Arid wind blew across the plains of Titan and the taste was metal on his tongue. The heat rose in diagonal sheets, rippling from the ground. Stephen stood in the shadow of a towering ruin, wondering distantly what this place used to be. It was an attempt to distract himself. He could feel the gravity shift as the planet creaked on its damaged axis, adding stress to his already taxed system. Given time, just being on this planet could kill all of them. Not that they had the time to prove it. Not to mention the resources necessary…
Beyond the barrier provided him by the ruins, he could hear the voices of those others who had joined them. Theirs was the planning. His mission was other. His heart throbbed in his chest.
This task was given to him alone.
Stilling himself, Dr. Stephen Strange drew his feet up and levitated on the air. Bringing the noise of his mind to nothing, he spread his hands. He drew a long breath.
He could not fail. Not in this.
He opened the Eye.
He tried not to think that it would be for the last time.
"How many times did we win?"
Shifting through the strains of Time, Stephen dragged strand by strand to the moment he needed. Pressure crushed his lungs, spinning tighter and tighter about him until he had shrunk so small that he barely existed at all in the streaming of Time. The strain was nearly enough to drive him to madness and death and all was lost, lost, lost –
"Temporal Manipulations can create branches in time. Unstable dimensional openings, spacial paradoxes, time loops! You want to get stuck experiencing the same moment over and over again forever, or never having existed at all?"
His lungs burned.
"There will come, a reckoning."
He caught his place, and, with the desperation of a drowning man, he pressed open the Mirror Dimension.
"The bill comes to you."
He could not fail. Not in this.
His body came through into abrupt lightness.
…He tried not to think that it would be for the last time…
He gulped deep breaths of air that hurt him, and slowly, carefully got onto his side. The ground was solid beneath him, and that was a blessed relief. He was shaking as he stood up. The vessels pulsed behind his eyes. Wincing, he pressed one hand to his abdomen. His diaphragm felt fragile, but his body desperately needed the air.
He groaned. "I'll think twice before I try that on a sentient being…again." He rubbed the back of his neck, wryly surveying his refracted surroundings. He checked the stone, glowing on its chain, and the whirrings of it that circled the dimension he had opened. Then he looked beyond it. "Ah," he said. "Right on time." He cracked his neck. "I really hope this works…" fingering the SlingRing from his belt, Stephen shook himself free of the effects of the Temporal Manipulation. "Just the fate of the Multiverse," he muttered to himself, "no pressure…" He watched that place above him, and, gauging the moment exactly, he opened the portal.
The passage of Time without sucked mercilessly, dragging at him to tear him from his reality to the unending chaos without. His feet slid on the smooth surface beneath them.
A body dropped through with a startled yelp and a thud onto the floor.
Stephen closed the portal. Relief washed over him and his head pounded. Warily, he watched as the god recovered his feet. Black clad and breathing hard, with fire flashing from his eyes, he turned on Stephen. "Who do you think you are-?"
"Loki Odinson," Stephen raised a shaking hand to still him. "I am Dr. Stephen Strange," The reflection of his movement in the mirror caught Loki's eye, and he flicked his glance over the space they were in, honing on Stephen and narrowing his eyes as the god assessed every weakness and strength the sorcerer possessed. "Master of the Mystic Arts, Protector of the New York Sanctum," Loki's eyes settled lastly on the opened Eye. The Eye gave him pause. Whether for good or ill, Stephen couldn't say. The luminous green reflected unsettlingly in the angles of the god's face, "and Guardian of the Eye of Agomoto – the gem you know as the Time Stone." Stephen raised his chin. "And I need your help."
The assessment was conducted with impressive speed. It took only as long as Stephen spoke. At his closing remark, Loki gave a sharply drawn grin. "Is that truly the best you can do?"
Stephen saw his hands move. He remembered in the past – two knives, and Loki's quick instinct to strike. Running some hasty calculations of his own, Stephen recalled how thrown Thor had been by the manipulation of Place.
Stephen shifted the space he had created, throwing Loki into an armchair of his own spellcraft.
"Reassuring as your response is…" Stephen said from behind him.
Loki's eyes were wide and startled. He strained his wrists and Stephen tried not to enjoy that. Glowing orange wires of spellwork bound them fast. Loki's lip curled in a snarl. "Release me –"
"Or what? The fate of the entire Universe is currently at stake," Stephen interrupted him derisively, "and if you do nothing Thanos…" he glanced up to find sudden apprehension apparent in those eyes. He took that as an assurance. "will be unstoppable." Stephen shrugged, knowing the feigned nonchalance would nettle Loki. "He'll be a god."
Loki's eyes flashed venom and the irises of them shimmered, beginning to glow a pale, unnatural green.
"What –" Stephen took an involuntary half step back. "…aaare you doing?"
"Speak quickly, mountebank," Loki growled, "I'm not known for patience toward those who waste my time."
Stephen watched him. He looked over the bonds. "…Right."
Then, unthinkably, the wires shuddered. Loki's hands gripped the armrests, but not a line of him was strained. He was attacking on another front, a front Stephen did not understand. At this rate? The bonds would last but moments longer. He concluded hastily that it would be best to go along with the mad god's demands, his own pride be damned.
Shifting on his feet, Stephen raised his chin to meet Loki's eyes and folded his arms. "I don't like you," he said.
Loki snorted. Whatever he was doing in his mind, he was capable at least of feigning attention.
Curiosity flickered restlessly in the back of Stephen's consciousness, but he thrust that irritably aside. "Nor do I trust you. But as it is I have no choice. Life as we know it is at stake, and no people, no world, no realm is safe from him. You have seen him. You know what he can do."
Loki's smile was thin and predatory. The teal light in his eyes fluctuated. "I worked for him, or don't you follow current events?"
"Uh-huh. Because anyone wants to admit to being coerced." Stephen didn't pause to savor the way the natural green of Loki's eyes cut through – tucking the involuntary admission away, "Whatever your past, I've seen your future. I've seen all our futures. I know the secret your father hides, Odinson." Loki's chin jerked to one side, his glowing eyes glazed. For one moment, the bonds vanished. Agitated, Stephen raised his voice. "I've seen the power your brother has and neither of you know. I've seen the end of Death herself. And beyond that I have seen him rise. I've seen fourteen million six hundred and four worlds where he snuffed out life as we know it and the one time we succeeded. One outcome where less than half of the cosmos is wiped away. Have you tasted annihilation?" Stephen challenged, rounding on the god. "Its taste is worse than that of Death."
Lowly, Loki laughed.
The bonds on his wrists snapped, and Stephen tensed, dropping his hands to a fighting stance, but Loki made no immediate move to retaliate. His breath went ragged, and he rubbed the places on his arms that the bands had touched. Stephen watched him as the unnatural light faded out of his eyes, gauging him for a response that, more and more, did not seem to be forthcoming.
"You have nothing to reply?" Stephen demanded.
"Poetic." Loki answered. He crossed one knee over the other. He cocked his head at Stephen, displaying no sign of the least tension as he laid both arms easily on the armrests. "It was passably well done, so – for now," he inclined his chin. "I've chosen to humor you. You can stand down." He flicked the fingers of one hand and Stephen stepped backward, feeling briefly ridiculous.
And then annoyed.
"Where am I?" Loki asked.
Stephen had remembered the god as being violent when they had first met in the Sanctum Sanctorum. Volatile, he would have said. Angry and afraid. This was the same person, but unruffled, calculating, dangerous.
Pooossssibly dropping him into a seemingly endless free-fall had been the cause of that. Stephen hadn't considered the effects of his past actions in the outcome he had recollected. He wondered if he ought to have intercepted the god somewhere nearer the end of that particular…solution. Knowing, as he did, the extent of the damage done to Loki's psyche several years before by a fall of seemingly similar proportions, he should probably, in retrospect, have accounted for the incongruity. Not that he could change that now.
"The Mirror Dimension," he answered, finally, just before Loki's patience expired. "What transpires here can have no effect on the outside world."
"Unless one of us dies?" Loki asked. "I'm guessing that bitter chalice is still fatal." The look he flicked toward Stephen was undeniably amused.
He was being toyed with and that knowledge clenched something in Stephen's gut. "Were you listening to a word I said?"
"For the sake of argument," Loki continued, brushing something off of the armrest, "What is the aid you would have? And why of me? But," the smile was charming, if disingenuous, "brevity is the soul of these things, when one has left my brother on his own, as you have. He grows fretful. So," he made that same, commanding gesture with one hand, "if you would…"
Stephen watched him for one moment, feeling disinclined to expound on his reasoning at all, much less in a way designed to suit the god's liking. Quickly, he concluded that, much as he disliked it, concision was for the best. Christine had always spoken to the families herself whenever she could intercept him on the way. She'd called him tactless. He'd thought it funny, at the time.
"When the moment comes," he told Loki, "I would have you bow to the Titan's demands. Give him the Stone. After that," Stephen folded his arms, "let him kill you."
If Loki was surprised, he did not let it show. "Slightly counterintuitive." He fixed a button on his wrist. "I assume I would have sufficient reason?"
"Thanos is stronger." Stephen said. "Stronger than all of us. The Avengers, the Guardians, all of Asgard." All that's left, he almost said. But he didn't. "None of it will be enough. All we can do is fuel his resolve. He will attain that which he desires, to our detriment or no."
"It seems to me that my death would be a vain one, then." Loki said. "And by it, I would gain nothing."
"You would be Thanos' undoing,"
"Mm. Pretty," Loki said, in a tone that stated clearly his opinion of altruism. "And you've yet to explain why I must be the one to help you."
"I don't like it any more than you do," Stephen forced himself to remain professional. "You have certain enviable…abilities," he admitted, "You are the only one who would survive what I am asking."
"Which is absurd." Loki got to his feet, straightening his jacket. "I have other matters to which I must attend. If you'll excuse me, I'm afraid you left my brother wandering unaccompanied on the streets of New York." He turned, putting one palm flat against the edge of the mirror, and Stephen felt the dimension shake. His breath left him in a gasp.
"He's proven himself to be rather inconvenient, left unsupervised," Loki drawled. "Do you have a brother?" he asked, carelessly.
"No? Hm." Loki shrugged. "It matters not. I'm sure you understand."
The pull of Time sucked as the band squeezed tighter. It crushed his lungs.
Temporal Manipulations can create branches in time…. It was imperative – Loki must not be told anything – do anything – that would change the reality of the Time Stream.
Only that of the past few hours.
The mirror shuddered. It emitted a thin, high whine.
Stephen winced, doubling forward. "Thor will die," he promised.
Loki stopped, and he drew his hand back. "What of it?"
"If," Stephen drew a shuddering breath. He'd struck a nerve, otherwise, why would Loki have stopped? "If we do nothing, Thor will be among the fallen."
Loki had turned, drawing the worlds out mockingly, "Oh it's 'we' now is it?"
"Please," Stephen begged, dragging a long breath, "I can't stop him on my own."
Supplication had the desired effect. Loki's chin tipped upward, and his hand, slightly lower. "And how will my death stop him? Since that's apparently the only plan your matchless intellect can come up with."
"Our deaths." Stephen corrected. He chose to ignore the insult, forcing another pained breath as he straightened. "And believe me, it's the only plan. Fourteen million six hundred and…"
Loki's eyes flickered illegibly, prompting Stephen to get on with it.
"Yeah. Anyway. I have the Time Stone," Stephen gestured to the Eye about his neck. Loki's eyes hovered over it with that same, lingering hunger that made Stephen think of the footage of 2012, then returned to his face. "You, the Tesseract."
Loki's mouth tipped ruefully, "I'm afraid I haven't –"
Loki looked at him.
"Thanos is too strong to be defeated by our combined strength," Stephen said, "…but not," he watched Loki, studying him for a response, "by his own."
Loki considered him, something in back of his eyes lighting, "A thing may only be cut by another of equal or superior strength…"
"Which we cannot offer. We can push him toward his own end," Stephen agreed, "but not if he sees us coming."
"And you think that he will not prevent us if he thinks us dead."
"He won't think to defend against himself."
Loki shook his head. "He won't fall for your ploys."
Stephen shrugged. "By my calculations, murdering both of us – in front of," he cut off the god's retort, "the ones who love us best – ought to convince him."
Loki glanced at him, surprise and amusement on his face.
"I, too, know his methods," Stephen explained, "I have seen them. I promise you, the bait will be too much for Thanos to resist. I have seen it."
Loki's eyes flicked down and away, judging the cost. Then, lifting his head with one of his quick movements he gave Stephen a dry smile. "Even so, I fail to see how either of us could be of help from The Great Beyond."
"There…is a place," Stephen answered, grudgingly, "between Death and Life. From which I may be capable of bringing us back," much as I might consider doing otherwise, he thought. Watching as Loki considered that, Stephen didn't say it. "Join me," he said, instead, "and be the greater part of Thanos' undoing."
"Pleasant as that might be." Loki tipped his head, his mind made up. "I'm more practiced on my own, and, besides that, I'd hazard a guess I'm not the type you're looking for. Not that your desperation isn't quaint."
Out of Loki's sight, Stephen twisted his hand. He hadn't had an opportunity to consult the texts, but there wasn't time for that now. He had to buy time, "You will be."
Loki wasn't looking at him as he flicked his wrist carelessly, "What I would be, is one more adversary scratched off your list before I can defect to the Titan." He tipped a smirk in Stephen's direction. "Clever, but a little far-fetched for my faith in your promises," he shrugged, "Scant as it may be."
Stephen gave a grim snort, "You're wanted as a war criminal by every government on Earth. If I wanted you dead, do you really think you'd be at any kind of liberty now?"
The work sparked to life between his fingers.
"Not to bruise your fragile self-esteem," Loki said, "but I've heard all that before." Flicking a sharp smile over one shoulder, his fingers brushed the wall. "Best of luck in your search for a more suicidal companion, Doctor."
"Wait!" Stephen said, before Loki could push, "one more thing,"
Loki was rolling his eyes as he turned, so he didn't see it coming as Stephen shot out his hand and snagged his hair, catching a strand between finger and thumb and twisting it hurriedly into the knot of the work between his hands.
Loki saw what he was doing and his eyes widened, his voice livid. He whirled to follow after Stephen, who had side-stepped behind him. "If you think for one moment–"
"This will be less than comfortable."
Finishing the work, Stephen slammed it against the center of Loki's chest and it dissipated in a shower of sparks. Fiery veins shot up his neck.
One hand flew to his throat, "What are you –" Loki snarled. He choked. The orange veins showed on the back of his hands and irises before shimmering to nothing in his fingertips.
"You'll thank me later," Stephen stepped out of his immediate reach, shifting the dimension. The armchairs vanished. Loki tripped and caught himself on one knee. Stephen lifted himself and the Cloak of Levitation carried him a few feet above the ground. "Your father is not the man you think he is," he intoned. "Nor is your brother. You are more than you have allowed yourself to become, Odinson, and once you see Death herself meet her end, you will know that I spoke truth and there is no other way."
Loki coughed a bitter laugh, getting to his knees. "You keep calling me that."
Stephen brought up one corner of his mouth. "You'll warm to it in time."
He preempted the god's spring, opening a portal beneath him, and just as quickly, Stephen allowed the Temporal Manipulation to close in front of himself and to drive him out.
Stephen came to levitating cross-legged in the rusted atmosphere of Titan. The imbalance of the planet's axis compounded the throbbing behind his eyes. Letting out a long breath, he pressed his first finger and thumb into his eye sockets. Then he put his feet onto the ground. His lungs ached.
Wearily, Stephen came out from around the side of the ruins to gather with the others.
Stark glanced at him once, twice, then broke off what he was saying to look at him.
"It's done." Suddenly dizzy, he bent and rested both hands on his knees.
The Cloak flickered behind him, it raised a corner.
Stephen batted it aside. "I'm fine."
"That's it?" Stark asked, his eyes dark. "You were gone two seconds," he snapped his fingers.
Stephen repressed a wince. He straightened.
"And just like that your super-secret scheme is accomplished."
"Time," Stephen touched the Eye, "is no object."
"Ah-huh. Whatever. It had better be good because Star-Man here,"
"Star Lord," the outlaw sulked. He put both thumbs in his belt. "Why is it so hard?"
"Whatever…?" Stark threw at him, spreading his hands. "Shit-For-Brains," he indicated the outlaw. "There, you like that better? – can't come up with anything solid, and no one –"
"Can it Parker." Stark pressed the bridge of his nose. He let out a long breath. "No one else has any ideas that don't involve pop culture references." He turned. "I –" he sighed. "I didn't mean that, Pete."
"'S okay Mr. Stark," the boy said. He was crouched on a rock nearby and gave them a hesitant thumbs up. "We're good." His eyes were wary, but guileless. Barely more than a child, thrust from his home world and into an apocalyptic war. Stephen thought he was taking it rather well, all things considered.
"I don't wanna go…"
Stephen felt so tired, watching the boy. He knew…
"You're not the only one cursed with knowledge."
He thought of Christine's face. Held her in his mind.
The others – the Guardians of the Galaxy – stood huddled awkwardly together.
Stark was right. The odds were bleak. Terrible, really.
"Mr. Stark? I'm not feeling so good…"
Stephen closed his eyes.
Stark looked them over, and gave a grim laugh. He rubbed the side of his head. "How long do you think we have?" he asked.
The Cyborg did not smile. "Not long," she said.
"Well whatever you did back there," Stark smeared a hand down his face. "I hope it was good."
"Yeah," Stephen nodded. He thought of the way the light had caught behind Loki's eyes as he understood what Stephen was proposing. A thing may only be cut by another of equal or superior strength. "Me too."
"It was the only way."
Stark looked at him for a long moment. Then he let out a harsh breath and turned back to the others, "Okay. Let's go over this again, and if you say Footloose one more time I swear to God, Thanos or no, I'm taking yours off."
Stephen could not save them.
But he could try to bring them back.
Brown eyes helpless and shattered, Stark turned to face him.
Stephen could feel it beginning. "It was the only way," he promised.
Tony said nothing, did nothing. There was nothing to say. No way to stop it.
Fourteen million six hundred and four futures had been enough to convince him.
Slowly, the darkness overwhelmed his eyes.
"How many times did we win?"
"Mr. Stark, I'm sorry…"
"I can only feel you."
"This is no place to die."
"You should have aimed for the head."
It existed for a long time, or maybe no time at all.
Time is a foreign concept in some plains.
Breath entered his lungs. First a thin stream, then a river rushing until his lungs overflowed with a crash of blissful pain and he felt his limbs. A grey fog existed around him.
"Took you long enough."
Gradually, Stephen began to understand the place he was in, and his place within it. He could feel his limbs, the tips of his fingers, the fabric of the clothing on this body. What there was of air. Of ground. Certainly these were only constructs of his mind, put in place to brook the plain between truth and madness. But as they were, they suited well enough.
Loki was sitting opposite him on the ground. Legs crossed, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. His eyes were trained on Stephen, indecipherable and vividly, vividly green in the dusk.
Stephen took a long breath.
He opened and closed his hands. He thought of Christine.
Then he met the eyes of the god in front of him.
"Shall we begin?" Stephen asked.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ."…One."