“Twelve percent?? Twelve percent for my baby?!”
“Well, I did do all the heavy lifting. Literally, I lifted the heavy things. And sorry but the security snafu? That was on you.”
“Ohhhh nonono- That was on YOU. If you just didn’t press the panic button just so you and Stephen can have a make-out session-“
Stephen chuckled as Tony hurried towards him. Though the billionaire tried to play it off, his pace was a lot quicker than usual. Tony soon had both arms around the doctor, giving a quick kiss before darting behind the taller man at the sight of angry Pepper closing in.
“Don’t you dare hide behind Stephen!” Pepper called out with exasperation.
“Tony, apologize. Pepper really had a heavy hand in this,” he began. Although, the doctor still had a hand out in front of the brunette, shielding him out of reflex. Tony soon flushed himself against Stephen’s back, peering over his boyfriend’s shoulder at the fuming strawberry blonde with large doe eyes.
Stephen admitted he was weak to Tony acting fragile, seeking his help… though he was fully aware it was generally out of some joke. But even if it was all pretenses, it did something to warm his heart. The doctor was convinced, however, the genius knew that and was exploiting it thoroughly at occasions like this.
“Why are you taking her side?! You are supposed to be my boyfriend!”
Stephen rolled his eyes right before turning around, hands tight on the nape of Tony’s neck as he leaned down capturing the other’s full lips. It was short but very thorough.
“Because,” he said as he pulled back a little, “it is due to her hard work I get to enjoy my time with you. Great length of time.”
Tony stares back at him, the open adoration on full display as usual. “Towers all you, Pep. I don’t need the tower. Who needs a tower when I have the hot doctor-“
Pepper let out a loud sigh, rolling her eyes at the pair. Though Stephen doesn’t miss the subtle smile dancing on her lips.
“Sir, Agent Romanoff is requesting access to the floor.”
Tony groaned dramatically as he buried his forehead in Stephen’s shoulders. “Tell her to go away. My time.” The doctor tried hard not to laugh at the childishness the billionaire’s voice. “You can do your whole briefing thingy later-”
Ever since he had agreed to check in with the SHIELD agent every so often after the Vanko incident, Tony had started to display jealous outbursts that rivaled his own. Though, perhaps Tony handled his issues better than he in some ways by masking them in humor rather than anger.
“Actually, sir. She is requesting to speak with you, not Doctor Strange.”
That certainly had all of them confused. Though in a matter of seconds, the elevator opened revealing the familiar redhead with a file in her hand.
“Why do you even bother to knock when you were going to throw open the door anyway? What if we were naked?” said Tony sarcastically as he approached the agent.
“That already happened,” Natasha replied back coolly.
Stephen followed closely behind, hands casually falling into the pockets of the dark slacks. “Natalia.”
She gives him her usual tight smile. “Stephen.”
“Natalia? Uh- her first name is Agent. …And seriously?! How many fucking names do you have? Is this one even real?”
The doctor chuckled softly. “Come in, we’re celebrating,” the doctor said calmly towards the redhead.
“Which is why she can’t stay.”
“This is urgent, Tony.” They don’t miss the sudden seriousness in her voice.
Although Natasha was known for her often stoic exterior they found, during the past year together, that she could be quite sarcastic when she wanted to be. The SHIELD agent was definitely bold and quick-witted. Once her Stark Industry persona was thrown aside, she whole-heartedly joined in on Stephen and Tony’s bantering when the situation allowed it.
Something was different today. Something was wrong.
Stephen stopped smiling almost instantly as his eyes landed on the digital file in her outstretched hand. He walked over, taking it and handing it to Tony.
There were words being exchanged. Tony making light of the situation as usual. Something about consultation hours and Avengers Initiative being scrapped. About how he “didn’t play well with others”. But it all fell deaf in Stephen’s ears. A million thoughts were crossing his mind. Something told him of what might be next. An answer that he had been dreading… one he wasn’t sure he was prepared to accept just yet.
Stephen had a cold look as he watched Tony expand his arms, the holographic videos projecting from the file. Pepper looked a bit stunned but chose to remain quiet. The CEO turned towards him as if waiting for his reaction. Often, at times like this, she seemed to expect Stephen to know what to do in regards to Tony. But he was sure grabbing the file from the brunette and chucking it aside was certainly not the best course of action… because that’s what his instinct was telling him.
“I’ll look after him.”
He turned towards the quiet voice. Natasha now stood next to him, giving him a knowing look. The doctor gave a small nod.
Helplessness… that’s what he felt. Utter helplessness.
There was a loud crash as cups landed on the tiles, shattering into million pieces.
Stephen sharply turned the corner. Tony was in the kitchen, flinching away from something he had tried to pick up. He rushed to grab a hold of the other’s wrist, pulling him upright and away from the broken glass. There was now a small cut on the engineer’s fingers.
“Allow me,” he said calmly before waving a hand, using magic to clean the mess, the broken cups, and healing the cut.
When he next looked at Tony, the engineer seemed to have his gaze fixed on the far corners of the wall. Stephen had been expecting more anger from the other but that was not what he found.
Tony undoubtedly was edgy. And judging by the redness around the rims of his eyes he didn’t sleep much yesterday either. But it wasn’t rage that radiated from the shorter male. No, it was fear. Fear of what?
The sorcerer took a half step forwards cautiously. “Tony… you need rest…”
There was no response.
He selfishly wants to stay, to get the other to rest properly, to eat, to give him some sort of acknowledgment. But after long minutes of pure silence, Stephen let out a soft sigh before turning around to leave.
A hand grabs him.
Relief flooded through him as he glanced towards the fingers that wrapped tightly around his left wrist. But that was short lived.
It made him frown. He quickly turned around to look at the brunette. That tone was just… so off.
He absentmindedly pulled his wrist away and Stephen sees the pure panic in the engineer’s eyes as his fingers slipped off the sorcerer. Perhaps seeing the realization hit the other, Tony hastily glanced away.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Stephen stated flatly. He tried to calm his own voice. Desperately trying to push down the anger that was starting to boil. Not at Tony… it wasn’t directed at his lover. No, it was directed at every goddamn person that caused this innate fear in the brunette. “I’m not leaving. I’m just giving you space if that’s what you need. I’m not mad at you.”
Tony swallowed hard, not meeting his eyes still. He was speaking fast now. “I’m sorry- I….I don’t know what came over me yesterday. Maybe it was the alcohol… I’ll cut back. I-“
There was at least some strength in his words, the casual nonchalant tone that was common for the engineer… the forced confidence, a front.
Stephen definitely sees the uneasiness in his shoulder, the way his gaze constantly shifts but never fully at him, the fingers that constantly flexes in anxiety.
“We both know you weren’t drinking, Tony. Not yesterday,” he said evenly.
That makes the other freeze.
Stephen reached out, a hand resting on the other’s jawline, coaxing the brunette to look at him. He smiled when he finally sees the familiar honey brown gaze. “I’m not mad. I really am not. You had every right to be upset about what happened in the past.” There was a brief pause, eventually letting out a soft sigh. “Tony… are you apologizing right now because you honestly feel you have something to apologize for… or is it that you are afraid I’ll leave?”
There was a moment of silence. Tony swallowed hard. “I… don’t want you to leave.”
Stephen wanted to say something. He wanted to say a lot of things. How wrong this whole situation is. How Tony shouldn’t be the one apologizing anyways. How he can’t just pretend to be in the wrong every time… probably even convinced himself he’s wrong… just because he’s scared to be abandoned the minute he voices an opinion or show that he’s angry. But more than anything, the sorcerer wants to punch a certain super soldier. Because he can guess where this behavior stemmed from.
But if Stephen was being completely honest with himself… perhaps he played a part as well. After all, he left Tony first. Took cruel stabs at his heart with ruthless words then left him to bleed.
He rubbed a thumb on the nape of Tony’s neck in small circles, the other arm wrapping gently around the brunette’s waist. He’s at least comforted by the fact Tony leaned into the touch rather than flinching away like the night prior.
“Tony, listen. I’m not leaving you. If you’re mad, you have the right to show that you are. I’m not going to disappear just because we got into a fight. …If… you still need space away from me I’ll give it to you… but I’ll be here when you’re ready…”
“No,” Tony blurted out. “I… just stay… please.”
“Okay.” He smiled softly. “Okay… but let’s… get you some water first then maybe some sleep. We can talk… or whatever you need after you get some rest, alright?”
The other doesn’t say anything. Just leans his head on the sorcerer’s shoulder. Stephen swore he could sense Tony crying soundlessly.
“Yeah. That’s just a preview. This is opening night. Loki is a full-tilt diva. He wants flowers, he wants parades, he wants a monument built in the skies with his name plastered… …son of a bitch.”
“You are not authorized to be here-“
“Son… just don’t.”
“How long till we get to New York?”
“About 20 minutes,” replied Clint.
“Stark will beat us there,” there was a trace of worry in the Captain’s voice.
The archer smirked, “Yeah well let’s hope he doesn’t get into too much trouble till we get there.”
Natasha stood to her feet, walking briskly towards the back of the jet past Steve. Clint didn’t even bother to turn but Cap watched her questioningly as she pulled out a burner phone, quickly dialing a number before putting it to her ear.
It was a quick conversation before the redhead returned to the co-pilot seat.
“Did you tell him to get out of New York?” Clint asked, almost nonchalant.
“He’s being stubborn.”
“Of course he is.”
There was a short pause before…
Clint burst out laughing at Steve’s question. Natasha just shook her head with an eye roll while Steve seemed thoroughly confused at the reaction he was receiving in lack of an answer.
“No,” the redhead replied calmly. “Tony’s boyfriend. I was assigned to watch over him for the past year.”
“Sorry… Stark’s boyfriend…?” There was clear disbelief in the blonde’s words.
The archer had a smirk on his face as he glanced back. “21st century, Cap. You really need to get with the times.”
“I didn’t mean-“ Steve looked almost offended at that. “I don’t have a problem with people being gay! I just… didn’t think Stark would be the type to have a steady-"
“Oh, Stark has a steady alright.” Clint was still in fits and giggles as Natasha simply sighed, fixing him with a look. “Enough to have one of SHIELD’s best spy playing baby sitter for most of the year because god forbids a scratch ends up on that pretty doctor’s face-“
It was hours before Tony next awoke. There was harsh orange glow seeping from the large bedroom windows hinting it was well past the mid-afternoon. The sun will be coming down soon.
Tony turned his head slightly, becoming closely face-to-face with a certain sorcerer. It occurred to the brunette that the other must have held him the whole time as he slept. Considering how familiarized he was to Stephen’s touch was, his body must have not even noticed.
He cleared his throat awkwardly. Everything was coming back to him now. Everything that he had done, said, heard in the past three or four days. But clearer… much too clearer.
Something must have shown on his face because there was a sudden shift in Stephen’s expression as well. Tony felt a pang of guilt as he sees the smile faltering on the other’s lips.
“Did you want me to leave you alone?” The doctor’s voice was carefully even.
The usual notes of panic tugged at Tony’s brain but this time he was able to rein it in, rationalized. He squashes away the silly insecurities, taking a few deep breaths as he harshly ran his finger through his messy hair.
“I… I don’t know…” he said, letting his head sink back onto the pillow, eyes fixing on the high ceiling above. That was as honest of an answer as it was going to get.
There was a moment of silence before Stephen props himself up on his elbow. Almost unconsciously his fingers find themselves on Tony’s cheeks, tracing the outlines lightly with shaky hands. He knew better. He really did. But he just couldn’t help it. Even the fear of possible rejection was not enough to stop him from reaching out. His desperation outweighed any fear.
It was just a touch. Tony wouldn’t deny him of something so simple, would he? …even if he was still upset with him.
But perhaps that’s why he should have stopped. Should have stopped because he’s unsure Tony would, especially in this state of mind. Stephen wondered at times lately if Tony ever was capable of denying him anything… even if it came at a price to himself.
He really, really should have stopped himself. Because it was just a touch now but for Stephen, he’d always be selfish and want more.
The sorcerer was soon leaning in, pausing only when their lips were an inch apart. Tony can see the hesitance. The way Stephen seems to be searching for any trace of reluctance in the outlines of his face.
Stephen let out a heavy sigh as he pressed his forehead against the brunette’s. “You… need to tell me to stop… or…”
Tony does both of them a favor by crossing the final distance, their lips locking in a heated embrace. They kiss once, twice, until they both had a taste and remember once more they will never have enough.
The engineer quickly turned his attention to the SHIELD agent.
Natasha simply sighed as she approached him in quick strides. She knew very well the direction the other was staring at. “Tony, you can’t get distracted right now. This is a battlefield. He’s far-“
“Not far enough,” Tony snapped.
There was a brief moment of silence as their eyes locked. Sounds of shouts filled the air, sound of rumbling, Hulk’s roar. They needed to get back to it. They were already outnumbered enough as it was.
“I… I need to go find him.”
“Tony,” Natasha said sternly as she steps in front of him. There was earnest in her eyes he never quite seen before. It makes him hesitate, his mind and heart at a war with each other.
“We need you here. We can make sure the fight doesn’t go across the city-“
“I CAN’T RISK THAT-“
There was a blast. Tony had just in time to put the faceplate back over his face before pushing Natasha out of the way. The blast landed instead on a nearby building, shattering through the wall.
Tony had his hands up, repulsor at the ready. But before he fires, a shield hits the Chitauri squarely in the chest, knocking it backward.
“What’s going on?” Captain America was approaching them, fast. Behind him, a bolt of lightning blasts away the rest of the alien army nearby.
Tony turned away, he didn’t want to argue. But he also did not want to hear any patronizing comments either.
Natasha took a quick glance at the engineer before stepping forward towards Steve. “We need to set up a better perimeter, ask the officers if we have to. There are too many civilians at risk.”
There was a pause as Captain had a stern look, a small frown appearing on his face. He looked back and forth between the agent and Tony as if trying to process the situation.
“Where’s the hospital located at?” But his question was not directed at Natasha.
Tony stared back into those clear blue eyes, hesitating. “…58th Street.”
Steve held his gaze. “I’ll get a perimeter as far as 39th Street. Anything gets past that, you go to him. Okay?”
Tony swallowed. Slight confusion as to how Captain knew but nodded none-the-less.
It was quiet… almost inaudible in the midst of the chaos around them, but Steve heard him just fine.
The smile that forms on the Captain, however… that, only Tony sees.
“Where did you sleep last night?”
They had just come down from the high. Stephen just barely managed to get off of the other before collapsing onto the mattress at his side.
“I know you followed me up here… but you didn’t sleep on this floor.” Tony’s voice was rough, uneven. Though most of that was contributed to their fervent activities just seconds prior.
Stephen let out a soft sigh, shifting to lie on his side. A hand absentminded traced the dips of the brunette’s naked back.
There was no point in lying. “I was downstairs. I slept in Romanoff’s room. Slept on the floor.”
The sorcerer takes careful notes of Tony’s expression, at any spec of change.
“Tony,” he said firmly. “I didn’t-“
“Not a far fetched idea-“ Tony shifted his gaze. “I basically just threw you out after a spectacular meltdown. You were fond of her once. She’s pretty. You’re pretty-“
“The floor,” he repeated harshly. That came out stronger than he meant to. “I’m not going to fuck your teammate just because you yelled at me. Or anyone for that matter.”
“I can’t tell anymore…”
Stephen frowned. “What?”
“I can’t tell if you’re lying.”
He let the silence fall, not knowing what else to say.
“When you left…”
“I get it, you don’t want to talk about it. But let me finish.” That made Stephen close his mouth abruptly. “…Did you miss me? The years we spent apart. Did you think about me at all?”
“Of course I did.” If only you knew… “I missed you every second of it.”
There was more he wanted to say, much more words at the tip of his tongue. But his phone decided to chime at that moment. A text. Tony thought to ignore it but a glance at the screen told him it was Peter.
Tony blinked several times, trying to clear away the tears that he didn’t know was forming. At the corner of his eyes, he sees Stephen reaching for his cell as well. A group chat then.
Dad, are you busy?
Tony quickly typed a response.
No, what’s up kid?
What about you Doctor dad?
Are you in trouble?
I was thinking
dinner at that nice restaurant you took me to for my birthday?
There was a pause in which Tony debated if he should just tell the Peter it was not a good time. But a part of him doesn’t have it in him to disappoint the teen when the kid rarely asked for things in the first place. The engineer could already sense the tenseness in Stephen, as the sorcerer seemed to be waiting for Tony’s decision on the matter.
Tony let out a short chuckle as he pulled himself off the bed. He glanced towards Stephen as he picked up the pants that were carelessly thrown to the floor earlier. “We should get dressed-”
But Stephen simply held up his phone with an eyebrow raised, displaying the screen for the brunette to read.
Because I’m busy and I already made reservation for 7pm for you two. Have fun :D
“Did we just get set up?” Stephen said with mild amusement.
Tony let out a laugh, ruffling his own hair into more of a mess. “Jesus- How did he even…“
There was a soft smile playing on Stephen’s lips as he locked eyes with Tony. “He notices a lot more than you think. But we were quite loud yesterday… He must have heard the fight…”
The engineer paces, not knowing what to do next. “We… don’t have to go-“
The doctor let out a soft sigh as he pushed himself to a sitting position against the headboard. “Maybe… we should go…”
The other turned sharply. “So we can just fight in public too?”
“I know-“ His voice takes up a mocking tone as he waves a hand dismissively. “Tony don’t start a fight if you hate it so much-“
“That’s not what I was going to say.” That made Stephen frown. Had he said that to Tony? He was quite sure he never had. But someone must have. The sorcerer was starting to see a pattern now. The obsession, the mental breakdown, the insecurities… it was all fixation to something in the past. Perhaps the panic attack at Wakanda triggered more in Tony than Stephen has previously assumed.
“Sorry,” Tony said almost too quickly. “I…”
Stephen noticed how the other kept glancing at his face. The sorcerer quickly tried to neutralize his expression, making a mental note to make sure to remain passive.
He stood to his feet, walking to the other side of the bed to where Tony was, crossed armed. He held out a hand, gently squeezing at the other’s wrist.
“I was going to say… I don’t… want to fight with you. I don’t like fighting with you…” he let out a light scoff, more to himself. “It scares me.”
“That we might… not get through it?”
“No, no… Tony, we’ll get through it.” A small smile appears on the doctor’s lips as he stroked the other’s cheek. “It always just scares me when you’re not in my arms.”
The brunette relaxes a little, the shoulders less tense. He opens his mouth a few times but closes it once more without saying a word. Stephen continued to wait a while longer just in case. But Tony eventually fixes his gaze to the flooring.
“Let’s… go have dinner. Please?”
After a short silence, Tony nods. A small smile visible the next time he looked up.
“I transferred all the patients waiting for beds up to the nursing unit. Two of the paramedics are helping to bring down all the cots we have in storage.”
Stephen looked just in time to catch a water bottle being thrown in his direction.
“Drink. This is probably the only chance you’ll get in the next couple of hours.” Christine said as she opened a bottle of her own, taking large gulps.
“You stayed,” he stated as he continued to stare at the other doctor. There was a hint of surprise in his tone.
She smiled with a small huff. “Of course I stayed.”
“So did I.”
They both turned to see Nicodemus West learning against the doorframe. There was a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. Must be all the worries of the troubled situation. Stephen notes, however, his usual arrogant façade completely gone, as well as, Nick’s usual antagonism towards him.
“And so did the half of the nursing staff. You can’t do this alone, Strange.”
Stephen stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
They say a person’s true character is often revealed in time of crisis.
“We don’t have much time, five minute tops before EMTs arrives-“
Stephen took a couple steps towards the door. “We need to convert the waiting room into triage. How many nurses-“
But he soon realized the two other doctors were no longer paying attention, looking somewhere behind him.
He followed their gaze, landing on the large flat screen on the opposite wall. It now displayed a scene of Iron Man flying over the buildings of New York, seeming to be directing a large missile.
He’s unsure if he said that out loud. Nor does he have much time to care. There was sudden fear that radiated throughout his whole being. The surgeon reached into his pocket, hurrying to dig out his phone. The usual steady hands shaking uncontrollably.
1 missed call. Tony Stark.
He dials it back frantically, hears the first ring, then second.
On screen, Iron Man was climbing higher and higher, gaining speed. One moment there was brilliant shine of red and gold against the blue sky, the next… nothing.
He couldn’t breathe. There was a loud clunk as the phone lands on the cold tiles.
Christine hurried towards him but Stephen held up a hand, stilling her from crossing that final distance.
…A loud cheering could be heard now just outside the door in the halls and main lobby. News reporters talked of end to the devastating threat.
Stephen swallowed hard, closing his eyes. There was definite ringing in his ears… he couldn’t feel his heart.
“You know… if I were Iron Man, I’d have this boyfriend who knew my true identity. He’d be a wreck cause he’d always be worrying that I was going to die…”
“… yet so proud of the man I’d become. He’d be wildly conflicted, which would only make him more…”
“… crazy about me.”
That infuriating charming smile he can still see if he just closed his eyes…
Stephen grabbed the first thing within reach, a lamp on the side table. He flung it with everything he had. There was a loud crash as it shattered against the screen.
Both Christine and Nick flinched, jumping back.
It was a cozy little place in Manhattan. The whole interior dimly lit. The main source of light coming from the fireplace at the center of the room.
It was a nice sit-down restaurant but, as Stephen had joked during Peter’s birthday, not as pretentious as the other high-end restaurants Tony frequented. Tony retorted back then of how there used to be a day the doctor refused to go anywhere but those snobby eateries. Peter had laughed at their bickering throughout the evening; simply glad they were all there together. There were a lot of jokes, banter, laughter…
Today the couple sat at a table further in, in one of the booths with half-drawn curtain giving them considerable privacy. This time, the bright teen was not with them. The two adults mostly silent.
Stephen seemed relatively at ease. Relaxed even considering everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours. He wears a hint of a smile as he casually gazes at the fireplace. Tony admits that the doctor’s composure does somewhat quiet his own nerves.
“Why are you so calm?” he asked after a while.
The sorcerer turned his attention to Tony immediately at the words, the smile only widening as they locked eyes. “Why wouldn’t I be? You’re here. I told you, I feel most at ease when I have you with me.”
Tony lightly scowled at him though he could feel his skin flushing warm. Stephen only lets out a warm chuckle as he leaned back on his seat further.
“I always liked it here.”
“We’ve only been here once before.”
Stephen doesn’t speak.
“Were you here before?”
“Not in this lifetime.”
Something about the words sends a chill down Tony’s spine. “We also never talked about what you saw when you looked into the future…”
“Future… right…” The sorcerer was staring off now, looking at something in the distance but not really seeing it.
The engineer hesitates for a moment. “Is that all that was? Possible future?”
“It’s complicated,” he started but paused briefly as he stared into Tony’s eyes. “I saw the possible outcome… the futures of this lifetime. But there were other things I couldn’t quite explain.”
“Event that never happened and ones I don’t believe will happen in this world.”
“Are they real?”
“Perhaps. In another life… Maybe they were alternative realities. Universes that mirror our own.”
That made his brain hurt. Alternate realities. Considering all that they have been through that didn’t seem like such a far-fetched idea but...
“So…” The engineer swallowed, hard. “So what happens in these… other lives?”
Stephen continues to smile but Tony can visibly see something behind those blue-green eyes. Flood of emotion that can’t simply be put into few words or millions. “Good, bad, sometimes there are heroes, villains, a world much like ours. Sometimes, it’s far more… normal. The mundane, jobs, friends, love, the domestic, the hardships… families and loss…”
Tony watched at the sorcerer, as he seemed to be tapping absentmindedly on the table. A habit of nervousness Stephen never truly rid himself of even with the pain that undoubtedly exists now. The engineer reached out, wrapping his fingers around the other’s hand, stopping the movements.
“Do we meet? In these… other lives?”
“Yes. Most of the time.”
He hesitated, “Are we together?”
Stephen’s smile doesn’t falter but his fingers squeeze Tony’s briefly. “In some.”
“But not all.”
“No, not all.”
“What the hell? What just happened? Please tell me nobody kissed me-“
Thor let out his usual good-natured laugh.
Steve gaped at him for a split second, a light flush rising to his cheek. Tony, on the other hand, seemed too hooked on adrenaline still to give much heed.
Natasha raises an eyebrow though and once meeting her gaze, the Captain hastily cleared his throat.
Those words seem to make the billionaire relax. His head falling back to the cement as he let his eyes fall closed for a minute. “Alright… Hey, alright- Good job, guys. Let’s just not come in tomorrow. Let’s take a day off. Have you ever tried shawarma? There’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don’t know what it is, but I want to try it- maybe Stephe- SHIT”
That certainly makes all of them step back as Iron Man nearly jumped to his feet.
Steve stared at him, eyes wide as Tony manually undoes the mechanics of his suit, the metal pieces being tossed around without much care or patience.
“SHIT SHIT SHIT FUCK-“
Once done, the brunette wildly paced, looking around. Just his luck, the suit ran out of juice the minute he needs it the most.
He turned to see Natasha now a good distance away, next to an abandoned motorcycle. She seemed to have successfully hot-wired it. God he regretted all the times he gave her hell the past year out of petty jealousy for taking his boyfriend’s time…
“Do you still know how to ride a bike?” she calls out to him.
Tony doesn’t speak. He wasn’t sure if he wants to know.
But seeming to sense his uneasiness, the doctor reached over to thread his fingers through the brown locks. That drew the brunettes attention back to his boyfriend.
“Sometimes your… your hair is chestnut… other times… chocolate.”
Tony simply stares at the other, lips parting slightly but no words escape. There is sadness in that tone but he wasn’t sure he can fully grasp it even if he tried.
“Either way,” Stephen let out a huff of laughter. “It always reminded me of warmth… joyment in harsh winter.”
There was a sharp inhale as the sorcerer retracts his touch. Tony had a strong urge to grab a hold of the other’s hand but wasn’t sure as to why. Stephen wasn’t going anywhere. He was still here, sitting in front of him. So why did it feel like…
“Sometimes… you don’t exist. You’re a hero in a legend or comic book. But even when you don’t exist, I’m still in love with you. I love the ones where we grew up together. When you shared with me your pain, laughter, secrets that were never meant for another to hear. Many days of entertaining each other’s bad ideas. We have more… time."
"Whenever we met further down the line, when we are older, we are lot more discerning.” He lets out a huff of laughter. “Often times, we don’t get along at first. But we can never bring ourselves to hate each other for long. Maybe we are trying to make up for… all the lifetimes in which one of us… doesn’t exist. Ones where I wish… times had been less cruel. Ones where we just… barely never meet.”
Stephen’s smile disappears. Tony can see how he’s blinking quickly. A faint watery shine coming upon those icy blue eyes. “I hate those ones. Even perhaps more than the ones where one of us… looses the other in the battlefield. I knew… I’ll see you again. But I was always afraid if it would be the last time. Each time wondering if that’s… really you. What if you are perfectly happy without me… with another.”
Tony thought he should say something, wants to, but his mouth felt dry.
“I never burned as brightly as you. It was only appropriate that I should be the one to chase you across 14 million lives.”
It all hits him at once. Why Stephen changed so much. Why he still felt like his Stephen but something felt so different now than in the past. Why the doctor seemed to always have such sad look when he thought Tony wasn’t looking. Why he seemed so tense to have the engineer out of his sight. Why he held him so desperately at times. Why there were moments he acted with borderline obsession, much different than just a possessive streak from the past.
And it hit him… Stephen may have left him once… but how many times had he left Stephen in those 14 million lives.
The sorcerer didn’t just see the future as Tony assumed. He somehow must have lived through the lifetimes. Maybe not all 14 million but several at the very least.
How did he not go insane yet, Tony wasn’t sure. That kind of experience must be enough to drive anyone out of their minds. Guilt? This was guilt. But he also wasn’t sure if they could handle unwrapping the entirety of this tonight. Not after what happened recently.
Tony tried to collect himself the next time he spoke. “Can you tell me about our other lives? Ones where… we are happy… together. Your favorite ones.”
Stephen smiled again. “We once met in college. James got quite annoyed with us-“
That made Tony perk up. “My Rhodey? He’s there in other…”
“He’s always there,” The sorcerer said warmly. “He’s always in your life. So is Pepper and Happy…”
A genuine smile forms on Tony’s lips.
And Stephen went on. “There was this party. We’ve been dancing around each other since we met earlier in the week. At the party we managed to piss each other off again. Like I said, James had enough with both of our behavior. That night he said he had to leave early but when you tried to go with him he told you, you should stay. Told you how I had interest in you… You asked me out later that night.”
Tony couldn’t help but smirk.
“Well… stupid thing was we later found out that… he had said the same exact thing to me. But neither of us ever told him anything.”
Tony let out a laugh, shaking his head. Stephen couldn’t help but join in fondly.
When they both settled once more Stephen took another deep breath before continuing. “There was one where I worked at the front end of a restaurant. A night job while I was finishing school. You came in one evening with Pepper. It was busy night but I found you two a corner table. Always the corner table.” The doctor gave the other a look. “Not even five minutes and the front phone rang. I answered obviously being my responsibility. You called with your cell from your table. Wanted my number.”
Tony brought the water glass to his lips, a soft smile still evident. “Do I always chase you? That seems like me though- Can never resist that pretty face of your’s.“
“I was never as bold as you. I never even knew what I was missing in my life till you. Something so great that… when it’s gone, when it’s taken from you… you sometimes wish you never had it at all to begin with. Because it’s so painful…”
Stephen smirked. “But… just not this one. This lifetime… I approached you.”
“Yeah. Yeah… you did.” Tony laughed under his breath. A memory dancing in his head. One so vibrant that he could almost see it flashing before his eyes.
“We are a train wreck.” Tony doesn’t look at him, a hand absentmindedly swirling his cup.
The doctor’s expression doesn’t change. “Of course we are.”
“Some people waltz through life,” the brunette said bitterly. “Why couldn’t we be like that?”
“Oh, Tony…” Stephen leans in, “That’s because we’re doing the tango. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The hospital was exactly as he had expected. It was pure chaos. There was floods of people that filled every square inch of the place; injured patients, crying loved-ones, frantic staff.
Guilt played on Tony’s mind as he crossed what used to be the main lobby. For once, no one paid much attention to him, didn’t even see him. It was an odd feeling, being invisible.
What he didn’t expect, however, was Stephen’s reaction when he finally found the surgeon.
The doctor didn’t even turn around, as if ignoring Tony’s voice. He just went right back to talking to a nurse. The brunette stepped closer, confused. The other definitely heard him. There was a clear second where the surgeon stilled all movements.
When Tony was finally close enough, he put a hand on his boyfriend’s shoulder. “Stephen-“ He knew they must all be busy. This was a catastrophic mess on another level for medical professionals. But he just… he just needed to see Stephen’s face, even if it’s just for a second. He needed to make sure the other was okay.
But Tony soon found… the other was far from okay.
The surgeon flinched at the touch. That definitely made Tony thoroughly perplexed. “Babe- what…?”
The next second, however, Tony had the wind knocked out of him as Stephen, whipped around, took one look at him with wide eyes, then pulled the smaller man into a crushing embrace.
Stephen’s hands were everywhere. First gripping tight around his waist, then his hair, the back of his neck, it was constantly moving. As if trying to find purchase… desperately grasping for some security that was just a bit out of reach.
Tony quietly lets Stephen do whatever he needed. Take whatever he needs. It finally dawned on the genius what this was all about.
“You thought I died.“
Those words made the doctor stiffen horrible. Tony felt a pang of remorse as he felt Stephen sink his nose further into the crook of his neck. The fingers on his hair clutched harder, the nails digging into his skin.
Tony let out a huff. “I can’t believe… you went back to work after thinking I was…”
Stephen doesn’t move anymore, doesn’t even try to meet the other’s eyes. “I had to. I didn’t know what else to do. I thought I would… I felt like I was losing my mind.”
The brunette swallows, hard. Perhaps he should simply stop talking. He wasn’t sure if he can sink any further into depths of profound guilt and personal shame. Even his father, with all his seemingly never-ending disappointments, never made Tony feel so much self-hatred as he did in this moment.
He heard Stephen’s voice break. Oh no… Tony supposed he can and will sink further.
“I know… I know this whole damn world needs you. B-but… not as much as I do. I… I need you, Tony.”
Those words stab his heart. “Stephen… I’m so-“
But those words never got finished.
There was a loud bang. A distinct sound of a gunshot.
People screamed, many dropping their bodies to the ground in terror. In an instant, Tony roughly shoved Stephen back against the reception’s desk, putting his own body in front of the doctor, facing where the sound seemingly came from.
“EVERYONE GET ON THE FLOOR!” A tall man, dark blonde, most likely well into his 40s, stood only couple yards away. A handgun now pointing straight at the billionaire.
“You! It’s your fault! Bringing your war here! Some hero you are. My daughter is going to die because of you!”
Tony thought about closing his eyes but he couldn’t risk it. If the gun was fired, what were the chances it would go through him? Would it be worth the risk of pushing Stephen away from him now?
The trigger was going to be pulled any seconds now. He can see it from the man’s movements, his gaze. He was beyond reasoning.
There was silence as Tony slowly opened his eyes once more. Behind him, he feels Stephen shift.
They both peered about, eventually seeing Christine now standing where the gunman had once been, a folding chair in a tight grip with both hands. She seemed to have given the stranger a good knock on the head. The man was now unconscious, sprawled on the floor, unmoving.
Tony leaned back towards Stephen slightly. “…I want one.”
“Back off. She’s mine.” he hears Stephen say flatly, though there was definite humor in those words.
He turned towards the doctor with an eyebrow raised.
“You have Pepper.”
“Oh my god-“
The two men quickly turned their attention back to Christine who seemed very near a mental breakdown. There was a loud crash as she dropped the chair to the floor as if it burned her.
“Ohmygod- ohmygod- I just- hit- oh god-“
“Woah woah woah- Christine, it’s ok-“
“Christine, calm down-“
They both stood to their feet quickly, arms stretched as they tried to hurry towards the other doctor.
“I- oh no- is he dead?! Did I-?”
“Christine, it’s going to be okay. It was self-defense-“
“I’m a doctor!” she cried out in distress.
“Come on, honey. It’s going to be okay-“ Tony tried to reason as he wrapped his arms around her, attempting to get her to turn away from the scene.
“Honey?” snapped Stephen with a frown.
Tony gave him an exasperated look. “Seriously?! You want to fucking do this now?!”
Tony and Stephen came stumbling in well past midnight. Laughing as Tony tripped over his own feet as they got off the elevator. The brunette was too keen on keeping their lips locked he wasn’t coordinated in much else. The sorcerer hastily strengthened his grip on the other’s waist to prevent both of them from toppling.
“Okay, okay I just want water then we can-“
There was a loud cough and the pair turned their attention to the inners of the common room. Natasha was sitting on the bar stool next to the kitchen island.
Tony smirked but parted himself a bit from Stephen. Although, the doctor’s hand on his waist only seemed to tighten. “Well… not the worst thing you caught us doing-“
Natasha let out a huff as she stood. “You seemed to be in a good mood.”
Tony swayed a bit on the balls of his feet, shrugging with a light smile.
Stephen remained silent, eyes locking with the redhead for a brief moment. He definitely notices the slight tension in the way Natasha carried herself at that moment. As if she was waiting for a turn in Tony’s mood.
But the brunette doesn’t seem to sense anything out of the norm. Wasn’t particularly looking hard anyways. He just darted around to the counter to pour himself a glass of water.
The SHIELD agent took a quick glance at Stephen, almost questioningly.
“I’m going to go check on Peter before heading up,” Tony called out as he types something on his phone.
“I think I may have left my book in the library.” The sorcerer said easily. “I’ll meet you upstairs.”
Tony gave him a smile, a quick nod before heading into the elevator once more.
They both wait until it fully closes.
“Did you tell him?”
Stephen didn’t turn to meet her eyes. Simply walks to the counter and slowly pours the water into a glass. “If I did, do you really think he would be happy with you?”
He tilts the glass to his lips. There was an awful silence.
“I didn’t do it for you,” he said answering the unspoken question. He turned around then, fully facing Natasha.
“You made a mistake.” A smirk appeared on his cold expression, the piercing gaze holding so much more than just simple anger. “What was it that you said last night? Sacrificing for the greater good that might not even exist?”
Her lips part just a bit, a flicker in those green eyes, an inkling of dread.
Oh, how many years he waited to see that look.
He let out a sigh, not bothering to face the SHIELD agent who just entered the room. He doesn’t admit to himself that it was more that he was scared to try. Try and realize he can’t even turn his head fully.
How pathetic he must look. Stretched out on this hospital bed, his hands adorned with countless stitches and screws, being held up as if he was a mere puppet.
There was a soft click as Natasha closed the door behind her.
Stephen swallowed a bit forcefully. Ignoring the pain that followed. “Did he send you now?” his voice comes out horse from refusing water. But he rarely was in the mood the past couple days for anyone to assist him for such a simple task.
There was movement of a chair as the redhead took a seat beside the bed. “No.”
He finally glanced towards her, wincing painfully as he did so. But soon something else that strayed his attention from the discomfort. “What happened to your arm?”
Natasha shrugged almost dismissively. “We were out in a mission… when Tony heard the news… about you.”
He stared at the cast she was wearing for a while longer. “You saved him.”
“Not even my dominant arm. It’s just a bad sprain.” She said smiling softly. “I told you. I’ll keep him safe.”
Stephen wanted to say thank you, he thought to… but the bitterness that plagued him these days nonstop held him back. There was a pang of shame that followed.
There was silence. Both of them knew what was coming.
“Why are you here?” he asked… though he knew… it was for formalities sake.
“To pull the trigger.”
A second, then two. He held his breath, feeling his heartbeat in his ears.
“You asked me to… pull the trigger on you if it ever came to him or you,” there was a hardness in her tone. Part of him was glad for her conviction because suddenly he was so unsure of millions of things. “Stephen. It’s time. You’re…”
“Crippled,” he finishes for her.
He opened his eyes once more, this time directly meeting her gaze. The doctor was unsurprised to find her expression carefully blank. He’s well used to that look from her now. Though there was a hint of something lingering in those piercing green eyes. Was it pity? Guilt?
Guilt, he decides as he sees her shifting her gaze for a split second.
“More vulnerable than before,” she said evenly.
“I was not completely helpless, Romanoff.” He couldn’t help but snap. He wasn’t sure why he was fighting now. He asked her of this. But he had thought…
“I know. I know…” She sounded sympathetic. But he finds it even harder to swallow. He wishes she had been harsher, crueler, give him something to direct his anger at.
“Stephen… He’ll… he’ll always put you first. It’ll happen again. He’ll become distracted at the very mention of your name. One day soon, it’ll be between him or you and he will choose you. He will give up his life to protect you without even a moment of hesitation.
There was a short pause. He says nothing.
“He loves you. And that love will get him killed.”
Stephen took a shaky breath. “And what… what if… I was to be selfish.”
“There are… inventions, experimental procedures-“
Natasha gives him a blank stare. He knows… they know… but…
“Please.” There was desperation in the doctor’s voice, one that was rarely ever used. “Please… I lost enough. I can’t…. I can’t… lose him too.”
Those words tasted bitter in his mouth. What right did he have to plead for Tony now when he spent the past week driving the genius away? How many times had his temper gotten the best of him? How many times had he snapped at his boyfriend for something so minor as food, the noise, how the other was being too overbearing? Stephen thought back to how he yelled at Tony just this morning to leave him be the second he tried to help Stephen drink some water.
And here he was… ironically begging for someone to not… take him away.
“I… I love him. I can’t. I can’t imagine a world without him, Natalia.”
Natasha’s lips part ever so slightly, her expression softening just a bit. “I know,” she said after a brief pause. “That’s why… you need to let him go.”
Without taking her eyes off the now former surgeon, the redhead reaches for the phone on the bedside table. She dials a number, puts it to speaker. There was a soft sound of ringing as the agent placed the cell on to Stephen’s lap.
“Let him go, Stephen.” She said gently. “Because he won’t…”
The second ring, then third…
“Will you… will you look after him?” He takes in a trembling breath. “Promise me. Give me your word you’ll protect him.”
There was a soft click.
“Hey, Stephen… Is everything okay?” said Tony’s voice from the phone.
They both hear it. The never-ending worry that found permanent residence in the genius’s tone these days… but also the slight glimmer of hope and eagerness at the doctor’s call.
“It’s over, Tony.”
I love you. I’m sorry I never told you.
There was a defining stillness that stretched to every corner of the room.
Stephen let his eyes fall closed. “Don’t come back here.“
I need you.
“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.”
I thought… we would have more time.
“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.”
But I’ll always want more time. There will never possibly be enough time spent with 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.”
I’m so sorry…. I’m so… so sorry.
“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.”
But I love you.
There was a silence that followed.
And more silence.
How long as it been? Since they both sat there not moving an inch…
There was stiffness in the way Natasha sat, her back too straight, her expression just a bit too blank. She must have understood fully. He knows she did. …of how he took a stab at every insecurity Tony ever had. The doctor just plunged a knife and twisted it in every way possible.
The room suddenly felt too large, too empty. If Stephen had any emotions left in him, it would have echoed against the dull, white walls. There was just… so much space.
But it was all… familiar somehow. As if it were a word just at the tip of his tongue… though one that he didn’t want to remember.
The detachment… indifference… excruciating boredom… the bleakness of it all.
This was his life before Tony. Seconds, hours, days of mostly… nothing. Not sadness, not anger, not depression… just a lot of indifference. Being constantly bored and relishing in the few moments of mediocre pleasure that never quite satisfied the hunger he wasn’t even aware existed. Always starving for something more and not knowing what.
But this time, he will know. He will know what exactly is missing from his miserable life. And he’ll know… he will never have it again.
She doesn't move.
"I said. Get. Out."
“I trusted you.”
Natasha just continued to watch him as he slowly, absentmindedly walked around the counter. He stood at his full height, nearly towering over the SHIELD agent.
“So tell me. What was in it for you? Did you get an order from SHIELD? I admit it was smart for them to send you. I just may have stayed out of my own desperation for him. After all, you were in the best position to make sure I still left.”
Natasha crossed her arms, her expression unchanging. “I acted alone. You were compromised. Tony would have died trying to protect you.”
He let out a scoff, “Oh don’t be boring. If you had done so for Tony. If all it was that you were looking after his safety, I would have forgiven you. We had an agreement. I asked you for that.”
There was a sudden change to his tone. The smirk completely fading and sudden coldness appeared in the icy gaze. “But you claimed to have changed your mind… five months after? What was so prominent that made you question yourself? It wasn’t Tony… it wasn’t I. Nothing changed. But SHIELD did. Your perception of SHIELD did. There was an incident with Pierce… the Winter Soldier…”
“Sacrificing for the greater good that might not even exist?” There was a short laugh that followed, cruel and harsh. “You question your own moral values, as do I. Because we are the type who’s moral compass is skewed. We trust someone or something to keep us in check. For you, that was SHIELD. You believed in SHIELD. Believed it enough to be worth all the gory sacrifice, worth dipping your hands in red. I’m sure it was definitely enough to destroy a single, meager relationship.” He gave her a mock frown. “Was it even a question?
“You’re jumping to conclusions.” Nothing betrayed the calmness in that voice. The redhead didn’t even take a step back as the sorcerer approached.
“Am I?” he said barely above a whisper. “Was it really for Tony you had me leave? Or was it for somehow for SHIELD?”
Natasha blinked slowly. “Tony is an asset to SHIELD. Even by your line of claims-“
“No. Back then you all thought he was a potential liability. He was reckless, volatile. You wanted Iron Man to be kept in line at SHIELD, in Avengers, you would not have risked breaking his heart. So something… was worth that risk. What?
“Stephen. There is no conspiracy.”
Oh, that was good. He almost believed the sincerity in those words.
“I only did what I did because Tony already proved distracted by your vulnerability. Ultimately, he would have gotten himself killed trying to save you in some way. In some ways, maybe that was for SHIELD. For the world. The world needed Iron Man.”
He ignored her lies. “Who did you get your orders from? Was it Fury?”
She stared at him straight, a hint of sorrow in her eyes. A look he once saw in a certain hospital room. “I didn’t get any orders. It was my decision.”
He paused for a brief moment. Taking a shallow breath. “You know, don’t you? That if it is SHIELD behind this, not just you… not simply because of some good intention… It might not simply end with him throwing you out. It may be enough for him to abandon the Avengers.”
A frown comes upon her expression. “Tony is not as short-sighted as he once was.”
The sorcerer smiled, a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You said it yourself. He will choose me. What do you think he’ll love more? This team that once abandoned him? Or me?” He turned sharply around, pacing around the large space. “After all I’m not even just his boyfriend anymore… there is Peter… I’m practically part of this family he created and so desperately wanted all his life.”
Natasha took a couple steps forward. A seriousness now very evident in her expression. “What are you digging for, Stephen? What are you trying to accomplish? If you wanted to create hostility, bring me down, you could have told him about my involvement the minute you returned. There is no conspiracy. There was no order. …But I still convinced you to leave. You’re right, that will be more than enough for him to throw me out.”
Stephen surveyed her carefully. “Maybe I wanted to know the extent of the betrayal. Who else knew?”
“No one else knew.” She sounded a bit exasperated.
“Sometimes Romanoff… instead of the act itself… motivation is far more interesting. What could be so bad that you are so desperately trying to hide it? For you to be throwing yourself onto the knife… for you risk giving up the only family you ever have known. Is it enough to destroy the Avengers?” His voice remained completely even, to the point it was unnerving. “After all, you all are expecting eventually for the Captain and Iron Man to reach an agreement of some sort. To be a functional team once more. Would this prevent it?”
“Was it worth it?” He said in a whisper as he leaned towards her. “Whatever it was. Because you took him from me for ten years. I had ten years to dwell on this… to go over every grueling detail. Do you know what it was like? Watching the man you love be in the arms of another? Seeing him not even be properly appreciated when everything he has ever done was for you lot?”
He paused trying calm his voice once more. The rage he had suppressed for so long threatening to surface. “Having to simply watch as he laid out dying because of that sorry excuse of my replacement? I trusted you to protect him.”
Something dawns on Natasha’s expression. “You were watching. For how long?”
Dates were flashing in her head as she put the information together. Stephen left in February of 2013. She remembers distinctly since a couple months later was the discovery of Hydra’s corruption in SHIELD. Her and Cap made the decision of not involving Tony in that incident. The billionaire still too grief-stricken over Stephen’s departure.
Steve and Tony started their affair in 2014. Ultron was 2015, marking the start of a bump in Captain America and Iron Man’s relationship. The Civil War incident, almost a year after. Three years.
Thano’s attack came at 2018 and also the return of Stephen as now a Sorcerer Supreme. So five years between the doctor’s departure and return to the public world. It occurred to her they had been short-sighted thinking Stephen was still recovering all that time.
When had the other become a sorcerer? If he had already returned to New York by 2016 to witness the fallout in Avengers, why didn’t he make contact with Tony instead of waiting another two years? … Or was the doctor already back even before then… What has Stephen been doing all this time?
“Why did you not come back to him sooner?” She always assumed Stephen didn’t return till he gained his powers. She had naively believed the minute Stephen was able to return to Tony’s side, he had.
He doesn’t answer her. Ignored the question completely. “I hope it was worth it, Romanoff.” The sorcerer’s voice was low now, dangerous and sharp. “Because for me, it was not worth this universe.”
She held her ground. “What are you planning, Stephen?”
“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know.”
He gave her a tight smile before turning around walking towards the elevator. Before it closed, he turned around, peering at her with the same cold stare.
“You made a mistake when you pulled that trigger. You should have aimed for my head, not my heart.”
“You still question this?”
“I did it. That’s what matters.” Natasha opens the door that led to the emergency stairway, a little roughly than she had meant to. She adjusted the Bluetooth in her ear as she made her way down the steps at a swift pace.
There was a brief pause before a short laughter could be heard from the caller. “Got to hand it to the doctor. Managed to compromise two Avengers…”
A pang of anger hits her before she realizes, or perhaps it was the guilt. “If I was, I wouldn’t have just done what I did.”
Fury let out a sigh. “Romanoff-“
Another pause. “No one can know about this.”
“It’s for the greater good, Agent Romanoff. Stark was always meant to be a martyr. But for something far more important than Doctor Strange.”
A simple statement the moment he answered his phone. He likes that about her. She was always efficient, never wasting time.
“How much?” The Director asked curtly. He doesn’t miss the odd tone in her voice. It was rare for the Black Widow to be shaken.
“I’m unsure. Enough to be digging. …I made a mistake.”
Fury let out a sigh. “I told you to watch your six with him.”
“I made a mistake,” she repeated bitterly. “…But you’re right. He’s planning something. He may have been planning for longer than we thought.”