“So… when are you going to contact him?”
Stephen put his cup down with an exaggerated sigh, peering at Christine with a penetrating gaze. How many times has she asked this today? When was she going to relent? Stubborn woman-
But he supposed, she would have had to be stubborn to still be his friend.
“He’s moved on. It would be unkind for me to waltz back in now.”
Even as the sorcerer said those words he wished she would contradict him, hoped, desperately. How selfish he was. He just about tore out Tony’s heart the last they spoke. Completely severed their priceless relationship in the cruelest manner in Tony’s book. And still, he hadn’t stopped hoping… that just maybe… Tony hadn’t moved on. That he would love him still.
“You know he prefers the tango,” she said as she started putting away some of the groceries from the several bags she brought with her. She smiled at the exasperated huff she gets. “And no, I don’t think he did.”
Wong would be pleased. Perhaps, that’s why he never minded Christine coming by to the New York Sanctum every week or so.
Ever since their chaotic reunion at the Metro General due to Kaecillius’s attempted coup, and extended explanation aftermath, Christine had taken upon herself to visit him at the Sanctum week after week. Quite oftentimes, bringing with her large amounts of food after learning they kept very little in the complex, mostly due to lack of funds.
It probably also helped that she was extremely polite, kept her hand to herself, very kind, didn’t pry too much into the sorcerer business…
“Oh hello-“ She said with a bright smile as Wong stepped into the kitchen. “Tuna melt, right?”
Stephen doesn’t miss the genuine smile on Wong’s face as he took the sandwich from her with a polite, “Thank you. Really appreciate it, Miss Christine.”
The sorcerer rolled his eyes. He’s never seen the other man smile till Christine started coming by. It helped that she was pretty. Everyone liked pretty things.
“I have to be off. I’m covering a shift,” she gave Stephen a squeeze on the shoulder. Though afterward, she still stood there, bouncing on her feet a bit.
“What?” he retorted with a small frown. He knew that look
“I…” She was smiling. That smile that usually meant she wanted something. “So the annual charity gala is coming up- I was thinking you can go with me?”
“Christine,” he replied with a sigh. “That life is very much behind me. You also do not want to bring with you a crippled surgeon who was disgraced from that hospital-“
“He’ll be there.”
Stephen stared up at her, becoming dead silent.
“He’ll be there. Tony… rest of the Avengers actually too. They are special guests for all that they have been doing to protect the city and… Stephen… he…” She had a sad smile on her lips, a genuine reflection of her kind concern. Almost pleading in the way she repeated softly, “…he’ll be there.”
He didn’t speak. His mouth suddenly felt dry.
Christine swallowed, glancing at Wong for a moment before turning her gaze back to Stephen. “I know there’s… nothing against you… being a sorcerer and… having a life outside of it?” she started with a bit of hesitation.
God… she must have asked Wong. Stephen pinched the bridge of his nose with a grimace.
“You’re... I know you said you left because you were worried about being a burden… You don’t have to anymore? You can hold your own ground. I saw what you can do. The magic and spells… It’s what you always wanted. Being by his side even out there-“
She sounded… so genuine, eager… so hopeful that it hurt for him to hear.
He let out a long sigh. “I’ve seen the tabloids… the news. I followed it even back when-… Steve Rogers. He moved on.”
Christine had a hand over his, coaxing him to look at her. “I saw him. Just a little over a week before you came back. He told me there was nothing going on. Stephen, he didn’t even-Tony didn’t even know the Captain had interest in him. He was completely blind to it because… he was so caught up in you-“
He doesn’t comment. He tries to control the rising of warmth in his chest.
He’s sure he doesn’t have to. Christine always noticed a lot that he never said. A trait he many times took for granted.
“I’ll think about it,” Stephen replied evenly after a long pause.
That seemed to have satisfied her… for now. She gave him another smile before turning to leave. “And eat something.”
“Bye, Wong,” she said with a wave at the double doors.
Wong smiled back, waving as well.
There was a short silence that followed.
“I like your friend,” Wong noted casually. Soon there was crumping of papers as Wong unwrapped the sandwich.
“You only like her,” Stephen retorted with another eye roll, crossing his arms.
“You have other friends?”
The former surgeon frowned, fixing the other with a look of indignation.
But Wong seemed not bothered one bit. “You should go. Go see Stark.”
He let out an exaggerated groan.
“Or you can put some actual effort in becoming the next Sorcerer Supreme.”
“I told you. No interest,” Stephen replied flatly, finally standing from the kitchen counter. “I’m completely satisfied with this job, thanks.”
“Right. Because you took the job of being the new Master of New York Sanctum without so much as a complaint because you did not have any ulterior motive.”
Stephen let out a sigh before simply walking away. He learned the hard way not to argue with Wong. The man had a talent for figuring out some deep-buried truth from the little Stephen said out loud.
“I’m tired of you sitting around here pining!”
“Oh, do shut up!”
“I liked you better pining around the Sanctum.”
Stephen’s eyes shot open just as the familiar echoing feeling encompassed him. The mirror dimension.
“I already created an illusion around the security feed.”
The Sorcerer Supreme let out a long sigh. How many days has it been since he was here? In this bothersome box? Must have been nearly a week if Wong came to check-in. “How is he?”
Wong crossed his arms, giving the other an unimpressed look. “He hasn’t killed himself with guilt… yet.”
Stephen glares at him.
“The kids are fine. Tony had some… issues accepting what happened but he recovered after a day or so. He seemed clearer-headed this morning. From what I heard, him, Fury, and Ross had a spectacular shouting match yesterday. Everyone evacuated the scene-“
The doctor let out a scoff, a small smirk playing on his lips.
“Well… more… Tony shouting and the two trying not to get their head chewed out. Apparently all of SHIELD ended up with some system malfunction due to a virus afterward. All screens just kept running cat videos. Can’t be proven but most likely Tony throwing a tantrum-”
Stephen chuckled fondly before finally turning to meet the other’s eyes. “And the kids?”
“They are fine now. It was Harley’s idea but Peter knew from the start. They are kids… didn’t think things through. How much of a messy situation it is right now with the new Accords, UN, new power structure… Tony had trouble getting them to even eat for days. Just like their father. Ridiculous amounts of self-blame. …They are good kids… good heart.”
“Yeah…” he said almost wistfully. Then Stephen took another deep breath. “The Sanctum...?”
“Just ask what you want to ask.”
Stephen regarded the other with a flat stare. A long silent pause as he tried to quiet the tugging at his heart.
“Is he…?” Did he even want to know?
“No,” Wong replied sternly. “But they seem to be on slightly better terms. At least civil. Rogers is trying to help. Did help, actually. But Tony is still putting some careful distance. …You said it yourself. They most likely would patch things up eventually for the most part. ...You know it’s not like that-”
“I know,” he snapped before he could stop himself.
“Don’t make the same mistake, Stephen.”
Stephen stared at the other for a moment longer. “I know.”
It started with what supposedly was a sarcastic comment.
“Stop me at three,” Tony had said.
Almost an afterthought for the billionaire when Steve kept following him around looking like a concerned puppy for the fourth time this week. Although, if he was being completely honest, it was not a completely unfounded concern.
Twice. Twice, Tony had landed himself in the hospital due to some overdose… this month. Nearly every day at this point someone had found him collapsed on the floor of a random space around the tower from some alcohol bingeing.
Rhodey had finally given up. They had gotten into a bitter shouting match just a couple days back that resulting in the Colonel leaving with a loud slam of the door.
Since then, Steve had been relentless.
“Then tell me how I can help!” Cap had shouted.
“You want to help? Fine. Stop me at three. This-“ he poured himself a full glass of scotch, lifting it to eye level at Steve in a mocking manner. "This is one.”
Tony doesn’t expect an answer, much less a question.
“Will you answer truthfully if I ask?”
He scoffed. “Sure.”
And he does. Always.
Since then, day after day, a hand stopped him from pouring that fourth cup. No words, no judgment, just a light touch that held his wrist from reaching for the bottle.
Soon, there were no missing hours from his memory. No waking up with the cold tiles pressed up against his face. No mornings of simply emptying his stomach.
Then, something in him wanted to push.
“Go wait in the room, honey,” He whispered to the fair brunette he had brought home that evening, leaving a trail of kisses on her delicate neck. “Get comfortable.”
She gives him a knowing smile before departing down the hall.
Tony doesn’t bother to address Steve who had been lingering. Simply reaches for the large crystal decanter on the bar setup.
A hand comes up to stop him. “How many is that?”
“Seriously, Cap? That’s what you care about?” He feels the irritation that lined his tone. Not even sure why.
Steve has his arms cross now, eyes darting from the floor to him back and forth several times. “I-… Look I get… it’s your choice. Who you sleep with… You’re right… it’s not like you promised me anything… I have no right to tell you- …I suppose as long as they are not dangerous-“ He let out a unsteady sigh.
Tony smirked, twirling the empty glass in his hands absentmindedly. “So what? You’re really not going to stop me? After all your crap about how…” his voice trails off, turning his sights to the floor.
“Do… do you want me to?”
Tony doesn’t know the answer. He just knows that Stephen would have.
“Tony… I know… you’re hurting. I know that much. I know he was important to you. You loved him… love… him.”
Steve let out a snort. “I can’t be him. I heard a lot about him… from Nat. He seems… very different from me. I’m sure he’d know what is the right thing to say right now, what to do. I don’t… know what is the right thing to do… for you.”
Tony swallowed, hard. He doesn’t look up, he can’t.
“All I know is that… I care about you. And I… want to help… And if all I can do for you is stop you from drinking yourself to death… then sure, I’ll do that.”
There was a long silence that follows. Neither really daring to look at the other.
“Okay… I’ll-… I’ll leave you to your evening-“ Steve bites on his lips, forcing on a smile that only lasts for a mere second.
But just as he heads for the door, Tony spoke once more.
“He’s in my head. All the time…”
The Captain turned back around, slowly. Though Tony is still facing the floor, he can make out the pieces of the heartbroken emotions. It makes his stomach turn.
“…I worry about him. He’s gone. He doesn’t… want me anymore and I can’t stop thinking about him. All the damn time. …It… stops… when I’m with you. …I think less. …And I’m not sure… I want to.”
“How many is that?”
Tony let out a small huff. “First one,” he said raising the scotch in a mock salute. “Cap, seriously… I’m fine.”
Steve let out a small sigh, though the frown relaxed from his expression. He took long strides towards the desk Tony had been working from, making sure to approach from the engineer's line of sight. It was a habit Tony noticed from Steve ever since the panic attack incident at Wakanda.
He made a quiet scoff, more to himself. Leave it to Steve Rogers to do something considerate when he wanted to stay bitter.
Did he want to stay bitter? …No… probably not if he think really deep on it.
Quite frankly, Tony hadn’t felt a burning need to rekindle his friendship with the Captain these days. He did once. Once upon a time, there were vicious hatred as well at the mere mention of the Captain's name.
But the five years he spent mourning for Stephen, Peter, and many others after the snap, it had all died with many other fixations he once thought were important.
It was a combination of some odd acceptance towards life, towards people, perspective… some peace he had reached within himself ... and some desperate hope to bring those they lost back that helped them work together during the time heist. With very minimal trouble he might add. But Tony had to admit, he may have expected an apology then. If Cap just said sorry at that time… without being prompted…
But here they were. Yes, he no longer felt it a necessity for them to be friends. He had sworn for months it was unwanted even. But if Tony was being completely honest… truly honest… he was inevitably human. No matter his intelligence, through all logics and reasons, all the claims he didn’t have a heart… he is, in fact, simply human. Emotions, relationships, people… they are very odd thing. A defect to the logical world.
It was, very much, not a necessity. But it would be nice.
It may have also helped that, after the Siberia footage was released, the team had been giving Steve and Barnes varying degree of cold shoulder to complete hostility. Although, admittedly, Tony had soon reached some sort of sympathy for Barnes.
Just yesterday, what started as an innocent training session soon turned into a violent uproar. Tony may have purposely been a bit slow to respond when notified, letting Thor get in some extra punches at Steve.
If it had not been for his dreaded worry due to Stephen’s arrest, he may have grabbed popcorn and had FRIDAY run endless amounts of rants and outcry from the media upon his behalf.
Maybe that’s what he had been missing. Some validation for his anger. Tony didn’t think himself as some sort of a victim. Never really his style. It made him cringe slightly whenever people portrayed him in that light. But when you had just about the whole world thinking you MUST be the one to have done something wrong, expect you have no right to be upset… it was almost essential to cling to the anger. As if desperately holding onto it so not to be confused by those who claimed it was not justified.
But when those around took your side, gave some indication that you had every reason to be upset… suddenly, it didn’t feel that important anymore.
He grudgingly wondered perhaps this was why Cap always had such an easy time being the “bigger person”. Why do you need to try so hard proving yourself, to fight that you were right, when everyone else would do it for you anyways? Of course, it’s okay to let things slide once in a while. Just because you let it go did not automatically mean everyone would assume you were admitting you were wrong.
Such an odd, complicated thing.
Steve soon set down a cheeseburger and a can of soda onto the desk, breaking Tony away from his personal musings.
“The kids already ate…” then added after a short thought. “Your kids… don’t worry I didn’t bring it to them… Rhodes did. Pepper is still with them.”
“Thanks,” Tony replied curtly.
Oh, he knew he was being petty. He knew in the end he will most likely accept Steve’s extended hand. But that didn’t mean he would not take the time to make the other sweat it. Especially when he was in such foul mood.
“If you’re fine then why are you not letting any of the team down here? They’re worried.”
Tony spun a little in his chair as he unwrapped the burger. “I’m… just tired. I can’t… I don’t have the energy. I need to figure this out and I’m too exhausted to be taking care of other people right now.” He paused before quickly adding. “…I’ve been regularly checking on Peter and Harley… they come down here every day. But that’s different. You can never really just… stop being a parent, you know?… just because it gets hard-”
Steve let out a small sigh. “At least you can let Rhodes and Pepper down here… I swear they are plotting my murder…”
Tony remained silent, simply taking a bite without really looking at the other.
“...Then why am I here?” came the question after a long pause.
The billionaire gave him a glance before turning back to the monitor. “…Because I don’t have to take care of you.” He wasn't exactly sure how else to explain this better. “I never really had to. It’s… different.” They were equals. Had been before. That was their dynamic. Something that was very rare in the world to find for anyone.
“…Then why am I sneaking in here?”
Tony fixes him with a look. “That’s for your benefit. So Thor won’t try to kill you again.”
Steve cleared his throat. “Fair enough.”
There was a long silence. Tony can feel the Captain staring.
“So what’s the plan? About Strange…”
“I… I’ll figure it out. I have to.”
There was a sigh as Steve focused his sights on the far corner of the room. He was leaning on the desk now, half sitting as he crossed his arms. “Apparently he gave quite a scare to some of the agents who had been assigned to watch… and Ross. Ross was convinced Strange is covering for someone. Said how it must be someone close to you. Talked about interrogating everyone… Strange snapped. Probably was trying to get the attention back to him. It worked but…”
Tony swallowed. “…It made it hard for them to let things off.”
“But…” He let out a huff. “at least, they are definitely too scared to do anything rash. There is a debate internally both from upstairs in SHIELD and the Council how to handle the situation…”
Tony took a finishing gulp of the scotch that remained in the glass. “And how do you know this?”
“…I asked around when I was called in today. Took a peek at the security footage… Tony, but there is something in the way he talked about Fury-…“
But before the Captain can go on there was loud coughing from the elevator behind them.
They both turned hastily to see Peter at the door.
Tony gave the other a look and Steve stood to his feet, heading towards the elevator. Both of them definitely don’t miss the harshness in Peter’s expression.
The engineer would have almost thought the deep frown as cute if the situation wasn’t so...
He doesn’t say anything, just gave the teen a soft smile, waiting. It wasn't long after the elevator closed that Peter finally spoke.
“I don’t like this.” It was just barely above a whisper.
Tony slowly stood from the chair, choosing to lean on the desk instead as he gave the other a confused look. He tried to read Peter’s expression. A faint blush was visible upon the teen’s cheeks. His arms were crossed, appearing to be incredibly agitated which was definitely rare. Of course, Peter had been understandably upset since Stephen had been taken from the compound but this… this felt like something else.
“Pete-“ But he was soon cut off.
“Why is he even here?” Peter blurted out, eyes fixed onto the flooring. There was a startling amount of resentment in that tone.
Tony crossed the room in a hurry, reaching out to put a hand on his son’s shoulder but Peter took a step back. It catches the billionaire by a surprise to say the least. The kid had never been anything but fond of rare physical affections from Tony. He didn’t even have the chance to hide the shock, the hurt in his expression.
A moment of guilt flashes in Peter’s eyes but he mostly remained determined. The teen took a shaky inhale, blinking rapidly away the tears that started to form. “I don’t… like him here.” Then he started speaking quickly. “He shouldn’t be here. Steve Rogers. He shouldn’t be here with you when Doctor Dad isn’t… here…“
Tony swallowed. “He’s-… okay. …Yeah.“ He smiled, desperately trying to keep his voice calm. “Okay. Of course… I’ll tell him not to be here from now on, Pete-“
There was a pause as Peter turned his gaze down once more, kicking his feet. Then after couple more seconds passed, nodded.
“You… you said-… We asked you to let us turn ourselves in...” The teen harshly wiped away a streak of tear. “You said it was going to be okay. You’ll fix it. I know it’s… our fault. I-I… knew what Harley was doing, Should have stopped him. I-“
“Hey,” Tony put both hands on either side of Peter’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “Hey… it’s okay. It’s going to be okay. It’s not… you didn’t know this was going to happen. Harley didn’t know. You both were trying to help. It’s okay. I promised you, I’ll fix this. Stephen is going to be fine. I’m not going to let anything happen to any of you, okay? You got that, Pete?”
Peter swallowed, nodding reluctantly. There was sniffling, however, and that… tore at Tony’s heart.
“…you… you should just let us-“
“But you tried-“
“I didn’t try everything, Pete,” he snapped without really meaning to. “We don’t talk about that. Not until I try everything.”
Peter flinched slightly at the harshness of the words. Though, for some reason at that moment, it was comforting.
Tony took an unsteady breath, his fingers unconsciously tightening. “Hell will freeze over before I let them take any of you away from me.”
Nervous. That’s what Stephen realize. He was nervous.
It was an unfamiliar, atrocious feeling really.
He never had much fear of social situations before. Not even when he was in grade school. He knew he had a particular knack for it. Thrived in it. Showing off, impressing, getting in people’s heads, the emotional game, knowing exactly what to do at precisely the right time. It was a puzzle he definitely understood. He once mused that he even felt more comfortable around strangers than those who knew him well.
But tonight, it was different. …Actually… everything was different now.
He was no longer the high profile surgeon. No longer had the reputation, the presence, the funds, the power that immediately grabbed attention. He knew he had gotten older, no longer in his high prime… ugly scars that littered his hands to boot.
Crippled. A sorcerer or not, he was still… crippled.
Would Tony care? He claimed he didn’t when he sat next to his bed after the accident. But people say a lot of things. Seeing it, in reality, was always another. Would he even want him now?
He couldn’t help but remember the little things Tony used to say. How he loves Stephen’s clever fingers, loves how he could keep up with him, how he was pretty…
What was he thinking? Had he lost his mind? Tony… beautiful, smart, his Tony… the still ever the billionaire, a renowned hero, member of the Avengers, pretty much a royalty if the United States ever had such a thing… taking him back… now… when Stephen didn’t have anything anymore to offer. And that wasn’t even counting all that he had said during their breakup.
He sharply turned, making a run for it. Though a hand quickly grabs hold of his arm with surprising force.
“I know you’re nervous-“ Christine said gently, still not letting go. She was in a dress of beautiful silvery lavender. Though currently, she had a section of it roughly bunched in her other hand. As if preparing for a chase if Stephen really chose to run for it.
No, she didn’t know the HALF of it.
“I know you’re scared but… Stephen, please, don’t run. Not now.” She soon had a smile, putting a faux whine to her voice. “I’m wearing heels-“
No, for some fucking reason I can apparently do no wrong in your eyes. He wanted to say. She wasn’t seeing him. Not really. Not seeing him for who he inevitably is now. She always saw him through rose-colored glasses.
But he gave in, still. Swallowed, nervously looking around before going back to fidget with the cufflinks. God, the suit felt so wrong now. So hard to deal with all these details with his trembling fingers. He never noticed how tiny these buttons were before when he used to wear them on a regular basis.
Christine lightly pushed away his hands, helping him adjust the cuffs. “So… What’s with everyone? Why didn’t Nick recognize you?”
“Distortion spell…” He replied in a mutter. “They can see me. They’ll remember me, remember talking to me even. Well... they’ll remember that there was someone …But they won’t be able to recognize who I am. It won’t stick in their memory. Won’t be able to remember any identifiable details worth remembering… They’ll try to think what I looked like, what I sounded like, and they will draw a blank. It won’t even occur to them that it’s odd… would seem like any other details most people forget, cannot recall, because it’s not worth remembering.”
“I’m here to talk to Tony… doesn’t mean I would have to parade my presence to everyone else. I’ll drop the spell when I get him in private,” he said sternly. Then added after some hesitance, “…please. I don’t… I still have my pride, Christine.”
She smiles at him, though hints of sadness were traced in those almond eyes. “Stephen you’re… There is nothing wrong with how you are now.”
He looks away. “Let’s just go in.”
And Stephen would love to pretend he took the time to look around the elaborate grand ballroom, taking it all in. How he had eventually searched and searched amongst the large, boisterous crowd for any sign of that windswept brown hair and doe eyes.
It almost takes an embarrassingly short amount of time for his eyes to gravitate on Tony.
He also looks away just as quickly.
Getting the hint, Christine pulled him lightly along as she made some small talks with couple coworkers. Stephen supposed he technically knows many of them. They had been his coworkers once as well. But he cares very little about that. Not at all care about what they have been up to or how they might have been.
He stands by Christine, replying politely when needed. Just enough not to grab unnecessary attention. But otherwise, his attention is fixed not far away… with Tony, who stood near the bar with several of his teammates.
They were laughing, joking animatedly. About what, Stephen couldn’t really tell. A bit too far to hear the exact words. But they seem… happy.
Tony looked rather well. Which the sorcerer found a bit surprisingly. Glad, but surprising. He had been worried for some time of the endless amount articles and news that came out regarding the billionaire’s slip back to old habit. And the photos… god, those photos. It physically pained the doctor to see Tony in such a state of… depression? Anguish? Sometimes visibly thin and dangerously sleep deprived.
But today, the billionaire appeared… well.
He looked like the Tony Stephen remembers him to be - confident and lively, sporting an impeccably fitted tux. The engineer’s face was full with a healthy glow, his eyes were clear and bright, filled with emotion… there was not even the glass of hard liquor in hand. The brunette seemed simply drunk with happiness.
Then, Stephen’s eyes had strayed to Captain Roger’s hand… that always seemed to be hovering at Tony’s lower back.
Jealousy shot through him before he can even assess the situation. One that made his blood boil with resentment. The sorcerer had nothing particularly against the Captain per se but he never liked people touching what was his. But then again… Tony currently wasn’t his, he supposed.
Stephen ripped his gaze away quickly, trying to calm himself.
He tried to not think about it, what that can all mean. How Rogers always seemed to stand next to Tony, never strayed too far. How the Captain always grabbed two of anything offered to him, glass of champagne, appetizer… always handing the second one to Tony. How Tony so casually just took it with a pleased smile.
Stephen grudgingly remembers the days where Tony only took things from his hands and no one else’s.
But there were also other things.
How people seemed to so easily accept Roger’s place. How no one thought twice before stepping aside to make room for him by Tony. How they addressed both of them without requiring some prompting from Tony.
How the few times they were separated for brief moments, and when Rogers looked around as if trying to make his way back… everyone casually stepped aside to make way.
The Captain never fought to be noticed. He was so effortlessly noticed. He seemed quite content, letting Tony talk and carry most of the conversation. But the few times he spoke, eyes turned to him immediately. Tony, for once, seemed not concerned about unintentionally overshadowing his companion while drawing attention to himself.
Was that what it was supposed to be like? Being equal to the great Tony Stark. Something Stephen made valiant attempts for so long but in the end, fell short.
It was an abrupt awakening. Back to reality as he forcibly convinced himself not suddenly turn around at the voice he recognized so well… voice he missed sorely.
Stephen had been a good distance away from Christine now, had made an excuse about grabbing a drink as he lamented his own thoughts. Christine, on the other hand, had been talking to Nick about some case but the other doctor seemed to have walked off at some point. The sorcerer had made sure to keep a good track of where the Avengers was at all times but seemed he missed Tony and Rogers walking towards their direction while he was preoccupied.
He could feel Christine glancing at him subtly. But realizing Stephen was not going to budge from where he stood, simply stepped forward toward the two Avengers.
“Tony,” She greeted with a smile. “And hello again, Captain Rogers.”
“Steve.” The Captain replied easily. “Thank you. For helping Tony that night.”
“Oh, no no… that was nothing. Just glad to see you’re better, Tony.”
There was an uneasiness in which Christine carried herself. Stephen definitely knew why. He could understandably see how her loyalty to him, her best friend, and her genuine kind nature were at a war with one another. She kept peering back and forth between Steve and Tony… mostly giving Steve a look that didn’t quite express the usual warmth.
But as if sensing this, Tony took a half step to the side, leaning away from Steve.
Christine cleared her throat, desperately trying to find something to talk about. “Oh… uh… I think there is a smudge-“ she motioned to the Captain’s left, right above the chest pocket.
“Ah…” Steve seemed visibly flustered, letting out a small laugh as he took a good look. He turned towards Christine once more giving a nervous smile and little tilt of his head. “Must have not… noticed… I’m… not used to these types of functions… as you can tell-“
“Here-“ Tony swiftly pulled out the red pocket square he had been wearing.
“Uh- …Tony it’s okay-“
“Come on, it’s going to bother you-“ The billionaire folded the fabric once more before neatly putting it into Steve’s pocket, covering the smudge efficiently. “There. Problem solved.”
Steve soon had a soft smile on his lips. The appearance of sincerity, adoration, clear in those baby blue eyes as they fixed upon the brunette. “Thank you-“
Without much thought, Tony smiled back. “No problem.“
But then, he caught a glimpse of Christine’s expression. The happy grin shattering almost instantly as he realizes the look of utter disappointment in the other’s eyes.
“I…” Tony cleared his throat awkwardly. “I should… go-“ Then briskly walked off in a hurried pace.
“Tony?” Steve gave a concerned look, eyes darting from Christine then at Tony’s leaving form. “What-“
Stephen doesn’t wait. He bolts out after Tony the second an illusion spell is cast. One that allowed him to be invisible, hidden from the naked eye - especially one Steve Rogers. He definitely doesn't need to draw attention right now. A random man chasing after Tony Stark.
Thankfully, even without fully seeing what was happening, Christine seemed to have picked up on what was going on. As soon as she realized Stephen missing from couple yards behind her, she hurried to grab the Captain’s attention, to buy time.
The sorcerer hears her voice in some distance behind him, saying something about how Tony may need some space.
He knows he’s not going to get another chance like this tonight. To have Tony away from the crowd, away from Roger’s keen hands.
Stephen doesn’t blink, eyes stationed on Tony’s back as the billionaire darted swiftly past the crowd. He sprints as fast as he can while not colliding with endless amounts of tables and guests. There was a fear in the pit of his stomach, an overwhelming dread that suggests if he even looks away, for even a second, he’ll lose the other somehow.
But soon after crossing the hall, Tony pushed past a door to his right. A supply room? Thankfully, no one was there. Instead, it was filled with various items organized on rows of tall shelves.
The door closed behind him with a bang that made Stephen flinch. Tony snapped his gaze towards the direction, eyes wide.
His heart stopped.
The sounds, the bustling of movements just down the hall, his mind, the racing “what ifs”, the doubts… and with it, the grief he felt for months, the misery… the utter torment of being away from…
Stephen stared as his gaze locked with one of whiskey brown. Everything was going to be okay, he thought. There was a calmness that washed over in him. A ghost of a smile forming on his lips as he stepped just a bit closer.
But Tony’s eyes don’t follow him. He appeared to be still fixated on the door, a bit confused.
Ah… the spell. He never lifted the illusion spell let alone the distortion charm. He’s invisible to Tony.
But just as the sorcerer lifted his hands to undo all the magic, the door behind him swung open once more.
Without meaning to, he rushed to hide behind a nearby shelf. Rolling his eyes as it occurred to him technically there was no need, not as if anyone can see him currently. Why the hell did he even hide? He let out a silent groan.
Stephen peered around trying to see the newcomer. Damn…
“Tony- what-? Are you okay?”
Tony let out a grimace as he ruffled his hair harshly. “Fine. I’m fine, Steve. Just… just…”
Steve stood there for a moment, motionless.
“She’s… his friend… Metro General… she knows Strange somehow…”
His own name takes a sudden hold of Stephen’s attention.
“I… Christine- …yeah. Yeah, she’s… Stephen’s closest friend. …was or is… I’m not sure.”
There was a long silence that stretched between them. One where Steve continued to give Tony a longing stare and Tony turned his gaze to the floor, his expression one of guilt. It was then that Stephen had the confirmation. There was something going on between them.
He wonders if he should leave quietly. Wonders if he should run or… jump in.
Because part of him, the selfish part of him, even now, believes Tony is his. That was what was right.
“Do you want me to stop?” Steve said calmly after awhile.
Tony looked up. “What?”
The Captain cleared his throat. “Stop… trying I mean.” Another pause. “Look I can… wait… as long as you need. Till you are ready for… I mean… what I’m saying is… I can wait. But… is there even a someday? For you? Is it more time you need or is it just me? Do you… want me to stop trying…”
This time, the silence is near unbearable. Stephen doesn’t even know what to do at this point. This definitely did not seem like a conversation he should even be listening to. He doesn’t have the right.
But then a voice rudely tells him he does.
Yes. Just say yes, Tony. Tell him to just fuck off.
You’re… you’re not supposed to be with him.
“I don’t…” Tony bites his lips briefly, his sights darting around till landing back onto the Captain. “I don’t… want you to stop trying… But… I’m not ready to say yes.”
There was ringing in Stephen’s ears. His body suddenly felt numb.
“Oh, okay.” Steve took a step forward, a soft smile on his lips. “...Will you tell me? When you are ready?”
Tony let out a small laugh. “Yeah.”
Stephen let his eyes fall closed. The room felt like it was spinning. He wanted… to sink to the floor. His heart must be there. It definitely was not in his chest.
Steve, on the other hand, appeared quite… happy. “I’ll… go tell the others not to worry- They saw you running in here.“
Stephen imagines punching that stupid grin off his perfect face.
Tony opened his mouth couple times, no words coming out. But just as Steve was at the door he blurts out, “I’m scared. To fail.”
Steve turned back towards the brunette, questioningly. “What?”
“You’re… you, Steve. You are… perfect.” Tony paced a bit, his eyes blinking quickly as he seemed to be trying hard to compose himself. “See here’s the thing. My longest… functioning relationship was with Stephen. He and I… we were similar. He wasn’t perfect… not that I loved him any less for it. God I… I loved him for it. But maybe… because he was the same…”
“The thing is, everyone in my life who gave a damn… Pepper… Rhodey… Happy… They all seemed like they love me for who I can become. I know. I should be grateful. It’s like, they saw something good in me even when I was… not. But… it felt like they never saw me. Stephen… he… seemed like he loved me for who I was, in the now. Not some distant better version I had this potential of becoming.”
“Tony… I’m not…” A slight frown formed on his brows. “I’m not asking you to change. I do see you.” He took a couple steps forward till they were only a foot away. “I… I like how coffee seems to be a food group for you. How you always have some clever comeback. How intelligent you are. …How you get lost in your own world, in your work… how your eyes light up when you talk about them.”
“I see how you can tell I don’t understand any of it at times.” He let out a huff of laughter, running a hand through his carefully combed hair. “But you never belittle me for being… not as smart compared to you. How you sometimes act distant and cold, pretend you are some arrogant narcissistic jerk the media makes you out to be… but in reality, you care… so much for people that are yours. You never turn any of the team down for something as minor as us being stupid enough to not get the toaster working-”
Tony coughed out a laugh. Steve soon joining in. The next time their eyes meet, a smile was back on the billionaire’s lips.
“I see how you visit the memorial of the ones who died during the New York Invasion. Every Monday morning… right before sunrise. How you read through all the names. I love how your eyes light up when you see kids happy to see you… calling you their favorite hero. …Tony, I meant… what I said… you are mine too. You are my favorite hero. Not because you are perfect… but because you’re… so human. You’re right everything special about me came from a bottle-“
Tony made a look as if to interject. “Cap- I didn’t-“
Steve quickly shook his head a little. As if to say it was alright. “But you… everything special about you… is you. You build it. You worked for every bit of it. You struggle, constantly, with yourself… but you never stop trying.”
“Tony that’s… why I am in love with you. You show me that you don’t have to be perfect to be great. You make me have hope for this… time. I finally feel like… I’m living in the now when I’m with you. That I can belong here, in this time, without endlessly hoping for a past that I missed out on. I’m… remembered for how I died. But you, you are remembered for how you lived. Lived against all odds. You live life to the fullest. It’s contagious. Everyone feels so alive just by being around you…”
But then he noticed how Tony was simply staring at him now, mouth a bit a gasp, an odd look in his expression that he couldn’t tell was good or bad.
“I’m…” Steve said quickly. “I’m sorry- I didn’t mean to… I don’t… mean it to… make you uncomfortable…” He swallowed, motioning to the door awkwardly. “I’ll leave-… yeah-“ He turned sharply, making quick strides.
“Yes?” Steve looks almost immediately, the look almost reminds Tony of an eager puppy, it was quite endearing.
Tony let out a short laugh, letting the smile stick. A weird calmness coming over him. “… You make me want to be better. Being around you, you make me want to be better. Maybe it’s that… I- I have my standards now… of what I want to be for you. Who you deserve... and I’m scared… I’ll fail-“
“Tony, I’m not perfect,” the Captain replied earnestly.
“You certainly don’t act like it,” Tony said easily. The usual teasing tone was back now. “When was the last time you did something… I don’t know… even remotely out of the line or selfish? You don’t even want to be here. I can tell. You’ve been stiff all night. But you don’t complain. I bitched about it since last week and all through the ride here-“
“Should we ditch?”
Steve tried not to laugh at the startled expression on the other. “I mean… like you said, I don’t want to be here. You don’t want to be here- We can make some excuse-“
Tony raises an eyebrow. “Steve, you can’t lie to save your own ass.”
The blonde gave a look of mock offense. “I can-“
Tony let out a laugh. “As if you can do something that impolite, Cap. Come on… let’s go back there. The kids must be wondering where we went-”
Steve continued to watch as Tony gave a pat on his shoulder before swiftly walking through the door.
Stephen did the same. Watching as it dawned on him… he already missed his chance.
Perhaps that time passed him long ago.
Eventually, however, it occurred to the sorcerer he was so lost in his own thoughts he didn’t notice that Rogers hadn’t left yet.
The Captain had his gaze first fixed on the ceiling, then to the ground. Couple deep breath as his eyes closed. Stephen wasn’t sure what the other man was thinking but it looked as if he was trying to work himself up for something.
Then, after another minute or so, Steve went out the door in a hurry.
Curiosity got the better of him and Stephen followed quickly. He turned the corner just in time to see Rogers approaching a crowd of people. Tony seemed to have been talking to some members of the board with several of his teammates either involved in the situation or just casually listening in the background.
“We have an emergency-“ Steve called out.
It was stern, direct. A very distinctively commanding tone that Stephen did not realize the other was capable of judging by how the other had been acting around Tony - all flustered, uncertain, and abashed.
It was an impressive 180 change. But Stephen supposed perhaps this was how most people saw the Captain, persona of dignity and power.
They all turned towards him with concern.
“What’s happened?” asked Natasha.
Clint straightened up, “Do we-“
“No,” Steve replied quickly. “I just need Iron Man-“ Impressively, Steve kept a straight face.
The board members simply took a step back, making way, as if automatically accepting the lacking explanation. The other Avengers, however, was a separate story.
Tony’s expression was blank, though there was a hint of shock.
Thor and Clint definitely looked a bit confused for a moment. Bruce and Natasha appeared to have already understood but carefully hid their laugh. Sam raised an eyebrow, giving Steve a smirk. Rhodes, having the usual knowing look, nudged Tony forward a bit while giving Steve an exasperated smile…
But Steve’s gaze never left Tony, holding out a hand.
And Tony, biting back a smile, reached out.
Stephen didn’t watch them leave. He wasn’t sure if he can stomach it.
He spun around, heading towards the other exit. He at least threw down the illusion spell so to have people around be able to see him there, try to move around him. He honestly did not have the energy to do it himself.
By the door, he ran into Christine.
“Stephen! Stephen, what’s wrong?” She was tailing him closely. Nearly sprinting to keep up with his long strides. “Stephen!”
“Stephen Strange… Doctor Strange!“
He opened his eyes, gaze immediately landing on Ross.
The agent looked tired, resigned.
“You are free to go.”
A frown came upon the sorcerer’s face. He still remained seated, mind racing. He’s almost afraid to ask. “Why?”
Ross gave a thin smile. “The real culprit came forward.”
It had been four months since the charity gala. Stephen had thought about that night nearly every day. Every minute of the day if he was being honest. It lingered at the corners of his mind, looming, haunting, each time dragging the knife deeper into his heart.
He had briefly mentioned what he had seen to Christine soon after. What he had overheard. She seemed to be convinced he should still get in contact with Tony. To try. To fight. It wasn’t as if Tony and the good Captain were completely official. Even if they were, Tony may still…
But that would be wholeheartedly selfish. Break up with a man, stomp on his heart, become the very reason for his long months of suffering… then just as he is about to move on, to have a shot at newfound happiness… sweep in to ask for a second chance. It was, by all means, a very ridiculous, selfish notion.
She had replied, since when had he not been a little selfish? Why stop now when it mattered most.
Because it mattered most, he supposed. Perhaps, for once in his goddamn life… he shouldn’t be so selfish. To be the better man. To be the man he had always wished he had been for Tony.
More like… Steve Rogers.
But it did not stop Stephen from wanting, letting his thoughts wander. A part of him still thought to maybe… just maybe… still go running to Tony’s doorstep. To explain, to yell, to beg if he had to.
Then he thought maybe tomorrow. Or the day after. Maybe the day after that… he’ll have the courage.
Not the courage to face the other. No. Courage… for the rejection.
Because cowardly, right now, he had hope. He could fantasize endlessly of that “yes” as much as he wished. Cling to it when it hurt a bit too much. If he got a real… not one from his nightmares, not one from his insecure musings… a real “no”… That was it. It was over. And he was definitely not ready for it to be over.
Then those days became weeks, and those weeks easily became a month.
And now… four months later, Stephen was staring at the front page of a newspaper. One that depicted a large colored photo of Iron Man and Captain America in a passionate kiss.
He remembers the event to be one from just yesterday. He had been here, in fact.
There had been an attack at Stark Industries. One that Tony had not hesitated to throw himself in. Many of his fellow Avengers was also at the scene to help.
Stephen had questioned if he should get involved. Especially once Pepper’s life became at stake. The CEO seemed to have refused to leave before making sure all other employees were safely evacuated. A bold move that nearly resulted in her almost getting throw out from the 12th-floor window, which undoubtedly would have resulted in her untimely death.
But before the sorcerer could make a move, Steve Rogers got there first.
There wasn’t even a scream. But the shock, the dread, was clear amongst the large crowd that had gathered. A total, utter silence as the body of Captain America hit the ground.
Then he saw the familiar flash of red and gold. From a distance, Stephen could do nothing but watch, almost in a trance, as Tony threw aside his helmet to quickly kneeling beside Rogers.
That look of horror… the tears that formed in those doe eyes. The sheer agony as he cried the Captain’s name over and over again. Hysterically yelling at some of the officers who approached to help… screaming for them to not dare touch the body. Shielding the limp form with his own.
And when, miraculously, Rogers opened his eyes. Took a desperate gasp of agonizing breath…
The sorcerer saw how Rogers tried to smile through the pain. Whispered something that couldn’t be heard from the distance. It seemed as though the Captain had been trying to console Tony, to calm him. He saw how Tony’s careful mask shattered.
Stephen wondered… had Tony ever looked at him like that? Ever looked as if he was totally, completely, hopelessly in love. Had he ever stared at him like that… with absolute disregard for everyone around him? Like nothing else mattered, as if there was nothing else in the world existed… as if it was just the two in that moment.
It seemed like the perfect romance scene every love song had been written for. One Stephen never believed in. A love that he thought was merely fiction. A notion he spent most of his life scoffing at.
Leave it to Tony to prove it can be a reality.
That kiss… the kiss that had everyone cheering.
Everyone except Stephen.
“Do you still love him?”
That snapped his attention, his gaze turning in haste to look at Wong who stood not too far away.
Right. They should be heading back to the Sanctum. They had been out on a walk. But now, Stephen stood in front of the newsstand, to stare at the endless amount of photos that only made him feel numb.
“I can't imagine the lifetime I don’t.”
Stephen had assumed that was the last of it.
Though perhaps, he never fully admitted to himself that it was all over. He was still unsure if he ever can.
The day after, the sorcerer visited a florist nearby 177A Bleecker Street. Ignoring all the newspapers, reports, magazine that depicted the image of two certain heroes.
It was everywhere. Flooding all types of media outlets. Seemed to be multiplying with each minute that passed. The headlines that read “Power Couple of the Century”, “Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist Finally in Love?”, “The Love Story That Broke the Internet”.
He thought to visit Christine. Hide in her apartment for rest of the week if he needed to. She would understand. She always understood.
Stephen had planned to pick up some tulips. Remembering how the other doctor enjoyed having flowers in her home. He hadn’t done much nice things for her recently when she never stopped caring for him.
But as he stood waiting for them to wrap the blooms, a familiar blonde walked in.
The sorcerer recognizes the man immediately even without the usual patriotic getup and instead, a simple white t-shirt, jeans, a dark bomber jacket, and a baseball cap. Stephen had just enough time to cast the same distortion spell from the gala.
The Captain appeared quite chipper considering his obvious state. There were dark bruises and cuts that adorned that perfect face, slightly stiff in the way he held himself. But Stephen supposed, any normal human would not have even survived that fall, let alone be walking around merely two days after.
The doctor tried to school the rising temper. One that formed just simply from having to breathe the same air as the man that replaced him in Tony’s life. He tried to mind his own business as the florist started to fawn over Rogers upon realizing who he was up close, assisting the Captain who clearly seemed to be in unfamiliar territory.
It was very apparent why he was here, however. Stephen’s hands clenched from inside the pockets of his cardigan.
It made him sick… his own reaction to this. Stephen never believed himself to be a good person but he hadn’t realize just how truly ugly his own personality was till now. Couldn’t even be happy for Tony to be finally… happy.
Tony deserved better than this. Better than him.
“He was here first- you can finish helping him. I definitely don’t mind waiting.”
That sharply tugged Stephen’s attention back to reality, unconsciously turning his gaze towards Rogers. Noticing that he was staring, the blonde smiled politely.
“Hi,” Steve said extending his right hand. “Steve Rogers.”
“Vincent… Vincent Stevens,” Stephen replied returning the smile, calmly shaking the offered hand.
If Rogers had noticed the trembling hands underneath the thick gloves, he doesn’t mention it. Only courteously adding less pressure than probably normal. As their eyes meet, Stephen understands.
It was not because it was the “proper” thing to do. Not in the way Stephen knew, learned, behaved with perfect manner when needed… But clearly a natural instinct that reflected a certain goodness of character.
Yes, this man was definitely a startling contrast to him. The sorcerer remembers Tony’s comment from that night. How Rogers couldn’t even make a decent lie…
He let out a soft huff. And here he was, Stephen can lie through his teeth without much trouble.
“For Tony Stark?” It falls from his tongue before he can stop himself. Quickly wondering with exasperation why he was punishing himself even further.
A flush came upon Steve’s cheek as he nervously ran a hand over his hair, settling behind the back of his neck. “…Yeah,” he let out a nervous laugh. “…I guess… everyone in city knows about that…”
“More like the whole country,” Stephen comments letting out a soft chuckle. He thanked the gods above, if there was one, that it sounded natural without the hint of bitterness he truly feels.
Then he noticed Roger’s choice. “Red roses?”
Tony doesn’t like roses. It’s too typical, boring. He almost said out loud. Though he manages to stop himself, quickly looking away.
“Uh-… yes?” came the almost hesitant reply.
Stephen swallowed, “How about dahlias. Red.”
Rogers was soon giving him a questioning stare.
“His mother’s favorite. Must have read that somewhere,” he said quickly. “Tony Stark… well, his life isn’t exactly… private. Roses seem… a bit old-fashioned.“
But the Captain soon didn’t seem to think anything odd of the situation, easily accepting the explanation. He smiled once more. “I don’t know… sometimes a bit of old-fashioned isn’t so bad-“
Stephen considers the statement for a moment.
Ah well… he may be right.
Perhaps that’s what Tony needs now.
“House in the suburbs, white picket fence, 2.5 kids?” He said, teasing slightly.
What Stephen did not expect was the sincerity that underlined the answer that came.
Steve smiled, “Yeah I get that a lot… But Tony wouldn’t like that. He loves the city and the lights. And I have to say, I’m starting to see the appeal too. Kids sounds nice though…” He let out a small laugh. “But way too early for all that…”
His heart stopped. The sorcerer felt the cold dread starting to form within him. “…Does he… want kids?” He didn’t… Tony said he didn’t-
There was sudden stiffening in the blonde. But that expression, Stephen already knew.
“Well… uh…” Steve cleared his throat. He doesn’t say but the sorcerer could already guess what was troubling the Captain. He wouldn’t be shocked if Natasha already gave some kind of rundown about Tony life. How the details of the billionaire’s life should not be talked about so freely with strangers.
“It’s alright,” Stephen said, careful to keep his voice calm. “I apologize for intruding on private matters. Don’t worry… I’m… rather a private person as well… not many I could even blab it to-“
Steve looked as if he was considering him for a second. Then after a short while, smiled as he turned his gaze back to absentmindedly watch the florist working at the far end of the store. “Thank you.”
Trusting… this man obviously was far more trusting than Stephen ever had been. Good-natured even. The type who can generally get along with most, not because he was smart enough to be able to play the social game well, but because he knew how to interact with others honestly, genuinely.
So Tony went and found himself someone who was the polar opposite of him. He wondered just how much of that must have been his own doing.
But he supposed… it was for the better.
He should be happy… for Tony.
…Just not today. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day… or the day after that.