dangerous thoughts, Strange,” Stephen muttered to himself, pacing in the confines of his private room in the Sanctum.
Were they, though?
Traveling back to the past was only taboo if he used the Time Stone, and only because the worldline would eventually correct itself—and there’s the risk of it overcorrecting too, or worse, I create a branch reality that’s all fucked because of the stone’s instability.
Inherently, the Infinity Stones were meant to work together to create all of reality; they were never meant to be used apart. This was the reason Thanos needed all six in order to exact his plan. If Stephen wanted to change the universe but keep the worldline intact, he needed all six stones to affect reality, time and space, with enough power behind it, and including all the souls and minds contained within the universe. The effort would of course kill him.
But what if I ultimately travel back without using the stone?
Stephen gnawed on the inside of his cheek and summoned several books to his fingertips. There were other spells—spells using a different, more volatile kind of magic—that made it possible to travel backwards in time. Not entirely, not as a whole physical entity, but—
But what if it doesn’t involve physical bodies?
Against his better judgment, he spent the next day and a half reading all that the Sanctum could offer on the topic, and then when he ran out of books, he went to sleep and sent his astral form to Kamar-Taj to read further. Wong saw him flit through the shelves of ancient scrolls and said nothing, well-used to his astral wanderings. Stephen was Sorcerer Supreme now, which meant he had unlimited access to all the knowledge that the Order could offer.
He came across the answer in a very old stone tablet—a stone tablet, of all things!—sitting underneath lambskin sheaves etched with runes and pentagrams. The tablet was written in Old Norse. What it told him shook his soul with fear.
In order to do this, Stephen then understood, I’m going to have to rip my soul from my body. I’m going to have to die.
Stephen put the stone tablet back where he found it and woke up in New York.
And again, Stephen chose to forget about it. He put the dangerous thoughts aside and went to work, spending a week fixing angular anomalies with the ley lines in Greenwich, and then another week placating an outraged shishigami in Hakodate, and then two whole weeks attempting to untangle a multi-generational blood curse on a bagua mirror in Chengdu. The family that triggered it had only just moved into the old house and already suffered two deaths, a grandmother and a young child. Stephen was cautioning them that moving again would do nothing to deter such curses when Wong appeared at his elbow and told him he was needed at the New York Sanctum.
“What’s happened now?” Stephen sighed, “I swear to god, that city attracts more trouble than honey attracts bees.”
“The city’s fine,” Wong then said, steering him through the portal with a hand. “It’s Peter.”
Stephen’s blood ran cold as he raced up the stairs, turning the corner to find Peter Parker pacing the east sitting room in his Spiderman suit and looking gray.
“Peter, what’s wrong?”
“Doctor Strange!” Peter yelled, frantic. “Doctor Strange, what do I do? What do I—what can I do—what do I do now—they know—they all know and I—”
“Peter—Peter, breathe,” Stephen caught the boy by the shoulders, coaching him through the worst of the panic with a few well-placed words. “Keep breathing. Whatever it is, we’ll take care of it. Just keep breathing.”
Meanwhile, Stephen catalogued Peter’s appearance, noting that the suit did not seem worn from battle and that all of the boy’s limbs were at least intact. Peter looked distressed, though, and the distress did not dissipate even after his breathing calmed down.
“Alright, now, tell me slowly what happened from the very beginning.”
Peter’s lip quivered. “Doctor Strange, they know. They all know.”
“That I’m Spider-Man,” Peter whispered, as if afraid to speak it louder in fear that someone else would hear. “The world knows I’m Spider-Man, Doctor Strange. And it’s all my fault. I fucked up, I fucked up bad.”
Stephen’s brain stuttered to a momentary halt, and then booted back up with sixteen different questions at hand. He prioritized the most important concern and asked, “Have you talked to your aunt?”
Peter sniffed. “I did, I called her a while ago, she’s still at work though, she has to work… she said she’d be home tonight as soon as she could be.”
“She needs to be secured,” Stephen frowned, “she could become a target.” Peter let out a distressed whimper at the thought of having to disrupt his aunt’s life. Stephen nonetheless continued, “Have you contacted anyone else? Rhodes, or Fury, or Mrs. Stark?”
“No, and no, and of course not, Doctor Strange, I can’t involve Morgan in this!” Peter hotly denied. “If I’m gonna be a target—”
“Peter, Morgan’s already a target. She’s Tony Stark’s daughter.” Peter winced at that, which made Stephen realize he was handling this all wrong. Sighing, he straightened and put both of his hands on Peter’s shoulders, steering him towards a chair. “Sit. We’ll figure this out. For now, you’ll stay here. Let me get your Aunt May now. We need her secured. I’ll talk to Rhodes. You drink some tea.”
A sliver of humor eked out from the boy even as he trudged to one of the leather armchairs. “You want me to meditate too?”
“If it helps,” Stephen shrugged, walking out to the hallway where he could catch his breath and strategize.
Why did Peter come to him? Was there really no one else? Stephen supposed it made sense in light of how Peter wanted to avoid endangering the Starks, but surely Rhodes, as the Avengers’ official Earthbound leader at this time, would make more sense?
Focus, Stephen. Priorities first.
He opened a portal that startled May, who jumped a foot into the air and clutched her neck. “Oh my god! What the fuck!”
“Hi, Miss May, I’m Doctor Strange, an ally of the Avengers. Peter is with me, and it would be best if you left work now and came through as well. This is for your own safety, until we have a better handle on the situation.”
Stephen was quite good at convincing panicking people to calm down and listen—he spent years mastering the authoritarian stance of a premier neurosurgeon after all—so May gathered her things, bid her colleagues a good day, and came through the portal in short order.
“Where is he, is he okay?” May asked, handling the portal with a surprising level of equanimity; she barely flinched at the heat of its energy.
“Through here, and he needs a little… handling,” Stephen gestured to the door. “I’m not great with kids or teenagers. I’ll let you do that while I talk to the Avengers.”
“Right,” May cleared her throat and visibly centered herself, before walking into the sitting room and welcoming a hug from her nephew. “Oh, Peter, I’m so sorry.”
Stephen closed the door behind her and walked further down the hall into the west sitting room, which in fact had less chairs for sitting and more artefacts for dismembering. He spun a portal into Rhodes’ office, catching the man right as he was about to walk out the door.
“Oh, hey, doc, what’s up?”
“Peter Parker is in the Sanctum right now with his aunt. Something about the world knowing that he’s Spiderman. I was in Chengdu dealing with a supernatural threat—minor, don’t worry, just tricky—so I don’t have any context, but he might need an assist with this situation, whatever kind of situation it is.”
Rhodes’ shoulders sagged, in relief or dismay Stephen couldn’t say. “Well, at least we know he’s safe. I was just talking to Fury, I saw the news. It’s related to the London thing, some angry upstarts wanting Tony’s tech as usual. They tried to use Peter to steal it just last week, it was pretty bad.”
“I can’t imagine Stark would allow something like that to happen so easily. He would have installed safeguards.”
“Yeah, and if it weren’t for those safeguards, Peter would be toast,” Rhodes agreed. “Can you keep his head low for now? We’ll try to deal with it from here. I need him accounted for so that I can work with some peace of mind. Tony loved that kid. I can’t let him down.”
“…very well, he will remain in the Sanctum,” Stephen tried not to grimace at the thought of a teenager being his responsibility, however temporary. “How long will you need?”
“As long as you can give me. I’d hold off on going to school for now, if I were him,” Rhodes apologetically sighed, “and limit social media as much as possible.”
“Got it.” Stephen made to close the portal before Rhodes could ask anymore of him.
“And hey, doc? Might wanna warn him that this is probably permanent,” Rhodes grimaced. “I don’t think there’s a way to take that video down or refute the statement. There’s no way to backtrack from here.”
Stephen pinched the bridge of his nose with another sigh. “Right. I’ll talk to him.”
“Thanks, doc. He trusts you. Since Tony’s gone, you’re the closest he has to a role model, so I appreciate it. Kid’s got potential, you know, he’s just so…”
“Young,” Stephen finished for him. “I know. I’ll keep in touch.”
He allowed the portal to fall shut, standing there in silence for another while as he tried to parse what to do next. He was not looking forward to that conversation with Peter. He was further dreading having a teenager for an indefinite period of time. Children were never an option for him, really; this was not his territory. What was Wong thinking, pulling him back here to deal with this?
Summoning a cup of tea to his hand, he took a moment to breathe and reorient himself. This too shall pass, he thought, and turned away from how his brain wanted to correct Rhodes’ statement, because he knew that yes, there was a way to backtrack from here.
It just required a significant sacrifice.
May and Peter took two adjacent rooms on the fourth floor. Stephen gave them a short tour, the wi-fi password, and a stern warning not to touch anything that was behind glass or suspicious-looking. “This Sanctum is full of magical artefacts that could certainly kill you before I can get to you. Try not to die.”
“Well, you’re warm and fuzzy,” May flatly responded, turning to put Peter to bed.
“Aunt May, I’m fine,” Peter tried to say, despite being distinctly not fine. There were bags under the boy’s eyes and a stressed pallor to his complexion.
“Listen to your aunt, Peter. There will still be tomorrow. It’s hardly the end of life on earth. Your world is just changing. You’ll adapt. But for now, sleep.” That earned Stephen an appreciative glance from May.
Hopefully putting it in context of greater hurdles they had just overcome would help the kid rest with some peace of mind. Stephen, on the other hand, retired to his private quarters with what would soon become a raging headache. Even though he wasn’t responsible for the whole debacle, telling Peter that the damage was done made Stephen feel as though he was.
He showered and changed and sat on his bed wondering how Rhodes was handling the media. That made his head throb even more. He was about to lay down and also attempt sleep when he once again caught sight of Tony Stark’s shades still sitting on his desk. He took them and stood there and thought for a moment.
What would he do for Peter? What would he say?
Stephen wondered and was left to wondering when he realized he didn’t know Tony Stark well enough to predict what the man would have to say.
I could ask.
I could just go and ask.
Stephen sat next to the lamplight and warred with his own conscience in the dark of the night.
In the light of the morning, things were worse. Peter and May sat together watching what the world had to say, and while there were many who supported him on account of his heroics throughout New York and during Thanos’ invasion, there were also (very vocal) others who questioned his integrity and intentions. Media questioned his involvement in the mess that happened across Europe. Foreign governments were requesting his personal testimony to ascertain the truth of the matter. Paparazzi had already gone to their house and interrogated everyone, it seemed, from his school.
“MJ,” Peter croaked, red-eyed as he watched a dark-haired girl dodging reporters on the screen, “I just left her on the sidewalk. And Ned. I haven’t even talked to Ned. I need to talk to Ned.”
May hushed him. “I think he would understand, Peter. You need to get yourself together first.”
“Doctor Strange, what did Mr. Rhodey say?” Peter asked, looking up at him and looking lost.
Stephen sighed. “Rhodes is talking to the government to keep the heat off your back, but this sort of shit takes time. It’s politics. You have to lay low for now. Patience, Peter.”
Peter chuckled wetly. “I’m horrible at that. Even Mr. Stark said so.” He sighed. “I guess I have to grow up now. I thought I would have a little bit more time, you know. At least until the end of high school.”
Stephen hid his wince well, all things considered. He excused himself and pretended to have important work to do upstairs, only to retreat into his quarters with shaken resolve.
Time, a concept.
Stephen’s eyes sought out the shades, which sat on his desk, and he took a chance.
“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.”
( Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance )
For the first part of this hare-brained plan, Stephen didn’t need to go very far. He waited until nighttime, when the Sanctum was asleep, and pulled the Eye of Agamotto from the dimensional foldspace where he kept it hidden.
His fingers tingled as he rubbed them together, oddly not so painful tonight as most other nights when the pins stuck through his joints ached the most. He was about to annihilate this reality, and yet he felt good. Strangely good.
Thumbs pinched to his middle fingers, he pulled his arms apart and the Eye blinked open, its glow bathing the room in ethereal green light. When he spun his arms counter-clockwise, the world blurred.
Stephen went back to four years prior, when his past self was stuck in the Soul Stone dimension and the New York Sanctum stood without a Master. His room remained much the same, untouched despite his demise, a testament to Wong’s stalwart loyalty. His friend waited for him and trusted that he would return.
Wasting no time, Stephen spun a portal open, stepping through into a moonlit clearing near a house in Montana. The lake glimmered behind him, reflecting the bright full moon. The house’s lights were still on.
I don’t actually have to do this, Stephen thought to himself, still at war, still undecided. He stood within the shadow of a tree and looked into the house, watching like a creep. I don’t have to go through with it.
It was recklessness, pure and simple. There was no guarantee it would work.
In the house, Tony Stark turned the lights off in the kitchen as a pregnant Pepper Stark made for the stairs. Tony kissed her goodnight and went towards the den, apparently intending to stay late working on something or other tonight. Stephen watched this all and warred with his own plan, waiting, wondering, dithering over the risk. Future Stark’s shades sat heavy and ominous in his pocket.
Tony Stark briefly disappeared from the window view and remained invisible for a minute or two. He reemerged through the back porch, walking around to the side of the house and looking out past Stephen at the glimmering lake.
After a moment’s silence, Tony called out, “Alright, cut the crap, who’s out there and what do you want? I know you’re there, show your goddamn face.” A gauntlet came into shape wrapped around his arm; he held it up and pointed it out at the dark.
Stephen shied further into the shadow, still conflicted.
“Come out and just tell me what you want,” Tony sighed, adjusting his stance to lean forward. “Don’t make me come to you. Trust me, you won’t like it when I do.” When Stephen still didn’t respond, Tony said, “Alright, FRIDAY, scan—”
“It’s me,” Stephen spoke, stepping sideways out of the shadow and into the moonlight. He allowed his cloaking spell to gently slide off. “I—I only wanted to see.”
Tony dropped his arm and staggered forward. “W-Wizard? What? Wait—how—wait, you—”
“You weren’t supposed to see me,” Stephen said, mostly to himself, and shook his head, backing away. “Fuck. Fuck, you weren’t supposed to see me.”
When Stephen moved to spin a portal, Tony lunged forward from the porch, sprinting to catch him before he could disappear. “Waiwaiwaiwaiwait stop—stop!”
Stephen tried to wrench his arm free to no avail. “Stark, this is—”
“Holy shit you’re really here,” Tony gasped, grip tightening on Stephen’s wrist. His eyes were wide and blown with shattered, terrified surprise. “Holy shit! Wizard! What did you do! You were on Titan! I saw you—I saw you—”
Stephen swallowed and looked at Stark’s stunned face. Well, he’s already seen me. It’s only onwards from here. “I’m not—I’m not the Stephen Strange you were with on Titan. I’m from the future.”
That got him only rapid blinking. “Huh?” Tony eloquently said.
“I’m from the future of this worldline. I came back here using the Time Stone,” Stephen explained. In for a penny, in for a pound.
“Our future? This future? I get you back? Do we win?” Tony gasped, hope sparking in his eyes. And then, as if his scientific brain suddenly switched back online, “Wait a second, that’s not how that works. You can’t come back from the future and change—wait, what are you doing here? What happened?”
If Stephen had any doubt about Tony Stark’s genius, it died in that moment. Tony immediately understood the repercussions of using the Time Stone, as a true physicist should.
“Come on, talk to me, wizard,” Tony shook his wrist almost violently, “tell me something good. Tell me—tell me—we fucked up, didn’t we? God fucking damnit, we fucked up again! We fucked up—tell me Pepper survives. Wizard! I have a—a pregnant wife in there, I have to—I have to know—tell me she lives, our child lives, they have to!”
Stephen swallowed. “They survived.”
Tony peered at him for a heartbeat, silence echoing in the gap between them. “But I didn’t.”
Stephen looked away. “No, you didn’t.”
Tony blinked, and then blinked, and then blinked again. “Well, that’s. I mean, that’s. Fine, actually. If, you know. We won.”
We won, Stephen echoed in his head, that’s right, we won. Except… “These days,” Stephen quietly said, “at least in the days I come from… I often question the meaning of our victory.” And then, because they had already gone this far, he added, “I was at your daughter’s fifth birthday party a month ago. She wanted you there and I couldn’t—you weren’t there.”
Belatedly Stephen realized how cruel that was, imparting such knowledge to this man who had already suffered so much grief. Tony’s eyes blew wide open, shining with vulnerability and fear and a mind-shattering level of denial that Stephen had to fight the temptation to erase his memory and return to the broken future. But then Tony regained hold of himself with record speed born of years of practice.
“Alright, well, you’re here, so I’m assuming you’ve got a plan,” the man gripped Stephen’s arm even tighter. When Stephen didn’t respond, Tony shook it again, less violently this time. “Well, wizard?”
“Come on, fix this!” Tony threw his other arm wide. “I can’t die and leave my kid behind! I can’t be my dad! I have to be better! So come on, fix this, save me, and we’ll save the universe!”
Tony sighed and rolled his eyes, “Oh, come on, doctor wizard, you must have had a plan, coming here like you did. Look, I Googled you, alright—two PhDs and an MD, I know you have a big brain in there, man like you always has a plan. Takes one to know one! Come on, let’s do it, hit me.”
And Stephen, riding his conscience against his better judgment, did just that.
Tony staggered beside him, reaching out to steady himself against the (younger) tree. “Whoa, what the fuck.”
Stephen bent halfway over and waited for the nausea to pass, closing his eyes and focusing on breathing. He still had one more portal to perform.
“Shit, we really went back in time,” Tony murmured, already looking around and at his Montana house, which still looks unlived in because at this time it was. “Or are we going forward in time? Is the Time Stone exempt from that paradox?”
“It is,” Stephen inhaled, straightening up to his full height, “except only to an extent. I, as it’s wielder, am acting outside of time. That’s why it doesn’t work. For time to truly rewind backwards, time must go through me as well, reverting me back to who I was, which defeats the purpose. Using the Time Stone alone is only ever a temporary fix. Change too much or go too far back and the worldline corrects itself. That, or we create a new branch line, a new reality. A fucked one, because that’s not supposed to happen.”
“Are you gonna make it?” Tony asked, looking him once over. “You look half-dead and we’ve got a long jump from here.”
“It doesn’t drain me any more to open a portal from here to New York or from here to outer space,” Stephen said. “But first I do need to trace them. Give me a moment.” He had never used the Time Stone this much before; it was pulling at his core, but he had to keep going.
Thanking his own forward-thinking for this gift, Stephen pulled out a strand of blond hair from his pocket, wrapped in a red handkerchief. Thor’s hair, an extra one he plucked when Thor and Loki came to him to find Odin. With practiced movements, he worked the same spell, and soon enough he was spinning a new portal into existence.
“We must be quick, our window is brief,” Stephen warned. Tony activated his armor, nanotech wrapping him in an intricate embrace. Stephen secured a protective spell around himself that allowed him to breathe in the conditions of their destination.
Together they crept into the shipwreck, dodging debris and bodies burned beyond recognition. Parts of the hold must have exploded during Thanos’ bombardment. In the near distance, they could hear the familiar monologue.
Stephen held his hand up, signaling for Tony to wait and throwing up a discreet cloaking spell. Thanos sounded busy giving the Asgardians a run for their money. They listened for a while, Stephen waiting for the right moment—and then Loki, looking frankly terrified, darted towards them and hid behind the same slab of metal, which allowed Stephen to grab his arm and Tony to cover his mouth.
“Quiet,” Stephen mouthed, “we are allies.”
Loki’s panicked eyes narrowed in tension.
Slowly and carefully projecting his intent, Stephen reached his hand towards Loki’s forehead—into Loki’s mind, he pushed a set of memories. He had done much the same to Stark earlier, which drained a lot of his energy, but there was no time to talk and this was more efficient. Loki jerked and stiffened and gasped, wrenching away from them and breathing hard as he blinked back into the present moment.
Stephen said, “We don’t have time. You know the spell.”
“You are mad,” Loki gasped, “no mortal would survive it.”
“We’re destroying this reality anyway,” Stephen pointed out—
To which Loki responded, “And you wouldn’t survive your arrival in the past either.”
“That remains to be seen,” Stephen argued quietly, “and even if you were the only one to survive, it would be worth the risk. I accounted for our mortality. You’re our only option.”
There was wild laughter and shattered disbelief apparent in Loki’s eyes, even though he couldn’t express it all out loud. “Desperate times, I suppose.” He glanced back towards where Thor was being thrown around like a ragdoll. For a moment Stephen saw a glimmer of fear and intense grief—they’ve just lost their homeworld, Stephen recalled, and now this.
“Heads up, ladies, he’s almost done,” Tony hissed. The shipwreck shook as Hulk was thrown down.
Loki then twisted free and brought his palms together, meeting them both with a chaotic grin. “I’ve never done this before, let’s hope it works as described. If you survive, mortals, then I’ll see you on the other side.” He pulled his hands apart, now glowing with a violent red energy, and pushed out towards Tony and Stephen’s chests with a firm word, “Skilja.”
Stephen’s vision exploded with light.
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
( Mother Theresa )
first draft: 2020.03.15
last edited: 2020.04.10