"Welcome back. It's okay, it's dark outside."
Stephen smiled even before he opened his eyes and saw Tony sitting before him, watching him patiently. The lights were down to almost nothing so that most of the illumination came from the few candles scattered around the room. As usual he'd lost all sense of time while meditating. He hadn't even noticed Tony's arrival, whenever it had been.
A tiny blue butterfly found its way into existence and fluttered from Stephen to Tony who held out his hand to let it land. Tony smiled at the little thing and let it crawl all over his arm.
It was a charming picture and it helped to ground him in reality. "How long?" he tried to ask but his voice failed him and a hoarse cough was all that came out of his mouth. Tony understood anyway and, even better, held out a bottle of water. He didn't look at Stephen as he tried to drink - too long in the same position, without food or water, made the shaking in his hands worse than usual - and Tony knew that he didn't want to be watched during this period of weakness.
"A long time. I hope you're hungry because Wong has been waiting for you to wake up and let me tell you - the guy is seriously scary when he's not fed on time."
Stephen laughed. "You've spoilt him and now you have to live with the consequences. Serves you right." He held out both hands. "Help me up."
"Sir is getting old if he can't stand up on his own." But Tony got up and grabbed his wrists carefully to pull him up. He didn't let Stephen out of his hold even when they were both standing. "Do you have time tomorrow?"
"I should have. For what?" Stephen's thoughts were occupied with the necessities - he was hungry, yes, but first he needed the bathroom, immediately. And he wanted a shower. Tony's company during that would be appreciated but not essential.
"It's a surprise. Just come over to the beach house before it gets dark outside. Lunch date?" By now the butterfly had reached Tony's shoulder and Stephen's attention was on it so it took him a moment to react.
"That sounds lovely."
"Great, it's a date." Tony grinned at his own words and Stephen just smiled. "I've got to go now but I'll call you later, okay?"
"So you just came here to deliver food to Wong and give me a bottle of water?" Stephen had expected something more. At least a shared meal, if not a shared night.
Tony's good mood darkened considerably. "Basically, yes. There's something I have to do but I just wanted to see you for a moment." He finally let go of Stephen's hands, but only to touch his face instead. "Sorry. Gotta go." He kissed Stephen gently on the lips and caressed his cheek for a moment. "Love you. See you tomorrow. Bye!"
He was already gone by the time Stephen had fully understood the words, long before he had a chance to kiss Tony back. "Bye," he whispered in the direction of the door Tony and the butterfly had vanished through. "Love you, too." He touched his lips and smiled. Life with Tony Stark as his partner was many things but never boring.
Curiosity was one of his character flaws and right now it made him impatient and bitchy with himself, since there were no other people around he could annoy. When he caught himself looking at the watch yet again while touring the Sanctum he decided that enough was enough. He had barely begun to conjure a portal to Tony's house in Malibu when the Cloak came around the corner, just as eager to leave as its master.
Stephen made sure that it and the rest of his robes were impeccable before leaving. No matter in which state Tony had seen him so far, he wanted to look as good as possible for his surprise. He liked nice things, another character flaw he hadn't been able to leave behind, and Tony indulged him as far as Stephen let him. Given the chance Tony would give him everything the world had to offer and Stephen would give Tony anything from anywhere else if permitted. It was hard for both of them to reign in their tendencies to show their affection through material things but they tried. Tony had money and Stephen had magic to conjure the craziest things. It was a constant battle against themselves.
Which meant that whenever one gifted something to the other it was thought out and really important. Stephen was almost vibrating with anticipation.
Today there was no trace of yesterday's tension. Instead Tony greeted him with a happy smile and a long, drawn-out kiss. "I've missed you," Tony finally said, his arms around Stephen and his head on Stephen's shoulder. Tony's love for just holding on and being held in return had been a surprise when they'd gotten together and had been unfamiliar at first but in time Stephen had learned to love it.
He had no idea what happened but he sensed that Tony didn't want to talk about it. Resisting the temptation to ask him anyway he just tightened his hold and tried to communicate his willingness to listen through touch alone.
Tony seemed to read his thoughts. "It's nothing." He finally let go of Stephen. "Just political crap that doesn't concern you and after yesterday I've washed my hands off it, too." He appeared to be exhausted but not depressed so Stephen decided to let it go. Another thing he'd learned the hard way. Tony squeezed him for a moment in a silent thank you before he moved away. "I've got something for you." Tony looked at the new butterfly that had appeared while they'd been hugging. This time it was yellow and a bright spark on Stephen's dark clothes. "And for you, too," he said to the butterfly. "Come here." It took the invitation and moved to the palm of Tony's hand.
And just like that Stephen's anticipation was back. He'd tried to guess what it might be, of course, but even after wracking his brain for half the night he didn't have a clue. But now… something with butterflies? No, still no idea.
Tony took his hand and led him out to the spacious garden behind the house. The last time Stephen had been here there hadn't been a garden, just a big stretch of land until the ocean started. Now it was filled with flowers, bushes and trees. The smell was almost overwhelming, as was the chaos of colors.
"Wow," Stephen breathed after he'd taken the view in. "It's beautiful."
He watched with growing awe as Tony left him to deposit their yellow companion on the nearest available surface - a big leaf. Stephen didn't know what kind of plant but it looked nice. The little butterfly seemed to like it too and now that Stephen knew what to look for he saw some of its brethren. The little blue one, over at the big tree, wasn't that the one from yesterday?
"Tony, are you collecting my butterflies?" They were a harmless byproduct of his magic, released into the world when he felt strong emotions or did unfamiliar spells and slipped in his attention. While they looked like butterflies they weren't really alive and some of them faded after a few hours while others could exist for days or even weeks.
"The oldest one is about six months old." Sometimes Tony seemed to be almost telepathic or was Stephen really that transparent? Six months ago they'd gotten together and his magic had produced a purple, rather big butterfly. As if called it came into their view, slowly making its way to Stephen who held out his arm so that it could land on it. It was as beautiful as it had been on that first day it showed no signs of fading.
Stephen swallowed. It wasn't often that his magic was that strong but remembering that day? From fear and anger to contentment and absolute joy? It was no wonder it still existed. It could probably last years. "Hello, little one," he whispered. Tony just looked at them both, not even trying to hide his affection.
"I thought they deserved a nice home," he finally said, looking out at the garden himself. "They started to kind of follow me home and as nice as that was… the tower's not the place for them. Here they might even get non-magical company." Tony smiled as an orange butterfly settled on his shoulder. It was a real one, not one of Stephen's accidental creations. "They like it here. I don't think that even one of them vanished after I got them settled here, three days ago. And I hoped that we could do that too. Settle here I mean. Not forever and not always. But I want us to be here more often, to relax and escape from the world. What do you say?"
Tony was asking him to move in with him. Tony wanted to share his whole life with him, not just a few hours here, a stolen night there every few days. The world tilted on its axis and Stephen was suddenly sure that he'd slipped into some other, parallel universe while he hadn't been paying attention. No matter which timeline, he'd never seen this coming.
"Tony," he said, helplessly. He wanted to say yes, he wanted to go down on his knees and ask Tony to spend the rest of their days together. He could almost see their future together, without the help of the Eye of Agamotto. He wanted, even though he knew that he shouldn't.
It was Tony who came to him, took his hand once again and led him over to a conveniently placed bench just a few steps away. "Stephen," he said in the exact same tone of voice. He still looked at Stephen as if he was the center of his universe and there was an incredible gentleness in his touch and words. "I know. But you've still got a life outside the Sanctum and being a Sorcerer. You still have the right to have this. Us. We have a right to be together."
When they first met Tony had been the harsh, dismissive one and Stephen had tried to get through to his emotional core. As soon as he managed to do that the tables had turned. When Tony got emotionally invested he was 101 percent in and Stephen was left drowning in an ocean of love and attention while he tried to keep himself at a distance and safe. But Tony hadn't listened to his clear but not really honest back-off signals and over the months had worn his defenses down. Half a year ago Stephen had finally capitulated under the onslaught and surrendered to the inevitable. Despite everything he hadn't regretted it for even a second so far and he couldn't imagine to ever do so.
To be honest Stephen had rather liked being courted.
We have a right to be together.
The words echoed in Stephen's mind and despite his constant mantra of it's not about you and what you want he had to admit that yes, they had.
Tony seemed to sense his shifting mood because he smiled again. "Just a timeout, once in a while. You're not the only Sorcerer on earth, we can have this."
"Okay." Stephen finally gave in, resigned to logic, Tony's tenacity and his own desires. He was rewarded with Tony's joy and a feeling of happiness that he hadn't felt in years. The both leaned in at the same time for a kiss, sealing the promise.
The purple butterfly, still sitting on his shoulder, suddenly had the company of another, bright red and gold one. It too was rather big and took a moment to show off its beautiful wings before it took flight to settle somewhere in the butterfly garden, already at home.