Stephen comes home tired, his face ashen and streaked with blood. It’s far later than he’s supposed to be.
“Stephen,” he says, springing up from his place on the couch. There's a small smear of blood under the man's eye, and Tony reaches up to swipe at it. It's already dried, dark and flaking. “JARVIS, scan him, do we have any gauze, antibiotics—what about—”
Stephen lets out a small sigh, cutting him off. “It's okay, Tony. I’m okay.” His hands come up to stroke Tony’s, and they're trembling softly. “There was a nasty run-in with a warlock in Central Park. None of the blood is mine.”
Tony sucks in a breath, hearing it rattle in his chest. There’s an almost physical throb of worry that’s located deep behind his sternum. “You should have called me, I could have sent a suit and—” He swallows. Forces himself to breathe. (He doesn’t do well with injuries, on himself or on the ones he loves. He has to remember to breathe.) “What do you need from me?”
Stephen smiles at him, weary and so full of genuine adoration that he has to look away from it for a second. “Just let me get out of these clothes first, yeah?” His hands touch Tony’s face, briefly, before they flit back to the sleeves of his now-ruined robes. It’s a small, comforting gesture, and of course Stephen would be the one comforting him, even in a situation like this.
The Cloak pulls itself tighter against Stephen’s body, as if to protect it, and Tony laughs a little. He’s familiar with the urge. “Are you sure you don’t need anything for your hands? Nothing I can do?”
“It’s fine, Tony,” Stephen gives him a quick kiss at the corner of his mouth before turning away. “They’ll heal.”
Stephen usually uses spells to stop the tremors when they get too bad, but right now, his hands are still visibly shaking and don't stop for the rest of the evening.
Tony notices. Of course he notices. (He is an inventor. It is his job to observe and make better the things that he cares about, and there is nothing that he cares for more than Stephen.)
He doesn't speak of it. There used to be a hole in his chest and poison spreading through his veins—he’s familiar enough with injury to know that there are times when you need to let it be.
Stephen stands pacing at the large front window of the penthouse, outlined in soft gray against the dark night outside. It’s rare to see him like this, dressed down without the Cloak, and Tony can’t help but smile fondly at the sight as he pokes around the inside of an old StarkPhone in the adjoining living room.
Once the phone has been fully taken apart and the tiny circuit board retrieved for further study, it’s almost habit to reach over to the dark oak paneled cabinet against the couch. He knows it hides Stephen’s stash of red wine, because it’s one of the rare things the sorcerer likes to indulge in. Tony almost opens it, but hesitates, his hand hovering over the wood. Neither of them should be drinking tonight.
He makes his way quietly to the kitchen instead, and opens a tin loose tea leaves. It’s one of Stephen’s exotic blends, imported in from India or Nepal, or somewhere equally far away, the kind that Tony will die before he admits that he likes. He closes his eyes, and waits for the water to boil.
Once the tea has been poured out into two ceramic mugs, Tony takes them and makes his way to Stephen's side. He's still standing at the window, expression soft and aching in a way that Tony hates. (He doesn't know what to do with this. He can fix a lot of things, and he likes to play up the cold scientist trope a lot , but he has never fooled himself into thinking that people can be fixed.)
“Stephen,” he says quietly, offering the mug.
Stephen accepts it and his hands tremble violently. He clenches them around the tea like a lifeline. “Tony,” he says, just as quietly. “I’m sorry.”
Tony shakes his head. “Don’t be.” He doesn’t waste time asking why would you think that or what are you talking about . He knows exactly what the feeling is. “Don’t you dare be sorry, Stephen.”
They lapse into silence for a while, staring out at the lights illuminating the New York City night.
“I love you, you know that, right?” Tony says softly, turning to glance at Stephen's profile. It's all angles and bones, sharp like his mind.
Stephen sucks in a breath, and Tony carefully places a finger on his lips. “You don't have to say it back. It's not a contract.” It's not the first time they've said it, but it's still new enough that he doesn't feel right asking Stephen to reassure him with the phrase. Not like this. Not when he's so vulnerable.
Stephen’s eyes flutter closed of his own accord, and he lets his head tilt forward onto Tony’s shoulder with a heavy thump.
“Let me see your hands,” Tony murmurs with his lips pressed to the side of Stephen’s head, where dark hair is shot through with silver. “I need to—” His breath catches. He needs to examine them, run his fingers over them and get the physical reassurance that nothing terrible has happened.
A moment passes, and then Stephen carefully extricates his fingers from the folds of his sleeves. They’re still shaking slightly, and Tony frowns. The tremors should have stopped by now.
“What happened?” He takes hold of the left one, splaying it out and gently kneading the raised scar tissue in a way that he knows helps with the numbness.
“Overexertion. Too much spellwork.” There’s something very weary in the curve of Stephen’s shoulders. “Not enough care.”
Tony swallows, and looks down at the trembling fingers in his hand. (There’s the familiar urge to draw up blueprints of braces, supports, anything to make it better, fix things, because he can’t stand watching the man he loves in pain like this—it’s unfair, so unfair that Stephen has to go through it—)
“Stop, Tony,” Stephen sighs, position shifting so that he’s pressed against Tony’s chest.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking it.”
He stays silent, and it’s as good as a confirmation.
“You can’t fix this, don’t you understand?” Stephen says, pulling his hand out of the massage. “Believe me, I’ve tried, and if it was fixable, I wouldn’t be sitting here broken like this.”
Tony wants to reach out, pull him close (doesn’t the man realize that he isn’t, in the slightest, that it will never make it difference to Tony whether or not he can use something as trivial as his hands ?). But he stays back, because it’s true—this is Stephen’s grief, his past, and even Tony with his arc reactor cannot understand the magnitude of it. So he just files away the engineering marvels that his hands are itching to plan out (for now, just for now, he doesn’t give up so easily, but it is Stephen’s life first and foremost), giving the other man the control that he needs.
Stephen’s hands shake particularly violently, a quick, sharp twitch that sends tea splashing over the rim of the glass onto his exposed skin. He snarls in frustration, and suddenly lets go of the mug in an abrupt movement that is no less vicious for its passivity; it shatters on the floor, hot liquid spilling over their feet.
Tony yelps and flinches back from the spray of ceramic and tea, and it seems to clear something in Stephen's eyes.
“I'm sorry,” he says, recoiling in horror. “I don't know why I did that. I didn't mean—”
He flexes his hands hard, as if to cast a spell, and swallows. Tony starts forward, concerned, because he knows what pain looks like and he understands how to hide it, but orange light begins to pour out from Stephen’s outstretched fingers anyway. The glass shards knit themselves together, and Stephen’s breath catches in his throat as he lets go. His hands instinctively fly to his chest, curling together in pain.
Tony hisses at him, panic making his words harsh. “Your hands, Stephen. I don’t give a damn if you can never fix them, that doesn’t give you the right to ruin whatever’s left of them!” (There is a sudden fear crawling up his chest, because if Stephen damages his hands further, he will never forgive himself, or Tony. He should have done more, never have let it come this far—)
Stephen doesn’t lash out again. All the fight just bleeds out of his slumped form, soft edges and weary eyes, and he lets Tony cradle his hands close.
Something inside Tony aches. He doesn't know how to make this better.
“Let’s not do this tonight, Stephen,” he says after the silence between them has been left unattended for too long. “Neither of us needs to be alone right now.”
Stephen just offers up a crooked smile, and curls up a little tighter against him; a small peace offering, almost. It’s not over, not yet—in the morning, they’ll talk, and he doesn’t know how that’ll end (he never does, not with Stephen, but he trusts him, and hopes that it’ll be more than enough) but for now, they stand in front of the glass window and watch neon light spill into the night sky.
They go to bed pressed close like that, and Tony can feel Stephen’s breathing even out, into something a little less jagged. It’s with an overwhelming sense of relief that he finally lets himself close his eyes.
Almost as he is about to fall asleep, Tony hears a quiet rustle from behind him. And in the stillness of the darkened bedroom, Stephen whispers the words, I love you too , into the soft skin of his spine, again and again like a prayer.