“Can I ask you a question, hypothetically? Bit odd. If this was your last birthday party you were ever going to have, how would you celebrate it?”
“I’d do whatever I wanted to do with whoever I wanted to do it with.”
“…What if I can’t?”
“Pepper, what’s going on?” Rhodes puts a hand on her shoulder. Pepper shook her head while pacing, obviously distraught.
“I-I don’t know what to do-“
Rhodes takes the chance to better look around at the chaos in the room. “You got to be kidding me. He’s out of control-“
“No no no. Don’t call anyone-“
“Pepper. This is ridiculous. What the hell is wrong with him? I just stuck my neck out for him-“
“I know, I know. I get it. I’m going to handle it-“
“This is a bad idea.”
“Let’s do it. Right now,” Tony replied in a whisper. She was close to him, sharing one breath, matching one heartbeat. “You know you want to.”
“What about those people around?”
“That’s why we’re doing it. It’s for them.” He shrugged. “It’s my party. It’s my friends. They like this sort of garbage-” He let out a snort of laughter and a smile appears on the redhead’s lips. “Come on-“
“Hike it up,” He put a hand on her forearm, helping her lift the gauntlet hand, the other reaches around her waist in a firm hold. “In three. Fire in the hole. One. Nail it!”
There was a loud bang as the blast hits the ice sculpture, shattering it into pieces. A unison gasp could be heard from most of the guests while the two instigators share a laugh.
Tony still had a hold on her wrist, easily spinning his red-haired assistant to face him as she steadied herself. Natasha’s hand soon fell easily onto his chest.
“Packs a big punch, doesn’t it?” she said, the easy laughter still prominent. Their face was close now, lips almost touching.
Tony smiled at her for a moment but then felt a stare. He looked up, eyes meeting…
Stephen doesn’t wait, quickly turned around leaving the scene.
“Tony- I’m going to say this once. Shut it down!”
“Put that thing back where you found it, Platypus. Before someone gets hurt. Sorry, pal, Iron Man doesn’t have a sidekick.”
“Yes, Doctor Strange?”
“Don’t you ‘Doctor Strange’ me! I’m on to you, you lying bitch.” There was venom in his voice as he approached her. “Who the hell are you? What do you want with Tony?”
“I know you poisoned Samantha Carlisle!” he hissed out. “Must have slipped her something so you can get close to Tony. I don’t know what the fuck you want with him but I will not sit here-”
There was a pause in which their eyes locked. The next second, however, it felt as though he was staring at someone completely else. The doctor seriously had to debate whether to just strangle her right then and there. Do no harm, my ass-
The next time she spoke, her tone had drastically changed. To one that was much more stoic and unyielding. “Doctor Strange, I’m a SHIELD shadow agent tasked to keep an eye on both of you. Tony Stark is dying from palladium poisoning but he is not the only one in danger-“
There was a loud bang. To everyone’s shock, Tony and Rhodes, both in full armor, comes crashing through the ceiling. There were screams and shouts. Out of reflex, he tried to shield the redhead from the glass, reaching out to grab her arm, to get her away from the scene… Shocked… to find she had done the same.
“Put your hand down!”
“You think you got what it takes to wear that suit?!”
“We don’t have to do this, Tony.”
“You want to be the War Machine, take your shot!”
“Put it down!”
“You going to take a shot?”
“PUT IT DOWN!”
“DROP IT TONY!”
“Tony! Can you hear me?”
“Is it true? Are you dying?”
“Don’t you dare lie to me-”
“Did you hear me? You are on the radar of quite dangerous people. You two’s involvement only attracted more attention-”
“I don’t fucking care-“ Stephen snapped at her, only quickening his steps. Considering his foul mood, he was only marginally smug the redhead nearly had to sprint to keep up with his long strides.
“Where are you going?” Natasha’s expression still remained carefully blank but she sounded near exasperated.
“Dealing with a more pressing problem-“
“Oh fuck off!”
It has been two weeks since they arrived back to the compound from Wakanda. T’Challa had offered for them to stay a while longer but given Tony’s sudden panic attack episode, Stephen thought it may be best to get his boyfriend back to familiarity. Somewhere he felt safe with all his security protocols, his trusted AI, all his robots and suits at his beck-and-call.
Oddly enough, however, Tony acted completely normal since the event. There was no flinching, no usual paranoia that associated with one of these incidents. In fact, he seemed to be doing rather well. Apart from, Stephen noted, spacing out on frequent occasion.
The first couple of days, Stephen had made every excuse in the book to follow Tony around. Wong didn’t even bother to question his absence from the Sanctum, undoubtedly knowing what was the cause. By the fifth day, the sorcerer relaxed a bit. Perhaps, Tony was actually doing okay.
But why was there a feeling of foreboding following him around?
At the end of the week, he let his guard down. Maybe he was the one being paranoid and it would do no good for either of them if he kept seeing a problem when there was none.
“Tony… Are you really alright?”
Tony lowered his mug, staring at the sorcerer. “Of course I am,” he replied with a bright smile.
Stephen mirrored it unconsciously.
So why did it feel like something terrible was going to happen?
“Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to exit the donut.”
“I told you. I don’t want to join your super secret boy band. I have bigger problems to deal with-”
“Getting your suit back from the government?”
“No, trying to figure out how to get my boyfriend back,” Tony snapped irritably. He pulled down his sunglasses slightly to peer at the SHIELD Director. “It’s… It’s… I’m sorry. I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot. Do I look at the patch or the eye? Honestly, I’m a bit hung over. I’m not sure if you’re real or if I’m having…”
“I am very real.” Fury’s expression remained carefully blank. The one eye remained fixed on the troublesome billionaire across the seat from him. “I’m the realest person you’re ever gonna meet.”
Tony let out a huff, looking around at the donut shop. “Just my luck. Where’s the staff here?”
“That’s not looking so good,” said the Director as he pointed to the isometric pattern on the genius’s neck.
“I’ve been worse.”
Then there was a new voice. “We’ve secured the perimeter but I don’t think we should hold it for too much longer.”
Tony turned to look automatically. The voice was familiar. “You’re… fired.”
“That’s not up to you,” replied his red-haired assistant.
Natasha quickly took the seat next to a very smug Fury.
“Tony, I want you to meet Agent Romanoff.”
Tony fixed her with a glare but she seemed to not mind.
“I’m a SHIELD shadow. Once we knew you were ill, I was tasked to you by Director Fury.”
The gears were turning in his head. “Should have fucking listened to Stephen-“
“You’ve been very busy,” said Fury loudly, speaking over the last comment. “You made your assistant your CEO, you’re giving away all your stuff, you let your friend fly away with your suit, destroyed your relationship with the doctor… Now, if I didn’t know better…”
“You don’t know better. I didn’t give it to him. He took it.”
“Woah woah woah- He took it? You’re Iron Man and he just took it? The little brother walked in there, kicked your ass and took your suit?”
“And don’t you fucking talk about my boyfriend. I didn’t destroy my relationship-“
“You did, Stark. Actually, he lasted longer than I thought-”
That made Tony snap. It scratched at the terribly ill feeling in his stomach. “What do you want from me?”
“What do we want from you?” Fury still carried on with his gratingly amused tone. “Nuh-uh. What do you want from me?”
“I don’t want anything from you. Not your advice. Not your judgment-”
The smile faded quickly from the director’s expression. “No, you just want your precious doctor. Whining about it like a child-“
“Because he is the ONLY thing that matters to me right now!” He snatched off his sunglasses and threw it aside on the table. “I don’t care about the government. I don’t care about the suit. I don’t care about your stupid secret agent problem. All I CARE about is him.”
“See that’s the problem, Stark. You have become a problem, a problem I have to deal with. Hit him.”
“OW!” There was a sudden sharpness in his neck. Tony watched as Natasha stepped back once more but there was a needle in her hand. “Oh, god! Are you going to steal my kidney and sell it? Could you please not do anything awful for five seconds? What did she just do to me?
“What did we just do FOR you. That’s lithium dioxide. It’s gonna take the edge off. We’re trying to get you back to work.”
The engineer let out a disgruntled huff. Although, he was starting to feel a bit better. The symptoms of the palladium poisoning seeming to recede at a rapid rate. “Give me couple boxes of that. I’ll be right as rain.”
“It’s not a cure, it just abates the symptoms.” Fury leaned back on the seat once more. “Doesn’t look like it’s gonna be an easy fix.”
“Trust me, I know. I’m good at this stuff. I’ve been looking for a suitable replacement for palladium. I’ve tried every combination, every permutation of every known element.”
“Well, I’m here to tell you, you haven’t tried them all.”
Tony rolled his eyes.
“You’re distracted,” the Director went on. “Very distracted. So I’m going to tell you something that will help you focus since I can’t depend on your self-preservation or your altruistic morality about protecting the world.”
There was a pause in which Tony stared at the spy with a fixed look.
“We have reasons to believe that Stephen Vincent Strange has already attracted attention from the wrong type of people.”
That made him straighten up a little in his seat, eyes focusing. “What?”
“He’s brilliant. You know how to pick 'em I’ll give you that, Stark,” the Director said sarcastically. “His recent research on the formation of new nerve cells has shown up during another of our operation when we infiltrated an enemy base.”
“Who. Who are they?” His jaws were set, hands balling into fists despite himself under the table.
Fury definitely noticed the sudden change in attitude.
“It’s being taken care of,” he said sternly. “For now. But I’m sure this won’t be the last. Someone like Strange has a tendency to end up in danger. So, the question is, can you accept death now, Stark, knowing you're leaving him in a world where Iron Man won’t be there to protect him?”
“Stephen, you need to come. Now.”
The pair turned to see Wong stepping through a portal he had just conjured, a look of concern clearly tied to his usual stern expression.
Stephen slowly got up from the couch, glancing at Tony briefly before facing the other sorcerer once more. “What happened?”
“There is something unusual in the Dark Dimension. Some large amounts of energy.”
The Sorcerer Supreme gave a quick nod. “I’ll be right there.”
Wong didn’t linger, going back through the same portal. They were all too used to this system none of them bothered with the unnecessary.
“It’s alright. I’ll be fine,” came Tony’s voice quickly.
Stephen walked over to the engineer who was slightly spinning himself from side to side on his usual chair in the lab. He gave a soft smile leaning down to capture the other’s lips. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Tony grinned, lightly stroking the side of the doctor’s face. “Hey, duty calls.”
And soon the sorcerer created his own portal, stepping through easily.
But as soon as the last golden flair flickered, the smile disappeared from Tony’s lips.
“What do you remember about your dad?”
“He was cold, he was calculating. He never told me he loved me. He never even told me he liked me. So it’s a little tough for me to digest when you’re telling me he said the whole future was riding on me and he’s passing it down. I don’t GET THAT. You’re talking about a guy who’s happiest day was when he shipped me off to boarding school.”
“That’s not true.”
“Well, then, clearly you knew my dad better than I did.”
“As a matter of fact, I did.” With that, Fury stood up, motioning to the other agents around them. They quickly darted around at the silent order. “He was one of the founding members of SHIELD.”
Tony stood up as well. “What?”
Fury ignored him. “I got a two o’clock.”
A large black case was being carried over by two agents. Tony eyed it suspiciously as it was placed with a thud next to him. “Wait wait wait – what is this?”
“Okay, you’re good, right?”
“No, I’m not good."
"You got this? Right? Right?"
"Got what? I don’t even know what I’m supposed to get-“
“Natasha will remain a floater at Stark with her cover intact. You remember Agent Coulson?”
Tony watched as a familiar suited figure steps forwards. He sighed. “…yep.”
“And Tony, remember, I got my eye on you.”
The engineer silently watched the director leave. Then turned towards the other agent once more.
“We’ve disabled all communications,” said Coulson. ”No contact with the outside world-“
That made him panic, “Oh no no no- I need a phone -“
To Tony’s further annoyance, Natasha smirked. He glared at her.
“You two are very much alike-“ she said in an amused tone.
“What are you talking about?” he said with exasperation. Then it clicked to him. “Do you know where he is?”
“Doctor Strange is fine,” Coulson said firmly. “We are tailing him as well. Our people will watch over him and keep him safe till you are back on your feet.”
“I swear to god if something happens to him-"
Natasha strode over to him, stopping only a yard away. “Fury was wrong about one thing. Your relationship isn’t destroyed. Probably far from it. He’s more stubborn than you.” There was something similar to fondness in her tone.
Tony stared at her for a minute longer, debating… then. “Please,” he surprised himself at the sincerity in his voice. “Keep him safe.”
When Stephen returns to the compound, he teleports himself to Tony’s bedroom. It was undoubtedly very late into the night and he had hoped that Tony at least taking a break, even if it was fidgeting with his tablet on the bed.
He himself was feeling very worn out. The sorcerer had near drained his powers dealing with an issue in the Dark Dimensions and all he wanted was wash up and get some rest next to his lover.
But the first thing he notices was an empty, made bed. That triggered something in him. Tony never was this tidy and he had long stopped the maids from entering his bedroom since he and Stephen had started to share a bed once more. It looked as though it hadn’t been touched in days. Actually, the whole room looked like it hasn’t been used since he had last been here… three days ago.
The Colonel’s head snaps up to see the infuriated doctor walking towards them at a swift pace. Major Allen who had been standing by his side took a step back.
“Stephen? What…?” He didn’t know where to start. Rhodes definitely was not expecting to see Tony’s boyfriend in an Air Force Base. “How are you here?”
The doctor stops next to the table, eyes on the silver suit. “I save the General’s daughter’s life couple weeks back. I cashed in a favor.”
He looked around hastily, spotting a muslin bag nearby. He grabbed it then reached for the arc reactor on the chest plate of the armor. A hand stopped him.
“Stephen, what the hell are you doing?“ Rhodes asked in a whisper, his grip on Stephen’s wrist loosening a bit as their eyes met.
The surgeon turned to face the Colonel fully, giving a sideward glance at the Major. Rhodes cleared his throat and getting the hint, Major Allen hurried away to give them privacy.
Stephen waited a couple more seconds just to be safe.
“No, what the hell were YOU thinking, James,” there was an obvious bite in his tone. “Bringing this here to a U.S. Army base. Contrary to what we all want to believe the government is not all righteous and moral-“
Rhodes let out a sigh. “He was getting out of hand. You saw it! This armor, it’s a weapon-”
“HE IS DYING.”
Something changes in the Colonel’s expression, a flash of panic in his eyes. “What?”
“You want to sell out the Iron Man suit to the government? Fine. But that reactor is his heart. If someone gets their hands on that and figures out a way to use it against him…” He was speaking fast now. They didn’t have much time. “I will not allow that, James.”
They froze in place, gaze locked. But soon, there was a distant sound of footsteps.
In an instant, they both moved at once, together. Rhodes quickly grabbing reactor from the suit and shoving it into the bag Stephen was holding up.
“Oh, yes! Oh, yes, yes, yes! Is it my birthday? You got it! What did you do? What did you do- Is this what I think it is?”
‘Oh, you got to be kidding me.’ Stephen thought bitterly as he subtly hid the bag behind him.
“Yes, it is, Hammer.” Rhodes took a quick glance at Stephen before turning towards Justin Hammer. “I want to know what you’re going to do for us.”
Justin’s attention finally landed on the doctor but didn’t make a comment, his lips pursing and definitely standing a bit further away than necessary. Stephen smirked as his eyes fell on the bandage still on the other’s nose.
The doctor narrowed his eyes for a moment, calculating. He took a step forward, smirk widening as Justin flinched, jumping back a little. Next to him, Rhodes hid his laugh in a cough.
Stephen leaned towards Rhodes, “Bleed him dry,” he said in a whisper before heading towards the door, the bag still in his hand.
The sorcerer finds Tony in his lab. Sitting on his chair in the middle of the room, papers scattered everywhere... clippings of articles, reports, maps. Several screens were pulled up all filled with photos of an accident… one particular accident.
There was an ominous silence. One that Stephen came to believe was outlawed in this particular space.
The doctor took hesitant steps forward, “Tony…?”
The other didn’t turn around. A foot still tapping lightly on the concrete floor.
Stephen tried not to be alarmed, shoving down the dreaded sensation that was slowly rising to his throat.
He notes that Tony was still in his black band shirt and jeans. One that he was wearing when Stephen left the compound days ago. Had he not left the lab since then? Had he not slept or ate or drank anything? How had FRIDAY not alerted Pepper or Rhodes?
“FRIDAY,” he called out, evenly, loud enough.
But there was silence.
“I turned her off.”
His stomach drops. Despite himself, a sense of fear spreads throughout his whole body. “Tony… what’s going on?”
“Rebooting complete. Congratulations, Mr. Stark, you got your best friend back.”
“Thank you very much, Agent Romanoff.”
“Well done on the new chest piece. I am reading significant higher output and your vitals all look promising.”
“Yes, for the moment, I’m not dying. Thank you.”
“What do you mean you’re not dying? Did you just say you’re dying?” came the distinct exasperated voice.
Both Natasha and Tony’s smile faded as they looked at the third screen displaying Pepper Potts.
“Uh- Pep. Is that you? No, I’m not. Not anymore.”
“What’s going on?!”
Then came another new voice. “Pepper, we’ll explain later-“
Natasha almost rolled her eyes at how Tony seems to perk up at the voice. “Stephen? Babe, I-“
“Did you know too?!” they heard Pepper shouting. “Oh, you both are so dead!”
“I believe that’s a bit counterproductive given the situation-“ they heard Stephen mutter.
“Stephen, I thought you…” They all froze at the unfamiliar hesitance in Tony’s voice. “I thought you were gone for good.”
“What?” Stephen said to the screen.
“You… you left.”
"Oh please," A frown came upon the doctor’s face, he sounded mildly offended. “I went to go retrieve your arc reactor prototype, douchebag. Your idiot best friend was going to turn it over to Hammer-“
“I SAID I WAS SORRY!” came Rhodes’ voice.
“Hey, hey, save it.” Natasha was typing rapidly on the keyboard once more. “You got incoming, Tony. Looks like the fight’s coming to you.”
“What made you leave?”
“Tony,” he spoke slowly, calmly. “I told you there was a problem in the Dark Dimension-“
“Not today. Back then. That day.”
“Today?” Stephen repeated. He can feel the panic rising from within him. He looked around hastily trying to gather some information as to how bad this situation was. “Tony, I’ve been gone for three days.”
“Why did you leave?”
“You haven’t slept.” He notices there was not even coffee mug in sight. He’s almost scared to ask. “Did you… when was the last time you ate or drank something?”
“We never fully talked about it. You see, doc, I’ve been spinning this in my head over and over again. I gave you hell. When I thought I was dying in 2010. You never left… But you did. So quickly… After your accident.”
That made the sorcerer’s head spin. His mouth felt dry. “I was in pain. I wasn’t thinking straight-“
“No!” Tony suddenly got up, the chair thrown aside in a loud crash. “Don’t fucking dare lie to me. Was it HYDRA? Fury said you were being watched. Did someone take you from me?”
“JUST ANSWER ME DAMMIT!”
There was a loud clang as Tony threw a keyboard towards his direction, though obviously intending to miss. He overshot by good several yards, the object landing loudly against the wall behind the doctor. Stephen doesn’t even flinch. He couldn’t stop staring at the brunette.
“…Or did you really mean what you said?” Something flashes in those doe eyes. Grief? Disbelief? Heartbreak? Or perhaps all of them. “You didn’t want me anymore… just got tired of me? Didn’t love me enough to put up with all my shit anymore? Because I played, over and over in my head, what you said that day for years, Stephen. Years.”
The Sorcerer tried to walk closer but Tony automatically stepped back, away from him. He doesn’t remember when was the last time Tony had rejected his presence. “…I’m sorry for what I said…”
“I don’t want an apology Stephen I want answers. You stood by my side through hell and back. You always… You never left me even at my worst. Then suddenly…” His voice breaks. He let out a short, cruel laugh. “Did you not trust me? Did you not think I couldn’t handle your injury? Did you lack faith in us?”
“I trust you… completely-“
“Were. You. Coerced. Did someone make you leave me?”
“Tony you are obsessing…”
“Of course I’m obsessing-“
“Why do you suddenly want to talk about the past when-”
“Why don’t you?”
Stephen freezes, letting silence fall between them for a moment.
“…I…I’m sorry that I hurt you,” he tried to soften his voice, tried to make it as sincere as possible. Tried to have it carry even a spec of what he felt. “To the point of this… I will apologize to you over and over again for the rest of my life. I will try to make up for it every day… I’m not asking you to forgive me. I know I don’t deserve it… But Tony please, I’m asking you to… this isn’t healthy for you-“
“Give me my answer and I will,” he snaps.
“I already did, love.” The doctor tried to smile. “I don’t know what else I can say other than that I was being an utter jerk. I’m so sorry. I really am. I shouldn’t have done… I shouldn’t have said what I said. Why… Tony, why are you fixated on this…”
“Don’t.” Tony was backing up further now, walking quickly to the opposite side of the worktable. “Don’t you dare make it sound like I’m being crazy-“
Stephen frowned. “I’m not saying you are-“
“I swear if you act like him… I…”
“Who are you talking about? Who’s him?”
“Steve fucking Rogers-”
There was a flash of anger. “Did he say something?”
“No,” came the cold reply. “But he used that same tone with me when we argued. Like how you are doing right now. As if I’m being overdramatic. As if I’m being unreasonable, difficult, crazy-“ Tony was speaking very fast now, as if his mind was getting ahead of him and he was trying desperately to catch up. “You called. You couldn’t move your hands. How did you even call me? Christine didn’t know about it so can’t be her-”
“I asked one of the nurses.”
“DID I FAIL?!” He screamed at the top of his lungs.
Stephen didn’t move, didn’t even wince, but closed his mouth immediately.
“Did… I… fail… in protecting you. I was… supposed to protect you. I can’t… I can’t even do a damn thing right…”
He couldn’t stop himself anymore. Stephen took quick strides, rushing to close the distance between them. He caught Tony’s shoulder before he had a chance to escape. He tried not to let it bother him that the brunette recoiled at his touch.
“Tony… Tony look at me. I made a mistake. I made the mistake, okay? I failed. I failed us. I should have been stronger. I should have known better. But it was my fault. For that, I apologize. But you didn’t do anything wrong-
“Don’t you dare lie to me.”
Everything happened in a flash. Or at least it felt like that for Tony. One moment, he felt so alive fighting to the death side-by-side with his best friend; it was definitely a kick to his adrenaline like none other before. It felt so… right.
But next, he was staring at Stephen with one of Vanko’s whip around his neck in a threatening hold. He, Stephen, and Rhodey had worked seamlessly together in getting out of that situation but the scene played in his head over and over again.
Tony let out a sigh as he got up from the chair, pacing once more. The look that Stephen had when their eyes met… it was not fear for his own life… it was fear for his. After all that happened in the past couple months, after all the hell Tony had put the doctor through, how could he even look at him like that?
He wanted to leave. Get back to Stephen whom he left at his penthouse. Where was Fury? He was definitely late now.
But speaking of the Director… Tony’s eyes landed on the file that was on the desk in front of him.
Avengers Initiative Preliminary Report
But just as he picked up the folder, the Director walked in.
“I don’t think I want you looking at that. I’m not sure it pertains to you anymore. Now this, on the other hand, is Agent Romanoff’s assessment of you. Read it.” He threw the file he had brought onto the desk.
Tony sat back on his seat, carelessly opening the file. “Personality overview. Mr. Stark displays compulsive behavior. In my own defense, that was last week. Prone to self-destructive tendencies… I was dying. I mean, please. Aren’t we all? Textbook narcissism? ….Eh…agreed. Okay, here it is. Recruitment assessment for Avengers Initiative: Iron man? Yes. I gotta think about it.”
“Tony Stark not… not recommended? That doesn’t make any sense. How can you approve me but not approve me? I got a new ticker. I’m trying to do right by Stephen. I’m in a stable-ish relationship-“
“Which leads us to believe at this juncture, we’d only like to use you as a consultant.”
He peered at the director, assessing the situation. “…Because of my relationship with Stephen?”
Fury was silent, his expression unchanging.
“Seriously? What is this thing you have against him? If anything he’s way too good for me. Everyone says so and here you are criticizing-“
The Director leaned back on his chair, sighing. “I’m not criticizing him. In fact, I think Dr. Strange will do great things for the world. I think, you think, he’s too good for you. I think you have him on a pedestal. I think when it comes to saving the world or your boy toy, you will choose the later. Love makes us do stupid things, Stark. I think you’re compromised. In fact, I know you are.”
There was a brief silence, then Tony stood up. “Well… you can’t afford me anyways.” He headed towards the door then stopped to look back. “And you’re right. If you ask me to choose between this or Stephen… I’ll always choose him. No questions.”
Out of habit, she stared out at the window as she dried her hair with a towel. There wasn’t much to see tonight, fog and droplets of rain obstructing the view. It was coming down hard since an hour or two ago. The beatings of water hitting the roof of the compound getting louder, faster consistently.
Natasha and the rest of the crew made the mistake of trusting Clint as he insisted it would just be overcast. They all ended up getting soaked on their way back from the town. Sam had been the most vocal amongst them and he and Clint did not stop arguing till the moment they all separated to their reciprocating rooms to shower.
The redhead checked the clock; near midnight. She reached over to the nightstand towards the glass of water. But in an instant, grabbed the handgun, spinning around.
There was an eerily silence as he steps off the elevator. Stephen took couple careful steps forward; surveying the empty hospital floor that usually was packed with people.
He turned quickly towards the voice. His gaze landing on a man in complete black and eye patch sitting on a bench to his left.
“Director Asshole, I assume.”
Fury stood to his feet, taking a few steps forward. “Is that what Stark calls me?”
“Amongst other things,” Stephen smirked, putting the chart in his hand to a counter. “How can I help you? You went through all this trouble.” He motioned sarcastically at the empty surroundings.
“I came to talk. You’ve become very famous very quickly.”
“Because of Tony.” His voice was flat, even. Yet, harshness was there, slowly seeping into each word.
“Amongst other things,” Fury said, repeating the other’s earlier words.
Stephen paused as he turned to face the other man, hands falling into the pockets of his uniform. “I heard he has been rejected for your pet project.”
“Technically, doctor, he shouldn’t have even told you that,” an amusement was in the Director’s voice.
Stephen ignores the comment. “Surely, it’s not for the lack of aptitude.”
“Is it not?”
“So it’s because of me… or our relationship to be precise.”
Fury paced a bit, half-heartedly surveying the medical texts that were laying around on the lounge. “You’re perceptive.”
Stephen let out a huff of laughter. “Is this where you tell me to leave him? So your precious SHIELD can have him? For the greater good of the world or the like? Sorry to break it to you but I’m quite selfish.”
“The thought crossed my mind. But if we did that Stark would never stop till he has our heads rolling.” The Director said with a smirk. “Seem a bit shortsighted, don’t you think? So no. That’s not what I’m here for.”
“Then why are you here?”
“As Agent Romanoff mentioned to you, you alone already had attracted the attention of some really bad people. SHIELD has every intention of watching out for both you and Stark as we have in the past. But we would like it if you will cooperate. Help us out a bit.”
“For you to check in with one of our agents every now and then. Every other week maybe. Let us know any changes, anything unusual, nothing you feel uncomfortable sharing.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because unlike Stark, you are vulnerable. And if you are vulnerable, he is vulnerable. I’m sure you understand what I’m getting at.”
Stephen didn’t say anything.
“Stark had told me the other day he will choose you over saving the world. Can you imagine what he would do to keep you alive? Knowing that suicidal motherfucker, he easily will-“
“Alright,” he cuts him off. Stephen didn’t want to hear it. Didn’t want to hear the exact thought that has been haunting him the past couple days. Since Tony disarmed the Iron Man suit to heed to Vanko’s demand… just for his life. “But I have a say in who.”
Fury raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t expect you to know much of my men.”
“Woman,” the doctor corrects immediately. “I want Agent Romanoff.”
Fury glanced towards the red-haired agent who had been quietly lurking in a corner. She looked collected as always, her expression not changing, though he could tell she was just as curious as he was.
“No problem. Agreed.” The Director was heading towards the elevator. “I knew you would at least listen to reason. Agent Romanoff will check in with you every two weeks.” With that, he was gone.
“Should I be flattered, doc? I thought you hated my guts,” said Natasha teasingly as she stepped out from the shadow.
He glanced her over. “I think you’ll do what needs to be done.”
“Where were you when we were all caught up with Vanko at the end?”
She said nothing.
“Sorry more specifically, who did you have the gun aiming at?”
She blinked, but overall her face was completely wiped blank.
“I saw you at a distance. Pointing a sniper.” He took a step closer to her, lowering his voice a notch. “But it wasn’t at Vanko, was it? You were there just in case things got out of hand. Your mission was to protect Tony. The gun… was aimed at me.”
There was a tight smile playing on her lips as she stared up at him. “Did it hurt your feelings, doc?”
“No. No… I agree with you,” Stephen replied simply. He turned around and back to his chart, half-heartedly flipping through before flinging it aside. “No matter what I accomplish in this field, I’m just a doctor. The world is full of doctors. The world needs Iron Man. And there will never be another Iron Man. …SHIELD needs Iron Man so I trust that you’ll protect him. I trust that… if it comes down to it, if that time ever comes where it’s between his life or mine, you’ll pull the trigger on my head. …Because he certainly won’t.”
There was a stretch of silence. Then a small nod from the agent. “…Okay.”
The doctor stepped back, a soft sigh. A small smile. “Okay.”
Natasha lowered her gun slowly, giving the other a brief quizzical stare while she looked him over. Stephen didn’t move, just took a deep breath as his gaze fell to the window then back towards her.
After another minute, she gave a soft smile then picked up the towel that she had dropped, throwing it into the laundry basket in the corner of the room. “You can take the floor.”
Stephen let out a sigh as he waved a hand, his clothing magically changing into a normal shirt and pants. The cloak, however, flew towards the door, motioning to him. As if telling him it wanted to be back at the floor above… with Tony. The sorcerer ignores it.
Natasha doesn’t ask the obvious, she can already guess that part. “Why didn’t you go back to the Sanctum?”
“I rather be here, just in case.”
“You think he’s unstable?”
“He’s quite upset.”
There was a pause.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked evenly.
There was once a time where that would not have been uncommon: Stephen sharing with her of concerns or issues in regards to Tony. It had taken over a year from their initial meeting for the two to get to that point. Mostly due to Stephen being too cautious and protective of whom he shares any information in regards to Tony or Iron Man.
But in time, it became obvious if the doctor was going to talk to someone Natasha was clearly the best choice. He didn't want to say it but the reality was that Christine was out of her depth unless it strictly retained to matters of his relationship with Tony. Natasha, on the other hand, understood that world, she was part of it. Many times, back during those days, she gave Stephen much-needed perspective and was definitely not afraid to be forthright about it. And, especially after the Avengers had formed, he trusted that she was not a threat, she would have Tony’s back.
Of course, a lot has changed since those days.
She disregarded the no answer. She didn’t expect him to even answer the first question.
“You should get some sleep,” she said calmly as she started unpacking extra comforters and sheets for him to use.
She wasn’t blind as to why he was here in her room instead of one of the many guest rooms. Her room was just below Tony’s. Regardless of the thick flooring, if something major happened, they would hear and would be within close distance.
Sure, they shared a history of friendship once upon a time (and perhaps that still played a part; he knew she would not say no even now) but the sorcerer made it clear, for the most bit, he no longer trusted her.
“He’s asking questions about my departure.”
Natasha stilled for a brief moment, then continued to arrange the sheets onto the floor. “Did you tell him?”
“I told him I was being an idiot.” His voice was leveled but as she turned to look at him there was clear stiffness to his posture. His trembling hands fidgeting, balling into fists then letting go.
“He’s been through enough.” It was firm, unyielding.
Natasha let out a soft sigh, climbing to her bed and laying down. She didn’t look at him choosing to fix her gaze to the ceiling instead. After a moment she heard the rustling of fabric as the sorcerer got under the covers on the floor.
“You love him,” she said softly. “Love him enough to let him hate you.”
“I love him.” His voice was quiet, barely above a whisper. “But he loves the Avengers. It’s part of him. Regardless of what he says… it would kill a part of him to lose any of you. He always loved a bit too much for his own good. Even if it was not deserved.”
There was a moment of pause. “…And in the end, it was still my choice. I made the decision to walk away.”
Natasha turned to her side, towards the voice, resting her head on her arm. Although the high rise of the bed prevented her from even seeing the doctor’s form on the floor. If she leaned forward, she knew she would find him lying on his side, facing the other direction. He always did.
“The first time Tony was approached, he turned down the Avengers Initiative… for you. When given the choice between you or the Avengers, he always chose you. Always will.”
A silence stretched between them.
There was a moment where neither moved nor spoke. Then, sound of heavy fabrics being displaced. Stephen pushed himself up to a sitting position, staring at the redhead. There was a slight frown on his face and a glimmer of what seemed like a concern in those glacial eyes, “And you? What will you do?”
She let out a huff of laughter. “Suddenly concerned about me, doc?”
“He... will not take this well.”
“No, he will not.” There was a soft smile playing on her lips. “But I expected you to tell him the moment you came back.”
Stephen fixed her with a look. “He’s been hurt enough, Natalia. I wasn’t going to open a new wound.” But his tone softened a bit before his next words. “…I had hoped, he would forgive me without an explanation.”
The corner of her lips twitched upwards a bit more at her real name. There were few people who still called her that, who had called her that. She looked away, lying fully on her back once more staring at the ceiling. “I’m sorry.”
Stephen let out a huff. “Did I hear that correctly?” he said sarcastically.
“Don’t gloat,” she shot back. She flung her arm to his direction intending to hit him but the sorcerer darted back with a light laugh.
He paused before going on. “What happened to it being necessary?”
Natasha didn’t answer for a time. “I thought it was. At the time, I really thought it was necessary. Then I realized… we all might be sacrificing too much for this greater good that might not even exist.”
“What changed your mind?”
“…I went to look for you.”
“Did you?” he sounded amused. “When?”
She sighed. “Maybe four-five months after? You just landed in Nepal. I lost you just outside of the city border of Kathmandu.”
Stephen snorted. “Five months, huh?”
The agent gave him an offended glare before looking away. “We were busy. …After all the classified information of SHIELD we leaked to the public…” her voice trails off.
He smiled then lay back down. “We should sleep.”
There were sounds of shuffling as both of them settled. Soon there was complete silence except the ticking of a clock on the bedside table. The rain seemed to have stopped, the remaining droplets of water racing down the window.
She slept soundlessly. He stayed awake.