Stephen met him at the after-party of a major science expo.
If there was anything he could say about Tony Stark, it was that he was like the sun personified, armed with radiant smiles that drew people into his orbit and dark eyes that burned with intelligence, tempered only by an easy charisma. For all that the party boasted the most brilliant scientists from every discipline around the world, Tony Stark commandeered everyone's attention, sweeping through the atrium and collecting names and numbers with unparalleled ease.
"He's something else," Christine said as Tony charmed his way into a group of renowned astrobiologists who gaped at him in obvious awe.
"Sometimes I wonder how he manages to fit his ego through his shirt," Stephen said behind his flute of champagne, quietly enough for only her to hear. She scoffed, not bothering to cover it up when he frowned at her.
"Stephen, I ask myself that same question about you every day. Go over and introduce yourself. You two would have a lot to talk about." She didn't bat an eyelash at his scowl, moving toward the buffet table nearby.
Before Stephen could fire back a last-second response, he saw Stark break away from the astrobiology group, discreetly scanning the crowd while sipping from his own flute before finally settling on him. Their eyes connected across the bustling room. Then Stark, with a wide and admittedly handsome grin, slowly dragged his eyes from Stephen's face down to his shoes, then back up again, a languorous slide of looking.
Warmth rushed to Stephen's cheeks before he quickly banished the feeling and rose an eyebrow, hoping it would be enough to detract Stark from whatever he was planning. While he spent most of his time in the hospital, even he knew of the man's playboy antics. He wasn't eager to have that notch on his reputation, both literally and figuratively.
However, Stark only grinned wider and began to make his way across the room, weaving through the crowd without breaking line of sight. Stephen noted the way his suit accentuated the trim cut of his waist, the smooth curve of his shoulders, and casually pushed those thoughts away. He nodded calmly as Stark approached.
"Doctor Strange," Stark said, his voice a low and mischievous rumble, holding out his unoccupied hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you in person. Your work on systemic cognitive bioregeneration and brain cell therapy is unparalleled. We have an open spot in SI's Biomedical Research Department if you're interested."
Stephen shook his hand, noticing with surprise the ridges of old calluses and scars marking the skin. Stark's hands were smaller than his, the fingers shorter and a bit broader.
"Doctor Stark. I was not aware SI is invested in any sort of medical research," he said. SI was the dominant force of national defense technology in the world, outshining other industries by a large margin. The thought of the company taking up biomedical R&D was, frankly, a bit terrifying. "May I ask what you focus on?"
Stark's eyes gleamed with a completely different kind of interest. Before Stephen knew it, he was deep in a discussion about applying electromagnetic sonication to stimulate the organic growth of bioregenerating cells, and how portable magnified sonicators could stop and reverse tissue damage in mere minutes by simply speeding up the self-healing nature of cellular metabolism.
It was unlike Stephen had ever heard of and it was utterly glorious to pick apart Stark's ideas with hungry fascination, pointing out the flaws and weaknesses in their designs, and delighting when Stark laid out more data and numbers in beautiful counter-arguments. It had been a long time since anyone's engaged him in an intellectual spar and it was so refreshing compared to the monotony of hospital work.
The room faded into the backdrop. Stark gestured wildly with his hands as he spoke new innovations into existence with fervor. The light of the chandeliers was nothing to the light burning in his eyes, his billionaire-playboy persona melting away to reveal a genuine excitement and wonder that matched Stephen's own.
Looking back, Stephen would admit it began there.
They became fast friends after that night, which was a novel experience for Stephen. He'd never really bothered with anything outside of maintaining his track record of perfect operations, or coming up with improvements to existing surgical procedures when he had time. But Tony Stark was nothing but persistent, stating matter-of-factly, "You and I are the best in what we do, Strange. The cream of the crop. Great minds think alike and I'm not about to lose a science friend - especially a super science bro."
The moniker was ridiculous, but Stephen appreciated having another genius to talk with. He had thought there would be immense friction between him and Stark considering both their egos, but their arrangement was fluid and natural, both poking at the other to gauge reactions and test boundaries, acknowledging each other's well-earned reputations. There was a feeling of mutual respect that came from meeting a worthy opponent across a playing field and Stephen enjoyed it.
Weekly video calls ("Phone calls are a thing of the past, what are you even doing, Strange?") about the latest advancements in both of their fields turned into almost daily talks that lasted for hours. Stephen brought up new neurosurgery techniques and his own research on brain stem rehabilitation, while Stark unveiled more and more ideas about future projects like automated bio-scanning emergency drones and thermonuclear energy reactors.
Stephen once asked him why he never talked about new weapon designs for SI and Tony regarded him with a shuttered, cool once-over.
"Not trying to steal my secrets, are you, Strange?"
"I am a doctor and a pacifist, Stark," Stephen replied just as coolly. "If anything, I'd ask you to keep those kinds of secrets to yourself."
Stark blinked twice, thrice, then shrugged. "The weapon tech is for SI. This stuff–" he gestured to the various prototypes and unfinished devices scattered across his work table– "this stuff is for me."
Interesting. He nodded, accepting the answer for what it was, and the two settled back into routine, Stephen critically studying new medical texts and Stark going back to his own work, albeit with more motion and energy.
On the screen the man was a force of nature, his body moving like a well-oiled machine as he sparked technological marvels into thin air. Even after a few months into their friendship, the sight of 3D holograms coming to life around him never got old. Tony Stark was a man who lived in the present and the future at the same time. The melding of those two forces more often than not resulted in breakthroughs that would make other scientists blink in bewilderment.
It was good that Stephen could keep up, at least with references pulled up on the side on the more complicated topics like artificial intelligence development and integrated robotic systems.
"You're telling me," Stephen began, deadpan, squinting as Stark wiggled with childlike joy on the other side of the screen, "that you created a fully responsive AI-integrated robot with the capacity to learn and exhibit human behaviors, something that so many have tried but none have succeeded in doing, and you named it Dummy."
"DUM-E," Stark spelled out with glee, swiping his fingers at his camera to expand the screen. The robot was standing beside him, a mechanical achievement even by Stephen's limited engineering knowledge. "DUM-E, say hi to Doctor Strange over there."
DUM-E beeped twice and waved the end of its arm at Stephen. Even though it didn't have a face, its one arm rolled and rotated with so much personality that it was oddly charming, and Stephen waved back.
"For the record, I built him a long time ago, just added some sweet modifications and updated his specs. He's a bit slow but he's learning," Stark was saying, patting DUM-E on its - his, Stephen mentally corrected - top panel. "I asked him to get my coffee this morning and he gave me a mug of rancid motor oil mixed with some unmentionable liquid that's probably carcinogenic. I was going to ship him off to the nearest community college but he's grown on me. Like a fungus, a shiny metal fungus. Kids, am I right?"
You couldn't handle real kids, Stephen was going to say when Stark gave him a wide, dazzling smile. It was not one of those cold, plastic megawatt smirks he flashed to the reporters at galas and expos. It was earnest and full of eager pride, near blinding in its intensity. It was the smile of a man who was truly happy. Stephen swallowed and merely nodded.
Just like the sun.
"Pasta Night?" Stephen asked, looking up from a document on a new development on craniopharyngioma treatment at the screen, where Stark was tinkering with a pair of headphones. "I didn't know you cooked. Should I call the fire department and prep the operating room ahead of time?"
"I don't need your back-sass, mister," Stark replied cheerfully. "Seven o'clock tomorrow night at the Tower. Pepper and Happy make a spectacular Ziti alla Genovese, and Rhodey's al Pomodoro has never failed to add extra inches to my waistline. C'mon, a cold winter night and some good pasta with more than tolerable people. You're right across the street and you haven't even visited once. What do you say?"
Stephen thought about the pre-packaged gourmet dinners in his freezer at home and the greasy buffet meals at the hospital. There were two unopened bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling in his kitchen cabinet gathering dust.
He thought about his dinner last night, a bowl of microwaved tomato soup and toast in front of his work computer, scanning idly through dozens of surgery requests until his eyes burned.
"Okay," he agreed.
When Pasta Night rolled around, he put on his best suit and took a cab to Stark Tower, the Blanc and Riesling snug inside a small box. Stark, dressed in dark jeans and a plain shirt, greeted him at the front entrance and took one appraising look at his suit.
"You have a speech ready, doc?" he asked, accepting the wines with a loud hum of appreciation.
Stephen was already removing the jacket top. "I should have double-checked the dress code."
Stark waved his hand dismissively. "No worries. At least you know you'll look the best in our ragtag group of misfits."
Colonel James Rhodes, Pepper Potts, and Happy Hogan were anything but misfits, though. Colonel Rhodes was blunt and amiable with a dry sense of humor while Ms. Potts and her partner Happy were a sweet pair whose warm greetings made Stephen feel more welcomed than he'd expected. He found himself enjoying delicious pasta and fine wine with good company and a penthouse view of the New York City skyline.
He got to meet JARVIS, too, nearly knocking over his second plate of al Pomodoro when the AI spoke up for the first time to answer a question Stark must have asked without Stephen hearing. Stark grinned and introduced them with a flourish of his wineglass to the ceiling. Stephen was instantly taken with the witty AI who unflinchingly snarked back at his creator and matched him word-for-word in sarcastic exchanges that had everyone laughing.
"He's incredible," he told Stark. "There's really no other word for what you've created."
Stark looked up at the ceiling with a small smile. "Yeah, he's kind of awesome, I guess."
The twinkling lights of the city reflected through the glass panes of the penthouse, casting gentle shadows that softened the striking planes of Stark's face. Stephen turned away and finished his glass of wine, ignoring the kernel of warmth that had started to bloom in his chest.
At some point down the road, Stark became Tony, and Colonel Rhodes, Ms. Potts, and Mr. Hogan became Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy, who all asked him to help keep Tony alive (to which Stephen long-sufferingly agreed and Tony only huffed at). The Stark Tower became the place he visited most after the hospital itself. Pasta Night was a permanent fixture on his calendar every Thursday evening at seven o'clock.
He became acquainted with DUM-E and his younger sibling U. At their first meeting, DUM-E served him a scalding mug of something oily and nefarious-smelling, and Tony howled with laughter at Stephen's appalled expression when U doused the mug with a can of whipped cream.
Tony's workshop itself was a scientific haven, a place that even the best engineers could only dream of having, full of both random incomplete knick-knacks and finished pieces that could topple entire industries if Tony wanted to do so.
"Does it bother you?" Tony asked after showing Stephen around his workshop. He was inclining his head to the hologram blueprints hovering beside him. They displayed specs for a brand new missile system the U.S. Special Forces had requested a week prior.
They had been dancing around this subject ever since the night of the after-party. Stephen supposed that Tony had decided to take the lead once and for all.
Stephen met Tony's gaze and considered his answer. Ever since he was a child, he hated hearing news about national wars and violent conflicts. He hated even more how world militaries and their governments threw around missiles and bombs and lives as if they were mere pieces on a chessboard, how they would rear up in any conflict armed with brute force and firepower. Peaceful diplomacy was never the first official option. The history of the world's victors was written in blood shed in the name of God, gold, and glory. Most of that blood belonged to innocents caught in the crossfire.
He became a doctor to do no harm, to save lives, not take them. The Hippocratic Oath was more than just an obligatory promise - it was his sworn word.
Tony Stark carried the title of Merchant of Death. He was not the first and would not be the last. Howard Stark had forged an industrial empire that commercialized high-grade and revolutionary military weapons, reaping the financial benefits that a World War had generated from using his technology.
But Tony was not his father. Tony preferred tinkering in his workshop, surrounded by his bots and AI and too many mugs of coffee, over presiding in board meetings. He conceptualized visionary vehicle designs and building plans for sustainable skyscrapers more than he made the specs for weapons. Even the weapons he did personally make he intended to keep the country safe through the military, not obliterate international enemies at whim.
Does it bother you?
"No," Stephen said. "It's your job, just like how mine is to cut people open and find a way to make sure they get to go home."
Tony scrutinized Stephen, then nodded and relaxed. "Exactly, doc, exactly."
Tony designated Stephen his own bench in the workshop, going as far as to forge a little plaque with Stephen's name on it. Stephen spent as much free time as he could there, trading ideas and repartee with Tony from late at night and into the early morning until JARVIS told both of them to get some rest or he'd call Pepper. When it got to that point, both men evacuated, knowing that hell hath no fury like Pepper Potts woken up before 6 a.m.
Stephen wondered when the workshop and the Tower started feeling more like home than his actual house. Even more, he wondered when that tiny bit of warmth in his chest started to burn hotter when Tony was around.
"Most people can't handle Tony for more than one night," Pepper said over a cup of tea. They reclined in her office at Stark Tower, biscuits laid out between them. "They think they can, but they get too close and get burned. Investors, the press, the government, they all believe they can pin him under their thumb but they forget one thing. Tony's not someone you can just take lightly or take for granted."
Stephen hummed and traced the edges of his porcelain cup. "It's good that you and I don't, nor Rhodey or Happy."
Stephen had never been in this for money or the chance to steal some prestige from Tony's name. He had enough of both to last him lifetimes. From the moment they met, they'd been drawn into each other's orbits because of their shared appreciation of science, unhealthy love for black coffee, and competency in their fields. They were equals on level footing.
And if Stephen was starting to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, what he felt for Tony Stark was beyond mere friendship, then he'll just keep that to himself for now.
Pepper smiled serenely. "More tea?"
"Please," he said, and they talked about everything and nothing for the rest of the afternoon.
He continued his spotless record of perfect surgeries, turning away hundreds of requests to other surgeons who had the time to do easy protocols. The number of gilded awards and honors in his glass cabinet steadily multiplied and so did speaking presentations he was invited to attend. Christine started to regard him with a permanent crease between her brows.
He looked the other direction. He was Doctor Stephen Strange and life was good.
He got the call from Pepper right after a twenty-two-hour shift and two successful surgeries: Tony had been kidnapped in Afghanistan.
The world felt wrong, forced out of its axis to hurtle into the unknown. Stephen called Happy who immediately picked him up and drove him to Stark Tower where Pepper and Rhodey were waiting. Pepper's eyes were bloodshot and her skin deathly pale. Rhodey's shoulders were rigid and fraught with tension.
Tony, and by extension SI, was a cornerstone of the country's military prowess. The public knew him as a symbol of wealth and power. The national call for a massive search and rescue mission was put out not an hour later and Rhodey was the first to answer it.
"I'll find him," Rhodey promised.
DUM-E and U took one look at Pepper and Stephen when they entered Tony's workshop and, in a few seconds that Stephen would remember forever, quietly plugged themselves into their stations and powered down. JARVIS didn't speak.
The days unfolded into weeks. He spent his days and nights at Metro-General, finishing one complicated operation after another with the precision that gave so much acclaim to his name. He tried not to think about Tony Stark, tried to reconcile with himself that there was nothing he could do on his end, that worrying would not do anyone any good.
He tried not to think about how the world felt infinitely colder without Tony at its forefront.
Rhodey kept his promise. Tony returned from Afghanistan with the arc reactor in his chest and looking ten years older. Stephen's hands had involuntarily clenched when he entered the room and laid his eyes on the bright glow of the medical miracle that kept Tony alive.
"Do you have a reserved spot in every hospital?" Tony had the audacity to quip. They were at a prominent trauma center near Silicon Valley, far from the soothing familiarity of Metro-General.
Two years of comfortable friendship forged through countless intellectual debates and a mutually-shared addiction for too much black coffee and authentic Italian dishes, and Stephen still didn't know how Tony was so good at deflecting the elephant in the room. Luckily, Stephen had time to learn his tells. Tony's fingers gripped the hospital sheet. His eyes, usually vibrant, were dull and shadowed.
"Pepper got me a special pass," Stephen said, not telling Tony that he'd taken two days off to fly with Rhodey and Pepper to California, and how Christine looked like she was going to have a heart attack when he told her. "I read the reports. We need to do testing on that thing. We have no idea how it's going to affect you in the long-run."
Tony shifted on the bed. "I'm okay. No need to worry about me. I'm back and the arc reactor is just fine where it is."
"Tony, it's an invasive object that might-"
"Stephen, please," Tony said, and it was the first time he ever called Stephen by his first name, tinged with desperation. It drew him up short. "Just - don't worry about it, okay?"
Stephen studied the gaunt lines of Tony's features, how something hollow and dark had settled into them.
He thought about the cave Tony had mentioned in his impromptu speech to the press before being admitted into the center, the way his hands gripped the podium as if it were a lifeline; the announcement to stop and retract all SI weapons manufacturing, the near-palpable relief on his face as Rhodey and Pepper helped him down from the stage and away from the roaring crowd of journalists.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, he diagnosed immediately, filing that detail for later.
"I'm not pitying you," he said slowly, noting Tony's jerk of shock. "But as your super science bro-" "Holy shit you actually admitted it!" Tony blurted-"I want you to at least hear me out. Non-invasive testing using scans and nothing more. We need to have something to work with when you eventually escape this place through the window."
Tony met his eyes. A long moment of wordless understanding stretched between them. Tony's lips quirked up at the edges. "Alright, Doctor Horrible. Show me what you got."
The scans proved invaluable in developing a better, safer arc reactor design by showing the danger areas the old reactor impacted. Tony gifted Stephen an absurdly expensive cologne set. The color returned to Tony's skin as his body filled out under his friends' watchful care. The bots were ecstatic at their creator's return and refused to let him out of their sights for weeks. When Tony smiled at Stephen through the screen over DUM-E and U's frantic versions of hugging, Stephen found himself smiling back.
But the universe seemed never content to leave Tony Stark alone because what happened next came at them at a dizzying speed: Obadiah Stane's betrayal and the Iron Monger's creation. Rhodey finding Tony gasping for breath on the floor of his workshop after DUM-E just managed to save his life. The violent battle between mentor and man that ended in Stane smoldering inside the remnants of the Iron Monger and Tony once again standing at a podium, reporting all of this before announcing the iconic words that would change everything: "I am Iron Man."
Stephen took it all in from the safe walls of Metro-General, hands hanging uselessly at his sides.
"That was reckless," he told Tony after, mentally recording every detail of Tony's tired, bruised half-grin on the screen. "It was reckless and dangerous and I have no idea what you're thinking, but I'm glad you're alive, Tony."
"I'm not going down anytime soon," Tony said, a sudden but familiar fire igniting in his eyes. Stephen's breath caught in his throat. "I've got debts to pay and a lot of people to make up to. I am Iron Man and the world hasn't seen the last of me yet."
Tony called him a week later at one in the morning, low and faint.
"I can still taste the water," he whispered.
Stephen was at the penthouse in twenty minutes. Tony jerked up from the couch, blanket wrapped so tightly around him that the seams strained. Darkness haunted his eyes. Stephen sat down and clasped Tony's hands in his.
"What do you need?" he asked.
"Just - just talk to me about anything," Tony said. His knuckles were white as he held on to Stephen like a lifeline.
So, Stephen talked: about what had happened during his last shift and the horrible quality of the food at the hospital. He talked about the dramatic fight that broke out between a boy and his girlfriend when the boy's other girlfriend visited him in the ER, and the family of a patient he had operated on a month prior stopping by to give him a box of expensive Belgian chocolates. He talked until his voice was hoarse and kept going until the sun was peeking over the horizon and Tony slumped into him, the tremors subsided.
"How long is it going to be like this?" Tony asked into Stephen's jacket.
"I don't know," Stephen said gently, tugging the blanket snugly around Tony. "But you must not ignore it or let it fester. You need to let yourself heal. Rest."
"I have so much to do." Tony sounded both small and determined. A bolt of affection, ferocious and raw, struck Stephen. Even in a time like this Tony was willing to put aside his own well-being to honor his commitments, something a lesser man would have balked at.
"And you will get to do them. For now, rest."
Tony huffed but shuffled closer, already half-asleep. "Sleep, then work?"
Stephen answered past the sudden clench of his heart, "Sleep, then work."
Tony slept tucked into Stephen's side, his chest rising and falling deeply with no interruptions. Stephen watched dawn unfold over the city, spilling warm and kind over them, and held Tony in his arms.
It wasn't love yet, but it was close.
True to his word, Tony didn't stand still for long. In the months following, Stephen watched in amazement as he and Pepper tore Stark Industries apart and rebuilt it into a beacon of sustainable energy and clean technology with no equal. SI's stocks rose to an all-time high while the extra millions of dollars the company made were transferred into scholarships, grants, and humanitarian works. Stephen didn't tell Tony, but he was glad SI stopped making weapons and went to great lengths to recall those that were already made. Tony could start SI anew and make it into his own company, something he could be proud of outside of his father's shadow.
At the same time, Iron Man's popularity surged, now a modern icon that was taking the world by storm. The suit had become a symbol of both technological genius and heroic grace under pressure. Iron Man, Earth's first official superhero, took up the mantle with ease and Tony's own brand of charm - which included flying around New York City as if it were a playground. Stephen would never admit it, but the first time he saw Tony rocketing past Metro-General in full Iron Man costume, he nearly had a heart attack.
"I have to look after the future," Tony told Stephen over a video call. He was working on the gauntlet of a new Iron Man suit with furrowed brows and tongue peeking out between his lips. "I had a lot of time to think in that cave, about what Yinsen taught me. What I'm doing isn't enough for the mistakes I've made, but it'll have to do for now."
Yinsen, the doctor who died saving Tony's life. Tony's friend. The weight of his name was evident in Tony's tone. Stephen wasn't a religious man but he sent a silent thank-you to wherever the man was now. "You're doing fine, Tony. Don't overwork yourself."
Tony made a sassy mmhm noise. "This is coming from the guy who practically lives where he works. You're a busy man, doc. How many hours are you clocking every week? A hundred? Plus a few twenties here and there? Pep and Rhodes've been missing you at Pasta Night for the past three weeks."
"I hope they're not the only ones who miss me," Stephen said without thinking.
"I mean, the bots have been looking under the weather lately," Tony said without missing a beat. Stephen let out the breath he'd been holding, firmly packing his meddlesome feelings into a box because damn it, they were distractions he couldn't afford to have, not when he was at the peak of his career and the edge was nowhere in sight.
"Send them my regards," he replied, leaning back in his chair. "I have a couple dozen operations to do before the end of the month, but I'll try to make it next week."
"Please do that. I've got something important to tell you," Tony said, winking, because of course he just had to get the last word in and leave Stephen on a cliffhanger.
Stephen never made it to Pasta Night or hear what Tony wanted to tell him.
Instead, he spent hours at Tony's bedside with Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy next to him. Tony's shirt was ripped open, revealing the dark streaks of palladium poisoning around the arc reactor. The monitors at the head of the bed displayed vitals that Stephen already memorized to the digit.
"How long has he had this?" he finally asked.
Pepper shook her head, hands folded in her lap. "I don't know. JARVIS told me he collapsed and I ran down to the workshop and he was just on the ground." She took a stabilizing breath. "JARVIS, please tell Stephen what you told me about the palladium."
JARVIS's reply was low and edged. "Sir has been working on finding a new element to replace the palladium for approximately thirteen days. Sir recorded first traces of palladium poisoning thirteen and a half days ago."
"And you didn't bother to tell us?" Rhodey asked, more anxious than angry.
"Sir initiated Safety Protocol I-04-Alpha at the start of the project, preventing me from informing anyone of his actions," JARVIS said in a tone that clearly disapproved of his creator's decision. "A breach of this protocol would result in a system shut-down for 24 hours with only primary databases online. I was only able to alert Ms. Potts because Sir was unconscious."
Yes, it made sense, because Tony Stark would never allow anyone to try and help him when he was in need, somehow believing the notion to be a burden no one would be willing to take. He'd do anything to prevent that, even coding JARVIS to shut-down if his own AI sent for help.
Stephen drew a hand through his hair. "JARVIS, bring up all the data Tony's finished so far."
"Yes, Doctor," JARVIS answered approvingly, and holograms bloomed around them. Stephen scanned the numbers and lines of code and files upon files of failed elements, slipped into that state of mind where everything sharpened into the edge of a blade, and got to work.
When Tony woke up five hours later, Pepper, Happy, and Rhodey had fallen asleep in the living room. The faint morning light barely broke through the horizon. Stephen blinked exhaustion away and swiped the holograms to the side, but Tony had already seen. The man smiled weakly.
"I knew you were after my secrets."
"Only the ones that almost killed you, Tony."
A second passed, then two more.
"Rhodey? Pepper and Happy?"
"They're sleeping in the living room. They're exhausted."
"How many flowers do you think I should buy Pepper so she doesn't kill me and leave my body in a ditch?" Tony asked as if he wasn't dying due to biochemical contamination from the very thing that was keeping him alive.
Stephen resisted the urge to deck him across the head and instead rested a hand on Tony's arm, squeezing tight. "If it were me, I'd make her CEO of Stark Industries and apologize at least twice every day until you're old and gray. You scared us."
"Aw, you, scared?" Tony said, but lightly. The slow-rising dawn outside turned his half-lidded eyes a soft chocolate brown. Somehow, they still contained those telltale sparks that made something stutter between Stephen's ribs.
Stephen recalled the days after Tony was kidnapped in Afghanistan. Pepper's wan countenance, Rhodey's clenched jaw, Happy's fretful pacing. DUM-E and U deactivated. JARVIS unreachable.
Tony Stark, whether he knew it or not (though Stephen would bet the latter) was important in so many lives. He brought vivid colors and light to an otherwise dull world with his visions for the future, his pioneering and irreplaceable intellect, his passion and fire as Iron Man.
He brought Stephen scientific debates, Pasta Night, and quicksilver banter that gave him a chance to laugh and relax for once, reveling in Tony's brilliant mind and even more brilliant heart.
A world without Tony Stark scared the hell out of Stephen Strange.
"More than you know," Stephen confessed, to himself and to Tony.
Tony breathed out, "Stephen."
"I worked on the data you got," Stephen continued quickly. He couldn't have this conversation now. Not when Tony was in danger and himself shaken to the core. "JARVIS helped - we used the most recent file, the one titled SHIELD? We managed to synthesize the equations and form a complex - JARVIS, please pull up the image?"
The hologram burst into full color in front of Tony, and for a moment that intense stare moved from Stephen to the 3D complex of a new element that could replace the palladium. Tony leaned forward.
"JARVIS, simulate it."
A hologram of one of Tony's Mark suits appeared. The complex lined up with the arc reactor and after three long seconds, the combined image lit up with blue and green. Tony let out a laugh of shocked relief.
"That's it," he said.
Pepper didn't hesitate to envelop Tony in a tight embrace. Rhodey and Happy followed right after. Tony gestured wildly at Stephen until he gave in, joining the group awkwardly.
Tony's head rested on his chest, and the warmth remained there for a long time.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury was an intimidating man but Stephen had known Pepper Potts, newly minted CEO of Stark Industries, for almost three-and-a-half years and merely returned Fury's glare with a nod.
"I still don't see why Doctor Strange has to be here for a classified government meeting," Fury said again, still locking onto Stephen with considerable strength for someone with one eye.
Tony reclined in his seat and grinned at Stephen. "He helps keep me in line. Chop, chop, Director. I've got an expo to prep for tonight and Doctor Strange has a billion patients knocking at his door."
"I signed the confidentiality papers, Director Fury," Stephen added, "and if I may be completely candid, there's nothing you can't tell me that Tony hasn't already told me himself."
"He what." The icy rigidity of Fury's voice could break glass. The various S.H.I.E.L.D. agents around the room exchanged nervous glances.
Tony shrugged. "Thanks for sending me my father's Stark Expo diorama notes but like I said, I wasn't the one who solved the equation. Plus, he saw the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo and I can't change that - not that I want to anyway."
Fury pinned Stephen with enough force to fuel one of the Iron Man suits before throwing his hands up and ordering Maria Hill to pull up the screens.
Stephen learned about the Avengers Initiative, the discovery of the legendary Captain Steven Grant Rogers and the vibranium shield Howard Stark created, and the investigation into a mysterious hammer in New Mexico which may or may not had beyond-Earth origins.
"You ready to run for the hills? I'll come with you. We'll meet the others there and live out our lives as goat herders," Tony said later in the penthouse.
"I don't think I can back out now," Stephen replied faintly, mind still spinning with this newfound knowledge of superheroes and secret government agencies and possible cosmic beings. "Maybe I should have stayed at home the night of the expo."
Tony clapped his shoulder solemnly. "That is a damn mood right there, doc."
The movies almost never got dramatic battle scenes right. There was usually a heart-pounding soundtrack in the background, bellying any sort of real danger with orchestrated notes that subconsciously reminded the audience, this is all staged. The protagonists would swoop in when all hope seemed lost and save the day, and the scene would close dramatically on cheering crowds and a close-up of the victorious heroes.
The Battle of New York was real. It was visceral and haunting and Stephen will never forget the destruction the Chitauri wrought across the city, the shudder of entire buildings falling apart outside the solidly built Metro-General and the screams of people as they were caught in the collateral damage. Patient after patient passed under his hands. All thoughts of being too good for basic treatment were wiped from his mind.
Three hours into the attack, he stilled in front of the widescreen televisions in the lobby when Iron Man took the missile directed at the city and carried it into space. The detonation shattered the sky, outlining the shadowy figures of massive alien ships above.
"Oh my God," Christine was saying, shaking him out of his stupor because Tony, that was Tony, Tony took the missile and it exploded and he's- and he watched the broadcast zoom in on Iron Man's falling figure, the Incredible Hunk launching up and catching it as the Avengers gathered around.
The Hulk ripped off Iron Man's faceplate. The planet held its breath.
Tony Stark exhaled, loud and clear even with the grainy video quality, and Stephen couldn't restrain the wave of relief that nearly sent him to his knees.
Tony was alive. He made it.
Stephen answered the video call on the first ring an hour later. "You're an infuriating self-sacrificing idiot, Tony Stark. I hope you know that."
"Hi Doctor Cheekbones, how are you, how's life going," Tony said, eyes shining with adrenaline. Behind him, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were moving dead Chitauri into piles. "This is the part where you say, not bad Tin Man, how was your day?"
"Tony." Tony knew him well enough to pick up the lead-heavy disbelief in his voice and grew serious.
"Stephen, it's okay. The Avengers took care of it. Not the cleanest work but not bad for the trial period if you ask me."
"You almost died again," Stephen stressed, wondering if near-death occurrences were going to become a common thing where Tony was involved.
"You could have died, too," Tony said, words hardening into steel. "You and Pep and Rhodey and Happy. And everyone in New York City. I couldn't let that happen, Stephen. I couldn't."
It was at that moment that Stephen realized Tony would never be one hundred percent safe again. He never was before, what with Stane running around and SI competitors waiting for any chink in the company to reveal itself and enemies abroad more than willing to take their own chunks out of the man. It was only now that the stage had expanded to include the entire planet and, somehow, superhero organizations and extraterrestrial beings.
Tony wasn't just Tony Stark anymore. He was Iron Man, a superhero fighting battles on a scale that Stephen couldn't wrap his head around.
They regarded each other across the screen. A moment of tangency shuddered and resolved itself inside Stephen.
"Stay safe out there, Tony."
"I'll try, Stephen."
Stephen never got the chance to tell Tony.
The clean-up of New York City took two months. Tony deployed all of SI's humanitarian resources to the cause. The Avengers took to the streets to help and in a matter of minutes became a social media phenomenon. The iconic shield of Captain America and the gleaming colors of Iron Man's suit, coupled with the presence of an actual alien Norse god, a famous scientist who could turn into the Hulk, and two deadly S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, fueled enough inspiration for entire fan groups and dedicated websites to form.
The U.S. government took advantage of the Avengers' popularity and proclaimed the group "Earth's greatest defenders." That kept the press busy for weeks.
Tony devoted his time to the Avengers. He went on interviews, press conferences, and small-scale government meetings that were filmed, later edited, and publicized to the people. SI released a statement that said he would become the sole financial and technological benefactor of the group, providing anything from uniforms and weapons to a home. Stark Tower became the Avengers' base, the STARK letters on the front torn down to be replaced by a shining silver A. Stephen almost couldn't recognize it.
Iron Man and Captain America made a name for themselves as co-leaders of the Avengers.
"He's a man out of time but he's not a bad guy once you get to know him, and I say that after we had a Texas showdown in the Helicarrier," Tony said about Steve Rogers one night, the screen wavering as he adjusted his camera. "It's kind of surreal, you know? He and Howard knew each other in person, and now he knows me. Can't imagine how it feels for him."
"Is he anything like the history videos say?" Stephen asked for the sake of conversation, because the considering tone in Tony's voice made his chest inexplicably tighten.
Tony snorted. "Well they didn't lie about his broad shoulders or muscles, that much is true."
"I see," Stephen said.
Tony snickered. "Sorry. Changing the subject now. Did you get a chance to look at the designs for the nanotech neuro-scanners I sent you?"
It wasn't the last time Steve Rogers cropped up in their conversations, which lessened by the week.
"He thought the toaster was voice-activated and spent fifteen minutes talking to it. I recorded the whole thing and told JARVIS to put him out of his misery," Tony said one day, laughing himself to tears.
Another day, Tony said, "I found him doodling on the back of these old notepads and took him to the art shop. He was like a kid in a candy store, let me tell you. He even wanted to pay for the stuff himself but I took care of it. It's only some pens and actually good paper." He was gazing off the camera with a fond smile.
And, almost a year later when the Avengers - specifically, Tony and Steve - seemed to be loved by the whole world:
"He's taking me out for dinner. It was so freaking cheesy - he got a bouquet of roses and everything. Said it was to say sorry for yelling at me through the coms today. To be fair, I did fly into a collapsing building but I know it's not just to say sorry," Tony revealed, glowing with happiness.
"That's wonderful to hear, Tony," Stephen heard himself say over the fracture inside him. Tony deserved to be happy. Tony deserved to have someone take him on nice dinners and to watch his back on the battlefield, to hold him through his nightmares and flashbacks, to appreciate his clever wit and exceptional intellect and treat him with the utmost tenderness.
"Thanks, Stephen." Tony smiled at him in a way that branded hot and sudden across his chest.
Later he'd understand it was love realized too late.
BREAKING NEWS - CAPTAIN AMERICA AND IRON MAN - WHIRLWIND ROMANCE? was the title of the headline released the next morning. Before noon, every news station, newspaper, blog, and forum was bursting with activity and support for century's hottest couple.
Stephen stayed at Metro-General for 51 hours before Christine sent him home.
"You haven't been to Pasta Night for a while," Pepper said, filling his cup with tea. "You should come this week. Rhodey's missed you and Happy wants you to try this new pesto recipe he found. Steve also makes really good garlic bread that Tony loves to keep for himself."
"Great," Stephen said, unable to hide the audible crack in his voice and in a flash second realized his mistake.
With that one word, his world trembled and showed itself in startling clarity.
Pepper put down her tea. Her eyes were wide. "Oh, Stephen."
"Don't," he said, hearing himself as if he were underwater. "It's okay."
Pepper reached for his hands and held them in her own. When had they started shaking? They never shook. "I'm sorry."
When he got home, he deleted Pasta Night from his calendar and filled every open slot it left behind with a surgery rotation.
"You can't keep doing this to yourself," Christine said, watching him scrub down after a long and complicated operation.
"Doing this?" Stephen parroted, tired beyond the physical sense of the word.
Christine put her hands on her hips and said pointedly, "This brooding angsty bullshit you've been pulling for the past two months. You've been more overbearing than usual. You're driving your surgical team up the wall and I'm sure the nurses are ready to throw you out the window the next time you breathe in their direction. Will you tell me what's eating you or do I have to submit a request for temporary suspension from active rotation?"
And at that moment, she reminded him of Pepper, strong-willed and sharper than any surgical blade. Because of that, he told her everything - Tony, the Avengers, the innumerable unread emails begging for his help but sitting untouched in his inbox because he knew in his heart he couldn't save all of them - letting it pour out of him until he had nothing left to say. The silence hovered thickly.
Christine pulled him close, arms tight around him as if trying to pull all his unraveling pieces back together again. He let his head fall on her shoulder and did the only thing he could do.
He kept going.
The Mandarin attacked and Tony's Malibu mansion was destroyed beyond repair, but the Avengers were on the scene within minutes. The whole situation was resolved within 24 hours. According to the official reports, Tony spent 22 of those hours in a safe house in Tennessee before flying to Washington D.C. after the Mandarin was taken away.
Steve dipped and kissed Tony in front of the White House amidst the shouts of adoring fans and clicks of hundreds of cameras.
Stephen asked Christine out to dinner. She accepted on the condition that she would pick the place. She chose a casual restaurant near the beach, where the coolness of dusk and good seafood allowed Stephen to breathe easy for the first time in weeks. She kept the conversation light, easy, and he knew that this arrangement would not become anything more than what it was. Her unspoken understanding helped loosen the hostile knot between his ribs.
"Are you happy?" Stephen asked during that rare moment of time in the week when they could talk.
"Of course I am," Tony said, blinking at the sudden question. He peered at his camera. "Are you alright?"
"Yes," Stephen said automatically. "Tomorrow is your one-year anniversary party with Steve, right? I wanted to congratulate you now since I have a long shift starting tonight."
"Thanks but it's Pasta Night tomorrow too, doc," Tony said and put down what he was working on. He frowned at Stephen, arms crossed. "You haven't been here in months. Steve was going to make an extra-large batch of his garlic bread and everyone's going to be here for the party. Even the bots and JARVIS are going to have fun, for once. You sure you can't come?"
Shame embedded itself deep in Stephen's lungs as he shook his head. "Duty calls, I'm afraid."
Tony waited, obviously expecting more, frown deepening when Stephen only shrugged one shoulder stiffly. Tony sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Well alright. I'll see you later, then?"
No. Maybe. I want to see you again. I miss you more than I ever expected, more than you'll ever know. "Yes," Stephen said, "maybe next time."
Rhodey called him three months later about Extremis and Tony's decision to use it to survive the arc reactor surgery.
"Tony won't listen to anyone," he said roughly. Stephen could hear the unspoken "not even Steve" but remained silent. "I know you're busy as hell but please, you have to try."
"Rhodey called the cavalry, didn't he?" Tony said when Stephen entered the workshop. It'd been five months since he'd seen Tony in person. In a moment of profound weakness, he allowed himself to take in Tony's flushed, healthy countenance and brown eyes vibrant with energy. Steve Rogers watched him with a thin smile.
He nodded at the Captain before addressing Tony.
"We've done this before. You're putting yourself at risk by doing a procedure that's never been tested. Even if it works, we'll have no idea how it'll impact you on a cellular and molecular level. That's how the palladium spread," he said even though he knew, by the look on Tony's face, that there was no changing his mind.
"I remember the palladium," Tony shot back. "I did the science and I'm going through with this."
Rogers' eyes were boring into the side of Stephen's face but it was Tony who held his attention. Brave, bright-burning Tony, who stared at him and asked a question without having to vocalize it. He squared his shoulders and said, "Fine. But will you at least let me double-check the data?"
Tony grinned as Rogers scowled. "I thought you'd never ask."
The procedure worked with additional adjustments on Stephen's part. Extremis burned through Tony's veins and left him shaken but alive and strong enough to weather through the extensive arc reactor surgery. Stephen placed himself on the opposite end of the hospital when Tony was admitted, for once trusting another doctor to do things right. The operation was a resounding success according to the updated charts.
"Go to him," Christine urged, "he could be looking for you."
"I don't think I'd be welcomed," he said. The Avengers had all been present when Tony was moved into the ICU six hours ago and were more than likely to still be there. Without a doubt, Steve would be there. "Besides, he doesn't need me."
"Maybe he doesn't. You two never needed each other. But he could want you to be there, Stephen."
"I don't owe him anything," Stephen snapped, the words ugly and burning and false in his mouth, the frustration and thinly veiled regret of the past months finally rising to the surface after being held back for so long.
She gave him a long, hard stare. "Your over-inflated ego is going to get you hurt someday. I think it already has. You may not be his boyfriend-" that stung more than Stephen was willing to admit "- but you're his friend. You owe him respect and support. That's what friends do, Stephen. Do it before it's too late."
Two hours later, when the car and the phone were smoldering in pieces around him and the darkness was dragging him down, Stephen could only regret not doing right by Tony in the time that he had.
He lived. Likely because of the skills of Christine and half a dozen specialty surgeons, more likely that the universe wanted him to suffer in ways he couldn't have imagined.
The incessant beeping of the monitors was a dull drone in his ears. His entire body ached and shuddered in pain, the drugs taking only the slightest edge off the physical and none of the emotional, the mental, the psychological agony of his hands - his hands were damaged - his hands were destroyed - his life's essence ripped away from him in a screech of tires on rain-slick roads and metal and fire and pain pain pain so much pain -
The prognoses were burned into his brain, flashing red and glaringly every time he blinked. Eleven steel pins to stabilize the bones. Torn ligaments and severe, likely permanent nerve damage in both hands, reducing range and quality of motion from the wrists down. All compounded with multiple lacerations, a sprained ankle, and enough blood loss to force him to stay at two weeks in the ICU, with a pending order for two to four months of intensive therapy.
It was a death sentence. No one expected him to return to the field. It was the unspoken truth that lingered whenever a nurse or Christine were in the room. He could only imagine what the other doctors were thinking, saying, wondering, about him and his damaged, shaking hands.
He had already lost his chance with Tony and now he had lost everything else.
For four days he floated in a haze of painkillers and induced sleep. Waves of rage, frustration, and horror came and went, and he spent long hours resisting the urge to vomit up the turmoil roiling inside him. Christine was a constant at his side but he couldn't bear to look her in the face, to see the pity that must be there.
On the fifth day, his appointed physical therapist stopped by.
"It's going to be useless," Stephen said before the man could open his mouth. "I'm going need something better than therapy to get full motor function back."
"It's not going to be useless," the therapist said, "if you do what needs to be done."
"Tell me this, bachelor's degree, have you ever known anyone with nerve damage this severe and actually fully recover?"
The man frowned. "Tell you what, I'll find you the file of a guy who had a C7-C8 spinal cord injury and managed to walk again, just to show your arrogant ass that it can be done."
On the eighth day, Tony visited him. It was a voltage shock to see him in the flesh again. His skin was flush with good health and he held himself in a relaxed, sure manner that contrasted with Stephen's pitifully hunched shoulders.
"Hey, doc," Tony said gently, sitting next to the bed. His eyes, always expressive, ran over Stephen's prone form. "It's bad, isn't it?"
"Yes," Stephen forced out. Tony nodded.
"As soon as you and I get discharged, I'll work with the hospital to find a way to fix them. SHIELD's doctors aren't the best but they do have some good tech that might help. Bruce knows a couple of surgeons that specialize in hands and nerve tissues, too. I'll put my biomed department to work. We'll get you up and running in no time, doc."
Stephen focused on the wall behind Tony's head, hiding his shaking hands in the folds of the blanket. Tony's voice was soothing and calm, certain in his abilities, and Stephen - Stephen didn't want to hear it. He didn't want Tony to see him like this, broken and beaten beyond recognition. He didn't want to have the misplaced generosity and attention of a man who once saw him as an equal. The imbalance between them was tangible and unbearable.
Say something. Say you're sorry for not visiting him. Say you're sorry that you couldn't be there for him but you allowed him to be here for you. Apologize for the times that you took him for granted, the times you couldn't bring yourself to be happy for him, something that sounded like Pepper and Christine combined said at the back of his mind.
"You don't have to," he said instead, because he was weak and miserable and already had another plan forming in his head, one that didn't include Tony Stark. The files of Jonathan Pangborn, the fully recovered C7-C8 spinal cord injury case, were tucked inside a backpack under the bed.
"That isn't an option, Stephen," Tony said seriously. Stephen had to close his eyes against the guilt that surged in his throat. "We'll find a way."
A week later and three hours before Tony himself was supposed to be released from Metro-General, Stephen placed his signed discharge papers on the bed and slipped out of the hospital with his backpack, not looking back.
"Kamar-Taj," Pangborn told him after hours of scouring the streets. The man was standing - standing! - on two feet, basketball in hand. "The cost is high. But you might find what you're looking for there. I know I did."
Stephen thought about how Christine must have found the discharge papers by now, how her first instinct would be to go to Tony for help in finding him.
He bought the earliest one-way ticket to Kathmandu in cash and spent the next seven hours stumbling through the foreign streets, hopelessly lost, before he's cornered by three men who eyed his watch and jumped before he had the chance to run. A cloaked stranger saved him, leaving the men groaning on the ground. He pulled Stephen up and pressed the broken watch into his hand.
"You're looking for Kamar-Taj. Come with me," the man said matter-of-factly.
Stephen, exhausted and desperate beyond belief, followed.
He met the Ancient One, a woman whose inscrutable presence filled the entire room. She spoke of Pangborn and healing with a mysterious, unreadable half-smile that had Stephen ready to beg for her help and ready to pay any price - anything - to get his hands back.
That is, until she brought up chakras and spirits and acupuncture and all the pseudosciences that he spent his entire life mocking because how could they be anything but the delusions of common people unable to understand the truth of science?
"You founded your life on learning more and knowing more, and now you reject the possibility of learning something beyond your current understanding?" the Ancient One asked, dark eyes piercing into him.
"We are made of matter and nothing more. We're just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe," he snarled.
She grabbed his arm and threw him out of his body, sending him through the ceiling into space and hurtling through the nothing and the everything of millions of worlds set in abstract colors and lights.
"What is real, what mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses. At the root of existence, mind and matter meet, and thoughts shape reality," the Ancient One intoned as his shouts faded into the backdrop and he flew through the dimensions both slowly and in the blink of an eye.
Impossible prisms of colors and sounds exploded around him, coalescing into towering shapes and bottomless spaces, weaving and winding into the beyond. The vastness swallowed up his harsh gasps and scrambling limbs, forcing him to tumble through the universes. Some were bright and warm, others endlessly dark and gaping.
"This universe is only one of an infinite number. Worlds with no end, beyond time and space, out of reach from all senses."
Eons passed between one heartbeat and the next and he lay suspended in the faraway glows of unknown cosmos, so small, so insignificant.
"Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange?"
His hands floated in front of his face. They were still.
Then he was back in his body, on his knees and choking on the dirt and dust of the floor. His fingers, curled into fists, shook violently at the Ancient One's feet.
"Teach me," he pleaded.
"No," she said, monotone, and threw him out.
He spent two hours banging on the door and another three slumped down and rapping at it with bruised knuckles. The sky had grown dark and thunderous when it swung open and Mordo yanked him inside.
"Thank you," he said weakly.
"Let's get you settled," Mordo said, giving him a cup of water and a sympathetic smile. "The Ancient One will send for you tomorrow after you've rested."
The room was clean and modest, which was more than Stephen would have expected. Mordo gave him the Wi-Fi password on a slip of paper.
"We're not savages," he chuckled and left.
Stephen sat on the bed and shakily rubbed his face, feeling the impact of the day sink on his back. In less than twenty-four hours, he had discovered the existence of magic and real sorcerers and the multiverse, things that he would have attributed to the ramblings and rantings of crazy people with too much time (or medication) on their hands.
But what he had seen, experienced, was real. And if this - this magic and sorcery and learning about spirits and chakras would help him get his hands back, then it was worth it. He was Doctor Stephen Strange and he'd do whatever it takes to make that name mean something again.
Then it occurred to him like struck lightning - he had left his home, his country, people he could consider friends and Tony without a word's notice. Granted, the point of the plan was to leave without people realizing but in retrospect, the sudden disappearance of a prominent neurosurgeon from his own hospital bed won't be something anyone would sweep under the rug, especially where Christine and Tony were concerned.
He stumbled outside and caught sight of Mordo walking further down the hallway. "Mordo, wait, do you have a phone I can borrow?" he called.
Mordo called back as if expecting it, "Check the table."
There was a cheap disposable phone on the table, glinting innocently in the light of the candle beside it. Stephen closed his eyes, counted to ten and back, and picked it up. The metal was smooth and polished. It was definitely real.
He dialed Tony's private line, the one that he used when he had an idea for new technology he and Tony could work on. Those days were long gone. He had nothing to offer Tony now and he forced his lungs to work past the pain that thought lodged inside them.
Tony picked up on the first ring.
"You asshole," he said viciously and Stephen knew he was a madman for finding Tony's voice a welcomed sound even now.
"No, don't you start, Stephen, you complete and utter asshole. Do you have any idea what you did? Do you have any idea what we've been through when your friend Christine found you gone off the face of the planet? Where the hell are you?" Tony ranted, his voice rising in intensity and volume with every word. "Turn on your video. I want to see your face when I'm yelling at you."
"Tony," he said, in that certain way that he knew Tony would recognize when he needed to say something urgent.
Tony stopped, breathing hard.
Stephen opened his mouth then closed it. There were too many things he wanted to say, and none of them could make it past his lips.
"I'm sorry. I needed to get away," he said lamely.
"You needed to get away," Tony repeated as hard as stone. "That's all you have for me?"
"I found something in Kathmandu that can help me get my hands back," he finally gave in, not knowing if he should tell Tony just yet about Kamar-Taj and magic.
"Kathma - JARVIS, tell the others and Christine that I found him. Stephen, why the hell are you in Nepal? What can possibly be there that isn't here?" Tony asked in frustration. Stephen could almost see him pacing back and forth in the Avengers Tower, DUM-E and U following him as holograms of Kathmandu popped up.
"I don't doubt there are better places to be but I need to be here. I know my prognoses and I'm willing to bet you had Christine pull them up for you. You and I both know there's no way anyone there can fix my hands," he said.
A pause, then Tony said, "I can, Stephen. I can try."
His soft, worried words brought a bittersweet smile to Stephen's face. He knew Tony would try anything and everything until he succeeded in getting Stephen's hands back. Tony would weigh every option, explore every angle, and try to make a miracle happen where others would have long given up. That was who Tony Stark was.
I love you, he mouthed, startling himself. It was the truth, had been for a long time, maybe longer than he knew. The silent revelation cleared his clouded mind. It gave him a clear and quiet sort of peace he hadn't experienced in a long time, one that he felt after performing a life-saving operation or finding a potential breakthrough for a new surgical technique.
Stephen accepted his feelings for Tony Stark and how they would never go anywhere beyond his own heart. He accepted the sheer scientific improbability of his hands healing fully, and the tiny speck of hope that magic could overcome improbability. For the first time in what felt like forever, the ground stabilized beneath his feet and he finally found his footing again.
"I know you can," he said. "But this is something I have to do on my own, at least for now."
"You don't have anything to prove," Tony began.
"I do. I have no right to ask this of you, but you must trust me, Tony. I need to do this by myself."
Seconds passed like years. Tony sighed.
"Okay. Just - keep me updated? At least let me know you're still alive every now and then?"
"I will," Stephen said, "and I'll do better than be alive."
Lessons began the day after he arrived, starting with what strangely felt like a pep talk with the Ancient One, who conjured vivid luminous shapes of magical signs and sigils in the air.
"How do I get from here to there?" he asked after the light of her spells faded away.
"How did you learn to connect severed nerves and torn tissues? How did you fix the impossible?" she asked in return.
"Years of study and practice," he answered. She smiled that perplexing half-smile of hers and sent him on his way.
Kamar-Taj was unexpectedly beautiful, everything built in the archaic Nepalese architecture of ages past. Other students clad in various styles of learner's robes mingled in the open-air courtyard that sat in the middle of the community, bracketed by sleeping halls and training grounds on four sides. The library was massive and filled with genuine handbound, handwritten-in-ink books that have never seen a printing press. Meals were held on balconies overlooking the mountain range that sprawled around Kathmandu. The Milky Way galaxy at night looked close enough to touch.
It was serene. It was nothing like New York City or his home state Nebraska, or any of the places Stephen's traveled to before. Somehow, this was a relief.
He spent most of his time with Mordo, who had taken it upon himself to tutor Stephen in the more complex subjects of the mystic arts and patiently supervise his struggling attempts with summoning Eldritch magic. He also tentatively befriended the librarian Wong after many trips to the library. Both men had peculiar senses of humor but were steadfast and grounded, becoming stabilizing forces that Stephen grew to rely on.
In his free time, he went with Mordo to the markets in Kathmandu to search for vendor stands offering spiced teas and sweet treats. He introduced Wong to Beyoncé in exchange for answers to his countless questions about the mystic arts. Soon he spent almost all his meals with the two men, exchanging quips that more often than not had Wong bemoaning them and Mordo more relaxed than Stephen had seen him.
When he felt ready enough, he told them about Tony.
Mordo patted his arm. "Keep working hard. One day you will look back and be thankful for the challenges that made you strong."
"Love is more complex than the mystic arts, too large to truly comprehend for our mortal minds. You have more time ahead of you. You would do well not to spend it lingering on what has passed," Wong said firmly but more understanding than Stephen expected.
The agony and desperation he felt before slowly faded under their guidance and company.
About two months into his time in Kamar-Taj and weeks of failing to open a portal using his sling ring, the Ancient One decided to leave him on the slopes of Mount Everest with the baffling advice of, "Surrender, Stephen."
Standing near one of the highest peaks in the world, buffeted by the slicing and bitterly cold winds, he thought about Mordo's calm confidence and Wong's assured demeanor. They had planned to eat dinner in the library tonight so they could help him with his Sanskrit.
What he felt for them was much different than what he felt for Tony or for Christine, with whom he recently reconciled, but nonetheless made warmth spread through his chest and arms, into his hands. He drew on that warmth and concentrated, letting his ego be whipped away by the wind. He didn't want it anymore if keeping it meant he couldn't see them again.
When he fell through the portal, Mordo was there to catch him with thick wool blankets and a proud grin. The Ancient One inclined her head in approval. He nodded back, teeth chattering but also giddy with triumph.
"Everest?" Wong asked when they entered the library, eyeing the three blankets wrapped around Stephen and his bright red nose.
"Everest," he and Mordo said at the same time. Wong snorted and waved his hand, three bowls of steaming spiced soup and three mugs of beer appearing on a table nearby. Stephen stared at him.
"What? It's to celebrate you not dying," Wong said. "Close your mouth, you're going to catch flies."
With that, Stephen spent the night sipping at soup kept warm by magic and listening to Wong and Mordo tell stories of old recruits left on Everest and other incidents put into play by their complex Sorcerer Supreme. One involved a particularly stubborn student not unlike Stephen, a pair of magical pants, and a determined mountain goat. He didn't remember the last time he laughed so much.
It was freeing. He felt free here.
His sorcery skills improved, much to the Ancient One's pointed attention. After Everest he progressed much faster than the other students, going through books and scrolls quicker than Wong could supply him with, and holding his own against Mordo during physical training. He absorbed all the information he could find, exploring the intricacies of the mystic arts from daybreak to well after sunset.
Magic was firmly interwoven within but also separate from the material world. He spent hours studying those pendulous threads in fascination. It was not that the mystic arts overturned what he knew about the world, they simply lent a different perspective to it, a new angle into the gray areas that science and logic could not answer.
His body filled out. He had never been unfit before but his new lifestyle lent him broader shoulders and a lean, wiry strength. Tony noticed it when they spoke over video, Stephen borrowing Wong's laptop.
"Looking good, doc." Tony whistled playfully as Stephen shifted in his seat, a bit embarrassed but also slightly pleased. "What are the monks feeding you over there?"
"The opposite of gourmet. I miss Pasta Night," Stephen said.
Tony's expression darkened and he glanced off-camera briefly. "Me too."
Stephen blinked. "What do you mean by that?"
"Nothing, just -" Tony shoved his hands in his pockets- "haven't had Pasta Night in a while. The Avengers and SHIELD are always busy these days. It's like there's a new aspiring supervillain every other day trying to wreak havoc in New York. Pepper's running the company 24/7 and Rhodey's somewhere in Thailand on some peacekeeping mission. Which I totally get."
"Right," Stephen said, sensing a shift in tone coming up.
"It doesn't help that Steve's fine with scheduling training sessions and patrols on the same day," Tony said and ah, there it was. "SHIELD's been expanding ever since the Chitauri invasion. He said that we'll need more boots on the ground and I understand why, it's just," he trailed off.
Stephen frowned. There was something else on Tony's mind. "What is it?"
Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair. "There's something going on at SHIELD. I don't know exactly what yet, but it's something big. Me and JARVIS are looking into it. I also have this other project I'm working on - super secret, gotta keep my lips sealed and all."
"Tony, I understand,” Stephen said.
Tony's eyes glowed with gratitude. "I know you do."
Stephen flourished at Kamar-Taj, mastering astral projection and practicing in the Mirror Dimension outside of his lessons with the Ancient One. It was only a matter of time before he encountered the Eye of Agamotto, restored the Book of Cagliostro's missing pages, and nearly gave Wong and Mordo heart attacks when they found him almost unknowingly opening a time-space rift.
"You were born for the mystic arts, Stephen," Wong told him sharply, placing the Book of Cagliostro into place. Mordo paced the room, muttering under his breath about the time-space continuum. "But maybe you should consider putting a check on your aptitude."
"You say that yet my hands still shake," Stephen said, his voice wavering. Wong and Mordo stilled then placed a hand on his shoulders, which eased under the touch of good friends.
"For now, yes," Wong said.
"For how long?" he asked the ground.
"We are not prophets," Mordo reminded him, his shocked anger put aside for now.
"When will you tell me what exactly we are?" Stephen demanded.
He learned about Dormammu, the Sanctums, and the purpose of the Masters of the Mystic Arts. The Infinity Stones. Just when Stephen didn't think anything would surprise him anymore, the universe threw him another curveball.
And even before he had the chance to fully process this, Kaecilius and his zealots attacked, intent on inviting Dormammu to Earth. The London Sanctum went up in flames and Master Drumm fell at the New York Sanctum in front of Stephen's eyes as the Cloak of Levitation snatched him to safety.
He killed one of the zealots in self-defense. He didn't have time to mourn.
The Ancient One revealed the truth about her ties to the Dark Dimension. Mordo sagged into his side in horror at the brand on her forehead, but he couldn't comfort him because Kaecilius moved swiftly, burying the blade in the Ancient One's chest and sending her out of a portal and plummeting to a New York sidewalk.
As Christine - oh how he admired and respected this woman, she deserved far better than he could give her - and other doctors wheeled the Ancient One's body into the operating room, Stephen entered the Astral Dimension and followed his teacher to the balcony.
They watched a storm break the sky in slow motion. The snowflakes were caught in suspended fall.
"There's still time," he said.
"Time is relative. I've spent so many years peering through time. I prevented countless terrible futures using that power. But I've never been able to see past this exact moment," she said in that frustratingly serene tone. "Do you wonder what I see in your future?"
She gave him a look.
"Yes," he admitted.
"I only saw possibilities for your future," she said. "You have such a capacity for goodness. But the arrogance and fear you still refuse to acknowledge keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all."
She peered into his soul. "It's not about you."
The world shifted and clicked. Tony. Mordo and Wong. Christine. All the people he knew, all the ones he didn't know, all of them flashed across his eyes.
"Pangborn decided to reap the benefits of learning the mystic arts for himself instead of serving the greater good."
How could he not have seen it before? "He uses magic to walk again."
"Yes," she said as soft as the snow.
He could use magic to fix his hands, to soothe and straighten out the ever-present tremors. He could have his old life back, his name and prestige. He could be a man on equal footing with Tony Stark.
"You could," the Ancient One said, knowing him well enough to know his thoughts, "and the world would be all the lesser for it."
It wasn't about him. Not anymore. Going back to his old life wasn't a choice after everything he had seen and learned. The only way to go was forward.
"Dormammu and Kaecilius seek to throw this world into endless darkness," she continued, "you must stop them."
"I'm not ready," he whispered.
Her face, eternal and unknowable, gentled. She took his hand.
"No one ever is. We don't get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning, to know our days are numbered." She paused as if coming to some internal revelation. "Love, also, gives life meaning. I've forgotten that in all my years. But you, Stephen Strange, you know love. I hope you use it as a strength, one that makes living all the more precious."
Then she was gone. Stephen clenched his fingers around the loss and went to face his destiny.
Dormammu obliterated him over and over and over. Each way was vicious and violent - a spear through his throat and heart, supersonic sound waves that plastered him to the ground, bolts of fire and lightning searing him open, and more.
He kept the time loop going, the Eye of Agamotto glowing strong. There was no other option. He was not going to let this devastating world-eating deity touch Earth and her people. The process was agony but pain was an old friend. He couldn't win but he could lose again, and again, and again for eternity if it meant keeping Tony, Wong, Mordo, Christine, all of them safe.
In the indeterminable accumulated time that passed with him and Dormammu repeating their song and dance, he allowed himself to grieve for the Ancient One, for Mordo's shaken faith which had defined the man to the core, for not being able to see Tony again. He had all the time in the universe to analyze his mistakes and faults and regrets.
When Dormammu finally gave in to the bargain, Stephen almost wept with relief but held firm, casting the spells that would seal the deal.
Mordo and Wong, loyal and constant, caught him as he stumbled from the Dark Dimension. Kaecilius and his remaining zealots were writhing and screaming as their bodies shriveled into dust, sucked up into the vortex above as the Eye of Agamotto put time back into place.
"Don't go," Stephen said, grabbing Mordo's arm as the man looked ready to flee. "I know she lied, but she did it for the greater good. She did everything to protect and prepare us."
"I cannot stay," Mordo said unsteadily. "I will not go down the path of mindless discipleship any longer. I must find my own way."
"You do not have to do it alone," Stephen tried but Mordo shook his head and gently removed Stephen's hand from his arm.
"The natural law has been violated too much for me to stay. The bill will come for us all and when that happens, I will see you both again."
Stephen looked at Wong but the man only nodded gravely once. Stephen dropped his arm. Mordo gave him a brief regretful look before disappearing into the now moving crowds. Already his absence felt like an ice-cold wound.
Wong cleared his throat. "Stephen, there is work to do."
The fallen London Sanctum, the absence of a Sorcerer Supreme to protect Earth from mystic threats, the state that Kamar-Taj must be in. The Cloak laid heavy on Stephen's shoulders as he nodded and took them home.
Two weeks after they began work at Kamar-Taj, the radio in the courtyard began blasting news about the Winter Soldier, the Avengers, Sokovia, and Ultron.
"It is not our fight," Wong told him firmly as they watched the television news for updates on the dismantled S.H.I.E.L.D, runaway Winter Soldier, and divided Avengers. "We exist to protect the world from mystical threats, not meddle in the affairs of the material."
"The line between the two blurs every day." Tony was at the epicenter of those affairs.
"Stephen, you are letting your emotions control you."
Stephen closed his eyes and breathed out deeply. The Cloak rustled in sympathy. "I'm sorry."
Wong waved his hands and conjured a flip phone. "Do what you need to do. I'll be checking in on the students."
Tony picked up on the second ring.
"Stephen, you saw the news?"
"Are you alright, Tony?"
They spoke at the same time. Tony laughed in a tired and bitter way.
"The Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes. You know, the guy who ran the Howling Commandos with Steve? Same guy. HYDRA caught and brainwashed him for decades before SHIELD found traces of him and didn't bother to tell Steve. He's hiding out somewhere in Virginia. Sokovia was hell and Ultron was a mistake. JARVIS is gone," Tony said rapidly, his voice breaking on the last word.
It seemed like a day for losses. Stephen gritted his teeth, wanting to open a portal and at least listen to Tony in person and offer whatever comfort he could. "I'm sorry, Tony."
"I managed to transfer some of his code into a - an Android. Name's Vision. He's - something else, can't really describe it. Thor's gone and Steve's looking for Bucky so I'm stuck here trying to keep the United Nations off my back." Tony was starting to make soft gasping sounds that sent off red flags in Stephen's head.
A panic attack.
Sending a silent apology to Wong and bracing himself for the inevitable lecture he'd get later, Stephen said, "Stay on the line. Where are you?"
"Not entirely sure? At the back of a coffee shop down the street from the Tower," Tony said. Stephen reached out into those delicate spaces between the material world and the mystical, found Tony's dark gold, blue-shot aura in the current of muddied grays and browns, and opened the portal.
Tony stared at him. His left arm was packed tight into a sling. He had a cut on his right cheekbone and bruises around his neck. His eyes were wild and tumultuous.
"Come with me," Stephen said, holding out a trembling, scarred hand.
Tony took it.
Tony reacted to Kamar-Taj the same way Stephen did in the beginning - with complete awe and slight denial of its existence.
Wong gave Stephen the biggest stink-eye before clearing a room in the library where they could talk.
"You're telling me," Tony said to Stephen when the sun had set and the stars were starting to twinkle, "that you followed a breadcrumb trail to Hogwarts -" Wong gave an indignant huff - "and these Ancient Ones and Masters of the Mystic Arts and magic hijinks combined were what you were calling your alternative allopathic treatment?"
Wong snorted. Stephen smiled lightly but it faded the longer he looked over Tony.
Tony was always handsome, but the smooth planes of his face were drawn taut in stress, framing heavy bags under tired brown eyes that spoke volumes about the turmoil inside him. His fingers were tapping arrhythmically against his pants and his right leg bounced, a nervous tic that Stephen had noticed in the early days of their friendship.
"Wong, can you give us a moment?" Stephen asked.
The universe had truly granted him a good friend because Wong immediately stood and placed a solid hand on Stephen's shoulder before leaving.
"Tony," he said, "talk to me."
Tony grinned, too cheerful to be genuine. "About what, doc? The state of the world, the weather, SI's recent stocks? Or how you definitely look like you just came from a LARPing session in that getup?"
Stephen reached over and rested his hands on Tony's. He waited. Tony's hands started to tremble and his expression crumpled, emotions spilling through the cracks in the many masks that Tony Stark wore.
Tony told him about the discovery of the Winter Soldier's identity as James Buchanan Barnes, and Steve and Natasha's rapid destabilization of S.H.I.E.L.D. after finding HYDRA in every corner. The Maximoff twins and the ensuing battle in Sokovia. Wanda forcing visions of the apocalypse and the one who would bring them, Thanos. Ultron and Vision and the cataclysmic battle between the two. Thor's obscure explanation of the Infinity Stones before departing for Asgard.
"Wanda made me see the end of the world," Tony whispered, bringing his forehead to rest on their joined hands, "she made me see everyone dead, and it was all my fault. I didn't do enough to protect them. I didn't do enough to save them."
Stephen moved to the floor beside Tony and gathered him in his arms, Tony curling into him. "You have always been enough, Tony. This Wanda Maximoff abused her magic to distract and manipulate you and make you see false illusions."
"The visions aren't just illusions. Their powers stem from an Infinity Stone, Stephen. Like the Tesseract and the Mind Stone in Vision's forehead, " Tony said, muffled by the lapels of the Cloak. "Just like the one around your neck."
Stephen stilled. Tony brought his head up. His eyes were puffy but sharp as ever.
"You didn't think I'd notice."
"I'm just surprised it took you five seconds to realize something that Wong had to point out to me," he admitted, properly sitting on the floor.
Tony gave him a watery smile and left his chair to join him. "Losing your edge, Harry Potter?"
"You wish, Iron Giant," Stephen said, a bittersweet ache settling in his chest at the hint of their old banter. "Tell me what you know about the Infinity Stones."
They spent the rest of the night talking, the orange dim and crackle of the fireplace a soothing ambiance.
Their hands remained entwined.
"I have to call Pepper and Rhodey," Tony said suddenly. "Shit, they've gotta noticed I've been gone by now."
Stephen leaned back as Tony fished through his pocket for the phone. "You're not going to call Steve? Do you want me to drop you off at the Tower instead-"
"No," Tony interrupted, panic flashing in his eyes before dimming. "Sorry, I just - I can't handle talking to him right now. Let him chase Bucky Barnes for as long as he can."
Stephen frowned at the choice of words. Tony paused then jerked his shoulder in a weak imitation of a shrug.
"We're taking a break."
"What." The blank, toneless word escaped Stephen before he could catch it.
"We were having some issues but Ultron drove a big wedge between us. Steve couldn't see the reasoning behind the defense system I was trying to implement and I couldn't make him stay long enough to listen. Throw in his best friend from the old days who's been brainwashed by HYDRA and is currently in hiding and, well, we decided it was better that we took a break." Tony spoke in an icy, thin tone that enclosed a bone-deep frustration.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Stephen said. Months ago, he would have jumped at the chance to pry his jealous fingers into any cracks in their relationship he could find. Now the mere idea made his stomach roll in disgust.
Steve had made Tony happy. When they would get back together, there was no doubt in Stephen's mind that Steve - if he knew what was good for him - would do whatever it takes to make Tony happy again.
That was all he wanted for the man he still loved so dearly.
"It is what it is," Tony said, turning the phone over and over in his hands. "I just hope things get better soon, for all our sakes."
Stephen couldn't agree more.
Stephen was overseeing the rebuilding of the London Sanctum when Wong dashed through a portal and frantically showed him a recorded video on his phone.
It was shot in grainy civilian quality but there was no mistaking the bright colors of the Avengers' uniforms as they battled in the middle of the Leipzig Airport.
Captain America slung his shield at Iron Man. The edges of Stephen's vision sparked red.
"When was this," he gritted out. The Cloak was flat and hard around him.
"Two hours ago. I was at Kamar-Taj when one of the students showed me. Most of the Avengers have been detained by the American government-"
"And Tony?" Stephen asked immediately.
Wong's face fell. "There has been no word of him, Captain America, or the Winter Soldier." He stepped forward and grasped Stephen's arm. "Go to him. Just be careful. The world isn't ready for the mystic arcs yet."
Gratitude broke over Stephen. He forced himself to nod before closing his eyes, sending out his consciousness as far as he could, searching frantically for any sign of the aura that indicated Tony's soul.
He found it flickering in Siberia.
Portal sparks exploded as he stumbled into the unforgiving cold of what looked to be an abandoned military bunker. The snow fell peacefully, coating the world in pure white, and Tony's body was motionless on the ground.
The armor's light was off.
Two broken ribs. Both wrists sprained and a twisted ankle. Frostbite, hypothermia, and blood loss. A cracked sternum where the arc reactor once rested, a dislodged bone almost piercing through the left lung.
Christine sat listlessly across him. Pepper and Happy were curled up together on the couch, eyes half-lidded and unseeing. Rhodey had his face in his hands, proud back slumped.
They looked older and sorely out of place in the healer's room at Kamar-Taj but Stephen was fully aware that there was nowhere else they wanted to be. There was nowhere else he wanted them to be.
It had taken three hours for Kamar-Taj's healers to stabilize Tony's condition, and another two for all of them to successfully reboot Tony's new AI FRIDAY. One more hour for Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, and Christine to finish interrogating Stephen for everything that had happened since the car accident.
FRIDAY showed them the footage recorded in Tony's helmet system.
The video of the Winter Soldier and Maria and Howard Stark.
Steve Rogers' face was stiff and impassive as Tony's voice splintered with grief.
"Did you know?"
The ensuing terrible fight. The shield coming down on the armor, crunching through skin and bone and Tony's choked gasp.
Tony slept deeply on a bed marked with healing sigils in the middle of the room, the Cloak wrapped around him. Stephen knelt to touch his forehead to Tony's scarred chest, allowing himself a moment of weakness, and rose.
It was time to get to work.
FRIDAY circulated the video, which accumulated millions of views within hours and led to whole governments demanding answers to what their people had seen. The Accords and the existence of the Raft came to public light with all its good intentions and loopholes. With Pepper at the helm, SI stood firm against the surge of questions and media at the front door. Rhodey spoke his own piece as a military man, the temporary braces on his legs a shocking sight. Christine reported on Iron Man's injuries on behalf of the Metro-General Hospital and left the audience silent in horror.
From Kamar-Taj, with Wong and Happy beside him, Stephen watched in grim acceptance of the future forming before his eyes.
"You didn't do anything. Why?" Wong asked.
"I didn't have to. The world isn't ready yet for us," Stephen said. Wong dipped his head, a wordless thank you.
Outside, the world was caught in an inferno.
"How bad is it?" Tony asked when he woke up.
"Fixable," Stephen said.
Tony closed his eyes and laughed.
They all transitioned between the outside world and Kamar-Taj as Tony healed.
"He loved Steve. I know he still does," Rhodey said as Tony accompanied Wong around the library, only half-listening to the man's softly spoken stories as they shelved used books. "That's what's hurting him the most. He keeps giving and giving and Steve keeps taking and taking."
"I thought you trusted Steve," Stephen said.
Rhodey shuddered and clinked his braced legs. "I did. We all did. That's the worst part."
"Maybe Steve is still a good man inside. But I can't look at him the same way anymore," Happy told Stephen over dinner. Tony was leaning into Pepper's shoulder, stirring his soup and staring into the distance. "He hit Tony and left him. I can't - I can't justify that."
Happy looked at Pepper, whose engagement ring gleamed on her finger, and Stephen understood.
"You should have told him when you had the chance," Pepper informed Stephen after he dropped her off at her office.
"I wasn't ready. I wouldn't have been good for him."
"Could you have been better?"
"Pepper, the past is the past," he said. "There's no point in dwelling on a maybe."
She inhaled sharply. Released it. "Will you stay this time?"
"You've changed, Stephen." Christine gently cupped his jaw and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "You've grown and healed in ways I couldn't have imagined. I'm proud of you."
"A part of me still loves him," Tony said one night as they watched the stars from the steps of the library. "I didn't think it was possible, but it's there. No matter what I do, I can't force it away. I hate what happened in Siberia. I hate that he lied and pulled all the bullshit he did. I hate that he chose Bucky over me. But I can't hate him, not all of him."
Stephen asked, "Will you be okay with that?"
"I don't know," Tony said.
"Love is the most complicated thing in the universe. Beyond space and time, beyond magic and science," Stephen said, recalling Wong's words from so long ago.
"What happened in Siberia wasn't love."
"No," he rushed to say, "it wasn't. I didn't mean to imply-"
Tony brushed their arms together. "It's okay, doc. I know what you mean."
Above, the stars traversed the expanse of space, blissfully uncaring of two tired old men taking comfort in their distant existence.
Things got better.
Wong warmed up to Tony, treating the man's hundreds of questions about the mystic arcs with the same well-worn patience he showed Stephen in the beginning. Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, and Christine became regular visitors at Kamar-Taj, to the nervous regard of the older Masters, who had agreed to tolerate their presence for now after Stephen assured them they were trustworthy and good people.
Tony never stopped looking amazed at Kamar-Taj.
"You owe me big time. You kept all of this to yourself," he said playfully, sweeping his arm to the mountain range beyond the courtyard balcony. The turn of autumn had painted the range in rich blends of brown, gold, and red. Coupled with the traditional Nepalese architecture of Kamar-Taj and the high-altitude mist that made cloudy rings around the mountain slopes, the place was beautiful beyond description.
"I didn't think you'd like something like this," Stephen said, taking in the fresh air.
Tony smiled wistfully. "I didn't I would either."
Stephen took Tony to the same marketplace Mordo had shown him, pointing out the best stalls for teas that tasted like springtime and steamed yomari buns filled with sweet sauces, and a little fruit cart with mango slices topped with cinnamon and lemon that Mordo used to splurge on and refuse to share with him or Wong.
Tony watched him with eyes wrinkled with amusement. Stephen scrambled to the yomari stall, willing his face to stop burning. Those brown eyes still had a disastrous effect on his health to this day.
"Where's Mordo now? Sounds like he and Rhodey would get along," Tony said, starting on his third yomari bun as they strolled through the marketplace.
"He went a different path. I couldn't convince him to stay," Stephen said. He missed Mordo and often wondered about his whereabouts, but even he didn't have the power to track the man down when he didn't want to be found.
Tony nodded in sympathy. They spent the rest of the morning walking through streets of Kathmandu. By the time they backtracked to Kamar-Taj, Tony's shoulders were lax and Stephen felt lighter than before.
Wakanda took in Bucky Barnes and provided sanctuary to Captain America and his team. It was all the headlines could talk about for days. Tony had locked himself inside his room and did not emerge until nightfall.
"Steve was always looking back to the past," Tony said into the hush of early morning. They sat on the library's outdoor balcony overlooking Kamar-Taj's training grounds. "Always talking about the war and the Howling Commandos, about Howard and Peggy. And I got it, I understood - it was his whole life, it's who he was. I didn't expect him to leave it behind in the ice. But he never looked forward to the future. Not the way I did. He was always focused on the past and the present, sometimes a little too much. He didn't think past the week. Maybe it was a coping mechanism to catch up all the time he missed, trying to account for the years he had in queue."
"It must not have been easy," Stephen acquiesced when Tony trailed off. "I imagine it would break a lesser man to have woken up and found his world gone."
Tony said not unkindly, "I know. But he had me and the Avengers. He had time. He even got Bucky back. Still, he didn't stop to consider that his world wasn't gone at all. It just changed."
The weight of those words sank low and heavy on Stephen's shoulders. It was terribly tragic, was what it was. Years of a relationship so deep and complex that Stephen couldn't fathom it, cut off ragged and unfinished at the seams. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers had been two sides of the same coin, iconic and beloved since the founding of the Avengers. At the peak of the Avengers' influence and popularity, they were the pair that people turned to for inspiration and hope, and the entire world had felt the trembling shock of their separation.
He turned his attention to the training grounds and contemplated the intricate carvings on the floor that he knew by heart. At the corner of his vision, Tony was studying his face.
"You're not going to ask about it?"
Once upon a time, he would have. "No, but I am content to listen if you want to talk about it."
A pause, then Tony hummed. "Maybe another time, Dumbledore."
Stephen groaned, unsurprised. "Of all the things-"
"Hey, I thought that was pretty good!"
"It is entirely unoriginal."
Pepper checked in with news of the Accords. King T'Challa was under fire for providing sanctuary to the old Avengers but was weathering it well. Those with enhanced abilities were being either exalted or shunned from society, the numbers for both equal around the world.
"The UN's scrambling. There's no focus. Most of the delegates are at each other's throats and they don't even know why. That's not even considering what they think of the old Avengers in Wakanda," she said, pinching the bridge of her nose.
Something sparked and flared in Tony's eyes and Stephen felt it like a ray of sunlight after a storm.
The world welcomed back Tony Stark with wary, probing anticipation. Tony rolled his sleeves up, winked at the cameras, and proceeded to turn the world upside down.
With Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy flanking him on all sides, he took to the podium to talk about the aptly named Avengers Civil War, telling the story in full transparency and without hesitation. Afterward, he disappeared into private meetings with the American government for eighteen hours and emerged as the United States' UN Accords Specialist, smiling that long-lost Cheshire smile that Stephen loved so much.
The new Accords that were drafted three weeks later weren't perfect by any means but were damn better than the original, with none of the technical jargon that covered up the true purpose of the Accords - to hold any and all parties, enhanced or not, accountable for their work in the world while providing protection for enhanced individuals in their contributions to maintaining world peace. Most of the loopholes had been rectified with amendments conceptualized by Tony himself.
"It's a start," Tony told Stephen as the reading of the new Accords were broadcast internationally from Vienna.
"You did more in three weeks than the UN could do in months. I think that qualifies as more than just a start," Stephen said, letting pride color his words.
Tony shrugged but was obviously pleased. "I don't suppose I can borrow you for the next part?"
Tony grinned, shark-like. "The forming of the New Avengers."
"I expected this a long time ago. The other Masters and I have already spoken about it," Wong said, nonchalantly flipping through an old tome. Stephen fidgeted, reminded that although they were good friends, Wong still held seniority and great influence among the Masters of the Mystic Arts. "You were right about the line blurring between their reality and ours. The natural law stands true no matter where we are. We will be able to better protect the world if it does not fear or hate us for staying hidden in plain sight."
"Thank you, my friend." Stephen couldn't keep the waver of emotion out of his voice. Wong huffed and turned over a page.
"Just don't do anything that will force me to drag you back here and leave you on Everest."
The sun was shining when Stephen arrived in front of the Avengers Compound in a shower of sparks, dressed in his finest blue robes with the Eye of Agamotto sitting on his chest and the Cloak twitching with excitement around his shoulders. Tony, standing beside the entrance sign with a thermos, jumped and groaned.
"I'm going to grow a gray hair every time you do that, doc."
"It's not a bad look," Stephen said, self-consciously brushing back his own premature silver streaks.
Tony made a considering sound, sipping at his thermos and looking Stephen over. "Maybe you can pull it off but I'd like to look forever thirty-four, thanks."
"Are you saying I look old?" Stephen asked mock-incredulously.
Tony held his free hand up. "It's okay to admit it! With age comes wisdom, am I right, Gandalf?"
Any witty retort Stephen had prepared was drowned out by an excited shout echoing from inside the Compound.
"Mr. Stark, Mr. Stark! Me, Ned, and Harley figured out the equation and got the nanotech to extrapolate over the surface area - oh my gosh is that the wizard you were telling me about? He has the cape and everything! Dude, you look like a legit DnD character!"
Tony threw his head back and laughed.
Stephen found himself accosted by Peter Parker, almost too young to be a superhero but who also shone with an intense, intelligent fire of his own. It was clear from the way Tony smiled and ruffled Peter's hair that he was fond of him.
Peter plied Stephen with questions as Tony, whistling, led the way through the Compound.
"When did you become a wizard? What powers do you have? I saw you step through a sparkly portal - how did you do that? Holy - your cape just moved! Mr. Stark, his cape just waved at me - look, it did it twice! That is the coolest thing I've ever seen!"
Stephen could barely keep up with the rapid stream of words from the boy. By the time they arrived at the briefing room, he felt wrung out and out of breath.
"Alright kid, get," Tony said.
Peter's face fell. "Aw but Mr. Stark-"
"Meeting's for adults only. I'll have FRIDAY send you a summary, okay? Go make sure Harley and Ned aren't trying to break into another suit again."
"Is he your ward?" Stephen asked as Peter dashed off. Tony choked.
"What? No, he's - he just kind of made me his de-facto mentor, okay? I'm still not over the fact that his aunt gave him permission to be a superhero while he's still in high school." Tony gave himself a little shake. "Anyway, back to business. Ready to walk in into the belly of the beast?"
Stephen rolled his shoulders back, the Cloak adding its own dramatic flutter. "Bring it on."
And that was how Stephen met the New Avengers. There was the newly minted Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, who would co-lead the new team with Tony. The Wasp, Hope van Dyne. Rhodey clad in his new War Machine undersuit. Vision was seated beside him. On the round table there were files containing profiles on other enhanced individuals. Stephen recognized the profiles of Spider-Man, the Black Panther, the Hulk, and Thor.
"What are these?" He gestured to the files.
"Potential recruits," Carol answered. "Parker is still in reserve training until he graduates high school, after which he'll be an active member for support roles until he turns twenty-one. Thor's been in Asgard for almost two years and no one's heard from him, same thing with Bruce Banner. Tony and T'Challa will be meeting soon in Vienna to discuss T'Challa joining the team as a consultant under the updated Accords."
"Not as an active member?" Stephen asked, not kicking the bees' nest that was the old Avengers staying in Wakanda.
"Might not be best to have the new King of the most technologically advanced country to be on the active roster just yet," Rhodey said, though he did look interested in the possibility.
Hope addressed Stephen, "Tony said you're familiar with the concept of different universes."
"That is correct."
She perked up. "Tony and I have been working on finding a safer way to access subatomic quantum realms, which we theorize could tie into the multiverse. I could use your advice in the labs if you have time."
When Stephen looked at Tony, the man merely grinned at him. "Looks like you're going to have your hands busy, Doctor Strange. Welcome to the Avengers."
They didn't work well together the first few months.
There were many demands from the UN and too much history among all them to overcome to be cohesive right away. Tony and Carol attended therapy to hash out their previous problems with authority and balances of power. Rhodey still didn't have the full function of his legs and went to daily physical rehabilitation. Vision was wary and subdued from his confrontation with Wanda. Hope could often be heard arguing with her father about Scott Lang and joining the New Avengers. Stephen answered to the on-goings of the mystic arts before anything else.
It wasn't until the third month that the New Avengers started moving like an actual team. They responded mostly to natural disasters, terrorist threats, and peacekeeping missions abroad. The public gave them a tepid reception, which was reasonable considering how terribly the original Avengers had fallen through. They were still a brand-new team working under an untested Accords and it was an acceptable time for growing pains.
Outside of maintaining the New York Sanctum and his Avengers work, Stephen acquainted himself with the other occupants of the Compound. There was Peter's best friend Ned Leeds who was the only one who could match Peter word-for-word in any discussion, and Harley Keener, a snarky yet inventive barely-teenager whose hero worship of Tony hinted at a story Stephen had yet to hear.
Tony's bots had been relocated to Tony's new workshop in the lower levels of the Compound.
"They've missed you," Tony said as DUM-E and U swarmed Stephen with indignant beeps. Stephen patted them, a bittersweet fondness swelling in his chest.
"Tony, I'm sorry about JARVIS," he said. FRIDAY was sweet and smart, but no one could replace the AI Tony had named after his family's butler and his only real guardian as a child.
A gentle, worn sadness filled Tony's face. "You know, no one other than Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy mentioned JARVIS since Ultron attacked him. Thanks, doc."
Another surprise to find at the Compound was the Barton family, consisting of Laura Barton and her children Cooper, Lila, and Nathaniel.
"Ross would have gone after them because of Clint," Tony informed Stephen quietly, watching the kids cling to Vision's cape as the android tried to help Rhodey and Laura make lunch. "I had a safe-house prepared in California but she said the Compound would be better. I think she feels safer with Pepper and Sharon here."
"Sharon?" Stephen said, and the next day was subsequently introduced to Sharon Carter, who looped her arm through Tony's and scanned Stephen from head to toe before nodding and departing without a single word.
"Aunt Peggy," was all Tony said with a helpless shrug.
Another story to tell later, then.
"You're gathering quite a group of people," Stephen said, nudging Tony in the side. "Next thing I know, you'll be hosting dinner parties and daily tours around the Compound."
Tony elbowed him back. "Well, now that you mention it."
It was a good thing that the Compound had an expansive kitchen because the turnout for Pasta Night was bigger than either Tony or Stephen expected.
Pepper and Happy made their famous Ziti alla Genovese. Carol presented three bottles of red wine that complimented Rhodey's al Pomodoro and Laura's baked shrimp casserole. Peter enlisted Ned and Harley's help to make long rolls of garlic bread that took up entire counters.
Stephen did his part by keeping Lila, Cooper, and Nathaniel entertained and out of the kitchen, conjuring harmless butterflies and small animals that the kids chased around the Compound. Hope adamantly insisted that she not be allowed to touch the kitchen and instead put together an upbeat playlist. Vision sheepishly offered to wash the plates to make up for his nonexistent cooking skills. Peter's aunt May Parker and Harley's legal guardians dropped by before dinner, bringing homemade pies and cookies for dessert.
Tony had been tense at the start of the night. Stephen didn't blame him - so much had changed since their last Pasta Night, it was hard to expect what would happen with an entirely revamped team.
But as people settled in with their dishes and eager enthusiasm, Tony's shoulders began to unwind until he looked entirely at ease. The dining table was filled to the brim with plates and glasses and the occasional stray garlic roll as everyone shared stories and laughter late into the night.
At the head of the table, Tony was beaming, his cheeks flushed red from wine and Peter's attempts to sneak a shrimp from Rhodey's plate while Ned sneaked shrimps from his. Hope's playlist set a spirited, bubbly tone that lingered in the air.
Their eyes met across the table. A current of electric static zipped between them. Tony winked playfully. Stephen smiled, aching with affection for the man who deserved a family.
"It's going to hurt for a while," Tony said thoughtfully one night. They were sitting in front of Kamar-Taj's library fireplace, the Cloak content to stay draped across both their shoulders. Tony had been absently designing a new Spider-Man suit while Stephen meditated.
In the darkness, Steve Rogers stood between them like a wall.
"That may be the case," Stephen agreed.
"I keep thinking about the months before Siberia. We were so good together, in the beginning. We balanced each other. I had so much to show him about the future and he was so happy to learn." Tony moved aside his tablet and warmed his hands by the fire. "But we started to argue more. Small things at first, and when you're both superheroes and leaders of said superheroes, it causes problems, and small things got bigger and bigger. Then the whole mess with Ultron, Vision, and Bucky happened, and we never really recovered after that."
The flames flickered, casting them in shadows. Tony finished, "Somewhere in the middle of it all, he grew further away, and it became easier to see him go."
"You did not fight it."
"No. I'd ask him to stay, he'd stay for a while, and then he'd leave. Again and again. It hurt too much to keep hoping things would change. So I stopped. I stopped and I was alone."
"You're not alone, Tony. You have the team. You have me."
Tony snorted, the sound harsh. "Hogwarts must hate me for always keeping you busy. How much time have you wasted babysitting me these past months when you could be training baby wizards or fighting interdimensional dragons?"
"Time spent by your side is not time wasted," Stephen said, and it must have come off stronger than he intended because Tony paused.
They had always understood each other on some level, no matter what, and that hadn't changed in all the years they shared. Tony gave him a long searching look.
A hitch of breath revealed the moment of discovery.
"How long?" he asked, barely audible.
Stephen turned to face him fully, the Cloak shifting to stay on Tony's shoulders. Tony's eyes were touched a rich amber by the fire.
"I can't say for sure," Stephen began, "but you've had my attention since the night of the expo."
Tony's hands tightened on the Cloak. "That was a whole lifetime ago."
"I thought - you and Christine, or maybe Mordo-"
"I love them as good friends, nothing more."
Tony went slack. "You could have anyone, back then and now."
Stephen said, "I've only ever wanted you."
Tony made a rough, vulnerable noise and flapped his hands. "Stephen, I can't - I'm not -"
"Tony," Stephen said, calmly catching Tony's wayward hands. "I would never ask anything like that of you. I am content to remain your friend for as long as you let me. I'm sorry if I made you doubt that."
"You're serious," Tony said flatly.
"Aren't I always?"
Tony cracked a tiny smile. "You do have that Mr. Brooding-in-the-Rain aura to you." He took a deep breath, expelled it, and looked down at their hands. Stephen's skin was pale against Tony's sun-kissed coloring. Both of their hands were scarred and calloused.
"Does it hurt?" Tony asked, brushing his thumbs over the steel rods that raised the skin along Stephen's fingers and palms.
"No," Stephen said, "not anymore."
Two years passed with just as many trials and errors as accomplishments and triumphs. The New Avengers became a fixed group operating with the UN and 117 nations' consent to help maintain world peace, garnering the trust and respect of the public once more. They weren't perfect, but very few people expected them to be, having stopped putting superheroes and enhanced beings on pedestals since the reading of the Accords.
Their active roster was bolstered by the addition of the Black Panther after T'Challa's consultant status expired. T'Challa had been completely transparent about the old Avengers living in Wakanda, and Tony had simply nodded before turning to Princess Shuri and asking for her advice on nanotech formative alloys. Ever since, Shuri acted as a consultant while T'Challa answered to specialized missions that needed Black Panther's abilities. With T'Challa and Shuri on board, the Avengers also gained Everett Ross as a fellow American consultant and Ambassador to Wakanda.
"Shuri said they've been working together since T'Challa took the throne back from N'Jadaka," Tony had said.
"What do you think about that?" Stephen asked, already knowing what kind of answer Tony had.
Tony smirked. "I think international relations between the US and Wakanda are just gonna get better from here."
They had broken down in laughter in the workshop, much to FRIDAY's chagrin.
There was no dramatic overnight change after that night at Kamar-Taj, though Stephen knew Tony had been on the lookout for it. They trained together at the Compound, fought side-by-side whether on the battlefield or before the UN Accords Council, and worked on rebuilding the Avengers' place in the world. If anything, they grew closer naturally, aided by time and a team that felt like a family.
Their daily interactions took on a sweet and almost shy nature. Neither Stephen or Tony were particularly shy men, but there was something bashful about the way Tony looked at Stephen nowadays as if wanting to say something but hesitating. At the same time, Stephen knew his smiles shined a little more brightly for Tony than anyone else.
The team watched them dance around each other, sincerely hopeful and supportive.
A little too supportive, Stephen decided, when Pepper gave him and Tony exclusive invitations to an international gala in Vienna that would celebrate the two-year anniversary of the Accords.
"I can sneak the whole team in," Tony insisted while the team ate breakfast. "Shuri let me borrow her specs for a jet cloaking technology. If we time it right, we can swap duos in and out so no one suspects anything."
Carol snorted behind a bowl of cereal as Rhodey deadpanned so hard at Hope and Vision, they almost burst out laughing. Peter was nibbling on a piece of toast and watching his mentor with amusement. Happy, who was making Peter's lunch, had to put down the cheese to keep his shoulders from shaking with mirth.
Stephen knew for a fact that they had all booked their weekend schedules so only he and Tony could go to the gala. Peter and Ned gossiped a little too loudly sometimes.
Pepper Potts, the most qualified person in the world to deal with Tony Stark, put her hands on the swell of her belly and declared, "If you and Stephen don't go right now, I'm naming my first son after Rhodey."
"She would have done it," Tony said mournfully as they boarded the jet.
"Without hesitation," Stephen replied.
The gala was beautiful and decadent with the spoils of two years of relative world peace and cooperation. People from almost all nations mingled comfortably. The orchestra kept the music lively and soothing. The finery reminded Stephen of the night of the science expo. Tony was as magnetic as ever, drawing in people with his presence alone. He was stunning in a red and silver Tom Ford, though Stephen didn't look half bad himself in a navy and deep red Nehru suit, the Cloak transformed into a stylish overcoat that flared behind him.
"Doctor Strange," T'Challa said, greeting Stephen with a friendly handshake. The King was dressed in a resplendent white-and-gold ensemble with vibranium clasps. "How are you finding the event?"
"King T'Challa," Stephen said, inclining his head. "It's an honor to see how much the world has progressed in so short a time."
"Indeed. My people feel more positive about joining this new age than before. We have gained much from opening our borders." T'Challa was about to say more when Everett Ross entered the room, clad in a charcoal gray three-piece and flanked by Dora Milaje. "Please excuse me, Doctor."
"What did I tell you," Tony said, sidling up to Stephen with a shit-eating grin as T'Challa cut straight through the room toward Everett. "You so owe me two dozen yomari buns."
"That doesn't prove anything," Stephen said.
T'Challa held out his hand to Everett and led him to the middle of the floor. More couples followed their lead, the floor slowly filling up with people. The orchestra noticed and began shifting the music into something more dulcet, more tender.
"Two dozen yomari buns, you said?" Stephen asked but Tony's attention was on T'Challa and Everett dancing. They made a devastatingly attractive pair, the embodiments of two completely different worlds coming together to outshine everyone else in the room.
Tony straightened up, whirled around, and held out his hand with a look of resolve. "Dance with me, doc?"
Stephen's heart leaped into his throat. He took Tony's hand, letting the man lead him into a slow waltz. Their eyes didn't break once as they moved around the room in tandem with the other pairs. It didn't feel like a delicate fairy tale, it felt like they'd done this many times before.
Just as the song was ending, Stephen smoothed a palm at the small of Tony's back and slowly dipped him. The amber chandelier lights bounced across the room's glass panes, reflecting crystal beams that sparkled like starlight. The air rose sweet with violin chords and blooming forget-me-nots.
Tony stared at him. His brown eyes glowed whiskey-brown and gold. He looked happy and healthy, relaxed in Stephen's arms and smiling a little quarter-smile that spoke of playful mischief.
Stephen loved that smile. He loved all of Tony's smiles. He loved his wry wit, his incredible intellect and strong capable hands, his heart of iron and gold. He loved the man who would defend the Earth to his last breath, who put all his soul and energy into protecting the world and its people, with little self-regard to make sacrifices no one else would make.
He loved him so much it hurt.
Tony said softly, "See something interesting, Doctor Strange?"
"Only you, Tony Stark, always you," Stephen whispered.
Tony used his leverage on Stephen's shoulders to pull himself up, coming nose to nose with Stephen, gaze burning with intent.
And at that moment, their communicators rang.
"Thanos is coming," Bruce Banner rasped, shivering under a thick blanket in the middle of the ruined staircase of the New York Sanctum. "He's coming. Thor and Loki are gone. Half of the last Asgardians are stranded somewhere in space. He's coming, he has the Space and Power Stones."
Tony and Carol exchanged a quick look, Tony's arm wrapped tight around Bruce.
In five hours, the New Avengers were in the briefing room at the UN Headquarters in New York City, awaiting the arrival of T'Challa and the old Avengers. The UN World Council were on standby on the holograms.
It would be Tony's first time seeing Steve Rogers in almost three years. Stephen squeezed Tony's shoulder once. Tony bumped their arms, shooting him a confident smile.
The reunion was as painfully awkward as Stephen knew many of them were expecting, and the presence of Bucky Barnes was a bit of shock. Rogers attempted to pull Tony aside but Tony lifted his hand to stop him.
"This isn't the time or the place. There's something bigger than anyone of us coming for Earth and the rest of the universe. The only way we can win this is to stand as one. No more New Avengers or Old Avengers. From here on out, we are the Avengers and we will face Thanos together."
Rogers said, "Okay", and that was that. Plans to protect the planet that had long been in drafts were put up for vote. Governments were alerted and warned to prepare for a large-scale alien invasion. Tony had his new and improved Iron Legion fly to nations who requested additional defense technology. Stephen explained the spells of protection around Earth he and Wong had been putting in place for two years, the other Masters of the Mystic Arts watching solemnly through a portal.
When the first alien ship appeared in the sky outside the building, they burst into action. Amidst the carefully controlled commotion, Stephen grabbed Tony's hands.
Tony nodded. "Together."
No amount of fighting together could stop Thanos from snapping his fingers.
As Stephen felt himself turning into ash on an unknown alien planet, the Eye of Agamotto's casting fissured beyond repair, he held Tony's gaze and said - infusing every word with the weight of the fourteen million alternate futures he saw, lived, experienced to prepare for this moment - "Tony. It was the only way."
The last thing he saw was Tony's eyes light up in comprehension.
They watched from the Soul Stone as Tony, Steve, and those who survived the first snap fought back the odds, moving through alternate dimensions and timelines to forge a new gauntlet. After Steve Rogers sacrificed himself in Bucky's place and Tony fit the last Infinity Stone into his gauntlet, they were silent.
"Everything and everyone he took away, bring them back," Tony shouted as Thanos stormed toward him. "Restart the universe and bring them all back!"
The multiverse twisted and snapped into place, causing a powerful ripple across the cosmos. They burst free from the old Soul Stone and subdued Thanos, whose daughter Gamora took Tony's gauntlet and relieved the universe once and for all of the Mad Titan.
Tony, tears flowing freely down his face, embraced Peter as cries of relief and victory began to echo throughout the universe, before turning to Stephen and reaching for his hands. "We did it," he gasped, eyes shining with tears.
"We won," Stephen said thickly, nearly inaudible in the celebration around them. "We won!"
The scale of the aftermath was staggering. Though Tony's gauntlet restored lives directly impacted by Thanos, it did not restore physical structures. Countless people in many galaxies found themselves without a home planet, including the Asgardians.
"Asgard is a people, not a place," Thor intoned solemnly, leaning on his brother Loki for support. "We will survive no matter where we go."
"Norway has offered one of their bigger islands to host your people," Tony assured him. "Their government said you can settle in anytime."
Thor blinked back tears and grasped Tony's arm. "Thank you, old friend."
The Asgardians moved in immediately, eager to start building a kingdom worthy of their heritage. The Guardians of the Galaxy went back to space shortly afterward.
"We'll keep in touch. I have a feeling that this won't be the last time we'll all see each other," Peter Quill said, giving Carol a communicator. He regarded Tony thoughtfully. "You know, we have room for another science geek on our ship."
Tony raised his hands. "I appreciate the offer, but I'm too old for that Star Trek five-year voyage aesthetic. Earth is more than enough for me."
"You can't use your age as an excuse to get out of something every time. You're only forty-eight, Tony," Stephen said as they waved at the departing Milano.
"Forty-eight's too old to start hopping around the galaxy. My heart can't take more excitement than Peter graduating high school or Pepper having a baby," Tony said. "Let's go, Doctor Magic, we've got work to do."
It was only inevitable that Tony and Steve would finally talk, a few weeks later into Earth's slow recovery.
Stephen was about to exit the hallway leading to the Compound's kitchen when he heard their voices. He halted but it was too late to turn around without disturbing them.
"I'm not sure what you were expecting," Tony was saying.
"I just thought - now that everything is better, we can have another chance at us," Steve replied uncertainly.
"What do you mean why?"
Tony sighed. "Why should we try again?"
"Tony, please," Steve said, almost pleading, "even - even after Ultron and Bucky, and the Accords, I never stopped loving you."
"Are you sure about that?"
Steve's throat clicked. "I'm sorry I didn't do my best to show you that before, but I'm here now. Being away from you - it made me realize how important you are to me. We were good, once. I think we can be good again. I still love you, Tony."
"I can't say the same."
"You left me," Tony said, soft but with unwavering steel. "All I wanted was for you to stay but you left me. You broke my armor and left me out in the cold. I was on the ground and I kept thinking - I can't do this anymore. Loving you hurt. Loving you almost killed me, Steve. And you know what? I wanted to live. I wanted to stop hurting. I didn't know how much I wanted both until then. So, I chose to live and I chose to make it not hurt anymore and if that meant giving you up - then I chose that too."
"Tony." The stunned shatter in Steve's voice cleaved the very air. "Tony, we can - we can try again. I'll do better this time around, I promise. I'll do right by you."
"Stop," Tony said.
"We can try again," Steve said again, barely a whisper.
"No, Steve. I'm done. I've been done for a long time. You have to let me go."
Heartbeats of profound silence, then the gentle whoosh of a door opening and clicking closed with finality. Stephen stepped out from the hallway. Tony sat at the table, face buried in his hands. He lifted his head as Stephen approached.
He looked relieved.
Stephen held out his hands. Tony took them, tugged Stephen close, and rested his forehead on Stephen's belly. The Cloak unfurled around him. They didn't move for a long time.
Later that day, Stephen spotted Steve curled up between Bucky and Natasha in the living room, Sam Wilson conversing quietly with him. The Captain looked smaller than he had ever been but also younger, as if a terrible weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
Stephen left without saying a word. He trusted that time would heal him.
Months flew by.
When the Kingdom of Asgard finished rebuilding and Thor was officially re-crowned, the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy had seats of honor in the dais. Thor beamed at them and raised Stormbreaker in a salute.
Peter Parker graduated high school with the highest honors. Tony and May cried the most at the ceremony, sharing a handkerchief. Peter later accepted his letter to MIT and signed the Accords as an active support member, to Tony's proud resignation that the kid would never stop being a superhero.
Pepper gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, whose strong cry and thin tuft of brown hair had the whole room wrapped around his finger.
"His name is Antonio," Pepper declared. Tony almost crumpled at her bedside, Happy pulling him into a tight hug.
Stephen watched Tony rock Antonio in his arms. He was besotted, murmuring soft nothings in Italian to his new godson.
Pepper grinned at Stephen. "Aren't you glad you stayed?"
"Yes," he said helplessly. "Yes."
When they weren't on the job, which wasn't often, Stephen and Tony went on long walks around Kamar-Taj. The grounds had become a sanctuary to both of them, having been a place of healing and peace in their worst times.
Sometimes they'd talk about the run-of-the-mill news and gossip. Other occasions Tony would pull up new schematics for designs and Stephen would share his newest magical technique. Every now and then, they would simply sit in comfortable silence on one of the balconies overlooking the mountain range.
This early morning was one of those times. Their legs dangled off the balcony edge, yomari bun wrappers swept neatly into a little pile on the side. The sun had not yet risen.
"You know, I was going to ask you out the night of the Accords gala," Tony said.
Stephen perked up. "Really?"
Tony nodded, gazing at the horizon. "I realized I had feelings for you since you told me you loved me at the fireplace. But I wasn't ready then. It'd only been a year and a half since me and Steve and the last thing I wanted was to make you feel like a replacement or a second choice."
"I know my worth. You have never made me feel like I am anything less than who I am," Stephen said.
Tony hummed. "I kept telling myself that it wasn't fair to you, that the last thing you needed on your plate was an old and broken man who thought he might have a chance with someone like you."
"Tony," Stephen said incredulously.
"I know, but you know how my mind works. I wallowed in self-pity for months until Rhodey and Pepper told me to snap out of it. I had planned on asking you out to dinner that night but the universe decided to throw my plans out the window. I thought it was my chance to back out before I got anyone hurt. Then Thanos snapped and you were gone and I – I knew I had to stop being scared. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to stop looking over my shoulder at the past."
A long moment stretched out. The air around them was charged, waiting for the right moment to come to life.
The faint morning beams lit Tony's eyes a deep golden brown as he turned to Stephen and said, "I want to live for the now and look toward the future."
"What do you see in the future?" Stephen asked, aching at the sight.
Tony let out a deep breath and entwined their hands. "You tell me. What do you see in your crystal ball?"
A specific question lay woven into those words, unspoken and hidden in the nervous tilt of Tony's voice and the heat of his steady, capable hands.
Stephen met his eyes and said with conviction, "I see the universe healing slowly but surely. I see families and friends reuniting and worlds rebuilding side-by-side. I see the Guardians of the Galaxy keeping the peace in space, the old Avengers working in harmony here on Earth, and the new ones paving the way to tomorrow. I see the Avengers Tower –" Tony's hands tightened – "and Peter helping Lila and Cooper with their homework at the dinner table. Pepper and Happy would be taking care of Antonio and Nathaniel while Rhodey tries to teach Vision how to make pasta."
"Stephen," Tony said.
"Hope will take pictures of them, and May will laugh for hours while Harley keeps them for blackmail. Carol won't say anything but she'll photobomb with the most ridiculous poses and find a way to drag DUM-E and U in, which FRIDAY may or may not circulate around the internet. Everett and T'Challa will call almost immediately, asking if we're okay and if they need to come over to do damage control. The Guardians will follow up with a video call and say that they're already on their way. Loki would just teleport himself and Thor into the Tower."
"Stephen," Tony said again.
"I see you," Stephen said. He brought Tony's hands over his heart, which beat calmly, content to simply be in Tony's presence. "I see you ruffling Peter's hair and introducing Harley to quantum physics. I see you tinkering in your workshop for hours and someone, probably Pepper or Peter, throwing you over their shoulder so you can join us for Pasta Night. I see you hoarding all the extra pesto sauce and laughing when someone manages to sneak it away from you. I see you happy and healthy and whole, surrounded by the people that love you. It is the best future."
"Where are you in all of this?" Tony asked, holding on to the lapels of Stephen's robes.
There were no walls between them anymore. Neither had anything to prove or hide. Once again, they were equals on level footing with a future ahead of them, rich with potential and possibilities.
"I see myself standing by your side," Stephen said.
He didn't know who reached out first but they met in the middle and were kissing against the backdrop of a new day, pulling each other closer and closer until there was no space between them, and the universe shimmered intensely as if in celebration, alight with life and warmth and color and oh, it was everything he thought it would be and more.
"I know we have work to do, but I just want to stay here with you," Tony said once they parted for breath, pressing his forehead to Stephen's and tightening his arms around him.
"We have all the time in the world," Stephen said, lips tingling and heart bursting with joy as he wove his fingers through Tony's hair.
They stayed intertwined as the sun rose over the skyline and bathed them in shades of gold and orange.
Life went on and the future became the present.
Earth rebuilt, every person eager to help usher in an age of peace for new generations. The Accords were reevaluated, edited, and agreed upon for the third time, and the newly reformed Avengers took their place in the universe as Earth's ultimate line of defense against galactic threats, backed up by the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Kingdom of Asgard.
The universe, for now, decided to focus on healing and recovering. That was fine by Stephen, who found himself the new Sorcerer Supreme and given all responsibilities that came with the title.
He led classes at Kamar-Taj, welcoming each new student with gratitude for their wide-eyed curiosity and eagerness to learn. He appointed Wong to be the new guardian of the London Sanctum. He met regularly with the other Masters to oversee the rise of interest in the mystic arts, accepting their advice and insight with grateful grace. Together they kept close watch of the darker areas of the multiverse. Mordo's absence was a scar that would likely never fade, but he hoped the man found happiness somewhere, as the world of the mystic arts seemed peaceful for now.
He joined in Avengers training, honoring his commitment as a part-time specialty member. Tony remained the co-leader of the Avengers alongside Carol, more than happy to take the weight as long as it was shared. While Earth knew him as such, the rest of the galaxy saw him as the face of the Avengers and the one who restarted the universe. The Guardians reported that most planets opted to consider him Earth's spokesperson in the grand scheme of cosmic movements.
"That's going to be fun to explain to the UN," Tony said to Peter Quill as Stephen laughed in the background at his nonplussed expression.
He took time to reaffirm his friendship with Christine and Wong, having missed them terribly since his schedule left little room for free time. Tony had taken one look at them and by the end of the week, both had their own seats at the ever-expanding dinner table at the rechristened Avengers Tower.
Pasta Night was a hit for everyone and the said dinner table became a relic in its own right, continuing to withstand over ten years of use by superheroes, galactic deities and their descendants, and gods, and all the things that came with them. Chairs were added, combined, and occasionally broken and reassembled as new members like Kamala Khan and Wade Wilson ("I'm just honorary, okay?") were introduced and old ones were brought back into the fold.
A year later, Steve Rogers had his own seat at the table, as did Bucky, Sam, Natasha, Clint, and Wanda.
"It’s time," Tony confided in Stephen while they watched from the balcony in the early hours of the morning. The atmosphere stayed calm and open as Vision accepted a handshake from Wanda. Thor gave Steve a mug of beer and Rhodey hugged Sam. Pepper bounced Antonio on her lap and beckoned to Natasha. Laura kissed her husband as their kids jumped over their father. T'Challa and Everett were smiling as Shuri approached Bucky and asked to upgrade his prosthesis. "The past is behind us. We're stronger together, especially when we learn from our history."
"And Steve?" Stephen asked. Tony linked their arms and rested his head on Stephen's shoulder.
"He's always been a man out of time. I think that between the two of us and everyone else, we have enough to bring him and Bucky up to speed," Tony said.
Stephen pressed his lips to the crown of Tony's head and said nothing more. He understood, more than most, the value of giving and having second chances. He was living proof of that.
There would be more fights to come, more problems to solve and challenges to meet. Many parts of the universe would take decades to prosper again. Somewhere out in the vastness of space, other enemies and shadowy things lay waiting for their turn to strike, things that Stephen had seen in person and in his dreams. The Accords weren't perfect and neither were the governments and people who signed it.
Yet life continued whether people wanted to or not, and with it all the complexities of living and existing. It was simply the way of the universe, the natural law and order of all things.
"What are you thinking?" Tony asked, tenderly tracing the line of Stephen's jaw. "You have that look again."
"What look?" Stephen said. He pulled Tony closer, catching his sun and stars and thrilling in his warmth.
Tony ran his hands over Stephen's chest and grinned before making a serious face, dramatically scrunching up his nose and squinting his eyes. "Like this, like you just discovered some big secret and won't tell anyone."
"I tell you everything," Stephen said and brushed his lips over Tony's forehead.
"Oh really?" Tony said, lovely and languid in his arms.
Stephen thought about the small velvet box resting in his pocket and smiled. "What do you want to know?"
They were minuscule specks in the grand diorama of the cosmos. Eventually, their lives and legacies would fade into the pages of an interstellar history so vast, they would only take up a mere paragraph.
But with dawn pulling the world into a new day, and Tony looking at him with enough fire in his eyes to defy the multiverse, Stephen found that he was okay with that.