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definitions of indefinable things

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“Cap, we’re ready for takeoff.”

 

There was no response. Steve still had his eyes fixed on the compound. Clint nudges at Natasha.

 

“Steve?” Natasha called over her shoulder.

 

“Did Tony leave for Wakanda already?” the Captain asked.

 

Sam sighed rolling his eyes.

 

“He took off last night,” replied Natasha calmly. “He crossed paths with the King of Wakanda before Avengers so they may be catching up.”

 

Steve turned towards her questioningly.

 

“The United States doesn’t have royalty,” she went on with a small smirk. “Stark family was and is as close as it will get.”

 

The blonde nodded a bit hesitantly before walking towards his seat. “Did he take the suit? It’s a long flight-“

 

“He said he could use it. He hasn’t been out in the field much these days. Probably wanted a breather.”

 


 

Tony half wonders why he thought this was a good idea. He definitely had thought it was initially. Initially (possibly for the first hour or so) it was quite nice. Flying far above civilization, feeling the wind, enjoying the speed. After all, he had recently found a new appreciation for the time he had to himself.

 

But, about two hours in, however, he was starting to get a bit tired. Maybe he really should have gone on his plane with Pepper and the rest.

 

“We’re approaching Wakanda border, Boss.”

 

That made him search around but he saw nothing but hills, mountain, and dense forest. “Some kind of sheath tech. FRI, contact the number we were given and request access.”

 

“Of course, Boss.”

 

There was a brief pause before he noticed a section of the woods seeming to dissolve revealing a hint of a city surrounded by valleys and what appeared to be beautiful farmlands.

 

“Access granted, His Highness is requesting you land in the main courtyard. He provided coordinates.”

 

“That’s my girl,” he muttered as he flies towards the buildings far ahead.

 

He couldn’t help to admire the land as he soared over. First the farm, the green fields, then what looked like a metropolitan city. The architecture seemed like something straight out of Sci-Fi movies he enjoyed as a kid.

 

People stared up at him as he flew, some waving, welcoming. He supposed the bright red and gold armor was easy to spot in the sky. Few kids on horses had even chased after him for a good couple minutes out in the field. He smiled at them, eventually waving before zooming by.

 

As he landed on a large quad, he sees a couple of people standing, protected by several lines of guards. One person he distinctly recognizes. Tony let the armor retract as he walked closer in long strides, a smile on his face.

 

“So what else have you been hiding from me?” he said in a good-natured tone as he approached T’Challa.

 

The King laughs as he greeted with open arms. “I would have shown you sooner but well, the universe needed saving.”

 

Tony gave a half-hearted shrug patting the other on the back. A smirk now formed on his lips. “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me you wear spandex- especially after I announced to the world I was Iron Man. I thought we had a pack-”

 

“Oh that pack was long broken the day you betrayed me-"

 

Tony snorted, “I was babysitting you and you were being very difficult. Your father was a King, of course I was going to rat you out.”

 

“You only had to watch me for 30 minutes,” The King replied in indignation. “You’ve managed to gain my trust and betray me in less than an hour.”

 

“A five-year-old prince is very overwhelming for an eighteen-year-old to handle. Besides I was never good with kids-”

 

T’Challa laughs, “Surely that’s not true. You’re adopting.”

 

“Oh… well…” Tony looked around. “So…Where’s the pretty one?”

 

“Nakia is on her way back from a mission. She’ll be joining us later for the celebration,” he replied back smoothly. Too used to Tony’s usual antics.

 

“Where's the scary one?"

 

“Here, Stark.”

 

“Jesus-" Tony jumps as Okoye’s voice came right behind him. The warrior has a smirk on her face as Tony stares at her with faux irritation. "Fucking cats I swear-"

 

The King chuckles as he led the other towards the other two that were nearby. “I believe you two may have already met. My mother, Ramonda, Queen Mother…”

 

Tony smiled, kissing an offered hand. “It has definitely been a while but you haven’t aged a day.”

 

Ramonda smiled back. “Still very good with flatteries I see.”

 

T’Challa then motioned to a young teen. “My sister, Princess Shuri…”

 

“You have finally made an armor with fewer overlapping plates. Though it seemed to have compromised the inertia dampe-“

 

“SHURI.” There was an outcry from both her brother and mother.

 

The girl took a sideward glance at her two guardians then at Okoye before clearing her throat. There was a moment of silence as Tony just stared.

 

“It’s alright,” he says easily, taking off his glasses.

 

At that Shuri looked up meeting his eyes. There were no traces of embarrassment or shame. A part of him felt like he can understand that… the fire, the passion, the never-ending curiosity, the non-compromising boldness… intelligence.

 

A smile plays on the engineer’s lips, “So… you got all the brain in the family.” He teasingly glances at T’Challa who rolled his eyes, arms crossed. “What other advice you got for me, princess?”

 

The teen breaks into a grin.

 


 

Wakanda was certainly an enchanting nation. For the first time in a long while, Tony had been absolutely fascinated. Everywhere he turned there was something new, something for him to learn and explore.

 

Ever since the nation-state opened its doors to the rest of the world there had been much publishing of its beautiful art, rich heritage, and unimaginable technology but Tony can see now that none had done justice to the real deal.

 

He spent the afternoon with Shuri in her lab. She had been very enthusiastic in explaining the extent of Wakanda’s technical advances and her latest creations. Tony had listened to it all asking questions here and there. When she finished her round, the princess had looked at him almost expectantly. Though he was unsure what exactly she had been hoping from him. But in the end, the genius had done something he had never had to before in his life… asked for a repeat, slower.

 

Tony smiled to himself remembering the look on her face. She seemed both amused and all too happy to explain everything over and over again as many times as he needed. Perhaps the old age was really getting to him. He doesn’t remember being so fond of kids when he was younger. He had been right there with Stephen saying he never wanted kids…

 

Stephen…

 

“My friend, will you not join the rest of the party?”

 

Tony turned to see T’Challa approaching, dressed in highly decorated robes of royal purple and midnight blue. The jewels and embroidery that adorned most of the panels glistened as if it were stars in the night sky. He, himself, had chosen to wear a traditional, clean-cut tux for the occasion.

 

The engineer peered about gazing at the ever-growing crowd inside. He recognizes most of them though it was somewhat strange seeing many of them out of superhero suits and in elaborate evening wears.

 

It seemed that, as Ross wanted, most had shown up. Tony mainly had been with Pepper and Rhodey earlier in the evening but eventually met Hope that Scott had never shut up about and even briefly ran into Wong at some point. He did note Wong had been the only one present from the magic world but that wasn’t surprising considering this probably was not their usual scene.

 

The party did get much more lively once the Guardians and Ravagers arrived. Nebula seemed all too keen to finally introduce Tony to her sister, Gamora and the engineer understood a bit why Quill was so smitten. Thor wasn’t present from what Tony had seen but eventually overheard someone mentioning to Bruce and Carol about Thor having been away on separate business. A formidable woman, who Bruce referred to as Valkyrie, seemed to have come with a couple of other Asgardians as representatives. There were also words flying around that Thor decided to relinquish his birthright as Asgardian King, naming Valkyrie as the next ruler but he wasn’t sure on the details.

 

Good for him, Tony had thought, honestly happy for the god.

 

Though it had been very nice seeing these familiar faces outside mortal danger, Tony soon spotted the rogues mingling within the crowd. Considering the mixture of all the heroes, SHIELD agents, people of Wakanda, and some Asgardians, it was quite a turnout and definitely not impossible to hide away from selected few, however…

 

“Yeah I’m trying out the stereotypical hide-out-in-the-balcony to see if it’ll land me attention from someone worthwhile,” he replied with a smirk. “Apparently, it actually works because I got myself a King-“

 

T’Challa gives him an exasperated laugh shaking his head slightly. “Come, I believe your boy had been looking for you. I may need help getting them away from the dessert table.“

 

Tony smiled softly, “Just a sec. I kind of like the cold air right now.”

 

The King gave him a polite nod before walking inside once more.

 

As soon as he was left alone, Tony’s smile faltered, a deep groan of annoyance as he covers his face with his hands. Can he be any more of a cliché? Was he seriously here pining for the wizard who basically left him once again to do god knows what. Tony had contemplated chasing after Wong earlier to demanding to know where Stephen was but he managed to stop himself just in time.

 

He should go find Pepper. Pepper would know what to do or at the very least keep him from doing anything stupid. But now that he thought about it, he hadn’t seen his favorite strawberry blonde for a good two hours or so. Suddenly getting a bit concerned, he strode back in. The pleasant music and laughter filling his ears the minute he came through the double doors.

 

“Man of Iron!”

 

Tony turned just in time to be pulled into a crushing hug. There was a genuine smile that had formed on Tony as he pulled nearly lifted off his feet. The Asgardian soon let go, stepping back a bit with a huge grin on his face. The brunette couldn’t help but note that Thor was back to his old self. He definitely looked cleaner cut, shorter hair but still a bit messily kept, less of the darkness around the eyes, definitely leaner but still all broad muscles… The Asgardian seemed happier, energetic, full of life.

 

“Hey there, Point Break. Didn’t know if you would be joining or not.”

 

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world! Seeing you lot again. Good to be back amongst my SHIELD brothers.”

 

That made Tony peer around the tall blonde. He hadn’t notice before that behind Thor was the old team plus Barnes and Sam. The engineer tried not to show on his face the displeasure he suddenly felt, though Bruce and Thor being there certainly helped.

 

“So that’s what it takes for the great Tony Stark to grace us with his presence without bolting the other direction… a god-“

 

Tony glared at Clint. He knew the archer was trying to be playful. He knew that tone. Before all of this Clint and he had a good bantering thing going with them having a similar dry sense of humor. But at the moment, after all that had happened, Tony just didn’t feel like it. It irked him for reasons he couldn’t quite explain.

 

Thor gives Hawkeye a confused look but then catches the expression on Bruce and something seem to dawn on his face. The Asgardian never quite heard the full story as to what transpired while he was away. He certainly remembers the tension after Ultron fiasco but he had thought it was nothing too serious. The blonde may have also just assumed everything had blown over considering how well they had fought together against Thanos.

 

“Come now,” being good-natured as always, Thor regarded back and forth at all of them with a grin plastered on his face. “After all that we’ve been through together, why not put everything behind us and celebrate the future.”

 

At that, Steve stepped forward, “Join us for a bit, Tony. Please. For old times’ sake… We can take things slow-“

 

In the back of his mind, Tony knew Steve meant well. He can see it in those clear puppy dog blue eyes. Having been around so much politics, corruption, business… all of it… all his life, he knew the tells of someone lying to him… those who were trying to hide their real intentions. Cap really was honestly trying. He really was simply hoping to make some type of progress on their strained relationship. He may not always be going about it the right way at times but, at the end of the day, he was trying. Tony can see that. Knew that when it came down to it, they all made several mistakes getting here. That life, people, situations were much more complex than who's right and who's wrong.

 

There was a soft smile on the Captain expression as he took another step towards the brunette. The sincerity, hope, optimism clearly visible as he gazed at Tony. Steve put a hand to the other’s arm, a friendly gesture that was once so common between them at a point in time.

 

And Tony involuntarily flinched.

 

There was half a second where the two’s eyes locked. Tony’s eyes widened, a bit taken aback by his own unconscious reaction. Steve seemed startled as well, confused or even hurt but took a half-step back none-the-less.

 

A slight frown soon appears on the blonde’s expression, “I’m sorr-..”

 

“For fuck’s sake, Stark. Stop acting so precious,” Clint burst out.

 

Sam let out a sigh. “You attacked us when we had our backs turned yesterday. Come on, Stark, we all need to make an effort to try and get past things-“

 

Thor frowns a bit as he turned towards Tony. “You attacked them…?”

 

He wasn’t sure if that was judgment he senses from Thor or just plain confusion but he just wanted to run. He didn’t want to know. Didn’t want to be disappointed anymore.

 

Bruce quickly approached him. “Tony,” he called out gently as he put a hand on his shoulder. That made the brunette fix his eyes on his friend, his breathing leveling out slightly.

 

“Anthony, a word?”

 

They all turned towards the newcomer.

 

“Your Highness,” Bruce quickly greets, as if glad for some sort of interruption.

 

T’Challa has a polite smile on his face as he joins them. “My apologies, but I was hoping to steal Tony for a bit.” He turned towards the engineer. “Turns out I am in need of the final words on the blueprints you and my sister had been working on in the afternoon.”

 

“Yeah… Yeah of course,” Tony doesn’t hesitate as the T’Challa led them away from the group to the other end of the large ballroom. After they were well out of earshot he looked towards the other. “What blueprints?”

 

T’Challa clears his throat, a playful smile forming on his lips. “No idea. Couldn’t think of anything on the spot. I’ve never been the best liar…”

 

Tony laughed, “Well you should work harder at it now being King and all.”

 

“I was just told I should go rescue you.”

 

“From who?”

 

“My sister and your son,” he nodded towards the Shuri and Peter, who were couple yards away at a table. They had a mass amount of colorful desserts in front of them that had Tony frowning slightly.

 

“I had tried to stop them,” T’Challa quickly said.

 

“Why? Let them just throw up later and maybe they’ll learn their lesson.”

 

T’Challa lets out a huff of exasperation. “Great parenting, Tony,” he said teasingly.

 

Tony shrugged, his eyes still fixed on Peter who was laughing now at something Shuri had just said.

 

“So your sister… she’s pretty smart.”

 

The King follows his gaze towards the two teens who seemed to be showing something on their phones to each other, talking animatedly. “Yes. Surpassed our best scientists and engineers by the age of twelve.” He turned back towards the brunette. “She meant no disrespect earlier-“

 

“Oh, no it’s fine,” he brushed off. “I know what that’s like. Too much thoughts and your mouth get ahead of you…”

 

“She admires you.”

 

That made Tony snap up. “Why? I’m practically a fossil here. You must have been laughing your heads off when we were boasting about all the Stark tech breakthroughs-“

 

T’Challa let out an easy laugh. “No no… we admired you more than you think. We had an endless supply of vibranium to rely on. You came up with the Iron Man suit in a cave. My sister is brilliant but she had access to the best tutors, unlimited resources, backings of generations of technological advances other countries cannot even dream of. Imagine what you could have accomplished had you had access to our equipment… the vibraniums…”

 

“Probably something terrible,” Tony replied without hesitation.

 

There was short silence that followed.

 

“Why not extend your stay here, Tony,” T’Challa began with a smile. “Shuri would love for Peter to stay longer and I’m sure you would be fascinated by the knowledge we have to offer. Of course, your doctor can join you here if he likes. I don’t believe I saw him here tonight.”

 

Tony studied him for a moment. “How did you know? How much do you know…?”

 

The smile fades for a brief second. “Well… words get around. Everyone had been talking about the tension at the Avengers compound. …But I mainly heard from my sister… who heard from Peter.”

 

Tony grimace but before he can speak the other continued.

 

“Shuri seemed to have become quite close friends with your boy and they kept in contact. Do not be angry, Peter just seemed… worried… needed someone to talk to. He had only confided in Shuri and my sister only told me. Quite frankly, Shuri had been quite mad on your behalf-”

 

“I thought she was friends with Barnes.”

 

“They are. But I don’t believe what happened in Siberia was the only thing that was being questioned.” T’Challa turned to fully face the other. “I apologize, for how it may have seemed to you by letting them stay here. I did not realize the extent-”

 

“No,” Tony said quickly. “You were doing the right thing.”

 

“Was I?”

 

“Barnes needed help. I know… I knew he was brainwashed. It was the right thing to do.”

 

“God damn-“ Tony exclaimed after a pause. “Is Peter okay? …Fuck, I should have known he was upset…”

 

“Tony, he cares for you. Of course, it’s natural to worry…”

 

“Well, he’s a kid! He should be worrying about whether he ate too much ice cream or some crush he has at school. I’m supposed to be giving him that kind of life, the experience of being a kid… He’s Spider-Man. He already has too much on his shoulders he shouldn’t have to… He shouldn’t have to have added stress from my overly complicated, messed up life. I shouldn’t have-… God, I fucked up. I should have been more careful about introducing Stephen into his life…”

 

“Doctor Strange, he-“

 

“Yeah he fucking left-“

 

“No, Tony… I mean…”

 

T’Challa lightly grabbed a hold of the other’s shoulder, nudging him to turn around. As Tony stared questioningly to the same direction the other had been watching he noticed the main entrance was open.

 

His heart skips a beat.

 

Stephen had just stepped into the room, Pepper standing next to him, smiling. The doctor had offered her his arm like a perfect gentleman helping her over the complex steps that were at the outer edges of the room. Once more inside, Pepper seemed to whisper a word of thanks, giving a light squeeze before letting go. Rhodey hurried to joins them, laughing as he pats the sorcerer on the back.

 

Soon the three approaches to where Wong stood talking to Thor and Bruce. And it became very evident what had caught Tony off guard. Standing next to Wong, Stephen was a startling contrast. The Sorcerer was not wearing a decorative robe like Wong but a high-end tux. And Tony knew high-end tux when he saw one. It was a classic cut with a modern flair. Completely black, though it had a gunmetal sheen under the light. It fit Stephen in all the right ways, accentuating the broad shoulders, the V down to his slim waist, the mile-long legs. Clearly a custom fit perfect to the very last stitch.

 

Tony found himself walking closer, his legs unconsciously carrying him. But at the corner of his eyes, he sees Steve approaching as well, followed closely by Natasha, Barnes, Sam, and Clint. Nick Fury, along with Everett Ross and Maria Hill, now had their eyes on the situation, the Director striding towards them at a quick pace.

 

“Stephen!” Tony called out before the rogues had the chance to speak to the sorcerer.

 

Stephen doesn’t hesitate. As his gaze fell on Tony, his expression visibly softening, an earnest smile spreading across his lips. He lifts a gloved hand, reaching for the brunette’s forearm as he approaches.

 

Tony couldn’t speak. Couldn’t find the words.

 

The doctor's hand strays down to the other’s waist, quickly giving it a light pressure. “Just one moment, Tony…” he said gently. He waited for Tony to nod, though the brunette had done so with a bit of hesitation. Then the sorcerer lets go, turns to face the others, expression hardening.

 

“Strange.”

 

“Rogers.” It definitely did not go unnoticed he referred to the Captain simply by his last name.

 

But the sorcerer didn’t bother to linger on Cap, instead stood in front of Director Fury. Soon reaching to the inside pocket withdrawing an envelope.

 

“The contract for the new Avengers Initiative. Signed,” Stephen stated holding it up. “You’ve been quite crossed with me due to this. I believe now the qualms you have should be well taken care of?”

 

Fury’s expression remained blank, arms crossed. “You suddenly changed your mind? You don’t seem the type.”

 

“Funny how couple years can change someone’s perception.” It was barely above a whisper. As if it was merely a thought that was absentmindedly voiced aloud.

 

Something flashed across the Director’s eyes. “What is it that you want?”

 

Stephen straightened up, a small smile playing on his lips. The easy assurance, willful arrogance, and wicked intelligence… it was all tightly wrapped up in a single smile. “I want a chair in decision-making.”

 

“What?!” exclaimed Steve in pure anger. There were many others equally taken aback.

 

The doctor ignored them, effortlessly carrying on with his words. “I believe that won’t be a problem considering the current team lack expertise in the realm of magic which is why you were so keen on recruiting me. It would be a logical, efficient decision to solve a quite pressing concern.”

 

The Director took a quick glance at the Captain. Everyone knew Fury had always given preference to what Captain America wanted in the past. But he cleared his throat, for once ignoring the exasperated look on Steve’s face. “Anything else?”

 

“The division leader spot Iron Man had chosen to relinquish after the war with Thanos. Equal status to Captain Marvel and Captain America… and most likely, I assume, Black Panther if he chooses to join.”

 

There were mutterings now from several.

 

Steve stepped forward. “Who would follow you? You have no right-“

 

“I will.”

 

Silence fell as all heads turned towards the King.

 

“A good leader can also follow when needed. I have no problems working under Doctor Strange’s leadership when the situation requires it just as I’m sure he has no problems working under mine.” T’Challa took a couple of long strides towards the group, stopping next to the sorcerer.

 

Stephen gave him a small nod and the King smiled pleasantly.

 

“I can potentially have my papers signed by sunrise,” T’Challa said now facing the Director.

 

They can see the gears turning in Fury’s head as he was sizing the two. Ross was now looking at T’Challa questioningly.

 

But Stephen doesn’t wait. “Iron Man will be under my main jurisdiction and completely be removed from any and all authorities of Captain America,” Stephen continued sternly.

 

At this, both Sam and Steve cried an outburst. Thor looked like he was going to say something as well but they were all quickly stopped by Fury who raised a hand to silence them.

 

“Doctor Strange, be reasonable. We cannot limit Stark to only be working under your team.”

 

“No, I did not say only me. But he will be under my main jurisdiction. In the same way you currently, and in the past, viewed Rogers as his main leader. Captain America will no longer have any power over Iron Man sanctioned by SHIELD. If needed, I have no doubt Tony can work under Captain Marvel or Black Panther. Contrary to what was continuously insinuated in the past, he never had issues working in a team or under a leadership… just bad ones.”

 

“Strange, you have some nerve-“ the Captain lunged forward, only to be held back by Thor. “What the hell is this? Another show to just prove yourself?”

 

“Oh no, it is far from it,” he replied, finally turning to face Steve. Stephen strode nearer pausing only feet away. “This isn’t a show. We’ve passed the stage of empty threats. I warned you, you son of a bitch. Do. Not. Push. Me. Or I will put you in your place.”

 

Some looked a bit taken aback by the change in the doctor's demeanor. Tony supposed most of them never seen how Stephen used to be, hot-headed and foul-mouthed. From what everyone had seen so far, the sorcerer probably gave them a straight-laced impression.

 

“Agreed.”

 

That made a chilling silence wash over them.

 

Fury let out a sigh as he snatched the envelope from Stephen’s hand. “I said, agreed,” he sounded almost resigned, “We’ll finalize rest of the details when we get back but Hills will note the terms you just stated to start.”

 

The Director opens the envelope, looking it over. “So… this is your idea, Doctor Strange?’

 

“Some. Mostly Tony’s.”

 

He doesn’t reply to that statement, just folds back the contract before putting it into his inner pocket. Fury gave one last warning look towards Steve before motioning to Maria Hills. Along with Ross, the three walked away from the small crowd that had now formed.

 

Cap looked as if he wanted to go after them but also seemed too keen on finishing the standoff with the sorcerer.

 

Stephen didn’t bother watching the SHIELD agents leave. Instead, he casually lifted his hands to about waist level, pinching the fingertips of his gloves before giving them a swift pull. All the while, those piercing eyes does not leave the Captain’s, the two’s gaze locked in a heated glare. He lets the gloves carelessly fall to his feet, one after the other, soon revealing the once elegant hands that were now covered in dreadful scars.

 

Some stared at the trembling hands. A frown appeared on those who were more or less not aware of the infamous accident. Barnes and Sam, who undoubtedly were at least aware of the story from rest of the rogues, glanced but looked away just as quickly.

 

There was complete silence as the sorcerer regarded each of them with a sharp gaze, as if daring any of them to speak. The proud arrogance openly on display.

 

When no words came, he turned towards Steve once more, a slight smirk forming on his lips. A moment, then the sorcerer let out of light, dismissive scoff before brazenly turning his back towards the soldier – a last egotistic act, a challenge.

 

The Captain seemed too bewildered to do anything.

 

“Stephen,“ Tony’s voice was barely above a whisper. As the doctor faced him, Tony almost immediately reached for the other’s hands, shielding it with own. It was an instinctive reaction. An unconscious reflex the engineer had developed in response to other’s discomfort.

 

Stephen took a step forward, smiling softly at the act. For someone who had a photographic memory, who always saw too much details, analyzed every act to the roots… how could he have missed the obvious? Been so blind? He never really had anything to worry about. Tony always was his to the core.

 

The usual icy green-blue eyes showed such open adoration that much too rare in public. It made Tony frown, uncertain. But before the genius can formulate a response, Stephen extended a hand to the other’s cheek, thumb gently stroking the jawline. The faint tremor and ugly scars on open display for anyone around to see. … and Tony, understood.

 

“I believe you owe me a dance,” the sorcerer said, his voice low and warm. “And you’re going to let me lead.

 

Tony let out an easy laugh, taking the other’s hand and letting himself be led away to the floor.

 

“What was that?” Scott murmured as he watched the two leave. He, Hope, and several others eventually had walked over trying to figure out what was happening.

 

“Strange one-upped Rogers,” Carol replied too loudly, a smirk in place. She didn’t even bat an eye as some glared at her.

 

Rhodes glanced towards Steve, who looked furious, to say the least, ears turning red, jaws set, fist clenched… then at the rest of the rogues who had all sorts of mixed expressions.

 

“Stephen, you bastard,” he said under his breath, grinning fondly.

 

............

 

Stephen effortlessly leads them to the middle of the dance floor as he had done numerous times back in the days where Tony was mainly known to the world as the billionaire CEO with a hero complex and him as just Stephen Strange, the surgeon.

 

It feels like another lifetime. It was another lifetime. All the problems they faced back then seem so small now in comparison… even if then, it all seemed like the end of the world. Well now, he supposed, the literal end of the world was quite a realistic possibility.

 

And Tony had changed as well. Stephen was very aware. It was apparent in the simple things.

 

Tony used to drive head first into a fight or didn’t hesitate to face an oncoming obstacle. Used to be so stubborn and hotheaded… determined, passionate… carried himself with unyielding resolve. It was infuriating. But the doctor had fallen in love with that side in the genius quite possibly from the moment they met. For the first time in his life, someone can measure up to his own headstrong personality. To argue with him, push him, to challenge him. Stephen didn’t have to carry all the weight for once. He didn’t always have to be the smarter one, the one who had all the solution, the one everyone looked to. In fact, Tony had proven over and over again to be the stronger one of the two when the doctor was just so… tired.

 

Stephen gave a quick spun before sharply pulling the other close in a firm hold. It was a touch dramatic but he was in a mood to show off. After the stunt he just pulled with the Director they were definitely the center of the attention anyway. Tony let out a soft, exasperated laugh, a smirk forming on his lips.

 

Yes, it was in the small things. The way the other rarely laughed loudly, openly, as he once did. The way Tony no longer stood tall, proud, strode into every room as if he owned the place but rather, stayed off to the side as if he was tired of the attention. The way he didn’t bother to argue, the way he avoided confrontation, the way he just let the rogues win because he just wanted things to be over.

 

They swayed to the music, spinning, circling to the waltz. Stephen led a quick pace and Tony followed him easily. Once upon a time, Tony showed defiance, brief moments of involuntarily trying to lead himself, a reflection of the engineer’s assertive and commanding nature. They would laugh at the awkwardness. Stephen faking annoyance and Tony making some snarky comment about how the doctor should lead better then.

 

Stephen misses that. He understood why the brunette had changed. Why he acted this way now. It had been a gradual shift that started long before the doctor had left. The most definite turning point being after the New York invasion. But sometimes Stephen wonders…

 

“Are you happy?”

 

Tony snaps his head up to stare at the taller male, giving a questioning look. “Why wouldn’t I be? You finally took my advice. Although, I mentioned about you taking my place in Avengers months ago. And you were pretty hot back there, wizard, commanding attention-“ There was a usual smirk now forming in place. “…So what’s with the suit? Not that I’m complaining you look great in it. Always looked great in it.”

 

“Pepper helped,” he let out a soft laugh. “Apparently had it prepared last week.”

 

“I thought you didn’t want things that reminded you of your old life… the partying, drinking, fast cars and equally faster spending habits-” There was teasing in his voice.

 

“It’s about time I stopped running away,” the sorcerer replied with a hint of a smirk. “Perhaps I should take something out of your book and accept my past. Fix the problem itself rather than trying to avoid the triggers. Own up to my faults and failures… wear the scars proudly-“ he nodded towards Tony’s chest. “Besides, you are from my old life I don’t want to leave behind…”

 

“You sure about that?” There was something odd in the engineer's voice.

 

Stephen smiled, “There was once a time where you wouldn’t have even dreamt about stepping out of the leadership role. Especially something as important to you as the Avengers.”

 

The corner of the brunette’s lips twitched up, a hint of a smile that did not reach his eyes. “People change. I’m getting old.”

 

“You gave up,” he said calmly.

 

There was something that flashed in those whiskey eyes. Tony opened his mouth as if to make an annoyed remark.

 

“And it’s okay,” the sorcerer went on. He paused for a moment, waiting for Tony’s defensiveness but the engineer simply looked away. “I understand. Considering everything, it's more than reasonable. I used to think-" He let out a sigh. “That you perhaps didn’t fight back against Rogers because you still had feelings for him…”

 

Tony snapped his gaze up, “Stephen, it’s not-"

 

“I know… I know,” he replied quietly.

 

“Just the other day I lashed out at them-"

 

“For me. Not for yourself. You let things go if it’s you that got hurt. It’s… you’re tired. I can see that now. And I’m so sorry I did not realize sooner. I was so absorbed in my own problems I couldn't… God, and I have so many problems-“

 

That made Tony smirk, “You’re human. You’re complicated. It would be boring otherwise.”

 

“But it hurts you. My pride, insecurity, the anger… they all end up hurting you. And I’m… usually better. I always had been so good at keeping myself under control. It’s infuriating that one person I want to be ‘good’ around is… I don’t know what it is about you but... the moment you entered my life I felt like I didn’t know anything anymore. I always thought of myself better than anyone, suddenly felt like I couldn’t ever measure up to you… for you.”

 

It was easier to talk once he started. “Then the ego of becoming Sorcerer Supreme… that certainly helped. Or I thought it had. After getting out of my head, I was better than all of them. I had thought I was getting better. Felt more ‘myself’, the arrogant, self-important, confident self. But once you came back into the picture, everything derailed again. You’re always the only thing that prevents me from being composed…”

 

“Stephen,” Tony said quickly. His eyes fell onto Peter in the crowd. He was next to Shuri, both of them smiling as they watched him and Stephen, whispering to one another… clearly happy for them.

 

“I’m-… if you walk out on me again… I can’t- I can’t do this again. You know-… You know I will break my heart over and over again if it meant saving even a part of you. But I can’t… anymore.” His voice breaks despite himself. “It’s not just about me anymore… I have a fucking kid now-“

 

“Tony-“ Stephen stops suddenly, letting go to place both his hands on either side of brunette’s face. “No, no… Tony, I’m not leaving. Not again. Leaving you was the greatest mistake of my life and one I don’t intend on repeating.”

 

“It’s always been you. The source of my greatest strength and greatest weakness. I’ll learn. I’ll work on my faults, issues, problems, whatever they are… I’ll work harder at actually fixing them instead of simply hiding them. Because even if I am ‘better’ when you are not around, even if it is easier… it means absolutely nothing without you. I will fight for you, Anthony. Just as you have always fought for me. It’s my turn. You’ve always protected me-”

 

“I- I didn’t… I couldn’t back then-“ A sudden sadness appears in Tony’s expression. Guilt that lingers every time anyone mentions the doctor’s accident.

 

“No, you have. You always have. You can rest now. Do what you want and what makes you happy. If that means taking your place back as co-leader of Avengers someday, I’ll keep it safe for you till when or if you are ever ready. Or being in your lab more, spending all your time with Peter in the quiet, building a family… If you don’t want to fight, don’t. If you want to push back, I’ll be by your side. Be selfish. It’s my turn to protect you. To support whatever is best for you. Whatever you need-”

 

“This is starting to sound awfully like a proposal, Doc,” Tony said teasing. He couldn’t help it.

 

Stephen didn’t even hesitate, “Would you like it to be? I can-" he made a motion as if to kneel.

 

Tony quickly grabs him, pulling him back up, making the other straighten up once more. It was all but a split second but the act does not go unnoticed by most of the room who had been watching. There was a lot of mutterings, some "aw" of disappointment. Stephen was laughing, clearly amused by the startled expression on the brunette's face. 

 

"Jesus-" The engineer let out a huff of laughter, “We’ve been only back at this for six months-“

 

Stephen was smirking, “Tony, I followed you across the country after a one night stand. Don’t tempt me.”

 

They giggled, ending with brunette eventually wrapping his arms around the other’s neck. There was a moment of silence before they lean in for a kiss, a kiss that was perhaps a bit too scandalous in such public eye but neither cared. Tony smiles onto the other’s lips, trying not to laugh as he heard cheering and clapping. He can distinctly make out the extreme rowdiness of Peter and Shuri.

 

Kids… he thought fondly.

 

And for the first time in a long while, he doesn’t mind the attention.

 


 

“What happened between Man of Iron and the good Captain?”

 

“Honestly I’m still piecing it together myself,” replied Rhodes as he stood by Bruce and Thor. The others all started dispersing to smaller groups. He kept his eyes on Steve though, who still seemed to not have calmed down. Barnes was with him and talking profusely but they were too far to hear the actual conversation.

 

“So Anthony and the sorcerer…?”

 

“Yeah, they sort of picked things up again. Oh, wait… Stephen is the same Stephen Tony was dating years back. You know, when you met first Tony in New York? During the whole your insane brother attacking humanity thing? The same doctor Tony was seeing back then-” Damn they really needed to make a chart of who knew what, Rhodes thinks. He was definitely losing track.

 

“Ah, the medicine man,” something seemed to dawn on Thor’s face. “So then…”

 

“They broke up after Stephen’s accident. You saw the scars on his hands. He couldn’t practice medicine anymore. He disappeared… at some point, I’m guessing he became a sorcerer… and Tony started seeing Cap, which you sort of knew about I think- Yeah by the time you came back to earth they were together. How far do you guys know about the Sokovia Accords incident?”

 

“I’ve mostly caught up since coming back. I’ve had FRIDAY show me recordings and documents,” replied Bruce as he took off his glasses to polish it. “I was explaining it to Thor earlier. I suppose we should have seen in coming… after Ultron.”

 

“Yeah well, then Sargent Barnes got added to the mix and things sort of exploded.”

 

“The airport incident,” Bruce said simply.

 

“I was out of commission after that so not really sure what happened other than what Tony told me. He, Barnes, and Cap seemed to have had quite a fight in Siberia. Turns out, during the time Barnes was brainwashed by Hydra he killed Tony’s parents. And Cap knew about it-“

 

“His parents?” there was a frown that appeared at Thor’s face. The Asgardian always put such importance in family and they knew.

 

“Yeah but like I said, he was brainwashed. Tony knew that but still… snapped. Can’t blame him-“

 

“So Man of Iron has not forgiven the Captain…”

 

“Somewhat. Or the rest of them. Many sided with the Captain during that fight… But honestly, I think it's more that he just doesn't want to deal with them anymore.” Then a thought dawned on the Colonel. “Why the sudden interest in Tony?”

 

“Just curious I suppose,” Thor replied after a short hesitation.

 

Bruce turned towards the Asgardian as well. “Wait… now I think about it, you knew they had a fallout before I told you. How did you know?”

 

Rhodes frowned at that, especially when he sees Bruce giving the Thor an odd look. But before he could question the two Valkyrie rushed to them, quick greeting before pulling both Thor and Bruce away. Something about a bet with the Guardians. 

 


 

“I just haven’t slept well- I’ll just go splash some water on my face and I’ll be ok.”

 

Stephen looks at him with guilt, almost reluctant to let go of the other’s hand. “Do you want me to come with you?”

 

Tony let out a faux huff of exasperation, smiling fondly. It was odd but endearing seeing Stephen so openly attached. “I’ll be fine.”

 

They had already stepped off the dance floor, standing off to the side in a corner. Everyone had more or less gone back to their own chattering, mingling, and dancing. There was a lot more energy in the room now than before.

 

Stephen clicked his tongue before pursing his lips, a habit when he didn’t quite get his way. “Alright… I’ll… get some air then.”

 

Tony smirked, “You’re cute when you’re all worried-“

 

“Oh shut up.”

 

Tony lets out a chuckle before turning around, walking towards the door. He feels Stephen’s gaze lingering on him and smiles to himself. Despite his recent years of avoiding the public’s eyes he never stopped loving Stephen’s attention. He relished every spec of it given to him. And tonight, he was over the moon.

 

There was a bit of bounce in his steps as he trotted along despite himself. Though, once outside in the halls, he slows his pace, enjoying the silence and the unfamiliar architecture. But he managed only halfway down the hall before he heard voices.

 

“TONY!”

 

fuck. He had half a mind to just run for it but his pride held him back.

 

The engineer turned around slowly, taking a deep sigh. “I have nothing I want to say to you, Rogers,” he replied as he saw the blonde hurrying towards him closely followed by Barnes who seemed very much exasperated.

 

“Stevey- stop-“ Barnes tries to get a hold of Steve’s arm but Cap quickly shook him off.

 

Tony sometimes admires Barnes for his persistence. He reminds him of his Rhodey, never failing to run after his troublesome friend. It must be an exhausting job now he thought about it. Maybe he should send something nice to Rhodey Bear.

 

“Tony, just hear me out. Please, we should talk-“ There was something in Cap’s voice that was new. He seemed almost begging, desperate.

 

“Rogers, I swear to god- just leave me alone. I’m actually in a really good mood right now so if you dare ruin it-“

 

Tony shoves open a nearby door, quickly walking through without much thought. He doesn’t even know where or what this room is but he just wanted to get away. However, before he can shut the door Steve shoves in.

 

“Look, I get that you’re angry. I get it-”

 

“Do you?” he retorted harshly, “Because the rest of them leaves me alone. Even Clint for all his stubbornness backs off when I insist enough- For fuck’s sake look at your best friend!” he waves his hand towards Barnes. “He apparently knows me better than you! Follow his example and LEAVE ME ALONE!”

 

“I’m-… Tony, we were so much more than-“

 

“I’m done with this,” he said briskly, cutting the other off. The engineer tried to push past the other, making quick strides till…

 

Tony felt a strong hand on his upper arm. The next second he was forcibly tugged, his back hitting hard against the wall. Steve was looming over him, pinning him. From this distance, the difference in their size and strength becoming so much more apparent. It felt as though all the air around them was suddenly gone.

 

“STEVE!”

 

“did you know?”

 

“I didn’t know it was him-"

 

Tony struggled, but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t feel his limbs. He took a sharp intake of breath but felt like it was not enough, not even close. Why wasn’t his suit activating?

 

“Don’t bullshit me, Steve! Did you know!?”

 

He looked up and saw those clear blue eyes. Saw the shield coming down, hard.

 

Barnes jumped in, quickly pulling his best friend back away from the brunette. This, this he recognized.

 

Steve struggled. “Bucky- what-?”

 

“GET BACK, STEVE!” he yelled at the blonde. Cap frowned but took a further step back. Bucky rarely used that tone with him or anyone for that matter.

 

Tony’s knees buckled, his weight dropping. Steve reaches out but Barnes was closer, quickly caught him, lowering the engineer to the floor with his back against the wall.

 

“Steve you need to stay back! Get Strange!” Barnes exclaimed looking over his shoulders.

 

Cap, however, first seemed like he wanted to argue, confused. But soon his gaze fell on Tony, the hard look in his eyes softening. He gave his friend a short nod before sprinting down the hall.

 


 

“That was quite something.”

 

“Romanoff,” He greeted, slowly turning to face the woman.

 

“It was impressive.”

 

The sorcerer scoffed. “Shocked? Did you think me incapable?”

 

“No. I knew what you were capable of. Or you wouldn’t have been such liability otherwise.” Natasha took a couple of steps forward, leaning on the rail next to Stephen. “Why are you having me watched?”

 

“I don’t trust you.”

 

“Using Peter… That was clever.” Her expression remained blank, her tone even.

 

“Don’t bore me,” he snapped, unable to control the annoyance that seeped into his tone. “Get to the point.”

 

“You did once. Trust me, I mean.”

 

He let a silence fall between them for a second. “I had thought you cared about him.”

 

Natasha chose to still stare out into the open. “Someone had to do it.”

 

“Is that what you believe? That it was necessary?”

 

“We’re not children, Stephen, and this isn’t some fairy tale. You and I think alike. The world is not black and white, the good doesn’t always win, what is right is relative, and many things are bigger than us.”

 

“Oh, I do know. We are alike,” he stepped closer to her. “That’s why I recognize it.”

 

She turned towards him, “Recognize what?”

 

“Guilt. You look at him with the same guilt I do at times. Why would you feel guilt when you believe it was necessary?”

 

“STRANGE!”

 

They both quickly turned just in time to see Captain America running towards them.

 

“What do you want?” snapped the sorcerer.

 

“It’s Tony-“

 

There was an abrupt change in Stephen’s demeanor. “Where?”

 


 

“What do you say to your other nickname: The Merchant of Death?”

 

“When I ordered the hit on you, I was worried that I was killing the golden goose. But, you see, it was just fate that you survived it, leaving one last golden egg to give. You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?”

 

“You want it? Take it!”

“Put your hand down!”

“You think you got what it takes to wear that suit?”

“We don’t have to do this, Tony.”

“You wanna be the War Machine, take your shot!”

 

“Iron Man Yes, Tony Stark… Not recommended.”

 

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off and what are you?”

 

“You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play. To lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.”

 

“Come on-… use… your words buddy.”

“I have more than enough to describe you, Stark.”

 

“You could have saved us. Why didn’t you do more?”

 

“And I’m the man who killed the Avengers. I saw it. I didn’t tell the team, how could I? I saw them all dead, Nick. I felt it. The whole world, too. It’s because of me. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t do all I could. …I watched my friends die. You think that’d be as bad as it gets, right? Nope. Wasn’t the worst part.”

“The worst part is that you didn’t.”

 

“I can’t do this anymore, Tony! You said you were done with this!”

“Pepper! Pepper wait! Just please try to understand-”

 

“His name was Charlie Spencer. You murdered him. In Sokovia. Not that it matters in the least to you. You think you fight for us. You just fight for yourself. Who’s going to avenge my son, Stark? He’s dead. And I blame you.”

 

“Oh God, Tony! Every time. Every time I think you see things the right way…”

“Give me a break! I’m doing what has to be done… to starve off something worse!”

“You keep telling yourself that.”

“Steve… Steve! I’m sorry- I’m-… j-just don’t leave-“

 

“The futurist, gentlemen! The futurist is here! He sees all! He knows what’s best for you, whether you like it or not!”

 

“You got to watch your back with this guy. There’s a chance he’s gonna break it.”

 

“I’m sorry Tony… I wouldn’t do this if I had any other choice… But he’s my friend.”

“Wasn’t I more-”

 

“I said we’d lose. You said, ‘We’ll do that together too.’ Well guess what, Cap? We lost, and you weren’t there.”

 

“He needs to be taken down a peg.”

 

stop…

 

“You screwed this up, Stark and you know it!”

 

just stop…

 

“This is on you, Tony. You should have known better than this!”

 

please…

 

“DON’T TOUCH HIM!”

 

Stephen…

 

“Tony… Tony… hey… look at me…”

 

Steph-

 

“Yeah, It’s me. I’m here. Tony, remember… 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear… breath Tony… there is nothing to be afraid of…”

 

You… I only see you.

 

“It’s over, Tony.”

 

…Stephen?

 

“Don’t come back here-“

 

“Stephen, babe-…you… I-…I know it must be really hard right now but don’t- don’t do this…”

 

“I don’t want to be with you.”

 

“Please…we… we can get through this- just… just give me a chance…”

 

“God, why must you be so stupid. What part of this do you not understand? I. Don’t. Want. You.”

 

“That’s… that’s not…”

 

“I haven’t been happy for a while. I’m tired of all the dramatics and your need to play the hero… It’s not fun anymore, Tony.”

 

What’s going on Stephen… I-… this isn’t you. Look, I can get to the hospital in 15. Just give me 10 minutes and we’ll talk-”

 

“I’M TIRED OF IT, TONY! I’m tired of all of it! I’m tired of you.”

 

“Stark!... S-Tony… Tony!”

 

Tony gasped for breath he didn’t know he desperately needed.

 

Barnes hurriedly withdrew his hand. That same look of shame playing on his face again. He seemed to not know what exactly to do with himself next. “Sorry… you- I had to. You stopped breathing. Steve went to get Strange.” There was a pause. “I’ll… I’ll go look for them… or Rhodes-“

 

The soldier tried to stand but a hand stopped him.

 

“Don’t.”

 

Barnes looked down, searching in the other’s eyes for any indication of doubt. “…Did you want me to get someone else…?”

 

“No,” he replied flatly after clearing his throat.

 

Tony tried to lift himself off the floor but soon felt very light-headed, wobbling before quickly losing balance. Barnes hastily grabbed him by the shoulder, helping him lean against the nearest wall.

 

“I’m feeling better. There is no need.”

 

Barnes swallowed hard as he took a step back, looking around. “I can… wait outside. Make sure people don’t come in if you want to be alone for a while…”

 

“…Yes. Thank you.” Tony stared at him for a moment as the other walked towards the door. There was clear stiffness in his posture. “Why are you… What’s wrong with your arm?”

 

The soldier turned back around, glancing briefly at his metal arm. “I don’t know… It acts up at times,” he replied with a half shrug.

 

There was an awkward pause before the engineer stretched out a hand. “Come here- I’ll take a look.”

 

Barnes hesitated, “You really don’t have to. Shuri said she can look at it tomorrow maybe… or I’ll ask a SHIELD agent when we-“

 

“SHIELD agents are a bunch of idiots. Don’t insult me, Barnes.”

 

He stood in place, still uncertain.

 

Tony let out a sigh, “It… it makes me feel better. Building things, fixing things… It helps when I’m…” not ok, but he doesn’t finish his words.

 

Barnes stared at him for a moment, unable to stop himself from thinking over that statement. Slowly, the Winter Soldier walked back towards the brunette.

 

They both stayed quiet as Tony withdrew a small flat tool from his wallet easily opening up a section in the metal arm. Barnes tried to look at the far wall as the other worked but after a quick glance, found he couldn’t stop staring. It was fascinating the way the engineer started unscrewing and playing with the cords as if he already knew his way around the device as if it was his own creation.

 

After some time, he cleared his throat. “When did you start? Building things, I mean…”

 

Tony didn’t look up. “Four.”

 


 

He gasped as he made his way towards the chair at the center of the room. There were a loud noise and crashes of items hitting the floor as he knocked over desks, materials, anything that was in his path.

 

Once collapsing onto a chair, he reached for the arc reactor, pulling it out to examine it. There was odd smoke emitting from the core. The engineer stared for a couple more seconds before popping it back into place on his chest.

 

“Jarvis!”

 

“Yes, Sir.”

 

“Scan… me.”

 

“Of course, Sir. …There seems to be a high level of toxicity in your blood, Sir. Most likely caused by the arc reactor.”

 

“…Run diagnostics. Anything and everything related to the arc reactor.”

 

“Of course, Sir. Shall I contact Doctor Strange?”

 

Tony licked his lips, pausing as his eyes landed on a medical text at the far corner of the worktable. Stephen had left it there during just the night prior.

 

“…No.”