~ Part Nine ~
The days following the defeat of Thanos were surreal. The joy of celebrating those that had been returned was dampened only by the absence of those that had been ultimately lost.
The Avengers who remained had camped together after the battle, before gathering to give Tony his final send off. Ciara had wept the entire service. With her high emotions, she'd conjured a bright gold and red flower and placed it down in his honor, giving a matching one to little Morgan who was tucked between Pepper and Happy. "Goodbye ma' friend," she whispered to the air, voice breaking halfway. "You did us all proud back there... Ya needn't worry about yer girls. I will keep 'em safe, ya have my word… Rest in peace. Ya more than earned it."
Tony was gone. But Ciara could easily imagine him flashing that trademark smirk of his, before putting his sunglasses on and strolling away towards Heaven, or wherever superheroes ended up going when they died. The thought was comforting somehow, and Ciara's tears stopped flowing.
The next day there was a second service, this time for Natasha. Since there wasn't a body to bury or burn, it was merely a memorial service. But every Avenger was there to show their love for Nat and the gratitude they felt for her sacrifice. The world would never know of her final act, but they did.
Stephen had held onto Ciara the entire time, his eyes serene and unclouded by tears. He admittedly hadn't gotten to know Black Widow, but he respected her all the same and seemed to feel Ciara's pain acutely.
Later that night, when the two sorcerers returned to the New York Sanctum, it felt dreamlike. When Ciara stood in the doorway, staring owlishly at him, Strange lifted an eyebrow.
"Ciara?" When she just shook her head, he returned to her side. "What is it?"
"It's just… yer here…" she breathed in disbelief, reaching up a shaky hand to touch his face. "Yer really here. . . I'm not dreamin', am I?"
"No, you're not dreaming," he assured her softly, smiling as he grabbed her palm and kissed it. "I'm back safe and sound, thanks to you and the others."
Ciara had cried so much at the funerals that she didn't have any left to shed, but it didn't stop her from drawing in a fluttery breath as she hugged the Mystic Master tightly. "Ya cannae do tha' ta me ever again, lovie. . . My heart could-nae take it."
Stephen Strange held onto the red headed sorceress, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "Next time I'm snapped out of existence, I promise I'll take you with me."
Ciara frowned at him, and he smiled apologetically. "... Too soon?"
"Far too bloody soon!" she agreed, swatting at his shoulder, before shaking her head. "But I cannae stay mad at ya. . . Ya impossible, lovable man."
Stephen's blue eyes twinkled with affection, before he began to lean forward to kiss Ciara. But before he could press his lips to hers, someone cleared their throat behind them.
A surprised cackle erupted from Ciara, when both sorcerers turned to see a very uncomfortable Wong still standing on the front steps of the Sanctum. In their tender moment, they had remained standing in the doorway- utterly blocking Wong's escape from their public display of affection.
"Oh, Wong! I'm so sorry, sweetie!" Ciara apologized between her laughter, cracking up harder when Strange began to chuckle deeply.
Wong on the other hand looked ready to smack them both. "I'm glad my discomfort could cause you amusement."
Strange shrugged holding out one arm to the portly magician, gesturing for him to join them. "If you wanted to join in the hugs, you could have just asked. C'mon in, Beyonce."
Wong rolled his eyes as he muscled past them, not dignifying Stephen's humorous comment with a response, though it was clear that he wasn't truly bothered by it. When Wong had disappeared, Strange looked back to Ciara.
"...Guess he didn't want the hugs."
"Oh don't fool yer'self, lovie," Ciara said. "He's as happy to have you back as I am. Hugs or no, you've been missed."
Stephen's smile grew genuine as he ruffled Ciara's hair. "Thanks for the wonderful reception, Red."
Ciara's nose scrunched up as she hooked her arm into Strange's and walked him fully past the threshold. When the door had closed behind them, she bowed dramatically. "Welcome home, Mystic Master."
"A pleasure to be back… Madame Mystic Master," Strange returned, winking at her playfully.
Stephen awoke the next morning, after having spent a majority of the night catching up with Ciara, to an empty Sanctum. After getting dressed he'd scoured every inch of the fortress, looking for the fiery Scot, but had had no luck.
Just when he was getting worried, he found Wong in the library.
"Hey Wong," he greeted. "You know where Ciara went?"
Wong looked annoyed, over the scrolls he was re-shelving. "She's where she is every morning."
"... And where would that be?"
Wong opened his mouth to interject, before he stopped himself, looking momentarily ashamed. It went without saying that Strange had no idea what Ciara's morning routine had become, seeing as he'd been away for five years.
"Follow me," Wong said, walking away from his shelves. Immediately he opened a portal with his sling-ring.
Curious, Strange followed him. When they came out into a moderately furnished building, the Mystic Master's perfect memory served him well. "Why did you bring us to Kamar-Taj?"
"Because this is where Miss Blackwood is," Wong explained, leading the way towards the courtyard.
When they reached the open space, all was revealed and Strange stopped to take in the scene with calculating eyes.
The Mystic acolytes were all assembled in the courtyard for training. They were doing spell formations, and Ciara was among them, wearing the traditional Mystic robes with a large grin spread across her dimpled face. She walked between the acolytes with a mentor's eye, correcting the students that needed her attention with a firm hand.
Strange glanced at Wong, looking for answers, which he readily gave. "You asked her to take your place. Needless to say she took the request seriously." Wong nodded to the red-head as she showed an acolyte the spell up close, conjuring the blazing orange pentagram in the air with no trouble for their inspection. "She protected the Sanctum in your stead and trained among those who remained. She's a fast learner. She's been switching off with me to teach the combative engagement and casting classes to the acolytes for about three years now."
Stephen Strange was for once speechless, as he looked between Wong and the scene in the courtyard. When he'd left Ciara had still been a novice in the casting style he used. She'd been able to move objects across the room, or open a basic portal. But to now teach the classes? She'd truly exceeded his expectations. Not that he could truly be surprised. Ciara was a neverending font of surprises.
After his shock had faded a bit, Strange stepped forward fully entering the courtyard. "Good morning, Master Ciara."
Ciara met his gaze brightly. "Oi, there'll be none o' that, thank ya very much!" Then she waved him over. "Come 'ere!"
Strange chuckled to himself as he walked around the acolytes who had stopped practicing. They greeted the restored Mystic Master with nods and smiles. "Forgive me for interrupting."
"Nonsense, Master Strange," Ciara returned teasingly, before she looked back to her pupils. "We were just about to pair up. You're welcome to join in the fun if ya'd like?"
Several of the acolytes began to murmur eagerly at the announcement, making Strange lift a brow and turn to Ciara. She tried to keep a straight face but failed. "I think they want ya ta challenge me, lovie."
"And why would I do that?"
An acolyte answered before Ciara had the chance. "She's nearly undefeated in sparring…" The young man shuddered, as he continued. "... One of us gets to fight her at the beginning of each lesson… Whoever wins gets to choose the music for the rest of the session." He said this as if it were the most traumatic revelation in the world.
Ciara laughed, rolling her eyes. "Ya know the rules, Ty. And quit gripin'! A couple of ya have won, so don't get huffy on meh!"
"But you almost always win!" Another acolyte retorted, a female this time. "I don't want to listen to any more oldtimer music!"
"The 70s and 80s weren't tha' long ago, Choga!" Then Ciara shrugged, gesturing to Strange. "Well now that ya've heard their plight, will ya save these wee ones, Stephen? Or will ya leave 'em to their fate?"
The Mystic Master considered, looking between the eager students and Ciara. Finally he rolled up his sleeves, which was answer enough. The acolytes made a space for the fight, creating a large circle around the two duelists. Wong came up beside the students, smirking. "First one pinned or pushed to submission loses."
Ciara smiled at Stephen as they both took a sparring staff. "Magic is allowed, in moderation."
"Good to know," Strange hummed, as he settled into a starter stance. His face grew serious- even stern, but his blue eyes showed how eager he was for the match. He wanted to see Ciara in action.
Seeing that they were both ready, Wong gave the word to commence. "Fight!"
Ciara wasted no time, lunging with a speed that almost took the Mystic Master by storm. But he swung his own staff up and parried at the last second.
Then, the fight was on.
The two Mystics took turns slamming and blocking, using quite a bit of finesse. Though the real fight began when they started casting spells in between. Orange sparks lit between them like wildfire, crackling with so much energy that the students all withdrew a couple steps. Ciara threw out her own pentagrams like projectiles, while Strange used his own spells to block and bounce them back.
The two kept pace with each other quite evenly, though Stephen's hands shook after physically blocking several of her staff-strikes. He was a helluva combatant, but his hands weren't his strong point.
Noting the tremors, Ciara subtly switched completely to casting, throwing her staff aside. To the students, it most likely appeared as a power-move, but to Strange it was proof of her concern for his well-being. Which was sweet, but ill-placed in a fight.
Stephen matched her, dropping his own stick to use magic. For five minutes they spared aggressively, though in the end, Strange got the winning move. He feigned a shield, making Ciara draw him close, before he'd lassoed her in with a conjured whip, pulling her flat to the floor. Quick as lightning, he pinned her.
For a long moment, the two stared at one another, both breathing hard and graced with a fine sheen of sweat. Ciara's green eyes sparkled with an unreadable emotion, as she placed her hand atop Stephen's, smiling softly. All earlier aggression was forgotten… The entire purpose of their sojourn on the floor a distant memory, until the sound of applause brought them back to the moment.
The acolytes were clapping along with Wong who was nodding his approval. "Strange wins. So he gets to pick the music."
Strange looked at the students, before regarding Ciara who was still pinned beneath him. Slowly, he let her go and helped her to her feet. When they were both standing, Wong handed him the phone that was connected to the speaker in the courtyard. He noticed belatedly that it was his iPhone. Looking at Ciara curiously, he wished to ask the inevitable, but the fiery woman beat him to it.
"I took it when ya were away," she admitted quietly, so only he could hear. "Yer playlists really get the blood pumpin' ya know~"
Strange had to fight laughter when he realized what her words implied. The music the acolytes abhorred so much was his selection, not Ciara's.
Doctor Strange smirked and selected a song from the playlist. When the familiar music wafted through the speakers, the student's collectively groaned, making Ciara about die with laughter.
"Sorry guys, what can I say? Master Ciara has good taste."
The acolytes sighed and shook their heads, before Wong called them to order. As the students paired up to continue sparing, Strange hummed along to the ridiculously bouncy song he'd picked. "Party Train- by The Gap Band. Released 1983."
Ciara appeared far too happy as she danced along to the song. "Wong told me ya were into music trivia. I'd love ta test tha' sometime."
Stephen fought to hide his smile, as he watched the students, now instructed by Wong. Handing her the phone again, his eyes twinkled with amusement. "Try me."
After the training session, Ciara and Stephen had a late lunch before going their separate ways. They promised to meet up again for dinner, before leaving one another's company. Stephen - to his private quarters to try and get re-settled- and Ciara to the library to study as she did every day.
His room and belongings appeared untouched, save for his phone that Ciara had commandeered in his absence. Other than his bed, the room was a tad dusty. With magic he cleaned the dust motes away. Pleased with his work, he began to sort through his possessions (a spring cleaning of sorts) before he came across something that was unfamiliar.
It was a pen and tied packet on the bedside table. Neither were his. Curious and somewhat cautiously, the Mystic lifted the packet and untied the red ribbon that held it together. When the ribbon fell, he realized that it was a stack of letters. They were unstamped and had no address, but each was housed in an envelope. None were sealed, so he took out the top letter and began to read. Perhaps it was nosy of him, but he'd never been able to contain his curious nature for long under pressure.
I dreamt about you again last night - as I always do. And once again, it was more than I could bear. Seeing your face, hearing your voice, and waking to know I'll never see you again.
I got four hours of sleep before I woke up crying. Guess I'm slowly getting better, even though it doesn't feel like it.
I finally managed to read all the books in the library that you did. I learned a spell that lets me follow a mystic's magical signature. To my surprise when I cast it, I was led to the library. You'd touched so many of the books in there that it almost felt like a piece of you had been preserved. I feel less lonely when I'm in there, but your loss always comes back to haunt me in the end.
They say time heals everything, but I don't know if that's actually true. Can you ever stop loving someone who is gone? I still think of my brother every day. I miss him just like I miss you.
I still go to Steve's support group sometimes. He asks me if I've continued with these letters. I don't have the heart to lie to him, so I always admit that I do. He's pleased that I'm still doing therapy writing and hopes that someday I can look back on all this passively.
I don't think I can.
My mind knows what it wants. My heart knows even better. Even if you don't exist anymore, I can't move on. Because you aren't an idea in my head that I can brush aside. You're family. You're my heart.
With all my love,
The page was covered in watery smudge marks, which he reckoned were Ciara's past tears. The thought made his chest ache, as he replaced the letter and took out the next. In truth, he didn't want to read anymore. But he needed to know. Needed to understand Ciara's pain so that he could help her… so that he could help himself.
Letter after letter, and all holding the same sentiments. They were worded differently and the last ten or so letters were dated at the top. She'd started writing the letters after the snap and it appeared that she'd continued several years after the fact. Each letter broke Strange's heart, but he forced himself to continue, until only one more letter remained.
He began to lift it up, ready to read the very first letter she'd ever written to him… but a gentle hand covered his own, stopping him from opening the envelope.
He looked up to find Ciara, regarding him with wistful eyes. "Best not read tha', Stephen. It'll do ya more harm than good."
Sometime during his perusal of the letters, he had grown misty eyed. Seeing Ciara now almost brought him to actual tears. "... I'm sorry." Strange didn't know if he offered the apology for reading something so personal, or if his words referred to the fact that he'd left her for so long… But it didn't matter. He owed her so much more than words, but he was at a loss for how he could repay the debt of time and heartache.
Ciara was silent for a minute, before she sat down next to him on the bed. She held her hands out for the stack of letters, and he gave them to her. She stared at the weighted documents and spoke softly, gently, surprising Strange yet again.
"Ya have nothin' to apologize for. None of us had control over what Thanos did… I was in a dark place when I wrote most of these, but I'm glad you read them. . . I would have spared ya the pain, but I needed ya ta know that you were loved and missed."
She stopped, finally looking up to meet his gaze. Now both of them had misty eyes. "We both have our baggage ta overcome now… but we'll do it like we do everything. Together."
Doctor Strange agreed wordlessly, before Ciara pulled him into a tender hug. They had both been through something traumatic and it would take time for them to heal. But they were up to the challenge.
"Goodness. Yer freezing, ma' love," Ciara whispered laying down on the bed and holding her arms out to him. "Come snuggle me until ya warm up."
Strange obediently snuggled into her, face to face, nose to nose. And as the soothing minutes ticked by, the Mystic Master realized he'd be happy to stay cold forever if it allowed him to relive this moment for the rest of his days.
A/N: So this chapter was a whiplash of humor and angst, hope I didn't cripple anyone. lol It was interesting to think about the aftermath of Thanos. The DisneyPlus shows have already started to explore the concept but I'm eager to see the mainline movies in the MCU. The Avengers have been through a lot of crap lately.
Also, I couldn't resist using the Beyonce joke, along with Strange's love of old music. (You're welcome~)
Hope you all enjoyed! See you next chapter!