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Potential Energy

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After his work for the day is done, Stephen portals into the library at Kamar-Taj. He checks the time. “Oh, good, we won’t be late if we leave soon.”

From the circulation desk, Wong says, “I’m not going.”

There is, thankfully, no one else in the library. Stephen settles into one of the austere wooden chairs across from Wong’s desk and winces at the way it digs into his bruised back. “Why not? Don’t tell me you’re not even the slightest bit tempted. Tony Stark’s parties used to be a pretty big deal.”

Moreso before Afghanistan, granted. Before Tony Stark announcing I am Iron Man was on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Before the Battle of New York and the fights in Sokovia and Leipzig-Halle and Thanos and—

“I have better things to do with my time,” Wong says.

“We were invited.”

Wong looks up, unimpressed. “It doesn’t mean we have to go.” He twists his fingers in the air, reaching for magic, and the sprawl of books over his desk separates itself into three neat piles, spines carefully arranged. “You’re tired.”

There’s no use protesting; he is. Three hours trying to convince a lesser demon haunting Ontario’s power grid would have been trying on its own, even if Stephen hadn’t been finally forced to fight it. Stephen spins up a portal no larger than a dinner plate and reaches through it for the book on top of the third stack. “You didn’t tell me you got this back.”

“Indeed. Not lost. Master Macintyre had completely forgotten she borrowed it.”

“Tsk, tsk.”

“You’re no better,” Wong says. He takes the first stack of books. Their spines show a dizzying mix of languages, but each title that Stephen can understand relates to casting wards. “Being the Master of a Sanctum doesn’t spare you from overdue fees.”

“Luckily the librarian lets me pay off my fees with tuna sandwiches.”

“For now.” Wong says it too ominously for Stephen to take seriously. He takes the books with him into the dimly lit stacks.

Another night, were Stephen less tired, he might follow Wong, wheedling out more stories about the books in the library. Instead, Stephen thumbs open the book he’s taken, and he glances over the table of contents, memorizing them instantly. It’s a treatise on demonic energies and the spells that use them, and it should test the limits of his scholarship and his Sanskrit both. Another evening, it would have held his interest easily. When Wong comes back for the second pile of books, Stephen looks up and says, “We don’t have to stay the whole time.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Come on, you’d have fun. Probably.”

Wong scoffs and retreats again to the shelves, this time with the stack of books about illusions.

Stephen reads for a little while, though he checks the clock at Wong’s desk more often than he needs to. It’s nearly nine p.m. In New York, though Stephen’s exhaustion comes less from being out of his usual time zone and more from a hard day’s work. His ribs ache where the demon had caught him off-guard, and he’s worked enough magic that he aches in a particular way he’s come to associate with magical overexertion.

And his hands hurt. That, though, he’s more or less used to.

He should sleep, he knows. Portal back to the New York sanctum and check its defenses, clean himself up, meditate to clear his mind. Instead, he’s going to go to a party.

It’s nearly quarter-past nine in New York when Wong comes back for the last stack of books. “You’re still here.”

“Figured I’d give you one last chance to join me. Why not? Have a few drinks, maybe dance a little? I bet you’re a great dancer.” Wong starts to leave, apparently done with their bantering, when Stephen puts his book aside and says, “Actually, I need you to check my glamors. If you don’t mind.”

Wong grunts in acknowledgement. Stephen stands and rolls his shoulders — the left one is stiffer than it should be; he’ll have to check in the morning for damage — and he closes his eyes. He focuses not on the pain, not on his exhaustion, but on the well of magic inside him. The first glamor he casts is more delicate, more subtle, and his hands shake as he works through the gestures of it. A thin play of illusion over his face, hiding the black eye that’s forming, the scrape across the side of his neck. The second glamor is familiar, and he signs for it with surety, even though the quickness of his gestures makes his hands ache. This is the glamor that reshapes what others will see his robes as. Tonight, not a gray shirt and jeans, but instead a navy blue suit, simple but elegant. Not so elegant as to invite anyone’s gaze to linger, granted, but not so simple as to leave him looking out of place, either.

When Stephen opens his eyes, even the low light of the library seems like too much. His vision swims, and for a moment, he thinks he’s overexerted himself. But Wong looks him over with a discerning eye, spins a finger in the air to indicate that Stephen should turn around, and then he nods in approval. “Well done.”

Even after so long, Wong’s genuine approval is hard to earn, and so Stephen lets himself grin. “I learned from the best.” He brushes fake dust from the lapel of his glamor’s suit lapels. “I’ll tell Stark you said hello.”

Wong glares, and Stephen is beginning to think that if he doesn’t sling ring himself back to New York soon, Wong will do it for him. He takes the hint and excuses himself, leaving Wong to his books, though he knows the man well enough to see the amusement in his face.

The invitation had arrived two weeks ago, a thick, expensive-looking envelope that looked out of place bundled with the stack of fliers and mailers and coupon books delivered to 177a Bleecker. And when Stephen had seen the Stark Industries address on the upper-left corner, he’d nearly assumed it was an invitation to Stark’s wedding. He and Potts calling off their wedding had made the front of every weekly in New York, though, and so Stephen had been curious when he opened it.

It was an invitation, but to a party, not a wedding. A party set for six months after Tony Stark had undone Thanos’s genocide of half the galaxy. Six months after Stephen and countless others had returned from the odd, dreamlike limbo of the Soul Stone; six months after Stephen had found himself brought back to life on Titan with the boy, Peter Parker, and the ragtag group of aliens alongside whom he’d fought Thanos.

He’s portaled straight to his room, where he allows himself the small vanity of checking his glamors for himself. His mirror is small, suitable mostly for shaving, but he’s done a reasonable job of making himself presentable. He certainly doesn’t look like he’d only recently been fighting a demon, even if he does feel it.

There is one more piece of magic to cast before he leaves. It’s a spell of his own design, inspired by the invisibility spells favored by the sorcerors who had escaped the fires in Salem. More subtle, though, and better suited to city life. Stephen holds his left hand in the air, his palm facing away, and loops his right hand in a circle about his fingertips. Just before the circle is complete, he contorts the fingers of his right hand: ring and last finger to his thumb, index and middle finger crossed. A gesture common to invisibility spells, but warped at the last second by a gesture common to spells which silence one’s footsteps and muffle one’s voice.

The last gesture of the spell is Stephen straightening the fingers of his right hand, then extending his palms away from him, raised towards the ceiling, as if waiting to be handed something. He thinks, as he pours energy into the spell, that it’s an odd, even — hah — strange thing. Once upon a time, not so long ago in linear years, he would have hated to walk into a party and have no one recognize him.

Now, though, the magic contorts in space; its energy raises the hairs at the back of his neck. Gold light sparks in circles over his palms. Stephen presses his right hand to his chest, and he draws a sigil in midair with the index finger of his left hand. The slight light of magic always catches the shine of his scars.

The spell settles over his shoulders, as familiar and reassuring as the weight of the Cloak. Stephen smiles despite his tiredness. Until he wills it, no one will look at him twice. Usually this spell aids him in his investigations into keeping the Earth safe, when he needs to physically track down those extra-dimensional anomalies that might exist in places that others wouldn’t easily grant him access to. Tonight, though, he will use it to visit a party hosted by Tony Stark.

And if it all goes according to plan, no one will be much the wiser.

Since the invitation had arrived, Stephen has kept it hidden in the stack of books at his bedside. He extracts it from between a primer on Sumerian grammar (interesting, if dry) and a beat-up copy of a horror novel (Wong’s, and interesting, if fictional.) The invitation is printed on a thick, cream-colored paper that reminds Stephen of his diploma, and underneath the date of the party, both his name and Wong’s are printed in a crisp, dark font.

Underneath their names is the scrawl of Tony Stark’s handwriting. It’s not quite a wedding, but it might be fun anyways — Tony.

Stephen catches himself wanting to trace one fingertip over the looping T of Tony’s signature. Foolish.

He doesn’t have to go. But the prospect of seeing Tony, alive and in his element… The paper is cool and heavy in his hand. Stephen closes his eyes and lets himself, for a moment, remember bits and flashes of those millions of futures. Tony Stark, throwing himself against Thanos again and again. Dying sometimes, surviving sometimes. Fighting even as he turned into dust. Sometimes Stephen died before Tony could fade; sometimes they faded together; sometimes Stephen was left behind to watch Tony dissolve into nothing. Tony Stark, the common shining thread that had linked together all futures where the galaxy stood half a chance.

Going to see Tony is…an indulgence. There’s no use in thinking of it as anything else. Stephen already thinks about Tony too often, and too fondly. In this timeline — the one that’s real, the one that Tony won for them — they barely know each other. They’re not friends. Or anything besides, vaguely, allies. What their relationship might have been in other timelines has no bearing on their relationship in this one.

It’s hard to forget, though. Impossible, with his memory. And he wouldn’t want to forget, even if he could.

It would have been easier with Wong; he’d have had someone to talk to, someone to distract himself with. He wouldn’t be slipping into a party by himself, using magic to remain unnoticed. But he can’t not go. Can’t turn down a chance to see Tony.

Stephen won’t go out of his way to cross their paths; he won’t linger for too long. He’ll check the wards on the tower while he’s there. Stephen tells himself these things as he concentrates on a location just a few blocks from the tower, envisioning it in his mind. They’re weak justifications, but so be it.

Stephen spins a portal into existence and steps into the night.

-

The party hadn’t been Tony’s idea. Actually, Tony doesn’t know whose idea it had been; Pepper’s been keeping that kind of thing locked down from him, probably nervous he’d try to get whoever it was who’d suggested it fired.

Which, hey, he’d be only a little tempted. Tony agrees, in the end, to show up, so long as he gets final veto power over the guest list. There are some arguments. Tony wins most of them.

It’s on the six-month anniversary of what the New York Post is inanely calling the Un-Snappening. It’s an extremely stupid name, but hey, at least there’s one thing that isn’t Tony’s fault. The roof of the revamped Stark Industries tower, in New York. It’s a far cry from the peace and quiet of the Compound, where there’s no buildings around for miles, where it’s just him and sometimes Steve, sometimes Happy. Room to think. Catch his breath.

Tonight, it’s too much. There’s too many people, and most of them want to talk with him. There’s champagne everywhere, and everyone wants to toast to being alive, and who would Tony Stark be to begrudge them that? He’d had a couple drinks during the day, bracing for the celebrations to start; within an hour of arriving at the party, already in full swing, he finishes at least three glasses of champagne, more if you count what he steals from other people.

Everything’s loud. His arm hurts. He has no idea what time it is, how long he’s spent schmoozing, when he finally charms his way out of a conversation with a governor of somewhere so he can escape to the terrace. It’s a cool night for this late in spring, and the sweat beading the back of his neck goes cool when a breeze hits. For a few moments, nothing feels real. Tony half-expects to look down and see himself turning into dust, scattering into nothing.

And then, blessedly, the moment passes. He’s on a Stark Industries rooftop. The music is too loud, and the champagne isn’t very good.

But it’s real. Not a dream, not an illusion.

The terrace is less busy, cordoned off from the rest of the guests. Not quite Avengers-only, but kinda close. Rhodey and Carol have their heads together, talking animatedly about something that probably involves planes, if Tony had to guess. The lights are lower here, the music quieter. A good place to catch his breath before making another round of it. Shaking hands. Thanking politicians for their efforts to keep the world from falling apart, again. Avoiding journalists.

He doesn’t want to be here; he doesn’t want to be doing this. It’s pure farce, pretending that everything’s magically gone back to the way it would have been if Thanos had never assembled the Gauntlet. Tony can sleep a couple hours at a time without waking up terrified that Peter’s fading away into dust in front of him all over again. And Extremis-aided recovery or not, his left arm is never gonna be the same.

When it aches — in the mornings, mostly, and before it rains — he can’t help but remember how much it had hurt. He’d thought he’d known pain before that. He hadn’t. Not really.

But it’s not just about him. Everyone else is hurting, too, and some of them worse than him. Which means his job tonight is to pretend that everything’s okay. Steady leadership, Pepper had mentioned a lot before the party started, smoothing down his tie while he’d finished his second glass of scotch, completely unable to look her in the eyes. Stark Industries was a big part of global stabilization efforts. And even if Tony is technically retired, he’s still the current Stark of “Stark Industries.” So, be mature and respectful. Nothing crazy or impulsive.

Which Tony is capable of, thank you. Or at least he thinks he is.

He wants another drink. Another five drinks, preferably, straight from a bottle if necessary. Bad idea. Tony rolls his shoulders, feels a twinge of pain run down his ulnar nerve, looks for a distraction. Not Rhodey or Carol; they’re enjoying themselves too much for Tony to interrupt and throw a wet blanket over things by making them pay attention to him. There’s a couple of his favorite SI R&D guys doing their best to charm Bruce, it looks like, which is good; Tony still wants Bruce on payroll.

There’s other people on the terrace, too. A couple of Fury’s people. A couple of Pepper’s people. No one Tony really wants to talk to. No one he’d feel alright imposing himself on. He’s done enough of that, imposing.

This was a mistake. Tony lifts his glass to his mouth and finds himself surprised by how much champagne there is. When did he get more to drink? The last hour is hard to remember, fuzzy in the way any heavy-drinking night gets. This — being on the terrace — it isn’t any better than circulating amongst the hoi polloi, stealing drinks and getting dragged into selfies; it’s worse, worse because the people here know, they remember.

Tony ends leaning on the railing of the rooftop, staring over the rest of the city. Mostly rooftops. The tower is one of the tallest buildings in New York, and this part of Manhattan sometimes feels like all skyscrapers.

Once upon a time, before Afghanistan, heights made him nervous. But now that’s just something else that’s been burned out of him. He’s spent too much time in the suit to even register it anymore. Now, heights just make him miss flying.

It was a mistake to come here. To the party at all, but especially to the terrace. It’s quieter, but he doesn’t need quiet. He needs noise, a distraction. Another drink. He’s about to down the rest of his champagne when he spots something out of the corner of his eye. Someone he hadn’t noticed earlier, standing by himself, shifting on his feet.

(Tony misses the way the suit made his peripheral vision better — a full 160 degrees when he needed it.)

Somehow he’d missed Stephen Strange actually showing up. That’s unexpected. And no Wong in sight, at least for the moment. Just Stephen, staring at the skyline, holding a plastic water bottle, and notably not wearing a magic cape. Tony ambles over.

“Hey, Houdini, nice of you to join us.”

Stephen doesn’t really react to that; Tony hadn’t really expected him to. “Thank you for your gracious invitation. Wong regrets he was unable to attend.”

Not really that gracious. It would have been weird to not invite one of the people who’d helped nearly knock out Thanos during round one, on Titan. Tony totally would have invited Quill and the others if he’d had some kind of mailing address, but, well, it’s hard to send a postcard to a spaceship. “Somehow I doubt that Wong really regrets it that much, but tell him I miss his beautiful face anyways.”

Stephen half-laughs. “I will.”

“I’d suggest we toast to his health,” Tony says, raising his glass like he hasn’t had enough toasting this evening to last him the rest of his fucking life, “except, uh…” He inclines his drink towards Stephen’s plastic water bottle. “Can I get you a glass?”

The gray at Stephen’s temples looks more pronounced than it used to. It’s been a tough six months.

“No. Thank you, though — I don’t drink anymore.”

Tony swirls his mouthful of champagne around in his mouth. It fizzes between his teeth, against the roof of his mouth. It’s too sweet.

Stephen twists the lid off the plastic water bottle to take a drink. When he tries to screw the lid back on, his hand trembles, but he keeps staring at the skyline like he doesn’t notice. “After the crash, I…” He manages to close the bottle, but his brow is drawn down like he’s searching for words.

Tony only knows as much about Stephen’s crash as a web search could tell him. Famous neurosurgeon, single-car accident, major nerve and bone damage. “Drank too much, made it a habit?” he guesses.

Stephen hmms, though he doesn’t look away from the city.

“I went through the worst of withdrawal in Kamar-Taj. I didn’t really know how much I was drinking, not until I couldn’t drink anymore.” He’s quiet enough that Tony has to lean closer to hear. “It could have been worse.” Stephen sounds self-deprecating now, wry and not a little bit bitter, and hell if that isn’t familiar. He lifts one hand, lets it tremble in the air. “At least I’m used to the shakes.”

It’s a morbid joke, but Tony grins anyways, maybe in recognition. “I expected something a little more spiritual. Quitting because your monastic order forbids it or whatever.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Stephen runs one hand over his chin, scratching at the edge of his beard. He’s quiet for just long enough that Tony’s about to try and ask about the Sanctum, anything to change the subject. “Just a…personal crisis and a family tendency.”

He glances at Tony for just a moment. And Tony isn’t great at reading people, but Stephen doesn’t seem that great at it either, which is a comfort. “I get it, Doc.” He leans against the railing, raises his glass up so he can squint through it at Murray Hill. Lots of tiny lights refracted through the pale yellow of a cloying champagne.

And he’s drunk, and Stephen is apparently willing to listen, so he says, “Been there before.”

There’d been a couple good years. Or not good years, not really, but sober years where even during the worst months, months when he’d wanted desperately to drink himself to sleep more nights than not, be managed to whiteknuckle through it. Pepper had helped, usually.

This, though, the new normal after Thanos… Yeah, that’s a lot harder sober.

And Stephen’s noticed that, too. “You’re drinking now, though.”

“Yep,” Tony says. And then, for lack of anything better to say, “You sure you don’t want a glass?”

Stephen has no right to look as good as he does. He’s wearing either a vintage-styled navy suit or an actually vintage navy suit, and Tony can’t figure out the designer. His hair isn’t as tame as usual, and he almost looks like he could be just some guy, not a magician.

Stephen holds out his plastic water bottle. “Tell you what. I’ll trade you.”

Tony holds out his flute of champagne, and Stephen takes it, and Tony takes the Stark-branded plastic water bottle in return. He pops the lid off easy, and the first swig of water tastes good the way water always tastes when Tony’s drunk.

Stephen pours the champagne out into the nearest potted plant.

Tony laughs as Stephen neatly settles the glass onto the railing. “God, I like you,” Tony says. “You’re insane, you know that?”

Maybe Stephen looks taken aback for a moment. It’s hard to know. The lighting is low and flattering, and Tony’s drunk. “I’ve been told that before.”

Tony’s drunk, and Stephen’s paying attention to him. “What, that I like you?”

“That I’m insane,” Stephen says flatly.

Alright, maybe coming on a little too strong. “All the best of us are.” Tony chugs the rest of the water. He crumples the bottle in one hand and tosses it over his shoulder, winks when Stephen rolls his eyes. “I’m thirsty. Any chance you can…” He twirls a finger in the air. “…magic up another one of these? I’d go get one myself, but I’d get intercepted.”

“Intercepted?”

“By people who want to drink to something.” He mimes drinking from a champagne flute, pinky raised, and does his best to keep a straight face when Stephen looks impressively unimpressed.

“Not on my person.” Stephen says it kinda bashful, like an admission, and Tony is about to say something sarcastic like well, what’s magic good for anyways, huh, when Stephen turns on his heel and grins, earnest and dorky and very, very unintentionally charming. “Not here, at least.” He takes his right hand out of his pocket and extends it like some Disney prince asking for a dance. He leans in a little, conspiratorial. “I know a place in Jersey, though. Open all night, and the coffee’s good.”

“Is this a kidnapping attempt?”

“Only if it doesn’t work. Otherwise, I think it’s just a kidnapping,” Stephen says. And then he winks, the absolute asshole.

And, yeah, okay, that stupid wink seals the deal. It half-makes Tony think back to the two of them standing down aliens in New York, before he’d known the slightest thing about Stephen. (Does he know anything about Stephen now?)

The rooftop feels claustrophobic, like there’s too many people around, and returning to the party is unthinkable. Tony doesn’t want to be here, doesn’t want to be pretty drunk (and on his way to extremely drunk.) He reaches for Stephen’s hand. “Just tell me they have a gluten-free option.”

There’s a flash of light, and they’re not on the rooftop anymore. It’s warmer, and Stephen’s face is lit softly by green neon. Stephen drops Tony’s hand, and he holds the door open for Tony. “Gluten-free options ahead,” he drawls.

Tony’s in a better mood already.

Chapter Text

It’s a 24/7 vegetarian diner, one of those places with a thick menu of laminated pages. Not crowded, but busy enough that Tony instinctively ducks his head down like that might keep the booth of college students from recognizing him. He picks a booth furthest away from the other people eating. Stephen seems unbothered by the possibility of someone recognizing Tony, or maybe it just hasn’t occurred to him that that’s a problem non-wizards have.

It takes the waitress a few minutes to amble by, but she greets them nicely enough, and Stephen orders coffee for both of them.

“Cream or sugar?” she asks.

“None for me, thank you,” Stephen says.

“What about you, sir?”

“Uh.” Tony looks up from the menu, and the waitress is staring at him with enough impatience that it’s probably obvious he’s drunk. Her plastic name tag says Mary. “Black is fine.”

She brings coffee over quickly. It’s just a little too hot to drink. Tony drinks it anyways.

“You know what?” Tony drums his fingertips on his mug. “I don’t think she recognizes me.”

He’s kind of expecting Stephen to say something snide about Tony not being that famous (even though he is.) Instead, Stephen twirls one finger in the air with a bored nonchalance. A gold sigil flares on his chest. More sober, Tony might find it in himself to be unsettled. For now, he just finds it kinda pretty. “I tend to have that effect on people.” The sigil fades, and Stephen wraps both hands around his coffee. The scars on his hands are flat and shiny, impossible to ignore. “I worked out a…small field of anonymity. Quite useful if you’d like to avoid drawing undue attention.”

“So what you’re saying is that I don’t need to worry about Mary going into the back room and tipping off a tabloid that even though I’m supposed to be hosting a party right now, I’m actually drunk in Jersey.”

That gets him like half a smile from Stephen. “Correct.”

Tony orders too much food — hash browns, a stack of gluten-free pancakes with blueberries, scrambled eggs. He flirts with Mary, who finally cracks a smile at him. He asks Stephen inane questions about magic, and Stephen keeps reminding him to drink water, and Tony’s just drunk enough to be gracious about it.

At some point, Tony’s phone rattles on the table. A text from Pepper asking where the hell he is, and it only reads as a little panicked. Stepped out to get some air w/ the wizard, he texts back.

Pepper messages him back nearly instantly. You should have told Happy; he’s been looking everywhere for you.

Oh. Right. Tony actually feels bad about that for a second ‘cause Happy’s probably half-convinced Tony’s been, like, actually kidnapped again. Their food mostly Tony’s food — is ready, though, and Mary manages to cram a frankly excessive number of plates onto their table. Tony types out, My bad, wasn’t thinking. Do you think he wants hashbrowns

Pepper texts back, What?

Tony sends her a picture of the food. There’s a lot of it. Then his phone rings because Pepper’s actually calling him, which Tony probably should have seen coming. “Hi, Pep,” he says, then shoves three pieces of fake bacon into his mouth at once.

“Tony. Where the hell are you?”

“I dunno. Diner in Jersey.”

Pepper is silent for just long enough for Tony to imagine the death glare she’d be fixing him with if they were in the same room together. He can hear a little bit of background noise — music, upbeat and boring, standard party music stuff. People talking. “Please don’t tell me you flew there in the suit,” she says finally.

It’s been five months and seventeen days since Tony wore the suit. He still can’t tell if he misses it.

“No, no.” Tony clears his throat. “I, uh, Stephen took care of transportation.” Which is a hell of a euphemism for ‘magically transported me here,’ but it’s also not a lie. “I’ll be back soon. Promise.”

“Good. People keep asking me where you are. I think they want you to give a speech.”

“Not a chance in hell. Make Cap do it.”

Pepper sighs straight into the phone, and it’s loud enough to nearly make Tony flinch. “Who’s your chaperone?”

“Stephen,” Tony says, “Strange, you know. Goatee guy.”

Across the table, Stephen fixes him with the most unimpressed kinda stare that Tony thinks he’s ever seen in real life, and he dated Pepper Potts for years, so that’s impressive.

“Can I talk to him?”

“I don’t know. Hey, Merlin, you wanna talk to Pep?”

After a moment, Stephen extends one hand so Tony can pass over the phone. “Eat,” he says wearily. “You could use it.”

There’s a lot of food, most of it greasy enough FRIDAY would yell at him if she could. Tony passes over the phone and turns his attention to the eggs first.

“Miss Potts, I take it,” Stephen says into the phone.

The eggs are too salty, but in the moment that seems like a good thing.

“Indeed,” Stephen says to Pepper.

Shoulda ordered the hashbrowns with cheese, probably.

“I will,” Stephen says.

The pancakes are better. Tony does his best to ignore the fact that he’s letting his CEO-slash-ex-fiancee tell Stephen fucking Strange, apparently sober wizard, what they’re up to when they’re really supposed to be at a celebratory dinner-slash-party.

Tony focuses more on shoving food in his face than on trying to read Stephen’s expression. It isn’t that hard. He’s hungry, he’s realizing, and it makes him wonder when the last time he ate was.

Stephen makes a face, says “Sure” all snide, and then passes the phone back to Tony. Pepper’s already hung up. “She nice to you?” he asks, too flippantly.

Stephen rolls his eyes and steals a forkful of Tony’s hash browns. “You could say that,” he says.

And then Stephen asks what Tony thinks of wetware computing, and Tony nearly chokes on his coffee because he’s too eager to answer.

Turns out Stephen knows his stuff about neuroscience (no surprise), but less about neuromodeling (fair; not a lot of people in that field.) Every time the conversation seems to lull, Stephen steals a bite of something Tony’s eating and mentions something provocative.

It’s got to be deliberate. Tony knows that; he’s been manipulated by enough people to recognize distraction when it comes to him. But with Stephen it seems earnest, maybe. Almost hapless. Like Stephen actually cares what Tony’s neuromodeling reservations are. Something like that.

-

Stephen tries to pay the bill, and Tony interrupts him — a few crisp bills that he always keeps inside a jacket pocket, tucked under the check. Tony didn’t even glance at the bill.

It’s still cold outside.

“Ready to go back?” Stephen asks.

“God, no.”

“That bad?”

Not really. Yes. Maybe. The thought of being back there makes Tony want to crawl up a wall. Every eye in the place on him, waitstaff who’ll notice the instant he’s finished a glass of champagne and rush over to pour him more, posing for pictures with politicians…

“Could be worse,” Tony says.

“Hmm.” Stephen is staring at him without any particularly obvious emotion, which is kind of a relief. No expectation, just a even sort of presence like nothing that Tony could possibly say next would be a surprise. In the low light, Stephen’s eyes look darker than usual.

Tony leans against the diner, hands in his pockets, staring out over the mostly empty parking lot. Mostly boring cars. There’s a station wagon parked all the way in the darkest back corner where there’s probably a pair of teenagers fooling around.

For a weird second, Tony feels way too aware of how old he is. He’s getting up there. The New York Post has already started speculating what kinda blowout he’s gonna throw for his fiftieth birthday even though it’s more than a year away. He can’t even find it in himself to be annoyed. None of that shit matters. He’s always known that, on a certain level. Even in his twenties when he’d been drinking and flirting to distract himself from grieving, working for days straight just to make Obi get off his ass for a minute, then partying in way too much of the public eye to celebrate the way profits just kept surging — he’s never bought his own hype, not really. Always had that undercurrent of self-loathing to counterbalance it. It’s whatever.

Becoming Iron Man only made it worse, obviously. Saving the universe (again) and retiring made it worse, too. Everything makes it worse. The only way to stay sane is to try and ignore it.

Hopefully now that it’s over, really actually fucking over, the press will start circling the superheroes who are still active. Cap’s still out there, slinging his shield at baddies. His super serum-ified body is apparently impervious to things like arthritis and nerve damage, unlike Tony’s. Ant-Man’s out there, too. Wanda. Fighting the good fight and whatever.

Tony’s out, though, benched for good this time. Too late to hold onto Pepper, but maybe that was always gonna be the case. She always was too good for him.

A sedan pulls too fast into the parking lot, and a bunch of twenty-something kids pour out the doors. They’ve got their arms slung over each others’ shoulders, they’re too loud, and only the driver looks remotely sober. Which of them got dusted, which of them had to stick around and deal with the aftermath? Tony watches them; they don’t spare Tony a glance.

“Thank you, by the way,” Tony says. “For getting me out of there for a little bit.”

“We don’t have to back just yet.”

“I like the sound of that. Where to next, Mr. Portkey?” Stephen tilts his head in complete bafflement, and Tony shakes his head. “Oh my god. Don’t tell me you’ve never read Harry Potter.”

“...why would I have read a series of children’s books?”

“Such a Ravenclaw,” Tony says, just to see Stephen roll his eyes.

Tony is the one to extend his hand this time, waiting. Stephen’s hand is cold. Their palms rest together, and then there’s golden light, and then, again, they’re somewhere else.

-

The flash of light seems to go on for longer this time. Tony blinks hard a few times before realizing that no, actually, it’s just day wherever they are, and it’s sunlight that he’s reeling at. He fumbles inside his suit jacket for his sunglasses. If light’s hurting his eyes this much, it must mean he’s sobering up. “Where are we?”

“Japan,” Stephen says. He sounds pleased with himself. “I thought some fresh air might be welcome.”

It’s nice. Elegant. There’s trees everywhere just starting to lose their blooms, and he and Stephen are standing on a wide, paved pathway that surrounds a still pond. It’s a little cooler than New York, but it’s windless, and the sky is a perfect blue reflected in the water. Not the furthest thing from a rooftop party that Tony can imagine, but it’s definitely different.

“This is…nice,” he says. “Unexpected. But nice.”

“Well, I didn’t have another party on my schedule, so I hoped this would suffice,” Stephen deadpans. He nods towards where the path winds around the pond. “Shall we?”

Tony rolls his eyes, but he follows.

Walking is…nice. Good idea on Stephen’s part. Good to let the food settle, good to feel himself sobering up. Stephen is apparently content just to walk, hands in his pockets, stare fixed on the trees.

So Tony tries to just appreciate the quiet and anonymity for awhile. Except he’s Tony Stark, and his brain barely ever stops buzzing. After a few minutes, he can’t keep himself from speaking. “I didn’t notice you when you showed up,” Tony says. “Were you, y’know…” He gestures towards his chest and draws a circle in the air, indicating where the spell had glowed in front of Stephen’s chest half an hour ago, half a planet away.

“Sort of,” Stephen says. “I didn’t sneak in, if that’s what you’re asking. After that, though…” He shrugs. “It was easy enough to blend in without the spell anyways, but parties aren’t...really my thing.”

It should be unsettling. Tony should find it creepy that Stephen was sneaking around all magically anonymous, but instead there’s a contradiction somewhere, something that isn’t quite sitting right, and Tony wants to work out what it is. “Why’d you come then? Not that I’m not pleased, but…”

The path they’re walking really is gorgeous. And even with the anonymity field spell thing, he and Stephen probably wouldn’t stick out that much. There’s a fair number of tourists, a lot of business people, most of them too busy gawking at the trees and flowers to really notice each other.

Stephen looks perfectly at ease, head tipped back a little as he walks. “Seemed polite.”

“Bullshit.” Tony jams his hands in his pockets, thinking back to the rooftop where everyone else is still mulling around, getting drunker, leaning in to talk above the music. “I mean, not to be rude, but you don’t usually seem that concerned with being polite, dude.”

“Hmm.” Stephen shrugs. “Maybe I’m turning over a new leaf,” he suggests.

Tony scoffs, loudly, and Stephen grins, shaking his head.

“No, you’re right.” Stephen pauses for half a step so that they’re perfectly side-by-side, rather than Tony a half-step behind him. It’s kind of annoying because now Tony can’t stare at him, trying to figure him out, and he’s gotta actually look around at the trees and flowers and stuff. “Before my...career transition, parties actually were my thing, I suppose. Which is to say I enjoyed them quite a lot. Probably too much. I enjoyed being the center of attention, the guest of honor.” Stephen’s talking with a brutal matter-of-factness, none of the ironic detachment from before. “I wasn’t sure what it would be like, being in attendance as just a bystander.”

Just a bystander says the guy who nearly held Thanos off on his own. Not what Tony’s focused on, though.

“When I found you on the terrace, though,” Tony says, “you had the spell up at first, right?” Silence. Tony grins. “You let me find you. You’d been hiding, but you let the spell down for a minute.”

Stephen stops. They’re in a shady, kinda secluded spot, not too many people around, so Tony stops too and turns to face Stephen. Stephen’s giving it his best poker face, but his shoulders are ramrod straight with tension.

“I’m so right,” Tony says. He doesn’t jab Stephen’s chest, but the urge is there.

“I apologize if I betrayed your trust, but I wanted to see you,” Stephen says. “And I wasn’t sure if you’d care to see me.”

Tony slips his sunglasses off. A small group wanders by them, ignoring them entirely. It’s brighter with his sunglasses off, and everything seems, for a moment, nearly incomprehensibly weird. Not unreal, though, not like nighttime on the rooftop reeling from too many people who wanted too much from him. That had been, what, an hour or two ago? And now he’s standing in daylight, somewhere on a different continent, and he feels okay. Definitely still kinda drunk, but whatever.

“Of course I wanted to see you. I invited you, didn’t I?”

“Yes. And Wong.”

Huh.

Stephen shifts so he’s looking at the water next to them, rather than at Tony. He’s...striking would be a good word. Even in sunlight, his face is almost too angular, stark shadows under his high cheekbones. “I would understand if you hadn’t forgiven me for Titan,” he says. His throat shifts as he swallows. “Some at Kamar-Taj still haven’t.”

“We won. Nothing to forgive.”

“I wanted to scan the building for threats as well. Cast some wards, just in case.”

“I’m sorry, you wanted to...cast wards?”

“Against incursions,” Stephen says, very earnestly.

“And when I wandered by drunkenly…”

“I know we’re not...friends.” Stephen rubs at the side of his neck with one hand, diverting his gaze again. “But it would be remiss of me not to step in and provide help when I could.”

“We’re not friends?” Tony presses a hand to his chest, mock-wounded. “That’s news to me, Doc. I don’t let just anyone take me out to dinner and a relaxing garden walk. What’d I do?”

“Nothing. I mean, ah…” Stephen scratches at the edge of his goatee, squints at Tony in a sorta way that Tony’s way more at ease with. Like he’s trying to figure out what the hell is going on in Tony’s head.

“I’m just fucking with you, dude, don’t worry about it.” Tony grins as disarmingly as he can, feels a guilty swoop of pleasure at the bashful relief that way too transparently crosses Stephen’s face. “I mean, I’m serious about not letting just anyone take me out to dinner, but I think I trust you. And I mean that. I don’t feel comfortable with just any magician sneaking around my property, casting spells and whatever.”

“Hmm.” Stephen’s posture oozes back to too-casual, meaning it’s all gotta be an act, but Tony won’t call him on it. “I’m glad, I think.”

“And here I was, when this conversation started, mostly expecting you to say you were worried I’d drunkenly fall off the roof.”

In the sunlight, Tony can see that there’s a bit of color to Stephen’s cheeks. “Well, ah, that too.”

“Gotta say, way nicer answer than I was expecting.” Tony slips his sunglasses back on and turns on his heel, ready to keep walking. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Stephen following him. “Kinda creepy, though.”

“...yes.”

“Please don’t do that again without warning me.”

“Tony, I can’t promise that.”

And Tony stops in mid-step at that because Stephen’s voice is — well, anguished is the first word Tony thinks of. And then he thinks of Stephen beaten and bloody and barely holding himself up off of Titan’s dusty surface, Stephen staring him dead in the eyes and saying It was the only way, and when Tony looks at Stephen again, he’s got that familiar expression, too. Resigned but absolutely convinced.

“I will do whatever is necessary, within my power, to keep you safe,” Stephen says, low and just as serious as Tony’s ever heard him. “If that requires misleading you or lying to you, I will do that without hesitation. And I understand if that means we can’t...be friends, and I would regret that. I can forfeit your friendship, but I cannot, so long as I have the power, forfeit your safety.”

Stephen’s looking at him dead on, like he’s the only person he can see. It’s eerie, being on the other end of that razor-sharp focus. It’s the kinda focus he’d expect to see on a surgeon’s face, sure, but while doing something like making the first incision on someone with a scalpel. “I can take care of myself, you know,” Tony says.

“I know.”

“Then why do you feel responsible for my safety?” Fuck, if only he were a little more sober — in his pockets, Tony curls his fingernails into his palms, trying to think clearly. “I don’t get it. Why do you care so much?”

For just a moment, Stephen’s poker face slips, and Stephen is staring at him with such a look of outright confusion that Tony kinda wonders if he’s just spoken nonsense rather than asking what seems like it should be a very straightforward question.

“You’re remarkable.” It doesn’t quite come out as a compliment, but Stephen runs a hand through his hair and looks pained. “You’re Tony Stark.”

“Yeah, I know that. Most people don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing,” Tony snaps. Stephen, for one, hadn’t. Not when they’d first met.

“In the futures I saw, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the universe stood a much better chance with you than it did without you. You never gave up. Not once.”

Tony opens his mouth to say something, but for once, he can’t think of anything at all.

“You were — are — brave and determined and sometimes too noble for your own good. Smart, obviously. That goes without saying.” Stephen shoves his hands back in his pockets, and he shrugs. “Frankly, our dimension needs people like you. And I, ah.” Stephen clears his throat. “I hold you in very high esteem, if that wasn’t...obvious.”

“A little, yeah,” Tony says, a little more curtly than he means to. Mostly because Stephen fucking Strange has just strung a lot of very nice words together about Tony, which somehow is something that Tony never would have ever seen coming.

Even after everything. Stephen giving an actual Infinity Stone up for him, and then Stephen teleporting him to a diner in Jersey to escape the crush of a party he was supposed to be hosting. One of those things being an admittedly bigger deal than the other.

It’s too much, or it’s not enough, or it’s nothing Tony can make sense of. Even with his sunglasses on, he can see the way Stephen’s face is flushed, the way he’s holding himself self-consciously.

“I have literally no idea what to say,” Tony says, “which, by the way, congratulations. Very few people have ever accomplished that.”

“That...wasn’t my intention.”

“Ssh,” Tony says. And then an impulse hits him, and it doesn’t seem like a bad one. Or at least it seems better than wanting to drink straight from the bottle. He steps forwards, straight into Stephen’s personal space, and before Stephen can step back, he grabs Stephen by the shoulders. “Is this an illusion?”

“What? No, this is a suburb of—”

“No, not the garden. This.” He pats Stephen’s shoulders. “The suit.”

“Oh.” Up close, Stephen looks pretty tired himself, gray shadows under his eyes. “Ah, yes.” He clears his throat. “Good eye.”

“Lucky guess,” Tony says.

He lets his hands fall, and he watches Stephen gesture in midair. All of the sudden it’s not a suit he’s wearing but the robes Tony’s more accustomed to seeing him in.

“Huh. Do you even own civilian clothes anymore, or is this all you wear?”

He means it as a joke, but Stephen looks over his shoulder, refusing to meet his eyes. “Usually this.” Then, with some irony, “It’s not like I have a particularly packed social calendar.”

“Well, I’ll see what I can do about that.” That gets him eye contact and half a scowl, which he can work with. “Seriously, what’s your schedule like? Unpredictable? Been there.” He winks, though Stephen probably can’t see it behind Tony’s mirrored sunglasses. “I barely slept even before Thanos — even less now. I keep weird hours. Come by sometime, I’ll show you the workshop.”

Stephen’s scowl switches gears somehow. “Sleep is important, Tony. Even if—”

“Uh-uh. Tell you what—” He finally gives into the impulse to jab Stephen’s chest. “I will listen to you if and only if you’re about to give me advice that you already follow yourself.”

Which gets Tony a third and distinctly different scowl.

“I’m serious. Come visit sometime, if you want.”

“Tony…”

“Just don’t tell Pepper you think that highly of me, or she’ll assign you to bodyguard duty for the rest of your natural life.”

“...noted.”

“I should go back soon.”

“Probably,” Stephen says. “Whenever you’re—”

“Can you, uh — can you take me somewhere a little out of the way?” It feels like a stupid thing to ask, but the idea of going straight from some nice garden in the middle of the afternoon to a rooftop party in the middle of the night without any time to get used to the change is kind of a lot. “It’s just—”

“Of course.” Stephen clears his throat. “Ah, just outside, perhaps?”

“A few blocks away? I could walk a little more.”

Stephen draws a circle in the air, and then, quick as a blink, there’s a perfect circle of Manhattan nighttime hanging in the middle of the garden. No one else spares it a glance. Tony steps through.