Actions

Work Header

Amor Vicit Omnia [ARC 3]

Chapter Text

Saturday 

29 May 2010 

'Father is dead', Loki had said. 

His eyes had been filled with sorrow and it had broken Thor to see it. To see his brother hurting, as much as the news had hurt him and had completely devastated him. 

Odin, the King of the Gods, the Allfather, the King of Asgard, his father. Dead. Thor still hasn't been able to process the news. 

'Can I come home?' Thor had asked. He needed to see Mother. He needed to see Father's body before they passed him onto Valhalla. He had needed the support of his friends and his people. Loki had shaken his head. 

'No. I cannot lift the banishment from you. You must learn the lessons that Father intended you to learn. You must become worthy of Mjolnir. Until then, Asgard will be closed to you', Loki had said. He had sounded stern. Firm. Just as Odin's voice had. 

Thor had been too deep in grief to be angry at his brother. Not when he looked so pained and anguished. Not when he was right. All too right. 

'Isn't there a way that you can-' Loki had given him a hard look at that. Thor had felt the tears starting to fall and he had felt foolish even as the question had left his lips. 

'You are not fit to rule, Thor. The burden of the throne has fallen to me. You need to know what it is that you are lacking as a ruler. You are too reckless. Too dangerous to sit upon the throne of Asgard'. Loki had been stern. It had hurt to hear the scathing criticism. 

But he had been right. 

'Claim the hammer Thor. Become worthy of it brother so that you may return. Learn the lessons that father has wanted you to learn', Loki has said. 

Thor does not know how. 

He does not know what lessons he is meant to learn. He does not understand how he is meant to learn the lessons without the guidance of- 

Has he always been so helpless? Is he incapable of thinking for himself? Is he unable to plan and to do things for himself without the advice of his brother, the support of his friends and the guidance of his mother? 

He is not a child. 

He should be able to figure out what it is that Father had wanted him to learn. Why he had banished Thor when it would cost him so dearly to do so. 

The spell to bind Thor's godhood to Mjolnir would have been a powerful one and Thor may not be the mage that Loki is, but he knows that it must have cost a great deal of power. 

Even gods can die when their time runs out. Thor ought to have known that. He ought to have made Father proud whilst he has had the chance. 

'I came to say goodbye, brother', Loki had said. As if he expected that Thor would never learn the lessons. Perhaps he won't. Thor cannot be sure. 

But he was grateful that he at least got to see his brother one last time. Thor had nodded. When Loki had vanished and he had been left alone... 

It had hurt. 

It still hurts. 

But there is a balm that covers that pain and that anguish and that sorrow. 

Jane Foster. 

Even without his godhood, if Thor concentrates hard enough, he can see the Connection flowing between them. A gift that his mother had passed on to him that is inherent to him. One that even Odin could not have taken away. 

He sees the thin soft glowing line that stretches and Connects him to his Soulmate. She is the one thing that makes this situation bearable. 

He does not tell her of Odin's death. He cannot acknowledge it. Not yet. But she is kind and understanding since he had returned to her temporary home. She knows that he is sad. She knows that he misses his home. 

She is so very kind and gentle. 

But she is also passionate and she burns bright like a flame. Thor is attracted to her in a way he had never been with any other woman. Her kindness and warmth are unlike any other. 

Here, he is no Prince. He has no wealth, no protection of his friends and guards. He has no family. He has nothing. There is nothing that he could give in return for her kindness. But she does not ask much of him. 

She opens her home to him and gives him refuge. She gives him sustenance that he requires. All she asks for are stories of Asgard and the Nine Realms. An explanation of the Bifrost and the magics and sciences of his world. 

He tells her the stories. He has the time and spending that time with his Soulmate, talking of the home that he misses is not a difficult task. 

But it does not lessen the dread, the fear and the sorrow of within his heart. Thor does not know how to regain his godhood. 

He is not sure if he wants to. 

Perhaps it is the will of the Norns that he remain on Midgard, love the woman that is his Soulmate and live out the rest of his limited days with her. 

At least her life and the fragile mortality of her being so fleeting to a god. Perhaps this was better. Perhaps this short life with her could be and would be better. Surely he can adjust. Surely he can find a means of earning funds and being able to provide for her. 

It's a life that he may not have been born into but it is a life that perhaps he can have, even if he were to never return to Asgard and to be able to see his family and friends. 

Loki would be a better King than him. Thor knows that. Loki was clever. He knew how to speak to the people of Asgard and he knew how to use diplomacy in ways that Thor knows that he was not capable of. Loki wasn't reckless. He could be mischievous but he is not rash. Not like Thor. 

He had always been the one to discourage Thor from his rash and reckless actions. Perhaps Loki had always been better suited to the Throne. Thor is not certain. 

As he looks over at Jane sleeping peacefully on the chaise, curled with the blankets and lit by the fire that burns, he's not sure if he even cares. 

Jane Foster is worth giving up his godhood for. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

29 May 2010 

Public Relation Nightmare. 

That is what Pepper has on her hands. Oh, she's not surprised by that. She had known that it was going to happen, at least partially. But the Expo had really ramped things up and made things a whole lot more impossibly difficult to deal with. 

Pepper had already tasked Gina Park and her exceptional PR team to start the work on the whole party fiasco and how that had turned out and they had a good narrative going but with the addition of the Expo it was really going to cause some problems. 

As much as Tony might dislike it, Pepper plans to let the world know about the poisoning. Or at least let them know that he has been unwell as a result of the strain of being Iron Man and trying to do the superhero gig effectively on his own. 

As such, he has chosen to gift the suit to a pilot that was incredibly well known already in the public for his heroics during the wars, Rhodey, the suit and have been training him in the usage of the suit. 

On his ill-fated birthday party, Tony had been planning to introduce the War Machine, but there had been some problems and it had not gone according to plan. 

Alexander and his legal team has already spoken to most of the party guests and have compensated those that required compensation and the problem was sorted on that end mostly. So there was that. 

With the Expo, the story about Ivan Vanko and his history coming out from the Interpol has certainly helped, as did the wonderful piece of journalism that Christine Everhart had done with Gina's 'leaked' information in relation to Anton Vanko and Howard Stark's relationship as far as the Arc Reactor was concerned. 

Which earned Tony a lot of sympathy votes. 

But it really didn't solve everything, which is why Pepper Potts was suffering from a headache. Clea, who apparently notices the grimace that she tries to hide, comes over with a glass of water and painkillers. 

"God, you're a blessing." Pepper tells the younger woman. Clea gives her a smile and preens a little with that showboating way that Pepper knows is designed to make her smile. It works. 

"Gina and her team, as well as Alex and his team, will be ready for the meeting in another half an hour. They are settling the last of the details. They will be set up in the conference room." Clea tells her and Pepper nods to her gratefully. 

Gods, she really isn't sure what she would have done without Clea. The fierce protection that her friend had displayed with Hammer had tried to touch her had been surprising and quite amazing to see. 

Hammer was making a big deal about laying charges against Clea for assault and battery but that wasn't going to stick. Besides, he was in enough legal troubles of his own and a close look into his company's finances and dealings were most likely going to reveal a lot of information that would be very... interesting. 

"Thank you Clea, for everything." Pepper says because it's always good to acknowledge gratitude when one feels it. Clea gives her a warm smile. 

"It's not a problem Pepper. Now, finish that glass of water and I'll see about getting us something to snack on before we go to the conference." Clea instructs her and Pepper rolls her eyes fondly before obeying. 

Even as she does, Pepper looks over the tablet and the list of things that she really needs to get handled. 

There was the media conference that she has organised to deal with the Expo that was due that afternoon. 

She really wishes that she could have Tony with her for it, but she knows better. She has spent hours discussing with Gina and the media team as to whether or not it would be better to have Tony there. 

On one hand, it would help to have Tony himself explaining for himself what has happened. But the media's attention and view of Tony has always been more negative than positive, even though that was changing of late and it's not a risk they wanted to take. 

Also, it was the man's birthday and Pepper really didn't want to tear him away from his lover and the small bit of peace he had to pull him into a media performance. 

He deserved a break from his life, his work and the circus that was the media for just a day at least to enjoy and celebrate his birthday with his lover. If it meant that Pepper had to face the media by herself, then so be it. 

On the other hand, it also allowed them to explain that Tony was recovering from the ordeal of saving all the lives from the incident. It makes sense and it was true enough. 

Pepper knows that though Tony had reassured her that the new Reactor would stop poisoning him, Tony really had not been doing well in terms of his health and letting the media know that Tony was going through a recovery period would also help to buy them the sympathy vote. 

Tony would hate the strategy. Luckily, he does not get to make the decision on that at least. 

Besides, as soon as they got past the first initial few days, Tony was going to have to give a media conference of his own and probably a few interviews, though Pepper was struggling to whittle the list down to something reasonable. 

Rhodey was going to have to be involved in a few interviews and she was liaising with the military to organise those. 

"How's Stephen and Tony?" Pepper asks. Not because she believes that Clea has been in actual contact with them, but she has access to the D'Arte systems that she doesn't. 

She's not too surprised when Clea turns to her with a look of 'I really don't want to know' splashed all over her face. Pepper kinda agrees with the sentiment, but it would be good to at least know that they are alive. 

"Tony made it to the room and Stephen made it into the room. This morning some food made it into the room so I'm going to assume that they are alive and have maybe eaten something. Or at the very least drank some coffee or something. Anything more? I'm not interested and I'm pretty sure you aren't either.." Clea sounds pained even in her dry sardonic tone. Pepper nods seriously in agreement before the two breaks out into giggles. 

God, they need some levity. 

"It's Tony's birthday... is there a way we can get a cake for them maybe?" Pepper suggests because even if she wants to know nothing about her friend's sex life because she has seen his bare arse and penis one too many times already and catching him with the sexbot really had been quite traumatising. 

It's not that she's shy or ashamed of sex or embarrassed by it. It's more that she really doesn't need to see her best friend having it and it's something private that she doesn't need to know too much about as long as the participants are happy. 

"Oh! I completely forgot. Of course! Let's see." Clea says as she hurries back to where she had set her little work area up. 

They were set up in one of the D'Arte suites and the support and care that she had gotten from the hotel and the staff has been truly quite amazing. For one, they managed to get clothes, down to underwear and shoes for her to wear following the chaotic incident.

Since she had only planned to stay in New York just for the Expo opening before returning right back to LA, she hadn't packed a suitcase. They managed to find her chargers and adaptors for her tablet and phone and set up not only rooms for her and Clea, but the other staff members that have had to fly in from LA to help deal with the chaos. 

Pepper knows that it had a great deal to do with Clea and her connection with Anderson and Stephen that made it possible, but even for companies that were in business together, this level of cooperation was unheard of. 

The D'Arte didn't only give her, Tony and their staff a place to stay, but to work as well. They even offered to and organised for the press conference to be held in their conference hall. Which was honestly amazing and for something Pepper was incredibly grateful.

As a businesswoman, she knows that there are certain dangers to just how close the two companies were working together and that if there is ever a fall out between Tony and Stephen, it could be ugly business-wise as well, but at the same time, she can't help but be glad that somehow it was working between the two and the support was incredibly helpful. 

"Here's the list of cakes from the hotel's patisserie." Clea says as she brings her tablet over with the pictures of colourful and seriously beautiful cakes all over the screen. 

"We can taste them too if you want. They have slices available. I mean, we are due for a snack." Clea suggests and Pepper can't help the way that her mouth waters at the thought of that. 

"Would that be um... too troubling?" Pepper asks even as Clea picks up the phone. She guesses the answer is a no. Fantastic. Pepper can do with some cake and if she can't spend the day with her best friend on his birthday, then she might as well be able to get a taste of the cake. Or a few cakes. 

The thing is, Tony's birthday is always the same, or at the very least, it has been since he'd been 21. He'd have a huge party with all the celebrities and socialites invited. It was the kind of affair that would be labelled 'the hottest party of the year' in the media. 

But it was also the kind of party that was put on because that was what was expected of a public figure like Tony. Tony enjoyed the parties well enough, but it was also put on a week before his actual birthday during the weekend and during his birthday, Tony preferred to spend the time quietly. 

It was usually an affair where Pepper and Rhodey came to the house, cancelling their day's work or plans where possible to just spend the day with the genius and indulge on all the bad junk foods, a whole cake between the three of them and far too much laughter. 

It's a ritual that they had shared over the years. Rhodey preferred to have his birthday parties at his home with his family and friends, but Tony never attended those because he knew that he would steal the thunder from the birthday boy. 

Instead, Tony and Rhodey usually had an extravagant brunch the day after Rhodey's birthday party. Pepper joined them in some years, but not all the time because she knew that sometimes, the two boys and their close friendship needed time alone. 

On Pepper's birthday, Tony gave her time off to visit her family out of state in Washington and she would spend her birthday week with them and when she came back, Tony usually took her and her group of close friends to an amazing night out. 

They had rules around gifts too. Nothing over a hundred dollars unless it was handmade was the rule. It usually turned all of their gifts to each other handmade and the Starkpad had actually been created for her for one of her birthdays. 

For this year, Pepper had embroidered a set of handkerchiefs with Tony's initials and a little Iron Man figure that she hoped he would appreciate. It had taken her awhile to do it between all the work, but it had been a relaxing project to take on and finally using a skill she had picked up as a little girl all those years ago. 

The gift was unfortunately back in LA, but she will get it to him soon enough. Pepper was hopeful that though they haven't been able to have their day with Tony, soon enough, Rhodey and her will be able to steal the genius away from Stephen long enough to celebrate his birthday with him. 

But considering the importance of Stephen in Tony's life now, she's okay with giving him a day to spend with her best friend. Even if that means that she has to work her arse off to ensure that Tony has that time of peace. 

"Alright, they'll bring us tea and coffee with the cakes." Clea says as she hangs up the phone and Pepper focuses back on the work at hand. 

"Fantastic. So, how are we going with the victims?" Pepper asks as she struggles to bring up the right file for that discussion. 

"The representatives at the Maria Stark Foundation are cross-referencing all the people that were treated at the scene and are at the hospitals with the list of guests that had attended the opening and ensuring that the real victims are being compensated." Clea says. Pepper sighs at that. 

The mere fact that a charity organisation such as the Maria Stark Foundation has to waste resources and time to weed out the fraudsters is painful but a real problem. 

It was taking focus away from the real victims. 

Tony had been explicit enough in telling her that he wanted to make sure that not a single victim of what happened at the Expo should be left out of pocket by the experience. Even if he hadn't said that, it wasn't as if Pepper would have allowed it to stand. 

It wasn't a matter of public attention and the positive media attention that ensuring that the victims are taken care of would give SI. It is a matter of principle and responsibility. 

Terrorist attack or not, Tony Stark as the victim of the incident or not himself, Pepper knows that both she and Tony would rest better knowing that everyone that was harmed would be taken care of and taken care of well at that. 

Having to deal with the expensive hospital bills and wondering whether or not their medical insurances covered terrorist attacks and/or having to pay premiums was the opposite of being taken care of. 

Not to mention the psychological trauma. Maria Foundation was ensuring that all of the victims were made aware of the psychological help on offer with the therapists and psychiatrists that the Foundation works with. 

What really worries Pepper is all the children that were at the Expo. Though she knows that it is a true miracle that no one was seriously injured during the incident. 

So many things could have gone so very incredibly wrong. The glass that had shattered, though they had gone through and ensured that all the glass at the Expo was safety glass and not the leftovers from the 1970s, could have hurt a lot of people very badly when it did. 

It hadn't. 

On top of that, when some of the androids that Tony and JARVIS hadn't been able to hack in time had fired off some shots, none of the bullets or the ricochets had hit any of the members of the public. 

Even the androids that had exploded had managed to do so in isolated areas or in the air over areas where no one was present to be harmed by them other than Rhodey and Tony and their suits. 

It was a serious miracle. 

Some people were touting some miraculous technology that Tony had on the phenomenon but Pepper knew better. For one, she knew that they didn't have any tech like that. 

For another, she was starting to have niggling suspicions about Clea and Stephen and the odd people and odd things that they can do. She had noticed Clea looking and nodding to several people as she had led Pepper away to the back of the stage. She hadn't acknowledged it at the time and she still hasn't but she had noticed. 

Stephen and the perfect time of his arrival as well as the fact that she knows that Clea hasn't had any time to explain to him what was happening and somehow him being able to know exactly what was happening and react to it? Yeah. That was odd too. 

It was impossibly odd in fact. 

But then... nothing really has been normal about her life or what had been happening in it since Tony had gone missing in Afghanistan and Pepper was adjusting to her new reality pretty quickly. 

That was the only thing that kept her from freaking out. 

The thing is, even knowing all of that, even knowing that Clea wasn't normal and knowing that there were secrets that were being kept from her and Tony by both Clea and Stephen, Pepper doesn't find herself resenting the secrecy nor the two of them. 

Being a PA has taught her a great deal about secrets and becoming a CEO has taught her even more about the necessity of keeping them. Secrets about their patents, their upcoming releases, the exact break down of their budgets, the health and condition of Tony Stark. They were all secrets that she had to keep. 

Confidentiality was also something that she has learnt over the years of being a lawyer and she knew how important they were. It's not that all secrets should be kept. If there were unsafe components or unsafe practices being conducted, that was something that should not be kept from the public. 

But there was always a need for her to balance the need to keep confidentiality and secrecy with going to the public and keeping them informed that needs to be balanced with the job security of their employees and the financial stability of their company that could affect the entire stock market. 

It's the responsibilities of running a multi-billion dollar international company with hundreds of thousands of employees that the public would rarely be able to understand. 

So Pepper understands that if there were secrets being kept from her, she knows that it is probably for a good reason. Especially when it is by people that she believes genuinely likes and cares for her. 

Like Tony. 

Even if she couldn't trust Clea or Stephen, which she did, Pepper knew that the secret was Clea's and Stephen's and that Tony knew some of it and he chose to keep it from her. That told her more than anything else that the secret was important. That it was being kept for a good reason. 

Given that, Pepper wasn't concerned. Curious, yes, but not concerned. Also, she wasn't as question-driven and curiosity-driven as Tony was. She was also far more patient than Tony, so she can wait. 

With that thought in mind, Pepper looks up from the charts of names and looks at Clea. 

"You know, when you're ready to tell me everything that's been going on and just what you are, I'll be waiting with an open mind." Pepper tells her quietly and there is a pause on Clea's end of the room where her fingers stop over the keyboard before they resume. The younger woman doesn't look up but resumes typing quietly. 

"I- Thank you." Clea says with a heart-filled tone and Pepper goes back down to her own work. There was still a lot to get through before they can have their promised cake and coffee. 

After all, PR nightmares don't fix themselves. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

29 May 2010 

The golden throne room of Asgard is desolate. 

Unlike Odin, who would have his courtiers and his noblemen surrounding him almost at all times throughout the day, Loki wishes for solitude other than the times he has to discuss the day's business with the Council of Elders. 

They aren't even the real Elders. No. They are simply called the 'Elders' but in essence are nothing more than old snivelling fools that have taken thousands of years of influence, wealth and power to sit upon their small thrones to have the right to rule and administer to small parts of the Asgardian affairs. 

Once those morning meetings are done and Loki makes sure that they are done rapidly, Loki can finally be alone. There isn't a great deal of business that needs to be done day to day in Asgard. It is an Empire full of beings that live for at the very least, five thousand years. 

The longevity means that things that if there are squabbles, it has been continuing for generations or has all be resolved by the time that a King has to deal with it. It is also an Empire that is unchanging. 

The biggest problem that Loki has had to deal with thus far has been the threat of Jotunheim but he is not ready to talk about the Jotuns yet. He can't. His anger and frustration and self-hate and hate for the entirety of Asgard and Odin is far too great for that name to even be mentioned in his presence. 

Luckily, Loki knows that he has time on his side when it comes to the Jotuns. They have been far too badly devastated by the wars that Odin has wrought upon them and the All-Seeing Throne tells him that though they are planning and coming together, they were far from ready to raise a hand against Asgard. 

Loki looks out through the empty throne room from the All-Seeing Throne. There is no glory from sitting on the chair. All that he feels is the cold, hard seat against his rear, the power thrumming through it and the responsibility that he had never wanted. 

It irks him to no end that he must rule over the people of Asgard rather than rail against them. Oh, he could be a terrible King. He could bring forth policies that would cleverly destroy the people of Asgard from within. 

But he won't. 

To do so would undermine what he wanted to prove. That a pure-blooded Jotun could sit upon the Throne of Asgard and rule more wisely, to bring about the changes that would be better for the people of Asgard, to bring out peace to Asgard that Odin, the great Asgardian King could not accomplish. 

He has Hel to thank for his current state of calm and the ability to think clearly. He had taken the time to visit with her before returning to Asgard from Midgard. 

It had been- the experience of finding Stephen Strange, his Connected and his Soulmate had been so overwhelming and his emotional state so deplorable when Stephen had left him standing in that cold field on his own, that he hadn't been calm enough to return to Asgard. 

He had gone instead to her and it had been... the best thing possible for him and his mind and his emotional state. 

As a being that had power over the souls, granted both by the benefits of the magic that he had passed onto her through the Jotun blood as well as her own special something and the lands that she presides over as Queen, Hel has the ability to see souls and to work with them in ways that were unprecedented. 

She had seen the fact that he had Connected the moment that he had materialised in her Queendom. She had rushed forth, hugged him and had congratulated him on making a Connection. 

But she hadn't only seen that. 

She had seen the scars that had been wrought onto his soul. She had seen the self-hatred, the anger and the pain that was etched therein and she had comforted him in ways that no one else could. 

Her beautiful green eyes had quickly filled with tears and she had cried the tears that he could not cry. She had held him and comforted him though she was but a child and needed comfort of her own. 

She had held him and she had told him to stop the hate, to forgive and to forget. To find happiness in the one that he had Connected to. 

But he couldn't. 

Like all the things that he held precious, Stephen Strange had been torn away from him. This time, not by the actions of others, but by his own. Loki had known that the moment he had seen the tears streaking down his Soulmate's face. 

He had heard it the moment he had heard Stephen cry out with fear and desperation for him to stop. He had felt it when it had torn up his insides to lash out and attack his own Soulmate. 

In his anger against the realisation of his Jotun background and Odin, he had lashed out against the one being that he should have protected with everything that he was. 

And he would pay the price for that. 

Even his proposition of the man and the man's parting words to him. It had all been a disaster of his creation. There was no one else that he could fault for the depravity of his wants and desires and the way that it had manifested itself. 

He would have to beg at the feet of the man for forgiveness. Dedicate the rest of his life to ensure that Stephen Strange was happy and safe. That Stephen's Soulmate would be happy and safe. It was the penance that he must pay for the crimes that he has committed. 

Hel hadn't commented. Loki had been grateful for that. But she had counselled him against revenge. That, Loki hadn't been so sure he could give up. 

He still wasn't so sure. 

He had told her about their heritage of being Jotun. She hadn't been surprised by the knowledge. She had known, he realised. But she had never spoken a word of it in the belief that it would make him unhappy and hoped that one day, Odin himself would tell the truth and to ensure that one day, Loki would find peace. 

She had apologised for her deception. A child but a century-old with more wisdom and compassion than the King of the Gods themselves, Loki thinks. 

Perhaps that is all that he had been looking for. 

An apology. An acknowledgement that what he had done had been wrong and deplorable. That what Odin had perpetuated and had allowed to be perpetrated against Loki was a crime for which all of Asgard and himself ought to be punished for. 

But he hadn't. 

He had made excuses. Odin had made no apologies. No. He was too proud for that. The very sin that he had accused his own son of. Frigga hadn't. 

She had apologised. 

She had held him and apologised and cried. She hadn't asked for forgiveness. She had only repeated over and over that she loved him and that her love for him had never been different from that for Thor. 

He had known that. 

She had congratulated him on the Connection as well. She couldn't see the pains in his soul as Hel could, but she saw the Connection well enough. Just as Thor will when he sees Loki again. 

But that is not what Loki was concerned with. 

Loki has a decision to make. To decide what form his revenge should take. To decide whether or not revenge is what he desires. To decide what life he wants for himself after and whether or not... he desires life at all. 

Death is a price he had never been scared of paying. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Sunday 

30 May 2010 

It's late. 

Through the light lace curtains fluttering in the wind, Tony can see the night skies. The stars are blurred and hazy as a result of the light pollution of the New York skyline, but there is a certain sense of peace there. 

This isn't quite the birthday weekend that Tony had dreamt of. He looks down at Stephen's sleeping face lit by the Arc Reactor. The pale white light of the Arc Reactor softens the features of Stephen's face and makes him look more peaceful than he probably is even in his sleep. 

Tony gently caresses the frown that he spots on Stephen's face until he settles and continues to run the fingers through Stephen's hair. It is both for the doctor as well as for him. 

Being woken up with the sensation of the doctor's lips closed around his cock had been a delicious feeling and it had been the perfect wake up call that he had wanted from his birthday morning. Tony is hedonistic and hungry enough for Stephen to admit that to himself. 

Being fucked into the mattress following that with the doctor being aroused from sucking his cock and Tony still sensitive from coming? 

It had been bloody fantastic. 

Spending the rest of the morning talking quietly, lazing about the bed and cuddling and eating their fill from the room service menu as well as the delicious green tea cake sent up with a birthday message from both Clea and Pepper had been wonderful. 

Even if there had been two pieces missing from the cake. The tongue in cheek nature of the girls taking slices of the cake for themselves before sending him his own birthday cake had been adorable and amusing. 

Stephen and he had shared the cake between kisses and it had been delicious and decadent. The green tea chiffon cake had been so incredibly moist and the green tea flavoured cream cheese cream hadn't been too sweet nor too heavy. 

The sex that had happened after with both of them high on the sugar and their desire for each other had been perfect too. 

Or at least it had been until Tony had seen the unmistakable kiss marks on Stephen's neck as he had stripped the doctor of the sweater he had been wearing all morning. 

Tony isn't too proud of how he had reacted. 

The moment he had seen those marks on Stephen's neck, he had known that they weren't his. For one, he doesn’t really leave marks. Not really. It had been a habit ingrained into him not to leave marks considering all the one night stands that he had participated in. 

For him, marking someone was a possessive thing and he had never felt possessive enough of his lovers to leave marks on them other than maybe finger marks from holding them too tightly when they bruised too easily or during the BDSM sessions. 

But kiss marks? That really wasn't his thing. He has left them on Stephen before, of course, he has, but it wasn’t the norm for them. 

Seeing them on Stephen and knowing that they weren't his had... sparked anger and jealousy, unlike anything he had felt before. Tony knew that he had overreacted. Even then. Even at that moment, he had known that there might be an explanation. That he shouldn't jump to conclusions. 

But he had been so angry and so upset that he couldn't hold himself back. 

He had held Stephen down, had continued to fuck into him though he knew that sex when he was that angry was not safe and it was not sane. 

He had thought that perhaps Stephen had been like all of the other lovers he has had in his life. Those that talked the good game but would always look for something better. Look for someone better than Tony. 

In that moment, he had forgotten all about the love that Stephen had shown him, the sacrifices the doctor had made for him. All of those wonderful things had gone out the window in Tony's irrational jealousy and anger and he had all but interrogated Stephen. 

At least until Stephen had uttered the one word he hadn't expected. 

Tony hadn't heard Stephen's safe word aside from the first time that the doctor had said it to inform him of it. He didn't know what the word meant, but it had been etched into his memories. Even then, it had taken Stephen saying that word for Tony to notice Stephen's state and that was what was most unforgivable. 

Stephen had been... terrified. 

His face had been ashen, his eyes wide open and his pupils pinpricks. He had all but been hyperventilating and even though Tony had been right on top of him, had been buried in his body, he hadn't fucking noticed. 

Because he had been so pre-fucking-occupied with himself and his own fucking thoughts and self-fucking-pity. Tony hates himself for that. 

It was just like him, wasn't it? To not notice someone else's pain and their anguish just because he was so focused on himself and his own. It's just like what all the media and his previous lovers told him. 

That he was a self-obsessed, self-occupied and selfish bastard that wouldn't know what love was even if it bit him on the arse. Apparently they had been right. 

Tony had been trying to do better. He had made so many mistakes with Stephen already that he had been determined to make sure that he wouldn't make any more. But of course, he had. 

He should have known that he would. 

When he had heard that word and heard the fear in Stephen's voice, it had felt like a confirmation of all of his failures. Even in that shock and self-hate, Tony had reacted. He had pulled himself out carefully, tried to wrap Stephen up in the blankets and make sure that he was okay. 

He hadn't been. 

Stephen had all but run to the bathroom and by the time that the doctor had emptied his stomach and had all but slumped over the toilet bowl, trembling with no doubt the cold of the bathroom tiles as well as the terror and the exertion from throwing up, Tony had carefully gathered him up and taken him into the shower. 

Stephen had curled into him and had asked him over and over again to forgive him. It had been heart-breaking. It had hurt to see Stephen begging for forgiveness when it was Tony that ought to. 

Tony had shushed him, praised him for using the safe word and told him over and over again that it was his fault and that Tony was sorry and begged for forgiveness in turn. 

Eventually, they had made their way out of the steaming shower and brushed their teeth and Tony had pulled Stephen into the other bedroom, where the sheets were clean and removed from the environment they had been in, though similar to where Stephen had been upset. 

It's only when they are curled up on the bed and the lights are out and Tony is stroking Stephen's hair that the story comes out. 

Tony had been holding Stephen tightly and it had taken all of his control not to hold the man any tighter as he listened. 

It hadn't come out in one fell swoop. There had been hesitations, words stumbled over and his lover, his so very self-confident lover who is far stronger than Tony ever will be, had been scared as he talked. 

And it hadn't been because of the incident. 

Not all of it at any rate. Stephen had been worried about Tony's reaction and what his views of the situation would be. When he had realised that, the self-disgust and fury he had felt against himself and the terrible reaction he had to the marks that he had seen on Stephen's neck had been... overwhelming to say the least. 

When it came to describing what had taken place, Stephen's voice had been calm and almost of a matter of fact. He had described it as if it is something that had happened to someone else. 

It's a voice that Tony recognised. It's just how he had described what Carlos had done to him to Michelle when he had eventually started to speak to her about what had happened. 

It was the voice of someone that had been traumatised and broken down. 

And Tony had made it all the more worse with his reaction and his anger and his fucking self-pity. Stephen had pulled himself together after what happened. He had tried to be there for Tony and to give him the birthday that Tony had wanted and Tony had all but had thrown all that effort and love in the doctor's face. 

Tony had apologised. Of course, he had. But he knew that apologies weren't enough. Not for what he did. Not for what had happened to Stephen. 

Stephen made it clear that he didn't blame the offender. That the bastard had been going through a mental break and that though yes, Stephen was upset by the actions and yes, he was affected by them, he did not blame them for it. 

That Stephen's rejection had been the last straw that had broken the man's mind and spirit. Tony doesn't give a fuck. 

He is angry and he is outraged on Stephen's behalf. Stephen is even-handed, loving and kind and wiser than Tony is. Stephen is more forgiving than Tony is. But then if he hadn't been, Tony wouldn't be able to hold the man in his arms like this now. 

Tony is grateful for Stephen's kindness and his compassion. But he wishes that the doctor wasn't so kind and compassionate. If he wasn't, then perhaps he wouldn't be hurt so often. Perhaps he wouldn't be so self-sacrificing. Perhaps he wouldn't be with someone that could hurt him so badly because they were preoccupied with themselves. 

Tony breathes slowly. 

The anger that had burned through listening to the story still courses through him. He knows that the offender had held Stephen down. Right on the upper arms where Tony himself had held Stephen down. 

He knows that the man had left the marks and had attempted to sexually assault Stephen and that Stephen had been afraid that it would happen but the offender had stopped when Stephen had pleaded with them to. 

It doesn't change the impact that the fear of believing that it would happen, makes in the mind. Tony knows that. He knows enough of how trauma works. He has spent enough hours researching the psychology behind his own issues, not to mention in relation to Dr Mile's PTSD program. 

Stephen had downplayed his emotional response and his fear response to the situation. That's common enough and Tony knows that most of it had been for his benefit. But he wishes that Stephen hadn't. 

That he had been honest with his fear and that they could have talked about how they could manage the situation together. About how Tony could help Stephen to make the situation better. How to help Stephen through the process of recovering from the fear. 

But like always, Stephen had taken the burden of it onto himself but he is the first to know when there is a problem for Tony to deal with and to help. It's an odd dichotomy and he knows that there are reasons beyond trust and their relationship but Tony can't help but believe that some of those reasons are on him.  

He had given no reason for Stephen to trust himself completely with Tony and Tony had all but proven the doctor right. He knows that's not the way that Stephen thinks and that's not the way that Stephen is approaching the situation. 

But he can't help but feel that he has failed Stephen. 

He also can't help but feel like he doesn't know how to fix it either because it's not a matter of 'fixing' things like adding a patch to a program. 

It is about proving himself, over time and in various situations. It's about being able to show Stephen that he can be there for him and that he can take on the burdens that Stephen has and that he can help and that he wants to help. 

Tony isn't sure how he is going to do it. But he knows that he has to. Because he can't keep fucking up with Stephen. Because eventually, he would be the very hand that would break the man and he can't do that. 

He can't be that monster. 

~~~ 

Sunday

30 May 2010 

Dr Jane Foster is an Astrophysicist and an Astronomer. 

She knows that she really ought to be quite grateful for that background and especially in her minor in history because otherwise, when Thor had fallen out of the goddamned skies and had claimed himself a god, she would have thought him crazy. 

Alright. 

So she did. For awhile. But could anyone blame her? 

Once she had gotten over that belief and she had realised that there was something going on that she could not understand and that there was a lot for her to learn, her fascination had been two-fold. 

One had been in relation to the god and his world and how it all worked. Especially the travel part of it. 

But the other had been on the god himself. 

Thor was... incredibly handsome and beautiful. Those abs alone are more than enough to turn heads as he walks down the street. 

But that's not what has Jane interested in the man. 

As far as Jane has been concerned, she believed that men like Thor, the big, handsome and beautiful kind were good and fun for a one night stand but not the type that she would consider for herself in terms of a relationship. 

But Thor is more than just beautiful in terms of his looks. Yes, there was an arrogance about him but that was tampered down once he realised where he was and who she was and what his situation was. 

Then just as if he had been an actor dropping a role, he had relaxed and most of the arrogance and the self-entitlement had disappeared. 

What had been left behind was a man that was kind and gentle. One that knew his own strengths but was also aware of the things that he lacked and was careful with her and with Darcy as well as Erik. 

Thor had been the first to comfort her when SHIELD had taken her research away. The one to bring her the notebook and try to fill in the gaps of knowledge that she had. 

He told stories with a wonderfully sorrowful voice and there was something about him that she instinctively trusted. She wasn't the type to do that. Oh, she had a fantastically bad taste in men. She was aware of that. 

But going through the bad breakups and relationships has also given her a good sense of judging whether or not a man was bad for her. She wasn't quite sure about Thor yet, but the attraction was there and she knew that it was mutual. 

What has her most fascinated about Thor isn't the fact that he claims to be a Norse God. Or rather, the inspiration for the God of Thunder, since he and his brother along with their friends had travelled to Earth during the Middle Ages. 

It's the way that he tells the stories about his people and his family and his friends that has her trusting him and liking him. There is a warmth about his tone and it's obvious that he is used to telling stories. 

Whether it be over the fire after adventures with his friends or otherwise. It is clear that as he claims, he is a prince and he has been educated in the art of rhetoric and he has a beautiful way of speaking that she appreciates. But more than that, when he speaks, especially about his family, it's his love that shows and that's what she finds attractive. 

His love, admiration and respect for his mother are obvious. he tells her that she reminds him of Frigga in her bravery and intelligence. That Frigga is the one that had taught him as a child, how to both wield magic but also to fight with a dagger. 

She had taught him the histories, the politics and the philosophies. But he admits, he hadn't listened as well as he ought to have. 

When he talks of his brother, it's with regret and reflection. The more he talks about Loki, the God of Mischief, the more Thor seems to realise that when it comes to his brother, he had always been blinded by the opinions of others. 

It is only when she asks him why he believes that Loki is a liar, that he seems to realise that Loki had never lied to him. That it had always just been what everyone else had said. 

That had led to an interesting discussion about perception and truth and the need to critically think and analyse information. Apparently, Asgard may be a magical place with a mix of science and magic with the ability to travel between the dimensions, they were also incredibly behind and backwards when it came to critical thinking and prejudice. 

It's when she expresses interest in going and seeing Asgard for herself that she realises that Asgardians are not only backwards and biased with their own people with defined roles for each class, gender and expectations and strict views on acceptable sexuality, but that they also have serious issues with racism. 

For a product of that kind of environment, she is surprised at Thor's openness and his acceptance of her so easily. He had explained it simply enough. 

She hadn't done him any wrong and in fact she had been kind and generous to him and it had allowed him to see that much of what he had believed about her and her people had been wrong. 

His big blue eyes and his kind voice and his kind words had made it impossible for her not to believe him. He was a very charismatic leader. 

Besides, Darcy, probably the most street smart person that Jane knows, believes him and she likes him. That's a vote of confidence that Jane can get behind if nothing else. 

Which is apparently why her life has turned into this chaos that was in the kitchen of the run-down diner that they were using as their base. 

"No, that's cereal. Probably healthier than the pop tarts but honestly, I prefer the pop tarts. If I'm going to get fat anyway, then I might as well get all the artificial flavours and sugars right?" Darcy says as she goes through the various boxes of cereal, pop tarts and other snack foods that they had picked up from the grocery store, with the goal of feeding as many foods as Thor could eat that he hadn't yet tried. 

It was putting a hole in Jane's savings account, but seeing the joy in Darcy's face in showing off all of her favourites and Thor's enjoyment of the process, the taste and the conversation is worth it. 

Besides. Thor has been sad. She knows that something more has taken place than just him being held hostage with SHIELD, whoever the fuck they were, but he didn't tell her what it was yet, but she didn't want to pry. 

Everyone deserved to have some secrets and it's not as if he had probed deeply into her life or her pains and it seemed discourteous to do that to him. 

"What are these artificial flavours that you speak of Lady Darcy?" Thor asks and he is so very polite to the girl and it's really quite adorable. He refers to Jane and Darcy as Ladies. Even when they try to persuade him to stop. 

He explains that it's a sign of respect in his culture and he had wronged them severely when they had first met and he wanted to ensure that they both knew that he respected them and until he could be certain that he had their trust and became their friends, he would continue to do so. 

It's a sweet gesture. 

"It's um... chemicals that make stuff taste good even if it's not good for you. Like it tricks your brain into thinking that you're eating good stuff because it's sweet." Darcy explains and it's obvious that she was struggling to get the concept across, but Thor nods graciously. 

He is almost grave in the way that he is listening to the explanations as if it is a matter of national security of something that he understands the difference between the strawberry pop tart and chocolate pop tart and Lucky Charms. 

Jane watches them with her cup of coffee and when Erik stumbles over to join her, pours him a cup of coffee and stir in a generous amount of sugar before handing it to him. 

"For a man that claims to be a god, he's not an arrogant fuck." Erik mutters quietly after he thanks her, takes a heavy sip of the warm coffee. It had been a little while since she had brewed it. 

"There's something almost naive about him isn't there." She says and it's a statement, not a question. Erik nods. 

"For a kingdom that allegedly rules over us, there's a lot of evolution they seemed to not have done." Erik says sardonically and Jane wonders for a moment before the answer is made obvious. 

"It's because they live for such a long time. They don't need to hurry progress to advance the sciences and leave behind assets and ideas and make their marks upon the world as quickly as we do." Jane says and Erik nods slowly as he sighs. 

"What are you going to do with him Jane? We can't stay around here forever and with the equipment and the data gone, what are you planning to do?" Erik's right of course. 

There is a limit to her funding and her personal finances. She has some money saved up from the papers and books that she has written, but that wasn't going to last forever and she's not even sure how to go about replacing the equipment. 

It had taken her a long time to develop them and create them for herself and to think that she would have to start from scratch was... difficult. 

"We'll come up with something. Thor has a lot of knowledge that we can use and if we can base theories and come up with theories to work with the ideas and concepts that he describes, there are no doubt something we can work on. We can prove the Einstein-Rosen bridge." She says and though there is no doubt years of research ahead of her, she feels hope and excitement. 

She can't help it. All of her research has always been the long term project type. Nothing had come easily for her. College hadn't been easy. Breaking into the field of Astrophysics and astronomy as a woman hadn't been easy. Making the right connections and getting the grants hasn't been easy. 

But as a fairly new scholar in the field, she was making waves already and she was determined to prove the Einstein-Rosen Bridge once and for all. Once it has been proven, the theory and the proof can be utilised to create stable bridges between spaces within the universe and that would allow for space travel and exploration at levels that she can't even imagine yet. 

This is her life's work and it was fascinating and exciting. 

"What are you going to do about him?" Erik asks and the tone is one that she isn't very familiar with. It's the tone of a father and she had lost her father a long time ago and she knew that Erik loved her like a daughter, but it's only in moments like this that she hears that tone and she can't help but smile. 

"See how things turn out?" She asks as she shrugs her shoulders and Erik looks at her measuringly before he nods. 

"Well, if you discount the fact that he is an unemployed ex-Norse God, he's better than your last ex." Erik tells her and Jane can't help but giggle at that. As she does, Thor turns to look towards her and gives her a warm smile, as if just hearing her laugh makes him happy for some reason. She gives him a shy smile back before she turns around and gets herself another cup of coffee. 

"Just remember Jane, Ex-God or not, if what he claims is true and his godhood is in that hammer that SHIELD found, then he might not stick around. So don't go getting your heart broken. You hear me?" Erik warns her softly. She nods slowly as the smile drops and she makes her second cup of coffee and takes a sip. 

It tastes bitter. 

~~~ 

Sunday 

30 May 2010

Stephen wakes up to Tony holding him and it feels warm and comforting. He hasn't dreamt. He never does when he is with Tony. He feels rested but emotionally, he still feels drained. 

There is a certain amount of guilt within him that he dislikes. The guilt is for ruining what he had hoped would be a wonderful birthday for Tony with his fears and the flashback that he has had in relation to Loki and his actions. 

Despite that, Stephen isn't... angry at Loki. 

He can't be. It would be so much easier if he could be. But having seen the horrors of Loki's childhood, his growth and his struggles and knowing what he must be going through now, it makes it difficult to hate the god. 

There is so much pain within Loki and so much self-hatred and anger and sorrow. It's not just because he is Jotun. It's the loss of self-identity that comes with that revelation that hurts Loki. It is also realising that he had been the only one, aside from Thor, that hadn't known. That sense of betrayal is enough to shake the very foundations of Loki's being. 

The recency of it all would not have helped. 

The realisation that Loki had a soulmate and that Stephen should be the one being in the universe that would accept him for what he is and who he is without question and love him would have felt elating and amazing. 

To have Stephen reject him and inform him instead that he had another soulmate and that he loved him, would have been the final straw that broke Loki. 

Stephen knows that he ought to have handled the situation better. But he too had been in a state of shock and it had been difficult to think at all, let alone clearly. 

In that moment, he had blurted out the words without careful consideration for them. After that, everything had been under the heavy layer of fear and emotion that had made it difficult for Stephen to speak to the god in a rational manner. 

But it doesn't change the fact that Stephen knows that he is traumatised by the incident. It has a great deal to do with the fact that it's not a fear that he had ever thought he would have. He hasn't had the time to rationalise it. He hasn't had the time to deal with it. 

He feels the fear still lingering somewhere deep inside of him and he isn't quite sure if it would ever go away. That's despite the fact that he has had plenty of rough sex before. He has had plenty of experiences where he had been hurt during a sexual encounter. 

Hell, Tony himself had caused Stephen injuries before. But it's different. He had been a willing participant. With Loki, he had not been. 

Then there is the... other matter to consider. 

Loki's threat or proposal or deal or whatever it was that the god had said. Safety of the people of the planet against the god's wrath and Tony's safety in exchange for sex. 

The very words itself and rethinking it makes Stephen feel like a whore, using his body for favours. It's not- Stephen curls further into Tony's arms. 

It's not something he wants to think about. He's not sure if he can take another's touch when he knows that it will hurt Tony. His reaction to seeing the marks had been... telling enough. 

Tony wasn't willing to share. Not that Stephen wanted to be shared. Tony has had plenty of problems with cheating partners before. Stephen doesn't want to add to the list of them. He doesn't want to join the list of people that has hurt and betrayed Tony Stark. 

"Morning." Tony mumbles into Stephen's hair and despite the dark thoughts rushing through his head, Stephen can't help but smile at the adorable sleepy tone. 

Stephen sits up so that he can look down at his lover, who stretches and curls back into the pillow and reaches blindly out towards Stephen. 

Stephen takes the hand and kisses the back of it, a kiss of fealty. He wonders if Tony knows that. It doesn't matter. It's his promise to the man that matters. As long as he keeps to it. 

Loki won't return to Earth for some time. When he does, Stephen will deal with him. He's not sure how yet, but he will deal with the god. But for now, he has an apology to make to his lover. 

"Can I kiss you?" Stephen asks and he knows that it's odd to ask after having regular sex with the man for a year, but it feels like he should. 

Tony cracks his eyes open and pulls Stephen down until they are kissing. The kiss is gentle and loving and sleepy. But biology takes its course and soon enough, the kiss turns into something more sensual and sexual. It turns into something... much, much more. 

"Tell me what you want baby." Tony mutters against his lips as they Stephen's hands start to roam Tony's body and Tony's hands do the same. 

It doesn't require thought. 

"Mark me as yours." Stephen whispers back and he can't help the plea that is in his voice. He wishes that he didn't sound so needy, but the need is there and he can't hide it. But then so is the desire. 

Tony doesn't ask questions. He just acts. He kisses Stephen and slowly but surely starts to caress Stephen's body everywhere that his hands can reach. Then Tony starts to mark him. 

Everywhere.  

They are firm kiss marks all over Stephen's pale neck and chest and all the way down to his feet. Tony is nothing if not thorough and dedicated. 

By the time Tony works his way back up from Stephen's legs to his lips, Stephen is desperate for the other man's kiss and he is falling apart with both his desire for the man and in the love that he feels from those touches and kisses. 

"Tony, please." It's all that Stephen can manage to say. He's not sure what he is even asking for. But Tony seems to know. He shushes him quietly and kisses him. 

"I know baby. I got you." Tony tells him and encourages him to turn over and Stephen does. Tony doesn't stop touching him and kissing him. He also doesn't stop talking. 

"Have I ever told you how much I love your hair?" Tony asks as his lubed fingers start to make their way into Stephen and it's a slow, gentle sort of prep that Tony usually doesn't do. If this isn't an act of lovemaking, then Stephen doesn't know what is. 

Stephen can only moan and arch his back as the genius's lips curl around the marks that Loki has left behind and covers them up with those of his own. 

"Or the way that your neck arches so perfectly like this?" Tony mutters against Stephen's neck and he can feel the vibration of the man's words through the Arc Reactor against his back. It's grounding. 

It reminds him that this isn't Loki. That this is Tony, the man that he loves and loves him back. This isn't an act of violation but an act of love. Stephen doesn't even have to think it. Tony is making it impossible to ignore. 

"I love the sound of your voice Stephen. When you moan, just that sound alone is enough to make me want to come all over you." Tony continues to say as he kisses the bruises that Loki has left behind on Stephen's upper arm and it hurts, but it's the good sort of pain that pushes into pleasure quickly and before long Stephen is bucking underneath Tony, desperate to be filled. 

"Shh, I know baby. I have exactly what you want." Tony tells him and when he enters, it's a gentle, slow thrust that has Stephen mewling as he clutches at the pillow and throws his head back. 

A neuroscientist he once knew had told him that sex was all about the brain. That the brain creates the enjoyment of sex. But it wasn't just about the chemicals the brain released, but it was the thoughts and emotions. The mind. That is what truly created the experience. 

And Stephen's mind is well and truly filled with desire, need and love for the man that was making love to him. 

The positioning is deliberate. 

But the contrast of the action is vastly different. Tony doesn't stop muttering praises and compliments as he makes love to him and Stephen feels overwhelmed with that love and desire and he's not sure if he has ever felt so loved by someone before. 

Then he hears the words he had never thought he would hear from the genius and with just that, he comes hard enough for everything to go completely white within his brain. 

"I love you." 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Monday 

31 May 2010 

The press conference held in the conference hall of the D'Arte Hotel in New York is impressive. 

The journalists that all clamour for answers as to the recent couple of incidents that have taken place is well, a surprise to no one , least of all Christine Everhart's and the expert PR teams of Stark Industries.  

Ever since her question to Tony Stark having been answered with the infamous, 'I am Iron Man', somehow Christine has become the Iron Man and Tony Stark specialist and her publisher expects her to go to all Tony Stark and Stark Industry media conferences. 

She doesn't mind. 

Tony Stark was a fascinating character to study and he was a true master of the media circus in a way that even the most media savvy celebrity or PR rep wasn't. 

Tony knew how to pose for the media, how to smile for the media and he knew how to speak to the media. He was personable, charismatic and he knew what his image was, what was expected of him and he played up to it like a true master. 

This press conference was no different. 

Christine looks up at the little stage set up for the protagonists of this story. As much as she would like to say that she is a journalist out for the truth, even she is aware that she was going to be fed a story. That there is a lot more happening in the background and that there were some secrets being kept. 

But in all honesty, with people like Tony Stark and Colonel James Rhodes involved and government organisations and the military being involved, that is not a surprise to anyone in the room. 

The media people in general, aren't stupid. Most of them are aware that they are being fed a story but they also know that at times, that narrative and that story is important. That it needs to be told to the public, even if they have doubts about the complete and utter truth of it. 

Christine isn't too surprised to see Gina Park in the shadows and she isn't too surprised to see Pepper Pott's new Personal Assistant, Clea Strange hanging about. 

But Gina Park's presence and the fact that this is a Tony Stark press conference at least gives her hope that she was going to be told more of a truth than a lie as far as the story is concerned. 

The story that comes out is pretty much as she had expected. 

Tony Stark had always meant to give a suit to Colonel Rhodes. As a veteran of five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan conflict and a man widely heralded as a war hero with his fighter jet skills being ranked as one of the best in the Air Force, aside from his relationship with Tony Stark, Colonel Rhodes is a natural choice for War Machine. 

Colonel Rhodes is also one of the people that handle the media for the Air Force. He knows how to handle the media quite well and he does.

Then there is Pepper Potts, the woman that everyone had underestimated even when she had been handling the media and most of the company for years now, only to realise just how formidable she was once she had taken the role of CEO, and is also a master at the media game. 

The story is believable. 

There is enough humble apologies mixed in from both Colonel Rhodes in his mishandling of the suit and the fact that the 'surprise' had not gone quite well during Tony's birthday party along with Tony's own admission that he had been under a lot of stress and physical exhaustion as a result of his work as Iron Man and though he had thought he had been sparing with the alcohol, he had been heavily intoxicated and should not have been using the suit. 

When it came to the incident at the Expo, that was covered quite easily with the context of what had also happened in Monaco. 

She isn't too surprised that Ivan Vanko and Anton Vanko had not been known to Tony before he had been confronted with the past by Ivan Vanko himself. It had taken a lot of digging for her to find the details on how Anton Vanko had defected and then it had been another whole thing to go through the old patent listings to be able to find that there was even another name on the patent. 

It's not a surprise and she believes Tony when he says that he hadn't known. She also isn't surprised when Tony announces that he will be ensuring that Anton Vanko will be recognised as a co-creator for the Arc Reactor and reinstate his name in the patents. That's a very Tony Stark gesture. 

But what really clenches the press conferences and sways the media completely to believe the narrative, is the footage from the two video feeds from the Iron Man and War Machine suits.

The camera quality is quite good considering the speeds at things are moving and so is the audio. The press is given a glimpse of just what it's like to run the suits and the various information that flash past the helmet footage through the AR and on top of that, the chaos of the speeds that they were flying and moving and the decision making that would require is... mind-blowing

Christine had doubted it when she had first heard that choosing a pilot for the suit was difficult, but she can see it now and believe that too. She’s not sure if any normal person could truly keep up with the sheer bombardment of information being thrown at them. She knows that she couldn’t. 

The conversation between the men is also... amazing. 

Colonel Rhodes and Tony Stark had shown no regard for their own safety as they led the exploding androids away from the members of the public. 

The cameras shaking and rolling and the mess that goes through the screen shows all that are watching just how terrifying it was to have one of the robots explode right near the suit and the person inside of it. 

But the two men just bear with it as they focus on ensuring that they save as many people as possible. It is beyond admirable and knowing that it is all real? Christine knows that she wasn’t the only one that was hanging by the edge of the chair as she watches it all. 

Then the flashes of warnings in relation to the damage to the suit, the raised heart rates and read outs of possible injuries is terrifying. But neither of the men had stopped. They had continued to fly and continued to fight. 

They don't show the footage of them fighting Ivan Vanko. Considering the fact that had led directly to a man's death, that's understandable. 

By the end of the footage, Christine Everhart has no doubts. 

Yes, Tony fucking Stark might be a billionaire, genius inventor, a playboy and philanthropist, but that's not all who he is. 

Tony Stark is a fucking hero. 

~~~ 

Monday

31 May 2010 

Pepper was going to buy Clea something really, really nice. 

She wasn't sure what that nice thing was going to be, but it was going to be nice. It was going to be expensive and it was going to be something that the woman was absolutely going to love. 

Because Clea's brilliant idea of showing the helmet footage from both War Machine and Iron Man through the Expo incident had been just what they needed to turn the media completely on their side. 

And through the media, the public. 

Already, the social media platforms as well as the news sites and of course the news itself was going crazy over the heroics shown by Tony and Rhodes and how the two men were the right hands for the suits to be in. 

The negotiation for the work that War Machine will do for the military was done. Tony would stop doing the work for the military and let War Machine focus on the out of US concerns whilst Tony focuses on the US concerns when he can. 

The truth of the matter was, Tony has no obligation to help anyone. The public was aware of that and so was the government. It was his decision to help and he was restricted by his time and his ability to help.. He will when he can. But he can't help everyone. 

Tony made that clear enough in the press conference. He is but one man and yes, more Iron Man suits may allow for more help, but had also made it clear that finding pilots for the suits was extremely difficult as was the training and creation of the suits. 

As such, for the time being, the US had him when he was available. 

It wasn't the resounding 'I will be there to protect you' hero speech that the world had expected, most likely, but it was a down to earth, a realistic one that was appreciated. 

The US wasn't a country that was devastated by war and terrorism at all times. It was a country with severe problems, yes of course, but then there was the police force and the military and other organisations that can and do help. 

Not every problem requires a superhero. But Tony was there to help when there was a problem a superhero could be useful in. 

The message had gone down well by everything that Pepper was seeing in the published and video media so far. Good. Tony and Rhodey deserved to be hailed as heroes. It had broken her heart when she had seen the footage for the first time. 

She was also exhausted. They had spent the entire weekend working to prepare for the press conference and she had been trying to deal with SI problems on top of it and whoever said that being a CEO was a 9 to 5, five days a week job, had lied. 

It was a 24 hours, 7 days a week chaos that never stopped. Well... it would if she decided to put her phone down, but as it was, she really was quite bad at that. 

So yeah. She had been working a lot and she was tired. 

But she wasn't as tired as Tony was. He looks... beyond exhausted and it's not physical exhaustion. It's emotional exhaustion and he always looks a little emotionally drained after media conferences but this feels different. 

"Are you sure you don't want to stay in New York for awhile longer?" Pepper finds herself asking, looking over at Tony laying on her bed as if it's his own. Not that she minds. She is in the middle of packing the clothes that one of her assistants had flown over from her apartment for the extra time she had to spend in New York. 

Though the D'Arte had graciously offered to provide further clothing and amenities, she had felt bad about accepting it. She also could have gone shopping on her own, but she honestly hadn't had the time to no one's surprise and Pepper really wasn't the type to ask for personal shoppers to come by with clothes for her to pick out quickly. 

So yeah. 

Either way, she had to pack and everyone else was packing and then they were due to fly back to LA as soon as she was able to get ready. Which meant that she should get ready quickly because everyone was waiting on her and Tony. 

Happy had already taken Tony's bags downstairs and he was sorted but she was having a bit more difficulty thanks to a last-minute phone call that really hadn't been very welcome. But she doesn't want to think about that. For now, SHIELD can just fuck off. 

"Yeah. I mean I shouldn't." Tony says and Pepper stops packing to look at her best friend. He wants to stay. She can see it and she can hear it. There's something wrong. 

She had thought that after the weekend he'd spent mostly with Stephen, barring the Sunday evening when they had all gathered together to discuss the attack plan for the press conference and square everything out, Tony would be energised and happy but he didn't seem like it. 

It's understandable that Tony wants to stay with Stephen. It's been a difficult couple of days and Pepper knows that there was a lot going on emotionally and psychologically with the genius. He had thought that he had been dying and that he had no means to stop it for crying out loud. 

So, if he needed some time to spend with Stephen or just be somewhere and do something then she was okay with that. Well... not really, since there was a lot of work to be done and she really did need him for the interviews, but she would make something work. Somehow

"You could if you wanted to, you know. I can organise it so that-" Tony shakes his head and sits up though he runs a tired hand down his face and looks as if he is considering flopping back down again. 

"Stephen's practice is in chaos because of all the shit that's been happening with me Pep. He has to work and I need to get shit sorted." Tony says and that has got to be one of the most responsible things that Tony had said, Pepper thinks as she nods and smiles at him. He doesn't return it. 

"Pep, I'm going to have to ask for a few favours." Tony starts off with and that sounds serious. Pepper puts down the shirt she had been folding and sits down on the bed next to him and Tony sighs. 

"First of all, I’m not dying. Okay? But um… the heavy metals are still in my body and blood and I'm going to need some time away from everything to get rid of all that shit." Tony says and Pepper feels her heart drop. 

How the fuck did she forget about the heavy metal poisoning part of her friend dying thing? She had meant to do research on it. To figure out what she could do to help and she had done none of that and in the whole ensuing drama, she had totally forgotten about it. 

"How long do you need? Do you need me to book you into a hospital somewhere? Maybe Switzerland? Somewhere private and we can-" Tony shakes his head and grabs her hand when she tries to grab her tablet to start going through the options. 

"Stephen's got it handled. He's organising for the actual formulation for the chemicals that he's going to need and the equipment. We- I decided that I wanted to get it done at the New York Mansion." Tony says and that surprises her. She gapes at him. 

Tony hates the Stark Mansion. He had hated it before his parents had died and he had hated it all the more after his parents had died. It had been the reminder of his mother and Jarvis that had prevented Tony from burning the damned thing down. 

But then it was also a historical building and it really would have been a waste. 

It was being maintained by the staff that had been at the mansion for a long time, almost since Tony had been there last and with some additional new staff. 

Honestly, the mansion was a costly thing to upkeep, but Pepper had insisted that Tony keep it because it was a reminder of his family, even if it contained some of the worst memories. She had hoped that one day, he would be able to appreciate the mansion and the memories. 

For him to suggest that he spend extended periods of time at that mansion is a surprise that she really, really hadn't expected. But in a way, she supposes that it makes sense. 

The LA Mansion is Tony's home. It's where he is the most comfortable and whilst there were some bad memories there too, there were more fond memories and it was now Tony and Stephen's home. 

It was probably not a good idea to associate that location with something as difficult as chelation therapy, which is what she assumes Tony will be going through. Her understanding of it wasn't complete, but as far as she knew, it was all about using chemicals that bond naturally to the metals in Tony's blood and body and that the poison would leave the body as urine. 

It wasn't a therapy that was without side effects. As far as she knew some of the side effects could be very drastic and that is worrisome. At the very least, it wasn't going to be a pleasant experience and she knew that even now, Tony was barely functioning. 

So some time away from the limelight and work to recover and to get healthy is not a bad thing. Tony has been more or less working his entire life and an extended break would be good for him. Pepper gives him a warm smile. 

"Alright. I'll get the work crew to get into the mansion and make sure that JARVIS can be set up and that the lab is up to date completely." Pepper says because she knows Tony all too well. She will have to see about transporting the bots too, she imagines. They were Tony’s babies after all. 

Yes, he might be sick and yes he might need to rest, but for Tony, tinkering was a part of resting and if he didn't get to tinker, chances are, it was going to cause him more stress and more harm. Better to just let him do what makes him happy. 

"Thank you Pepper." He tells her and hugs her tightly and she hugs him back just as tightly. 

"But I am going to need you for at least a week. Maybe two. Is that going to make this difficult or affect your health?" She asks because if it is, then she will do a workaround somehow. Tony shrugs his shoulders. 

"Stephen wants to do the chelation therapy as soon as possible but with the shit in my body, it's going to take awhile to synthesise a solution so it's fine. For now, I'm on a regiment of dialysis, exercise and chlorophyll." Tony says and he sighs and she has to agree with the sigh. 

Chlorophyll tastes like shit and she's pretty sure dialysis isn't exactly a pleasant experience. But as long as it's going to keep Tony alive and healthy, she hopes he can cope with it. 

"You're going to be alright." She says as a statement and he nods and lets her go so she can finish packing. 

"Yeah. I know. So, how about we get this show on the road?” Tony says with a warm smile. She returns it. Yes. It is about time they get back to their normal life. Even if for a little while. 

After all, Stark Industries really does need her CEO. 

~~~ 

Tuesday

1 June 2010 

Clea stares blankly at Stephen. 

"I'm sorry. You're going to have to say that again." She says as she looks at him. She heard him the first time. She's just not sure if she heard it right because there was no way that what he had said was right. 

"Yeah." Wong gapes as he looks at Stephen and she's kinda grateful that she wasn't the only one struggling with the concept. Stephen sighs. 

"Loki, the God of Mischief is my Soulmate." Stephen says and Clea blinks. But what about Tony? She thinks and it's only when Stephen responds that she realises that she had spoken out aloud. 

"He's also my Soulmate." Stephen says as if he is explaining a concept to a child or an idiot. Well, he might as well do that because she certainly feels like both. 

"That's not possible. It's not. Is it?" Wong says and he sounds just as confused and as lost as Clea feels. Stephen sighs again. 

"Apparently it is since it happened." Stephen sounds impatient and annoyed and possibly pained. Clea isn't sure which of the emotions are dominating. Most likely pain , she thinks. 

There has been something off about Stephen since he had come back from the meeting with Loki. Was this the reason why? 

She's not sure. Most likely, she thinks. The very foundation of Stephen and his being would have been shaken by the revelation. 

As far as she was aware, when one Connected, it was as if the universe itself and the world and the very being of a person shifts until they are focused entirely on their Soulmate. 

That had already happened with Tony Stark. So what would Stephen have felt when it had shifted again? This time with two focal points? Clea isn't sure if she wants to know. In fact, she's certain she doesn't want to know. 

It would be a conflict inside Stephen unlike anything else and she's not sure if she's strong enough to deal with something like that. 

The thing is, she can almost see why. From what she has seen of Loki through Stephen's visions of Asgard and the Time Stone visions of the future, the God of Mischief is... oddly similar to Tony Stark. 

They both have daddy issues the size of planets, showmanship personalities, charismatic dispositions and egos supported by their intelligence and ability, on top of their gorgeous visuals. 

But the differences were pretty damned stark too. Tony was a being of pure logic, science and technology. Loki was a being of pure machination, magic and imagination. 

One was mortal and the other close enough to immortal and whilst both were extraordinary and so incredibly powerful in their own rights, they were nothing alike in the way that they used that power and in the way that they were as beings. 

As crazy as it sounds, Clea almost understands why Stephen has been chosen by the Universe to be their soulmates. 

Both of them are in a way afloat. They have deep scars and pains and they need grounding and focusing. There is no one more grounded and focused and serious than Stephen Strange. 

He could be the balancing force that they need to be the best version of themselves and Stephen could certainly use their love and their dedication and their willingness to fight for what they want. 

Stephen is always burdened by responsibility and it's only when Tony had come along that Stephen had started to indulge in the little things that make life joyous. Like enjoying his hobby of programming and working with AIs and working on solving problems other than the mystical ones. 

Having a life outside of the Order that always weighs him down with responsibilities. To remember that life itself is worth living and the world itself was beautiful and worth enjoying rather than spending his entire life and every iota of his being simply trying to save it. 

So perhaps the universe had deemed it that Stephen needed both of them to bring him to life and joy and perhaps to protect him. On the other hand, she's really not sure if Stephen can deal with the burden of having two Soulmates when he was already so heavily in love with one of them. 

It must be killing him to know that there was someone else for him to love. The thing is, Clea knows that in some way, even if it isn't romantic love, Stephen will end up loving the god. There is already so much sympathy and pity for the god inside of Stephen's heart that he would not be able to resist it. 

She wouldn't be able to, if she had been the god's soulmate. If there was a being that needed to be loved, it was the god. Stephen was too good and too kind not to give the god the love and acceptance that he craves and needs desperately. 

"Well shit." Is Wong's response and it's another one that Clea can agree to. She snaps herself out of her thoughts and focuses on Stephen and tries to read the impassive face that he had on. 

"So. What the hell are we going to do now?" Wong asks and Stephen shrugs his shoulders. 

"It doesn't change anything. Soulmate or not, he is going to fall from Asgard and with his fall, he will end up in the hands of Thanos. When that happens, Thanos will torture and break him until he is forced to attack Earth." Stephen's voice breaks a little over the words 'torture’ and 'break'. That's not a surprise either. 

To know that one's Soulmate, the other half of one's soul is going to be tortured with no means of preventing it from happening? That had to be extremely difficult and painful a proposition to consider. Clea really doesn't envy Stephen and all his burdens. 

She really, really doesn't. 

She also doesn't know what to say or how to comfort the man that is perhaps given the most cruel path of all of them to walk. 

When she had first learned about Tony and the path that he had been destined to walk over and over throughout all the universes, she had thought, like Stephen, that they had been given the warning through the Time Stone to make that path easier for Tony Stark. 

That Tony Stark was at the centre of this Universe and its survival. But she was starting to think that perhaps the warnings hadn't been about Tony after all. But it had been about Stephen and the thorny path that he will choose to walk in order to protect those that he loves. 

She knows that in some of the universes, even when they aren't lovers or Soulmates or even friends, Stephen always surrenders the Time Stone in order to spare Tony's life. Because through seeing all the possible futures, he always, always , falls in love with Tony Stark. 

Perhaps this time, it was the universe's way of ensuring, or rather, the Time Stone's way of ensuring that it's Chosen Guardian doesn't die that way, but gets to love and live. 

It still doesn't change the chaos that is the God of fucking Chaos entering the scene. Because this was no longer going to be just changing a few things that need to happen. 

This was going to require the Order to find a solution to ensure that Thanos doesn't kill Loki. That Ragnorak doesn't kill Loki. That the Hulk doesn't kill Loki. 

Preventing Loki's death was going to be a lot harder than preventing Tony's. They had seen millions of versions of the universes with Tony as the focus. They had none with Loki. They only knew through Thor and what he had told Tony through the other universes, what happens to Loki. 

"We're going to need a lot more information." Is Yinn's contribution after holding her silence. Clea agrees. Stephen puts down the Memory Stone on the table. 

"Apparently, the Time Stone agrees." He says and he sounds tired. 

The thing is, they have been busy. Of course, they have. Stephen had gone right back to work and they hadn't had a lot of time on Monday night to discuss all of this stuff because they had to get reports back from the Order members that had been present at the Expo and make sure that everything went off without a hitch and Stephen had been oddly tired. 

Apparently that had been for a reason. Shit. 

"I'll get this to the Council and I'll organise for an emergency meeting." Yinn is quick to respond as she picks up the Memory Stone. Stephen nods as he runs his hands down his face. 

"Come on Clea, let's get to work." Stephen says, though he hasn't even touched his breakfast. Clea doesn't point it out to him. He doesn't seem like he needs the reminder right now. She simply nods. 

Sometimes, the best way to deal with a situation was by being distracted and for Stephen, the best distraction was work and that was something that she could do for him. 

Well. It was the only thing she could do. For now. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Thursday 

3 June 2010 

Tony looks at himself in the mirror. 

There is an image of a haggard-looking man that looks tired and exhausted and it's not a flattering image of himself that he likes to present to the public. 

He hasn't slept properly in days. 

It's not that he has been having nightmares or not been going to sleep on the regular mandated schedule that JARVIS and Stephen have created and JARVIS enforces because the little shit listens to Stephen more than him when it comes to health concerns. 

It's that... the bed feels empty without Stephen. 

Yeah. Tony's become that guy. The guy that can't sleep properly without his lover by his side, without the extra bit of warmth and comfort and knowledge that his lover is right there with him. 

He knows that's not as simple as getting used to the sensation of having his lover in bed with him. 

It's the fear that has settled into the depth of his stomach that he hasn't been able to rationalise or deal with. 

When Stephen is away from him and away from their home and has come back in the recent few months, there has been... incidents. 

Stephen had gotten hurt, exhausted and troubled. 

Tony's mind is one that draws connections and makes logical leaps. His brain and his subconscious has apparently decided that when Stephen wasn't with him, the man was in danger and since that was the case and Stephen wouldn't tell him what that danger was and what Tony can do to rationalise it, mitigate it and protect him from it, it has left Tony in a state of fear and concern for his lover. 

It's also the type of concern that Tony knows that he can't and won't discuss with Stephen. The man has secrets and feels bad enough about keeping them. If Stephen was to find out that he was worried, it would only make the guilt of having the secrets that Stephen already shows, all the more worse. 

It also has a lot to do with the image that he keeps seeing over and over again in his own mind of Stephen's fearful eyes and face full of terror. 

It's an image that he can't get rid of. 

Which is why Tony had taken the one step that he knew that he could take to try to alleviate himself of the pressures in his own mind. 

Tony sighs and takes a deep breath and exits the bathroom and walks back into the office that he really is far too familiar with. 

"Mr Stark, Dr Jones is ready for you." The friendly receptionist tells him and Tony gives her a warm smile and nods before he makes his way into the all too familiar therapist's office. 

He has not been looking forward to this conversation. Or rather, if he is honest, he never looks forward to talking to Michelle. It's not that she isn't lovely. She's incredibly lovely and she is easy to talk to compared to all the other therapists he had ever talked to before. 

She is the most professional therapist that he had seen in years and oh he has seen a lot of them over the years. From the condescending ones, from the ones that had just been flat out confused by his intellect and issues and his apparent inability to simply not 'think himself' out of his own problems and to those that ran straight to the media. 

So Pepper finding and introducing him to Michelle has been an amazing change for him and his life. it was something that he was always going to be grateful for. 

It does not mean that talking to her and taking the steps to talk to her is easy each time. Tony is still not very used to letting someone into his brain and into his thoughts and his insecurities. he doesn't like revealing that much of himself to someone else. 

He also doesn't like admitting to his weaknesses and his problems. His literal job is to be the man that knows everything and can solve all the problems. It feels odd to admit that he doesn't know everything and he can't even solve his own problems. 

There is a certain stigma attached to mental health and mental health well being and seeing a therapist that Tony doesn't like. It's the stereotypical thing of Tony being fine with other people seeking and getting help. He's just not okay with himself getting it. 

He also doesn't know how to suggest that other people get help either. For one, he knows that Pepper sees a therapist of her own on a regular basis to deal with her stress and anxiety. She calls it her monthly check-in to make sure that she's doing okay and to just chat with someone that doesn't judge. 

Tony isn't sure whether or not he should be suggesting that Stephen sees someone to maybe talk about what happened to him. He's not sure how Stephen would take to that, though as a doctor, he should be aware of the fact that mental health was an important part of the health thing. 

He's just not sure how to talk about mental health. 

Especially to Stephen and especially to himself, apparently. 

"Tony, how are you?" Michelle asks and Tony snaps out of his thoughts to walk over to the chair that he is familiar with and settles himself in it. He's been a little scatterbrained this week and he knows that it has a lot to do with the lack of sleep and probably the poisoning. 

Though he was doing the exercises and he was drinking the chlorophyll and he was doing the dialysis and on that note, finding one's own veins and being able to stick oneself with a thick ass needle to run his blood through dialysis machines? Not easy and kinda hardcore. He feels a bit bad ass about it. 

"Honestly? Not too hot." Tony admits and that's the first difficult thing out of the way. Once he can start to be honest and just say what he needs to say, the whole thing tends to go a lot easier and right now, Tony needed a little easier. Michelle nods. 

"Alright then. Where do you want to start?" Surely she's aware of all the media stuff that has been happening. She has got to know that there was a lot of stuff happening in his life already. But she never asks him about those. She never asks about Iron Man and how that is affecting him. She waits for him to talk. 

"I was dying for a bit." Tony starts off with and Michelle doesn't react. She doesn't gape or seem surprised. The most reaction she shows is that her eyes seem to widen a little before she blinks and that sign even is gone as he continues to talk. 

Tony doesn't hide anything. He explains all the symptoms he had, what he had been doing to try to survive, what he had been thinking of as he had thought he would be dying, how he had re-organised his life, how he had tried to leave his things and his life behind to those that matter to him. 

She nods and hums her way through listening to the story before he explains that he won't be dying and explains to her what had happened after that. Obviously, Tony has to be a little creative with the storytelling since she really shouldn't know too much about SHIELD and their involvement, nor should she really know how the science works or just who the hell Tony was in love with. 

It's not that he didn't trust Michelle, it was just that he didn't want to share his intimate knowledge of Stephen with anyone else. 

Eventually, when every little shit thing that has been going through his mind is out of his head, he feels exhausted. Drained. His voice feels hoarse and he gets the distinct feeling that the hour that he was meant to have for the session was probably over. 

Michelle doesn't chase him out of the office. She nods when he is done and gives him a thoughtful look. 

"In terms of your death, I would like to congratulate you on finding a way to deal with the issues quite well on your own. I really would have liked for you to call me to see if I could have helped , but I think you did admirably well. I understand that you are still not well and that has got to be affecting your mental health, as you are aware." Michelle is matter of fact about it. Oh he knows. 

Being nauseous for most of the day is enough to get the calmest, nicest person to be cranky and pissed off at the world and Tony wasn't the calmest and nicest person to begin with. So yes. There were some problems there. 

"As far as your lover is concerned, I would suggest that you take the time to talk to them. You might feel like it would only burden them, but you don't need to necessarily talk about your worries for them, but check in with how they are feeling." Michelle says and Tony blinks at her. She continues. 

"What you've described to me Tony, is second hand trauma. You haven't experienced their trauma, but you have experienced trauma second hand as a result of hearing and seeing the fear on your lover from their experience. That, coupled with your strong feelings for your lover, I would suggest that you check with them and make sure that they are doing okay. Ask them what it is that you can do to help." That's rational enough. 

But it doesn't feel like it's enough. Tony has got to fix the problem somehow right? That's what he does. He is the engineer, he is the mechanic, he is the programmer. It is his job to solve problems and if he can't even solve Stephen's problems, then what good was he as a lover? 

"Remember that it isn't going to be about what you want and what you want to do and what you think might help them. It is about what they want, need and might need help with. Focus on them and let them tell you what they need from you." Oh. Well. That makes more sense. 

Michelle continues to give him tips and things to think about. She always does. Tony's pretty sure that he had never really left a session with her without being given some sort of homework to do. 

When the session is done, Tony doesn't walk out feeling magically better. His head doesn't magically feel clear. That's not how therapy works. But he does feel a little lighter and a little calmer. He feels like he has a plan in mind and that's better than nothing. 

Anything was better than nothing. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

5 June 2010 

He wakes up with a scream barely held back from his lips. 

The thin shirt he had worn to bed is sticking to him like a second skin and his breathing is laboured. He feels himself shiver though it is hardly cold in the perfectly temperature-controlled environment of the Sanctum. 

For a long moment, all he can do is... breathe. 

To try to get that ridiculous breathing to calm down to the point where he can actually function. 

It takes him a lot longer than he would like. He feels frazzled, upset, cold and filled with sorrow and pain that he wishes that he didn't have. 

Stephen runs a hand down his sweat-soaked face. It takes him a long time to get his shaking limbs to work with him so that he can get out of the bed. 

The shower that he takes is far too hot and far too long. It doesn't matter. It's not as if he has work to go to. 

Instead, he lets the drumming hot water calm him down and remind him that he is in his own skin and he isn't trapped in the visions of the Time Stone and the twisted versions of the universes that he had just witnessed. 

He knows that he should document everything in the Memory Stone as quickly as possible but of late, he hasn't been able to do that. Usually, he used to be able to do that as soon as he woke up. 

But lately, he needs a moment to calm himself and to be able to focus himself and ground himself in the reality that he inhabits and not the other universes where he had experienced the deaths of himself, Tony and Loki, over and over again throughout the night. 

The Time Stone was getting impatient, it feels like. As if all the time that he had spent with Tony and all the secrets that he has revealed thus far was putting the stone into a frenzy to try to ensure that the universe doesn't break. 

That Stephen doesn't break the fragile reality that holds this universe together. Stephen sighs as he leans against the shower wall and lets the water cascade over him. 

But the risks had been worth it. 

It had saved countless lives and kept Tony and Rhodey safe. He had ensured that the universe would get the sequence of events that it needed to get. What more did it want from him? 

He's not sure. All he knows is that it is exhausting and he really isn't sure just how much more of it all he can take before it breaks him and he falls apart like cheap lego pieces all over the floor. 

He sighs. 

It hadn't always been this difficult. There had been a clear outline of things that he needed to achieve and he had planned for all of it. It hadn't been easy, but he had done it and he had been able to stay rational. 

But with him being Soulmates with Tony, it had started to complicate matters. Instead of being able to stay in the background and just assist in secrecy, he had been forced out into the open by the Connection and the need to stay close to his Soulmate. 

Falling in love with the man hadn't helped either. With a platonic soul connection, he might have been able to stay maybe a friend or an acquaintance that could give advice or maybe a helping hand here and there. 

But he had fallen in love and so had Tony. 

'I love you', the other man had finally whispered to him and it had been the most beautiful words he had heard from the man before and it wasn't something that Stephen would ever wish was different. 

It doesn't change the fact that loving Tony really has made things... much, much more difficult than it had been. 

It had made him take risks that he hadn't calculated on before. It had made him reckless and desperate and needy. It had also made him happier than it had been but with the highs also come the lows, and the higher the highs are, the lower the lows are. 

Right now, Stephen was in the lows. 

It's a double whammy of missing the man that he loves simply as a man, but it is also the sorcerer within him missing the stability of the Connection and Bond he feels when he is close to Tony and is able to feel the man's presence, his energy, his very soul. 

Being without Tony for the week has felt as if he had been surviving without a huge part of himself and it had been... difficult. 

The visions hadn't helped. 

Seeing Tony die over and over again was something that Stephen had almost adjusted to. The visions of Loki's fall from Asgard, his torture at the hands of the Other, Ebony Maw and Thanos? That is a different thing altogether. 

Then seeing Loki, the monster that he wishes that he could hate, being killed in various ways over and over again during the Ragnarok, by Thanos's hands, by the hands of the Hulk etc etc is... exhausting. 

It's not that Stephen feels a sense of attachment and love for the God of Mischief. It is more that... he knows that it is a part of his soul, a part of himself that dies when the god dies. Just as it had been to see Tony die once he had been made away from the Connection. 

But it is also with the realisation that reminds him over and over again that Loki and Tony will cross paths and in that meeting, there are instances in which Tony doesn't make it. 

That terrifies Stephen beyond anything else. 

To have one of his soulmates kill another is... Stephen knows that it will break him. Merely seeing it is enough to almost break him. 

Stephen turns the shower off and gets out and sees himself in the mirror. He looks as if he hasn't slept for a week. Which is obviously not true, since he has, but the rest that he has gotten, though was what his body needed, it hadn't been what his mind and his heart had needed. 

Instead, what he has been left with is the feeling of sadness and despair and the desperate desire not to feel anything. Especially the pain. 

Stephen sighs and closes his eyes and focuses. He can't afford to be detached. He can't afford to be disconnected. A sorcerer without emotion, a sorcerer without focus and grounding is a sorcerer a step away from becoming the most dangerous thing to walk the planet. 

And that, he cannot be. 

Stephen forces himself away from the bathroom and walks to the bedroom when he hears the phone ring. 

It's still ridiculously early and he knows that there is only one person that will be calling. 

Tony. 

"Good morning beautiful." Tony's voice is bright and happy but Stephen knows that is not what the man is. He knows that the man is tired. Their Connection is strong enough for him to feel that at the very least. 

More than that, he knows that the man is nauseous and dizzy. It has been bleeding through their Connection enough. They would have to get the chelation therapy underway as quickly as possible, Stephen reminds himself to check with Grimshaw to see how the formula was going. 

"Good morning Anthony. Have you been using the dialysis machine?" Stephen asks though he already knows the answer. JARVIS has been sending him daily reports after all. 

"As if you don't already know. I know you're conspiring with JARVIS, Stephen. Anyway, I called because I won't be home until about 3:00pm and I didn't want you to come home to an empty house." Tony says and there is a certain care in that that warms Stephen's heart. 

"Oh, I thought you were done with your work for SI." Stephen had double checked with Pepper and she had even sent him a message to that effect just last night. 

"I did. But I um got a thing. With SHIELD that I need to sort out." And that is more than enough to send an alarm through Stephen. 

"SHIELD?" Stephen says and he hears the heavy sigh on the other end of the line. Tony isn't fond of SHIELD, just as Stephen isn't. There is a certain underhandedness and indirect threats and distinctly unhealthy ways that SHIELD operates that irks both of them and gets under their skin. 

"Yeah. Another one of those debriefs. If I keep avoiding them, they will only get more annoying, so I wanted to get it over and done with before... you know." Tony says and Stephen isn't too surprised to notice that Tony doesn't mention the chelation therapy. 

Tony isn't looking forward to the process and neither is Stephen. The side effects are being reduced as much as possible by Grimshaw and himself. 

They were trying to ensure that what they can't manage with medicine and science, they were doing with magic. It's not a short term project either. 

Stephen and Grimshaw had been working on the formula on and off for a while now. They had known that it would be necessary for Tony to go through something like chelation therapy once the Arc Reactor had been replaced. 

It's not as if the new element could magically rid Tony's body of the heavy metals that had already seeped into his blood and his skin and his organs through the months preceding it. 

The thing that really complicated the formula and the therapy itself was the fact that though Tony and Stephen both referred to the poisoning as palladium poisoning, it was more a combination of silver, rhodium and palladium that was poisoning Tony's body. 

The palladium had been more or less from the core itself, but the silver and rhodium were the byproduct of the palladium core burning up inside of Tony's body. Finding a formula of bonding chemicals for both of the metals to be able to work together to pull the poisons out of Tony's body was... difficult. 

It's not as if there has been a ton of case studies for them to work from and there really hadn't been a severe case of heavy metal poisoning like this in recent medical studies. So they had more or less been breaking ground on new medical research. 

So there was that. 

So the therapy was going to be experimental and dangerous, even with the magic involved and that doesn't make Stephen rest easy. 

Neither is Tony's insistence that he continue to work his regular hours at the practice during the process either. Tony had agreed to let Grimshaw attend the mansion to provide the therapy during the days that Stephen works , but the genius had insisted that Stephen continued to work with his patients because that was important to Stephen. 

Stephen was grateful that Tony was being thoughtful and kind to his needs and the needs of his patients and in all honesty, he did need to continue to work or shut the practice down. It was one or the other. 

He didn't want to shut the practice down. There were a lot of patients that he can still help even without his ability to do surgery and Stephen still needed to atone for all the patients that he hadn't helped as Vincent. It was a part of his redemption. 

Tony's understanding and his support of Stephen's goals were... incredibly kind and considerate. But Stephen would have preferred to be there the entire time that the therapy was being done. 

It wasn't that he didn't trust Grimshaw. He did. Grimshaw was one of the best doctors that he knew and more importantly, the best healer that he knew. Even better than himself. Stephen had the raw power, the Grimshaw had the affinity that allowed them to be frankly amazing when it came to the healing arts. 

"Are you going to be okay?" Stephen tears himself out of his thoughts as he realises that he had let the silence linger for a while. 

More and more, with the distance between Loki and himself being so vast, Stephen was finding it difficult to focus and ground himself when he was away from Tony. When Tony was close by, it was easy. The Connection and the Bond that they shared made it easy for Stephen to be able to focus. 

But with the genius being on the other side of the country, Stephen was left to his own devices and his own distractions and his mind was... a chaotic field of stray thoughts and desolate emotions right now. 

"Of course. It's going to be fine. Just um come after 3:00pm, okay? I- I really want to see you." Tony says and the desperation in his tone is one that Stephen shares. 

"Of course. I'll be there dearest. See you soon." Stephen says as Tony hangs up the phone and for a moment, he stays in the quiet bedroom, hair dripping the now cold water down his back. 

He has a few hours before he has to board the flight to LA. A few hours where he could just... let himself break a little. Let himself feel the emotions that he is so exhausted from holding back. 

When it's time, he can pull himself together again and be the man that his lover needs. He can be focused, kind, considerate and loving. 

But right now, he just needs to be... him. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

5 June 2010 

Fury has to admit that he is quite impressed with how quickly his agents have put together the warehouse to resemble one of SHIELD's conference rooms. They have also created the perfect setup that is both empty and spacious and yet intimidating. 

They sure did know how to set up a good interview space, Fury thinks as he watches the interviewer, one of his more seasoned agents, finish up with the debrief with Tony Stark. 

It had been an interesting interview to watch, that was for sure. 

Tony isn't guarded. At least that's not what it looks like. Tony looks relaxed with his body language open and comfortable. He speaks freely and easily. 

It's a facade. 

It's an incredibly good one and it irks Fury to realise that he should have noticed it sooner. Even at the diner and during their talk at the mansion, Tony fucking Stark had played him. His call out right at the end? 

Yeah. 

Tony had gotten exactly what he had wanted and needed and once he had what he wanted, Tony had turned the tables right around on them and put them on the back foot and that was impressive. It was as if Tony had known ahead of time what Fury’s trump card had been. But he couldn’t, could he? 

Fury hadn't been on the back foot with anyone since Major Danvers and she was a superhero that could shoot lasers out of her hands, not a man flying around in a tin can.

But Tony Stark had managed it with Fury. It stands to reason and it really doesn't surprise Fury too much to see his agent coming out of the interview looking annoyed and confused. 

Tony has managed to say a whole lot without saying anything at all and he had trodden that fine line of keeping the interviewer on their toes and interested, feeling as if they were extracting information, without giving a single thing away. 

Oh, all the questions that the interviewer had posed had been answered and all the necessary information had been provided. But the actual information that Tony made his interviewer work for? 

All of that shit was available through the press conference he and Colonel Rhodes had given and on top of that, the release of the footage from the Iron Man and War Machine suit. 

And that had been a stroke of genius. It had not only shown how crazily advanced the tech was and just how complicated the suit was to run, but it had also shown the public just how willing the two men had been to risk their own safety and lives to protect the public. 

In other words , the problem that Fury had hoped that Tony had created in the outrageous actions at the party and SHIELD's ability to swoop in to fix that problem... into a problem that doesn't exist anymore. 

Tony Stark and Stark Industries has managed to smooth out public opinion, the dissonance with the military and the US government in one fell swoop whilst Fury had been scrambling to deal with the other dramas on his plate. 

Tony fucking Stark had played him and Fury was almost too impressed to be well... furious about it. 

It really doesn't help that Natasha Romanov had completely been compromised by the whole incident. The cold, compartmentalised, brilliant spy that had been completely objective in all the missions that he had sent on her thus far, had for the first time, fallen prey. 

Not only had Tony Stark and Pepper Potts seen through Natasha Romanov's perfect resume and background to notice that she was a spy, but they had also hired her, kept her on the side and then got to her in a way that had never been done to a spy of her level. 

It was to the point that Natasha had formally made a complaint about her not being informed fully about Tony Stark's condition. On top of that, the report that she had filed in relation to Tony Stark's psychological information had been glowing. 

She stated that Tony Stark was a true inventor and creative genius and on top of that, that he was a leader worth considering as the leader of the Avengers as well as a worthwhile member to fully induct into the team. 

That hadn't been a part of Fury's plan. 

He needed Tony hungry and desperate for approval, for friends and for a team to work with him. Instead, by the looks of it, he was in the process of building his own foundations and a team of tin men that wasn't going to work with Fury and his plans. 

He needed Tony to push aside his aversion to inventing weapons so that he can arm the Avengers, including Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton. He needed Tony to fund the Avengers out of his own desire to do so. He needed Tony to starve for the attention and the desire to be the captain of the ship. 

But Tony was too dangerous to be given the leadership position. He was too clever. Once he was given any insight into SHIELD, Tony Stark would no doubt see through to realise that the World Security Council existed. 

He would see all of their funding streams. Tony fucking Stark would figure out that they were trying to build weapons that HYDRA had once been building and to perfect them. He would find out about all the shit that they were doing in the background to keep the Mutant population from rampaging throughout the world. He would find out about the Raft.

Once Tony Stark realises all of that... that would be a ship that Fury couldn't turn around. 

So no. 

Tony Stark had to be kept on a leash. Tightly controlled like an attack dog that he was. Yes, his resources and his genius had to be utilised because it was a tool that Fury needed, but he didn't need Tony Stark, the genius all up in his business and the business of the World Security Council. 

They had a world to protect and the last thing they needed was a self-righteous genius to come along and ruin all of the good work that they were doing. 

Fury was aware that he was getting their hands dirty, but someone had to in order to ensure that the world would survive the hell that would be coming for them. 

He had already seen glimpses of what was out there in the world. Aliens. Gods. Technology and power that Earth had no means of fighting. 

That was what the Avengers were for. That was what SHIELD's work to lock down the most dangerous Mutants were for. He had made too many goddamned sacrifices and his agents had made too many goddamned sacrifices for him to stop now. 

Even if it meant that he would have to destroy the ego of one man and keep him down and manipulate him until he has no other choice but to beg to be included to protect the people that he loves. 

Because Tony Stark is, unfortunately, a good man. 

And good men were dangerous. 

With that in mind, Fury makes his way down the stairs to where Tony is just about to look at the folder marked with the Avengers Initiative that the interviewer had been instructed to leave behind. 

Fury puts his hand down firmly over the file. 

"I don't think I want you looking at that. I'm not sure it pertains to you anymore." Fury says with his best 'I'm very disappointed in you, son' tone that he can manage. 

The thing is, Fury isn't sure if this manipulation is going to work. Unlike the initial reports that his psychologists had given him and unlike the reports that he had seen in the public, Tony Stark wasn't unhinged. He wasn't the isolated image of the tortured genius that he had expected. 

Instead, Tony Stark had support systems that he had not foreseen or imagined. Instead of his relationship with Pepper Potts being one filled with unrequited love and tension from the work that he kept pushing onto his PA, it had turned out that not only were they best friends, but she enjoyed the work that he had been forcing upon her and she thrived on the role of CEO. 

Then the relationship with Colonel Rhodes, one that Fury and the psychologists from both the military on Rhodes and the SHIELD ones on Tony Stark, had viewed as imbalanced and controlled where both were using the other as a resource, turned out to be a strong and close friendship. 

Between Pepper Potts and Colonel Rhodes, they kept Tony Stark emotionally balanced and supported. He wasn't lonely. He was surrounded by his two very close friends and the work that he both enjoyed and was incredibly efficient at. 

It also turned out that Tony Stark didn't abandon the weapons work just because he thought it immoral, but he had been bored by it. He had always been pushing to do other projects that Obadiah had been pushing back against. 

With Stane removed and the change of direction for the company, Tony Stark was putting out technology that was revolutionising the world and it was not only ramping up his reputation as the genius of this generation, but giving him fulfilment. 

Stephen Strange and his impossible genetics and his impossible history should never have been allowed to get so far into Tony Stark's life, but he had and soon enough, the two had become business partners. 

Putting not only Stephen Strange into Tony Stark's life but the D'Arte Corporation, one of the largest and richest companies in the world working together with the biggest technology company in the world. 

The combined resources of the two companies was something that Fury both needed and wanted but at the same time, feared. 

On top of that, Stephen Strange himself, a man that had relatively remained unknown in the shadows, revealed himself to be the heir to the D'Arte Corporation and on top of that, had shown himself to be a genius programmer on par with Tony Stark and able to contribute to his work and the two of them had fast become so close and friendly that all the attempts by Coulson and the other agents to put a fracture in that relationship has failed. 

The guard around Tony Stark and Stark Industries were fast becoming a fort that Fury could not assail and that was incredibly dangerous and irksome. Fury had even considered if Stephen Strange was a Kree but he had been forced to rule that out after some research. 

In other words , all of the plans that Fury had were falling apart faster than he can create them and he was on his last attempt to control Tony Stark and he needed it to work. 

"Now this, on the other hand, is Agent Romanov's assessment of you." Fury tells Tony and puts the file in front of him. It's not the report that Natasha Romanov wrote. It is the report that Fury had put together with bits from her report and the earlier psychological profile. 

He hopes against hope that this was going to do the job. 

"Read it." Fury says as he hands the file over and he makes sure that his words sound like the command that it is. 

Tony raises an eyebrow in question, but he does pull the file open and his eyes quickly scan the pages. Tony's ability to take in and process information is also something that makes him dangerous. He doesn't need to look at anything for a long time or study it to be able to remember it and understand it. 

It is a part of what makes Tony Stark the genius that he is and thereby, dangerous. 

"Uh, personality review. Hm. Mr Stark displays compulsive behaviour. In my own defence, that was last week and I tend to get a little workaholic but sure. Why not throw on labels that she can't possibly understand without a degree in psychology unless you provide all your agents with psychology degrees?" Tony asks with an amused tone before he continues to read. 

Fury can see the plans falling apart around his ears as Tony's relaxed approach and easy attitude is proven to be more than just an act right before his eyes. 

It should have been so easy. Tony Stark, the CEO of Stark Industries should have just been the billionaire, genius, playboy. 

All the labels that should have made their work incredibly easy. But it hadn't been. Tony fucking Stark's genius, apparently, went beyond for the tech that he created and the science that he did. 

Shit. 

"Prone to self-destructive tendencies. Well, you already got the explanation for that one and even if I had been, to be fair to me, I was dying so, a little self-destructive tendency would have been normal in that context but hey why not." Tony continues and it's the arrogant 'I know things that you don't know' tone that was bothering Fury.

On anyone else, Fury would believe them deluded. On a man like Tony Stark, Fury can't help but wonder if he is missing something vital. 

"Textbook Narcissism. Wow. That's a big label to throw and that's interesting. But hey, Agent Romanov barely got the chance to talk to me three times and somehow she can diagnose me with narcissism? That's rich. If she decided to do her homework based on the media reports, I'm not going to fault her for it. Why not? Most CEOs are said to fall into the spectrum of narcissism and well, I might as well go with the flow right?" Tony says. 

Fury has to admit that he is surprised by Tony's knowledge on psychology. He hadn't expected that. He should have. Shit. 

"Assessment for the Avengers Initiative. Iron Man yes, Tony Stark not recommended." Tony reads and closes the folder and slides it back across to Fury. 

The last sentence, one that had been designed to make Tony hunger for a team and desperate to be a part of something big and great but being told no, has completely fallen flat. Fury can see that. 

He had hoped that despite Rhodes having a suit and being able to work with Tony, he would seek out something more, but Tony was flat out uninterested. 

"Good. I'm not interested. Good luck with all of it by the way and oh, because I know that despite the bullshit power play you just tried and your little tactics, you're going to need me to work with you. Luckily for you, I'm not a bastard and I know when things are important enough. So here's a present." Tony says as he pulls out a stack of paper from his jacket pocket and throws it on the table. 

The tables have been turned. 

"You can be a petulant child about it and continue to make dickheads of yourselves or you can act like grown up businessmen and learn to work properly in the field. Your call." Tony says as he stands up and gives Fury an infuriatingly arrogant and self assured smile. 

"I promise that I won't charge my usual consultation fees.” Fury looks at Tony Stark with the outrage he feels. Charge SHIELD for consultations? How dare- 

“You can’t afford me.” Tony informs him and Fury hates that Tony Stark is all too right. Their budget can cover a lot of things, but Tony Stark’s time? He knows that they can’t cover that.

“But I will give you a free tip." Tony says as he pulls out his sunglasses from his jacket pocket. 

"Next time you send someone out for a honeypot plot, you might want to consider a little bit more... diversity." Tony says with a salacious look up and down Fury and the innuendo is enough for Fury to become self-aware of the way that he is sitting and the way that he might look to the genius. 

"Oh, and in the future, if you need to get in contact with me, try being nice to JARVIS. He might actually put you through then." Tony says as he strolls casually out of the warehouse. 

Fury sits back into his chair and he has to admit that he has been well and truly defeated . Well shit. 

"Well, sir... I do not believe that has gone according to plan." Coulson tells him dryly as he walks into the room. Fury raises his eyebrow at him. 

"You think Coulson? Fuck! That little shit. Fine. For now, we play with his rules. But let's get some contingencies going." Fury says as he stands up and hands Coulson the stack of papers that Tony had dropped. Coulson takes it without complaint. 

"I will get legal on this sir. Did you want me to return to New Mexico sir?" Coulson asks and Fury sighs. 

Of course. New Mexico. He had so many problems to deal with. Shit. 

On top of that, there was the whole D r Bruce Banner situation and Fury just doesn't have time to deal with Tony fucking Stark and his dramas. But it's not as if he has a choice. 

What he had thought had been the perfect plan had fallen apart and now, he was right back to where he had started. 

Tony fucking Stark with all the fucking cards. 

Shit. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Saturday 

5 June 2010 

Tony feels exhausted, despite the fact that he is well rested and he really shouldn't be tired. But then apparently SHIELD is annoying enough to completely exhaust him. 

Great. 

Tony thanks the helicopter pilot and trudges into the house. Despite what he had suggested, he is starting to think that getting some sleep whilst holding Stephen in his arms might be a better idea. 

But when he makes his way to the lab, he finds himself changing his mind pretty goddamned rapidly. 

For one, Stephen is standing by the medical bed that they have been using for a year now, next to the ultrasound machine, which is on and ready to go. 

But that's not what gets Tony's blood pumping. 

Stephen is wearing a white doctor's gown and there are things hanging about on the table next to the ultrasound machine that really has no place in a normal medical procedure. On top of that, there are stirrups on the medical bed. 

Stirrups that he had known had come with the bed but he had never broken out and ones that he has had a bit of a fascination with. 

"Dr Stark, it's time for your check up. Please completely undress and get on the bed." Stephen says in that professional doctor tone but there is a raise of an eyebrow to ensure that Tony is fully on board. 

Oh and he is. 

Tony feels the arousal pool deep in his stomach and he feels warm. He realises quickly that he feels warm because Stephen has adjusted the temperature in the lab to ensure that he would be comfortable even without his clothes. 

Tony undresses quickly and he gets himself onto the bed. The bed is raised a bit so that Tony is sitting up, which is generally how they have been using the bed. But the stirrups are... interesting. Tony doesn't put his legs into them. 

Stephen doesn't ask him to do so either. He simply goes through the usual procedures of the ultrasound. 

Except, Stephen snaps on the black latex gloves as he uses the gel on Tony's chest to check on the shrapnel. Stephen keeps that professional demeanour that reminds Tony of the first time they went through this. 

That was a year ago. 

A year ago, he had been fantasising about Stephen and his doctor's coat and being naked under his careful hands and gaze. 

"Good news, Dr Stark. I can inform you that the shrapnel has not been impacted by the change of the reactors." Stephen says in that doctor's tone and Tony has to admit that he really, really likes it. 

He is more than half hard by the gel being spread over his chest and the way that Stephen had lingered over his nipples with both his fingers as well as the wand. 

"That's good to hear, Dr Strange. But I was thinking that perhaps it's about time I get a prostate exam." Tony says and Stephen turns and looks at him with surprisingly well acted surprise on his face. 

"Oh, I see. In that case Dr Stark, perhaps you can prepare yourself." Stephen says with a suggestive look towards the stirrups. Despite the wonderful way that Stephen was acting out his role, Tony can see the desire and lust in the doctor's eyes and in his lingering looks at Tony's naked body. 

Tony loves that Stephen finds him attractive and arousing, despite the scars around his reactor and the reactor itself. Some would have been freaked out by that. Tony clears his throat and slowly raise his legs so that he can put them into the stirrups. 

It takes some adjusting but he settles into position. 

Stephen has set them up just right so that Tony will be both comfortable and... perfectly exposed. Stephen grabs the bottle of lube and starts to lube on his gloved fingers and he makes sure that Tony can watch him do it. Tony feels his mouth go dry as Stephen gives him a suggestive look. 

"Have you been sexually active Dr Stark?" Stephen asks as he positions himself between Tony's legs. With a gentle hand, Stephen moves Tony so that his buttocks are right at the edge of the bed. 

With that, Tony flushes as he realises just how exposed he is. His legs are raised and spread and his buttocks are hanging off the bed and he is on a bed that is high enough that Stephen can easily see his hole and his aroused cock. 

Not to mention that he is at the perfect height for Stephen to fuck him. Oh God yes. 

It's so very easy to slip into the fantasy that Tony had been thinking of from the very first moment Stephen had run the ultrasound machine on him. He's not sure why they haven't done this before. They really, really should have. This was far hotter in real life than even his imagination. 

"Yes. Um, I've been having some really hot sex with this amazing man." Tony says with a tongue and cheek expression. Stephen merely raises an eyebrow as he slowly starts to run his finger along Tony's rim. 

"I see, in that case, this should not be very uncomfortable." Stephen informs him as he slowly starts to finger Tony open. 

"Your rim is reacting, functioning normally. Good. Let's see how your prostate reacts." Tony really isn't sure how the doctor is keeping up with that professional tone when Tony feels like he is about to shake apart with just the doctor's voice, his fingers and the situation. 

"How do you plan to do that, doc?" Tony asks and Stephen answers by stroking Tony's prostate firmly. Firmly enough that Tony arches his back at the sensation. Stephen's fingers are trembling lightly, but they have enough strength to brush against Tony's prostate and it sends shivers through Tony's body. 

"There are a few medical procedures that I would like to try with you, Dr Stark." Stephen says as he withdraws his fingers and Tony has to admit that he is quite curious about what Stephen is thinking, but the question is answered quickly enough as the doctor pulls out a long wooden box and opens it. 

Sounding rods. 

Shit. Tony is completely hard now. He had always thought about trying them, but he had been so worried about the possible damage that might happen to his urinary tract to actually try it. But he can trust Stephen. 

"Are you interested?" Stephen asks with a raised eyebrow and Tony is nodding before he even thinks. Stephen gives him a satisfied smile. 

"I thought that might be the case. I will need to ensure that your penis remains erect throughout the procedure. This may assist." Stephen says as he pulls out a cock ring and Tony grips the edge of the bed tight at the idea. 

It has been a while since he had used a cock ring. Stephen's hands are gentle as he slowly puts the ring onto Tony's hard cock. Tony swallows hard at the sensation as Stephen strokes his cock a few times for good measure. 

"Please do let me know if you are in any pain, Dr Stark." Stephen says coolly as he lubes up not the sounding rods as Tony had expected, but the vibrator plug that he had used on Stephen in Paris.

This was going to be torture, Tony thinks as Stephen inserts the plug easily into him and Tony lets out a breath as he feels it settle against his prostate. 

Stephen is careful. But he also knows how to get Tony perfectly to that point of needy desire and desperation. When Stephen turns the vibrator on, it's on a low setting and Tony has to put his hand over his mouth to ensure that he won't let out the moans. 

"Are you comfortable Dr Stark?" Stephen asks as if he is merely conducting a medical procedure. Tony barely manages to open his eyes to see the doctor's dilated eyes and the outline of his erection to know that the doctor is most definitely affected. 

"I- Yes." Tony hisses it out. He can't articulate any more than that. Between Stephen's almost detached voice and attitude, the fantasies that have been in his head, the quiet situational domination that Stephen was conducting so artfully, Tony is starting to find it difficult to think, let alone talk. 

"Alright then. This may be uncomfortable. I do need you to remain still." Stephen says as he brings out one of the thinnest rods and lubes it up. Tony holds his breath and clenches his fists as Stephen carefully watches him and inserts the rod into his urinary tract. 

The rod is smooth metal and it feels a bit cold but the temperature difference between his hard cock and the rod itself actually accentuates the sensations even more. Tony can feel it going inch by inch inside of him in a completely new way. 

It feels foreign and odd. It's a sensation that he doesn't recognise but gives a sense of being full that he finds both odd and somehow satisfying. But it's still... odd. Not exactly pleasurable. 

"Are you alright Dr Stark?" Stephen asks and as he does, Tony can see the doctor licking his lips as if his mouth has gone dry at the sight of the rod sticking out of Tony's hard cock. Tony feels the same dryness as he answers. 

"Yes." Tony manages and Stephen gives him a satisfied smile before he starts to move the rod up and down carefully, holding Tony's cock steady with the other hand and that's the moment that it turns from it feeling odd to... something else entirely. 

"Oh my God." Tony breathes out as the pleasure starts to build. It is also that kind of building sensation that he knows he can't release. He is being fucked in a whole new way and it is brilliant. Even without the cock ring, he knows he can't come with the sounding rod blocking his cock and that realisation only increases the pleasure in his head. 

"It seems like you are feeling a good deal of pleasure, Dr Stark." Stephen observes in that detached tone but by gods he is feeling anything but detached if the hot looks are anything to go by. 

Tony can't keep his eyes open as Stephen continues to slide the rod in and out and the smooth edges of the rod feels like it is stroking his very insides for the very first time and it feels far too good. 

Tony is reminded of the first time he'd been fucked. 

It had felt so odd to take fingers and then a cock into his body but the oddity had changed up into amazing pleasure the moment his prostate was hit. There isn't a sensitive point like that within his urinary tract that he can feel but it still feels... incredibly fucking amazing. 

Between the vibrating plug against his prostate and the rod, Tony knows that it would just take the cock ring being released and the rod being removed for him to come. And come hard at that. 

But Stephen isn't ready to give him release. Not yet. 

"Are you ready for more, Dr Stark?" Stephen asks and Tony almost wants to say no. He isn't sure how much more pleasure he can take. He also knows that if he were to say no, Stephen will let him finish. He will let the whole thing come to an end. 

But he doesn't want it to. 

He wants to see both how much more he can take and just how much he would have to fall apart before Stephen can't take it anymore either and takes him. He wants to come with Stephen's cock inside of him. 

He always does. 

"Yes." Tony hisses out, his head thrown back and panting hard. He is trying not to moan. He is trying to hold his sounds of pleasure back as he would be doing if he was in a doctor's office. That mind game alone is adding so much to his pleasure that he can't resist it. 

"I see, in that case, do try to relax Dr Stark." Stephen tells him as a trembling gloved hand grabs the bottom of the plug. Tony tries to do as he requested. It's so hard to relax when his body wants to tense up for the release that it is not going to get. 

He has to take a few deep breaths to manage it, but he does manage it. When he does, Stephen takes the plug out, still vibrating from inside of him and Tony can almost feel his hole trying to clench around the sudden emptiness. 

Without the plug and it's constant pressure and pleasure against his prostate, it is a little easier to breathe. But that relief doesn't last long as he feels Stephen's hard cock at his entrance. 

"Doctor?" Tony questions, remembering the role play and he manages to open his eyes to see Stephen looking at him with eyes that weren't hiding any of the desire anymore. 

"I do apologise, Dr Stark. I realise that this isn't entirely professional, however-" Stephen starts to say and Tony nods quickly. 

"Please, please fuck me Dr Strange." Tony manages and is rewarded with a smile and a quick thrust of Stephen's hips that allow him to be buried hilt deep inside of him and Tony cries out with the pleasure of it all. 

The pleasure of both being filled and having Stephen solidly brush past his prostate along with the rod and the cock ring holding his pleasure back. Tony can't think anymore as Stephen starts to move and as he does so, he puts the fucking vibrating plug onto the rod inside of his cock. 

Tony howls with the pleasure and he has to hold tightly onto the bed not to thrash with the overwhelming nature of it all. 

Trust Stephen fucking Strange to be so fucking clever and overwhelming with even this, Tony thinks vaguely as Stephen manages to somehow keep that vibrator on the rod and keep Tony's cock steady even as he fucks hard into Tony. 

For a while, Tony is just lost in the pleasure. But soon enough, it is overwhelming and it is too much. Tony is moaning and panting and crying out with every thrust that Stephen makes into his body until he just can't take it anymore. 

The pleasure was starting to hit the point where it was starting to become painful and just as he was feeling that, Tony feels the vibration stop on the rod and it's just enough to give him a breather and stops the pleasure from turning to pain. 

Stephen really is far too good at this, Tony thinks as the doctor buries himself into Tony and leans over him. 

"I think that might be enough for your first taste." Stephen tells him in a voice that is husky with desire and barely able to hold back on the pants that are going through him. Tony nods, at least he thinks he does. 

"You've been so very good Dr Stark." Stephen says and he feels his heart warm with the pride he feels at the praise. He can't help it. Stephen gives him a warm smile as he gently removes the rod and Tony trembles as it is taken out. 

He hears it clinking onto the table next to the bed. Tony feels almost too hot and when he feels Stephen's ungloved hand gently caress his face, he realises that he has zoned out and that he had been lost a little. When he focuses his eyes, Stephen is smiling at him. 

"You've been such a good boy Anthony. Are you ready to come?" Stephen asks him and Tony all but whimpers his response. It's a break of the scene. They are done with the mind games now. 

Now, they were Tony and Stephen and this was more than just a role play. 

Stephen leans over and pulls Tony up a little so that they can kiss and Tony moans headily into the kiss as Stephen starts to move again. 

But with the cock ring on, Tony can't come and the frustration and the pleasure that is building is almost too much until Stephen releases the cock ring and with a surprised shout that Stephen quickly swallows up with a heavy kiss, Tony comes so hard that he almost blacks out. 

For a long while, he can't feel anything aside from the headiness of the release. 

He isn't sure how long it takes for him to calm down, but by the time he is calm enough to think, he finds that the bed has been laid down so that he is flat on his back and that Stephen was standing over him, pants done up and immaculate despite the activities that have taken place. 

"That was fucking amazing." Tony slurs out and Stephen chuckles softly as he leans down to kiss the corner of Tony's lips. 

"Was it anything like what you imagined?" Stephen asks him and Tony shakes his head. 

"Better. Way fucking better. How are you so fucking perfect?" Tony asks the doctor, feeling so euphoric that it felt as if he was floating on water. Stephen chuckles at him and kisses him again. Tony is more than happy to participate in the kiss. 

"I'm not. But I am glad that you think so." Stephen informs him. Tony wants to argue with him and tell him over and over until the doctor is ready to believe it, but he doubts that Stephen is that easy to convince. 

He will just have to show the doctor, he thinks as he smiles and pulls Stephen into another kiss. Just like that, Stephen has made him forget the horrible conversation and turned his day from being shit to amazing. 

Tony feels relaxed for the first time that week. 

~~~ 

Sunday 

6 June 2010 

Loki sits upon the Throne of Asgard. 

The throne room is empty again. He had done his morning's business and dismissed the council and the courtiers. He was done with their mind games and the mind games that he was forced to play on them. 

He can't take much more of this. 

The tension with Jotunheim was growing and the call for action by the Asgardian nobility as well as his own hatred and desire to destroy all remnants of the history that he had been saddled with and the cursed blood that runs through his veins makes it difficult for him to be rational. 

But Thor is yet to return. 

He has yet to claim his powers back. Loki would have felt that. No. His stupid brother was stuck on Midgard, twiddling his thumbs and failing to learn the lessons that he had hoped that his brother would learn. The idiot was incapable of doing anything without help. 

Loki snarls in his frustration for a moment before he takes calming breaths and thinks of Stephen. That has been the only way that he had been able to focus as of late. 

It isn't that he can feel his Connected. No. Even with his powerful magic, his Soulmate was too far away for him to actually feel the Connection and use it to ground himself. No. 

But thinking of Stephen and all the mistakes that he has already made and knowing that he has much to atone for? That allows him to stay at least level headed and stops him from taking the cruel actions that he wants to take. Like destroying Jotunheim or Asgard. 

Midgard needs the protection of Asgard and Jotunheim and the Frost Giants were a necessary part of the Nine Realms that forms that protection. Though- 

Loki stops himself and takes a deep breath. 

It's about time he checks in on his brother and figure out what the idiot is up to. 

With that in mind, Loki slams Gungnir down onto the gold floors of the throne room and the All Seeing Throne comes to life. 

Except, what he sees isn't Thor. 

It is Stephen and the man that he had called Anthony Edward Stark. Stephen Strange's Soulmate and the man that Stephen loves and would willingly give up everything for. Including submitting to Loki's ridiculous demand. 

The man for whom, the Sorcerer Supreme had come to see him to begin with. The man that is holding Stephen tightly in his slumber.

But the slumber doesn't last long. 

The man wakes first and as he does, he kisses his way down Stephen's neck and shoulders until the sorcerer begins to rouse. 

Then the man runs his hands down the side of the sorcerer's body until his hands indicate just what he wants. The sorcerer chuckles, his voice deep and husky with sleep before he hands a tube of what Loki assumes is oils for penetration, over to his lover. 

The man takes the tube and slowly inserts his fingers into Stephen's body and the sorcerer relaxes into the touches as if it is intimately familiar. It most likely is. 

Loki hadn't been sure which side of the coin the sorcerer was on. Whether he preferred to be taken or to take. Loki had planned to take the man and to make him his, but now he was forced to watch as the other man takes his Soulmate. 

The other man is gentle as he prepares the sorcerer for the penetration. Between it, the other man is constantly touching the sorcerer, running his hands over the perked up nipples, the sorcerer's hair, inserting his fingers into the sorcerer's mouth for him to suckle on and to play with the tongue that is apparently sensitive. 

Stephen's eyes remain closed throughout, but when he opens them, the grey-blue eyes are dilated and filled with desire and need. 

By the time that the man does penetrate Stephen, the sorcerer is mewling and panting and moaning with his desires and holding tightly onto the pillow his head is resting on as he tries to hold on. 

"Oh, God, Tony- Please- I-" The sorcerer begs and his voice is as pretty and perfect as Loki had imagined it. Nothing like the cry of fear and desperation that he had elicited from the man. This is a cry of passion and desire. 

Loki feels the bitter taste of his own failure fill his mouth. 

"Shh, I know baby. I know. Do you want it nice and hard or do you want me to fuck you nice and slow?" The man asks with a soothing voice that sends shivers down Loki's spine. 

"Tony- I-" Whatever Stephen was going to say is broken by the cry that escapes him as the man pulls back and thrusts in hard and the sorcerer arches his back into the thrust. 

"Hard and fast it is. Are you going to be okay on your stomach Stephen?" The man asks and the sorcerer nods and as he does, the man moves so that the sorcerer is laid flat on his stomach, the pillow removed from under his head and the other man leans down to kiss the sorcerer sloppily. 

It's a parody of the position that he had put Stephen in. Dominating over the other man, laid out on top of him, Loki had been attempting to fuck him just in the way that the man was doing now. Except the man was whispering sweet nothings as he does so and even as his hips thrust in and out from the sorcerer, hard and fast, the man is keeping himself focused. 

The other man is... beautiful. 

Loki wishes that he wasn't. But he is. Caramel brown hair sticks to his forehead as the exertion from his efforts cause him to sweat. The man's back and shoulders are well muscled and they ripple with each thrust he makes into Stephen's body and from the effort of keeping himself upright.

"Oh, god, Stephen, you feel so fucking good." The man mutters as he thrusts his hips faster and harder and soon enough, the man is moving Stephen and himself so that Stephen is on his fours and burying his head into his arms as the other man fucks roughly into him. 

It is by all means not gentle and loving sex between Soulmates that Loki had expected. This was an act of passion, desire and lust but there is love there. He can see it. He sees it in the way that the man kisses Stephen's shoulders between the thrusts and runs his hands down the arch of the spine. 

In the way that though he is moving hard and fast, he is not doing it for his own gratification alone. The need to pleasure Stephen and ensure that the man is enjoying the activities is obvious. 

Loki watches as the activities escalate until they both climax and the sounds of their cries as they come are echoed through the empty chambers of the Throne Room. 

Loki sits and watches as the man helps Stephen to lay down properly and props his head up with a pillow and kisses him with gentleness and love that Loki feels all too entirely jealous over. 

"No flashbacks?" The man asks gently and Stephen gives him a heartbreakingly beautiful smile and shakes his head. 

"No. It was perfect." Stephen says and Loki realises what they are talking about. 

As that realisation hits, his concentration breaks. 

But not before he hears the words that will echo not only through the Throne Room but his head. 

"You don't make me afraid like he did." Stephen's voice says just as the spell breaks. 

Loki sits in the empty Throne Room. All of the power of Asgard in his hands and the All Seeing Throne upon which he sits with the power of the King vested in him through Gungnir. 

And he realises that he has harmed the one thing that he never should have harmed. 

His Soulmate. 

It takes Loki a long time. But he does slam Gungnir down onto the ground once more and this time, the hesitation is gone. The focus is back.

He knows what he must do now. 

Atone. 

~~~ 

Sunday

6 June 2010 

"God, you're so fucking beautiful." Tony breathes. His footsteps stop almost involuntarily as he makes his way to the bedroom with the cups of coffee he'd gone to fetch. 

He leans against the bedroom doorway to admire the view that he'd been presented with. The warm morning Californian sunlight glistens over Stephen's pale and naked body as he lays on the white sheets of their bed. 

Stephen's head is still buried in the pillow and there is a mess of brown curls that Tony wants to run his fingers through as he had been doing right until he went to the kitchen to fetch the coffee. 

It's a lazy morning. 

They'd woken up in a tangle of limbs per usual and it had quickly led to a spot of morning sex that had been quite frankly, amazing. But Stephen had curled back into the bed and Tony hadn't had the heart to force the doctor out of the bed, not when Stephen had looked so adorable burrowing into the sheets. 

He's very glad that he has left Stephen be because coming back to find his lover luxuriating, naked against the thousand thread count sheets like a cat, stretching out in the sunlight is a delightful enough image that it was worth getting out of bed. 

Especially when he can still see his cum dripping out of the doctor's well used hole. The desire to fill him up again builds low in his stomach. 

"Please tell me you have coffee." Stephen mumbles against the sheets and his voice is husky with the strain his throat had gone through between the moans and pants and brutal cries that Tony had coaxed out of him, as well as perhaps some residual sleep. Tony chuckles as he ambles over to the bed and puts the coffee down onto the bedside table. 

"Most definitely." Tony informs him and Stephen lets out a yawn and stretches against the sheets before he sits up to find the coffee and wraps his trembling hands around it. 

Tony hasn't filled the cup up all the way. He never does when it is Stephen's. He knows that Stephen finds it embarrassing when he spills things or when his hands are out of control and that he prefers it if Tony wasn't bringing any attention to it.

So he doesn't. 

But he does do the little things to try to make life easier for the doctor when he can. Stephen leans against the headboard, his lower half barely covered by the sheet that he pulls over himself and sips at the coffee as if it is the best thing that he has ever tasted. 

Stephen doesn't drink a lot of coffee. Just one cup a day. First thing in the morning. He also prefers it black and piping hot. It's something that they share. But after that first cup of coffee, Stephen prefers to drink tea throughout the day. 

Green tea, Peppermint tea, Jasmine tea... the list goes on. He prefers loose leaf over tea bags. When he's tired, he prefers to add honey but not always. Tony finds that he likes knowing those little details about his lover. 

Details he's not sure if he had ever known about his previous lovers. He hadn't cared about them as much as he cares about Stephen. Even when he had believed himself to be in love, he had never obsessed over the little details as he does now. 

He... likes it. To his surprise. 

Tony moves to sit on the side of the, positioning himself so that he can easily lean across Stephen's body to kiss him softly on the lips. They share their kiss that tastes of coffee and smile softly at each other. 

This is going to be their last weekend like this for awhile. 

Midway through next week, they were going to start the chelation therapy. Stephen had apparently organised for a room to be set up in the Stark Mansion that was more hospital than a bedroom and the formula for the therapy was going to be ready. 

Given the nature of Tony's poisoning, it hasn't been an easy process, Tony is given to understand, for Stephen and Dr Grimshaw to come up with the correct formula for the therapy. Once they have, Stephen informed him that unfortunately, it couldn't be taken orally and that it would have to be conducted in I.V. format. 

It would also be quite slow as they had to make sure that the therapy itself and the side effects wouldn't be detrimental to Tony and his rather fragile health. 

It's odd, Tony thinks. Right now, he feels quite alright. He knows he isn't on the inside, but he feels kind of alright. He isn't in that much pain and he isn't suffering from nausea or dizziness. But he knows that at any moment, he can be hit with the nausea and dizziness. 

He knows that it was the last dose he had of the lithium dioxide that was holding back the tide of symptoms and soon enough, he was going to be overwhelmed by it all. 

He also knows that if he didn't go through the therapy, all the poison that was in his body and blood would settle and he would end up at the very least, losing a limb and at the very worst, he could still die. 

He hates that. 

But he trusts Stephen. He knows that Stephen will get him through the therapy and he is going to be okay. He believes in Stephen and his medical science well enough. 

Despite that, he knows that it isn't going to be a very smooth couple of weeks. He's done his own research into the topic enough. He knows the side effects. It makes him all the more determined to enjoy the last moments of true peace he is going to have with his lover. 

"You know, we should have sex." Tony says and Stephen raises an eyebrow at him. They've just had sex. It's only been like half an hour at the most. 

Tony puts the cup down and moves until he is firmly on the doctor's lap. He has worn loose cotton pants to go down to the kitchen but he can feel Stephen's soft penis well enough underneath himself. 

Stephen moves naturally to rearrange himself so that he can support Tony's back with his knees as Tony leans down to peck at the corners of Stephen's lips. 

"Next week, when we start the therapy, we might not be able to." Tony says and Stephen gives him a soft look. 

"It'll be fine Anthony. We'll take it slow and make sure you aren't under any strain." Stephen tells him but Tony knows that slow and steady isn't really ideal for the therapy. He sighs. 

"You know that's only going to make the residual poison settle more." Tony says and Stephen looks a little grim but he does nod slowly. 

"I don't want you to be in pain, dearest." Stephen says softly as he puts the cup down, takes one of Tony's hands and kisses the fingertips as if they are the most precious things he had ever kissed. Tony feels warmth spread in his chest at the gesture. 

It's the little gestures like this, the ones that he would have thought was sappy and ridiculous before Stephen, that really reminds him that he is well and truly loved and that with Stephen, he isn't embarrassed or annoyed. He had been with the others. 

"You gotta make the hard decisions doc." Tony reminds him and Stephen nods as he pulls Tony close so that they are chest to chest and strokes Tony's back with his trembling hands. 

"We'll see how you go with the first treatment and assess it from there." Stephen promises. Tony nods as he settles against Stephen. 

For a long while, they lay like that, just holding each other and enjoying the peaceful morning. But eventually, the proximity to each other and the warmth of the hold changes. It usually does. 

Tony finds himself smirking as he slowly starts to undulate his hips so that he is grinding against the quickly hardening cock underneath him. Stephen moans prettily as Tony starts to kiss the doctor's neck. 

All the marks that he had left behind the week before are gone and Tony is tempted to make a few more. But he knows that the doctor is still going to be seeing patients on Monday, so he knows better than to leave the marks anywhere they can be visible. 

"You are insatiable." Stephen grumbles, but he supports Tony's lower back and kisses him when Tony looks up and smirks at him. 

"I want to ride you into the bed, Dr. Strange." Tony mutters against Stephen's lips. The doctor chuckles as he grabs the lube bottle from the bedside table and slips Tony's cotton pants down just enough to be able to reach his hole. 

With his legs stretched out on either side of Stephen, it isn't all that difficult for the doctor to access Tony's all too greedy hole. 

"Yeah well, when there's someone as hot as you in bed, it's kinda hard to resist." Tony murmurs against Stephen's lips as the doctor starts to slowly rub the lube against his hole. Tony helps by grinding his hips. Slowly, as the doctor's thin fingers penetrate him, Tony fucks himself onto the fingers as they open him up. 

It is a slow, luxurious sort of feeling. It's that kind of day and that kind of mood that they are in. It feels so perfect and so relaxing, Tony thinks as he kisses Stephen's lips as if he is drinking from them, holding the doctor's face in both of his hands. 

That is until the doctor stiffens mid-kiss and his eyes widen and he pulls away from the kiss and gasps. 

"Stephen?" Tony asks him carefully as Stephen's fingers curl up inside of him as the doctor looks at him with some alarm. Tony stops moving his hips and Stephen is quick to carefully remove his fingers. 

Before Tony can ask further questions, the doctor is wiping his fingers off on some tissues and grabbing the phone as it goes off. Tony frowns as he watches Stephen standing and starting to pace by the window as he answers the phone. 

"Yes I bloody felt that. What the fuck is it?" Stephen asks into the phone and Tony feels the concern rise immediately. Stephen doesn't curse a lot. When he does, it's usually in bed when he's desperate enough to swear or, he was angry enough or worried enough. It's one of the quirks that Tony has learnt over the year. 

"It's not him. No. I know. Don't interfere but keep an eye on them." Stephen says tersely into the phone and there is an edge to his voice that Tony distinctly does not like. 

Tony waits by the bed and he makes himself comfortable against the headboard as he waits for the doctor to hang up. He does so after a moment and he takes a deep breath, as if he needs to calm down. 

Tony feels his eyes narrow as he looks over the doctor, the tense lines of his face and his posture as his lover sinks into deep thought. 

"Stephen?" Tony questions him gently and the doctor looks up as if startled and he smiles, but it's a tense smile. Tony doesn't like it. 

"Tell me what's going on?" Tony makes it a question. Not a demand. He knows better than to demand information from Stephen. He remembers the deal they made back in Paris. 

He was going to keep to that deal. To that promise. It's the most important step that he had taken in trusting the doctor and he wasn't about to go back on it now. 

Especially because something was happening in the background. Tony knows that whatever was happening was serious enough and bad enough that the doctor was jumpy. That was disconcerting. 

He also remembers what happened just the week before. The doctor safe wording. The fact that someone had forced themselves onto Stephen. Had overpowered him. Had hurt him. Perhaps not physically but mentally and emotionally. 

Stephen was doing remarkably well and he was hiding whatever was going on in his head pretty well, but even during the short time of the weekend they've had together, he'd seen the signs that Stephen was still preoccupied with it. 

When they had sex, Tony had spent the time to make sure that Stephen was fully on board and that he wasn't flashing back. He took the doctor from behind on purpose this morning because he wanted Stephen to associate the position and having Tony over him with pleasure rather than fear. It had been hot and enjoyable for both of them. Which was good. 

The last thing he wants to do now is to push Stephen and make it uncomfortable for him. Stephen sighs and he takes a deep breath. 

"Anthony... I'm so sorry. There are... things happening that I need to be aware of but... that I’d rather not think about." Stephen says and there is a soft plea in his voice that Tony understands immediately.

Stephen doesn't want to talk about it. And not in the 'I don't want to tell you' way, but the 'if I start talking about it, I might just break' way. The way that worries Tony. Tony may be a man driven by curiosity, but he isn't that driven by it. He can put it aside for his lover. 

"In that case, why don't you come back to bed and let me help you forget all about it?" Tony suggests to him and when Stephen hesitates, he gets off the bed just enough to pull the doctor onto the bed and crawls over him. 

"JARVIS, let's get those ladies, you know the ones I'm talking about and see if they are available. I think Stephen can do with some spoiling today." Tony says to JARVIS as he starts to kiss his way down Stephen's body. 

"Anthony I don't-" Stephen frowns and tries to protest, but JARVIS is quick enough to intervene and make sure that Stephen doesn't misunderstand. 

"I will contact Zen Spa and arrange for Ms Hines and Ms Kwasagi to attend the mansion this afternoon sir." JARVIS informs him and Stephen looks a little surprised as Tony smirks at him and kisses him. 

"Did you think I would share you with someone else?" Tony asks him and Stephen gives him a small shake of the head with an odd look that Tony doesn't recognise. 

"Because I won't, Stephen. I want you for myself." Tony tells him and kisses him and he can't help that the kiss is a little hard, a little possessive. Stephen submits to the kiss, as he always does and he pulls Tony close. 

"I need you." Stephen all but whimpers out and Tony is more than happy to get on with the program. He coats the doctor generously with the lube and when Stephen tries to prepare him further, Tony shakes his head and sits up so that he can take the doctor into himself. 

"You have me." Tony tells him softly as he slowly takes Stephen in. It's a tight fit. He's not very loose and the prep really hasn't been as thorough as it should have been, but Tony bears through it. It's not painful. Just... uncomfortable. He can deal with that. If that means he can take away that desperate look on Stephen's face. 

As he sinks fully down onto Stephen, Tony leans down to kiss the doctor. He's not sure what's going through Stephen's mind. He's not sure what the doctor is feeling. 

All he knows is that he wants it to stop. 

~~~ 

 

Chapter Text

Sunday 

5 June 2010 

This is a joke. Right? 

Oh for crying out loud, Yinn thinks as she looks down at what had to be the Warriors Three and Sif, walking straight down the centre of the bloody street in their armour and leather gear as if it is the corridors of Golden Palace itself. 

The Cup of Jamshid wasn't particularly pleased that she had activated it, but she had coaxed it by reminding it that it is what Stephen wanted and that it would be helping Stephen. 

20 years ago, she never would have thought that she would be spending half an hour conversing with a bloody cup to coax it to show her visions. But no. She has spent half an hour negotiating with the Cup to make it spark up and actually show her what she needed to see instead of horrific scenes of murder victims. 

At least it's a pretty cup, Yinn thinks dryly as she wraps her fingers around it to look a little closer at the details. 

The Asgardians aren't gods per se. Not... exactly. But they are damned close enough to being gods that Yinn wasn't about to argue with them over whether they believed themselves to be gods or not. 

It really doesn't help that throughout their adventures to Earth at various points in time, they have more or less cemented themselves into the role and even now, knowing that they could die and that they had a life span, Yinn finds it hard to call them anything but gods. 

Still, watching over the antics of the Warriors Three, Sif and Thor, Yinn is reminded of just how bloody young they are. By human years, they would just be in their early twenties. Barely old enough to know right from wrong. 

She can see it in the way that they are acting. Their carelessness, their sense of entitlement. Their rush to act rather than to think through the problem at hand. 

They talk and act out of their emotions rather than rational thought. Just as she had done when she'd been their age. They talk the talk of adults, with seriousness and with gravitas, but the underlying motivations and thoughts that she can see are still immature. 

It's almost amusing. 

Or at least it would be if the situation wasn't so volatile. They were basically the equivalent of a group of angst filled teenagers with nukes. 

They were volatile and dangerous and unlike Thor, who has been stripped of his godhood, the others are in possession of all their power and strength . That makes them so incredibly dangerous.

And they just had to walk into the small sleepy town in New Mexico. Because of course, they did. 

Yinn knows that one of the members of the Order is watching over the situation, keeping a firm eye on what was happening and ensuring that if need be, they can evacuate the townspeople. But as it is, Yinn herself is hopeful that Loki will do the right thing. 

She's not sure how she feels about Loki being Stephen's Soulmate, considering that he is the God of Chaos, but she knows she would feel a whole lot better about him if he were to at least ensure that the Destroyer doesn't slaughter the townspeople.

He has in the other universes. Yinn has seen enough of the visions that Stephen had gathered over the week he had been at the Sanctum. It wasn't that his goal had been to kill the townspeople. 

He just hadn't given a shit about the collateral damage. Because to Asgardian gods, humans were nothing but ants fit to be crushed by their boots. 

Yinn shudders at the thought. 

She's not sure if Loki would be any different now that he is Connected with Stephen. From the dark looks that she had seen in Stephen's eyes as he described Loki and the visit with him, she's not sure if the god could be reasoned with. 

She hadn't seen Stephen so haunted before. 

She knows that something more had taken place during his conversation with Loki than what the Sorcerer Supreme was saying. they all knew that. But they hadn't questioned because he had looked so... vulnerable and barely put together and she had worried that if she had asked the wrong question at the wrong time, the man would fall apart. 

And unfortunately, as much as the man that is Stephen Strange might need to fall apart sometimes and be allowed to have that break that his mind needs, he is the Sorcerer Supreme and he couldn't afford to do that. 

Yinn sighs. She really hopes that Loki is going to do the right thing.  

That would be a nice start. 

Either way, she figures she's going to be watching for awhile and hopes that Wong will return quickly with the microwave popcorn and soft drinks he'd gone to fetch. 

If nothing else, this was going to be explosive. 

~~~ 

Sunday 

6 June 2010 

Your father still lives. 

That's what Sif has told him. She had pulled him aside, away from the others, her hands on his back and on his arm as if to support him and to offer him comfort. But he does not feel comforted. 

Heimdall will see to his return. He needs to return to Asgard with them. As soon as possible, she said . She had explained that Loki has lied. That he has taken the throne. That he was seeking to destroy Jotunheim. 

Thor does not understand. He cannot understand. 

For a short moment, he is outraged and angry. Then he remembers his brother's words. His brother's nature. It does not make the news any less difficult to bear. 

But as he tries to process the news, he thinks. 

Loki had insisted that he learns the lessons that his father had intended for him. Had the lie been a part of the lesson? 

He can't imagine that his brother, Loki, the God of Lies would have told a lie without reason. Loki does nothing without reason. He is not like Thor. He acts with thought and he thinks out his words before he says them. 

More importantly, Loki knows the value of truth and lies. 

If Loki has lied, then there was a reason behind it. Thor had to believe that. A thousand years of knowing Loki does not allow him to believe that his brother would have lied to him without reason. 

He has no reason to believe that. 

Loki would have known what the Three Warriors and Sif had planned. He must have. If Odin was dead or asleep or whatever it may be and Loki was in charge of the throne, then he would have Gungnir and through it, he would have access to the All Seeing Throne. 

But Loki had allowed the Warrior Three and Sif to come to Midgard. To Thor. If he had allowed it to happen, then it must be for a reason. 

'You must learn how to trust wisely brother. Not all have the best interest of Asgard or you in their hearts', Loki had once told him. Thor wonders if Loki had meant for him to recall those words now. 

Does he trust Loki? Does he trust the God of Lies and God of Mischief to believe that he has the best interest of Thor in his heart? Thor does not know. 

Does he trust the Warriors Three and Sif and their views of Loki and his actions or should he trust himself? 

Thor isn't sure.

But he knows at least better than to jump to conclusions. That is a lesson that had been hard taught to him by what had taken place in Jotunheim. 

"It is Loki that told the guards to fetch the King before we went to Jotunheim. The one that plotted your banishment." Volstagg adds and Thor frowns as he thinks. He has to fight back the initial anger he feels to think clearly. But he manages it. The Connection between him and Jane and her calming influence allows him to do that. 

No. Loki would not have known that Odin would banish him for that. Loki hadn't planned on Thor's banishment, but... Oh. 

"I must speak with my brother." Thor says after a moment and the Warriors Three and Sif look satisfied. 

"You must overthrow him and take back the Throne, my Lord." They tell him. Thor shakes his head. He isn't sure if that is the wisest course of action. 

Be a wise King, is what his father had said. That a wise King knows when conflict is necessary and when it is not necessary. Loki had asked him to earn Mjolnir back. To learn the lessons that father had intended for him. 

Thor had been so sure that back at the time of his coronation that he had been ready to be King of Asgard. But he is less certain now. 

Both his father and Loki had been right. He had been ill prepared to be King. He was still ill prepared. 

For one, though he has now learnt the value of life through the Connection with Jane Foster and the fear of her mortality along with the death of his father, real or not, Thor knows that there is much that he is yet to learn. 

But the throne of Asgard is his birthright. King is what he was born to be, Thor thinks as he looks quietly at Jane. 

If he were to return to Asgard and to take the Throne of Asgard, he cannot be with Jane. He cannot spend her life with her. She is his Soulmate. His other half. The one that grounds him, completes him and makes him better. 

He is not certain that he could live without her by his side. And yet, to go back to Asgard and to become it's King is to give up on the one thing that is the most important to him now. 

He is not sure if he could do it. 

He has not even informed her of the fact that they are Soulmates. There is yet so much about the universe and it's workings that Jane Foster does not understand. He had been planning on teaching her the ways of Asgard and the Nine Realms and the Universe before he revealed the Connection to her. 

He does not have the luxury of time. Not anymore. 

"Why does Loki intend to destroy Jotunheim?" Thor asks. It is a question that must be asked. His brother is not impulsive as he was. He was more aware of the politics and diplomatic ways of the world as well as what it meant to rule. Surely he would not make a decision lightly to destroy one of the Realms without reason. 

"Loki believes that they are about to rise against Asgard and will not take the risk of a war. He intends to use the Bifrost to destroy the Realm instead." Sif tells him. Thor frowns. There must be more than just that, Thor thinks. But he cannot be certain. 

He also does not understand why the Warriors Three or Sif would have that information if that is what his brother intends to do. Loki does not trust nor enjoy the company of the Warriors nor Sif. He would not have trusted them with the information. 

Unless... Loki had meant for that information to be passed onto him. Unless it was meant to spur him into action and make him choose. Thor closes his eyes. 

Damn Loki and damn his lessons and his cryptic games, Thor thinks as he clenches his fists. But his hands are tied. He has no choice. He cannot allow for Jotunheim to be destroyed. 

He is about to turn to Jane and inform her that he will return for her as soon as he can when he feels the Bifrost open. It's a violent thing, unlike what he had felt when the others had arrived. Or had not felt, rather. 

This is violent enough that even he, with his godhood bound by Mjolnir, can feel it shake the very foundation of the planet itself. 

It does not take him long to look out the windows to see what has arrived from Asgard. He feels his mouth goes dry as he looks at Jane and the others. The Destroyer looms over them. 

Oh dear Norns. 

~~~ 

Sunday 

6 June 2010 

Stephen wishes that he could have spent the rest of the day with Tony. With it being their last weekend before the therapy, it would have been ideal to spend a bit more time with his lover and to prepare both of them for what was going to be rather difficult times. 

But Clea and Yinn had been right to call him back. 

Given that Loki has changed his actions in New Mexico, ensuring that the Destroyer does not harm anyone but the Warrior Three, Sif and Thor, there is a chance that there may be more changes and Stephen has to ensure that the universe itself wouldn't fall apart due to those actions. 

It's always a risk when there is a change. 

Stephen had never been that good at shirking his responsibilities after all. He is met at the centre of the Sanctum, where they usually open their portals, by Clea and Yinn. They both give him terse smiles and he returns them with a warm one of his own. 

He knows that they are concerned and he is grateful for it. But he doesn't want them to be worried. 

Oh, he knows that there is good reason for the concern. He is Connected to Loki. The distance between Earth and Asgard is already straining him and making it difficult for him to focus and be grounded. Once Loki falls, if he falls, then Stephen was going to find the distance... unbearable. 

Stephen and the Council hope that Tony and the Connection that they share may be enough for Stephen to be grounded. But it is not unheard of for Soulmates that lose their half to... be driven to insanity. 

Given that they barely have bonded, Stephen is confident that it won't be that... drastic. But he does expect difficulties and dangers. He's not an idiot and he isn't very good at denial. 

"We're set up in the living room." Clea informs him. Stephen nods. Of course they have, he thinks fondly. 

When he walks into the living room, he isn't too surprised to find Wong waiting for him with the Cup and their guest, Grimshaw. Not a bad idea, Stephen thinks. 

If he were to have an adverse reaction to Loki's fall, then having a doctor would be helpful. Stephen gives Alex a smile and a nod, which is returned. 

They don't have a lot of time for pleasantries. Stephen is aware that Thor has returned to Asgard just moments ago. He had felt the energies of the Bifrost. 

Now, it was time to see how much Loki and Thor have changed through their Connections and their different decisions. 

Stephen sits down on the sofa and takes a deep breath before he activates the Cup. It strains a little, to reach the distance of Asgard, but with Stephen's coaxing and power, it quickly flickers awake and projects the sight of Asgard for all of them to see and wonder at. 

Asgard is... breathtaking. 

Despite the fact that all of them have seen Asgard before through the visions that Stephen had been able to store into the Memory Stone, they are still gasping and mesmerised for long moments before the conversation reaches them. 

"Why have you lied to me brother?" Thor asks Loki. It is a more balanced and calm approach than what Stephen had seen in the previous visions. 

Stephen wonders if it is the Connection that Thor has with Jane or whether it is due to Thor's relationship with Loki being much more... loving and trusting than it had been in the other universes. 

It's difficult to tell what effects the changes. But it is a definite change and Stephen feels the concern rise in the room. 

They have only seen a few dozen versions of the universes that include Loki as a focus along with Tony now. But they have seen enough of this confrontation. This is not how it usually goes down. 

Thor is tense and so is Loki, but by comparison to what they have seen, Thor is far calmer, though by comparison, Loki's madness is all the more apparent. 

"Has the knowledge not helped you? Allowed you to feel the loss of life that you have not understood nor experienced before?" Loki asks and though his words are logical, his tone is filled with hate and rage. It's almost frightening to see that level of logic in combination with Loki's rage filled eyes. 

"Loki, I do not understand. Why are you playing the role of a villain? Why are you pushing me away?" Thor seems more heart broken than angry. More frightened and worried than aggressive. 

The drama of the situation is enthralling. 

"Because I'm a monster, Thor. The monster you swore to hunt down and destroy. I merely seek to finish what you started." Loki declares and Stephen sees the confusion go through Thor for a moment and it's just what Loki needs to activate the Bifrost and the energy streams down onto Jotunheim. 

Stephen feels his heart at his throat as he watches. 

He knows the devastation the Bifrost energy can cause to Jotunheim. It is Loki's birthplace. He can't understand why Loki is doing this. His plans in the previous universes he had seen had been to impress his father, to show Odin that he could defend Asgard and rule it in a way that no other King before him or after him could. 

That he could make the hard decisions. 

But that doesn't make sense now. Not when Loki's resentment of Odin is so overwhelming. Stephen can't understand what is happening. 

"Loki! No!" Thor screams and he rushes forward to try to stop the Bifrost. As he does, Loki stops him and the fight that ensues is both bloody and heartbreaking. 

It is clear to all of them, being trained in combat themselves to see that despite their opposing agendas, the two brothers weren't trying to harm each other. Merely trying to make the other submit and stop. 

It's a heartbreaking fight. 

"Loki! Do not do this! You have to know that this is madness!" Thor shouts at the God of Mischief as they fight, hammer to spear. 

"I am the God of Chaos and the God of Lies, brother . I am merely acting the way that I was meant to be." Loki replies, his voice bitter and full of self hatred. For the first time, Stephen actually wishes that they had Connected more. That they had a Bond that he could send comfort through. 

Loki, the forever ostracised, isolated god, forced to play by the rules of the society that would never respect him or love him, playing the role that has been handed to him without his desire nor consent. 

Loki would not want it, but Stephen feels pity go through him. He knows that the others share the sentiment. For a being for whom Stephen had never imagined he would feel anything approaching understanding, Stephen can understand the god all too well. 

Stephen can see the realisation hit Thor as he steps back from his brother and he looks down at the Bifrost and the bridge that connects to it. 

This is the lesson that had been left for Loki to teach Thor , Stephen realises. The need to put the welfare of the Nine Realms, even the Realm that Thor does not love nor care for, before his own desires and needs. 

The price a King must pay. 

The moment that realisation hits Thor, Stephen can see his devastation. He turns to look at Loki and Stephen can see the decision forming in the God of Thunder's eyes. 

"Oh, Loki. Do you not realise that by giving me this test, you are also ensuring that you will be cut off from your own Connection?" Thor asks him and Loki pauses, spear in hand and readying for another attack. Loki smirks. 

"I am doing this for him." Is Loki's only response before he flies to the attack and Thor avoids him and sends Mjolnir hurtling to hold Loki down before he runs to edge of the Bifrost and calls the hammer to him. 

Stephen focuses on Loki. 

He sees self satisfaction mixed with bitterness into a smile on Loki's lips as he stands up and looks at his brother. Stephen can't help but wonder if this is what Loki in all the other universes had planned. If this is what they had always intended. 

To teach Thor the hard lessons to ensure that he will be a wise and kind King unlike their father. To sacrifice himself, his character and his reputation to become the villain that his brother has to overcome in his path to learn the lessons of being a King. 

Stephen isn't sure. 

But it is effective. Through interrupting the coronation and using their long hated enemies, the Jotuns, Loki had set Thor down on a path of learning and self-realisation. 

Thor learns the dangers of his rash actions through the life threatening situation he and his friends are placed in whilst they are on Jotunheim. Loki protected them by ensuring that Odin would be made aware of their rebellious actions. 

Loki may not have counted on Thor's banishment and the realisation of his identity, but with Thor on Earth, Loki had told him the lie of Odin's death. Perhaps in the other universes, it was to ensure that he could keep the throne for himself. In this universe, it had been to teach Thor the lesson of loss. The value of life that the immature god had not known. 

Loki sent the Destroyer. Perhaps it had been sent to kill Thor so that Loki can take the throne. But in this universe at least, Stephen knows better than to believe that. 

Loki does not want to rule. He does want to prove that he can and he wants the respect of the people of Asgard, but he does not wish to be King. The throne would tie him down onto Asgard. 

That is not what Loki wants nor needs. From everything that Stephen has seen, Loki needs freedom of movement. He needs to be able to travel, to learn, to be himself, away from the strict laws, rules and societal expectations of Asgard. 

Loki also wants revenge. 

His hatred is two pronged. Loki hates himself as much as he hates Odin and Asgard. But Loki isn't a fool. He doesn't want to take his revenge on Asgard itself. He is aware that Asgard needs to be strong and that it is a necessary element to stabilise the Nine Realms. 

Loki does not know of the Connection between Thor and Jane Foster. He plans to ensure that Asgard will have a good King on the Throne so that he can return to Earth. So that he can take up on the deal that he had proposed to Stephen. 

Stephen imagines that the god would divide his time between Earth and Helheim, where his young daughter rules. That is what Stephen would have planned for in Loki's stead. 

But it is hard to read the mind of the God of Chaos and Stephen can only take a guess. He doesn't feel that he is too far from the truth of the matter as Loki watches Thor. 

"Forgive me Jane." Thor mutters as he smashes the hammer down onto the rainbow bridge and it begins to shatter. This is it, Stephen thinks. 

This is both a demonstration of Thor's willingness to sacrifice himself and his happiness for the sake of the Nine Realms that he is sworn to protect and the fall that must occur for the universe's course to continue. 

The bridge explodes and both Thor and Loki are thrown up into the air. To Stephen's surprise, Loki closes his eyes and lets the force take him rather than fight back. 

Given Loki's magic, Stephen knows that the god would easily be able to teleport, but he doesn't. Stephen realises with horror what this Loki meant to do. 

What he had meant by he was doing this for Stephen. 

Stephen watches with horror as Thor is thrown up in the blast as well, but he manages to catch both himself and the spear that Loki holds. Just in time, Odin arrives to catch Thor's slipping hand and the two of them dangle in the vast open space. 

"I could have taken your life, father ." Loki spits out as he opens his eyes and sees Odin. Stephen notes the exhaustion and resignation on Odin's face. He wonders if the King of the Gods is feeling remorse. Whether he is capable of it. Perhaps he is. It is difficult to tell. 

"I know, Loki. But you did not. Let us make peace son. Let me seek your forgiveness for my sins." Odin's voice is tired and imploring. Stephen isn't sure whether to believe him or not. Odin is all too well versed in lies and platitudes

His sentiment and doubt is clearly shared by Loki. He lets out a laugh that rings hollow and angry. 

"No. You should live with your sins. To know that it is you that have created a monster within me and know that your son, your pride and joy will always doubt you from this moment on." Loki snarls back and Stephen sees Thor's eyes widen with surprise as he quickly turns to look at his father. 

Odin closes his eye for a moment before he looks down at Loki. Loki gives him a cruel smile and the realisation hits Stephen. 

Loki doesn't fall. 

He lets go instead. In that moment, he chooses to let go and to die. He had never intended to survive the fall and to go on. This was his revenge. 

Stephen had expected Loki to have killed Odin. Especially in this universe, but he hadn't. Instead, this is the legacy that he was choosing to leave behind. A break in the relationship between the son that Odin loved and Odin himself. 

In leaving a King that would outshine all of Odin's achievements and his rule. A blow to the most important thing to Odin. His legacy and his pride. 

Stephen gasps as the realisation hits him but the moment doesn't last long. Loki smirks and Stephen sees the panic in Odin's eye as he tries to pull Thor up, and Loki by extension. 

"Loki. No!" Odin shouts, but it's too late. Loki closes his eyes. 

"See to my Hel, brother." Loki says softly as he lets go. Thor's cry echoes throughout the living room as he cries out for Loki and it's the last thing that Stephen hears as the Connection between them stretches beyond its limits. 

'I am doing this for him', Loki had said. 

Stephen hears it echo in his mind as darkness overtakes him. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Wednesday 

9 June 2010 

Standing right outside of the mansion that he has agreed to spend a couple of weeks more or less locked up in, isn't the best time to start rethinking his decisions. 

All the preparations are done. 

The mansion has been set up with the hospital like rooms that Stephen had wanted. The chelation therapy drugs have been delivered. The lab has been reworked and set up so that he can continue to work. 

A couple of the suits has been moved. The security has been seriously reinforced. There were security personnel that were going to be residing in the guest building. Finn and Eliza has been moved to the guest houses as well. All of the other caretakers for the mansion have been moved.  

All the schedules had been set up to ensure that he would have the time off. Rhodey was ready with War Machine to take on the jobs if necessary that Iron Man would need to do. 

He even had access to an Iron Man suit just in case Tony's presence was expected at something. All of the SI work has been done and sorted. Pepper was ready. Stephen was ready. 

It had taken a lot of people a lot of effort to get the New York Mansion ready for Tony and the sick leave that he needed. 

Unfortunately, the Stark Mansion was for Tony, a place of nightmares. 

"Boss?" Happy calls to him quietly. He knows that Tony has severe issues when it comes to the place. Tony sighs and takes a deep breath. 

It's as good a time as any to confront his demons, he thinks. Besides, there are already so many bad memories and shit feelings associated with the house that suffering through a couple of weeks of healing is probably better done here than at the Malibu Mansion. 

Stephen had been right with that suggestion. 

Besides, it made sense. Stephen could continue to work at his practice and he could come home to the mansion. Stephen also had contacts and connections to the Metro-General and it made him more comfortable to have Tony go through the process where he had a hospital he could rely on. 

Stephen has made so many sacrifices for him so far that Tony knew that he had to keep his end of the bargain. Doing the therapy here would let Stephen continue to work. And he needed to work. Tony knew just how badly the doctor's schedule had been interrupted because of him and his needs. 

It's about time that he puts Stephen and his needs first. He couldn't keep selfishly making demands that Stephen stop everything for him. That's not how relationships are supposed to work. 

Tony walks into the mansion. 

"Tony!" The bright voice of Clea Strange surprises Tony as he walks in. He hadn't expected neither Stephen nor Clea to be at the mansion until the evening. He had thought that she would be working with Stephen at the practice. 

"Hey! Aren't you supposed to be at work?" Tony asks her and she gives him a smile, comes over to hug him tightly and shrugs her shoulders. 

"I am working. I'm your PA, remember?" She asks him and Tony raises an eyebrow. That's an evasion if he ever heard one. She sighs. 

"Yinn's taking care of the reception work for me. I needed to talk to you before you see Stephen." She says and Tony sighs. He had expected that. 

Throughout the last couple of days, Tony has been talking to Stephen via phone calls. It was their pattern to talk to each other first thing in the morning before Stephen starts to see his patients. Then again at lunch time, if they can and then in the evening. 

They don't usually talk for very long. It's usually to catch up on progress on work that Tony has been doing or about one of their inventions. It's not the lovey dovey talk that he's pretty sure couples are meant to engage in. But then, he'd never been the normal boyfriend type so. Yeah. 

But in the last couple of days... Stephen has been odd. Distracted and confused. As if he was having trouble focusing and though Tony had asked him what was wrong, Stephen had only told him that everything was fine. 

It hadn't been very reassuring. 

"What's wrong with him?" Is what Tony asks almost immediately. He is prepared for something bad. Stephen has always been focused. His concentration levels were stupid and on par with his own. For Stephen not to be focused, something had to be wrong and it had to be very wrong at that. 

"He's- This is difficult to describe, especially given the shit that I can't talk to you about. So I'm going to have to kind of work around it. Okay?" Clea asks and she sounds pretty frustrated. Tony nods as she leads him towards the living room. 

Tony is distracted enough with Stephen and concern about him that he almost forgets all the memories that are associated with that particular room. 

It's where he had last seen his parents. Where he had said goodbye to his parents before they had taken that ride to the airport that ended with their deaths. 

Tony takes a deep breath and focuses on the thoughts of Stephen and on Clea. They settle in the lounges. The sofas aren't super comfortable, given that they are antiques, but as soon as they are settled, Clea takes a deep breath and Tony forgets the discomfort. 

"Alright. Hit me." Tony says and Clea nods as she thinks of the right words that she wants to say. 

"Stephen is... He's going through some things. I don't know how he is going to be with you but he might need you more. Might need more closeness than before. He might be distracted and confused every now and then." Tony feels his eyes narrow as he looks at Clea. 

Why? 

What has happened since Sunday for the doctor with his ironclad focus to become so distracted that Clea finds it necessary to come and warn him about it? 

"Clea, I asked what happened to him. Not what I need to expect." Tony tells her a little coolly. She gives him a hard look before sighing. 

"I swear, one day, you're going to know everything and then this conversation is going to be so much fucking easier. But that's not today." She complains before she gets up and makes her way to the liquor cabinet. 

"Do you mind?" She asks and Tony shakes his head. He knows that the caretakers that had been looking after the mansion would have ensured that all the alcohol and indeed everything in the house was changed out. 

Clea pours herself a scotch and brings a glass over for him as well. Tony takes it, though he's pretty sure he's not meant to be drinking any alcohol. He has a feeling he's going to need it. 

"Thanks." He says as she throws back her drink and returns to the cabinet to pour another. She doesn't throw that one back. Which is good, considering the fact that it would be such a waste of single malt Japanese whisky that's been ageing for 25 years. 

"Alright. So. You know that Stephen can kind of do a lot of things that don't make sense to you. A part of that is... like making connections with people. Like you." Tony frowns. This is the second time that she has mentioned something like that. 

As if there is more on Stephen's end of the relationship than there is for Tony. He had always known that. It had always felt like Stephen had known Tony before they met. That he had been in love for much longer. As if Tony had been more important to Stephen than Tony could ever hope to understand. 

He also knows that Stephen feels and shares Tony's pains and his nausea. That is not something that science can explain. Tony isn't even trying to figure it out anymore. He doesn't want to focus on that. He wants to focus on the good things that he has with Stephen. 

That is what matters. 

But he also remembers what Clea and the others had told him before. That Tony can help Stephen. That just being near him can help when Stephen had been laid unconscious. He wonders if this is something like that. 

"Okay, so what happened to him?" Tony asks again and Clea lets out a sound of frustration before she takes a gulp of the whisky. The taste of the aged whisky was definitely lost on her, Tony thinks dryly

"Sometimes those connections that Stephen makes doesn't work the way that it's supposed to. Let's just say that Stephen right now is like... a computer that hasn't been shut down properly. One of the connections is kind of broken, so he's kind of frazzled right now and he's looking for a way to basically reset himself. To focus himself. That's you." Clea says and it's clear that whatever she is trying to explain is not a concept that she knows how to explain without spilling the beans. 

But Tony gets the general idea. 

"What do I need to do?" Tony asks and Clea shrugs her shoulders as she nurses the drink in her hand. Apparently the difficult part of the conversation was done now that he wasn't asking her questions anymore. 

"Just be there for him? Spend time with him? Let him... focus on you so that he can re-centre himself." It sounds like some of that wishy-washy new age bullshit but Tony sighs and nods. It's nothing that he wouldn't be doing anyway. 

"Is it something that he's going to get better from? Should I get... I don't know, help for him?" Tony asks. He knows that there is a great deal that Stephen has been going through lately. 

It can't be easy for him to know that Tony had been dying. It can't be easy for Stephen to know that Tony was in danger and not being able to help. It hadn't been easy for Tony and he expects that it would have been just as difficult if not more so for the doctor. 

Then there was the... incident that had Stephen so frightened that he safe worded. Perhaps Stephen needed to get some help. It couldn't hurt, but Clea shakes her head. 

"It's- It's not the kind of thing anyone can help with. Except you. All Stephen really needs is... you." Clea says and and there is a sharp tone in her voice that he recognises. Helplessness. 

She was unable to help Stephen herself. It was weighing on her. Which is no doubt why she had chosen to come to speak to him before Stephen arrived. To make sure that Tony can do for Stephen what she cannot do. 

One day, Tony was going to have a full understanding of just what they were hiding and hopefully when that happens everything will actually make sense. He can't wait for that to happen. 

But for now, spending time with Stephen isn't a difficulty and perhaps it was about bloody time that he actually focuses on Stephen and his needs the way that the doctor has always been focusing on him and his needs. 

Whatever it takes. 

~~~ 

Thursday 

10 June 2010 

Thor is not coming back. 

Jane had known it that first day when he didn't return. It had been like a gut feeling. There is a sense of loss that settles deep within her and she knows. She knows that he isn't coming back. 

At least maybe for a long time. 

For a while, it hurts. There was... something there between them. She had felt it the moment she had seen those beautiful blue eyes open and look into her pale brown eyes. She had known that he would be important to her.

Special to her. 

Love at first sight, something that she would have scoffed at before meeting Thor, it is something that she now firmly believes. 

Knowing that he won't return leaves an empty feeling inside of her. There is a sense of loss that is so heavy, it reminds her of losing her father to cancer all those years ago. 

Jane takes a deep breath as she looks over the equipment that SHIELD had returned. She doesn't feel the motivation to work. She doesn't want to bury herself into the work as she used to because what was the point? 

She was alone and she doesn't want to be alone. 

"Hey, you just gonna sit there all day or you gonna help me look for my iPod?" Darcy calls out from across the room as she goes through the boxes of their equipment. 

Erik is keeping quiet as he slowly reassembles their tech and tries to make sure that nothing is broken. They have been at it for two days now. Jane hasn't helped. She had barely been getting out of bed and it's only because Darcy has been forcing her to. 

"Darcy, I don't want to hear about your fucking iPod!" Jane snaps and feels immediately bad about it. She covers her mouth and looks horrified at Darcy, who merely sighs and walks over to her. 

"Alright. Then let's talk about Thor, shall we?" Darcy says and that is something that Jane really, really doesn't want to do. She is about to get up and move when Darcy forces her back down onto the chair and looks at her hard. 

"Jane Foster! You are not a helpless damsel in distress waiting for her knight in shining armour! The god disappeared into the rainbow bridge right? Then find the rainbow bridge! Find a way to get to him if he can't come back to you!" Darcy yells at her and jane blinks at her. 

"But I don't know how to-" Darcy rolls her eyes hard. 

"You're a scientist Jane! I'm just a poli-sci girl. But you! You can think your way through finding him can't you?" Darcy asks, no , challenges her and she's right. 

Sitting around being depressed and missing the god isn't going to bring him back. Jane takes a deep breath and Darcy finally smiles and lets go of her shoulders and steps back. 

"So, you gonna help me look for my iPod now?" Darcy asks and Jane can't help but laugh as she nods and gives the girl a hug that is well deserved. 

"No. I'm going to look for Asgard." Jane declares and Darcy rolls her eyes but laughs as she draws Jane to the boxes. Jane rolls her sleeves up. 

It's time to get down and dirty and get back to the science that has always been the saving grace in her life. 

When her father had passed away, he had handed down the mission of proving the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Diving into the science world and learning and getting her degrees and her dissertations and thesis done is what got her through the grief of that loss. 

Finding and meeting Erik Selvig has helped, but it is the science that had gotten her through that tragedy. This time it was going to be different. 

Instead of working through her grief, she was going to work to find her happiness. Because Darcy was right. 

Jane was no damsel in distress. 

~~~ 

Monday 

14 June 2010 

It really hasn't been easy. 

Stephen hadn't thought that it would be. 

The moment he had known that Loki would fall, he had known that there would be side effects. That he would feel an emptiness inside of him that would have it difficult to focus and to ground himself and his magic. 

Even with the god in Asgard, a Realm that was possible to reach with his magic if he pulled enough power and pushed hard enough, had been difficult. With him being at the end of the universe being tortured, Stephen had known that it would be impossible. 

But at the same time he had hoped that his closeness with Tony would be enough to keep him from going insane. 

That at least had worked out. 

After Loki fell from the edge of Asgard and through the dimensional portals left behind by the destruction of the Bifrost and fell to the edge of the universe, Stephen had felt the Connection between them stretch to the point where he thought it would break. 

But it didn't. 

So Loki is alive. Stephen had known that he would be. But with that stretch, Stephen knows he had fallen unconscious for a short time. The backlash of that had been a little too much for him to bear. 

But when he recovered from that... it had been the emptiness that had bothered him more than anything else. It was like... the ache of losing a loved one combined with the feeling of maybe having left the stove on in the house before you left for the morning. 

There is just that inherent sense of something being wrong and not quite right and the ache of missing someone that he doesn't even know enough to miss. It is more than enough to throw anyone off kilter. 

For Stephen, it is enough to make him confused, unfocused and unable to ground himself properly. It takes effort to do all the things that ought to be as easy as breathing. 

Stephen has to constantly remind himself to focus on Tony and the Connection with the genius so that he won't be distracted and disconnected from what is happening in front of him. 

It had taken a lot of effort to get through the patients last week. He had to focus so hard on Tony to just make sure that he can talk to the patients, judge their conditions and ensure that he was doing the right thing by them. 

By the end of those days, he had been so incredibly exhausted that he had all but collapsed back into bed as soon as he had finished at the practice. It had been left up to Clea to deal with all of the paperwork. Which he felt quite bad about, but Clea didn't say a word of complaint. 

But once he had fallen into bed, it hadn't been to restful sleep. It had been right back to the nightmares of the visions that the Time Stone provided of Loki's torture, Tony's death, his death and Loki's death. Over and over again as if on some perverse loop. 

It had left him... a shadow of himself. 

Once all of that had been over and done with and Stephen was able to see Tony from Wednesday night to until this morning, it had been wonderful. 

Despite the fact that the Connection was strong between them and Stephen was able to draw upon its strength and the way that Tony made him feel grounded even with distance between them, it was another thing to be with Tony and be in his presence. 

When he was with Tony, it was like he could breathe. That he was normal. He could focus without having to concentrate so hard on Tony and the Connection. It had felt like a break from the harsh and hard days that the previous three days had been. 

But the days themselves hadn't been easy. 

For one, Tony wanted the chelation therapy to go quickly. He wanted to be rid of the poison as quickly as possible. But it wasn't as simple as that. 

Due to the fact that Tony's heavy metal poisoning wasn't a factor of simply one metal, but three metals and all of them requiring different bonding chemicals to draw out the poison, Stephen had to get creative. 

He was honestly lucky that Grimshaw and a couple of their contacts had been willing to help because by gods, trying to get the chemicals right had been a nightmare Stephen hadn't been prepared for. If he had known that he would fall in love with Tony Stark and that he would be in the man's life so much, he would have studied chemistry. 

Regardless, they have the formula and though some chelation therapy can be done with pills, they weren't able to. Which meant IVs. Which of course came with issues of its own. 

There were dangers that the chemicals could cause burning sensations in Tony's veins or indeed, damage the veins. So they had to water it down significantly. Which meant that the therapy was going to last longer than what Tony wanted. 

But aside from that, was Tony's reaction to the therapy. 

Stephen had started with dialysis to cleanse Tony's blood as much as possible and though the genius was happy enough to stay in bed during that, as soon as it had been done, Tony had wanted to be more... engaged.

That distraction had meant that it had been Thursday morning by the time Stephen was able to get the therapy properly started. 

He had run the dialysis again just to clean out the toxins that may be carried from the organs that the blood had travelled throughout the night and then had started Tony on the drips. 

It had taken a great deal of coaxing and pleading, but Stephen managed to keep Tony in the bed during the drip to make sure that he can monitor all the vitals with all of the proper tools. 

Oh he knew and was pretty confident that the watch that Tony had rigged up that could monitor his heart rate, blood oxygen level and his temperature was accurate, Stephen preferred to have the genius in bed, covered up properly and hooked up to all the machines. 

It was probably the doctor in him that had demanded that. Either way, Tony bore the annoyance pretty well, as long as Stephen climbed into the bed with him and they could continue the Doctor Who marathon that had been on the books for some time. 

Even then, the genius was always thinking and working in his own mind. It was just how he worked. But then so was Stephen. With the genius in his arms, it was easy enough to think and to concentrate. They worked through the various problems and projects that had been ongoing. 

Tony didn't suffer too many complications. Thus far anyway. It was too soon for them to relax, but the progress was there and the side effects were kept to a minimum. 

It didn't mean that Stephen didn't worry. The potential side effects of breathing difficulties, fluctuating heart rate and blood pressure were definitely something to be concerned about. 

But the mansion had sufficient staff that could ensure that they would stay well fed, well hydrated and cared for. 

Unlike in the Malibu Mansion, where they were left mostly to their own devices with weekday mornings being interrupted for a few hours with Eliza and Finn's presence, they were constant presences in the New York Mansion. 

For one, the size and the age of the mansion meant that it required a lot more maintenance and staff than the Malibu Mansion did. So the staff were required. 

As were the security staff and given that Tony wasn't the kind of person that could treat another person like a servant, he usually liked to share his meals with all of the staff that were available for the meals and it made for large, talkative, fun sort of meals that Stephen hadn't really experienced before.

There was a certain loss of privacy, but at the same time, there was a certain sense of warmth and friendship that Stephen had to admit that he quite enjoyed. 

Aside from the meals, though the bedroom suite and the lab were off limits, Stephen saw the staff in the halls, on the grounds and generally, everywhere. It felt both foreign and kind of nice at the same time to have them around. 

It was clear that the older staff that has been working at the mansion were fond of Tony and had a certain pride in their work in keeping the old heritage mansion maintained as well as respect for Tony in allowing them to continue to work in a mansion that he clearly did not like. 

The modern amenities and the tech wasn't jammed into the house but integrated with respect to the old architecture of the house. A lot of the technology was hidden or had been placed with the furniture and the architecture in mind. 

It was a good marriage between the old and the new that Stephen could appreciate. 

So overall, despite the ill effects that Tony did have with the therapy here and there, with difficulty in particular with nausea and dizziness, the process was going well and Tony was doing better than Stephen had expected. 

But being away from the house and Tony was far worse than what he had expected. 

All through the morning, Stephen had been... distracted. It had been incredibly difficult to concentrate and it took genuine effort to pull himself together. 

He has gone through the morning's set of patients and it has been interjected with reports back from Grimshaw as to how the morning's session with Tony had gone and Clea coming to check on him and making sure that he was alright. 

It was going to take a bit of time before Stephen can make focusing on Tony and staying grounded through that Connection, second nature. Until that happens, Stephen knows that he was going to feel... out of of it and a bit confused. but that's okay. 

He will adjust. He had adjusted to losing the full usage of his hands. He has adjusted to magic. He can surely adjust to missing a part of his fucking soul. 

God. 

Stephen closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He has wasted enough time. He needs to get lunch and if he doesn't leave the office, Clea was going to come in for him and she was going to be even more worried than before. 

So he stands up, takes a deep breath and walks out of the office only to be confronted by someone he hadn't quite expected. 

Colonel James Rhodes. 

"And there he is. I brought lunch. I figured it's about time we talk." The Colonel says as he holds up a bag of take away containers. Stephen raises an eyebrow at him and Clea looks just as confused. It's clear that she had been trying to dissuade the Colonel from seeing Stephen. Her consideration warms him, though it is unnecessary.  

Rhodey was right. It really was about time that they talked. 

"Of course, Colonel." Stephen says easily enough and opens the door to his office for Rhodey to step through, which he does with confidence and comfort as if it is his own office that he is entering. 

When Stephen turns to look at Clea as he is about to walk back into the room, she raises an eyebrow in question. Does he want her with him, she asks without saying a word. Stephen gives her a soft shake of the head and walks back in and closes the door firmly behind him. 

He only has half an hour set aside for lunch. He needs to get the conversation over and done with quickly. 

As he walks back towards his desk chair though, Stephen thinks that maybe the conversation was going to last a lot longer than what he was prepared for. 

SHIELD's file on him and his DNA sits on the desk. 

Again. 

God damned SHIELD and their inability to stop themselves from interfering, Stephen thinks angrily as he sits down and looks at Rhodey, who, seemingly unconcerned, lays out the sushi that he had gotten take away onto the table in front of him. 

"I know you're allergic to peanuts, so I made sure that I went somewhere without any." Rhodey says cordially enough and Stephen settles down and he remembers just what kind of person Rhodey is. A kind soul that cares and loves Tony like a real brother. 

"Thank you. That's very kind of you." Stephen says as he takes the chopsticks that Rhodey offers and takes the container of sushi that Rhodey pushes forward to him, complete with the soy sauce and wasabi

"When did SHIELD come to see you?" Stephen asks as he puts the wasabi into the soy sauce until he has the consistency that he likes and dips his first piece of sushi, salmon belly, into the mix before he eats it. 

It's good, he thinks. Fresh, good sushi that tastes familiar. Rhodey's gone to one of Tony's favourite sushi places. Figures, Stephen thinks as he chews carefully. 

"Friday." Rhodey replies as he eats his own sushi and waits for Stephen to explain himself. He figures that he should be grateful that Rhodey had come to him for an explanation than gone directly to Tony. 

But then he also doesn't know why the Colonel had come to him and not to Tony. It would make more sense for the man to go to his best friend. 

"Why come to me?" Stephen asks and Rhodey puts down his chopsticks to take a drink from the bottle of green tea he had brought along. He passes another bottle to Stephen. 

"Figured it would be better to come to the source. Besides, Tony doesn't see straight when it comes to you. I wanted to make sure you weren't out to hurt him." Rhodey says and that is fair enough, Stephen thinks as he carefully looks over the Air Force Colonel. 

"SHIELD believes that I am a clone of Vincent Strange and that I have been integrated into Anthony's life to somehow influence him and his actions." Stephen says and Rhodey pauses for a moment before nodding. 

"They are worried that you have too much influence over him." Rhodey says and Stephen sighs as he puts his chopsticks down too. Of course SHIELD did and of course they went to the one person that they believed would have more influence over Tony than Stephen to try to pull Tony away from Stephen. 

"I see. What do you believe, Colonel Rhodes?" Stephen asks and Rhodey scoffs as he looks Stephen right in the eyes. 

"That my best friend is an idiot, but he's not an emotional idiot. He doesn't make decisions out of emotions. He makes decisions out of logic and facts. Yeah, when he cares about someone, he cares about them so deeply that he gets himself into trouble, but he's not the type to get manipulated easily. Besides, you don't seem to be the manipulative type." Rhodey says and Stephen feels a measure of relief, but the man continues. 

"I am worried about the report. I don't know who you are and that worries me. But at the same time, I worry more about what you mean to Tony and what you turning out to be someone or something else is going to do to him." Rhodey says and Stephen gets why Rhodey had come to him now. 

He hadn't just wanted to hear the truth from Stephen himself but he had been worrying about Tony and his reaction. He had hoped that it would be all bullshit and he can spare his friend the pain of doubting Stephen. 

That alone makes Stephen like the man a little more. 

"Anthony has already seen the report. I showed it to him some months ago." Stephen says and he sees the surprise in Rhodey's eyes. Stephen gives him a rueful smile. 

"You're not the first one SHIELD approached. They have spoken to Anthony numerous times in hopes that he will doubt me and my identity. They have approached and spoken to me in hopes that I would pull away from Anthony. So far, they haven't been very successful." Stephen says quietly and Rhodey looks thoughtful. 

"I gotta ask the question. Are you a clone with an ulterior motive?" Rhodey asks and Stephen shakes his head. 

"No. I am Vincent Strange, not a clone of him." Stephen says and he watches as Rhodey drops the sushi he had been holding back into the soy sauce that he had been just about to carry to his mouth. Rhodey looks at him with the perfect caricature of shock on his face. 

Stephen chuckles softly. 

"That very much was Anthony's reaction. I cannot explain to you why my appearance and being is at the age that it is at, nor can I explain to you why it was necessary to become Stephen Strange instead. One day, I will be able to explain all that to both you and to Anthony. But that time hasn't come yet." Stephen tells him somewhat gently. 

Rhodey sits back into the chair and puts his chopsticks down and gapes at Stephen as he process the information he had been just handed.

"I thought the clone thing was crazy. But that's even fucking crazier." Rhodey comments and Stephen can only shrug.

"As for my ulterior motives, there are none. All I want is for Anthony to be happy and to be safe. That is all." Stephen says with conviction. That is his one goal and that hasn't changed. In fact, it had only grown all the more stronger with the Soul Connection between them and the love that had grown between them. 

"Huh." Rhodey hmphs and sighs as he looks at Stephen. 

"Doc, you're going to have to give me a little bit more than you're just going to have to trust that I have Tony's best interests at heart bullshit." Rhodey says and Stephen takes a deep breath as he thinks. 

Colonel James Rhodes is perhaps the most... consistent person throughout the universes that Stephen had seen. The only thing that changes here and there is just how open Tony and Rhodey is with each other and how close their friendship is. In some of the universes, they aren't as close of friends as they are in this one. 

It leads to more conflict between them, but at the end of the day, in none of them does Rhodey go off the rails and turn into a villain or turn into a monster. He is... consistent. 

Stephen was going to have to put some faith into that consistency, he thinks as he nods slowly to himself and takes a deep breath. 

"In the case, I hope you have some time before you were due to visit with Anthony." Stephen ends up saying. Rhodey settles purposefully into his chair and lays his hands across his stomach over the pale blue polo shirt that he was wearing. 

Stephen nods to acknowledge the man's intent and buzzes the intercom to speak to Clea. 

"I might be here for awhile Clea. Do you mind maybe holding the patients back for a bit if I can't finish on time?" He asks into the intercom and he hears a sigh through the phone. 

"You're killing me. I swear to God. Fine. I'll get the patients to wait but it's only because the Colonel brought me lunch." Clea's voice is full of dramatised suffering. Stephen smiles despite himself. 

"Thank you Clea. Whilst you are at it, can you call Grimshaw and-" Stephen starts to say but she interrupts him quickly enough. 

"Don't worry about your lover boy. I've been getting hourly updates from Alex. Tony is fine." Clea says and hangs up before Stephen can say anything else. He sighs and takes his finger off the intercom button and looks at Rhodey and takes a deep breath. 

It's time to talk about theoretical physics again, Stephen thinks as he looks over Rhodey and takes a deep breath.  

Great. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Wednesday 

16 June 2010 

Dr Alex Grimshaw is an androgynous person. Though they were born a male and have the male genitalia, they prefer to dress in ambiguous ways. They prefer the pronoun 'they' rather than 'she' or 'he'. 

They never understood society's needs to pin them to a gender. It may have been odd and it may still be odd, but it is who they are and they don't want to change just to fit into the mould that society wants them to prescribe to. 

They know that there was a bit of a controversy over their preferred gender when they joined the medical world. But it had never been a problem that they paid much attention to. 

Finding out that they had magical talents had been... interesting. Meeting Stephen Strange is what had kicked it all off. 

They had met Dr Stephen Strange when they were interns together at Metro-General. It had been an eye opening experience just to shake Stephen Strange's hand and to feel him and his energy as if it were a live thing apart from the man himself. 

Stephen hadn't said anything. There had been no comment made, but it had been what they had needed. 

Then the walk that they had decided to go on to clear their head had led them to the New York Sanctum. That hadn't been expected, but it had felt right. 

The eventual path that led them to take a break from working at the hospital to learn magic and to find out that they had a talent in healing magic? That had been an amazing, life changing experience. 

To marry the traditional medicine that they had spent years learning with the healing magic that the Order had taught them and gifted them with has been... brilliant. 

They had chosen to specialise in oncology, the study of cancer and to help as many patients as they can to survive through the terrible experience. 

Unlike some of the other Masters, they aren't tied down to a Sanctum. They live in a flat in New York, near the hospital and they work mostly outside of the Order. They are only called upon when there is healing to be done that requires specific experience and knowledge. 

They are a member of the Council and they spend hours debating the best course of action for the Order in the upcoming events. They spend hours working through the memories that Stephen had stored in the Memory Stones. 

It hadn't... taken much for them to fall in love with Stephen Strange. He was a man that was after redemption and through that need, became all too self sacrificing and diligent, desperate to save lives and to make changes in the world to make it better. 

To be a better version of himself. 

It was fascinating to have studied Vincent Strange and to see Stephen Strange trying to overcome all the negative aspects of Vincent Strange to become the Sorcerer Supreme that would lead the Order to greatness as well as to save the Universe itself and all the people therein. 

It's Stephen's noble and mysterious nature that had drawn them to Stephen at first. Then it had been his humanity and easy acceptance of them that had kept them engaged and in love. 

The sex with Stephen Strange had been... amazing. The man knew how to give amazing sexual experiences to his partner and he was thoughtful and considerate in ways that they have never experienced before. 

But it had always been clear and it had been made clear over and over again that Stephen Strange was not in love with them. Alex was okay with that. 

They didn't need to be loved to love and more importantly, Stephen was fond enough of them to be affectionate and their friendship was strong. The love that they had for Stephen wasn't driving a wedge between them. 

When their physical relationship had ended, it had been Stephen's decision. As the events that would change the universe approached, Stephen had wanted to ensure that he didn't have any distractions. That he could narrow down his focus onto his work with the practice he ran and the work for the Order. 

They hadn't minded. 

They could do without the sex and they kept their friendship with Stephen and that was good enough. 

When Stephen Connected with Tony Stark, it had been... difficult. They are honest enough with themselves to admit to that. To know that Stephen would belong to another and would love that other when he could not and would not love them in the way that they had wanted, had been a bitter pill to swallow. 

But they dealt with it. It was the Universe's intention and they knew all too well that fighting against what the Universe wanted and needed was futile. Besides, Tony Stark made Stephen happy. 

All the injuries that Stephen suffered as a result of Tony Stark, however, was another thing altogether. They could do without that. But it is how Stephen is. He gives everything to those that he loves and there is very little that he won't sacrifice to ensure the happiness and well being of those that he loves. 

So, Alex hadn't been surprised when Stephen had approached them and asked for them to help him with Tony Stark and the chelation therapy. 

They had agreed to it because Tony Stark was important to the survival of the universe, but more than that, Tony Stark was important to Stephen Strange. 

Their love for Stephen isn't desperate and it doesn't burn with need as it used to. There is more of a... nostalgia to their feelings and they miss the closeness that they had once shared. 

They miss waking up with Stephen in their bed, feeling the doctor's arms around them. They miss the amazing sex that they used to have. They have other lovers, but they miss Stephen even when they are with the others. 

But in order to keep the friendship with Stephen that they value and out of deference and respect to the Sorcerer Supreme, they are bound to help Stephen with Tony. 

So here they are. Checking over Tony Stark's vitals as the IV drip administers the chelation therapy. 

Stephen and Alex had added enough of their magic into the mix to ensure that the side effects would be reduced as much as possible and that Tony's body would take to the formula well. Having said that, there are still concerns and fears that there might be adverse effects. 

Hence Grimshaw spending most of Monday, Tuesday and now today, at the mansion. Tony receives the first dose in the morning, after which he is monitored for awhile before he is free to go back to work. 

When Tony is in the lab working, Alex spends their time in the office that had been set up for them. They go through the paperwork nightmare that is being a doctor that no one had warned them about. 

They sift through the reports that they need to write, they sigh their way through the new requests for reports and they go through the charts of the new patients that they were being asked to consider. 

They have had to make a lot of changes to their schedule to accommodate the time that they need to spend at the Stark Mansion, but it is not as difficult as they would have imagined. The hospital is quite happy with the donation that Stephen made in order to get Alex's time. 

So there is that. 

It actually feels sort of like a break. But it is slightly awkward to deal with Tony Stark, given the relationship that they had with Stephen. They don't particularly mind, but it is clear that Tony Stark does. 

"You know, if you're uncomfortable, I can just do the drips with Stephen. I mean, you've got your own work to do right?" Tony says as Alex prepares the new bag of IV and takes it over to the bed that Tony was obligingly laying in. 

There are no less than three tablets and two phones laying on the bedside table and on the bed. Even with the drip going in, they know that Tony Stark was going to be working. Video conferencing with Pepper Potts and talking to Colonel Rhodes as well as Stark Industry's R&D Department. 

Then there were the lawyers, public relations people and on top of that, Tony talked to his AI, JARVIS and was apparently working on another AI system of some sorts. In other words, Tony kept himself well and truly distracted whilst the IV was going in. 

They aren't sure if that is the best thing for the man. Stress was never good for patients, but they also get the feeling that keeping Tony Stark from working would most likely cause more stress than allowing him to continue to work. 

So there was that. 

"I am not uncomfortable, Dr Stark and I have made arrangements to ensure that I will not be missed at the hospital." Alex tells him as they prepare the needle to start the IV. Tony doesn't react much to their words. 

He remains still as the needle is inserted. They are lucky that Tony Stark has good veins and that the procedure is going smoothly. They lay a hand over Tony's arm and focuses to ensure that the magic contained in the formula is being activated properly within Tony's body. 

"You feel something when you do that, don't you?" Tony asks and they aren't quite sure how to answer the question. They know that knowledge of magic is dangerous to Tony Stark. 

The Order has been lucky so far. 

Stephen has disclosed a great deal of what they can do to Tony Stark but have never shown him what the Order was truly capable of. Given the man's mind and its focus on science and technology, his mind hasn't been able to jump to magic being real. 

But then even they had found it difficult to believe at first. So there was that. Even now, they considered magic to be more a manipulation of energy that was made possible through their particular genetics more than it being... magic. 

"Yes. As you know, I cannot inform you of just what I feel or how I do what I do. All I can tell you is that Stephen and I are doing everything possible to ensure that this process is as safe and easy as possible for you." They say and Tony looks thoughtful for a moment before he nods slowly. 

"What's the price?" Tony asks and the question surprises them. Alex looks at Tony Stark with the question in their pale green eyes and Tony elaborates easily enough. 

"When I got hurt the first time in the Iron Man suit, Stephen took the injuries that I was meant to get. When he saved a child's life, he ended up with internal injuries. So, what's the price?" Tony asks and Alex can see why Stephen is so enamoured with this man. 

Stephen valued intelligence. The reason why he had enjoyed their company was because of their intelligence and the ability to discuss medicine at deeper levels that Stephen appreciated. 

But Tony Stark's genius goes beyond the one area of expertise. His ability to process information, draw conclusions and to think outside of the box is exceptional. They smile at Tony. 

"You are quite observant, Dr Stark. I had not expected that. You are right. There is a price to be paid, but in this case, it is a minor price of merely needing to concentrate." They say with a smile and let go of Tony's arm. The inventor's eyes narrow as he clearly thinks about the answer. 

"Can the price be so high that it can kill you?" Tony asks and they pause for a moment in front of the heart monitor. Tony Stark's heart beat is steady but it is clear that he is tense. 

They know why Tony is asking the question and it makes them feel better about Tony Stark and Stephen's relationship. It is good to know that the man that they love is loved well and deeply by their soulmate.

"Yes." They answer simply and Tony looks alarmed. They watch as Tony's heart rate increases and they sigh as they look at the man. 

"Stephen is not an idiot. He will not risk his own life to that extent unless there is a need. Though if you must know, Stephen Strange will sacrifice himself for you. For your life." They say despite wanting Tony Stark's heart rate to calm down. 

They want to make sure that Tony Stark knows just how important he is to Stephen. Just what lengths Stephen would be willing to go to keep the man alive and well. The lengths that they wish Stephen would never have to go to. 

"He can't. I'm not that-" Tony Stark starts to say and they hush him. 

"And that is why you must be careful. Look after yourself. Make certain that Stephen would never have to take such drastic action to ensure that you live." They tell him and Tony Stark looks both surprised and stunned for a moment before he nods slowly. 

"Just as you would be devastated by losing Stephen, he would be devastated by losing you. He has the means to ensure that does not happen. That he sacrifice himself for you. But you do not. So what you need to do is keep yourself safe. Protect yourself so that he does not need to." They tell Tony Stark and watch as the realisation hits and he nods. 

"Yeah. That- That makes sense." Tony Stark says and they nod with satisfaction as they continue to check all the vitals before sitting down in a lounge chair near the bed and picking up the book that they had been reading. 

The Stark Mansion really has quite a fantastic library of classic literature as well as professional texts on varying subjects. They were more focused on the classic literature. It has been a while since they have read books just for the pleasure of it.

"Thank you." Tony Stark says quietly and Alex nods to accept the gratitude as the genius picks up a tablet of his own, though he does not do anything with it. 

Tony Stark falls into deep thought as Alex falls into the wonders of Alice in Wonderland. 

~~~ 

Friday 

18 June 2010 

Tony has to admit that being back at the Stark Mansion, as much as he disliked it and he hated the fact that he didn't have the complete privacy with the good, amazing doctor as he did in Malibu, but the mansion was growing on him. 

Tony had taken Stephen on a tour of the mansion once they had settled in. He had told Stephen of all the places that he used to hide as a child, all the secrets that the mansion held. 

He went through the old closet, still filled with his clothes from back in the day. He finds a few good gems in the old band t-shirts that he had adored. He tells JARVIS to remind him to take them with him back to Malibu. 

Though having staff around the house when he isn't used to them anymore is a bit odd, it is surprisingly easy to settle into the routine of seeing so many people in the mansion. 

The old mansion needs the staff to keep it up. The cleaning and maintaining the drapes, the carpet and the antique furniture alone is a huge task that the staff keep up with day to day. Then there are the grounds that needs to be maintained. 

The classical English garden that his mother had liked is being kept up and was quite beautiful. 

All of the staff are aware of Tony and Stephen's relationship. They are discrete and Tony knows that he can trust them with the information. Most of the staff has been around since he had been a child. They knew how to keep secrets. They had kept the secret of Howard's drunken rages from the public well enough. 

The haunting memories of the house are reduced little by little as he talks to Stephen about them. Some of the memories are lovely. 

When they are walking about the garden, Tony tells Stephen of the games that he and his mother used to play throughout the gardens. The flowers that he would pick for his mother and how in one disastrous afternoon, he had managed to kill all of his mother's rose bushes with his attempt to make the roses bloom blue. 

That conversation leads them to discuss how they could make roses blue. Then the conversation had turned into genetically engineering a blue rose before they both decided that they really didn't have the patience to grow roses. 

The conversation had led to laughs and generally a lovely day of intellectual discussions and cuddling in the garden's swing chairs. 

There were certain rooms that Tony didn't tell stories about. Like the living room. Or the bathroom that had once been his. He doesn't know how to tell Stephen that he had tried to take his own life and how he had bled all over the bathroom tiles until Rhodey and Happy had found him and had helped him. 

So yeah. There were still areas of the house that Tony didn't explore and had no desire to explore. He didn't go into his father's study. He didn't go into his mother's sitting room or Jarvis' rooms. He couldn't. 

But with Stephen, he was making new memories in the mansion that can let him maybe enjoy spending time at the mansion. Maybe. 

Besides, sneaking around the staff to fuck in the outdoors of the garden is a plan that Tony definitely wants to implement as soon as he feels up to it. 

Between chelation therapy, dialysis and the chlorophyll he's still being forced to drink by the gallons, the level of heavy metal poisons in his body was being reduced quite efficiently. 

He was having less and less of the side effects and Tony was hopeful soon enough, the annoying nausea and dizziness would go away permanently, along with the drowsiness and the aches and pains he had. 

It was really quite difficult to have a quick, heavy and hard fuck out in the gardens hiding from the security staff as well as the gardening staff when he was aching like a 80 year old man with arthritis. 

Stephen assures him that the aches and pains will go away and he will be able to go back to normal within a few weeks, but Tony is honestly getting a little impatient. 

He is in more pain and was more dizzy and more nauseous than before the procedure. He knew that it was bound to happen but it's not pleasant. But he doesn't complain. He knows that Stephen is worried as it is without having to hear him complain. 

Tony also isn't quite sure what he thinks about Dr Grimshaw and them being around the mansion so much. They are professional, kind and considerate and they keep their distance, but there is a certain amount of... jealousy that Tony can't quite shake off. 

He knows that it's childish. 

Stephen loves him and has shown him over and over again that he is dedicated to that love and that he is dedicated to Tony. But he still can't help the flash of jealousy he feels knowing that Dr Grimshaw knows the secrets that Stephen has to hide from him. 

That there is more knowledge in Dr Grimshaw and their time with Stephen that Tony doesn't have. He hates that. He hates that he is jealous and that he is glad that Grimshaw always leaves before Stephen comes home from the surgery and that they aren't around during the extended weekends that he shares with Stephen. 

He had even discussed the issue with Michelle Jones. She had made it clear to him that it was normal to feel some jealousy. But that he needs to remember to respect the other person and ensure that he doesn't over step as it could hurt his relationship with Stephen. 

Tony knows that. He is careful with Grimshaw. But he can't help the jealousy. It's a cycle of thoughts and emotions that he just can't seem to escape. 

But that's not what Tony wants to think about right now. Not when Stephen is curled up in his arms and starting to wake up. 

It's odd.

Normally, Stephen rises early. He wakes up around 5:00am on the dot and then usually seems to remember that he didn't need to be awake so early and cuddles back with Tony and goes back to sleep. 

But lately, he hasn't been doing that. It was as if the doctor was so exhausted and drained each day that he fell into almost coma like sleep at the end of the day and couldn't wake up until at least 7 or 8. 

Tony is worried about Stephen. 

There are moments where Stephen focuses so much on him that Tony can feel his gaze on him at all times throughout the day. He doesn't mind, but then there are moments where Stephen feels like he isn't quite in his own body. When Stephen feels like he is disconnected somehow. 

Distant. 

Tony doesn't like that. He knows that something has happened. Clea had made that clear enough. At first, despite her warnings, Tony hadn't seen anything odd. But as time went on, he noticed that when they were quiet and were working, Stephen would at times stop typing and just stare off into the distance as if he was seeing or feeling something that wasn't there. 

It would take Tony calling him multiple times to get his attention. Stephen also wasn't eating very well. It was as if he was feeling just as sick as Tony was or worse. It was worrisome. 

But Stephen never admitted to it. When Tony asked if something was wrong, Stephen would always answer no. 

Stephen also was more... physical with Tony than before. Stephen would seek out every opportunity possible to touch him and to be with him. From the moment that he came home from the practice, he would spend every moment with Tony possible. 

He even moved his computer and set up to be closer to the work table that Tony used. Tony hadn't questioned his lover on it, but he knew that it probably had something to do with whatever had happened to him. 

Honestly though, he doesn't mind Stephen's need for closeness and the way that he seems to be unable to function without close contact with Tony. If Tony is honest, he likes it. He likes the way that Stephen seems to crave him, seems to need him more than ever. 

It's a nice feeling to be so wanted and needed. 

Even now, deeply asleep, Stephen clings to Tony tightly. Stephen's arm is wrapped tightly around Tony's midriff and the doctor's head is resting perfectly on Tony's shoulder. His sleep lax features are lit by the faint light of the Arc Reactor peeking through the thin black band shirt he wore to bed. 

Stephen's morning hard on is pushing against Tony's thigh and in his sleep, Stephen's hips were starting to move and it was more than enough to get Tony's own cock interested. Tony smirks as he waits for Stephen to wake up. 

As much as he loves the reliance the doctor seems to have on him, Tony also knows that it isn't... healthy. He knows that it's dangerous. That it is something that could tip the balance of power in their relationship to the point of no return. 

He strokes the doctor's brown curls. When the doctor styles it, the hair seems so well put together and straight, but when it's not styled and the doctor has been sleeping and rubbing that hair all over Tony's shoulder and chest throughout the night, it's a bird nest of a mess. 

"Oh." Stephen mutters as he wakes up and realises that he has more or less being humping Tony's thigh. Tony looks down to see the doctor's blush spread across his face and neck before he chuckles. 

"Had a good dream did you?' Tony asks him with a tongue and cheek expression. Stephen's blush deepens as he hides his face into Tony's chest. 

"Was I in it?" Tony asks again and this time, Stephen sighs and sits up a little to look at Tony and to kiss him softly. 

"Yes. I held you down and it was nice and slow until you were begging me to move faster and harder so that you can come all over yourself." Stephen whispers against Tony's ear and yup that's all that it takes. Tony is fully aroused and fully onboard with the plan. 

"How about we make that dream a reality doc?" Tony asks and he can't help that his voice is a little husky. Or that he is seriously feeling quite desperate. 

They have done a few blow jobs here and there, but Tony hadn't been feeling up to a good hard fuck in a while. Even when he was, Stephen had been either distracted or unwilling because he was concerned about Tony's well being. But apparently, it seems like the doctor was either tired of waiting or Tony was most definitely feeling well enough. 

Tony honestly doesn't care which. As long as he gets fucked and he gets to hear Stephen's pants and moans, he will be satisfied. 

"You're going to tell me if it's too much. Okay?" Stephen asks firmly and Tony is more than happy to nod. Stephen kisses him hard then. 

It's a hot and heavy kiss and they haven't shared one of those in a while either. Stephen knew what aroused Tony and that arousal and his sexual needs can make him do some stupid things. 

So Stephen had kept their touches and their kisses at high school level. Which seriously has been frustrating for Tony. But he hadn't complained. Much. 

Stephen's kiss feels good. It always does. Stephen knows how to draw out Tony's moans and turn him into liquid in his arms. The familiarity with each other's bodies, Tony would have thought back in the day, would make the sex boring. But it doesn't. 

Instead, it makes it all the more intense. With the emotions between them, sex doesn't feel just like a physical act anymore. It's almost like... they need each other so much that they need to crawl into the other's body. Sex is a way for them to be so physically close that they are inside each other. 

It's primal. It's instinctual and it is at times, overwhelming. Le Petite Morte, the Little Death, is what the French used to call an orgasm. It makes sense. When he is fucking Stephen or is being fucked by Stephen and he comes, it almost feels so intense that it feels like he is dying, only to be reborn with Stephen's kisses breathing life back into him. 

It's cliched and it's sappy as fuck. It's the kind of sentimental bullshit that he would have scoffed at a year ago. But now, that is how he feels and he's not even ashamed of it. 

"God, Stephen, if you don't fuck me right now, I'm going to suffer from the worst blue balls ever." Tony tells the doctor as he slowly snakes his way down Tony's body. 

"Oh, really? Let me take a look at your balls and make sure that you aren't suffering from a such a serious medical issue." Stephen says with a tongue in cheek expression that Tony just adores. 

Tony can't help but smile and pull the doctor up for a kiss even as Stephen's hands cup Tony's balls and plays with them expertly even with his shaking hand. 

By the way that the hand is shaking, Tony knows that prep is going to be difficult today. It's amazing just how well Tony is able to read the doctor's condition with just the way that the hand shakes against his balls. 

"I think my medical issue can be solved with you sucking my cock whilst I prepare myself to take yours ." Tony suggests and Stephen is more than happy to comply from the way that he strips Tony down and hands him the lube. 

It takes some wrangling for both of them to get into position but when Stephen's lips are sealed around his cock, Tony almost forgets the fingers he'd inserted in himself. The hot heat of Stephen's mouth is amazing as always. 

Tony loses his momentum in hurrying the prep for a long moment as Stephen sucks his cock down in that delicious way that the doctor just seems to be able to do each time. 

Stephen's trembling fingers closing around his hand is what reminds him of his goal and Tony focuses just enough to make sure that he is stretched enough to take Stephen's cock before he wipes his hand down and grabs Stephen's head so that they can kiss as Stephen takes him. 

It's a long, smooth thrust that has Stephen settling inside of him and Tony moans into Stephen's mouth as the doctor does so. 

Stephen echoes the moan with one of his own as he settles into Tony's body and when they are completely connected, Tony feels the fullness and satisfaction of being filled. 

It's a wonderful feeling to take his lover into himself and know that they are deeply connected. It's satisfying in a way that nothing else can quite match it. Tony kisses Stephen almost desperately as the doctor rolls his hips slowly, barely leaving Tony's body before rolling back in. 

Before long, Tony is a bumbling mess of desire and need and he is moaning and crying out desperately for more. Stephen keeps Tony's hands firmly trapped in his own above Tony's head and though the grip is fragile and Tony knows that with Stephen's hand not doing too well today he could easily escape the hold, he doesn't. 

Instead, he holds onto the fingers that are holding him hostage and let's Stephen keep control of the pace. Despite the fact that they both enjoy BDSM, they don't scene all that often. Their normal vanilla sex, however, tends to contain little bits of domination here and there. 

It adds a bit of spice that keeps things interesting, though there is hardly any need for anything to be interesting in the bedroom for Tony as long as Stephen is in it. 

Tony can't help but compare their sex with the countless others that he has had in the past. A lot of them have been more extreme and certainly more interesting. But they hadn't made him needy and crazy like Stephen can with just a suggestive look or a word. 

When Stephen is inside of him, Tony feels filled up and satisfied whilst he has taken bigger and longer cocks and hadn't felt that before. Emotion really was a crazy thing, Tony thinks as Stephen smiles beautifully at him and kisses him again. 

His brown curls an absolute mess, Stephen should look dishevelled and chaotic. He doesn't. He looks beautiful and natural and vulnerable. Tony loves it. He arches up and begs for another kiss and Stephen delivers it before he bites at Tony's bottom lip. 

Tony cries out as the slight pain adds to the pleasure that he is already being overwhelmed by. When Stephen smiles with Tony's lip still between his teeth, it's a predatory smile that Tony's heart skips a beat to see. 

This aggressive side of Stephen doesn't come out to play all that often but when it does, Tony loves it. He knows he is in for a hard fucking. 

"You ready dearest?" Stephen asks as he lets go of Tony's lip and Tony nods as he takes a deep breath and the powerful thrust that hits him a moment later is fantastic enough that it has him nearly howling. 

The whole mansion has got to know what they are up to, Tony thinks vaguely as he cries out and pants between the thrusts that takes his breath away. Stephen keeps to his promise and fucks him nice and hard and it feels so good that he doesn't give a damn who hears. 

By the time that Stephen lets go of his hands, Tony is too caught up in the pleasure to even pleasure himself. Instead, he clings onto Stephen's neck and desperately pulls him down for a kiss. 

Stephen is caught up too and he desperately kisses Tony as his thrusts become more and more erratic as he reaches his climax. Tony doesn't mind. He doesn't care as long as he can hold Stephen in his arms and kiss him. When he feels Stephen's last hard thrust into him and Tony drinks in his cry, Tony reaches down desperately to reach his own climax. 

Stephen holds him tightly as he can with Tony's legs in the way and kisses him as if he is a man drowning and Tony is air itself and it really doesn't take much for Tony to come all over their stomachs. 

When he is done,Tony lets his body rest on the bed and Stephen curls up pretty much on top of him and in doing so, all over the cum between them. Tony can feel Stephen's spendings leaving his own body and it feels both dirty and kind of luxurious. 

Before Stephen he only had one lover that he had allowed to come inside of him like that. But with Stephen, it had been an easy decision and one that he does not regret. 

"Any chance we can skip the morning session?" Tony asks though he knows better. Stephen curls into him and bites at his neck gently before shaking his head. 

"Fine. We still have the best Doctor Who episodes left to watch anyway." Tony tells him and Stephen gives him a smile and kisses him again before he pulls both himself and Tony out of bed. 

Time to go back to reality. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Saturday 

19 June 2010 

Clea isn't sure if this is a good idea. 

In fact, she's fairly sure that it's a bad idea and that she was probably going to get herself into some sort of trouble or better yet, end up destroying the universe. 

Okay yeah. She's not going to end up destroying the universe. But yeah... the potential for the problems was most definitely there. 

Yet, given the interest that SHIELD seems to have in Stephen, this is the only way she can see to try to help the situation in a way that she knows that others can't.

"I'm surprised you called." Natasha Romanov says as she slides into the seat in front of Clea. The venue that Clea had chosen for their meeting is one of those discrete bars with individual booths that can easily be curtained off for privacy. 

The booking had been a bit of a nightmare, but she managed with a healthy bribe and she wasn't even ashamed of it. She needed the privacy and more importantly, she needed a neutral enough venue. 

The bar served as both. 

"I'm surprised that you came." Clea says back and gives the spy an even look. Time for the games to begin, she thinks. 

God, she hates thinking like that. She wants to believe that somewhere inside of the cold calculating exterior of the spy, there is s omething inherent that Clea could break through to make her see the humanity behind the mask of targets and objectives. 

Clea has taken the time to study every single interaction that she could find of the spy to get the best sort of read on her possible without having the benefit of the Cup or being able to know her in the way that probably Stephen could given his expertise. 

Clea isn't wise like her uncle. She doesn't have the benefit of the time that he has had. She hasn't seen the universes that he had. Not all of it. She had just seen a fraction of them and even then, it had been so very difficult to understand them all. 

Yet, she had to believe that there was something she could do to prevent the tragedies that would come. That it wasn't always just up to Stephen to make the changes. That the burden didn't only fall upon his shoulders. 

That would be too cruel and the burden too great. The Order has been working to bring his visions of the Universe saved and Universe thriving to reality. To reduce the harms that can be reduced and to ensure that they stuck to their beliefs that saving lives would be at the end of it all, worth it. 

There were some lives that even with the magic and the knowledge of the Order, that could not be saved. But Clea wants to believe that Natasha Romanov's life is one that can be saved. 

More importantly, even if she were to perish, that it would be with the knowledge that she wasn't just loved and cared for by one person and that she was worth being loved and cared for. 

Clea isn't sure just how much of a difference she can make. But the spy has shown her willingness to at least talk to her and that was more than what Clea had expected. So there was that at least. 

"So. What did you want to talk about?" Natasha asks her and there is a guarded nature about the spy's words and her tone that Clea wishes wasn't there. 

But at the same time, she knows why it's there. From what Clea had seen, Natasha Romanov had grown up in a situation of constant competition. Not only to become better and to become the assassin that she is, but to survive. 

That does not breed friendships and understanding. It breeds hate, desperation and very low sense of self worth and value. Natasha has had to learn to respect human life and learn that there was value to life and to emotions. But she sees that for other people. Not for herself. 

That is what Clea dislikes the most. 

Even SHIELD, an organisation she has found refuge in and has become her home and her workplace, uses Natasha. They don't rehabilitate her and allow her to be just Natasha Romanov. No. They want and need her to be Agent Natasha Romanov, the master spy and assassin they can send in to do the dirty work of politicians and government organisations. 

"I don't have an agenda, Natasha. I just wanted to see how you were doing after everything that happened." Clea says and Natasha looks suspicious but when Clea gestures to the tablet attached to the wall that allows them to order drinks remotely, Natasha orders herself a cranberry vodka and Clea does the same. 

"It's been mostly quiet. Um... how are you?" Without a given role to play, it was clear that Natasha was finding the conversation and small talk difficult. It was almost as if all of her socialisation and social skills had been fostered with a target and an objective in mind. 

Well. Not almost. It is exactly like that. 

Natasha Romanov doesn't really know how to be Natasha Romanov. She knows how to be Natalie Rushman. She knows how to be Agent Romanov. But she doesn't know how to be Natasha.

Clea feels the sympathy she feels for the spy rocket up a she gives her an encouraging smile. There hasn't been a great deal that Clea hasn't been able to achieve through her determination and will. Clea didn't believe in walls and limits. 

She only believed in doing everything that she could to ensure that she achieved her goals. As long as those goals didn't impede or overstep the boundaries of societal rules and expectations, of course. Clea wasn't a monster after all. 

So, Clea was determined to make Natasha Romanov her friend and as long as the woman showed some willingness to participate in the process, then that's what was going to happen. 

Clea will see to that. 

"I've been good. I know that you're probably busy and I'm not sure if you have restrictions on stuff like this or not, but I was hoping that we can stay in touch. There's a lot that I would like to learn from you and I like spending time with you." Clea says with a warm smile. 

God she sounds like someone trying to get a first date, Clea thinks and hopes that the spy doesn't get that message. That would be awkward. As romantically destitute Clea was, she wasn't after a relationship right now. 

She was kinda too busy for that, if she was being honest. But luckily, that's not how Natasha seems to have taken it. She thinks for a long moment before she grabs a piece of paper and writes down a number. 

"It's my real phone number. If... if there is something you need help with, you can call me on that. I won't be able to answer all the time, but if you leave me a message, I will get it." Well. That's a surprise, Clea thinks as she takes the paper and scans it immediately into her phone. 

The Starkphone that Tony had given her really was quite useful, Clea will have to remember to thank him again later. 

"I thought you called me to talk about Stephen." Natasha says and Clea giggles and shakes her head. 

"Nope. Not interested in SHIELD business. If SHIELD needs to talk to me about Stephen, then they can send one of those generic men in black to talk to me. I really did just call you for a drink." Clea says and she means it. 

Her only agenda was in trying to make the spy see that there were friends that she could have outside of SHIELD and in fact, having friends outside of SHIELD was a healthy thing. Clea had friends outside of the Order and outside of her work with SI. 

It's important to ensure that your work does not define you. That you have interests outside of work to ensure that you are happy and that you have a sense of self outside of the work that you do. 

With Natasha, Clea doesn't see that and that's what upsets her the most about SHIELD and their approach to their people. Yes, SHIELD is doing important work. Clea isn't going to deny that. 

But they can't make the sole focus of their employee's lives the work that they do. Doing that would only lead to burn out and self destruction. It's no wonder that HYDRA has managed to grow so strongly within SHIELD. Dissatisfaction with the work that they are doing in SHIELD would be destroying the sense of self that the employees feel. 

The Order in itself was a fantastic example of that. Before Stephen and the changes that he made to the Order, the rate that they had issues with Disciples or Masters going rogue had been a lot higher. But since the Order made it possible for their members to have lives and a sense of self outside of the Order, the rates that the rogue and dangerous sorcerers have been released into the world has been significantly reduced. 

Clea isn't sure that's the reason why Stephen had made the changes, but it worked. Clea hopes that SHIELD can do the same thing. She's not sure if it will before it is destroyed from within, but for now, she can at least try to help Natasha see that there are other ways to be. 

"So, have you got a few hours after this?" Clea asks and Natasha looks a bit confused but she nods. 

"Fantastic. I've been dying to watch a movie and kinda had no one to go with me." Clea says and before Natasha can protest, she leaves the bills for their drinks and pulls Natasha out of the booth. 

"Clea, I'm not sure if-" Natasha starts to say but Clea turns to look at her. 

"Is there a world ending event or a mission you need to go on?" Clea asks and Natasha shakes her head before sighing and smiling. It's a shy little smile but it's a real, genuine one. Clea smiles back. 

"Then let's go!" Clea says and Natasha follows, no longer reluctant and no longer needing to be pulled and guided. Clea smiles. 

It's a small step but it's a good step. 

~~~

Monday

21 June 2010  

Rhodey doesn't know what to think. 

It feels like his entire world has been turned upside down and it is overwhelming him. It's hard enough to acknowledge that Stephen Strange is Vincent Strange, let alone accept that there was a way to know what the future would hold through other universes and accept that Stephen Strange was able to do it and had knowledge of their future. 

But the doctor had been so calm as he had explained everything and the conversation that he had with Tony after that confirmed that the genius was not only aware of it, but believed Stephen. 

The oddest thing that Rhodey found about the whole thing was the way that Tony, the genius inventor that was almost curious and always questioned everything, didn't question Stephen Strange and his odd knowledge and his odd ways. 

When Rhodey had questioned Tony about it, his answer had been simple. 

'Asking the questions and getting the answers isn't worth losing Stephen'. 

More than anything else, that sentence had been alarming to Rhodey. Tony's faith and trust in Stephen was at levels that he had never seen in his friend and for a moment, he worried that like SHIELD, Stephen Strange had influence over Tony that was both unhealthy and dangerous. 

But Tony had dissuaded him of that view pretty quickly. He recounted how he and Stephen had met. How he had seduced Stephen and how their relationship, everything that they had together had been Tony's decisions. 

Tony was outright convinced that Stephen Strange had never tried to manipulate him and indeed, continued to sacrifice himself for Tony's wellbeing and his benefit and Tony, for all his genius, could not figure out a motivation that would drive someone to nearly kill themselves for another person. 

If Tony was right, then Rhodey had to agree that the agenda seemed to be murky and that Stephen Strange really may be operating under the belief that Tony Stark really is needed to save the universe and all he was doing was trying to protect Tony. 

But Rhodey can't help but worry. 

Stephen Strange had stepped into Tony's life so smoothly when his best friend had needed someone desperately and he had single handedly 'fixed' Tony's life and Tony in a way that was way too convenient. 

Which is why he has taken a day off to make his way to Stark Industries Headquarters in LA to see the other one person that knows Tony Stark as well as he does. 

Pepper Potts. 

"You look good in that chair Pep." Rhodey tells her warmly as he walks into the office. Pepper does look good in the white office chair that is tall enough to be a throne and the modern desk is adorned with the holograms and tablets that he knows Tony has designed for her. 

She looks right at home at the seat of one of the richest and powerful corporations in the world. Her tight red dress goes well with her ginger hair and makes her blue eyes all the more stunning. 

"You too! You should wear your formal attire more often." She comments as she smiles and stands up from her chair to come around and hug him. 

They have been friends long enough through Tony that the little bit of flirting is more tradition than anything else. Besides, it boosts both of their egos and doesn't everyone just need that every now and then?  

Pepper leads him to sit down in the lounge set she has in the office and offers to call up tea or coffee. He declines. 

"So, what brings you by?" Pepper asks and she seems relaxed and comfortable. It's also apparent that she has been busy and she takes her heels off with a sigh as she curls her legs up under her and relaxes. 

Rhodey takes off the stiff formal jacket of his uniform and settles comfortably as well. They were going to need to be comfortable for this conversation. 

"I got a visit from SHIELD." Rhodey starts off with and watch as Pepper narrows her eyes. SHIELD was a bit of a sore topic for both of them. 

When Tony had been taken, Rhodey and Pepper and reached out to absolutely everyone under the sun to ask for help in finding him. Pepper had used the resources of Stark Industries and the contacts that they had and Rhodey had used all of his government and military contacts. 

One of them had been SHIELD. 

They had declined to assist in the search. But when Tony had returned and it was obvious to them that there had been some unknown technology involved in his miraculous return, they had also been the first to step up and ask for both Pepper and him to assist them. 

They had refused.

The disdain that they felt for SHIELD only grew over time. Their approach to 'help' Tony with an alibi, which Tony rejected. Rhodey has to agree with his friend. 

Secrecy and shadows are the weapons that SHIELD employs. It’s how they operate and it's not how Tony operates. Tony may hate his public image and the constant presence of media in his life, but he knows how important it is to keep the public informed. 

Rhodey agrees with that and so does Pepper. Yes, Rhodey may work for the Air Force and there are certain things that he can't discuss and there are secrets that need to be kept, but overall, he believes in keeping the public informed and allowing them to make informed decisions. 

Which is part of the reason he had been so upset by the party incident and the role that he had been forced to play. 

Of course, the truth was out to the public now about the stunt, but Rhodey still felt a distaste for the show that he had put on with Tony. 

It had been necessary to draw out SHIELD. He understood that. SHIELD with their need to exploit weaknesses, had to see Tony had fallen and weak without friends or supporters to help him. They would have to be Tony's 'saviour' and to 'fix' Tony's problems. 

It had been the only way to get to the secrets that SHIELD held back from him. Rhodey gets it. It doesn't mean that he had to like it. 

And now SHIELD approaching him with the whole Stephen Strange is a clone that was trying to manipulate Tony Stark and he needed to get Stephen away from Tony? 

It stank of manipulation. 

They had tried it with Stephen himself. They tried it with Tony and now they were trying it with him and from the way that Pepper sighs, with her too. 

Fuck SHIELD and their inability to just come and ask. To just state what they wanted and needed and just ask for it. God it's frustrating, Rhodey thinks as he looks at Pepper. 

"They came to me too. You do realise that they got the genetic samples without permission, consent or knowledge from anyone right?" Pepper says and she sounds outraged and upset. Rhodey isn't surprised. 

With her mind being a legal one, of course she would find the violation of rights difficult to swallow. For Rhodey, that's not the problem. It's the way that they were approaching the situation and the damned seed of doubt that they've managed to plant in his head. 

"So. Do you know what Stephen Strange is?" Rhodey asks and Pepper sighs as she grabs her phone. She activates a program that Rhodey is all too familiar with. 

A scanner to ensure that there were no listening devices or any signals that might indicate that they were being spied upon. Once she had run the scan and it had come up empty, Pepper puts the phone back down and sighs. 

"That he is Vincent Strange? Yes. I know. I heard it from Tony." She says and Rhodey leans back into his chair. He hadn't expected that. Well no. Perhaps he had. 

It's not as if he's had a great deal of time of late to have heart to hearts with Tony whilst Pepper had. There also hasn't been a lot of time for him to catch up with her either. So there was that. 

"Aren't you worried about Stephen?" Rhodey asks and Pepper is quick enough to shake her head that it surprises Rhodey. 

"I've seen that man with Tony. If someone can fake being that much head over heels in love with someone, they would have all the Oscars in the world. Whatever Stephen is, he is also in love with Tony and there isn't anything that man won't do for Tony. I really don't think he is capable of hurting a single hair on Tony's head." Pepper says and that surprises Rhodey and it also gives him something to think about. 

He hasn't had a lot of time to see Stephen with Tony. His affections for Tony had been obvious enough when the doctor had spoken about him, but it was another thing altogether to hear it from Pepper. 

It wasn't just her sharp mind or her legal knowledge that made Pepper Potts a good PA and a good CEO. It was her ability to judge people. Pepper read people extremely well. For her to say that she believed Stephen Strange really did love Tony was a surprise. 

"More importantly, Tony loves him just as much. I've never seen Tony so happy as he is when Stephen is around. Rhodey, if you're thinking about breaking the two of them apart, you're going to end up losing Tony over it." Pepper says and that truly shocks Rhodey. 

"If SHIELD is worried that Stephen has too much influence over Tony, they might be right. But the thing is, Stephen doesn't use that power over Tony and neither does Tony over him. Stephen isn't a threat to Tony. If you're worried, go over there and spend some time with the two of them. You'll see." Pepper suggests and Rhodey nods quietly. 

She's right. Rhodey has only met the doctor twice. Once during a tense moment where the doctor revealed information he had no right to know and then another moment when the doctor told him some shit that he just could not believe. 

Since then, he hadn't made any efforts to see Stephen and Tony together. In fact, he had gone to see Tony when he knew that the doctor would not be there. 

Perhaps he really ought to get to know the doctor and see how he is with Tony before he makes any decisions on the man based on a seed of doubt that SHIELD had planted out of all things. 

"I think I might just do that." Rhodey says and Pepper gives him a nod. 

"Tony would love to spend some time with you and Stephen probably would as well. He really has been wanting to meet you and get to know you." Pepper says and when Rhodey frowns in confusion at the sentiment, she shrugs her shoulders.

"You're important to Tony and you're a big part of his life. Of course Stephen wants to get to know you. He may be a little odd, but Rhodey, he's a good man." Pepper's vote of confidence means a lot. Rhodey nods and changes the topic. 

"So,  how's world domination coming along?" He asks with a joking tone and she laughs as he had intended. 

"We can talk about that after the third quarter is done. With all the public dramas, it's been hard." Pepper says and Rhodey is more than happy to listen as she lists out the problems and the solutions and just lets out her frustrations. 

Unlike what Pepper has done for him, he has no fantastic advice to give to help her. But he can at least listen to her problems and give her a hug of support. 

That's what friends are for. Right?

~~~ 

Thursday

24 June 2010 

Some time to relax and to get through the therapy is what Tony needs. Of course, that's not what he gets. 

Despite the fact that Tony has put a break in his work for SI, he is still working on his inventions. Stephen has ensured that the genius could continue to work through the therapy by slowing it down, watering it down and also imbuing with magic.

So, they continue to work between the sessions of chelation therapy and the dialysis that they run once a day to ensure that Tony will recover as quickly as he can from the therapy. 

Tony adjusts to the side effects quickly enough and they are able to add physical exercise to the list of things that they can do to ensure that the blood flow is kept up nice and high and ensure that the metals don't settle in the extremities of Tony's body. 

The magic that Grimshaw and Stephen use helps with that process too. That is not to say that the procedure has been completely smooth. There are days when Tony feels absolutely wretched. On those days, Stephen and Tony spend most of the day curled up in bed and just relax

It's a process. 

They are also visited by Pepper Potts, who makes time to come over during the weekend to check in with Tony and to discuss the direction the company is going because at the end of the day, Tony is still the owner of the company and he loves SI too much to completely step away from it. 

Rhodey also visits.

He doesn't come with the suit, but he does come with his new AI, JOCASTA, who was adjusting quite well to Rhodey and his life and needs. Stephen hadn't known about JOCASTA, but he is fascinated by her. 

JOCASTA isn't like JARVIS. Well, she is and she isn't. She isn't an AI that learned to be self-aware and sentient like JARVIS, but was born, for lack of a better word, as a sentient and self-aware being. 

JARVIS's code and what makes him sentient has been passed onto her. She is an AI that has been created by an AI and Tony Stark. She is... fascinating and absolutely amazing. 

Stephen knows that Rhodey has doubts about him. That he is concerned about what Stephen's agenda may be. Stephen doesn't mind the scrutiny. It shows the level of love and care the Air Force Colonel has for Tony and Stephen could never be upset at that. 

Instead, Stephen focuses on ensuring that the two best friends have plenty of time to spend together. He knows that being at the mansion and not feeling too well has been difficult for Tony and he knows that Rhodey can help with that. 

At least that's what Stephen plans to do, but Rhodey pulls him into the conversation about JOCASTA and then he just can't leave. 

"So how do you think she's progressing?" Rhodey asks him and Stephen has to turn back to the monitor where JOCASTA was showing off her code and to examine it closely as it scrolls by. 

"She has the code that Anthony and JARVIS has created to ensure that his moral compass stays on point. She also has the code to ensure that she keeps to the primary objectives without it being tainted. Her growth from this point is dependent upon you and how you want her to grow up." Stephen ends up telling him and Rhodey looks thoughtful. 

"So can I screw her up? Teach her the wrong lessons?" Rhodey's concern is obvious. Unlike Tony and himself, Rhodey isn't a coder. His understanding of AI is much better than the average person, but he still has concerns like most people that AI could go rogue. Stephen shakes his head. 

"No. JOCASTA's programming as far as her morality and value system is concerned is close to JARVIS's. Her primary directive is set in stone. The only thing that you will be shaping is her personality and her knowledge of you and the world through your perspective." Rhodey nods slowly as JOCASTA speaks up. 

"So, Dr Strange, is my code up to your standards?" The soothing Southern tone of her voice is warm and friendly. Tony's initial programming of her has been done with a lot of love and attention to what Rhodey would like, Stephen thinks fondly. 

"Yes JOCASTA. You are progressing very well. How are you finding the suit and the new weapons?" Stephen asks as he brings up the schematics. 

"Not too bad doctor, but there is perhaps some tweaking that could be done in relation to the trajectory calculation programs. I don't believe Mr Stark took into account the lighter calibre bullets that are being used with the suit." Oh, Stephen thinks as he brings up the program that she was alluding to. 

"My apologies JOCASTA, I believe that is partly my fault. Let me fix it." Stephen says and he sits down at his computer and starts to type only to have Tony pull his chair back, physically. 

"Yeah no." Tony says and Stephen looks at him with some surprise until Tony pointedly looks at Stephen's hands. 

He has been having a bad day with his hands. They have been shaking particularly badly and they’ve already cramped up a few times. To the extent that he had barely managed to get the line into Tony's arm for the chelation therapy IV. 

"It's fine, it won't take very long for me to-" Tony pulls him physically out of the chair before Stephen can even finish speaking and pulls the shaking hands into his own. 

"Jo, my girl, you're going to have to wait for your upgrade. I'll send it through via satellite link when it's done." Tony says and JOCASTA is about to reply when a screen pops up in front of them. 

"Sir, I'm afraid that a situation has risen." JARVIS says and as he does, Stephen sees what is happening on the screen and he feels the blood drain from his face. 

He had forgotten about the Hulk. 

Well no. He hadn't forgotten about the Hulk. He hadn't known when the showdown between the Hulk and the Abomination would take place. He should have kept a closer eye on the situation. 

Shit. 

'Two unknown mutants fighting in the streets of Harlem!' 

The scrolling live news reads. Tony is moving and so is Stephen. 

"JOCASTA, bring the suit over here. Top speed." Tony instructs the AI that has been hooked into the main house system for their analysis of her progress. 

"Yes Mr Stark." JOCASTA says. Stephen barely has time to pay attention to that because he's on the phone. 

"Wong, we have a problem in Harlem. Get everyone you can and evacuate as many people as we can. I'll be there in a little bit." Stephen says into the phone and he isn't too surprised to hear a quick response of 'of course' back. 

They have planned for the Harlem incident. They just hadn't known when it would take place. Or even exactly where. But there was enough sorcerers living in New York or being able to come to New York without raising flags that they can help. 

Wong will see to that. 

It will only be evacuating people and protecting them from the debris, the fight was too dangerous for them to step in on, but by the time that they get there, there shouldn't be a need to. As far as Stephen knows about the event, the fight itself concludes pretty rapidly. Stephen hopes that will be the case this time too. 

"Stephen, you're not going anywhere." Tony tells him with a firm voice and Stephen shakes his head. 

"Anthony, I'm a doctor. They are going to need doctors down there. You and Colonel Rhodes can focus on the rescue efforts. I'll focus on the medical." Stephen tells him as he goes for the seriously decked out medical kit they keep around the lab. 

Tony raises an eyebrow at him. 

"Stephen, your hands are-" Tony starts to say but before he can finish that line of thought, Stephen holds his hands up and t hey are steady. He has a small smile on his face.  

"Nothing like imminent disaster to get them steady." Stephen tells him dryly . Tony sighs. 

"Stephen, baby, I seriously adore you but fuck you're a menace sometimes." Tony says and Stephen gives him a smirk. 

"You too, dearest. Now, will you give me a lift or should I call myself a helicopter?" Stephen asks and Tony sighs as he steps into the suit. 

"Rhodey, follow us when your suit arrives. If nothing else, people are going to need rescuing from those buildings." Tony says. The images that they were seeing showed streets upon streets and buildings upon buildings destroyed. 

There were going to be a lot of injured people. Stephen feels the guilt hit him. He had been so focused on Tony and Loki that he had all but forgotten of the other life threatening incident that would take place. 

He had been an idiot. 

With that in mind, Stephen takes a deep breath and focuses. He wasn't going to be around Tony the whole time that he is at the scene. He was also going to have to ensure that his hands stay steady so that he can help. On top of that, he was pretty sure that they were going to have to run the spells developed to ensure that the buildings remain more or less put together whilst there are live people within them. 

It was one of the spells that he had developed with the Council to reduce the amount of lives lost during the New York Invasion, but it would come in handy now. 

So there was that. Stephen honestly isn't confident that he can do all of that whilst he is away from Tony. But he has to. Stephen takes a steadying breath as Tony gets into the suit. 

"Remember Anthony, you are going to need regular breaks." Stephen reminds him and Tony gives him a smile and a nod before he slams the face-plate down and wraps the suit covered arm around Stephen's waist and opens the skylight. 

"You ready for this doc?" Tony asks him and Stephen really isn't. But he nods anyway. It can't be all that different to flying with the Cloak of Levitation... right? 

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Thursday 

24 June 2010 

It is absolute and utter chaos. 

Even now, what feels like forever in to the actual tragedy, it feels as if they are barely scratching at the surface of the disaster at hand. 

It would be an exaggeration to say that all of Harlem is destroyed by the incident, but it is clear that a great deal of it is. 

The roads themselves has been destroyed. There are burning wrecks of cars that have been overturned and thrown all over the roads. There are buildings burning and collapsing all around them. 

It's quieter now than it had been when Rhodey had first arrived at the scene. 

Then it had been hard to hear himself think over the screams for help and the cries of people devastated and traumatised by the incident. 

Now, it was quieter at least. 

There were less screams and chaos. More organisation and loudspeakers. The skilled crews of the NYPD and the NYFD were on scene, directing people here and there. 

There were less people to rescue now. But it also meant that there were more dead than alive trapped in the buildings. Rhodey doesn't want to think about that. He wants to focus on the living. 

It wasn't going to be an overnight thing. Rhodey knows that. There were going to be months and perhaps years needed to restore the damage that has been done. 

Harlem isn't a wealthy part of New York. In fact, it's one of the poorer parts of the city. That means that a lot of the people weren't going to have the insurance and the money to get through this tragedy. 

He has heard enough of the conversation via the Bluetooth piece the doctor had and Tony to know that they were going to be using their various resources to do what they can do to help those that need it. 

But that's not what worries Rhodey right now. 

What worries and overwhelms Rhodey is the scale of death and destruction. Unlike when they first arrived, now at least there was order to the chaos and now that he can take a breather, the... destruction is all the more obvious. 

There were tents set up by the emergency services to run the makeshift hospital to triage the victims. There were volunteers in bright orange vests that have come out of nowhere that were handing out food and water to the victims. 

There were all of the services that they could use at the scene and it was well organised. Rhodey knows that Stephen had a great deal to do with that. Stephen had brought pretty much all the staff from the D'Arte Hotel with food and water by the truckloads and helicopters to help as many people as possible. 

But they weren't the only ones. There were paramedics, doctors, nurses, police officers and fire brigade officers that had been off duty that had come down to help because they knew that they could and that they should. 

It was the kind of tragedy that brought the city together and Rhodey was heartened to see that. But that was the only positive that he saw out of the tragedy. 

He ignores the media cameras and he's glad that the police were doing a good job holding the scene and ensuring that the cameras couldn't come too close to where there were dangers. 

And there were dangers. 

There were still buildings on fire and there were buildings that were continuing to collapse. It's a disaster New York had only experienced with the fall of the Twin Towers. 

Rhodey doesn't have time to wonder what had caused all the damage. He knows that mutants may be involved and worse, he knows that there was government and military involvement. Seeing the tell tale vehicles and a flash of General Ross had been enough of that indication. 

Rhodey was going to be asking some questions later. But for the time being, he had been working over and over again to rescue people and to bring them back to the tents. 

Jo helps him to communicate with the police and the fire brigade to coordinate the rescue efforts. At times, all Tony and Rhodey have to do is to lift the really heavy beams and bits of the collapsed buildings so that the Fire Brigade and police officers can get to the injured victims underneath. 

It doesn't take long for Rhodey to lose track of time and the number of people that he has rescued from the burning buildings. 

It's those that Tony and he concentrates on. The broken gas lines mean that the fires are dangerous. Until they managed to get the gas lines turned off, it had been a truly terrifying experience to go into buildings, not knowing which buildings would explode. 

But that was taken care of by JARVIS and then it had just been a matter of doing the rescues. During that time, Stephen had been set up with the paramedics and other doctors and nurses at the makeshift hospital, triaging the patients that needed immediate transport along with others that could most likely wait for a while. 

Rhodey knows emergency situations. He knows how to deal with them. But even he is impressed by how quickly and well the doctor seems to have taken over the makeshift hospital and doing extraordinarily well. 

But whilst Tony and he had taken breaks, Stephen hasn't and the strain was starting to show. 

The doctor's once pristine t-shirt is covered with blood, soot and sweat and there was a growing pile of disposed gloves by his feet that indicated just how many patients he had examined. 

Despite his clear exhaustion, Stephen is efficient and he remains focused. When Rhodey takes the next victim into the tent, he finds that Stephen's hands are starting to tremble and it is clear that the doctor is in pain. 

"Dr Strange." Rhodey calls and Stephen turns to look at him and Rhodey puts the mother and the baby he'd just rescued from the burning building down on the nearby bed, blanket and all and gets himself out of the suit. 

"Colonel." Stephen replies as he takes the last of the vitals of his patient and nods to the paramedics. During that process, Rhodey loses his chance to tell Stephen to take a break. 

He knows that Tony was still going but then he'd had a break whilst Rhodey had continued to work. So Rhodey knows that he is due for a break. In fact, it's more that he needs it. 

He is thirsty and he knows that if he doesn't take a break, Jo was probably going to shut the suit down. She's been warning him for long enough. 

"Let's take a break Jo." Rhodey says to the AI and she opens the suit up with a happy chirp. They were probably going to have to talk about how when humans needed to, they could push past their limits without too much difficulty and without lasting effects. 

Having said that, Rhodey wasn't sure if the same could be said of the doctor. 

"You have a broken rib. It's staying still for the time being, but you're going to have to go hospital and check to make sure that you don't have any internal injuries." Stephen tells the victim, who nods worriedly. Stephen spares them a smile. 

"It doesn't look like there is any at this time. It's just best practice to ensure that you go and get checked out." Stephen reassures them and the patient nods as the paramedics carefully wheels the bed away. 

Stephen turns to face Rhodey and gives him a nod to acknowledge him before turning to look at the patients that Rhodey had brought back. 

"Hello, my name is Dr Strange. Can you tell me if anything hurts?" Stephen is gentle with them in a way that surprises Rhodey. Until now, he hadn't really stayed to watch how Stephen deals with the patients. 

It has been more or less in and out with every patient and outside of that, even when he had taken a break, it had been with him talking to the chiefs of police and fire department as they planned for the next phase of the rescue. 

So he hasn't had the chance to see Stephen at work but seeing it... does change a great deal of his opinions on the man. 

It is clear that Stephen is dirtied up by working through the patients. He has kept his hands and his arms clean and it was clear that the doctor was being very careful with ensuring that there is no contamination, but it was also apparent that he wasn't sparing himself at all. 

Rhodey's critical eyes pick up the faint muscle tremors along the doctor's arms. A sign of muscle strain. 

He knelt by the bed that Rhodey had placed the woman on as he switched out the gloves for new ones and looker over the woman and the baby. 

"I'm fine. Throat hurts but I'm fine. I- My baby-" the woman's voice breaks. It's obvious why she's so concerned. The baby was not looking too good. There was only so much a young baby's lungs could take of smoke and soot before it becomes overwhelmed. 

Rhodey hadn't noticed. The situation had been pretty bad in their burning apartment and he honestly hadn't had the chance. 

The baby was slowly turning blue. Stephen nods and before the woman can say anything, he takes the child into his arms. 

"Ma'am, I'm going to ask you to get off the bed and move off to the side. Is that alright? I need some room to work. Janice! I need that oxygen tank!" Stephen instructs both the woman and the nearby nurse. Both are quick to do as requested. 

When the nurse comes by with the oxygen tank, Stephen grabs her quickly before she can leave. 

"I need you to take the woman to a bed and get one of the doctors to examine her and keep her there." Stephen says so quietly that Rhodey barely hears it. When he does, the realisation hits him and so does the devastation. 

Oh God no, he thinks. He knows that there is a chance that there were children and women and men that have died during the time that Rhodey had been working to rescue people. 

He knows that the death toll had been going up but to know it and to see it was two very different things and Rhodey isn't sure if he can handle it. The nurse nods grimly but she takes a deep breath, smiles reassuringly and takes the woman off to the other side of the tent , reassuring her that Stephen will do everything he can for the baby. 

Rhodey notices that the nurse is careful not to say that the baby was going to be alright. No need to give false hope, Rhodey realises. It's also heartbreaking. He moves towards Stephen and the baby as the doctor checks the baby's vitals carefully before sighing.  

"Colonel." Stephen calls and it snaps Rhodey out of the desperate sadness that started to overtake him and he moves and kneels by both the bed and Stephen. The paramedics move away, most likely because they can't take the heartbreak. They have other patients to work on. They need to focus. 

"What do you need me to do?" Rhodey asks and Stephen looks at him with eyes filled with determination and conviction. 

"Colonel, in 2 minutes, I'm going to collapse. I need you to take me outside somewhere quiet and away from other people's eyes." The doctor says and if that's not worrisome, Rhodey isn't sure what would be. 

But he doesn't even have the chance to question or do anything. Stephen put his hands on the baby and there is a faint glow around his hands and just like that, the doctor goes deathly pale, paler than he had already been before the baby starts to cry. 

It's not the cry of a baby that is suffering from lung damage. A baby that had just been turning blue a moment ago. Instead, the cry shows that the baby is doing... extremely well. 

Stephen on the other hand isn't. His pale face is sweating and his eyes are diluted as if he can't focus on anything and he lists to the side. Rhodey catches him quickly and manage to stand him up. 

The mother that had been in the process of being led away is quick to turn around and run back to her child and the nurse that had been with the mother is quick to return as well. She looks at Stephen with a knowing look and looks at Rhodey. 

"Colonel, Dr Strange looks like he can use a break, will you take him outside please?" She says and the only thing that Rhodey can do is nod. He hoists the doctor up with one of the doctor's arms thrown over his shoulder and helps to all but carry the man outside amidst the mother's tearful gratitude. 

"Doc, what the hell did you do?" Rhodey asks because he knows that Stephen did something. He's not sure if he wants to believe just what the doctor seems to have done, but he knows that he did something. 

And that something was fucking impossible. 

"What I had to." Stephen says and just as Rhodey is clearing the tent, Tony lands with a grateful man, who Tony ushers towards the tent before he opens his faceplate. 

"Stephen?" Tony questions and Rhodey feels the doctor's legs start to give out and he knows better than to linger. Rhodey shakes his head quickly and looks for a quiet alleyway. 

Luckily, despite the chaos in the tents and just outside of it, there is an alleyway right behind one of the fire trucks that Rhodey knows would be sufficiently quiet and out of the public view. 

The area wide evacuation has certainly helped with that. 

Rhodey leads the doctor down that way and Tony is quick to assist him. Tony can take the doctor's weight with ease, given that he is still in his suit, which is good because Stephen was losing consciousness fast. 

"Stephen!" Tony's voice sounds frantic as the glove on his hand slides into the arm and the faceplate opens so that he can look at the doctor. 

"Hi." Stephen manages even as his eyes barely flutter. Tony's panic worries Rhodey as he moves so that he can help to cover the two of them and also support Stephen's other side as the doctor clearly can't even pretend to stand up on his own.

"Baby, what the hell did you do?" Tony asks quietly and his concern is obvious. Stephen tries to open his eyes to look at Tony but he doesn't manage. 

"Don't- Don't worry." Stephen manages to mutter out before his eyes roll completely back and he collapses and Tony catches him before looking at Rhodey. 

"Rhodey, what the fuck happened?" Tony's hard question forces Rhodey to think through what he had seen and the impossibility of it. 

"I- I think he saved a baby's life?" Rhodey can't help the question in his tone. He sees Tony's eyes widen and it's not with shock. It's with something else and Rhodey doesn't understand. 

He can't understand. But it looks like Tony does. 

"Shit." 

~~~ 

Friday

25 June 2010 

They didn't sign up for this. 

They really didn't. In fact, they have so much work to do at the freaking hospital that the last thing that they really want to be doing is babysitting the reckless superhero that goes on a life saving binge for 9 hours without sufficient rest, sustenance or hydration in the middle of life saving chelation therapy and his just as reckless and idiotic lover that let that man do that and join right in there and risk their own lives to save that of a baby. 

Alex Grimshaw may be getting paid a fortune for this... actually, they weren't, but even if they were , it would do very little to stop them from wanting to strangle the two men right where they stood. 

"Dr Grimshaw, if you can clear me, there's still work that needs-" Oh, Alex had almost forgotten. There was the matter of the idiot best friend of his patient that had also forgotten to rest, eat and hydrate himself for 9 hours working under stupid, ridiculous and dangerous conditions in a tin can with no oxygen supplies to add to the burden

"Sit down before I make you sit down." Alex says and that's a bit harsh, they know and it's not how they usually are with their patients, but their patients weren't usually idiots

They run a frustrated hand through their blonde curls and takes a deep breath. None of their now three patients, were doing particularly well and they were exhausted enough as it was, having worked in the trauma centres all evening too. 

But they hadn't been reckless like the three of them have been. No. They ate, took breaks and drank plenty of water during the process because they weren't stupid. 

"You, finish drinking that bottle and when you're done with that, find a bedroom. I'm sure you can manage to find something and sleep for at least two hours." Alex orders to Colonel Rhodes, who looks taken aback by possibly the harsh nature of their tone before nodding slowly. 

"Um... Yes Doctor." The man says. Thank the Vishanti, they think as they look at the almost contrite looking inventor hovering over his own lover. 

Stephen freaking Strange and his inability to just leave well enough alone , they think and sigh. Oh he hasn't done as much significant damage on himself as he has done during other occasions. That's for certain. The baby probably had only needed to have their airways cleared and once that was done, was probably strong enough to live on their own. 

So the Sorcerer Supreme hasn't exactly brought back a dying baby to life per se, medically speaking at any rate, but he had been driving himself to exhaustion before the event and with his need to focus so hard these days, it probably hadn't helped. 

So he was out for the count. There wasn't a great deal that Alex can do for the sorcerer. But there was something that he can do for Tony Stark. 

"Stephen's going to be fine. Why don't you take a seat next to your friend and I'll get the dialysis set up whilst you finish your drink too." Alex says as they hand over the bottle of chlorophyll to the inventor, who doesn't take it, but looks worriedly at Stephen instead. 

"Dr Grimshaw is-" Alex sighs. Vishanti give them patience, they think as they all but forcibly turn Tony Stark around to face them so that they will actually listen to a word that Alex is saying. 

Apparently the sight of Stephen Strange was all too distracting for the genius's mind to process a word that Alex had been saying. 

"Stephen is fine. He is exhausted and he needs to sleep. But that's it. I'm going to give him some nutrients and vitamins through an IV to help him recover faster. Now, will you go and sit next to your friend and drink this please?" Alex asks and this time, Tony Stark does take the drink. Thank the Vishanti. 

Alex sighs and goes about doing exactly as they had promised and sets up the IV drips for Stephen. Once they have done that, they aren't too surprised to find both Tony Stark and Colonel Rhodes all but falling asleep. Of course. 

The incident in Harlem had taken place 10 hours ago. They had worked throughout most of the night. Normal people took breaks and managed to work eight or so hours before they were switched out. They weren't working in a mechanised suit that requires a great deal of information processing, focus and concentration to just move. 

Tony Stark probably could have lasted longer with the suit and he should be faring better, considering his experience with the suit and ability to concentrate, but given his poor health to begin with, it's a surprise he even lasted as long as he did. 

As for Colonel Rhodes, he was a much fitter man, but he was also less experienced in the suit and it would have been exhausting to keep up with all the information as well as the situation. 

The human mind can only deal with so much death and destruction before it begins to tire and the trauma begins to set in. They doubt that either men would end up with lasting trauma , but it would most definitely build on their existing traumas. In other words? Not the most ideal situation. 

For a moment Alex contemplates rousing them to move to beds, but they doubt that either man would actually be able to make it to bed now that they are finally free from the adrenaline rush that had kept them going and they were crashing hard, and the sofa is comfortable enough that they ought to be alright for a nap. 

They barely rouse as it is when Alex hooks Tony Stark onto the dialysis machine and when they hook up an IV drip to help the Colonel recover quicker with a banana bag of nutrients, saline and vitamins. 

Once that is done, they sigh and settle into a chair that they were becoming all too familiar with and pick up the latest book that they had been reading from the Stark library. 

If the mansion didn't have such a good book collection or such a lovely chair, they might have been tempted to ignore the call that had come from one of the Order's nurses. But as it was, their shift had been long over and in all honesty, they had needed a break too. 

They might not be able to get any sleep, but the staff at the mansion had brewed them a nice pot of Earl Grey and they had plenty of finger sandwiches to get through along with the rest of Moby Dick. Even as they settle into the chair, they can't help but look over the three unconscious men. 

Idiots. The lot of them. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

28 June 2010 

"You are an idiot." 

It's Grimshaw's soft voice that wakes Tony up. For a while, he's not quite sure whether or not he is dreaming. But he hears Stephen's voice respond and thinks that it might not be a dream after all.  

"She was a baby Al. She deserved to live." Stephen says softly, no doubt to prevent Tony and Rhodey from waking up. The thing is, Tony does want to go back to sleep. He is exhausted . Everything feels heavy and he's not sure if he can open his eyes even if he wants to. 

"A baby that is not as important as you." Grimshaw's voice is as scathing as Tony believes he would be in the same situation. They do love Stephen still, Tony thinks. He's not sure how he feels about that. 

"You don't know that." Stephen says with a soft cajoling tone. It's a gentle tone that Tony recognises. 

"Yes I do. If she was important, she would have lived or we would have seen her. We didn't. You don't need to keep risking your life to prove that you are better than him, Stephen. Vincent is dead. He died a thousand times over at the hands of Dormammu. You have more than made up for his sins." This isn't the first time that this conversation has taken place, Tony thinks as he listens to the passionate plea in Grimshaw's voice. 

"A thousand deaths is nothing to save the universe. It was a rational sacrifice." Stephen says as if it really is nothing and Tony can't help but try to get his tired brain to wonder whether or not they were being figurative or whether or not Stephen, as Vincent really has died a thousand times. 

"Is it? It's a sacrifice no one else has made before. But you did. Stephen, there is a limit to how many times I can keep you from dying. You aren't in the loop and you aren't in the Dark Dimension anymore. If you die here, it will be permanent." Grimshaw sounds terrified and stricken. 

"I am well aware and I am grateful for everything that you have done for me." Stephen says quietly and it's clear that he is trying to calm Grimshaw down. 

Tony wonders just how long their relationship has been for them to talk so intimately like this. Tony can't help but be a little jealous. 

"Stephen, it's not about me. It's about your precious Tony Stark." Grimshaw says with an exasperated sigh. Tony feels a little bit more awake as a result of hearing his own name. 

"What do you mean?" Stephen asks and Grimshaw sighs as if he is dealing with an idiot. It's a tone that Tony is familiar with. It's the one that Grimshaw had used on him. 

"Every time you pull a stunt like this, do you not realise the impact that you are having on him? He cares for you. Loves you. When you get hurt, he gets worried and he feels pain just as you do. It's not a one way street anymore Stephen. It's not just you watching from the background seeing his pain. He is now seeing your pain." Grimshaw says and Tony feels the jealousy fade. 

They are words that Tony wants to say that he knows Stephen wouldn't fully appreciate if they came from him. Just as the words that Grimshaw had said to him had not affected him. 

"Al, I don't see how-" Tony hears the sigh. Apparently so does Stephen because he stops talking. 

"For two geniuses, you are idiots. The two of you are so desperate to protect each other that you are forgetting the value of your own lives and the importance that your well beings hold to each other." Well. That... makes sense, Tony thinks as he tries to settle back to sleep. 

As interesting as the conversation is, he knows better than to eavesdrop. But as he tries to, he hears something that grabs his attention and shakes all sleep from him. 

"Have you even told Tony Stark that you are dying?" Grimshaw says and Tony feels the alarm go through him as he waits for Stephen's answer. 

"Al, I'm not- It's not like-" Stephen tries to say but Grimshaw cuts him off. 

"Oh I'm sorry, I should have clarified. How long till you can't keep yourself focused anymore and you take your own life?" Grimshaw's sardonic voice doesn't do anything to take away from the fear that forms inside of Tony's chest. 

What the fuck were they talking about? 

"You know that I cannot be allowed to lose my mind. You have seen how dangerous the others can be. For someone like me with the power that I have- Al, I will destroy the universe." Stephen sounds serious. Grim. 

"There are other solutions to the problem. You know there are." Grimshaw says almost pleadingly and Tony needs the answer. 

"Force Anthony into a bond that he doesn't understand? No. I will be fine. I can keep myself focused. I will adjust. When- If it gets to the point where my mind is at serious risk... then we can discuss possible solutions." Stephen says but Tony knows that tone. 

That was Stephen's reassurance tone. It wasn't a tone that said that Stephen believed a word he was saying. It was him trying to quieten the other's mind. Tony wonders if Grimshaw can recognise it. Tony hopes so. 

"Stephen, you could barely manage to keep your own hands steady and you could only do it after transferring your burden to the others. You are barely functioning." Grimshaw sounds worried. Very worried. 

Tony knows that if Grimshaw is worried, he should be worried. He hears Stephen sigh. 

"It was just a bad day. I couldn't keep them steady all day. I only transferred the burden because of the baby." Stephen explains before he coughs and as he does, Tony hears the wet quality of it and he knows what it means now. 

That is alarming enough that he stirs himself and as he does, he can't help but groan. 

Everything hurts. 

Yeah. Spending however long he spent in the suit probably hadn't been a brilliant idea. Mechanically assisted or not it had been an extended workout with his muscles locked in odd positions to hold up bits of buildings etc and it apparently meant that he was definitely going to pay the price for it. 

"I'll see to him. In the meantime you try to remain still and if you cough up a lung, I swear I will put a catheter in." Grimshaw says harshly before they stand up and make their way over to Tony and helps him with a quick shot of something into his arm. 

"It's just a pain killer Dr Stark. Your muscles are locking up. That's all. You will be okay." Grimshaw says and Tony groans his response as he tries to keep his breathing down. On the other side of the room, apparently Stephen was trying to do the same. 

They made quite a pair didn't they? 

"You might as well as give me one of those too doc. I can't move either." Rhodey says from his side of the couch. Tony manages a chuckle. 

His head is filled with the information that he had just overheard. But he knows better than to show that he has heard it. 

He needs to think and he needs to deal with whatever it is that needs to be done to make sure that Stephen was going to be alright. But for now, he really should focus on the breathing thing. 

"Stephen, if you even think about getting out of that bed, I'm bringing out the full bed restraints." Grimshaw says and Tony manages to at least get his eyes open to see that Stephen had been trying to get out of the bed to only settle back into it. 

The white blankets are splattered with blood. If his lover wasn't dying of some cause that Tony couldn't understand, then he was going to die of doing something stupid to save others and dying yet again with another cause that Tony doesn't understand. 

They were definitely going to have to talk. 

Soon at that. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Sunday 

27 June 2010 

It's amazing how hearing just a few words changes his perspective.

'Have you told Tony Stark you are dying yet?' The words that Grimshaw had spoken echoes in his mind and he can't stop the fear that has settled deep in his stomach with those words and refused to go away. 

He hasn't had a chance to talk to Stephen about the conversation that he had overheard. They have spent the rest of Saturday resting up before heading back out to try to help as much as they can. 

Between the suits and getting the Maria Stark Foundation on board to help with the victims of the tragedy, Tony has been busy. 

But he wasn't the only one, obviously. Rhodey was working with him and liaising with the military to figure out exactly what had taken place. They didn't have any answers yet and Tony wasn't confident that they would get any answers. 

On top of that, Pepper was flying in to help with the Maria Stark Foundation since she was one of the Board members along with Rhodey and Tony himself, obviously, that ran the Foundation. 

Clea was working to coordinate the efforts of the Foundation, Stark Industries and the D'Arte Corporation in assisting the victims and also coordinating all of the emergency consultation requests that had flooded in for Stephen's expertise. 

For the sake of efficiency, JARVIS was working with Clea to connect Stephen to all of the hospitals and doctors via the satellite links and video conferencing. It meant that Stephen didn't have to physically go to any locations, but he was working through a great deal of data and patients to provide as much triaging and medical advice as possible to the various doctors and hospitals that requested it. 

But between all that, Tony has been watching Stephen. Trying to pick up anything that would either validate or invalidate what Grimshaw had said. 

Stephen is still incredibly pale and it's clear that whatever he did to save a baby's life has done more than cause him to just lose consciousness. Stephen has been coughing up blood on a regular basis.

Though both Stephen and Grimshaw had reassured him that it was nothing life threatening, Tony isn't reassured. Who would be when their loved one coughs up blood? 

Whilst Tony had been standing at the doorway, unwilling to interrupt, the video conference draws to a conclusion. 

When the video conference ends, the calm, collected and efficient demeanour that Stephen had been displaying all but crumbles and he half collapses back into the chair before he puts his head between his knees and breathes. 

Tony rushes over, though his bones are aching. 

Suit or no suit, getting shit thrown on top of him hurts and he has had plenty of parts of buildings fall half on him as he tried to get as many people out as possible, meant that Tony ached... everywhere .  

But it wasn't as if he can just take a few days off to recover. There were still life signs out there and if there were life signs, then Rhodey and he were going to be working. 

Rhodey was already in his suit, ready to head out. Tony had stopped by the office that Stephen had been sequestered into with JARVIS to check on his lover before he left and he's glad that he did. 

The concern and fear that he feels is more than enough to dull his own pain in favour of worrying about Stephen and his health. 

"Stephen?" Tony calls and Stephen looks up quickly and as he does, Tony sees the blue-grey eyes lose their focus as presumably the dizziness hits the doctor and he puts his head back down over his knees and breathes deeply. 

"Jesus Stephen." Tony sighs as he carefully runs a hand down his lover's back and listens as Stephen takes measured breaths. 

"You need to take a break and rest up." Tony tells him, though he knows that his lover wasn't going to listen. 

He is at least glad that Pepper, in her infinite wisdom had decided to ensure that Stark Mansion was properly upgraded and quickly at that before he and Stephen basically moved into it. 

It meant that all the holotables were set up, the keyboards and mouses that Stephen needed were set up and JARVIS ruled over the mansion to allow for stuff like this to happen. All the hidden screens helped with that too obviously, but having JARVIS reign over the Mansion meant that he could coordinate efforts like this quite efficiently with Clea to handle human interactions. 

Some people were still iffy about talking to an AI. 

"I can't." Stephen tells him quietly and Tony knows. Oh he knows. He doesn't mean that he has to like it. Stephen finally lifts his head up and gives Tony a smile that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. 

"Yeah well, you're going to wear yourself out Stephen." Tony reminds him and Stephen scoffs at him. 

"Pot. Kettle." Stephen says and Tony shrugs his shoulders. Fair enough. Neither of them were good at saying no when it was clear that help was required. 

Stephen had his calling in the medical field and though he was late to the party, Tony apparently couldn't say no to people in need of an impossible rescue. 

"You're going to be careful right?" Stephen asks him and Tony gives him the confident, arrogant grin that he is known for. 

"Of course." Tony tells him but Stephen sighs and stands up carefully. Tony too stands up as his lover does and isn't too surprised when Stephen pulls him into his arms and kisses the top of his head. 

"I'm in love with this brain of yours so don't you dare let it get hurt, okay?" Stephen asks him and it's sappy but so incredibly sweet and Tony rolls his eyes, but it doesn't stop his heart from warming at the sentiment. 

"Just the brain huh? Not my arse or my cock?" Tony asks him with a wriggle of his eyebrow and Stephen laughs as Tony had hoped that he would. They needed some goddamned levity around here. 

It's been a tough couple of days and Tony knows that when it was all over and done with, the magnitude of the tragedy was going to hit him. But it didn't. Not yet. Right now, he was so busy working his way through the tragedy to feel it or worry about it. 

It was going to be the same for all of them. 

But Tony does remember the flashes of mangled and burnt bodies, the scent of human flesh burning coming through the filtration of the suit and the horrors of knowing that children. Children died as a result of the green mutants fighting it out. 

It horrifies him to no end but he can't think about it. He has seen the news footage of the fight. He has seen the cars and buildings burning and people running and screaming. He has seen the collateral damage left behind. 

It was- Tony shakes his head. He can't think about all that. If he does, he was going to break down and cry or scream and punch something and right now, neither of those reactions were productive. 

Right now, he had to focus and work and so did Stephen. Tony takes a deep steadying breath and lets the comfort of holding his lover calm him. 

"I love them too but I love your mind and your kind heart the most." Stephen says with seriousness as he lays a hand over Tony's heart and Tony can't help but smile at that. Trust a doctor to accurately place his hand right over where his heart skips a beat at those words. 

"Well, I love your voice and that requires lungs from what I hear, so if you can stop coughing up pieces of it, I would be very grateful." Tony tells him as he pulls the doctor into a sweet and tender kiss. 

When it's done, he pulls away, though he loathes to and sighs. It's time for both of them to get back to work. 

"Alright. You do your thing, saving people and I'll do something about the city. Deal?" Tony asks and Stephen chuckles lightly and nods solemnly. 

"Deal." Stephen replies as the computer screen comes back to life and JARVIS clears his throat. 

"If you are quite done, sir, Dr Strange, I do believe both of you have work that needs doing?" JARVIS chides them gently and Tony waves his hand about. 

"I know I know, I'm going." Tony says but just before he leaves the office, he blows the doctor a kiss because he just can't resist, can he? 

Stephen gives him the smile that Tony had wanted. The one that is warm and full of his love and that makes Tony's heart fill up with his love for the doctor until he feels like it's about to burst. And just like that, he has turned into a love struck teen girl. Great. 

Stephen turns to the screen before Tony can completely lose his marbles and JARVIS puts up the hologram of the brain in question whilst the screen flashes up with the face of a doctor, Tony assumes. 

Time to go before he violates HIPAA or something, Tony thinks as he walks out of the office. 

He makes his way down to the lab and he keenly feels the strain of the last couple of days with each step. 

But he knows that as soon as he gets to the scene, he was going to forget all about his aches and pains because there were people that needed saving. 

When Pepper gets into town, they can talk about how the hell they are going to rebuild Harlem and just what they can do for the victims of the incident. 

But for now, the people didn't need Tony Stark, billionaire philanthropist. They needed Tony Stark, Iron Man. 

Even if his bones ached. 

~~~ 

Monday 

28 June 2010 

This isn't New York. 

This can't be. This broken mess isn't what Pepper knows New York as. 

The wreckage of burning cars are strewn through the streets. The pavements and asphalt broken and shattered, glass and portions of buildings everywhere and a distinct atmosphere of post-battle hellscape isn't the New York that Pepper knows and loves. 

Her heart breaks just from seeing a part of the city broken like this. 

When she thinks about the lives that are broken also by this incident, Pepper feels the tears rise as she covers her mouth with her hands at the shock that she just doesn't know how to deal with. 

At first, she had been angry at Tony for taking a break from his chelation therapy. He needed to think about himself first. That's what she had thought. Yes, it wasn't a very utilitarian thought, but Pepper wasn't utilitarian. The world can get fucked for all she cares as long as the people that she loves are safe and happy and healthy. 

Well, that wasn't quite true. Pepper wanted a peaceful and happy world and she wanted the best for all the people contained in it, but it was an abstract thought. When it came down to the line, she preferred her family and friends’ happiness and wellbeing over those of strangers. 

But... seeing this? She knows why Tony had broken his self imposed and medically required break. She had seen it on the news and had understood why Tony and Rhodey had gone to the scene but she had still been upset that Tony was involved when he needed to heal. 

Seeing this though? She understands why he came and more importantly, why he continues to work with the NYPD and NYFD to clear up the site of the tragedy.

Pepper also understands why Tony and Rhodey had insisted that the Maria Stark Foundation get on top of this as soon as possible.

The reports that she has gotten are... tragic. Most of the residents that were affected by the incident were low income families living paycheck to paycheck. Between the deaths, the destruction of the small businesses that were barely surviving as it is and the medical bills that were going to come out of those that are injured? 

There were people that were going to lose everything

That and from the reports, even the buildings that were standing now may have to come down due to the structural damage done that renders them unsafe and uninhabitable. 

It takes Pepper a while to understand the true scale of the tragedy. It was one thing to see it on the pages of the reports she got, it was another to see it in person. 

Pepper takes a deep breath and wipes away the tears that had started to form and takes a deep breath. 

"We... are going to fix this somehow. Right?" Clea asks from just behind her and Pepper takes a deep breath, releases it and turns to look at her friend and personal assistant before nodding curtly. 

"Yes. Yes we are. I don't care what it takes. We are fixing this." Pepper tells her and Clea nods slowly. Pepper means it. 

The people of Harlem didn't do anything wrong. All they were doing was going about their everyday lives until two mutants or whatever they were, decided to crash land in their part of the city and break everything down. 

They were true victims and Pepper had nothing but sympathy for them and luckily for her, she had access to resources and thus, the ability to help and that's exactly what she was going to do. 

"Let's go and find the Mayor and Tony." Pepper suggests and Clea nods to her. 

It's precarious to walk along the path towards the emergency tents, but Pepper and Clea both manage. 

It helps that they both dressed in pants suits and had chosen to wear flat shoes rather than high heels. They looked good and professional but they were also comfortable. Pepper had always been practical. 

As they make their way to the tent, the smell of death, fire and destruction fills her nose. Pepper doesn't grimace though she wants to. If she was going to help, then she needed to feel and understand what it was like for the victims. What it is like for the victims. 

There is nothing worse than charity done without understanding and considering the needs of the victims. Pepper needed to understand. Even if it was breaking her heart to do so. 

"We could have helped." Pepper hears Clea mutter in the background and turns to look at the distressed young woman. She sees what Clea is seeing. 

The charred remains of a child's doll.

The image of the child's doll burnt and left on the sidewalk in the crumbled remains of a building is tragic enough on its own. But Pepper's eyes picks up the detail that had made her friend stop and break. 

Burnt skin. 

Pepper turns around and quickly pulls Clea into her arms, making sure that her friend wasn't looking at the doll. 

Pepper is taller than Clea by quite a bit and it's easy to hold her tightly in her arms and to make sure that she can't see, hear or smell anything but Pepper for a moment. 

Pepper is glad that she had definitely worn her perfume and deodorant or this could have been awkward. Thinking about that mundane detail helps her to be distracted from the horror of what she is seeing and what the implications are. 

Clea is stiff in her arms, but Pepper holds her tightly and runs a soothing hand down her friend's hair. 

"We are going to help Clea. We are. You've already been helping with all the coordination. You've helped so many people. We- We can't think about all the people that haven't made it. Not right now. Later, when we have time, we can think about them and grieve for them. But right now, we have people that need our help." Pepper tells her. 

She keeps her voice soft and kind but firm. 

There is activity everywhere. Firemen, police officers, EMTs, running about here and there. Others are waiting for a rescue attempt to be done by Tony and Rhodey. Yet more were searching with dogs. There were lines of family members behind the police tape, hoping and praying for news of their family members. 

It was hell. 

But for the time being, Pepper and Clea were in an island of quiet and calm. They needed this moment. Eventually, Clea's breathing calms down and Pepper feels the wet patch on her shirt. She doesn't mind. The dark blue business shirt barely shows the stain. 

"I'm sorry." Clea tells her, but Pepper shushes her friend and hands her a handkerchief to wipe down her tears and hands her a compact with a mirror as well. Nothing like a spot of crying to ruin the eye make up. 

"Don't be sorry Clea. I needed that hug as much as you did." Pepper tells her and they share a small smile of comfort with each other before they both take deep breaths. 

She means it too. Just like any other situation when there is chaos or strong emotions, when someone needs help, Pepper finds that she can focus better. She can put aside her own emotions and concentrate on helping the person that needs help and then handle the situation. 

Pepper was going to have her break down soon. It was inevitable in a situation like this. And she knows that when she does, Clea was going to be there to help her as she has been helped. 

They can keep each other supported through this hell. Just like they will do with the rest of their odd group of friends, colleagues, family... whatever they may be with Tony, Stephen and Rhodey. 

"Alright. Let's get this done." Clea says and Pepper couldn't agree more. 

~~~ 

Tuesday 

29 June 2010 

They are done. 

Even the most sensitive equipment that Stark Industries has can't pick up any more life signs. Neither can the dogs or... magic. 

There were still 4 people missing. Unaccounted for. Then there were the list of the dead that... Stephen frankly can't think about. 

All the surgeries on the patients that had been brought in by the tragedy was sorted. Not... all of them have made through their surgery or even had been able to be... saved prior to surgery. 

Stephen has had to make some tough calls with the doctors and the resources available. He had gritted his teeth through it all. 

But now, it was over and there was nothing more that he could do. Other than to rewind time and put the universe at risk. And that was something that he knew that he could not do. 

So. 

Stephen looks down at his trembling hands. 

Logically, he is aware that even if he was able to work as a surgeon and go through the surgeries himself, no more lives could have been saved. All of the ORs had been working full time. 

He had gone through countless patients with spine and brain injuries suffered as a result of the Hulk and the Abomination's battle in the heart of Harlem. Or at the very least, dealt with their scans, their doctors and their families. 

He has had to pass on too many bad news to families. He knows that he has a bad bedside manner. But it doesn't mean that he doesn't care. 

His heart broke with each bad news he had delivered. His brain was exhausted and his mind and his soul was breaking apart with the sheer tragedy of it all. 

They hadn't been prepared for this. 

This was his fault. 

No. It's not. He knows that... rationally. Even with the Time Stone and all the universes that he has seen, he had always known that there would be events that he can't prevent. 

They had taken cautionary measures with Harlem. They had put up wards and spells to ensure that the buildings wouldn’t collapse until everyone was out of it. But they hadn't counted on the gas lines being damaged and all the fires that would occur. 

They hadn't counted on vehicles being burnt with people in them. 

They hadn't counted on the vehicles being used as weapons by the Hulk and the collateral damage of that. They hadn't- 

Stephen needs to stop. 

But his brain runs through the cycles of all the things that have gone wrong. All the things that he should have fixed. All the things that he should have considered. 

But they hadn't known when the incident would occur. The Time Stone didn't give him dates. It gave him a timeline of events but it didn't tell him exactly when something would happen. 

He had been caught off guard by the Harlem incident. 

He had been so focused on Tony and his therapy. 

No. 

It's not the therapy that Stephen had been focused on. It had been Tony himself. Because he was the only thing that was holding Stephen together. 

With the Connection being stretched so far between the God of Mischief and himself, Stephen had focused so hard on Tony and being able to feel him at all times and their Connection and their growing Bond that he had... forgotten about Harlem and what was going to happen there. 

And people died. 

Because of his distraction, because of his inability to focus, people had died

The anger that burns inside of him isn't against the Hulk or the Abomination. Not really. It is against himself and he hates himself for not being able to prevent the tragedy. 

They had done it so beautifully at the Expo. But they had failed here. He had failed here. The pent up anger burns up inside of him. 

Stephen paces the ensuite bathroom of the bedroom that he shares with Tony in the Stark Mansion. 

Tony is resting. 

He needs the rest. He is exhausted by the physical strains of being in the suit for extended periods of time in awkward positions. Stephen knows that every muscle in Tony's body hurts because he shares the pain. 

But that's not all. 

Tony is just as upset and just as broken by the incident as Stephen is. Tragedies, human tragedies are not easy to witness, let alone to be a part of and they have both been a part of it and have witnessed it. 

They both witnessed people dying. Had been there as people had taken their final breaths. They had seen the dead bodies. They had seen the remnants of the lives that were destroyed in the apartments, the broken buildings and cars. 

Those images were never going to leave their minds. 

Tony works through his emotions with work. He has been working in the lab. He has been working on video conferences to get help organised. He and Rhodey were working with Pepper to do what they can for the people of Harlem. 

It is how Tony dealt with the situation. Stephen saw the pain in his lover's eyes. He saw it etched on Clea, Wong, Yinn... all the other Order members and the Council. On Pepper and on Rhodey. On the faces of the first responders. 

It all could have been prevented. 

If only- Stephen takes a deep breath. Then another. Then another. 

It doesn't help. 

The anger burns inside of him until he just has to let it out. And he does. 

Stephen isn't even aware that he had done it until he sees the blood coursing down his hand and he sees the shattered mirror in front of him. 

"Stephen?!" The alarmed call of his lover makes Stephen realise just what he had done and he looks at the blood streaked on the mirror, the bits of the mirror embedded into his hand. 

It is only when he looks down that the pain registers. 

His hand screams with pain and he groans as he curls into himself. 

Shit. 

Suddenly Tony is there. He is pulling Stephen carefully away from the mirror fragments. At least Stephen had worn his slippers into the bathroom. Tony is barefoot. But he still pulls Stephen carefully out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. 

"J, hit the lights and let's get Eliza up here. She's got a nursing license." Tony is strangely calm as he helps Stephen into the bedroom and helps him sit down on a chair before grabbing a pair of sleep pants and putting them on. 

Tony had gone to bed naked as he usually does. 

Stephen watches the proceedings as if he isn't a part of it. All he can feel is the pain and it feels cathartic. It feels like the punishment he deserves for letting all those people die. Suffer. 

This is what he deserves, he thinks. 

He remembers all their names. All the names of the patients that he chose not to save as Vincent. He also remembers the names of all the patients that he could not save through his life as Stephen. 

He has seen the names of the deceased that has come out of this incident. He remembers them all. 

They are the names that are his to carry. His burden to carry. He doesn't believe in the ledger as Natasha Romanov. But if he did, his ledger would be running red with the blood of the innocents that he couldn't save. 

There's another list in Stephen's head of all the lives that he had taken with his own hands. 

Stephen looks down at his hand and sees the blood streaming from his knuckles and the back of his hand even as Tony kneels by the chair and tries to take a look, 

"Stephen, baby, why did you do this?" Tony asks him softly. It's not an accusing voice. It's not an angry voice. It's a heart broken voice and Stephen looks blankly at him for a moment. 

"Keith Jamerson. Carl Whitaker. Stephanie Wilson. Lawrence Whi-" Stephen starts to say and Tony looks at him with the question clear on his face as he interrupts him. 

"Stephen who are those people?" Tony asks him and Stephen looks at him, wondering what Tony will think when he realises that Stephen is a monster that has let all those lives go. 

"The ones I couldn't save. The ones that died." Stephen says and his voice breaks. Tony takes a sharp breath in before he sighs and moves. 

Tony climbs onto his lap and wraps his arms around Stephen until Stephen buries his head into the warm embrace of his lover. 

"You can't save everyone Stephen. I couldn't. I have a list of names in my head too. All the lives that I couldn't save. But we can't focus on them. If we do, we will never be able to get anything done. So... let's focus on the good stuff. Let's focus on all the lives that you saved. Do you remember their names?" Stephen does. 

He has a photographic memory. Of course he does. He looks up at Tony, who gives him a gentle kiss. 

"I know you're hurting right now and I'm so sorry that you are. But we are going to get through this, okay?" Tony asks and Stephen can only nod. 

With Tony this close, he does feel calmer. 

Stephen knows rationally that the reaction that he had felt, the anger, the self hatred and the pain is a part of the imbalance of emotions that he is feeling because of the way that his soul was being pulled in two different directions. 

And somewhere in his lines of cycling dark thoughts, he had lost focus on Tony and the grounding effects of the Connection with him. 

It had led him into a spiral of dark emotions and pain and he hadn't been able to get himself out of it. 

But Tony does. 

His love and his warmth does. Stephen buries his head into his lover's shoulder and let's Tony ground him, focus him, make him whole, even if it is just for this moment when they are this close to each other. 

Eventually, as Tony had requested, JARVIS was going to rouse Eliza and get her to come up to the bedroom with the medical kit to help sort out Stephen's hand. 

His already scarred hands will add a few more scars to it. But he knows he didn't do any permanent damage to it. At least he hopes he hadn't. 

But for now, Stephen focuses on Tony, his love and his acceptance of him. Even this dark, lost side of him that he knows must be new to Tony. 

Stephen wonders vaguely if Tony will continue to love him when he learns about everything that Stephen is and what he has done and what he has... promised to do. 

He already knows the answer to that question. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Tuesday

29 June 2010

Sergeant Jason Blunt has been working in the 28th Precinct since he had been a greenhorn in the job. Coming from a proud blue blooded family, he had been so proud to graduate and become a police officer and been assigned to the 28th. 

Oh, he wasn't going to lie and say that it had been a smooth ride. It hasn't been.

Over the years, he has seen shit that he wished he had never seen. He has experiences that were best left to movies and TV shows where they got everything about the job wrong.

No one ever really talked about the bureaucracy or the paperwork. Oh, God, the paperwork. But hey, he guesses it's not really that sexy or interesting to see how detectives doing paperwork all day and night to get approvals for shit.

No one talks about the good old Oscar Tango either. The shitload of Overtime required to get shit done the way that it's meant to, the wrangling that it takes to get it approved from the bosses to begin with and then actually doing the OT and finding themselves exhausted and struggling to get themselves home at the end of the day.

God, if TV dramas or movies were honest about being cops, no one would join the job. But it wasn't all bad. Knowing that there was a community to serve, people to protect and good that he can be doing has always gotten him out of bed.

Yeah, there are days when he'd gone home and refused to talk to his wife and his kids and holed himself in the den and drank himself to sleep. He's not proud of it, but it's just what he sometimes needed.

After seeing the chaos that had hit his patrol though, he had gone home and hugged his kids and his wife and thanked God that his family was safe and well.

Then he had gone straight back to work again.

There was too much to be done and this time, there were no restrictions on overtime. The department was going to have a shitload of drama after, no doubt, to try to balance the books and to try to make sure that all the First Responders got their mandatory psych evaluations done, but for now they were just working through it all.

Blunt still remembers dealing with 9/11 and the fall out from that. There had been no patrol borders during that and any available man and woman was asked to help and he had.

That had been bad. He was never going to be able to go anywhere near the site without remembering the smell of- yeah. He's not even able to pretend that he hadn't been affected by that.

But this is different.

This is his patrol. His community. His people. His officers. There were going to be funerals after funerals to attend when this mess has been dealt with and he's not sure if he has the heart for that. 

But then apparently, neither did anyone else involved. 

This tragedy was different to all the others that he has dealt with in two ways. For one, it had been caused by... superhumans or monsters. He wasn't sure which yet and neither were his bosses or the media. 

But this tragedy was also being handled by superheroes. That added a dimension that Blunt certainly hadn't been trained to deal with nor had ever expected. 

Instead of waiting around for equipment to be brought in to scan for life signs, to judge the stability of a building or dealing with the phone companies to try to get triangulation on the phone calls that came through for help, they had Iron Man and War Machine doing all of those jobs all at once. 

Blunt had been aware of Iron Man and Tony Stark, of course he had. He had seen what had happened at the Expo. He had received the necessary training the department had deemed necessary to work with the superheroes that Tony Stark and Colonel Rhodes have become, but to see them in action had been... overwhelming. 

It also vastly changed the way that he viewed the two men. 

He had thought that it was just a phase, just a side hobby for a billionaire with too much money and time on his hands, but Tony Stark didn't just show up and work in front of the media for the first day, but he continued to work through the night and returned after taking breaks over and over again. 

Dealing with him and Colonel Rhodes had also been by no means as difficult as he had assumed that it would be. 

Tony Stark was surprisingly easy to talk to. 

When he was out of the suit and talking to the Mayor of the Commissioners of Police and Fire Department, he was every part the businessman and hero that Blunt had seen on the news, but when he was working with the ground crew, he was willing to listen to suggestions and worked to their directions and requirements without a word of complaint. 

He joked with them, sharing their dark humour that they used to deal with the horrible situation and he took breaks with them too, eating snacks with them and refusing to accept the special treatment that he could demand. He worked as hard as they all did, if not harder. 

Tony Stark and Colonel Rhodes took on dangerous situations without blinking an eye. It was admirable. 

Tony Stark, Blunt found, was surprisingly down to earth and human. He was hit by the magnitude of the tragedy just as much as Blunt and his officers had been. He was just as hurt and just as upset and just as determined to fix the situation. 

But he wasn't just determined in fixing what is broken in Harlem. Tony Stark and Rhodey wanted to make Harlem better. They also made it clear that it wasn't going to be a momentary thing. They were going to continue to stay and work with Harlem and its residents until everything was fixed. 

They weren't empty words either, considering the fact that they were holding a town hall with the victims, the first responders as well as the community leaders. 

Blunt didn't attend because he was asked to represent the NYPD, but because he simply wanted to see what the men would do and he was amazed by how attentive they are as they listen to the issues raised by in the Town Hall. 

"What we really need are the answers. What happened and who the hell caused all this damage?" One of the outraged victims ask. It's not an unreasonable question, but it is an unfair one to ask of the men that didn't have those answers. 

"Yeah, I agree with that. I would love to be able to give you some answers there, but we don't have any. Something official will no doubt come out soon, but for now, let's focus on rebuilding what's broken and make it better." Tony Stark says smoothly as he moves onto another raised hand. 

It's clear that he is exhausted. 

Even with the sharp suit that he is wearing, Blunt can see the signs of exhaustion etched deep into Tony Stark's face and in Colonel Rhode's face as they speak to the community members. 

"How do you plan to fix Harlem? Are you really going to be funding all the rebuilding?" Another question is thrown and Tony Stark looks at Colonel Rhodes and Ms Virginia Potts for a moment before she takes the question. 

"The Maria Stark Foundation will be helping the victims of the incident with housing and basic expenses as we have already been doing. We will also be pulling some of the resources from Stark Industries construction arm to see what we can help rebuild for the city. We will be working with the New York City Mayoral Office as well as the State Government to work out where we can help the most." Pepper Potts says quietly into the mic. 

There is a quiet dignity and charisma about her that makes people sit up and pay attention. She slowly explains what the process would be to rebuild and the fact that it wasn't going to happen overnight. 

"If there is one thing we have learned from working with the Maria Stark Foundation it has been that it is best to listen to the community in terms of the assistance that we should be providing. That's why we asked you to come here." Pepper says and Blunt feels his respect for the trio go up another level.

Whenever tragedy happened, people scrambled so quickly to help that at times, resources were wasted or the resources provided didn't meet the requirements or the needs of the people that needed the assistance. 

Their approach of actually talking to the victims to assess what their individual needs were and working with the community in the rebuilding project was admirable. 

It was an effort that Blunt knew that they didn't need to put in. The media were already glowing with praise for the work that Iron Man and War Machine have done and what the Maria Stark Foundation has already done to help the victims. 

If it was something that they merely did for the media, there was no need for long term plans. There was no need for a Town Hall where they were peppered with questions. But it was clear to Blunt that the three of them were in it for the long haul and he had to truly appreciate and respect that. 

"Fixing everything is going to take a lot of time. It's going to be difficult for all of you until we can get there. But we will do everything that we can to make sure that we get you through this incident." Colonel Rhodes says quietly and there is a quiet murmur of appreciation that goes through the crowd. 

Blunt doesn't stay for the rest of the Town Hall. There's no need to. He's seen what he had wanted to see. 

Superheros that weren't just there for the start of the incident but those that will step out of their powerful suits to become true heroes for the people that they have sworn to protect. 

Blunt may not be a superhero, but seeing Colonel Rhodes and Tony Stark and what they were willing to do for his community gives Blunt the boost that he has needed after the tragedy. 

He might not have a metal suit, but he can still be a hero to his community. That's the job that he has signed up for and a motto he believes in. 

Serve and Protect. 

~~~ 

Thursday 

1 July 2010 

Clea watches Stephen like a hawk. 

If she concentrates, she can see the flow of dimensional energies around his body and know how he is doing in terms of his energy levels and how his control is holding. 

And it's not good news. 

The distance between Loki and Stephen was great and the Connection being stretched so far was... unprecedented. But then there was no record of anyone being Connected to a being that is fundamentally an alien. 

Some Soulmates struggled when they were apart for a week across the country, just as Stephen had when he first Connected with Tony and had to wait to be able to see him and contact him again. 

For that Connection to be stretched across the fucking universe? 

That... Clea and the Council couldn't even fathom what the implications of that could mean. They were hopeful, as Stephen had been, that with Tony Stark being his other Soulmate, Stephen would somehow be able to hold on to his control and his focus. 

But that too was an unknown situation. 

There was no records throughout the Order of anyone having two Soulmates. But then their Universe was so vastly different from the other universes that Stephen had seen that they have no way of deciphering what the implications were of Stephen having two Soulmates. 

It's an impossibility. 

An impossibility that was obviously happening and obviously had implications and consequences that they had to try to figure out. 

The biggest problem was Stephen's unwillingness to go into details. Clea got the distinct feeling that something more took place between Stephen and Loki during their meeting than he was willing to disclose. 

That meeting with Loki had shaken Stephen more than he was willing to admit to them. Clea knew that. 

She's not sure how she would feel if she was deeply in love with someone only to find out that there was another that was meant for her. It would shake the very foundations of her beliefs and her life, she knew that. 

But there was something more than that. There had been fear in Stephen's eyes when he talked about Loki that worried her. Stephen was the strongest person that she knew and for him to feel fear

It was terrifying to her. 

He had refused to put the memory of the incident onto the Memory Stone to share with the Council. He usually did for important incidents. But he hadn't. 

Their ability to monitor the situation had been blocked by the shields that Stephen had put up around the clearing and they only had Stephen's version of the events to go on. It wasn't that they doubted Stephen, it was that they just didn't have enough information. 

Between that and the fact that Stephen was spending a lot of time with Tony, which meant that he wasn't getting new visions with Loki involved from the Time Stone and the gaps in the knowledge as far as Loki was concerned overall, it just made everything difficult and all the more concerning for the Council and for Clea.

It didn't help that Stephen wasn't... doing well. 

Not that anyone was doing well. The Harlem incident had hit everyone hard. Pepper was struggling to deal with what she had seen of the death and destruction even in the aftermath. Clea, if she was being honest with herself, was struggling with the same. 

It was difficult to hear the stories from the victims of the terrors that they had felt. The physical homes and the memories that had been contained therein that had been lost to the fires and collapses. The family members and friends that they had lost. The businesses and livelihoods that had been destroyed... all of it had shattered Clea's heart. 

Between that knowledge and the knowledge of the power and ability that the Order had to prevent disasters and their inability to act on time for this particular situation? There was an added layer of guilt that she felt that she knew Stephen felt heavily upon his shoulders. 

Tony and Rhodey were struggling with having seen the death and destruction first hand right after the incident as they struggled to rescue people. They suffered both physically and mentally as a result of that. 

It was Stephen that took the incident the hardest though. 

He blamed himself for not having known when the incident would take place. He had brought up the fact that had he had the foresight to use the Time Stone to gauge when the incident would occur, they could have been in place and prevented a lot of the deaths that took place. 

But hindsight was always 20/20. 

At the time, they had no reason to believe that the Harlem incident would take place so close to the Expo and the Vanko incident. And unlike the other incidents which was linked to Tony in someway and thus they had seen millions of variations of and was able to gauge generally around what time it would occur, the Harlem incident had always been up in the air. 

They just... could not have known. 

But Stephen blames himself regardless. It's a guilt that they can't dissuade him away from carrying. Apart from that, Stephen also blamed himself for the deaths of the patients that he had overseen but hadn't been able to save. 

With magic, he could have saved a lot more patients than he had been able to do as a doctor, but between the need to keep magic a secret still from the world and from Tony and SHIELD, his hands had been tied. 

Stephen knew that. 

But he blamed himself and it was wearing heavily on his mind and on him physically. Stephen was spiralling into deep depression and Clea didn't know what she could do to help. 

She knew that time would help. Them being there for him would help. But until Stephen was willing to ask for help, she wasn't sure what she could do more than what she was already doing. 

The Council and Wong in particular, believed that it was the lack of balance in his soul that was causing the difficulties for Stephen. Clea was on board with that theory. 

When Stephen was with Tony, he was calmer and his emotions were more easily held in check and he was generally brighter and happier. But when he was outside of the Mansion and away from Tony, it was almost as if he just couldn't stay focused and he couldn't keep himself from falling into the dark depression that rose up to claim him. 

Clea was terrified for him. 

She knew that the Soul Connection being stretched was going to have an effect and she was wondering whether or not this was it. Stephen's soul, being torn apart in two different directions until his mind and body shatters in the pressure of it all. 

She hopes not. 

Or that Stephen would not be able to keep his focus on Tony and the Connection between them and to keep himself focused and grounded and his magic would go out of control. But, there was fail safes put in place for that. 

Fail safes that frankly terrified Clea. 

Stephen had placed them on himself when he realised that Tony Stark was his Soulmate. When he had worried about what would happen in the case of a rejection. 

The spell was a deceptively simple one for being so insidious. If Stephen ever lost focus completely and began to lose control of his mind and his magic, the spell embedded in Stephen by his own hand, would take his life. 

One fell swoop and Stephen would be dead and Clea can't. She can't deal with that. It's an elaborate form of suicide that breaks her heart and not knowing where his mental state is and how his focus is doing by just looking at him, she's terrified that at any moment, Stephen would just stop... breathing. 

It makes her watch him closer than she had ever had as his cousin, niece, friend and bodyguard. 

She wishes that she could convince him to talk to Tony. To tell him what is happening so that Tony could be there for him more. Perhaps to take a break from the practice, hell even close it down, but Stephen won't. 

She knows that. 

For him the practice and all the patients that he sees is a way of redeeming himself from his past as Vincent and choosing glory and fame over the lives of the patients that had needed his help. 

As far as Clea was concerned, yes, that kind of wasn't cool, but it wasn't a war crime that demanded that for the rest of his life, Stephen sacrifice himself over and over again to save the life of one person. Over his life as Stephen, he had done more than enough to make up for the lives that he hadn't saved. 

He had died 1082 times at the hands of Dormammu to save the planet of 7 billion people for Vishanti's sake. That should have made up for his past mistakes. 

But Stephen didn't feel that way. 

Clea sighs as she looks over the records of the next patient coming through to the practice. Stephen's calendar was jam packed with patients for the next three months. 

To cancel on all of them would be cruel. She knows that. But she's not sure how Stephen was going to survive being away from Tony every day for 10 to 12 hours for three days of the week when it wasn't even afternoon and his energies were already shifting about and barely being kept in check. 

Clea takes a deep breath and grabs her phone. 

Stephen may not agree, but at the very least, with the Council and her and the other Masters taking over the burdens of the Sanctums and the Kamar-Taj and maintaining the shields, there was a chance that it would lighten his burdens and help him keep focused. 

There was always that bit of Stephen that was focused on this spells after all. That, and it would honestly help if they can start to look for a solution that Stephen will accept. 

So far, the only solution the Council had come up with was to run the spell that would forcefully mature the Bond between Tony and Stephen so that even when Stephen was away from Tony, he could feel the inventor as closely as if they were in the same room and rely on that. 

They have done similar things for other sorcerers Connected to non-magic users to ensure that when a rejection happens, the magic user doesn't lose control. 

But for someone like Stephen, who is honestly far too fucking powerful for his own damned good, they really couldn't be sure of what the consequences of such a Bond could be for Tony. 

They can't be sure as to whether he would feel it, whether or not it would affect his soul somehow or his emotions or his mind. They couldn't know what the backlash would be, what the price would be and certainly what it would mean when Stephen was also Connected to the Norse God of Mischief. 

With all the unknowns and the problem of Stephen not wanting to impose something as big as a Bond between souls on the man that he loves, who doesn't understand what a Soul Connection even is to begin with, is both logical and... ethical. 

The Order, as he had put it, was an organisation created to protect the Universe and the reality. They were meant to help people. Not to experiment on them or to cause any harm. They were meant to be better than that. They weren't meant to abuse their power and impose their will. 

Stephen won't let the Order lose sight of what they were meant to be. A force to be a shield for the billions that lived on their planet. Not it's quiet ruler.  

Given that belief, the last thing that Stephen would agree to is to place the Bond on Tony without his fully informed consent. 

Which... made things certainly... difficult. 

The next Council meeting was going to be an interesting one at any rate. Clea hopes that they can come up with a solution. But she doubts that they will. They haven't had the time needed to think everything through as they dealt with the crisis in Harlem. 

She sighs as she looks at the full waiting room and musters up a smile to give the patients and their families just in time for Stephen to come out. 

"Thank you Dr Strange. I... Thank you." The patient says and Stephen gives them a small smile and accepts their gratitude before calling in the next patient. 

JARVIS keeps the records of the patient's visit for Stephen and Clea and she's not quite sure how they managed the practice before he had come into their lives through Tony. 

Stephen pauses as he looks over the patients and turns to Clea. 

"I- I need a moment Clea. Can you give me ten minutes?" Stephen asks quietly and Clea nods. She can see his focus fading. She can see the dimensional energies shifting and she can't help but feel the worry at her throat as Stephen goes back into the room. 

Clea gives a reassuring smile to the patients even as she feels the slow panic building inside of her. She sends the message to Wong to organise the Council. 

They can't wait until next weekend. They were going to need to come up with something now. At the very least to take the burden from Stephen's shoulders and give him at least one less thing to worry about. 

Clea doesn't know if Stephen can last till May. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

3 July 2010 

Stephen breathes a sigh of relief. 

As loathe as he was to admit it, keeping his focus whilst away from Tony has become more and more difficult. It was hard to keep his magic in check, to be the open channel that he needed to be to sustain the power required for the Sanctums and for the Kamar-Taj to function and continue to shield the planet.  

The Council's decision and insistence that they bear that burden had been... a kind consideration of his situation and though he hated to burden others with what was essentially his responsibility, they had been right. 

He couldn't keep the spell going at the back of his mind when he was struggling to focus on keeping his own magic, his emotions and his soul in check. 

He was speeding along to the breaking point fast and the Council had caught him just in time to ensure that he wouldn't break too soon. 

It was a temporary stopgap measure. 

Not having the burden of the spell was great, but it didn't change anything about his situation. His soul strained and his mind was suffering as he struggled to keep his focus on Tony and the Connection at all times even as he tried to go about his day to day life. 

He was asking a lot of himself and of the Council. He was aware of that. But he can't just shut down his practice. 

But that wasn't the only problem. 

There is an emptiness inside of him and Stephen hungers to be filled. The emotional need to be filled has slowly translated itself to the physical and it's a hunger that burns through his body until he can't contain it anymore. 

The moment he gets back to the Mansion, Stephen feels Tony's presence at the back of his mind start to fill the void in his mind as it does, he feels the hunger rise. 

Stephen's magic, his soul, his very self reaches out towards Tony and the Bond growing between them and he immediately knows where the genius is. 

The lab. 

Of course Tony is in the lab. He is one of those lucky people whose job and whose hobbies are perfectly aligned. 

Stephen walks into the lab and his eyes zero in on where Tony is immediately. He hurries over to his lover and before the genius can even register that he is home and greet him, Stephen is turning him around and kissing him hard. 

Tony's lips open under the onslaught of Stephen's kisses and Stephen delves in. He wants to devour his lover. He wants to fill himself with Tony until he doesn't feel so empty anymore. 

It's a primal need of a human being not to be alone. 

"Please, Anthony. Please- I- I need you." Stephen mutters out between the desperate kisses. Stephen can see from Tony's eyes that he is puzzled, but this isn't the first time Stephen had been desperate for him like this. 

In fact, each time he had spent any time away from Tony, he had come back to the man desperate to be fucked. 

Stephen knew that Tony didn't mind. Luckily for him, Tony liked sex. More importantly, Tony liked having sex with Stephen and he liked being inside of Stephen as much as Stephen needed Tony inside of him. 

The hunger demands to be fed. 

Stephen is already hard. He's been hard since he had entered the mansion. Stephen bends himself over the worktable that Tony had been working on and looks back at Tony with his desperate plea in his eyes. 

"God Stephen, I'm definitely not complaining, but what has gotten into you lately?" Tony asks him, but even as he does, he grabs the bottle of lube that they keep in the lab and takes Stephen's pants down and starts to prep him. 

Stephen wishes that they can just skip the prep and he can just be filled with Tony. Now. He doesn't care if there is pain. He doesn't care if he was going to be hurt by it. He just needs to be filled. He just needs that emptiness to go away. 

In a little while, once he's been fucked and once he can focus properly again, Stephen knows that he was going to be ashamed of his behaviour. He was going to hate himself a little for using Tony to fill the emptiness left behind by Loki. 

But for now, he can't think about that. 

In fact, he can't think at all. All he can do is beg and moan like a cheap whore as Tony inserts his thick, calloused finger inside of him and spreads the lube in him as he looks for that sweet spot that makes Stephen moan and pant with need. 

"Tony- I- Please." Stephen isn't even sure what the hell he is trying to say or if he is trying to say anything at all. He is just muttering words between the moans and the pants in vain hopes that his lover will hurry up. 

Tony doesn't though. 

Tony is too considerate. He slowly spreads Stephen open and prepares him properly and by the time that Tony does take him, it's slow and gentle. It's not the hard and fast fuck that Stephen had hungered for, but it doesn't matter. 

Tony is inside of him and as he feels his rim stretch around the thick and hard cock inside of him, Stephen feels like he can breathe again. The physical contact with his Soulmate helps to ground him. Helps him to focus. 

Stephen feels his head clear as he breathes to relax his body to accept Tony. It's... always a bit of a challenge when Tony is fucking him. Tony's girth means that there is always more of a stretch than what is comfortable unless they spend a lot of time prepping and opening Stephen up. 

Luckily for Stephen, he doesn't mind the stretch and the mild burn that he feels with each and every time they fuck. For him, it adds to the pleasure. 

Stephen raises his upper body so that he can kiss Tony. It's an odd angle and the kiss is sloppy, but whilst it adjusts, it's exactly what he needs. 

With his head clearing up, Stephen knows that he was going to have to explain to Tony what was happening to him. Eventually. The genius was going to pick up on the pattern quite quickly. Tony was observant. 

He was going to notice that Stephen's behaviour has changed. That Stephen was having difficulty focusing when they talk over the phone. That there were times when Stephen was distracted and his emotions were all over the place. 

But Stephen doesn't know how to tell his lover about Loki when Tony doesn't even understand what Soulmates are. Not when Stephen can't reveal magic and the Soul Connection to him without risking the end of the fucking universe. 

It's a conundrum within a conundrum. 

"I don't know what's happening with you lately baby, but I will admit, it's kind of fucking hot how desperate you are for me." Tony whispers against his ear and Stephen moans as the soft breaths caress his ear. 

Good, Stephen thinks as he lays back down onto the table and Tony grasps his hips and starts to move. 

Tony pulls out partially before he slams himself back in and Stephen loses all his trains of thoughts. There is only the pleasure of Tony's cock dragging over his prostate. There is only the pleasure of knowing that he was being filled by Tony and the Bond coming to life between them, being fed by their close contact with each other. 

There is the Connection and the love that Stephen can feel through it now. 

Stephen is filled with Tony and surrounded by Tony. Just what he had hungered for all throughout the Council meeting. 

Once Tony was confident that he wasn't going to hurt Stephen, he doesn't hold back. He fucks into Stephen with a regular, steady rhythm and it feels good. 

The lab fills with the sound of flesh hitting flesh, moans, groans, pants and cries as they start to reach their climax. 

It's Stephen who comes first.

Stephen comes with a cry that leaves a harsh note in his throat and tightens his walls around Tony. He feels the genius's hips falter as he fucks his orgasm into Stephen before collapsing on top of him. 

That was another problem. 

Tony was in the middle of his chelation therapy. He was taking to it quite well, but he was still aching and he was still dizzy and nauseous as a result of both his poisoning itself and the therapy to get rid of it. 

It meant that medically speaking, Stephen should not be encouraging Tony to be fucking anyone let alone himself. But Tony never said no to him when Stephen wanted sex. Just as Stephen never says no to Tony. 

It meant that Stephen was not only affecting his own health, but the health of his lover through his hunger and desperation for the man. 

And that... that was the real problem. 

That was why he had accepted the Council's offer to take the burden of channelling power to the Sanctums and the Kamar-Taj. That was why he agreed to them looking for other solutions. 

But for now, Tony was his life line. 

The only one that can keep him sane and can keep him focused and himself whilst they wait to find another solution to his reliance on Tony for his very sense of self. 

In the heat of the moment when he is so desperate, he can't think. Not even about Tony and his health. He just... needs. Stephen was going to have to get himself under control. He can't keep risking Tony's health because he's desperate for the close contact with his lover. 

Tony kisses the back of his neck. 

Tony has been doing that a lot lately. When they fuck like this, when Tony is behind Stephen, he talks more. He touches Stephen and kisses him and reminds him over and over that he is not... Loki. 

It helps to keep the fear down. In all honesty, if Tony hadn't been his Soulmate, Stephen knows that accepting any sexual contact may have been difficult after what happened with Loki. At least for awhile. 

Even now, if Tony was particularly angry or upset and he could feel that through the Connection, Stephen isn't sure if he could... stop himself from going back to that clearing with Loki and drowning in the fear that will no doubt come his way. 

But Tony is his Soulmate and Tony makes it entirely too impossible for Stephen not to feel Tony and his presence. Stephen knows that it is deliberate. 

And for that, he was always going to be grateful. 

"Was that enough baby?" Tony asks him softly as he starts to mark the side of Stephen's neck and Stephen can't help but moan. 

"It's never enough Anthony. I can never have enough of you." Stephen tells him softly as he turns his head so that the genius can kiss him. He does. 

"Well, in that case, how about we take this to the bedroom?" Tony suggests with a wriggle of his eyebrows that has Stephen chuckling.

"Are you trying to get out of your afternoon IV?" Stephen asks and Tony puts on his best 'who me?' expression on. 

"Oh Gods no, I would never do that. I just thought that perhaps you would like to maybe fuck me into the bed." Tony suggests as he nibbles on Stephen's ear. His eyes stutter at the delicious pleasure that travels down his spine at that. 

"If you're feeling well enough after the IV, I'm going to lay you out on the bed, suck your cock until you are nice and hard for me and then ride you into the bed." Stephen tells him and Tony looks as if he is considering it for a moment before he smiles. 

"You have yourself a deal, Dr Strange." Tony tells him as he pulls Stephen up. It's only then that Stephen realises that Tony's softening cock is still buried inside of him. 

As they move, Tony's cock does fall out but with it, so does the cum and Stephen feels it travel down his legs and luxuriates in the feel of it. 

Other people might think that it's disgusting, but the cum had been a part of Tony and there was nothing about Tony and his body that Stephen found distasteful. And there was something about having his lover's spendings trailing down his thighs that just felt... good. Hot. 

"Careful doctor, if you keep standing there, looking so deliciously fucked out, I might just have to bend you over that table and fuck you again." Tony tells him with heat in his voice and Stephen gives him a lazy smile. 

"You are more than welcome to try." Stephen tells him with a smirk. They both knew that was an empty threat. A year of having sex with each other gave them pretty good ideas in relation to their sex drives, their refractory periods and what each other's bodies. 

Tony's refractory period was short, but it wasn't that short. 

It's only when Stephen tries to dress himself that he realises that his hands are shaking badly. That was another problem of late too. Stephen sighs but Tony takes it in stride as he usually does and helps to pull Stephen's jeans and underwear up and does up the buttons for him as he kisses Stephen to distract him from his own inability to dress himself. 

"So, I think I figured out how to integrate all the bits and bobs into the VR helmet thing for Dr Miles. I just need your genius skills with the programming." Tony tells him as he leads Stephen out of the lab towards the room they have set up for the therapy. 

"Fantastic. I'll take a look at the scans that the doctor has sent over and see about programming the neural scanner interface and the electrodes so we can stimulate the hippocampus." Stephen tells him. It's so, so much easier to think now. 

Stephen hates that. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Friday 

9 July 2010 

He would have to be blind not to notice. 

Even if Tony hadn't overheard the conversation between Grimshaw and Stephen that he clearly wasn't meant to have heard and even if he still didn't understand the conversation fully, it's impossible not to notice that something was wrong with his lover. 

There was a fragility and vulnerability about his lover that terrified him. It wasn't a physical thing. Not really. Physically, he looked as he always had. 

Pale and beautiful and if all the times that he had exercised with his lover over the weeks and seen him naked is any indication, he hasn't lost weight or any of his strength and stamina. 

No. What has changed is Stephen's attitudes and personality, if he can call it that. 

Tony had known for sometime now that the Stephen that he got to see, the Stephen that he knew and loved wasn't the Stephen that everyone else in the world got to see. The more time he spent with his lover outside of the walls of their home, the more he got to see that. 

Stephen to the outside world was cold, distant and aloof. There was a firm guard about him in the way that he spoke to people and dealt with them that made it clear that there was only a certain level of familiarity that Stephen would allow. 

But Tony had never experienced that side of him. 

Stephen wasn't cruel. He was kind and considerate even to strangers, it was merely that he disclosed no information about himself, hid his feelings and his thoughts and kept his distance with all persons. 

With Tony, Stephen had never done that. He had always been an open book. As open as he could be. As honest he could be. There were secrets between them, obviously, but Stephen did his best to show what he was feeling, what he was thinking and his affections for Tony was on open display when they were alone. 

Tony just had to look at him to know that Stephen cared about him, loved him and desired him. 

But lately, even when they are together, Stephen is either distracted, or he was looking at Tony as if he was the only thing that was keeping Stephen on the surface of the planet. 

Every time Stephen leaves the house, he comes back exhausted. Tony can see the visible exhaustion on his lover's face. But even when it's clear that he needs to rest, Stephen begs to be fucked as if it's the only thing that he can think about. 

Stephen and Tony has always had a very flexible sexual relationship. Normally, they had more or less an even division of roles, but of late, Stephen had more or less exclusively bottomed. Which Tony has no problems with because fucking Stephen is by no means an ordeal, but he does find the change odd. 

Tony didn't understand why and he didn't know what made the doctor so desperate, but in all honesty, he didn't mind. It was incredibly easy for Tony to get aroused when it came to Stephen and having sex with the man was Tony's favourite past time so that does not bother him at all. 

What bothers him is why. 

What was happening with Stephen that made him act so desperately? What made him so needy for Tony? Oh, it would be a lie for Tony to say that he didn't like that in a twisted way. He liked that Stephen was reliant on him. That Stephen missed him and wanted to be near him and hungered for his cock as if it was some sort of sustenance that he needed to survive. 

But it does worry him. 

It's not like Stephen. The Stephen that he knows and isn't desperate and needy. Yes, he seems to always want to be near Tony and spend time with him, but not in the mindlessly desperate way that he has been. 

After he fucks Stephen, almost magically, Stephen seems better. Settled. Calm. As if him fucking Stephen over the nearest convenient surface somehow brings clarity to Stephen's thoughts. 

Tony doesn't understand why. 

But he gets the distinct feeling that it's something bad and that he really should know so he can do something about it. But Stephen doesn't explain. 

Tony sees the hesitations here and there when it's clear that Stephen does want to tell him something. Something important. But he doesn't. Either because he can't find the words or because it's one of those things that Tony cannot know for the possibilities of the universe coming to an end. 

Tony was getting quite exhausted of the universe ending problem. 

Patience, Tony reminds himself. He needs to be patient and he needs to wait. Even if it kills him a little to do so. The trust between them was so important that Tony knows that he can't violate it. He can't push that boundary. 

Not when Stephen was so fragile and vulnerable. 

Aside from the desperation and the sex, Tony also can't help but notice that the doctor hides more from him now. There are moments when Stephen will avoid eye contact, or when he was working, choose to spend some time apart, when before, he had never done that before. 

The insecure part of Tony's mind worried that maybe Stephen was starting to tire of the relationship, but he doubted that. Not when the love that he sees from Stephen was so bright and so complete. 

He knew that some of that had to do with the Harlem incident. Stephen carried a lot of guilt and trauma in relation to that incident and Tony didn't blame him for that. How could he when he too needed moments alone to just... breathe and come to terms with what he had seen. 

He had spent multiple phone calls with Michelle to try to get his head around what he was feeling and what he was thinking about the whole thing. 

It doesn't help that it's not over. Not really. 

It won't be for months and most likely years. It will take years for Harlem to properly recover from what happened. They had plans to improve Harlem whilst they were at it, but it was going to take time. 

Tony was hopeful that through helping, he can perhaps deal with the trauma a little better. He knows that it was helping Pepper and Rhodey. He just doesn't know how to help Stephen. 

Stephen had gone through a lot in a short time. The... incident with the man that Stephen won't tell him the name of and the Harlem incident and on top of that, as Michelle had said, Stephen was also dealing with the fact that Tony had been dying. 

All of those incidents on their own could have been more than enough to break a normal person's mental health and combined together, Tony is surprised that the doctor was actually able to function. 

The incident of Stephen breaking the mirror still echoes in his heart and every time that Stephen is out of his sight, Tony worries about him more and more. 

When Tony asks him what is wrong, all Stephen tells him is that he is just tired and that the Harlem incident has taken its toll on him. Tony just wishes that Stephen would talk to him. 

It's an ironic situation for him to be in. 

Tony was now in the position that Stephen had been in when he had been dying. Like Stephen, he knows that something is wrong with his lover, but he doesn't want to acknowledge it and he doesn't know how to talk about it. 

It's a reflective moment to realise that they are now in the reverse situation. It certainly casts a new light on Stephen's reaction and how painful it must have been for Stephen and how it always must be for him, if he indeed knows everything that is about to happen. 

How dreadful it would be to know and be working in the background to try to prevent the bad incidents without being able to tell Tony everything. 

It's a burden that Tony can barely grasp the extent of and it hurts to both carry the knowledge of Stephen's condition without being able to do something about it and it's worse to know that there is more that his lover is dealing with than he had ever thought possible. 

He doesn't know how to make it any easier for the man that he loves. 

Tony has debated talking to Grimshaw. But the matter of the fact is, he doesn't want to talk to Grimshaw about Stephen and what's happening to him. He wants to talk to Stephen about it. 

There are too many questions that Tony needs answered. But more than that, he wants to prove to Stephen that he will be willing to do anything . Everything , if it means that Tony can keep the doctor in his life. The disparity of control that he had believed existed between them doesn't anymore. 

Tony can't say no to Stephen either. 

No, he won't say no to Stephen. Not anymore. Not when he can't imagine a life without the doctor. Not when Stephen has taken centre stage in his life so prominently that Tony would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that to be without the doctor would be- no. It doesn't bear thinking about. 

"What do you think?" Stephen asks as he steps out of the walk in wardrobe, breaking into Tony's thoughts. Tony smiles despite the chaos in his mind and the dark places that his brain was going to. He can't help it. 

The doctor is so gorgeous that it's an automatic reaction. 

Even when Stephen is at his worst, Tony thinks that he is beautiful. Decked out the way he is now with a dark blue tuxedo, Stephen looks elegant and so incredibly perfect and Tony has no words adequate to describe just how wonderful he looks. 

"Oh, you don't want to know what I'm thinking right now." Tony says as he feels his mouth go dry. Stephen chuckles lightly and walks over to where Tony had been seated, waiting for Stephen to get dressed. 

"Should I take a stab at guessing exactly what's going on in your mind right now?" Stephen asks he leans down to Tony's ear and Tony shivers as the hot breath curls around his ear and the doctor's sultry voice hits him. 

More than that though, what gets him turning into a puddle of desire and need is the way that Stephen's thin and soft black leather gloves trails down Tony's ear and neck. 

"We're going to be more than fashionably late." Tony mutters huskily as he tries to restrain himself. He wants to do nothing more than to pull the doctor on top of himself using the thin breasts of the tux and kiss those seductive lips. Maybe convince Stephen to use those gloved fingers to open him up. Maybe- 

Yeah. He was going to have to stop thinking.  

"Oh, I see. In that case, I'll take a rain check." Stephen mutters against Tony's ear before he straightens and runs a hand over his hair to make sure that it's settled perfectly. Tony watches the movement hungrily before he licks his lips and takes a deep breath. 

The tux really, really doesn't look good with a hard on, Tony reminds himself. He's not sure how, but he needs to be able to keep his hands off of Stephen throughout the night. 

They have roles to play tonight. 

They had to be Tony Stark and Stephen Strange, the two billionaires , working the room, making sure that they get the attention of the New York elite and sweet talk them into donating chunks of their wealth into the Maria Stark Foundation to assist in the efforts to rebuild Harlem. 

It meant that Tony really couldn't spend the entire night ogling the doctor. 

Tony wishes that he could declare to the world that Stephen was his. But he knows that he can't. Not yet. 

It's 2010. Yes, there has been a lot of good changes made to LGBTQ rights etc but it doesn't mean that the world is all accepting and rainbows. Tony and Stephen can't afford to just think about what they want and what would make them happy. 

They are responsible for huge corporations and their employees and their families as well as their investors. There was plenty of the conservative public to contend with, not to mention the PR nightmare that their relationship would be. 

So, with all that taken into consideration, Tony knows that hiding their relationship is not only for their companies, but it's important for them too as people. 

Once the public became aware of their relationship, chances were they were going to lose their privacy. With their lives being somewhat public, especially Tony's, the media was going to look for photographs of them and for their stories. 

That doesn't worry Tony too much. But he does worry for Stephen. There are secrets that the doctor keeps that Tony knows could do without the public scrutiny. Then there was the issue of Stephen himself and his privacy. 

Tony may be used to the hate mail, mixed in with the fan mail, but Stephen isn't and Tony doesn't want him to be subjected to that shit. Plenty of his past lovers has had to deal with that shit and it hadn't been very pleasant. 

For now, they could do without all that shit. 

The secrecy was worth it, even if it meant that Tony couldn't dance with the man he loved and even if he couldn't kiss Stephen or hold him in public. 

"You boys better be decent and ready to go or I swear to god, I'm going to step on you with my killer heels!" Clea calls out from just outside the door and Stephen chuckles and Tony joins him as he stands up and straightens his tux whilst Stephen gets the door. 

"Oh wow, you look beautiful Clea." Stephen says softly and when Tony looks up, he has to agree with his lover. 

Clea does look beautiful. The black cocktail dress is figure hugging and flattering and the silver accents strewn throughout the dress as if they are stars against the night sky makes for both a glamorous and yet fun look that goes well with the girl's lively personality. 

Her hair is done up artfully and between that, the makeup and heels , she looks ready to party. 

"You look breathtaking, Ms Strange." Tony tells her with wriggling eyebrows and she giggles as she gives the look right back at him. 

"And you look quite gentlemanly, Mr Stark, now, shall we go the party that we are apparently throwing?" Clea suggests and Tony supposes that it is about time. 

Pepper comes around the corner in her break taking and regal black dress, complete with the jewelled neckline and a line of jewels down her back, hair, makeup and heels. 

Tony gives her a whistle as Stephen compliments her and offers her his arm. Pepper giggles and takes it as they make their way down the grand staircase of the Stark Mansion towards the limousine. 

As much as Tony would prefer to spend the rest of the night working Stephen out of the tux, a night out with the ladies and his lover might be just what he needs to think. 

Besides, it's been awhile since he has seen his lover smiling freely and for that, Tony would happily throw a thousand fund raisers. 

There really wasn't anything he wouldn't do. 

~~~ 

Friday 

9 July 2010 

He’s leaning casually against the bar next to her. 

She has been expecting him to come along to talk to her when Clea wasn't around. She knew that he had been keeping an eye on her throughout the night. But she is still somewhat surprised to see that he has come. 

"Clea thinks that you can be redeemed." He says and Natasha looks at him carefully, hiding the surprise that she feels at his words. She doesn't know what to say for some time. 

She doesn't know the reason behind his words, his motivations, his agenda, or his objective. All she knows is that this is probably an important conversation for both him and for her. 

"I don't know why." Is the only thing that Natasha can think to say. Stephen Strange isn't looking at her. He is looking at Clea and Tony dancing in the middle of the ballroom, smiling and laughing as they do so. 

They make a good picture together. But it's not a picture that feels right. Natasha looks at the doctor and sees for the first time that she really had everything so completely and utterly wrong. 

"You're in love with him." She says and she surprises herself by saying that. It might be the alcohol, it might be the atmosphere, it might be just how uncomfortable she is to be at a party where she doesn't feel like she belongs. But it's a slip that she never would have made otherwise. 

"Will you tell your superiors?" Stephen asks and his voice isn't concerned as much as it is guarded. She shakes her head. 

"I've taken myself off from all cases in relation to Tony Stark. It's not my job anymore to report on him." She says and she means it. She's annoyed that she hadn't caught it before, but then it's a direction that she really hadn't seriously considered. 

She had considered it in passing, but she had dismissed it quickly. She shouldn't have. She should have paid more attention to the way that the two men looked and talked to each other. She had been blinded by her own prejudices and her own objectives and her thoughts had been coloured by everything that she had seen in the media and what she had been told about Tony Stark. 

Either way, she was impressed that Stephen Strange and Tony Stark have managed to keep their relationship a secret not just from her but from Coulson and Fury as well. But looking at him now and the soft look in his eyes, Natasha can't miss it. 

"Do you think I can be redeemed?" She asks quietly and for awhile, Stephen doesn't respond. He merely watches his cousin dancing with his lover and smiles softly before he does finally speak. 

"That depends on you and what you want. Whether you want to allow others to dictate what is wrong and what is right or whether you'll act on what you believe is right." Stephen says and she is confused for a moment before he continues. 

"There are people that believe in the greater good and believe that sacrifices are necessary to achieve that greater good. But there are those that believe that what is right should not be sacrificed for the greater good. On top of that, there is always the one truth that you should never forget." Stephen says and Natasha gets the feeling that even he doesn't have the answer as to what is right. 

The greater good or the good of the individual. 

Whether sacrifice is worth it or not. Even he does not know, it is clear that he has a set of beliefs, morals and values that he operates under and perhaps they are always in conflict as the situations come along. She's not sure. 

"What's that truth?" She asks and Stephen looks at her as if he had forgotten his train of thought before he smiles. 

"That power corrupts." He tells her and Natasha finds herself nodding. She has seen that over and over again. She had been sent to dispatch those that has been corrupted by power. Hell, she had been sent to Tony Stark because SHIELD worried that the power of the Iron Man suit and his power and influence with Stark Industries made him dangerous. 

But that does leave her with a question. 

"How do you know that you aren't corrupted by power?" She asks and Stephen gives her a look of a proud teacher. 

"You don't. The only thing you can do is constantly examine your actions, your thoughts and have people around you that will hopefully tell you when you are going in the wrong direction." Stephen informs her and she gets it. She sighs. 

"You're not worried about Clea spending time with me?" That Natasha will corrupt her? She doesn't say, but Stephen understands. She knows that he will. He shrugs his shoulders. 

"Clea is strong willed. She has a sense of what is right and what is wrong firmly in her mind. She sees the bigger picture, but she isn't willing to make sacrifices to get it. She values people and she values moments. Perhaps having someone like her around can be helpful for you to find your own moral compass." Stephen tells her and Natasha thinks for a moment before she nods. 

"Is that what you are for Tony Stark?" She asks but is surprised when Stephen chuckles. 

"No. That is what Anthony is for me. He is a good man. A far better man than what you might want to believe." Stephen says and before he can say anything more, Clea is finishing up her dance with Tony and waving at the two of them with a bright smile on her face. Tony doesn't look as pleased. 

Clea all but hobbles over before she half collapses onto Stephen, who catches her deftly and smiles indulgently at her. 

"Had enough of the heels?" He asks and she nods with a grimace. 

"They look so good Stephen but by the gods I swear, I can feel them stabbing me." Clea complains and Stephen chuckles as he gestures to the waiter for a glass of water. He holds her supported as she rubs her ankles as Tony comes over at a more sedate pace and nods at Natasha. 

"I think we can safely say that we got all the money we can get from the New York elite for the night. Home?" Tony suggests and Clea is the first to agree to it. 

"Home, a bath and definitely a spa day tomorrow." Clea mumbles and Pepper doesn't take much longer to join and Natasha isn't sure whether she should stick around when it's clear that there is such a close friendship and relationship between the four of them as they congregate. 

"Clea, we're getting massages tomorrow. If we don't, I'm pretty sure I won't be able to walk for a week." Pepper complains as she leans on Tony to rub at her own ankles. 

"Do we get to join in the spa days or is it a girls only thing?" Tony asks and Pepper gives him a raised eyebrow. 

"We can call it an open invite. We've been running ragged in the last little while. A little pampering won't hurt anyone." Pepper says and she and Tony are quick to dismiss themselves from the group with the excuse of saying their final goodbyes to their business partners and Stephen smoothly hands Clea off to Natasha to support and balance as he moves off to join them. 

When they are all gone, Natasha finds Clea a stool to sit on before she leans against the bar next to the stool and takes the glass of water the waiter brings over to hand to Clea. 

"Thank you for inviting me. I had a good night." Natasha says but Clea scoffs. 

"No you didn't but thank you for coming. Having you around helped to keep my spirits up." Clea says and Natasha isn't surprised by that. 

It's not as if they had a lot of opportunities to talk or even to spend a lot of time together, but Clea's words don't ring false. 

"I'm not super comfortable at places like this, but knowing that you were around helped. So thank you." Clea says and Natasha smiles. She's not sure if she really had helped or not, but it's nice to believe that she might have been able to help the younger woman with something. 

"Maybe next time, you shouldn't wear such high heels." Natasha suggests and Clea laughs as she looks down at the sleek black stiletto heels. 

"Yeah, but they looked so good." Clea says as she gestures for the bartender and orders them both vodka cranberries. Apparently it was taken for granted that Natasha will drink those now. She doesn't mind. 

"Well, since I know it's going to take awhile for them to say their goodbyes, how about you help me drink my pain away?" Clea suggests and Natasha can only take the glass that the waiter slides to her clink it with Clea's offered glass. 

Clea's bright smile tells her that it's the right decision. 

As for the other decisions? The other questions that Stephen has left her with? That was going to take more than a few drinks and a night of glitz and glamour to work out. 

It was also a lesson that she worries may have come too late. 

~~~

Friday 

9 July 2010 

They are kissing as soon as the door closes to their bedroom. 

It's not even a matter of who initiated the kiss. It's a matter of them both burning with desire and need that had been building throughout the night. 

Stephen gasps as he is pushed hard against the door and the heavy oak panel digs in, but it only lasts for a second before he is pulling the genius against himself in a desperate attempt to get more contact, to feel Tony as close as they can possibly get. 

"God, I've been wanting to do that all night." Tony mutters as he pulls the bowtie from Stephen's neck and pulls the shirt apart, mostly with sheer force rather than bothering with the buttons before attacking Stephen's neck as if he is a starving vampire. 

Tony is feeling possessive, Stephen notes vaguely as Tony's lips lock around his neck and jaw and starts to leave marks that has Stephen moaning and clinging onto the genius as his hands undo the rest of his shirt and vest and and his hands roam all over Stephen's chest and waist and the feel of Tony's hands all over him feels so amazingly good. 

But it's not enough. 

Stephen needs to be more connected. He needs the physical connection in a way that makes him desperate and needy and as try as he might, he can't control it. 

"Anthony- Please- I- I need-" Stephen can't even express that need properly. It's overwhelming and it is killing him. 

Tony kisses him as he undoes Stephen's pants and shushes him. Stephen clings to him desperately as Tony wraps his hand around his hard on and Stephen can't even breathe properly. 

"Tell me what you need baby." Tony mutters against his lips even as he strokes Stephen and he can't. He can't think clearly enough to even say what he wants. 

All he can do is kiss Tony and beg him through his kisses and desperate clutches and hope that the genius will understand him. He does. 

"Shh, alright. It's alright." Tony mutters and Stephen all but sobs when he feels the genius's fingers against his hole. 

The need to be filled isn't one that usually overwhelms Stephen. But this need is borne out of his psychological and emotional need to feel connected. It's the part of his soul that is missing that haunts him and begs him to fill it with something else. 

Tony. 

Stephen knows that it's wrong. That he can't fill that gap in his mind with the man that loves him, but it's the only choice that he has. The hope that he has to cling to. 

Tony's fingers are rough and a little dry even with the pre cum coating it, but Stephen doesn't care. He is desperate and the burn, even the burn feels good. As long as he is being filled, he doesn't care. 

But soon enough, the dry fingers leave him and Stephen tries to hold onto them, he tries to beg for it back only to have the genius kiss him firmly and make him look at him. 

"I'm going to go and get the lube baby. I want you to turn around and face the door and wait for me. Okay?" Tony asks and Stephen nods, even if he wants to ask the man not to go, not to leave him. When Tony heads to the bedside table, Stephen turns around and he faces the hard oak door. 

He feels the grains of the wood against his sensitive fingertips. He feels the clothes that haven't been taken off of his body but lingers across his arms and shoulders and the pants that are pooled around his ankles. 

He rests his head against the arms that he gathers to support them and waits, exposed and desperate until he can feel his lover against him again. 

Tony's fingers don't hesitate. Stephen cries out as he feels the now wet fingers plough into him and the burn isn't there anymore, but the stretch is. Tony's talented fingers quickly open him up and Stephen moans and cries out with desperation with each thrust and move those fingers make. 

When they disappear, Stephen has to stop himself from begging for them again but soon enough, Tony is inside of him in a smooth hard thrust and Stephen finally feels like he can relax. 

The sexual contact, the feeling of being completely filled by his lover isn't a replacement for the loss that he feels from the Connection with Loki being so stretched. But the contact and the Connection is enough to keep his mind from becoming lost in the grief of the loss. 

From losing itself in the vastness of the emptiness that has been left behind. As he feels Tony's pleasure grows and as his own grows, Stephen feels their Bond, their Connection closer than ever and he can feel Tony's passion, his desire and his lust as well as his love and for now, it's more than enough to keep Stephen grounded. 

To keep him in the moment and with Tony and basking in his love. Tony may not know, and he won't be able to understand, but his love and the Bond between them was the only thing that was keeping Stephen sane.

Keeping him alive. 

~~~

Chapter Text

Thursday 

15 July 2010 

The morning's session of chelation therapy is done. 

According to both Grimshaw and Stephen , Tony was recovering well from the poisoning and the side effects were steadily becoming manageable. 

They were hopeful that in a few weeks, they will be able to finish up the therapy. But that's not what he was concerned about right now. 

Right now? He has work to do. 

It's Stephen's birthday tomorrow and he wants to make sure that the doctor gets the best birthday possible. One that will show Stephen just how much Tony loves him and cares for him and needs him to be okay. 

Tony stares at the screen in front of him in frustration. 

For his birthday, other than the sex that he had asked for, Stephen had provided him with a keycard to every single Penthouse Suite of every single D'Arte Hotel around the world. 

It was the equivalent of handing Tony the keys to the closest thing that Stephen had to a home so Tony appreciated it. 

But it did raise the stakes for birthday gifts between them and Tony can't help but want to wow his lover. To give him something that he will really enjoy and love. 

"Alright J, how's she coming along?" Tony asks as he looks over the code that is all too familiar now. 

"Well Sir, she is being rather stubborn." JARVIS says dryly and Tony sighs as he looks over the problematic line of code. 

Programming a new AI in itself isn't new for Tony. He had created JOCASTA with JARVIS over just one weekend, but then she hadn't been as stubborn. 

But then programming her with Rhodey in mind has been a different process than with Stephen in mind. 

Rhodey appreciated AIs and Tony knew that he was going to love JOCASTA and care for her , ensure that she would be happy and well adjusted, but he wasn't going to be using her as much as Stephen was going to be. 

Which meant that Tony wanted to create a more complex personality and more complex AI that would rival JARVIS for Stephen to work with. An AI that would grow and be taught by Stephen the way that JARVIS has, but without the background and the need to ensure that the AI would still work with Tony and his needs. 

When Stephen was working with JARVIS, he was doing it with the view that JARVIS belongs to Tony and that JARVIS's personality and his role couldn't be touched. 

But with an AI of his own, Stephen could teach her and raise her the way that he wants to and Tony wants to see what kind of AI Stephen would be able to raise on his own. 

If she would only allow him to fix that stupid line of code that is. 

"Why is she being so stubborn?" Tony asks and he's not sure if he's asking the new AI, JARVIS or himself, but voicing the question helps. 

"Sir, I believe that our young girl wants to be her own person and wants to be able to make the right decisions for the doctor rather than bowing to his will when it comes to his health and well being." JARVIS informs him. 

Tony sighs again before he looks hard at the code. He supposes that it is somewhat hypocritical of him to want to create an AI with self awareness and self determination only to stifle her when it's a decision that she has made to be who she is. 

It's also his fault really. His needs and desires to ensure that Stephen is healthy and well and all that has led him to ensure that her priorities would be skewed a little too much till the girl has decided that she needed to prioritise Stephen's wellbeing even above his wishes. 

She was also going to refuse to even let him have access to Stephen's information if she deemed it unnecessary for him to have it and whilst he was glad that the doctor would have the privacy, he can't help but feel a little worried. 

He sighs. 

"Fine. She can keep the code. But let's strengthen the boundaries to make sure that she understands that protecting and caring for Stephen doesn't mean she can trample all over other people's human rights." Tony says and JARVIS agrees by the way that the code flashes across the screen. 

"Yeah. Let's do that." Tony says. It really has become quite amazingly easy to program things with JARVIS being so aware and able to learn and make decisions of his own. 

As the new AI accepts the code that Tony and JARVIS has created for her and assimilates it to form a part of her, Tony wonders if he had focused too much on her love and need to protect Stephen. 

Tony may be good at the programming part, but it had been Stephen that had given JARVIS the moral compass to allow him to become self aware in a safe way and to ensure that he wasn't about to go Skynet. 

He had ensured that all of those lessons were given to the new AI, but he is worried that with her personality, she might be too fiercely protective. But then, given Stephen's tendency to endanger himself, that might not be a bad thing. 

Tony can't stop sighing over and over again as he thinks about Stephen and what might be happening to his lover. 

It's been a cyclic train of thoughts that keeps rampaging through his head every moment he has to himself. 

Over and over, he debates talking to Stephen. He debates talking to Clea. He debates talking to Grimshaw. He debates not talking to anyone at all. 

He just... can't reach a conclusion. 

As usually a pretty decisive man, Tony finds his inability to decide so very incredibly infuriating. He was also aware that he was more or less wasting time whilst Stephen was going through something without him being able to help other than by providing Stephen with the company that he needs apparently, and the sex. 

He's just not sure if it's enough. 

Tony looks over the screen for the last time before he turns away. It's time to work on the second part of his gift for Stephen. 

After all, making things and fixing things is what Tony was good at. It’s what keeps him distracted and right now, distraction was exactly what he needed. 

"Alright J, warn me when Stephen is ready to come home." Tony says to the AI as he pulls out the project from the box he had been hiding it so far. 

"Of course, Sir. It's not as if the doctor hasn't been coming home at regular hours or anything." The AI snarks at him and Tony knows that it's JARVIS's attempt to raise his spirits and Tony is grateful for it. 

He smiles and gets down to work

~~~ 

Thursday 

15 July 2010 

"You long for her." Frigga says as she approaches Thor. 

Frigga's heart is fractured and she can barely breathe for the pain of it all. The loss of her son, a son that she may not have given birth to but has loved as much as the child that she had given birth to, the son of her heart, is impossible to bear. 

But it had been the wake up call that she had needed. 

It had been at her behest that Loki had gone on the path that led him to his fall. It had been Odin and his destructive lies that had destroyed the son that she loves. 

"But it is not only for her that you long." Frigga says quietly to her son. Thor's shoulders are tense with his emotions barely held in check. The melancholy and the rage that had been going through him is difficult for her to watch as a mother. 

She had known that this day would come. 

Even with her gifts, Frigga may not have known that Odin's lies would be revealed by Loki himself in the manner that it has, but she had known that one day, Loki would learn of his origins. When he did, she had known that it would destroy him. Make him question everything that he had held to be true and a part of himself. 

She had counselled Odin against the deception when he had first proposed it. But he was stubborn. He had believed that the lie would hold until he needed to use Loki to bring about the 'peace'. But it was not peace that Odin had desired. It had been power and control. 

Frigga had known that. But she had been in love. She had wanted to see the best from the being that she loved and she had blinded herself through that love. 

But no more. 

"I spoke with Odin." Thor says, his voice cold and hollow. Frigga doesn't miss the fact that Thor has chosen to call Odin by his name and not 'Father' as he used to. The break down in that relationship too, she knows, had been inevitable. 

Thor loved Loki. He had always loved his brother and Loki had loved him. Learning of the harm that had been done to Loki would have been devastating to Thor and she knew of the argument that had occurred as a result of Thor's realisation. 

The catalyst hadn't been Loki's fall. It had been the request that Thor had made to her and the power that she had pulled to ensure that Thor could visit with Hel. 

For the first time, Thor had gone to Helheim and seen to his niece and when he had returned from that trip, Thor had been vastly changed. 

Frigga knew that Hel was a sweet, loving child, but she was also well aware of the truths that Odin had hidden from Thor and the rest of Asgard. She and Loki held no secrets from each other. 

She would not have hidden anything from Thor either. She would have told him exactly what she knew of what had happened between Odin and Loki and all the secrets that Odin had sought to hide. 

She may not have been present for the conversation that Thor and Odin had shared, but she didn't have to be to know how the conversation had gone. After all, she had spent almost one thousand and five hundred years with the being as her husband. 

Odin does not apologise. He does not believe it right for a King to apologise. He does not believe that a King has to apologise. He only believes in manipulating the other to ensure that he gets what he wants. Regardless of the sacrifices required as long as it serves the 'greater good' of Asgard. 

"What did Odin say to you?" Frigga asks, though she is fairly certain of the answer already. She knows that it would help Thor to air out his complaints. Thor punches the column of the balcony and she flinches at the violence of the action before Thor visibly calms himself. 

"He claimed that he has only done what is right for Asgard. But I do not believe him, Mother. I believe that he did what was right for him. He cares not for Asgard, or for Loki or for Hel. He cares only for his reputation and his legacy. He fears for the legacy that he will leave behind as his power wanes." Thor spits out and Frigga moves to comfort him. 

He allows her to pull him into her arms and hold him and comfort him as she used to when he had been a child. 

"Loki had wanted you to see the truth, son. He had wanted to ensure that you would know what it meant to be truly a good King for the Nine Realms." Frigga tells him and Thor nods slowly. 

Yes, Frigga is aware that Loki had also been motivated by jealousy, hate and desire for revenge. But at the same time, his actions had been tampered by his love for Thor and Frigga

Between that love that Loki did not lose, despite the pain he had suffered through and the Connection that he had wanted to honour, Loki had changed his direction of revenge. 

Instead of destroying Odin and Asgard, Loki had chosen to destroy the relationship between Odin and Thor instead. To open Thor's eyes to all the wrong that Odin had been doing and the truth of his rule in the Nine Realms. 

His last words for Thor to see to Hel had been both a desire to ensure that she would have a father figure without him and also for Thor to find out the full truth. 

Armed with it, Loki had hoped that Thor would become the King that would truly rule Nine Realms with a benevolent hand that Odin had only pretended at, with respect for each of the Realms and their cultures. 

"Mother, I cannot be a good King without her by my side." Thor says and Frigga understands. She can see the soft tendrils of his Connection stretching to Midgard. 

A mortal woman. A woman that will die and leave her son broken. Even now, Connected but without a Bond, Frigga knows that Thor is suffering. She soothes him the best that she can with her magic, but she knows that the emptiness that he feels will start to break him. 

"I know my son, I know. The engineers and mages are working to restore the Bifrost and you will be able to be with her." She says, but she knows that is not the full truth. 

Every being with an iota of magic in their blood would have felt the destruction of the Bifrost throughout the Nine Realms. The Bifrost energy kept the Realms connected to Asgard and it served as a threat to the people of those Realms of the power that Asgard had to be able to deal with any issues that arose

But without the Bifrost, already, the Nine Realms were starting to fall apart. 

When Odin took over the Realms, he left the individual Realms with nothing. No armies to defend themselves with. He made them powerless to be able to rule themselves. He had made the citizens of the Nine Realms completely and utterly reliant on Asgard for protection from threats outside of the Nine Realms as well as from the threats within. 

They were now vulnerable and it was just a matter of time before Realms began to rise against the harsh rule that Odin had imposed and outside forces take advantage of the weaknesses in their defences. 

As soon as the Bifrost is restored, both Thor and Frigga know that he will be required to fight, to protect the people of the Nine Realms and rebuild it and Thor, was wiser by the lessons that he has learnt through Loki's sacrifice, will not be able to go to his Soulmate. 

He will remain in the Nine Realms and fight to defend her and to rebuild the people's trust in him as the heir to the throne. To prove to them that he can be the King that his father should have been. 

Loki had been right. 

Through Thor, he will destroy everything that Odin held most precious. His control, his legacy and the love and respect of his son and by extension, the Nine Realms. It was fitting revenge for one so wronged. 

"Did Odin really order the death of Loki's lover?" Thor asks quietly and Frigga bites her lip . It's answer enough. Thor closes his eyes. 

No son of his would bed a male, Odin had decreed. Frigga had fought against his harsh words and his decision to have Svaoilfari murdered for daring to bed Loki. 

Frigga hadn't approved of the relationship. But it had been because Loki had been far too young and Svaoilfari had been so much older and she feared that he was taking advantage of Loki's youth. But for Odin, it had been a matter of pride. 

With Loki being his 'son', it had been insulting to him and his reputation to have a son being bedded by a male like a woman. That had been the cause for Odin's wrath. 

But, Thor too had been tainted by that view. It is what had created distance between Loki and Thor. It had been heartbreaking for Frigga to watch as Loki not only lost the man that he had loved, but had believed himself to have also lost the love of his brother and the respect of his father. 

"I failed him, haven't I, Mother?" Thor asks and his regret and pain burns through her and she holds him again in her arms. 

"He has forgiven you, my son. He knew that it was not your fault. You simply did not know." She says to lessen his guilt. But she knows that he knows the truth. He nods slowly and when she lets him go, settles against the railing of the balcony and sighs heavily. 

"Have- Have you spoken with King Laufey?" Thor asks quietly and Frigga closes her eyes. When she had sent Thor to Helheim, she had informed him that as soon as she had recovered her powers, she would project herself to Jotunheim and speak to Laufey to inform him of the death of his son. 

She had done so. 

It had... it had not been an easy conversation. Laufey's grief had caught her off guard. She hadn't realised just how deeply a Jotun could love and she realised that she too had fallen for the stories and beliefs that had been perpetuated against the Jotun without knowing who they were. 

Laufey had howled when he had heard the news. She could still hear the echoes of his howls ringing in her ears. He had hoped that Loki would be safe and that he would be happy in Asgard. Without the Casket, Jotunheim was a hellscape and he had hoped that his child would have been protected and cared for. 

Frigga had been shaken by the realisation that though the Jotuns have lost the Casket and they have lost their Prince, they had lived for the last thousand years wishing and praying for the wellbeing of their prince. 

She too has failed Loki. 

She should have spoken to Laufey earlier. She should have ensured that Loki understood that his father loved him and wished for his happiness. That he had a Realm that wished for his well being and happiness. 

Laufey had known of Loki's plots, but he had allowed his people to go along with them, to be sacrificed because it was the will of his son. To the Jotun, the will of their ruler was paramount. It was divine will and even Laufey had bowed to the will of his own son. 

The pain that she heard in his voice as he whispered Loki's name and prayed for his soul had all but broken her. 

At the end of the conversation, Laufey did two things that she hadn't expected. He thanked her for loving Loki and raising him as her own and promised that as long as Thor was King of Asgard, the Jotuns will not rise up against Asgard. 

Thor was the King that Loki had chosen to support for Asgard. They will honour Loki's decision. That alone had her bowing low to the King of Jotunheim. The faith and love that he shows to a son that he has not had the chance to know and the wisdom to avoid conflict is admirable. 

Frigga wishes that Odin could share those traits. 

Once, she had truly loved Odin. She had admired his strength and his determination. But more and more as time went by and as she began to see the selfishness inherent in the decisions that he made that affected the billions of beings within the Nine Realms, the love had faded. 

She had been so blind, but now she sees Odin for what he really is. A monster. A monster hiding behind the mask of benevolence and wisdom. A monster that hungers for power and control and rules with ruthlessness that strips those that needs protection of all abilities to protect themselves and has turned the Nine Realms into a world of slavery designed only to serve the good and greed of Asgard. 

It hurts to see the monster that he had become and the monster that she is married to. But she knows that to show her distaste and anger towards him would be her downfall. Even now, to having this conversation with her son, she had shielded them to ensure that Heimdall and Odin could not and will not hear nor see their conversation. 

Her magic has become her only defence against the being that she loves. She has become nothing more than just another tool for him to use to control the Nine Realms. A trophy that had dutifully produced him the heir that he had desired. 

Yet, Frigga also knows that for now, Odin is needed. Just as Loki had realised before he would have taken Odin's life, the King of Asgard needed to persist to hold the failing Nine Realms together. 

But eventually, Thor will rule and when he does, she hopes that he will bring about true peace to the Nine Realms and to restore power that Odin had stripped from them back to them and in turn strengthen the Nine Realms. 

"King Laufey is a better King than Odin. He will wait for you to rule. To become the King that Loki had hoped that you would be." Frigga tells him and Thor looks surprised but he nods slowly. 

"He may have to wait a while . There is yet much that I must learn. For now, Odin must remain King. I will not repeat his mistakes." Thor says quietly and Frigga is glad to hear the determination in his voice. 

"No, son, you will not. Loki has sacrificed much to ensure that you cannot." She tells him, her heart breaking as she does so. Thor looks pained as he nods slowly to her. 

Almost in sync, they turn to look at the sun starting to set over the horizon of Asgard. Soon, the sun will truly set on Asgard. If Frigga and Thor cannot stop the past from repeating itself. It's time that their people learn and move forward. 

To build on the future that Loki had sacrificed himself to give them. 

~~~ 

Friday

16 July 2010

It's a warm morning. 

Having slept next to Tony, Stephen feels well rested and he's had a pleasant sleep for the first time in awhile, but that's not what has him smiling as he wakes up properly and opens his eyes to the warm sunlight streaming in through the partially open curtains. 

Warm oiled hands were making their way up and down Stephen's legs and from the way that he feels so incredibly relaxed and his muscles have that tell-tale massaged tenderness about them, Tony has been at it for some time. 

Stephen stretches and he feels a kiss on his inner knee as the genius continues to move his hands. 

"Happy Birthday Stephen." Tony tells him warmly and Stephen blinks. Oh, he had completely forgotten. This was his birthday wasn't it? It was a different day to when it had been when he had been Vincent. But it was the day that he had chosen. The day that he had become the Sorcerer Supreme and had been reborn as Stephen Strange. 

Usually, it had been a day where he spent time reflecting on his life as Vincent and ensuring that he wasn't going to be making the same mistakes. But this... this might be a better way to spend the day, Stephen thinks as he feels those oiled fingers move up his thighs and reach his half hard cock. 

"So I have a proposal to make." Tony tells him in almost a businesslike voice, though there is enough of the suggestive tone for Stephen to know that it wasn't a business proposal that was on his lover's mind. 

"I say we forget about the therapy today and focus just on you and me and you letting me completely and utterly spoil you." Tony tells him and Stephen raises an eyebrow at him. 

"It's my birthday, shouldn't I get to decide what I want to do?" Stephen asks but honestly that's pretty much where his train of thoughts stop because just as he says that, Tony grabs his cock and starts stroking it. 

"Traditionally, but I have plans Stephen and I have been planning these plans for a long time now." Tony tells him as he kisses the tip of Stephen's cock and Stephen doesn't have to seriously consider it. 

In all honesty, they have been taking regular breaks from the therapy as it was to give Tony's body time to recover and taking a day off wasn't going to cause any harm to Tony. His blood toxicity level was down to 42% already and they were making remarkable progress at any rate. 

And the idea of just spending a day with his lover without the interruptions of medical concerns sounded... kind of heavenly. 

"Not- Ah!- Fair!" Stephen manages to complain regardless as the genius adds his finger to the mix and starts to slowly finger Stephen even as he continues to stroke his cock. 

"Yeah, I'll admit it. It's a bit underhanded isn't it? Using sex to get what I want?" Tony asks but from the way that he was continuing to run his finger in circles around Stephen's prostate, he wasn't planning on stopping. 

Stephen shakes his head as Tony adds a second finger to the mix and starts to stroke Stephen's prostate with firm strokes that has Stephen arching his back and seeing stars. 

"Oh God!" Stephen cries out as Tony swallows him down on top of his fingers and it doesn't take him long to be an incoherent bumbling mess. But just as he feels his balls tighten and his orgasm approach, Tony stops. 

Everything. 

The bastard, Stephen thinks fondly as the genius crawls up Stephen's body and leans over him, almost close enough to kiss, but not quite. 

"Say yes, Stephen." Tony seduces him and Stephen knows that he is going to say yes, but doing so would ruin the game. So he pants and raises his head for the kiss but he doesn't. 

"Come on baby, like I said, I have plans." Tony tells him right above his lips and Stephen can feel his breath against his and their lips almost brush, but Tony pulls back before Stephen can actually catch those lips. 

Stephen's body is burning with need and desire. As the Bond between them deepens and as Stephen had been more and more reliant on Tony, he had been increasingly becoming desperate for sexual contact with the genius, even when he has been spending more time with him.  

He hungers for Tony regardless, but there is an increased need and desperation that is difficult to control. 

"What- What plans?" Stephen manages to ask even as Tony nibbles at his jaw and slowly starts to play with one of Stephen's nipples. 

"I'm going to fuck you into the bed. Then take you to the bathroom, fill you up and clean you out, give you a bath. Then I'm going to tie you down and eat you out until you come all over yourself just from my mouth." Tony tells him and Stephen feels his mouth going completely dry. 

They haven't really discussed rimming. They were careful enough with their hygiene during normal sex, but rimming required cleaning out the colon before sex and usually... they were in too much of a hurry to do that. 

"Them I'm going to keep you full of my cum all day by keeping you plugged up and filled until you're so full you'll beg me to stop." Tony tells him and well... how the hell do you say no to that? 

"I won't- I won't ask you to stop." Stephen tells him thickly and Tony smiles. He knows he has won. But then, Tony always won. Surely the genius knew that. There was nothing that Stephen would say no to. 

Especially when it involved a lot of his fantasies and especially if it meant a day of sex and being pleasured and dominated by the man that he loved. 

"Oh you will baby, because you're going to be a good boy for me and tell me when it gets too much or when you need a break. Okay?" Tony asks him softly and Stephen gives him a warm soft smile. 

"Yes sir." Stephen replies and he gets his kiss for that. It's a slow, sensual kiss and it is a fitting reward for giving Tony what he wanted. But then it wasn't about giving Tony what he wanted, it was about Tony giving Stephen what he wanted. 

Tony must have noticed how needy he had been of late, Stephen thinks. He had been so desperate for the other man that it must have shown. Not that Tony seems to have minded. But he had been wanting for the other man to dominate him, to take control, to use him and to fuck him until he couldn't stand it anymore for awhile. 

He hadn't asked for it because he hadn't felt the need to. 

Tony always seemed to know exactly what he wanted and needed when it came to sex. Tony always provided and even now, he was outlining exactly what Stephen desperately wanted and needed. 

"Traffic lights Stephen. If you need a break, use the traffic lights." Tony reminds him and Stephen nods slowly as Tony moves back down his body. Stephen relaxes against the pillow. 

The summer sunlight is warm against his skin, but the sandstone and brick structure of the old mansion is cool enough that he doesn't feel too hot despite their activities. His body is oiled and massaged all over and he feels like a luxurious cat as he stretches and moves as Tony positions him. 

He isn't too surprised when his lover continues to prep him. If he really was planning on spending the day fucking Stephen, then Stephen needed to be nice and loose and properly prepared to ensure that he doesn't get hurt through the process. 

"You're going to be so very good for me Stephen. I'm going to have you so wet and ready for me all day, aren't I?" Tony asks him as he works his fingers in and out of Stephen with plenty of oil and lube on his fingers. Stephen fucks himself onto the fingers as he nods and responds. 

"I will, sir, I will." Stephen promises, all but panting with his need to be filled with Tony's cock. Stephen can't ever remember being so desperate for someone before. Or so desperate for sex before. But he is now. He is most desperate and he needs Tony to just take him and take him hard at that. 

But he knows that Tony won't do that. He will take it slow and he will make sure that Stephen is stretched and he will make sure their first coupling will be gentle and loving. But later? Stephen shudders to think of just how hot it would be to fuck outside in the gardens, bent over the fountain in the middle of the English Garden. 

He might just have to suggest it to Tony, Stephen thinks, or at the very least, he tries to think that. But the moment he does, Tony is inside of him and for a moment, he can't breathe. 

All he can do is cling onto his lover as Tony moves above him and leans down so that Stephen can hold onto his neck and shoulders as the genius surges into him. 

It's not a gentle entry that Stephen had been thinking about, but he is loose enough and wet enough that it feels smooth and just perfect. 

"See? You're perfect for me Stephen. You fit me like a glove." Tony purrs against his ear and Stephen desperately kisses him as Tony smiles against the kiss. 

Stephen raises his legs so that they wrap around the genius and whimpers when Tony remains still, just kissing Stephen over and over again. 

"Sir, please- I- please fuck me." Stephen pleads as he rains feather light kisses on Tony's lips, jaw and neck and Tony chuckles. 

"If you're this desperate already Stephen, I'm not sure how you're going to last." Tony chides him but he doesn't make Stephen hold on for too long. Tony starts to fuck into him with strong thrusts of his hips and Stephen is lost in the sensation rapidly. 

He can feel their Bond coming to life between them and through it, he feels Tony's insatiable desire for Stephen and with it, his love and as it does, Stephen is overwhelmed emotionally, psychologically, physically and at the very centre of his soul. 

He is filled with Tony everywhere and it is pure ecstasy and he loses sense of time. 

Tony leans down to kiss him desperately as his hips start to falter and he reaches for Stephen's cock but there is no need. Stephen comes hard as Tony hits his prostate and as he tightens around the genius, he follows Stephen over the cliff and they cry out together as they lose themselves in the orgasm. 

Tony all but collapses on top of him and kisses him sloppily on Stephen's neck before he huffs out a laugh. 

"Perhaps I should have mentioned meal breaks and naps." Tony says as he buries his head on Stephen's neck and Stephen smiles as he too laughs. 

"Well, that was a given." Stephen tells him and Tony raises his head to kiss him. 

"I do plan to follow through Stephen, I do hope you are ready for it." Tony tells him and Stephen give shim a fond smile as he nods. 

"Oh I am sir, I most definitely am." Stephen tells him with that deliberate injection of heat in his voice. Tony gives him a dirty smile back before he pulls himself up and out of bed and extends a hand towards Stephen. 

"Come on Stephen, it's time for your bath, though I don't have those jets in this bathroom." Tony tells him with a tongue in cheek expression and Stephen plays along. He puts on his most disappointed look on his face before he lets out a resigned sigh. 

"I suppose I will have to just make do with you instead." Stephen says and is chased into the bathroom with Tony's laugh following him. 

It's going to be a good day. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Friday 

16 July 2010 

The bath was exactly what they needed. Tony had held Stephen in his arms in the large bath filled to the brim with hot water whilst they had indulged in the coffee and pastries that Tony had organised before he had woken Stephen up. 

Now, with Stephen bent over the sink, Tony inserted the nozzle of the douche that he was using to clean the doctor out and watched the mirror to ensure that Stephen was comfortable. 

Tony runs a soothing hand down Stephen's back as he fills the doctor for the third time with warm water. Stephen moans as the warm water fills him and bows his head down low. 

"You're doing so well baby." Tony encourages him as he keeps running the soothing hand over and over along the doctor's back and kisses his shoulders. 

Their rooms are warm enough for it to be comfortable to be naked and the doctor was sweating lightly with the heat of the weather as well as the pressure of taking the warm water into himself and holding onto it. 

Tony loves the image that his lover presents. 

Naked, vulnerable, filled and struggling to hold on. He is aroused despite the discomfort, and Tony knows that everything that they were doing, the little touches, the light domination and the apprehension was what was having an effect on Stephen. 

Of late, Tony has noticed that Stephen has become more and more... needy and insatiable. Whilst before, Stephen didn't care who topped or bottomed, more and more, Stephen was begging to be taken, as if he was feeling perpetually empty and he needed Tony to fill him. 

Tony didn't mind. If it was sex with Stephen, he didn't care who took which role and he was more than happy to have sex with Stephen at any time of the day in any situation. 

What worried him was why. 

He remembered the conversation Stephen had shared with Grimshaw. He remembers them mentioning a Bond. Was there something between them that Tony didn't understand that connected them? 

Something that made Stephen reliant on Tony? 

There was a part of him that worried that Stephen's love for him wasn't real, that it was a part of whatever it was that made Stephen reliant on him. But at the same time, Tony wanted, no, needed to believe that the love and affection that the doctor showed was genuine and real. 

Then there was what the others had mentioned when Stephen had been in a coma. About Stephen needing Tony. That just having Tony nearby was enough to help Stephen to get better. 

Tony doesn't understand why. But he hadn't cared and now, he's not even sure if it matters anymore. Tony loves Stephen. That doesn't change even if Stephen's desire and need for him is reliant on something else. 

If the sex and being near Tony helps Stephen, Tony doesn't mind. He doesn't care. All he wants is for Stephen to be well. To be healthy. To be safe. To be happy. 

Tony kisses Stephen's neck tenderly as Stephen starts to shake with the pressure of holding the water in. 

"You're so good for me Stephen." Tony praises him again as he leads the doctor to the toilet so that he can empty himself before drawing him into the shower. 

As they shower, they share watery kisses and Stephen leans into him and touches him as if he just can't get enough of Tony and the feel of him under his hands. 

It's a sensual shower, filled with touches and kisses and their needs, lust and desire for each other apparent through and through. 

By the time they are done and dry each other off and make it back to the bedroom, the excitement and tension had been building so much that they are desperate. 

Tony positions Stephen so that he is laid out on the bed, his legs spread, his head supported by the pillow and his hip supported by a pillow as well. 

It has been a long time since Tony has done this. It's something that he hasn't really wanted to do with strangers. It wasn't something that he did because he enjoyed it, but because he knew it pleased others. 

With Stephen, it's different. He wants to do it because he wants to taste and know everything about his lover's body. There is no part of Stephen that Tony feels is dirty or disgusting. All he wants is to experience everything of his lover and his body. 

Tony feels himself grow hard at the mere thought of pleasuring Stephen and seeing and hearing his reactions to the pleasure that he will offer. 

He knows how good it feels to be eaten out. He has experienced it plenty of times before. He had always felt a little embarrassed during it, but at the end of it, he had enjoyed himself. He hopes Stephen will too. 

"Do you know just how beautiful you are Stephen?" Tony asks him as he looks down at his lover and runs a hand down Stephen's shoulders and neck. Stephen shivers with each touch. Tony smiles as he turns Stephen's head around so that he can kiss his lover. 

"I want to blind fold you and tie you down. Will you be okay with that?" Tony asks and Stephen's eyes dilate heavily before he nods and swallows thickly. Tony runs an indulgent hand through Stephen's wet hair and kisses him gently before he nods. 

Tony really has planned this out. He grabs the cuffs that he had already tied to the bedposts and wraps the soft leather cuffs complete with the padding around the doctor's wrists one at a time and locks him in. He kisses each hand as he goes and ties Stephen's legs down as well before he leaves the bed. 

He grabs the blindfold and the plug and lube before he moves back to the bed and arranges everything. He kisses his way down Stephen's neck, shoulders and back before he cups the beautiful round buttocks in both of his hands and kneads them as Stephen arches his back and moves his hips. 

Stephen's well toned muscles are all the more visible now that he has lost some weight of late. They ripple with each move that Stephen makes to arch against the pillow for some friction. 

Tony can't help but admire his lover's beautiful body as he slowly kisses both of the buttocks in his hands and massage them before he spreads them to kiss the beautiful hole. 

It is soft, pale pink that is inviting. Tony loved eating women out. He loved how wet they got and he loved the way that they would react. It's a little different when it comes to rimming, but Tony's mouth still waters at the mere fact that it's Stephen. 

He licks slowly along the wrinkles of the hole and Stephen lets out a low moan and strains a little against the restraints. There is enough slack in the chains and the padding is sufficient, so Tony hopes that his lover won't be in any pain. 

He starts slow. Tony knows that it must have been a while since Stephen has experienced this and he knows just how overwhelming it can be. Tony kisses and licks his way through Stephen's rim and he feels it tighten against his tongue as he slips it through. 

The moans and pants are constant melodies from his lover and Tony loves it. He feels his lover starting to sweat and to curl and buck into the pleasure that he is providing and when Tony adds his fingers to the proceedings, Stephen starts to cry out and Tony can't help but smile as he makes sure that his fingers are constantly caressing Stephen's prostate as he licks and kisses the inside of his lover. 

"Does it feel good Stephen? You love me eating you out?" Tony asks as he lifts his head to see Stephen's expression. With the blindfold on, he can't see Stephen's eyes, but he can see the open, panting lips with the soft pink tongue poking out. 

Stephen looks so wanton and lustful and Tony can't help but want to fill him up completely with his own cock. But that's not what he had planned. His needs aren't what's important today. 

It's meant to be all about Stephen and his needs. 

Tony coaxes the orgasm out of Stephen with his lips and his fingers until Stephen comes against the pillow and tenses against the bonds before he goes limp and relaxes. 

Tony watches his lover enjoy the afterglow as he slowly runs his hands up and down Stephen's body to help him to calm down. As he does so he massages his jaw. 

He's not even sure how long it took. He doesn't particularly care. The blissful expression on Stephen's face makes it more than worth it. Tony wipes his face with the towel and when Stephen stops trembling, he lays his body over Stephen's and enjoys the warmth of his lover's body and let's Stephen feel his hard cock. 

He's been hard for so long now, he feels almost desperate for his own orgasm. 

Tony lets his fingers play with the loose and wet hole as he ponders his next action. He wants to fuck Stephen, but he's not sure if his lover is too sensitive for it. But Stephen arches into his fingers. 

"Sir- P-Please." Stephen pleads and Tony smiles. Stephen was most definitely in subspace and Tony loves just how shameless his lover was with his desire, lust and pleasure. 

Tony rewards him with a kiss to his neck. 

"Do you want my cock Stephen? Want me to fill your greedy little hole?" Tony asks him sultrily as Stephen moans. 

"Please Sir, please." Stephen begs and Tony rewards him with another kiss to his neck before he lubes himself up and slowly slides into his lover. Stephen is so wet and loose that it's a smooth thrust. 

Stephen strains against his bonds for a moment as Tony settles and breathes out to prevent himself from being too overwhelmed by the sensation. God, Stephen feels so good. Being inside of him was like coming home and it feels so warm and perfect that Tony can't help but love it. 

He encourages Stephen to raise up on his knees and Tony finds the perfect angle before he starts to well and truly fuck into his lover. It takes Stephen a while to become aroused, but he does eventually. 

Tony fucks Stephen hard and fast. It has been too long for him and he can't control himself as much as he wants to. Tony holds onto Stephen's narrow hips and lets himself get lost in the pleasure. 

When he comes, it's with sheer relief. He comes with three hard thrusts into Stephen and by the time he is done, he is shaking himself with the exertion. 

He lays himself down on Stephen's back and lazily kisses Stephen's neck, leaving a mark here and there. Now that he knows that Stephen enjoys the possessive marks that he leaves behind, there is no need to hold back on them. Besides. It feels good to see his marks against the pale skin of his lover. 

Tony doesn't pull himself out. Not yet. He has promised to keep his lover full of cum and he means it. But he does need a moment of rest before he can plug Stephen up with the vibrator plug. 

"Colour?" Tony asks quietly against Stephen's neck as they both catch their breaths. 

"Green, sir." Stephen replies and that's more than enough of an answer. The 'sir' that Stephen adds on tells Tony that he wants to continue the domination games. That Stephen wants to be at Tony's mercy. 

Good. 

Tony catches his breath and slowly moves off his lover to grab the plug and fill his lover with it. He checks on the bonds to make sure that Stephen isn't chafing or hurting anywhere before he gets off of the bed. 

He lazily watches his lover as he relaxes into his bonds and settles into the bed. The ropes are loose enough that though Stephen is still spread eagle on the bed, he can be comfortable enough. 

Definitely going to build himself a fucking playroom in the new Stark Tower, Tony thinks as he looks over his lover. 

Stephen would look so amazing tied to a St. Andrew's cross. He would look so beautiful with dark red marks from a whip across his pale skin. 

Tony can't wait. 

The mere idea of all the play that they can indulge him has his flaccid cock trying to be interested but it's too soon. Besides. If he wants to continue to make love to Stephen, he's going to need his stamina and that means he needs to rest. 

There are still yet more of his plans to go through after all. 

~~~ 

Friday 

16 July 2010 

Stephen isn't sure when he had fallen asleep. 

But he wakes to the feel of his body burning with need and desire. He moans before he is even fully awake and aware of what's happening in his body. 

He is hard and he has been hard for awhile, by the feel of it. It's late afternoon. He can feel the warm sun streaming through the windows and he can feel his lover watching him. 

He is still tied down to the bed. The cuffs are soft but strong and they hold him in place, spread out on the bed. He is naked and vulnerable and he is so hard that it almost hurts. 

He moans as he realises that the vibrator plug that is inside of him has been turned on at some point and he was all but humping the pillow underneath him. 

He is still blindfolded, so he can't see but he knows that Tony is close. He can feel their Bond humming softly between them and his soul feels content and relaxed. 

It's a beautiful feeling. 

Tony makes Stephen feel loved and cared for. The affection that Stephen can start to feel through the Bond is grounding and focusing in a way that nothing else in the world is. Even meditation doesn't give him the same effects. 

Especially with Loki being so far away and the perpetual feeling of being empty, being connected with Tony physically and being filled by him almost fills the ache and emptiness inside. 

Losing himself in sex and relying on that and Tony to keep himself sane may not be the healthiest way of coping. But it is what he has and it's the only way that he can keep his sanity at the moment. 

Stephen wonders vaguely what Tony will think of it all when he is told the whole truth. Will he resent it? Stephen isn't sure. He doesn't want to think about that right now. 

He wants to lose himself in the pleasure that his lover was providing. In the affection and love he can feel from the man. In knowing that he was safe and loved. He lets himself drown in the sensations going through his body and moans. 

The moans turn into cries as Tony realises that he is awake and turns up the vibrations on the plug and Stephen strains against the bonds. He needs to touch himself. He needs to come. Without Tony and the contact with him and his cock, Stephen can't come from just the vibrator. 

The cries turn into desperate pleas and Stephen knows that it's not even coherent. Then he feels the hands that he had been dying to feel. 

Soft caresses along his body and firm hands massages his shoulders as he stops struggling against the bonds and relaxes into the touches instead. 

His body is still craving the release. But his mind and his soul craves and needs the touches from his lover more. Tony's touches are calming. Grounding. Stephen drowns in the sensations until once again, it builds to the point where he can't hold back. 

"Sir- Sir- Pl- Please- Oh- Oh God, I- I can't-" Stephen cries out between the pants and moans. His body is burning. He is going to burn from the inside out and he can't contain it. 

He loses all focus on his magic, on himself, everything. He is lost in the sea of sensations and when the plug is finally removed and Tony enters him, it feels like a balm being applied over his burning skin and need. 

He feels the focus snap back into place and Stephen feels the Bond between them sing with the sexual contact between them. 

It doesn't take sex for the Bond to grow or form. But it certainly helps. Physical contact and closeness is what the Bond feeds on to grow and strengthen between Soulmates. The sex that is such a big part of their relationship helps the Bond to grow faster than it normally would. 

In return, despite Loki being so far away, Stephen feels as if he can ground himself better. It's that strength that the Bond gives him that he passes onto Loki when they are in contact. 

"Still green?" Tony asks him quietly his voice filled with lust and Stephen manages a nod as Tony thrusts into him luxuriously and slowly as if he is savouring each and every moment. 

This is decadent. Hedonistic. 

Stephen has never had a birthday like this, where a lover has taken their time to meet all of his sexual needs without question. Planning everything so that it is perfect. 

Stephen doesn't know how he is ever going to thank the genius for his efforts, but he will make it up to him, Stephen thinks as he Tony lazily fucks into him, laying on top of him and completely surrounding him and drowning Stephen's senses with his presence. 

"Oh God Stephen, you're so, so fucking perfect." Tony whispers to him. He's heard the genius say that many times. But each time he hears it, it feels new and amazing. 

He still can't believe that Tony loves him. No, he believes in Tony's emotion, it's just that he can't believe that he is lucky enough to be loved by Tony. 

All the ways that the sorcerers of the Mystic Order idolised the Connection and called it a reward for all the shit that they went through had been impossible for Stephen to understand. Not anymore. 

Now, he gets it. He understands. 

The burden on his shoulders are heavy. There are so many things that he worries about, thinks about and must deal with. But that's a small price to pay for the love that he gets from Tony. From the love and support he has from his family and friends. 

Stephen knows that despite everything, he is still lucky. Because there are those with harsher lots dealt to them. Like Loki. Shit. Stephen doesn't want to think about the god. Not now. 

Not when he is faced down being fucked from behind. Tony is always careful when they are in this position. He knows that Stephen has a trauma in relation to it. He knows that Stephen finds it difficult sometimes. 

Stephen hates it. 

He hates that the short incident with Loki was affecting him. He hates that Tony knows about it. That Tony was making an effort to associate the position with pleasure. That Tony was being so careful with him. 

It's not that the incident had made Stephen adverse to sex. For some people, it might have. Stephen is lucky to have a considerate and kind lover that cares for him and has taken the time to understand what was affecting him and helping him through it. 

A lover that didn't treat him as if he was fragile and that didn't avoid sex, but instead helped him to get past the fear. Stephen knew that it was still early. He didn't know if and when a situation might come about that makes him flashback. He's not aware of all the triggers yet. 

"Have you had enough yet?" Tony asks him softly with that teasing tone as he continues to thrust in and out of Stephen in almost a light, teasing sort of manner. Stephen shakes his head. 

"Never." He says and he means it. He will never have enough of Tony. Never enough of the sex, their chats, the flirting, the genius's body and mind and his so very beautiful heart. An eternity with him would not be enough. 

"Good, because I'm not done with you yet, Dr Strange. After I make you beg to come, I'm going to take you out for your birthday dinner. Then we're going to eat cake and I'm going to fuck you in the garden under the moonlight." Tony mutters to him and Stephen moans as he hears the genius's words. 

The bastard was planning on killing Stephen with sex, he thinks. There were worse ways to die, Stephen thinks wryly as he realises exactly what Tony is planning. 

The plug is remote controlled. 

The genius was going to keep him needy and desperate all through the night whilst they are outside for their meal. Keep Stephen plugged up, full of Tony's cum and marked everywhere with his kiss marks under the clothes whilst they are out in public with Stephen having to desperately hide his needs and desperation. 

It was going to be torture. Sweet, sweet torture. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

17 July 2010 

Stephen wakes up to delicious aches all over his body. 

He feels as if he has run a marathon. His hole feels raw and well used but he knows that he has no tears and there are no sharp pains. But he is aching and there is a feeling inside of him as if he is still filled with something. 

He knows he isn't. 

It had been the most wonderful birthday he has ever had. It had been a full day and night of indulgent sex and debauchery. He had spent the entire day with the vibrating plug inside of him, holding onto all of the cum that Tony fucked into him. 

Aside from the amazing rimming and the sex, the day had also been filled with Tony indulging Stephen's fantasies and the desire to be filled and kept filled by Tony, along with the mind games. 

Tony had kept to every single one of his promises. 

When they had gone out for their early dinner, it had been to a rather lovely French bistro and the food had been indulgent and lovely but that hadn't been all. 

Though they had been seated in a secluded booth and had plenty of privacy, the waiters and the patrons nearby was very much on Stephen's mind as Tony had randomly turned the vibrator on, keeping Stephen on his toes and rendering him into a mess of desire and desperation by the end of the meal. 

Stephen barely remembers what the meal actually consisted of or tasted like. All he remembers is Tony's beautiful caramel eyes lit with the knowledge that Stephen's body was at his mercy as was his pleasure and the secret that they shared. 

In the dining hall that was filled with the elite of New York social circles, Stephen had eaten the meal, plugged with a vibrator and squelching with his lover's cum inside of him. It had felt so incredibly naughty and wrong and yet... it had felt so amazingly hot. 

By the time that they had been done with the meal, Stephen's legs had been barely able to walk to the car. Tony had smiled indulgently, with the heat in his eyes and throughout the whole ride, Tony had kept his hand stroking Stephen's thigh up and down. 

When they had returned home to the Stark Mansion, Tony had requested that the gardens be empty as he took Stephen for a 'walk'. The walk had ended with Stephen bent over the classical marble fountain and fucked hard by Tony in the moonlight just as he had promised. 

Then Tony had brought him back into the mansion, exhausted and filled to the brim with cum and still plugged before Tony had taken him into the lab and had given him his birthday gift. 

FRIDAY. 

Of all things that Tony could have gifted him with, she was the last thing that Stephen had expected. He hadn't realised that she would be created so early and that she would be gifted to him. 

FRIDAY was... everything and more than what Stephen had expected. The idea that Tony had created her for him is absolutely and utterly amazing. Stephen had been speechless. 

He hadn't been able to speak for a long while as he listened to the bubbly voice of the new AI introduced herself to him with bright excitement. She had come attached to the watch that Tony had created for him to ensure that she would always be with him. 

The gestures had been incredibly touching and thoughtful. Stephen had kissed him desperately, unable to express his gratitude in any other way. 

Then Tony had taken him to bed, exhausted before making love to him one last time. It had been tender and loving. They had never stopped kissing as they shared their pants and moans between the kisses and yeah, Stephen was sore and he was going to be for awhile and he had been completely and utterly fucked out. 

It had been... an amazing day. 

Stephen couldn't have asked for more and he couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate his birthday. 

Stephen stretches his sore muscles as Tony sleepily buries his head into Stephen's shoulder and curls up closer to him and yawns. 

"Morning baby." Tony murmurs against his shoulder. Stephen imagines that Tony must also be exhausted by the previous day. It had been a day and night full of physical activities after all. 

"Morning." Stephen murmurs back as he pulls Tony closer to himself and kisses the top of his head. Unfortunately, unlike the previous day where they had spent the entire time involved with each other and only with each other, they had plans for today. 

Stephen had a dinner planned with Clea, Jonathon and Miranda for his birthday and he had to spend at least some time at the Sanctum and  Kamar-Taj. 

There was some business that he had to deal with the Council as well. As much as he wanted to spend a relaxing weekend with Tony, he couldn't neglect his duties. Tony was understanding and kind about it at least and that made it a little easier. 

"What time do you have to go?" Tony asks him, sleep apparent in his voice. Stephen smiles at the adorable picture his sleepy lover makes and pulls him a little closer. 

"Not for a little while." Stephen informs him with a suggestive one and that's all it takes for Tony to smirk and look up at him with a sparkle in his eyes. 

"So, I wonder what we should do with that time." Tony says and there is so much suggestion in his voice that Stephen can't help but chuckle. Despite the ridiculous amount of sex they had the day before, apparently Tony was still insatiable. 

Stephen kisses him before he works his way down Tony's body and slowly looks up to show Tony exactly what he plans to do before he swallows the genius's cock down. 

Tony's hands come to grab at Stephen's hair almost immediately and Stephen moans as he feels it. But before he can get seriously focused on sucking Tony's cock, the genius pulls his head up. 

"Come on baby, let's go for the classic." Tony says and Stephen is confused for a moment before he laughs. 

It takes them a moment or two to position themselves before Stephen is able to suck down Tony's cock whilst at the same time, Tony holds him and starts to slowly lick his way up and down the cock that Stephen feeds him. 

Stephen losses his focus for a moment before he is able to concentrate on licking and swallowing down the cock in front of him. 

The pleasure of Tony's lips locking around his cock and the firm hands guiding him feels good. As does the pure pleasure he feels from breaking Tony's concentration with his lips. 

It quickly turns into a competition of who can make the other come faster as they distract each other and the cries and drawn out moans mean that they can't fully deep throat each other. 

But eventually, they both reach their orgasms and share a kiss that taste of each other before they settle and share a chuckle. 

"I don't think I've ever had so much sex as I have been doing with you." Tony tells him as they enjoy the afterglow. 

"Me too." Stephen tells the genius and there is a light atmosphere between them that Stephen enjoys. His birthday had been wonderful but it had also been a very intense day, filled with sex and tension and apprehension. 

This morning was different. It was relaxing and warm and Stephen liked the way that they could just enjoy each other's presence without needing to fill it with anything. 

"You do you know that there isn't anything that I won't do for you right?" Tony asks him and Stephen can't help but wonder if somehow Tony knows about what is happening to him. 

He knows that he should tell Tony. 

But he doesn't know how to explain it and how to ask for what he needs. The Bond is... it's a way of keeping him sane. But to ask for it, to force Tony into it when he can't possibly understand what it means to tie his soul to Stephen's in such a permanent and unnatural way without giving it the chance to grow on his own accord is... no. 

Stephen can't do that. 

Not to Tony. Not to the man that he loves and loves him back. He can deal with the emptiness. As long as he has Tony nearby, he can deal with it. He has survived so much already. The mental strain of focusing on Tony and the Bond that they share constantly can be draining, but Stephen can do it. 

"I know and I am grateful for that, dearest." Stephen tells him softly as Tony raises himself to look at him. 

"Something is happening with you Stephen. I'm worried about you." Tony says and Stephen bites his lips as he avoids the worried look in his beautiful lover's caramel brown eyes. 

He doesn't get to look away for long. Tony grasps his chin and turns his face back around so that his pale greys meet the caramel browns and he sees the worry and concern etched into his lover's eyes. 

Stephen closes his eyes. 

He can't look into them and lie. He just can't. 

"There- I'm- I'm just going through something Anthony. Something I can't explain." Stephen tells him softly and Tony sighs. 

"Yeah. I figured it was something like that." Tony says and there is a tone in his voice that Stephen does not like. Resignation and disappointment. Fear at the idea that he has disappointed Tony forces Stephen to open his eyes and look at his lover. 

"I-" Stephen opens his mouth to speak but he doesn't quite know what to say. It doesn't matter because Tony speaks first. 

"What do I need to do to stop you from dying?" Tony asks and Stephen freezes. He doesn't understand how Tony could know that. How Tony would know that Stephen might be dying. 

He's not. 

Well. Sort of. The thing was, when Stephen first Connected with Tony and he became concerned about the possibility of rejection, one of the first things that he had done was to put spells upon himself. 

Stephen is the Sorcerer Supreme. The most powerful magic user to walk the planet. If a rejection had taken place and his mind shattered as a result of it, he could have become a monster that no one would be able to handle and in his grief and pain, with the Time Stone at his disposal, Stephen had known that he could destroy the universe rather than save it. 

Given that, Stephen had taken precautions. He had ensured that in the event that his mind would break and his focus would shatter, that his body would as well. The Council had been adamantly against Stephen and his spells, but he had insisted. 

Now, Stephen was grateful that he had the spells put into place because with Loki and the distance between them, his mind was at more risk than it had ever been. Besides, even if he was able to keep up with the focus on Tony and the Connection he wasn't sure how long he could hold out for. 

The distance made it impossible for Stephen to take the burdens of the god's suffering or feel his pain, but then he also didn't know what would happen if and when the god broke. 

Loki was being tortured

With the express goal of breaking the god's mind and a part of his mind was his focus and ability to do magic. When that shattered, Stephen wasn't sure what effect that would have on him. 

The only thing that he was grateful for out of all of this was the fact that Tony wasn't a magic user. If he had been, the Connection would have been a full and complete one. 

Losing Stephen would drive Tony to madness. But with Tony being someone without an ounce of magical potential, it meant that Tony wouldn't be so heavily affected by Stephen's death, if it was to occur. 

He would grieve, Stephen knows, but he would live. Clea was powerful enough to take over as the Sorcerer Supreme and the Order had plenty of preparation done to help Tony through the rest of his thorny path.

"I'm not dying Anthony." Stephen tells him gently. He isn't. He just happened to have a suicide spell woven into the very fabric of his being in the case that he loses his mind. It wasn't the same as dying. 

"Okay, then tell me what is happening to you." Tony demands and from the look on his face, he was determined to get an answer. Stephen doesn't know what to say. 

He looks at his lover and takes a deep breath. 

"There... is something happening to me that is making it very difficult for me to focus and to keep myself from... losing control. I'm working on getting myself through it." Stephen explains to him. It's a vague explanation but it's the best he can manage. Tony looks at him for a long moment before he opens his lips. 

"What do you need me to do?" Tony asks him and Stephen gives him a soft smile. 

"Just... be there for me." Stephen tells him. Tony looks doubtful but he sighs and nods as he pulls Stephen into his arms. 

"I can't lose you Stephen. I can't. I am never going to forgive you if you get yourself killed. You hear me?" Tony asks him and Stephen nods as he feels the emotion course through their Bond. There is no longer an iota of doubt in his mind. 

Tony Stark well and truly loves him. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Friday

21 August 2010 

Dr Elizabeth Miller looks with astonishment at the screen in front of her. 

Mark, one of her patients was wearing the light helmet that Tony Stark and Stephen Strange had brought over. It doesn't look like any sort of VR set that she had ever seen before, but Mark reported that one , it was extremely comfortable and two , very light. 

The VR portion of the set is very slim and barely looks like a VR set. Then the helmet itself appears to be made out of very light plastic. From the specs that she has seen, the device has speakers built into it with surround sound, ground breaking sensitive electrodes that can capture neural activity real time quickly and was incredibly sensitive on top of the screen that displays the VR component. 

The two geniuses that brough t over the device stand back and watch as the scans flash up and shows the brain activity with sensitivity and accuracy that she had only dreamed about. 

She can see exactly how Mark's brain was reacting to the stimulus that they were providing via their game like program. 

"We should see about the controller." Tony Stark muses as he watches Mark using the Xbox controller as he moves about. The helmet has proximity sensors that allow for the helmet to capture movement as well, but they aren't able to utilise it with their current program. 

"We should also see about the program itself. It looks like a game. We can use the satellite images and photographs from the Iraq and Afghanistan to build a more realistic environment." Stephen adds and Tony nods slowly. 

"Yeah. A more realistic 3D environment would help. How about holographic displays?" Tony thinks out loud and Elizabeth can only gape as the two geniuses think and plan out improvements to a device that to her is already beyond anything that she had imagined. 

"We also need to finish working on that tricorder idea of yours. Allow for real time hormone measurements." Stephen says and Miller turns to look at the two of them. 

She has read and seen a great deal about the two men in the media. She knew that they were good friends and that they were working together on various projects. 

Since her meeting with Tony and his offer to help her with her VR Exposure Treatment program, she has been keeping an eye on Tony Stark and his media appearances. 

She knew that he was Iron Man and was working as a superhero to save people left, right and centre. She also knew that he had been developing a great deal of tech, especially of late to help the world and she had thought that perhaps that her project had slipped by the wayside. 

Apparently it hadn't. 

"Dr Stark, I don't know what to say." She says as she watches Mark's hippocampus lights up brightly as he flashes back to the moment of his trauma. But from the heart rate that is being displayed along with his blood oxygen levels , he seems to be calm enough and the therapist in the room with him was guiding him carefully through the process. 

"Well, it's not finished yet." Tony says with a shrug as if it is nothing. It isn't. With a device as sensitive as his and with the ability to see what was happening in the brain, she can better target the exposure therapy. It would allow for them to see real time what effect the therapy was having on the patients. This was beyond what she had imagined. 

"Dr Stark, I- my funding is-" She starts to say. They hadn't really discussed the issue of funding and costs. She can only imagine how much everything must have cost. The electrodes alone, given that they were a new invention from Stark Industries, along with the new silicone like mixture that covered them that allowed for the scanning to be done without lubrication must have cost a fortune. 

That and the time that the two geniuses spent on working on it alone is something she's not sure if her funding could even start to cover. 

She did have confidentiality agreements signed with both of the men to ensure that her patient information released to them in the form of the scans that she had provided was legal and authorised, but other than that, they hadn't really discussed how the funding for the project would go. 

"Oh, don't worry about your funding. My legal team will be in contact. Stephen and I will be providing you the funding necessary to get through clinical trials for the therapy device." Tony says easily and Elizabeth gapes at him. 

"Dr Stark, I- There isn't any need for additional funding. I- if you allow us to use the device, we will be more than happy to provide the clinical trial data on the device." She tells him but Tony and Stephen both shake their heads. 

"No offence Dr Miller, but I kinda had a chat with your military contacts. Your funding only allows you to treat the most severe cases and you are limited even at that. What we can provide you is further funding so you can have more qualified staff working with you and allow you to treat more patients." Tony tells her and Elizabeth is speechless once again. 

"It's a project that matters Dr Miller. There are more and more veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with severe traumas. But they aren't the only ones that are traumatised by what occurred over there. We also have refugees that are affected by the incidents . In providing the funding, we would also be requesting that you work with the refugees that have come over from those countries." Stephen informs her and Miller nods. 

She had been hearing about the trauma being suffered by the civilians being even worse than those suffered by the veterans, but she hasn't had the ability to treat them or work with them. 

"That- That would be amazing." She says at last and both men give her wide smiles. 

"Once we have the clinical trials done and make the improvements, we will be able to perhaps tweak it so that it can work with all sorts of trauma, not just war traumas." Tony's right, she thinks .There are so many different types of traumas, but with their funding, they have only been able to produce one kind of environment and a therapy program that is tailored to deal only with the traumas that her patients generally deal with. 

"In other words, Dr Miller, we are fascinated by the project and we would love to work with you in a more formal manner." Stephen says with a gentle smile and tone. She nods numbly and swallows hard. 

"That... would be absolutely amazing." She tells him and he gives her a smile back. 

"Besides, if we can get it to work on normal traumas, I think both of us can use the damned thing for ourselves too." Tony says dryly and Miller knows. 

She knew about Tony's trauma in Afghanistan. She can only imagine what it must be like for him to have to deal with the other issues as well. Being Iron Man cannot be an easy experience. 

Tony Stark wasn't a military man. He hasn't been trained to kill, to accept killing and to have hardened themselves to the experience. 

On top of that, she knew that he had been dealing with a lot of stress, health issues as well as the burdens of being Tony Stark and Iron Man. Combining that with the death and destruction that he has seen, she has no doubts that he can do with some therapy in that regard. 

She's not sure about Stephen Strange, but when Tony mentions that, she does see his eyes stutter as he looks away, as if trying to hide himself away. 

She wonders if the scarred hands and the fall that she knows he suffered on Everest. Perhaps that was the cause of his trauma and that was what he was dealing with, but by the dark look in Tony's eyes, she gets the distinct feeling that it's more recent than that. 

It also looks to be a trauma that they share. She can see in a way why they were interested in the project and why they had worked so quickly and hard on it. 

Either way, she is grateful. 

"I don't know how to thank you for all of this." She says and the two men shrug as if it's nothing. Considering their immense wealth, she supposes it isn't a big deal for them to offer her funding or to invest themselves and their funds in a project like hers . Still. She is grateful. 

It also gives her hope that she can finally help everyone that needs the help. It means that perhaps she can really get through to her patients and target them so that she can work with them efficiently. 

She can't wait to speak to her team about it. She can't wait to work with the refugees. She can see the future for the technology and just thinking about it gives her so much hope and excitement that she can barely contain herself. 

On the other side of the viewing mirror, Mark takes off the device and continues to speak to his therapist about the incident. He is calm and relaxed as he speaks and Elizabeth is happy to see the progress that he is making. She smiles at the two men as they watch over the proceedings as well whilst they become engrossed in discussing all the things that they can add and fix up. 

She leaves them to it. She can't keep up with how fast paced their conversation is and she's still trying to work out exactly how the program works and how she was going to go about implementing the clinical study. 

It was going to be a lot of work, but she couldn't wait. 

~~~ 

Saturday

29 August 2010 

The godling is a prize that Thanos had not expected. 

He's a gift that Thanos knows the Universe has given him to ensure that he can reach his goals to save it from itself. 

Learning of the Infinity Stones and the power therein had been the turning point for Thanos and his actions. 

Conquering one world at a time and killing half of the population before he moves on to the next planet or realm had been... a difficult process. 

Yes, they have taken some of the resources and some of the people to supplement the needs of his growing army, but Thanos has been fair. 

But he also knows that it has been cruel. 

He knows that the destruction is necessary. He still remembers the hungry cries of his children as they died to the hunger that his planet had been plagued with. The people that he cull from the worlds before he lives does not have to suffer through that degradation. 

But they do suffer. 

Thanos tries to ensure that there is as little pain as possible, but the people feel fear, terror and pain as they die and that is not what he desires. 

More suffering isn't the answer. 

He wants to reduce suffering. Create a universe where people can thrive with the resources that will be abundant with the reduced population. 

The universe cannot continue to reproduce and grow at the current rate. To do so would be to repeat the mistakes of his people and Thanos cannot watch another child starve. 

He hardens his heart to the cries of the people as they die. He blocks his ears lest he reach out a hand to yet another child. He has plenty of children. Strong ones too. 

Corvus Glaive with his magical ability as well as fighting ability makes him a valuable son and a member of the Black Order, but he is not clever and his love for Proxima Midnight, his other daughter, is a weakness that Thanos does not approve of. 

Ebony Maw is the most magically gifted of his children and one of the most loyal. Cull Obsidian is physically powerful and as a part of the Black Order, he performs his duties well enough but he is not Gamora. 

Of all of his children, the youngest of them all, Gamora is the most like him. He had known the moment that he had seen her fearless eyes that she was special and oh, special she was. 

She was ruthless, smart and strong. Strong enough to beat Nebula each and every time he pitted them against each other. 

Gamora is to whom he would leave the universe. 

She is strong and stubborn enough to get the tasks that he assigns her done. The right hand that he needs for his plans to gather the Infinity Stones. 

Given their mythical nature, he is not surprised that it is difficult to locate them. He sends the Black Order of mages and witches and his children, out to trace the energies but they are proving to be elusive. 

That's fine. He has time. He already has one that is a good start as any. 

The Mind Stone does not wish to be wielded by him. At every turn, it rebels and fills his mind with the horrors that he had committed. But no longer. 

Ebony Maw uses his magic and the tools of the Dwarves to create the Sceptre to trap the Mind Stone and force it to Thanos's will and bend, it does. 

The control that the Mind Stone can give him over any living being's mind is useful. But it is a power that Thanos does not use lightly. 

Oh, no, to be trapped in their own mind and knowing that their actions and their words are not their own is a distasteful experience and Thanos is not a cruel god. 

He may be called Mad, but he does not wish to be cruel. It is his goal to reduce suffering. To achieve his goals, there is nothing that he won't do, but where possible, he does not wish to cause suffering or harm. 

But when it comes to an Asgardian godling, there is no need to be merciful. 

If it hadn't been for Odin and his daughter's bloody campaign, his people wouldn't have starved to death. Thanos had taken his army to Helheim to gather resources for his struggling planet. 

But Odin and his daughter had put a stop to Thanos's plans with their bloodthirst. Odin didn't just kill the population of Helheim. He left the land itself devastated, destroying all the resources the Realm had and driving Thanos to the end of the universe to recover from his wounds and to rebuild his army. 

With Odin's actions, his people's last hope had been lost and Titans died of starvation and violent wars over the limited resources. 

Thanos cannot infiltrate the Nine Realms. 

The Black Order has tried but the defence of the Nine Realms by Asgard was steadfast. But with the Asgardian Prince in his grasp, Thanos knows that he will be able to get past the barriers. 

Especially given that Loki is a Battle Mage. With his magic and his ability to travel between the dimensions to different Realms, Thanos knows that he will be able to get what he wants. 

All he needs to do is break the godling. 

Make the godling bow down to him and accept his rule. Break the godling's will so that he will follow Thanos's orders blindly. 

It's a task that Ebony Maw is well prepared for. 

Between Ebony Maw and the Other, Thanos is confident that it is but a matter of time. With the godling's ability to shield his mind and his strong physical body, it is a difficult task that will take most likely a long time. 

But that's fine. Thanos is patient. 

Soon enough, he will have his revenge and he will end all suffering throughout the universe. 

It is... inevitable. 

~~~ 

Monday 

30 August 2010 

Darcy looks over at Jane and the frantic pace that she was working at. 

She's been like that since Thor has left and Darcy can't help but feel worried. It's on two fronts that Darcy worried. 

On one hand, Jane's enthusiasm for the work was good and it was nice to see her motivated and excited about the work, but at the same time, the girl was running herself ragged and that was worrisome. 

On the other, what worried Darcy was Thor himself. 

It... honestly had been such a short time that the two of them had spent together but it was as if in just those short two weeks or so, Jane had gone and fallen in love with Thor and she couldn't bear the thought of being without him and Darcy honestly wasn't sure how the relationship was going to work out. 

She can't bear the thought of Jane being hurt. 

She can't. She has loved her friend and her boss for far, far too long. It- It isn't that Jane loves someone else that bothers her. 

She had always known that Jane didn't see her as anything more than a friend and a colleague and that was fine. It wasn't the first time that Darcy had fallen in love with someone that didn't see her as a potential romance

Jane was most definitely so very incredibly straight that yeah. Darcy knew that she didn't have a chance. She had never expressed that love for her either. But then she also hadn't been able to help herself. 

Jane was... Jane was so incredibly special. So focused, so intelligent, so clever and caring and so feisty that from the first time that Darcy had met the woman, she had known that it was a bad idea to spend any more time with her. 

But of course, being the glutton for punishment that she was, Darcy had taken the job offer to be her intern and she had fallen headlong in love with the woman, knowing that she would never, ever, be loved back in the way that she craved and wanted to be. 

Thor wasn't the first man, person, being, god, whatever, that Darcy has had to watch Jane fall in love with. 

Compared to the past boyfriends? Thor was actually alright in Darcy's book. He wasn't cruel, he wasn't using Jane only for her intelligence or her money, so that was a plus. Darcy didn't carry a taser around just for her own protection after all. 

But this is also the first time that Darcy has seen Jane... really fall in love. She had seen it from the first moment that the two of them had met. She had seen the fascination in Thor's eyes. She had seen it being reciprocated in Jane's eyes. 

It had been a matter of time, but she hadn't realised just how quick that time would go before the two of them would be... actually in love. And yeah well, she can only blame herself for feeling the burn of seeing that. 

Again, that's not what bothers her. It doesn't bother her that Jane loves someone that's not her. What bothers her is just what that love means for Jane. 

Thor is a god. 

Alien or otherwise, he is a god that, according to him, lives for five thousand years plus. He has magic. Their world, there is a combination of magic and science that somehow work together that lets him do impossible things. 

Their world is also a racist, bigotted pile of bullshit and considering the fact that the big blonde man was the Prince of the said world? 

Darcy just can't imagine a situation where the relationship was going to work out somehow. Was Thor going to magically come back one day and take Jane back to Asgard? Is that how that was going to work? 

And if Jane was to go to Asgard, where she has no friends and no family and no humans even, how the hell was she going to go? 

Was she going to be okay with all of that or was it going to break Jane's spirit and leave her a husk of the woman that Jane was? 

Because if that was going to happen, Darcy wasn't sure if she can stomach that. She loves Jane too much as she is and losing her to Asgard would break Darcy's heart. But seeing Jane pining and wishing for the man- god- whatever he was, was also going to break Darcy's heart. 

In other words, she was in a shitty, shitty place and her poor little heart was going to break regardless. Which, honestly sucks. 

Darcy gets out of her chair and makes her way to the kitchen. 

There wasn't a lot that she can do to help Jane right now, other than hoping and praying that somehow the girl was either going to work out how to fix the damned equations or whatever it was until she can work out how the Einstein-Rosen Bridge works and she can somehow build it or Thor was going to come back somehow. 

If there was one thing that Darcy could do, it was to keep the woman supported throughout the process. Even if it meant just supplying her endlessly with coffee and biscuits. 

Besides, everything was better with double stuffed oreos. Right? 

~~~ 

Wednesday 

1 September 2010 

Stephen dreams. 

Which is odd. He doesn't usually dream when he is with Tony. The Time Stone remains quiet when he is next Tony and generally, his mind is calm enough with the close Connection and Bond with his Soulmate that he doesn't dream. 

But he is dreaming. 

It takes Stephen a moment to realise that he is not alone in this... dream. It's not his consciousness that has created this empty space and it's not his mind that has brought him here. 

Stephen takes a deep breath. 

He can feel who it is and he isn't sure how he feels about the intrusion into his mind by the other. There is a part of him that recoils at the thought of another's mind entering his own and creating this space and pulling his consciousness into it when he is holding Tony in his arms. 

"This is unexpected." Stephen says out into the void as he waits for the other to reveal themselves to him. Slowly, Stephen feels the Connection between them come to life as the other's consciousness connects with his and the Bond tries to flare between them. 

He feels the apprehension of the other soul. 

"I feared that you would not be receptive to a meeting like this." Loki tells him softly as he appears in front of Stephen. 

The god's apprehension keeps a good distance between them and Stephen can appreciate that. There is an artificial calm over his mind projected by the god into his very soul. It helps Stephen to centre himself and to see the god with some warmth rather than fear. 

"Our first meeting didn't quite go according to plan." Stephen tells him quietly. He knows that it is a bit harsh to say that to the god when he knows what Loki is experiencing right now but at the same time, the distance and time to think has taught Stephen a few things. 

To do as the god has asked and to... allow the god to use his body in order to try to protect those that he cares about is something that Stephen simply can't do. 

Tony has made it clear that he won't share and Tony had enough issues with unfaithful partners that Stephen couldn't do that to him. But more importantly, Stephen himself knew that it would completely break him to allow himself to be used like that. 

Stephen was used to casual sex or sex without emotions attached. That's not what bothers him. It's the thought of using sex as a transaction of some sort that breaks him. 

Stephen sighs as he looks over at the god and sees and feels the guilt that hits the god. 

"I have hurt you." The god says quietly and Stephen looks at him, looks into the exhausted green eyes. The god was showing the best of himself as possible in this shared dream state. 

Even then, Stephen knows that the god is in pain, physically, mentally and emotionally and that he was reaching out to Stephen most likely as a last resort to try to keep his sanity intact. 

Stephen should have thought of a solution like this. 

Well, if he was being honest, it was definitely an idea that has gone through his mind. He had thought of reaching out through the vastness of the space between them through magic and their Connection to try to centre and focus himself and the god with the Bond that they can form. 

But he had been... reticent. 

There was the lingering fear and anxiety that made the very idea difficult. It makes it impossible for Stephen to deny the god's comment and to reassure or comfort him. 

"You fear me." Loki says when Stephen doesn't reply and Stephen looks the god in the eyes and tries to hide his fear, but they both know that it exists. It's impossible to hide anything from the god when they are sharing minds like this. 

"I feared that may be the case. I have not contacted you. I have not reached out to you. I had hoped that I could simply... fade and allow you the peace of a life without my presence." Loki says and Stephen feels alarm go through him as he understands the implications of what the god was saying. 

He had known that when Loki fell, he had done so with the intention and the belief that he would not be surviving the incident. He should have known that nihilistic desire would continue whilst the god was under the thumb of Thanos himself. 

"Loki, that is not-" What I desire, Stephen tried to say, but the god cuts him off with a hollow laugh. 

"I cannot even succeed in that. Instead, I must reach through to you, desperate for a way to survive." Loki sounds bitter and harsh and Stephen loses his train of thought under the onslaught of pain and anguish that comes through the Connection. 

Loki's emotions and his desires and pain is all too obvious. Stephen knows the desolate desires of the god. Loki wants all the pain to end. To stop. But he knows that it won't and at the same time, he also knows that he can't give up. 

Understanding hits Stephen in waves until he can't help but feel pity for the god. Loki knows now what Thanos is planning and he knows that he will become a tool in the Mad Titan's plans. 

"Forgive me, I had not meant to share my pain." Loki says after a moment as the pain dissipates and the god stands stoically in front of him. 

"You need my help." Stephen says quietly. It's not a question. It's a statement. 

Stephen had calculated that given the god's power, control and the thousand years that he had on Stephen as far as his training and magic usage was concerned, Loki would be able to last a lot longer than Stephen could with their Connection stretched. 

But it was clear now that the god was at the end of his rope and was using the last of his focus to contact Stephen like this. Most likely to ask for help. 

The god nods grimly. 

"You know what the Mad Titan plans." It's not a question. There is no need to question in this shared mind state. Loki too understands what Stephen does. 

"He will send you to Earth with the sceptre. He will force you to open the portal to the Chitauri Army." Stephen tells him quietly and the god nods. 

"He cannot know of you and my Connection to you. I have hidden it thus far, but I do not know how long I can... hold on." Loki says quietly and Stephen knows that for the god, reticent to show any weakness, it's a difficult thing for him to admit that weakness to him. 

Stephen nods. 

"Teach me what I need to do." Stephen says quietly and the god's mind opens to him in a way he had never thought that the god would allow. 

Stephen gasps as the vastness of the knowledge stretches between them and he sees all the magics, the spells, the understandings of power unlike anything Stephen had. 

It's overwhelming. 

It's too much and Stephen feels the guiding hand of Loki's mind as he focuses Stephen onto the spell that he used to contact Stephen. As that understanding hits, Stephen finds himself nodding slowly as he understands what the god wants and needs from him. 

Regular contact. 

A spell that would allow him to focus on the Connection and reach out to Loki and even if he couldn't create this sort of shared mind space with the god, he would be able to Connect with him and provide him with the focus and strength needed to keep the shields up, to protect even a fraction of his mind from the Mind Stone and the torturers. 

To hold onto the sliver of sanity that Loki has striven so far to protect and wishes to continue to protect. 

"I cannot do the spell often." Stephen admits quietly. If he did, he would destroy the fragile balance of power between the dimensions. The god nods. He knows that. 

"It need not be often." The god is hopeful. Stephen can feel that. He nods. Their time is running out. He can feel the magic draining fast between them. 

"I will do what I can." Stephen says quietly and it can feel the god's surprise even as Loki nods slowly. 

He had expected Stephen to say no. He had expected that Stephen, in his anger and fear for the god, to reject the spell and the request for help. But surely the god would have known that Stephen will do what was required and needed of him to protect Tony and the people of Earth. 

"Thank you." Loki says quietly and Stephen nods just as their shared dream fades and he wakes up with a shudder. 

The spell might have been initiated by the god, but it had drawn power from Stephen, the stronger between the two of them given the current situation. Stephen feels the drain hit him and he has to bite his lips to stop himself from crying out as he feels it hit. 

Stephen rolls away from Tony as he struggles to breathe and he quickly opens up the channels of power to the dimensions around him to try to balance out the l oss of magic that he had suffered. For a moment, everything is white in his head as he fights to get himself under control, in balance. 

"Stephen?" Tony's worried voice hits him but Stephen can't reply, can't turn to look at the man as Tony's arms wrap around him and try to comfort him. Stephen holds himself tightly as he tries to focus his breathing and on Tony. 

It takes him a moment, but eventually, the imbalance of power within him is restored and he feels like he can breathe again. As he does, he also realises that he is shaking like a leaf, that Tony is looking at him with severely worried eyes and that for the first time in months, he doesn't feel... empty. 

Well then. 

"Hi." Stephen says to Tony for the lack of anything better to say and the engineer gives him a raised eyebrow in response. 

"What happened?" Tony asks him quietly and Stephen reaches up with his shaking hands and frames the beautiful face of his lover and let Tony's warmth seep into his cold fingers. 

"A bad dream." Stephen tells him and Tony doesn't ask any more. All he does is reach down and kiss him softly and pull him into his arms and back to the centre of the bed and under the covers. 

"You wanna talk about it?" Tony offers, but Stephen shakes his head and that ends that line of questioning. Tony doesn't push. He expects Stephen to know what he needs and when he needs it. It's a matter of trust and respect of each other's boundaries after all. 

Stephen isn't quite sure how long they lay quietly for, but eventually, they fall back asleep. As he does, Stephen can't help but feel somewhat confident for the first time in months.

He can survive this. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Wednesday 

1 September 2010 

"Father!" 

Hel cries out as she feels the familiar magic burn through her. She can feel his magic. She can feel his soul! 

It has- Hel doesn't want to think about how long it has been. Since his fall, since what she believed had been his death, she hadn't felt the warmth of his soul touching hers. 

The loss of that connection with her father had all but destroyed Hel and through her, Helheim. 

Hel wasn't just Loki's daughter. She was the Queen of Helheim and she was the Goddess of Lost Souls and the Dead. When she had lost all focus of her magic, of herself and sunk into the deep grief that had overwhelmed her young heart, the connection to her Queendom had wrought destruction upon the lands themselves. 

Tears stream down her face even as she smiles until she can feel the unused muscles stretch uncomfortably. She does not mind. She cannot stop it either. She smiles through her tears as she sits up and holds herself tightly. 

Loki lives. 

Her father lives . The joy that she feels with that one realisation, even though she can't feel his soul anymore, can't feel his magic anymore, fills her with hope and breaks through the grief that had been overwhelming her. 

Oh, dear Norns she had missed him. 

It had taken all of Hel's resolve to stop herself from taking her army of the dead and souls and march into Asgard to demand Odin's head on a platter. 

It had been the revenge that she had talked her father out of. But it was the revenge that she had craved when she had felt the loss of his soul from her mind. She could not bear the pain. 

She was too young. It was the first loss that she had suffered. But she had managed to hold herself back. The rage did not fade. Her hate and anger towards Asgard still burns through her. 

But it is tampered with the realisation of the legacy that Loki has left behind to her. To Asgard. To Thor. 

Oh, she had wanted to collect Thor's soul the moment he had stepped into her Realm, but she hadn't. Simply because Loki had loved his brother. Thor had been surprisingly respectful. 

He had been kind and when he had requested to hear Loki's story, she had passed him the story of her father and his tribulations. Thor had openly wept as he had listened. 

In that moment, Hel had known that her father's legacy in Thor's hands was well placed and that she could not undo the sacrifices that he had made by destroying Asgard. 

Thor and his earnest desire to know his brother's will and to respect his sacrifices and be grateful for it, broke through the rage that Hel had felt. 

But without the rage, all she had been left was the grief and it had broken her. It hadn't only broken her but her land and her souls. No more. 

Loki lives

Hope fills her until she feels it burst from her in the form of the magic that connects her to the lands that she rules over. She shares the joy in her heart with the Realm itself until the endless winter her grief had brought dissipates into spring and trees grow and flowers blossom throughout the Realm. 

She does not know where her father is. She doesn't know why he couldn't use his magic until now. She doesn't know why she had only faintly felt the presence of his soul when she had been able to feel him as if he had been right next to her even when he was far away. 

But it matters not. Not for the time being. What matters is that Loki lives. If he lives, then there is a chance that she will be able to see him again. 

To have him hold her and tell her stories of the Realms that he had visited. To watch as his soul heals with the Soul Connection that he had been blessed with. To be the god that he was meant to be. 

Hel may be young, but she is wise enough to know that her father isn't perfect. As flawed as he may be, she loves him and believes that his soul is pure and beautiful at its heart. But he is hurt and damaged and it has made him hard and cruel. But he is still young. 

There is a journey ahead of him and wherever his paths may take him, Hel just wants him to be happy and safe. Loki has gone through a great deal and it's about time that he finds some happiness, she thinks as she walks out onto the balcony and looks over her Queendom. 

The flowers bloom and the souls celebrate the return of spring into their lands. Hel smiles as she watches them. She hopes that her father can see this, see the lands flourish through her love and hope for him. 

Hel links her hands together and prays to the Norns for the happiness and peace that her father needs and deserves. 

Loki lives

~~~ 

Friday

17 September 2010

Dr Wu looks down at the results. 

He doesn't fight the smile that comes over his lips as he looks over it and looks at Tony Stark. Next to him, Dr Stephen Strange sits and Wang Wu is surprised to see the man here with Tony. 

He has to admit that though he had heard from Tony Stark that Stephen was involved in the treatment of Tony for the chelation therapy, he hadn't realised that there was more than just a doctor/patient relationship between the two of them. 

The way that they look at each other and sit makes it very obvious what their relationship is. It is also clear to him that they are trusting him with their relationship and expect discretion. That, he is willing to provide. 

"Well, Dr Stark, I am very glad to inform you that there are no signs of any further heavy metals in your blood or in your tissues that we have been able to detect. Furthermore, your heart is in good condition and the shrapnel has stabilised quite well." Wu says and he sees the smile the two men share. 

He gives them a moment to share the joy. Surely, Dr Stephen Strange had already been aware of the results, but despite the closeness of their relationship or perhaps because of it, the doctor has chosen to bring Tony into the hospital for a complete check up. 

Wu hadn't minded doing all the chaos of ensuring that the wings of the hospitals were emptied out to keep Tony's visit a secret and it honestly warmed his heart to know that Tony would not be dying. 

It had been painful to realise that he may lose the patient that his friend had entrusted in him, but now to know that Tony was doing better and that he had found someone to share his life with? It was better news than Wu had expected. 

He smiles at the two of them and waits for the questions he knows will come his way. 

"Is there a way to remove the shrapnel from Anthony's chest without risking his health?" Stephen asks and Wu has to sigh at that. That was the question he was prepared for, of course, but it was the question that he also didn't have a solution to. 

Not yet. 

"I have been researching some methods for the surgery itself, but the issue is whether or not Dr Stark's heart and his body can take the strain of the surgery. Even with a well prepared team, the placement of the shrapnel means that the surgery will be protracted. Then there is the issue of rebuilding the sternum that had been removed." Wu says and he looks at Stephen, who looks thoughtful. 

He has no doubts that the doctor would have been mulling over the problems of the shrapnel for some time. Considering that it was his lover though and his specialisation being elsewhere, it doesn't surprise Wu that he would ask the question. 

"I am considering some alternatives, but until we have a stable material that we can work with, I'm not sure if surgery is the answer." Wu says quietly and to his surprise, the two men look at each other for a long moment before nodding as if an entire conversation had taken place. 

"You have measurements, I assume for the sternum that would be required doctor?" Stephen asks and Wu nods, intrigued as the two men smile slowly. 

"I'm going to have to build another particle accelerator, aren't I?" Tony asks and Stephen smiles as he nods and pats the genius's calloused hands with his scarred ones. 

"It is going to take a significant amount." Stephen says and Tony sighs but he nods as he turns his hand so that the doctor's hand can rest in his. Wu doesn't miss how careful Tony's fingers are as they wrap around the hand in his own. 

There is a gentleness and care about the gesture that is warm and kind. If nothing else, it is apparent that the genius has found a place to rest his heart and found a partner that both could understand him and keep up with him. Which, for a mind like Tony Stark's, it would have been difficult with a normal person, no doubt. 

"I don't even know if wen can mould it into the shape that it needs to be." Tony says and Stephen shrugs his shoulders. 

"It will have to be a long term project. But it may be the best solution to the problem, Anthony." Stephen says and Tony seems to agree from the nod. 

"Yeah. I know baby. We'll get the plans going when we get home." Tony says as he looks at Wu with a raised eyebrow, as if he was expecting Wu to comment on the relationship. He won't. It's not his place and the two of them seemed to be good for each other. 

"Well, in that case, I will get the scans over to you Dr Strange. In the meantime, I will work on streamlining the surgery itself to ensure that the strain will be lessened on Dr Stark's heart." Wu says and watch as the two men nod. 

"Thank you Dr Wu and I know that this is late, but you have my sympathies for the loss of Dr Yinsen." Stephen says quietly and Wu looks at him with some surprise. Yinsen would have mentioned meeting a doctor like Stephen Strange. The reputation of the young genius neurosurgeon was well known. 

"Did you know Ho?" Wu asks as he recalls the memories of his friend as the younger doctor nods with a sad smile on his lips. 

"Yes. His... sacrifice won't be forgotten, Dr Wu." There is a respectful tone in Stephen's voice that Wu appreciates as he nods. Yinsen had no family. No one to remember him but those that had been close to him in the past. Wu was one of the holders of his memory and the other was Tony Stark. It appeared that they weren't the only ones. 

"He would have enjoyed meeting you, Dr Strange. Thank you." Wu says and the other man smiles sadly as he stands up and Wu doesn't mess the way that Tony wraps his hand around Stephen's and offers the physical comfort. It's apparently a loss that they share. 

Wu smiles at himself as the two men leave and Wu takes the time to destroy the evidence of Tony Stark's visit to his hospital. 

He now has one more secret to keep from the world, he supposes, but he doesn't mind. Love should never be judged, whatever form that it may be in and if him keeping his lips sealed would give them moments of peace, it was a price well worth paying. 

After all, it was for love. 

~~~ 

Sunday 

26 September 2010 

"Remind me again why we decided to come to Sydney?" Tony asks with a raised eyebrow as he looks out at the heavy falling rain. 

Stephen doesn't respond for a short time.

He can't. The image of his lover standing by the window, framed in the dim light of the storming morning, stark naked as his namesake is just too beautiful for him not to admire. 

"You mean why you decided to come to Sydney?" Stephen fires back as the genius rolls his shoulders in a shrug and Stephen watches with hungry eyes the way those muscles roll and ripple with the movement. 

"I didn't hear any complaints from you, Stephen." Tony tells him even as he closes the curtains again and comes back to bed. 

Stephen settles against the pillow now that he doesn't have to look up at his lover and watches as the genius gracefully climbs back onto the bed and moves until he is leaning over Stephen. 

"You know we can go somewhere else where it's not trying to drown us." Tony suggests but Stephen knows that the genius doesn't mean it. 

There are several reasons why Sydney was chosen. For one, both Pepper and Clea loved wine and just outside of Sydney, several hours drive away, there was apparently a lovely part of the country called Hunter Valley that had some great vineyards. 

For another, Tony had remembered Stephen expressing interest in Sir Ian McKellen being in Waiting for Godot at the Sydney Opera House. Instead of just waiting for the show to come to Broadway, Tony had decided that they should come to Sydney so that Stephen can see it. 

It was an incredibly sweet thought and Stephen very much appreciated it and he planned to show just how much he did appreciate that thought whilst they were in Sydney. He had plans. 

But the weather might expedite this plans a little, Stephen thinks as Tony leans down to kiss him. 

Before he had come on the trip, Stephen had spent a few days at the Kamar-Taj and he had contacted Loki as they had planned and it had honestly done a lot to help him be grounded. It had also left him so incredibly drained that he hadn't been able to get out of bed for a few days, but it was a price that had been well worth paying. 

It had... also left him with residual fear that had been difficult to shake. Connecting with the god had left him with a complete awareness of the god's state. 

He had felt all the pains and aches of Loki's body. The fragile state of his mind. The desperation the god had been filled with for everything to just... come to an end. 

It had taken all of Stephen's own strength of mind to fill the god with peace and calm and to lend him the strength that Stephen himself drew from the Connection with Tony. Loki had been grateful. Stephen had felt that. But he had also been... mortified. 

For the god, being in a position of weakness was not something that he was used to and he hated it. It was a sentiment that Stephen could understand and he had tried his best to reassure the god, but he knew that it did very little. 

At the end of the day, the contact had at least ensured that both of them would be grounded enough to last a couple of weeks without contact. 

And if that meant that Stephen didn't have to force the Bond on Tony, then the exhaustion, the pain and the fear was a price that he was willing to pay. 

"So I'm guessing the walk to the Botanic Gardens is out." Tony mutters against Stephen's lips and he can't help but smile as Tony's hips and wandering hands makes it all too obvious what the genius was planning instead of the wholesome walk. 

"How shall we ever fill the time?" Stephen asks even as Tony tells him exactly just how they should fill their time with the way that he pulls Stephen's hand against his buttocks and guides Stephen's fingers between the cracks. 

"I can think of a few things that might fill the time." Tony whispers against his lips and Stephen kisses them with the passion that was fast building between them before he quickly flips them over until he is leaning over the genius and smirks down at him. 

"In that case, how about you call Jim and Pepper and tell them that we won't be available?" Stephen suggests as he licks along Tony's neck, knowing that it was most definitely a very sensitive area of his lover's body. Tony shudders underneath him. 

"Yeah. Yeah let's do that." Tony says as he blindly gropes for his phone and half pulls the charger out of the wall socket in his hurry as Stephen continues to tease him, kissing his way up and down Tony's neck and his chest. 

"J! Tell the others that we'll see them for dinner or someth- Fuck!" Tony cries out as Stephen latches onto one of his nipples and begins to suckle on it. Stephen plays with the perked up nipple before he moves onto licking his way around the Arc Reactor and the sensitive scar tissues there. 

"Oh Jesus- Fuck! J! Get the- Got the message?" Tony asks the phone and Stephen bites back a laugh when he hears JARVIS's amused tone. 

"Yes sir. I have also taken the liberty of ensuring that Ms Potts and Mr Rhodes as well as Ms Clea won't be getting the full message. I would hate to scandalise your friends sir." JARVIS's voice is dry and amused. Stephen loves just how human that JARVIS sounds like now and by extension, JOCASTA and FRIDAY. 

Their distinct personalities were all too obvious and it was truly wondrous to talk to them and to work with them. Stephen can't help but express that wonder with gratitude towards their inventor and father. 

"Without the attitude JARVIS!" Tony exclaims, but there is a fond tone that tells both Stephen and JARVIS that he doesn't mind it at all. Stephen does chuckle at that. 

"Of course sir, what was I thinking? And for your information Dr Strange, I have also taken the liberty of ensuring that FRIDAY won't be listening in on the activities. I believe she may be too young to be exposed to such activities." JARVIS tells him with a tongue in cheek voice and Stephen's chuckle turns into full bellied laughter as Tony grumbles. 

"Gonna go home and unplug your servers and donate you to the community college, I swear to God." Tony mumbles as he tries to get Stephen to stop laughing and go back to their activities as he puts the phone back down on the bedside table. 

"Just admit it, Anthony. You love that JARVIS inherited your snark." Stephen tells him as he leans over the man and kisses the pouting lips until they soften under his and they fall back into the passionate kisses they had been sharing. 

"So. What's the new plan doc?" Tony asks him, breathless with the kiss they had just shared. Stephen gives him a heated look as he thinks his plan through. 

"Nothing too much. Just tying you down and having my wicked way with you all day." Stephen tells him as he nibbles on Tony's bottom lip until it's red and bruised. Tony's eyes dilate completely at the idea. Stephen smiles as he ducks his head to kiss his way down Tony's chest again. 

"Don't tell me you brought toys Stephen." Tony tries. Stephen merely raises an eyebrow at him and looks back up at his lover. 

"You will find out soon enough dearest. Now, will you be a good boy for me?" Stephen asks and Tony seems like he is debating it, though they both know the answer to the question. 

As Tony pretends at making a decision, Stephen works his way down Tony's body and runs his scarred hands up and down Tony's thighs, carefully avoiding where Tony's hips makes it all too obvious where he would very much like Stephen's attention to be. 

"You want me at your mercy Stephen? For me to be your plaything for the whole day?" Tony asks him and Stephen knows that the genius was telling him what he wanted. Stephen looks up at him as he slowly stands up from the bed. 

"Yes. The rules are simple Anthony. You will not be allowed to speak without permission. You will not be able to come without my express permission. You will be my plaything for me to do as I please with your body. If you disobey me, I'm going to spank you. If you are good, I will let you come. How does that sound?" Stephen asks but he knows what the genius thinks about it. 

Of course he does. 

Tony's kinks were well known to Stephen by now. Orgasm denial? Being used by Stephen for his own pleasure without accounting for Tony's? Being tied down? Being spanked? Stephen was ticking off everything that made Tony hot and ready for play. 

Tony's completely dilated eyes and the way that his pulse picks up at his words is a good indication. Tony takes a deep breath and Stephen watches as his lover gets himself settled in the right mind state as he slowly moves. 

Tony moves with some difficulty, since he's almost too aroused to be well coordinated and settles himself on his knees on the bed and looks up at Stephen with his adoring eyes filled with his love and trust. 

"Yes Sir." Tony tells him and Stephen runs his fingers through Tony's hair as a reward. 

"Good boy." He mutters as he pets Tony a few more times as they both settle into their respective roles. 

When they are both ready, Stephen moves away from the bed and goes to the suitcase that they hadn't taken the time to unpack. 

In the small container, he had packed the toys that he knew that they both liked to use. The vibrating plug, lube, douche, a vibrating dildo, cock ring, soft leather cuffs and the blindfold. 

Stephen knows that blindfolding Tony was a bad idea. The residual trauma he had after Afghanistan made that a difficult proposition and they weren't trying to push their limits. Not today. 

Today was about indulging in their darker desires and enjoying each other's pleasure. With that in mind, Stephen takes out only the lube, the cock ring, the dildo and the cuffs before he puts the rest back into the suitcase and returns to the bed. 

"Hands behind your back." Stephen instructs firmly and Tony scrambles to obey as he turns around to show Stephen his back and puts his hands behind his back. 

Stephen doesn't tie the cuffs at the wrists, but uses the wide straps to tie Tony's forearms so that they are flush against his back and it wouldn't strain his lover's shoulders. 

Stephen takes a moment to admire the way the black leather looks against his lover's tanned and well muscled forearms before he moves to grab a pillow and put it on the ground in front of the wall near the window. 

"Off the bed and kneel." Stephen instructs as he points to the pillow and moves to stand before the wall. Stephen doesn't miss the way that Tony licks his lips as he gets exactly what Stephen was intending to do. 

"I'm going to fuck your mouth. You have ten minutes to get me to come. If you don't, you will be punished." Stephen tells him with a wicked smirk and Tony moves quicker. 

Tony kneels in front of Stephen on the pillow and quickly nuzzles Stephen's semi-hard cock and immediately takes Stephen's balls into his mouth and starts to suck on them. 

Stephen runs his fingers through his lover's hair. There is a fine line to be trodden when it comes to domination like this. With Tony wanting to be used, it's all too easy to go down the path of shaming him for the desire he feels. 

But with someone like Tony, who has a praise kink, that's a path that Stephen knows that he shouldn't take. Whilst giving him tasks that may be difficult to achieve and punishing him when he fails is fine, Stephen had to make sure that what he said wasn't going to hurt his lover's self esteem and self confidence. 

There was such a level of trust in relationships like this that Stephen knew that he had to be careful. He always was, but today with the plans that he had, he was going to have to be especially careful. 

"8 minutes left." Stephen reminds Tony as he looks over at the clock. Tony's eyes widen as he scrambles up to take Stephen's cock into his mouth and starts to suck down on it. 

Tony isn't going to make it. Stephen was going to make sure that he doesn't. His hands were steady enough and he was feeling confident enough in his ability to use them that he wanted to ensure that Tony would get the spanking that he had been hankering for then fuck him when his arse was all red and sore. 

Which meant that Stephen really had to concentrate and focus. Tony really was quite good and under any other circumstances, Stephen knew that it wasn't even a challenge for the genius. 

As Tony takes almost all of his cock in his mouth and throat, Stephen throws his head back and grips Tony's hair tightly as he feels the warm heat and the pleasure overwhelm him for a moment. 

"Shit! Fuck!" Stephen curses as Tony really does work at it. He takes a quick look at the clock and takes a deep breath and makes himself focus. 

"1 minute." Stephen bites out and reminds Tony as the genius fucks his mouth onto Stephen's cock over and over again. Stephen hisses as the genius swallows him over and over again, leaving him at the cusp of coming repeatedly. 

It's honestly sheer will and wanting to give Tony the experience that he wanted that keeps Stephen from coming down his throat. 

"Enough." Stephen says and he makes sure that he doesn't sound harsh as he pulls Tony's head away from his cock using the man's hair. Tony whines as he loses Stephen's cock and the saliva and pre-cum that fall from the genius's lips, his completely dilated eyes and the flush covering him forms such a delicious picture that for a moment, Stephen just looks at him before he remembers himself. 

"That was 10 minutes Anthony and you couldn't make me come. Do you know what happens now?" Stephen asks him and for a moment, Stephen wonders if he has miscalculated when he sees a flash of something like fear in his lover's eyes before it quickly fades and is instead filled with pure and utter desire. 

"You will punish me, sir." Tony says, his voice husky from having taken Stephen's cock and no doubt the lust going through him. 

"That's right. How many strikes do you think you deserve for failing to please me?" Stephen asks him as he lets go of Tony's hair and gives him a moment to think. This is the chance for Tony to decide what his limits would be for the day. 

Given the genius's quick mind, his awareness of Stephen's limitations with his hands, Stephen knows that he will come up with an answer quickly enough. 

"Fifteen sir." Tony says thickly and Stephen raises an eyebrow at that. It's higher than what he had expected, but fair enough. 

"I'm not sure if that is going to be enough, Anthony. But we will see." Stephen says as he pushes away from the wall and walks to the bed and sits on the edge of it, making sure that Tony could easily fit across his lap. 

"Come here Anthony." Stephen commands and Tony scrambles to his feet, though it isn't necessarily an easy task after 10 minutes of being on his knees and with his hands bound behind his back, but Tony manages and walks over to the bed. 

It takes a moment for Stephen to arrange his lover across his lap, but he manages easily enough. For a moment, he caresses the perky buttocks of his lover. 

Whilst Tony had been undergoing chelation therapy, he had also been training quite heavily to get his blood flowing throughout his body to aid the process and it definitely showed. Not that Stephen particularly cared. 

"You're going to count each strike Anthony. If you miss a count or you forget, we will have to start from the beginning all over again." Stephen tells him and Tony nods before he replies. 

"Yes sir." Tony says from where his head rests on the bedsheets. Stephen raises his hand and lands a firm strike onto Tony's right cheek and feels Tony's whole body flinch with the hit. 

"O-One." Tony manages after a short moment, just in time too, Stephen thinks as he strikes at the left cheek this time. 

Stephen keeps his strikes even and firm. This wasn't the first time he has done this and he knows exactly how much force to use to stay between that line of pain and pleasure and not to cross into pain. He uses that knowledge to his advantage. 

Tony keeps count well enough, even though near the end, his voice are filled with so much need that it almost hurts Stephen. That and the way the genius is squirming in his lap and the way their cocks were rubbing against each other has Stephen feeling just as desperate. 

"Fi-Fifteen!" Tony cries out with the last hit and Stephen looks down at his handy work. His lover's tanned buttocks are flushed red from the strikes and his neck and back were also flushed with lust. It's a beautiful colour on his lover, Stephen thinks as he runs a gentle hand down the reddened and heated backside. 

"Good boy Anthony. You took that very well. Do you think you deserve a reward for that?" Stephen asks as he continues to run his up and down the reddened and sensitive skin and Tony shudders on his lap as he slowly seems to remember that Stephen was asking a question. 

"Ye- Yes. P-Please sir, I-I- I nee- I need to come." Tony all but sobs out but Stephen has no intention of making it that easy for the genius. He tuts softly. 

"I didn't say that you can come Anthony. I said that I am considering rewarding you. I'm feeling generous since you were a good boy. How about you choose?" Stephen asks as he parts the Tony's cheeks and let's his thumbs play with the rim. 

"You can either come alone or you can wait and come with me inside of you." Stephen mutters as he keeps running his thumbs along the rim over and over again, knowing what Tony was going to choose. 

"You! I- Please, please fuck me Sir!" Tony sobs out, his defeat obvious. Stephen smiles himself as he helps Tony to get off his lap and arranges him on the bed. 

"Good boy Anthony. Such a good boy for me, aren't you?" Stephen asks even as he puts a pillow under Tony's hips and checks his arms to make sure that he wasn't straining Tony's shoulders too much.

He grabs the lube, but before he uses it, he leans down to lay a gentle kiss on both of Tony's cheeks and gently lays a kiss on the rim and hears Tony's gasp as his whole body trembles. 

"Did you want me to eat you out Anthony? Is that what you want me to do?" Stephen asks but Tony shakes his head fiercely. 

"I-I can't- I can't hold on." Tony tells him and Stephen nods. That's fair enough. Stephen knew just how aroused Tony was right now. He knew that between the situation, sucking his cock and the spanking, Tony was probably almost at his limits already. 

There was no way that he could stop himself from coming if Stephen was to rim him on top of it and two failures in one session could be dangerous for someone like Tony, who already had issues with failure and need for approval. 

"I see. Thank you for being honest with me Anthony." Stephen tells him softly and as a reward, reaches up to kiss Tony's neck gently before he starts the prep. 

Stephen doesn't tease the inventor. At this point, it would be almost cruel to tease him any further. As it was, Tony preferred shorter scenes than Stephen did when he was submitting and they were already going to be pushing an hour. Given that, Stephen knew that it would be best to get the scene finished up. 

Besides, it has been a fairly intense scene so far so it would be best for him to end it on a good note. 

Stephen works his fingers in and out of Tony efficiently. He doesn't focus on the prostate at all but just on opening up the tight rim and on coating Tony's insides with plenty of lube. Considering just how aroused Stephen himself was, it wasn't going to be a gentle fuck. It's not what both of them needed. 

"Tell me what you want, Anthony. Ask for what you want." Stephen commands and Tony's panting lips close to try to form the words as Stephen's fingers continue to move. 

"Your cock sir. I- I want your cock." Tony pants out and Stephen smiles and rewards him with a brush of his fingers against Tony's prostate. Tony's body shudders and he trembles as he struggles not to come. Good. 

Stephen does want to keep him on that edge after all. 

"Where did you want my cock Anthony?" Stephen asks as he slowly withdraws his fingers completely and Tony mewls his displeasure. Stephen slaps him lightly on the buttocks and Tony groans before he seems to recall the question. 

"In- In my arse, sir. I- I need you inside of me. I need you to fuck me. Please, sir, please." Tony begs so beautifully that Stephen can't help it. He lubes himself up and he is inside of Tony in one, long, smooth thrust that makes both of them hiss with the pleasure of it. 

Being inside of Tony always feels good. Of late, he hasn't really fucked Tony a great deal. He had been too desperate for Tony's to fill him to do that but by the gods, Tony feels hotter and tighter than he remembered. But then it's most likely due to the spanking and the situation, no doubt, Stephen thinks. 

"You can come after I have, Anthony. Not before." Stephen tells Tony and the genius almost sobs as he hears it but he nods as he buries his head into the pillows. 

"No. Raise your chest Anthony." Stephen instructs him and impaled onto his cock, Tony struggles to obey and Stephen helps him with his hands firmly placed on the genius's shoulders as he uses that leverage and Tony's half kneeling position to fuck into him hard and fast. 

The position forces Tony to arch his back to stay balanced with his arms between them and It gives Stephen perhaps not the best angle, but a good enough angle to work with. 

"God you feel so fucking good Anthony. So amazing. So perfect. So beautiful for me." Stephen mutters out over and over again as he moves his hips as fast as he can and as hard as he can against his lover. 

Tony's eyes are closed and Stephen knows that it was most likely that his lover was incapable of keeping them open at this point. He was far, far too gone into the pleasure to be able to think or to speak. Good. 

From the way that he was shaking though, it was also obvious that he was desperately trying to keep himself from coming and Stephen appreciated that.

But that observation ends up being his downfall as Stephen feels his balls tighten and he comes with a harsh cry inside of Tony. He manages to thrust his hips into Tony two more times before he feels the walls tighten and Tony comes, untouched all over the sheets. 

He really was quite glad that they were staying at the D'Arte Hotels. It really would be awkward to explain the situation to the hotel staff and expect discretion otherwise. 

Stephen moves so that Tony is sitting on his kneeling lap as Stephen strokes him through the rest of his orgasm and they both pant softly for a short moment, trying to recover their breaths and the brain cells required to put two coherent thoughts together. 

Eventually, Stephen undoes the cuffs from Tony's arms and lays his lover gently down onto the bed and runs soothing hands up and down Tony's body before he flinches away. 

"Too- Too much." Tony mutters and Stephen understands. Being oversensitive after a scene like that was to be expected. Stephen does take Tony's wrist into his to get a measure of his pulse and to check on the genius's vitals and his circulation of his arms regardless. 

"What do you need dearest?" Stephen asks as Tony opens his eyes barely to look at him and smiles a dopey smile. Subspace then, Stephen thinks. Good. 

"That- that was so fucking good Steph. Like seriously awesome. Felt so fucking good." Tony mutters and Stephen chuckles softly as he leans down and moves a stray hair out of Tony's eyes. 

"I'm glad that you enjoyed it Anthony. I very much enjoyed it as well. I'm going to put some cream on you to make sure you don't bruise." Stephen tells him and Tony opens his eyes that barely focuses on Stephen. 

By the time Stephen fetches the cream for the bruises that he worries he might have inflicted on Tony, the genius is fast asleep. Stephen smiles as he moves his lover to gently rub the cream into his still red buttocks and cleans the remnants of his cum from his lover's abused hole. 

When he is done, he carefully pulls Tony into his arms and holds him as he covers them with the blankets and drifts to the sound of falling rain. 

It's a good thing that rain couldn't ruin their vacation. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Sunday 

26 September 2011 

What the fuck? 

Rhodey thinks as he tries to get his breath back. His head is swimming as he tries to get his focus back somehow. As he tries to recover his breath, he hears the full bellied laughter that he recognises. 

"You set me up, didn't you?" He accuses Pepper as he accepts Clea's hand and stands up and stretches his shoulder. 

"You're the one that complained about all the Tim Tams we ate." Pepper says between the laughs and Rhodey glares at the phone that she is holding up to record his reaction, no doubt to humiliate him with later. 

"Who are you?" Rhodey asks Clea, who gives him an innocent look and flutters her eyes, not that he will believe her innocence anymore. 

'Let's burn some calories', they said, 'it'll be good to get some exercise to get rid of jet lag', they said. Neither of them mentioned that he would be sparring with a freaking ninja. 

Rhodey has no idea where the younger woman kept all that strength in that deceptively small and seemingly fragile body. She gives him a wide smile as she skips back a few steps and looks at him. 

"Again?" She asks and oh, gods yeah. He wasn't about to be taken down a peg by the younger woman and just let it lie. He had a reputation to maintain after all! He's a freaking superhero now for godsakes

"I'm guessing you haven't done this with Stephen then?" Pepper asks, still amused and Rhodey wants to spare a glance towards her, but knows better. Once bitten twice shy, Rhodey thinks as he carefully watches his opponent. 

Oh, he really hadn't taken it all that seriously when the younger woman had asked if he would like to spar after they had spent some time warming up. He had fallen for the trap of the girl's deceptively fragile seeming appearance and he paid the price for it by getting neatly thrown on the floor. 

"No. Is he good?" Rhodey asks though he doesn't look away from Clea. Now that he knows, he can see it. Yeah, she is slim and petite, but her muscles are well toned and trained and she clearly knew how to use her opponent's strength against them. 

Trained in some sort of martial arts, he thinks as he measures her carefully and sees the sharp judgement in her eyes doing the same. 

"Better than Clea." Pepper says and yeah, that's most definitely a surprise, Rhodey thinks as he counters Clea's lightning fast kick just in time and strikes out with one of his own, which she avoids by ducking. Curse her and her low centre of gravity, he thinks as they continue. 

In all honesty, when Tony had decided that they should all celebrate the end of his chelation therapy, a trip to the other side of the planet hadn't been what Rhodey had thought of, but he will admit that the holiday may have been exactly what he needed. 

After Harlem, the images of what he had seen had remained etched into his head. It was different to seeing what happens in the battlefield. It might be because it happened so close to home, but it had hurt more and he remembered it more. 

Perhaps it was just the last straw. 

He can't be sure, but he had needed a break and Tony's offer of a holiday out of the states had been all too tempting to pass on. Especially when Tony was able to smooth it out with the military for him to be on the trip. 

Working with Jo and the suit was amazing, don't get him wrong, but it was also draining. Physically, mentally and emotionally and taking care of himself, even if it meant coming on this insane trip with Tony and his friends.

Not that he minded the company either. Clea Strange was an odd girl, that was for certain, but there was something about her that put Rhodey at ease. Normally, that is. 

Right now? She was doing anything but putting him at ease. The calculating look in her eyes and the ability that she had just displayed puts him on a back foot. 

"So what's the style? Judo? MMA?" Rhodey asks as they continue to spar. It's hard to get a read on her and what she is capable of. It's always hard with a new opponent. 

"Something like that." Clea says elusively with a cheeky expression as she breaks through his guard and puts him solidly onto his back again. 

Rhodey sighs as he lays on the mat and looks up at the amused expression on the girls' faces. 

"It's all the chocolate. I'm just digesting." Rhodey says and he knows that the girl's aren't buying it. They have no reason to. It sounds like a lame excuse even to his ears.

He was going to hear about this from Tony, no doubt, he thinks as he accepts Clea's hand up once more and changes his tactics. 

"Teach me how to do that." Rhodey says and Clea looks at him for a moment before she nods slowly and turns to Pepper. 

"Come on Pep, you too." She says and Pepper sighs and puts her phone away. It's clear that this is not the first time that Clea had taught Pepper self defence, Rhodey thinks. Good. 

Pepper was fit and toned, but getting some skills under her belt to defend herself could only be a good thing. Pepper was always with some sort of protection, but it would help both Rhodey and Tony sleep better if they knew that she knew how to protect herself, no doubt. 

As Clea gets down to the nitty-gritty of teaching them the moves to throw people about as she had been doing to him, Rhodey learns quickly not only the moves, but that Clea was used to teaching.

It expands what he had thought of Clea and Stephen and as Pepper called it, 'their group', a great deal more. 

On the one hand, Rhodey is concerned that there exists a group of individuals that are out there that are so highly trained in tactics to deal with someone like him, but at the same time, he doesn't mind the idea of someone like that being around Tony or Pepper to protect them. 

By the time Clea declares that they are done for the day, Rhodey is well and truly exhausted and despite that, feels good. It was nice to get some of the pent up aggression out of his system and it's a good reminder for him to not just hit the gym but maybe go down to his boxing club every now and then. 

"So every morning then?" Clea suggests and Rhodey is more than happy to agree as Clea, who annoyingly doesn't seem all that out of breath despite the heavy workout, hands them all towels and bottles of water. 

It also dawns on him that they have been at the gym for hours and it has remained empty barring them. Perks of being friends with the son of the owner of the hotel, he supposes. 

"Do we have to?" Pepper questions but a look from Clea is enough to silence her complaints. Rhodey chuckles. 

"Any chance that Stephen and Tones will join us, you reckon?" Rhodey asks, though he has a feeling he already knows the answer to that question. Pepper scoffs. 

"Oh he's getting his morning exercise, if you know what I mean." Clea says with the most sleazy tone that Rhodey most definitely hadn't expected from the girl. Pepper and Clea share a look and a giggle. 

"Oh man, that's an image I didn't need. Come on Clea!" Rhodey complains as he tries to block out the image Clea implanted in his head with a fierce scrub of his towel over his face.  

Having said that, he couldn't blame Tony and he couldn't blame Stephen. They were lovers on a holiday celebrating something important to both of them. 

It was good to see Tony happy and from what he has seen of the genius so far with his lover, Tony was most definitely happy and as long as it stayed that way, Rhodey had to agree with Pepper. It didn't matter who or what Dr Stephen Strange was. 

If he made Tony happy and loved him as much as it seemed he did, then Rhodey could accept him. Besides, it wasn't as if he was going to be given much of a choice, it seemed. 

Stephen Strange had all but won him over with his willingness to sacrifice himself and work himself to the bone to save one more patient. Having seen that, it really made it difficult for Rhodey to do anything other than admire the man. 

"Hey, at least you didn't walk in on them." Clea says with a look of pure horror and Rhodey blinks at her as he realises what she's said and bursts out laughing. 

"Seriously?" He asks after a bit and when Clea and Pepper both nod , he can only continue to laugh. 

"They were kinda hot though, weren't they?" Clea asks after a bit to Pepper, who chokes on her water and coughs for a long moment before blushing. 

"Yeah." Pepper agrees eventually and it's Rhodey's turn to choke on his water as he looks over the two women , who burst out into laughter of their own. 

Well damn. 

~~~ 

Thursday

30 Thursday 2010

The skies are bright blue and seems to go on forever and ever. It's stunningly beautiful and Tony can truly appreciate it.

The air is nice and crisp with the remnants of winter still lingering, but since all of them had grown up in the Northern states of America, where winters were truly harsh, despite the fact that Australians may have considered the weather a little on the chilly side, they were comfortable enough with just light jackets.

It was actually quite pleasant. Tony really should have spent a little more time in Sydney before, he thinks as he looks out into the beautiful harbour.

Clea joins him on the balcony.

The outdoor seating wasn't being used by a lot of the patrons of the road stop cafe. Pepper and Stephen were inside looking over the various types of tea and Rhodey was developing an unhealthy obsession with various premium olive oils available.

They were on the way to Kiama, a seaside resort town with the infamous 'Blowhole', where apparently the incoming tides would clash against the cliffs to sprout itself through a gap in the rocks to form a natural water feature of some beauty.

Pepper had seen it on a tourist brochure and had become fascinated by it and since they had no particular plans, they had rented a car and decided to drive down.

Driving on the other side of the road was a trick and a half, but Tony and Rhodey managed just fine and the drive itself had been an incredibly pleasurable experience. With most of the Australians living around the edge of the country, Tony wasn't too surprised to find that the coastal roads were well developed and frankly amazing.

The GPS unit that had come with the car had been quickly shoved aside for JARVIS and he had recommended the cafe as a good place to stop to stretch their legs and to caffeinate. As always, he had been on point with the suggestion.

"You're worried about Stephen aren't you?" Clea asks him quietly as she leans over the railings to look out into the wide expansion of ocean that is opened to them. Tony doesn't bother to deny it.

"He's dying isn't he?" Tony asks after a moment of hesitation. He has been debating having this conversation with Clea for some time now. He had wanted to hear it from Stephen. He really did. But he also can't just sit and watch as Stephen slowly dies in front of his eyes.

"No. He's trying his damnedest not to. Which, ironically is what might be killing him." Clea tells him, which of course, makes no sense. He wonders if it's something Stephen and Clea trained in. How to be so ridiculously obtuse and convoluted in the way that they speak that it makes no sense whatsoever.

"If it makes you feel any better, we are keeping an eye on him and if it gets... truly dangerous, we'll speak to you. Until then, you just need to keep doing what you're already doing." Clea tells him and Tony looks at her with a questioning eyebrow.

"Being there for him. Loving him. Every moment that you spend with him helps him." She says and Tony thinks of that for a moment before he frowns.

"I'm moving back to LA when we get back home." Tony says and Clea sighs.

"Yeah. I know. Which is... going to cause some problems. But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. We will be helping Stephen when you can't." Clea tells him and Tony is grateful that Clea and the others were doing something, even if he didn't understand exactly what that something was.

"Why won't he tell me what's happening?" Tony finds himself asking quietly but Clea is the one that answers the question.

"Because he loves you. He doesn't want you worrying. And because Stephen is an idiot and doesn't believe that he is worth the worry." Clea says and Tony rolls his eyes at that.

"Why is- damn." Tony says as he sips at the coffee. The one thing he has to say for Sydney is that their coffee was fucking awesome. They had strong, proper espressos and their lattes were strong and creamy and so perfect that Tony knew that he was going to miss them when he got back to the US.

"In other words, Tony, you're the only thing that is keeping Stephen together and in one piece, so be careful okay? Don't get hurt, don't do anything stupid." Clea warns him and Tony gives her a smile and a nod. That too was her way of caring for him. He knows.

Their quiet conversation ends with the sounds of the others coming out of the cafe with their coffees and purchases. They are isolated enough and it's quiet enough that when Stephen comes close, Tony grabs him and kisses him softly on the lips.

He savours the taste of earl grey tea that Stephen must have tried inside and shares the taste of his latte with the doctor as he indulges in the public affection that he has not been able to enjoy with his lover before.

None of their friends stop them. They all know just how rare this sort of moment would be for the two of them. It's an indulgence they won't be able to have when they get back home, or even indeed normally in any sort of outdoor environment.

Besides, over the time they spent together, they were more than getting used to Tony taking every opportunity to have his way with Stephen. 

Stephen pulls back from the kiss eventually and smiles that smile of his, the one that tells Tony that Stephen loves him so much that it hurts. The kind of smile that he knows is on his own lips. The sappy fucks that they were.

Eventually, Tony turns back around and lets Stephen take his weight as he leans his back against his lover and they look out to the beautiful view in front of them.

Pepper and Clea take pictures with their phones before forcing Rhodey to take photos for them before pulling him into the photos too.

They only get a moment to enjoy the embrace before they too are pulled into the photographs and eventually an employee from the cafe is enticed to come outside to take a photo for all of them.

The time for worry is another day. The conversation with Clea isn't what Tony had expected, but it has done its job. Tony felt, if not completely reassured, somewhat reassured.

That was the best he can ask for... for the time being.

~~~

Saturday 

2 October 2010 

"The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true for the laugh." The line is delivered with powerful apathy. 

It rings true enough to Stephen's ears. He wonders if through Tony, he had gotten so much of the happiness and the laughs that soon, he would be left desolate with nothing but sadness and pain. Perhaps he had used up his allotment of laughs already. 

He hopes not. 

Waiting for Godot had always been one of Stephen's favourite plays. To see it on stage with Sir Ian McKellen... Stephen is mesmerised. 

The play flows as the discussion of existence and what it means to exist and whether there is a meaning to life happens in the typical absurdist fashion Samuel Beckett was infamous for. 

Sir Ian McKellen is beautiful in the role. His immersion in the role of Estragon is... perfect. He portrays the confusion of the character so utterly brilliantly that Stephen can't look away from the stage. He is so awkward and yet fluid in the movements that fill the gaps of silence Beckett was known for. 

Every time that Stephen had seen the play, he had walked way from it with a different perspective on life and existence. He wonders what he will be left with this time. 

But from next to him, he sees Tony stifling a yawn and does his best to hide his smile. He had known that this sort of play wouldn't be something that interests Tony. 

It isn't that the man isn't cultured. He is. Tony had grown up with the epitome of culture and he had a healthy appreciation for the Arts. Just not plays. Stephen had heard him complain about it enough times. 

He would prefer a musical or something, anything with more action than just two men talking about waiting for the mythical figure of Godot whilst complaining about their feet hurting or being hungry, no doubt. 

Stephen knows that this outing was an indulgence for Stephen and only Stephen. Rhodey and Clea were just as engaged in the play and Pepper was paying attention, but Tony, Stephen can tell, was absolutely and utterly bored by the experience. 

It warms Stephen's heart to know that his lover was bearing through the experience for him. Stephen slides his hand onto Tony's and links their hands together as he watches the play. 

Tony looks at him with some surprise, but his hand wraps around Stephen's easily enough. It's a warm and grounding hold and Stephen can't help but enjoy it even as his attention returns back to the play. 

Beckett never answers the question in his plays. 

Is there a meaning to existence? Or do we exist and continue to be just because we are alive to begin with? 

Beckett throws the question with the absurd nature of his plays and leaves the audience with the question. 

Stephen doesn't prescribe to the readings of the play that involve the Cold War, Freud, British Colonisation etc. He doesn't care for the political leanings of Beckett and just what a revolution he has been to the world of theatre. 

For Stephen, it has always been the question of the meaning of life. 

What his purpose was. 

As Vincent, he had seen the play as a spot of sophisticated entertainment that got him seen at the right places by the right people. As Vincent, he hadn't cared about the deep questions that the play leaves behind. 

The first time he had seen the play as Stephen, shortly after he had become the Sorcerer Supreme, he had remembered the cyclic nature of his 1082 deaths at the hand of Dormammu. How during those endless loops, he kept wondering whether or not Dormammu would ever agree to the bargain. 

He kept dying over and over, wondering if it was all in futility, and yet knowing that as he died those deaths, he was keeping Dormammu from consuming the planet. 

But the time after that? He hadn't thought of Dormammu. Instead, he had felt the heaviness of the wait that he shared with the characters on stage. 

Waiting for the incidents to be kick started for this Universe to go through the journey all the other universes that he had seen would go through. 

But now... that journey has already begun. And with it, Stephen now knows what his purpose is. What his meaning of life is. 

Unlike the characters on stage, endlessly waiting for the impossible, the arrival of Godot, Stephen isn't waiting anymore. 

His Godot, the impossible miracle, sat by his side. 

Stephen feels his emotions flow over him as he is filled with gratitude for being able to have his Godot, of knowing that his wait is over. 

Anthony Edward Stark. 

He had always been the answer. The start of the journey that Stephen had waited for and the hopeless desire he had felt to not be alone in the Universe. 

To have someone to love, to love him back and to fill the emptiness that is in his heart. To fill a void he hadn't even realised that he had carried. 

Stephen knows that he is lucky.

So unbelievably lucky to have Tony by his side. 

Tony is everything that Stephen could have hoped for and more. He was intelligent, funny, charismatic, considerate and kind with a soul that shone brighter than any other that Stephen had ever seen. 

And that should have been it. Tony by his side and loving him, protecting him, ensuring that he is happy should have been the end of it all. But it isn't. Is it? 

Just like all plays, when the curtain closes, they start yet again the next night and the same cycle begins anew. Just as for Stephen, his wait for Godot begins again. This time, at least he has Tony by his side as Estragon has Vladimir by his side. 

For the first time of his many viewings of Waiting for Godot, Stephen can't help but see the two men on stage as long time lovers, caught in the endless cycle of bickering and waiting. 

With Vladimir by his side, keeping his mind occupied and preventing him from giving up, Estragon waits for Godot. Just as Stephen waits for the God of Chaos and Mischief to come back into his. 

With a miracle by his side, Stephen was forced to wait for yet another mythical Godot to come to him. The ridiculousness of it all isn't lost on him. 

A tragicomedy of 2 Acts, is what Beckett had described Waiting for Godot as. Well. It certainly felt like it reflected the state of Stephen's soul. 

Stephen isn't sure if he can handle having two Soulmates. Two meanings for his life. He isn't sure if his heart is big enough to love both the man and the god. 

But his heart and his soul is only half filled and will remain that way until the god comes back from the ends of the universe and from Thanos's hands. 

That realisation leaves Stephen holding Tony's hand a little tighter. With surprise, Stephen feels Tony caressing his hand with his other hand even as his left is held hostage by Stephen's stranglehold

Then gently, the genius pulls his hand to his lips and kisses it. Stephen's eyes are torn away from the stage to the genius who was kissing the back of his scarred hand as if it was the most precious thing before moving onto his fingers, kissing every single one of them. 

When their eyes meet, Tony gives him a smile that Stephen knew would have burned itself into his mind even without his photographic memory. 

In the dim light of the Sydney Opera House, Stephen sees the love in the other man's eyes and the love that is contained in them. Unbridled adoration and love unlike anything Stephen had ever experienced. 

To know that he has that and to know that he still feels empty is... ridiculous. 

Yet he is. 

Stephen feels the guilt hit him even as he smiles at his adoring lover and turns his eyes back to the stage. 

Perhaps like Godot, Loki will never come into his life, Stephen thinks. But he knows better. The god will come. 

And with him, he will bring chaos. 

~~~ 

Saturday  

2 October 2010  

The only thing that had kept their hands away from each other had been the awareness of the eyes of their friends and their driver. 

As soon as they are in their suite, all the gloves come off and Tony is the first to reach for Stephen and hungrily kiss him as if he wants to climb into Stephen and make himself a home inside of him. 

Stephen doesn't mind the devouring kiss. He was just as hungry for Tony. If not more. He tastes the lychee gelato on his lover's tongue mixing with the passion fruit on his and it's a heady and sweet mixture that leaves him light headed. Perhaps it's the oxygen deprivation from the deep kiss. It doesn't matter. 

What matters is that Tony is in front of him, kissing him and wanting him. Hungering for him. 

"Look so goddamn good in that suit, Stephanie." Tony says with a tongue in cheek expression and Stephen chuckles even as he rolls his eyes. Trust the genius to pick up on the cafe employee getting his name spelt wrong on the cup and turning it into a nickname. 

It is beyond Stephen's mind how someone had managed to get the name Stephen wrong and turned it into Stephanie, but it was a busy cafe and there was chaos so he supposes it just happened. 

Still. 

"If you keep calling me that, you're not going to get what you want tonight." Stephen reminds his lover, though they both know that it's an empty threat. Stephen wouldn't deny Tony. He never has and he never will. 

"Oh really? Are you sure about that Stephanie?" Tony says as he pushes Stephen hard against the wall and cups the hard on that the genius had known would be there. Of course, just the heated looks alone had been enough to get him half hard and that kiss had pushed Stephen over the edge of arousal. 

Stephen moans as Tony deftly undoes his pants and slips a hand straight into his underwear and starts to stroke his cock in his dry calloused hand even as his lips latch onto Stephen's throat. 

"I'm- I'm sure." Stephen manages but they both know it's a lie. Tony nibbles at his neck as he reaches further and caresses the perineum and Stephen bites back the cry that he knows would echo out into the corridor. Not that it matters. There was no one out there. 

"You see, I don't think so, Stephanie. I think you are so desperate for my cock after teasing me all night with that gorgeous suit of yours, that you're not going to say no." Tony tells him and yeah well, Stephen has to agree. He shakes his head though as he fights back the moans. 

"Because my cock is so hard and hot Stephanie. I was going to throw you down onto the bed, pull your pants down and just fuck you. I'm not even sure if I have enough patience to be able to prep you." Tony mutters between his nibbles along Stephen's throat even as his fingers tease at his entrance. 

Stephen feels his knees go weak at the thought and instead of shaking his head, this time he lets out a moan as Tony's dry finger penetrates him. Just barely entering him. The position is too awkward and the finger too dry for anything serious. 

"What do you say Stephanie? You're going to be a good boy and let me fuck you till you're beggin g me to let you come all over your pretty suit?" Tony asks this time against his lips and instead of answering, Stephen surges forward to capture those lips and Tony pulls back just in time. 

"No, no, no, Stephanie. Use your words. Do you want me to fuck you?" Tony asks and Stephen opens his eyes to look into the all too smug face of his lover and fights back the smile. 

"Yes." He bites out instead and sees the satisfaction etch itself across Tony's face before he pulls his hand out from Stephen's pants and pulls him down for that kiss. 

"Good boy." Tony tells him thickly as they pull apart. They kiss and grope at each other as they make their way to the bedroom.

It's fairly chilly. They had left the window partially open and the night spring air was cold, but it didn't matter. They were going to be overheating soon enough anyway. 

Tony does as he had promised and he pushes Stephen face first onto the bed and Stephen barely manages to catch himself before his lover is on top of him. 

The moment that his breath is knocked out of him, Stephen notices the cold breeze against his skin. The half undone pants and the cold breeze hitting his partially bare backside, the weight of another body holding him down and all of a sudden, he can't think. 

He can smell the grass. 

There is no grass here. Stephen tries to tell his mind that there is no grass here and don't be stupid. But it doesn't work. He can smell the grass just as he had in that fucking clearing. Stephen shudders as the cold sweat breaks out. 

His mind whitens out with fear even as he tries to tell himself, to remind himself that this is Tony. This is Tony not Loki. 

But Loki has been on his mind during the play. He had thought about that encounter and the similarity of feelings, though different, with the memories so close to the surface of his mind, had triggered the fear and the flashback that he couldn't stop. 

Stephen isn't sure for how long, but he completely loses track of the time or what is happening to his body. He only lives in the world of blanket fear and he can't breathe. He can't think, he can't move and he can't breathe

He sees the black spots appear in his mind and rationally, he knows that he is hyperventilating and at the very worst, all that is going to happen is that he was going to pass out and his breathing was going to return to normal. 

But that's not what his brain thinks and feels. There is a lack of oxygen in his brain. His body goes into the complete panic response as his blood stream is filled with adrenaline and he fights to breathe. To survive. To live. 

His chest feels as if it is about to burst and Stephen struggles to get the air into his lungs. He is. He is breathing and breathing but there just wasn't enough ox- 

Warm lips cover his cold ones and they block his attempts to get the air into his lungs but the warm lips comes with a warm tongue that plays with his and coaxes it gently. Stephen's eyes slide open. He hadn't even realised that he had closed them. 

He sees the warm, familiar caramel brown eyes as the lips move away and he tries to breathe again. But this time, he keeps his eyes on Tony. 

"Breathe Stephen. It's okay. I'm here and you are safe. We are in Sydney. At the D'Arte Penthouse and it's-" Tony pauses when he realises that he doesn't know what the time is but FRIDAY is there. 

"10:41pm boss." FRIDAY says with a more subdued tone than normal. Stephen notes that the watch that he was wearing, the one that came with a connection to FRIDAY would have gotten his heart rate and it would have sent an alarm to FRIDAY. 

He wonders if he had safe worded. He's not sure. Had FRIDAY gotten his heart rate and warned Tony? He's not sure about that either. For now, all he can do is breathe. 

He notes that Tony had laid him on his back and that Tony was leaning over him, breathing nice and slowly, though Stephen can see from the pulse beating at the man's neck that his heart rate was high as well. 

Stephen copies the rate of Tony's breathing even as he feels the soft electrical pulses travel down from his wrist from the watch as FRIDAY keeps the rhythm of their breathing steady. Or at least tries to. 

It takes them a while before their breathing and heart rates calm down. Stephen rubs his chest. His heart still feels like it's about to burst, but it's not because of the panic attack that he has just had. 

It's in seeing the care and love that Tony was showing him with his eyes as he looks down at him and gently runs a hand over and over through Stephen's hair in an attempt to calm him down. To comfort him. 

In moments like this, Tony wasn't sure how Stephen would handle having Tony hold him or touch him, but he always knew that Stephen was okay with his hair being touched. That he felt comforted by the action. So that's what the genius did. Over and over. 

"I'm- I'm so-" Stephen tries but Tony hushes him. 

"If you dare apologise Stephen, I'm going to make you sleep on the couch." Tony tells him and Stephen doesn't remind him that there are three other bedrooms in the suite. He just nods. 

"What was it?" Tony asks and Stephen knows that he wasn't asking what Stephen had experienced. They both knew panic attacks. He was asking what had triggered it. 

"The- The cold air. I- Wh-When he held me down it- It was cold." Stephen says and Tony is up and moving before Stephen can even finish talking. Tony closes the windows firmly and carefully covers Stephen up with a blanket. Tony goes to the room temperature control and increases the temperature. 

"Hey FRIDAY, what's a good temperature for degrees celcius?" Tony asks the AI and though the AI is on Stephen's watch, she seems to hear well enough because she chirps up. 

"27 degrees celcius or 28 would be good boss." The AI says and Tony nods as he adjusts the temperature and comes back to the bed. 

"Anthony, I'm-" Tony gives him a warning look and Stephen can't help but smile as Tony comes back to the bed and climbs in next to him and Stephen pulls the man close when it's apparent that Tony won't. 

"I love you." Stephen tells him instead and puts in his apology and all of his love for the man into those three words. 

Tony kisses him gently on the top of his head. 

"I love you too Stephen. More than you know." Tony tells him softly and holds him tightly. Stephen lets the warmth of his lover seep into his cold body. He lets the love that he can feel through the Connection warm his heart. 

"I do know, Anthony. I do know." Stephen says as he tries not to let the darker thoughts within his mind fill his head. He can't think about Loki, their deal or how the hell he is supposed to break the news to Tony that there is someone else out there that Stephen was meant to love. 

That... is a problem for another day. 

~~~

Chapter Text

Tuesday

5 October 2010 

Wong loves the Order. 

He really does. It gives him a sense of belonging that he had never had before. The Order has given him Yinn, the other half of his soul and the woman that he will love till the end of days. 

But there are days he wants to pull out all of his hair and scream into the Nightmare Dimension. Today was one of those days. 

It always happens when they are short handed. Of course. Between the other Masters bearing the weight of the spells that Stephen normally runs, dealing with some corporate drama or another at the D'Arte and yet others being in the wrong time zone, stuck Wong with the students. 

Which, honestly, on a normal day? He was fine with. They call them students, but it wasn't as if any of the Order's 'students’ were teenagers that were prone to reckless behaviour. They were mostly mature adults that knew what they were doing and were cautious. 

Most of the time. 

But there were also certain students that allowed their curiosity to get the better of them. Generally, that was tempered out of them by the time they hit Acolyte level and above, but at the student level? Some students, like a certain someone that didn't read the warnings before they tried to do something stupidly dangerous, tended to try before they understood. 

Which usually resulted in one of two situations. Sometimes, they were able to stop the student from doing something stupid before they got there. 

Other times? 

Some idiot opens and anchors a fucking portal to the Hell Dimension for the purposes of 'studying' the demons contained therein and forget that the damned things can fly. 

The scent of sulphur hangs heavily in the air and mixed in with that are stenches that Wong doesn't want to identify but knows all too fucking well what they are. 

Burnt innards just has that distinctive smell that you will never forget. Wong sighs as he concentrates and works the spells to close the portal down before more of the damned things can come through before the Masters that have scrambled to Kamar-Taj have to get too involved. 

Just as Wong is half way through the spell, of course, the phone rings. He sighs. He knows all too well who the phone call is from and he has just enough focus to be able to finish the spell and to undo the anchor the students created and shut the portal down before he picks up the phone. 

"Bit busy over here." He says through gritted teeth as he swings his spell whip at one of the demons trying to fly away from the courtyard. 

"Figured. Do you need us there?" Stephen's concerned voice is the only thing that really stops Wong from snapping at him. 

It's not his fault really. 

Stephen wasn't in charge of the students. It was really Anne's domain, but she was occupied with some high level British royalty involved function that Wong hadn't really paid attention to. Which had left the Kamar-Taj and the students unsupervised, apparently, just enough for them to get themselves into trouble. 

"Not really. We got it-" Wong cuts himself off as another one of the pesky demons flies towards one of the terrified students. Gods he doesn't get paid enough for this shit. Actually, he doesn't get paid at all, he thinks bitingly as he sighs. 

"Fuck! Yeah it's fine. No need to come. You enjoy your lovely holiday." Wong says with a snarky tone into the phone as he debates using a bigger spell to herd all the demons, but knows it's a bad idea. 

The students can do with some training and so can the Acolytes and the Disciples that have come to help. It wouldn't do any of them good to miss the opportunity for some free training. He sighs. 

"Are you sure Wong? I don't-" Stephen says but Wong sighs as he signals to one of the Masters that he is preoccupied so that they can keep a closer eye on the students. 

"It's fine. We have it handled. It's just one of those student problems." Wong says and he hears the heavy sigh from the other end of the phone. He also hears the laughs and background conversation. 

"Stephen, it really is fine. If we needed you, you would have felt it." Wong reassures him and this time, he means it. As much as he wishes that someone else was going to come and solve the problem, he also wants to make sure that Stephen would get the break that he needs. 

Sorcerer Supreme he may be, but there was a limit to how much power he can keep channelling before he burnt out and with the contact that he has been making with Loki, Stephen has been channelling a lot of power and he needs a break from magic as well as the rest of his duties and life. 

"Okay. But if you're-" Stephen starts to say and Wong can't help but laugh a little. 

"The children will be fine. Now stop being a worry wart and enjoy your vacation Stephen." Wong tells him firmly and before the man can say anything else, hangs up the phone and sighs. 

Oh, this would be so much easier to deal with if Stephen was here. There was no doubt about that. If nothing else, the clean up would be a cinch. But at the same time, it really was about bloody time the students learnt the price of their mistakes and get to practice some hard labour to make up for it. 

Because there was no way Wong was cleaning the burnt guts and body parts strewn throughout the Kamar-Taj's courtyard. That, he was going to leave to the students that created the fucking mess to begin with. 

When... they stopped shaking that is. 

~~~ 

Tuesday 

5 October 2010 

Stephen hangs up the phone with a sigh. 

There is a part of him that wants to go back and double check for himself that everything is okay back at the Kamar-Taj. He'd felt the disturbance to the spells, of course he did and so had Clea, but they both had recognised almost immediately and she'd kept the others distracted as he tried to gather information. 

With the burden of the protection spells being on the other Masters, Stephen's connection to Kamar-Taj is not as firm as it used to be and it strains him somewhat to get a clear read on the situation. Hence the phone call. 

It's not that he had any doubts that the Masters can get everything under control. It is merely the guilt for making them carry his burden that spur Stephen on with the need to help. 

The Kamar-Taj, the Order and what happens therein are his responsibilities. They are not ones that he takes lightly but he does appreciate Wong's willingness to step into his place to take care of the situation. 

Stephen sighs heavily as he looks out over the railing into the peaceful Hunter Valley vineyard they found themselves at. The vines are just starting to sprout leaves again after winter and there is a sense of warm life entering the valley that he appreciates. 

As far as the eye can see, there are vines after vines of the fine grapes that produced the wine that they were taste tasting. It's a beautiful location and there is a quiet and peacefulness here that he hadn't quite expected. 

There are no other visitors to the vineyard other than them. Clea had ensured that they would be left to their own accord and that heavy duty NDAs were signed so that nothing would be disclosed of their visit. 

It was a measure that he knew that she had taken for him and for Tony. To allow them to be themselves without worrying about the consequences of their romance being revealed to the world. It is a gesture that Stephen truly appreciates. 

But a moment alone to enjoy the scenery and to centre himself may also be what he needs. 

The holiday so far has been... quite frankly, amazing. Clea and Rhodey got along surprisingly well and the close friendship that's already been in place between Clea and Pepper as well as Tony and himself made things smooth as they came together as a group to enjoy activities together and to spend time together. 

They ate out at the best of the restaurants that Sydney has to offer and more and the shopping trips the girls had undertaken had been nothing but epic in their nature. It wasn't that they were frivolous, far from it, but they did have a fascination with the odds and bobs that Sydney offered that hadn't quite been available in the US. 

For one, Tony had simply insisted that he had to buy a didgeridoo to display in the Malibu Mansion and Stephen is more than willing to admit that he may have gotten a little over zealous when they had hit the tea specialisation store. 

They've done the usual touristy stuff and that had involved a fair bit of hats and dressing down and sunglasses to avoid being recognised, but they managed to see all the sights that they had wanted to see and they hadn't been recognised all too often. 

It was a good thing that they were in the middle of spring for Sydney, because it allowed them to cover up a little more and blend in better with the crowd. 

But it still had meant that in the city at least, Stephen and Tony has had to play their roles and not to indulge in the PDA that they wanted to. The risk of being caught by a camera phone or a tourist's camera pointed the wrong way was too high for their liking. 

That isn't what keeps Stephen outside thinking though. These days, there isn't much that distracts Stephen than Tony and Loki. Even all the responsibilities that he has for the Order, the PR disasters that may or may not be coming his way and the fate of the universe itself, doesn't hang about his shoulders as heavily as Loki and Tony do

Tony is on the one hand, the man that he loves. The man that he had fallen in love with, if he is being honest, from the very first moment that he had seen him in the visions through the Time Stone. 

It had been impossible not to fall in love with a man that would sacrifice himself for the fate of the universe over and over again and who loved deeply and cared for those around him without being cared for or loved in return. A man that kept giving and giving without asking for anything in return and would wear the blame and would quietly help out in the background regardless. 

How could you not love someone after seeing all that? 

It had been all too easy to fall in love with Tony and to keep on loving him. The more of Tony that he saw, the more Stephen loved him. At this point, Stephen knew that there was absolutely nothing that he wouldn't do for one more smile from Tony or for the man to live. Even if he had to forsake the universe for him. 

Except, that is not what Tony would ever ask him to do, nor want from him. 

Loki on the other hand is... complicated to say at the least. Stephen isn't sure if he can love the God of Mischief and Chaos. 

It isn't that he believes that the god is beyond redemption. No. It isn't that at all. The god has his reasons for acting the way that he does throughout the few universes that he has seen and he assumes that much of it applies to the multitude of universes he has seen focused on Tony. 

The god is a damaged soul and Stephen understands the reasons behind his actions. It does not make it any easier to deal with the conflict of emotions inside of him when he thinks of the god. 

On the one hand, having contacted him several times now and having shared his pain, both physical and emotional, Stephen can't help but feel pity for the being. 

But on the other hand, that night in the clearing still haunts him and that is difficult to forget and to forgive. Just because he understands the reasons behind his actions does not mean that Stephen can forget the trauma that has been left behind. 

Dealing with anyone that resembles Loki has been difficult. Even a few days ago, when they had been walking through the streets of Sydney and he had seen the flash of shoulder length black hair and green eyes, Stephen had all but frozen in place until Tony had noticed. 

The group had coaxed him into the corner of a quiet cafe and thrust a warm cup of hot chocolate into his hands and had helped him to breath through the sudden anxiety that he had felt. 

It had altered the way that Tony behaved with him when it came to sex. They still had plenty of it, more than ever, in fact, but Tony was careful. There was a conscious effort to the way that Tony handled their encounters whenever he was behind Stephen and as much as he appreciated the gesture and felt the love the man had for him in each of those moments, he also hated it. 

Even a few nights ago, what should have been a very hot and enjoyable sexual encounter had all but come to a stop because of him and those stupid flashbacks that he hadn't been able to stop. 

He hates it. 

Stephen isn't sure, even now, how he would deal with a face to face meeting with the god. They haven't discussed the 'deal' that the god had proposed before. They hadn't had the time, nor had been in the right mind frame for that discussion. 

"Master?" FRIDAY's quiet voice breaks Stephen out of his thoughts as he looks down at his watch and realises that both his breathing had sped up and that his heart rate was racing, according to the watch that Tony had built him for his birthday. 

"Yes dear girl?" He says even as he takes a deep steadying breath and holds it before releasing it. He continues the exercise as the watch thumps gently against his wrist in the breathing rhythm that he should get back to. 

A feature that Tony had no doubt built in with his anxiety in mind. It's gestures like this that the world doesn't know about that makes Stephen fall helplessly in love with the man all over again. 

"The boss is getting worried about you." FRIDAY says. He wishes that she would stop calling him that, but it was her nickname of choice for him and her childish request to call him that had been so adorable that he hadn't been able to refuse. 

"I'm- I'm okay. Can you tell him that I will be in soon?" Stephen says, but he knows that it's too late when a pair of warm arms wrap around him. 

"You're freezing baby." Tony tells him quietly as he leans his head against the back of Stephen's neck and holds him warmly and tightly in his arms. Stephen relaxes into the hold and lets the other man take his weight. 

"I lost track of the time." Stephen says somewhat lamely as an excuse. He really had. He wasn't sure how long he had been standing out on the balcony for, out in the cold winds left over from the winter that had just gone past. 

"Hm, should I warm you up?" Tony says with a suggestive tone. Humour was Tony's defence to emotional distress. Whether it was his own or another's. Tony always tried to lighten the mood or get Stephen to laugh when it was obvious that he was feeling somewhat down and didn't want to talk about it. 

It was Tony's way of showing that he cares and it's one that Stephen appreciates. He smiles as Tony's hand curls around his own and tries to warm up his frozen fingers even as Stephen tries to breathe. 

"It's so beautiful and peaceful here." Stephen says after a moment and Tony hums against his shoulder as his warm lips start to gently kiss at Stephen's exposed neck. 

That was yet another thing that Tony did more now. Kissing him on the back of the neck. Reminding him that such acts are meant to be loving and pleasurable and not forced and terrifying. Stephen leans into the touch as his fingers wrap around Tony's as the genius's calloused ones start to massage and caress around his. 

"If you like it, we could buy it and retire here." Tony suggests as another one of his hands slip into Stephen's jacket and starts to caress his chest and at the nipple that was starting to perk up at the warm, low pleasure that was thrumming through him. 

"Oh and what would we do with all that time?" Stephen asks even as his eyes close shut and he leans his head back onto Tony's shoulder and let the other man completely take charge of his body. 

"Well, we could make wine I guess? Call it Strange Wines. The media campaign will be fantastic." Tony says with an amused tone as he whispers against Stephen's ear and his hands take even more liberties, tracing the outline of the nipple on Stephen's chest and running up and down Stephen's stomach. 

Tony isn't necessarily trying to start anything. He knows better than to do that. They both have too much respect for their friends to start something when they are all just a few feet away. 

But it's a distraction tactic that works quite well for Stephen and though Tony may not know it, the physical contact is grounding and it helps Stephen to focus on the moment and on Tony and to shake off the heavy thoughts and emotions. 

"And what would we do when we aren't making wine?" Stephen asks, keeping his voice low and suggestive as the genius turns him around in his arms and looks up at him. 

Stephen loves their height difference. It's not much. Just half a head or more, but he loves that he can look down to his lover's beautiful eyes. He also loves that Tony doesn't mind their height difference. Some men, especially those that were used to being in control, do . Tony doesn't. 

"Get the fireplace going and make love." Tony says, drawing out the word 'love' and making it seem so incredibly cheesy that Stephen can't help but chuckle. But it's a short lived one when the genius pulls him down for a kiss that shows that as much as he had turned the word into a joke, he also means it.

"I could stay you know." Tony says when he pulls away and he doesn't need to clarify for Stephen to know what the genius means. He means that he can stay in New York. 

The holiday had multiple purposes. It gave them all a break from their daily lives and the hell that it had been recently with the Harlem incident and it gave them all some time to think and to heal from that by getting away from the situation. 

It was also a good way to celebrate being alive and healthy and well for Tony as well as a means of emptying out both the Malibu Mansion and the Stark Mansion so their helpful staff can sort out the move for Tony to go back to Malibu.

It was a necessary move. In a few months, the Stark Tower will be ready and Tony will move into that. So will Stephen and no doubt Pepper and Clea, but for now, Tony needed to go to LA to sort out the move of their headquarters to New York and there was work that he needed to be doing. 

Stephen couldn't keep him from doing that. But he knew that if he asked, the genius would stay. He would make frequent trips back and forth from LA to New York, but he will stay in New York. For Stephen. 

He can't ask for that. 

"No you can't." Stephen tells him softly as he kisses the argument that he knew would be coming away from the genius and pulls him tightly into his arms. 

"You have work to do and so do I. I'll come to LA for our extended long weekends." Stephen tells him though they both already knew the plan. 

It is going to be odd, there was no doubt about that. With Tony being away in LA and Stephen being in New York for even just the three days of the week when they have been living together for every day for months now is going to be a stark difference. 

But there were other reasons why Stephen knew the break was necessary. 

Loki was coming back in May of 2011. He was going to need a lot more information than what they had available before that happened. They needed to be prepared to make sure that the Order would be prepared to act. 

"Fine. But if I get lonely, I'm buying this vineyard and we're moving here." Tony tells Stephen with a light tone and Stephen chuckles just as Tony intended him to do and they share one more kiss before they walk back into the warmth of the winery and the company of their friends. 

Stephen doesn't have all the answers. Not yet. But at the very least, he knows that he has the ingredients to make sure that he will get through whatever it is that he will have to go through. 

His friends and the love of the man that he loves. 

~~~

Monday

11 October 2010 

He had been one of the best. 

He was smart. A genius in his own right. But he had never been recognised for it. No one ever saw his brilliance. No. All they had seen had been Vincent fucking Strange and his godlike hands. 

He had always been the second best. The second choice. Even with Christine, he had been the second choice. She had never turned to him, never looked at him until he had died.

He burns with the unfairness of it all. 

He should have been recognised. He should have been respected. But he hadn't. All because of one man. 

It was only when Vincent had his car accident and couldn't perform surgeries anymore that his talents had been recognised. But by then it had been too late. He had been too angry, too careless. He had been too deep into the bottle by then and it had only been a matter of time before he lost his license and ability to perform surgeries. 

Vincent fucking Strange had taken everything away from him. 

Even Christine, oh the beautiful Christine Palmer hadn't looked at him. Not when he had been completely and utterly devoted to her. No. She had wanted Vincent. She had wanted to bask in the spotlight that he was surrounded by. 

Even when Vincent couldn't give a fuck about her, she had stuck by his side, helping him, looking after him when he was injured. But like him, she too had been hard done by Vincent. But she hadn't blamed him. Oh no. 

She had blamed him

For being drunk during the surgery that could have saved Vincent's hands, Christine had blamed him

It had been the last straw. 

Then he had gone off to Nepal to chase some mystical solution to the problem and had gotten himself killed. When that happened, he had smiled. It served the bastard right. To lose all of his wealth and fame and to die in some gutter in the depths of Nepal. 

But it had broken Christine and he had lost her. She had disappeared from his sight. From his life and that in turn had destroyed him. What was left of him at any rate. 

When he had emerged from the alcohol fuelled rages, he had found himself alone, without a job, without a calling and left only with hate in his heart. 

He had gone to Europe. 

To take some time to try to get his career back and to recover from the alcoholism that had taken over his life. But that trip had changed everything

He had seen the dead man walking through the streets of London. 

He had doubted his eyes, of course he had, but he hadn't been drunk and he recognised those cold grey blue eyes all too well and the hands that he had performed surgeries on. 

In that moment, he had known that he was looking at a dead man and he had been so angry and so furious, that he had meant to confront the man. 

But Vincent had been walking fast. He had followed through the meandering streets of London and saw the incident that would forever change his life. 

The sight of Vincent Strange talking frantically with an Asian man before waving an arm and sparks flying from his fingertips to form what can only be described as a staff. 

Even from the distance, hidden behind the shadow of a building, he had watched with wide eyes as the man's clothes changed to an odd looking robe and from somewhere, a dark red cloak flew up to settle itself on his shoulders. 

The man that had stood in front of his disbelieving eyes had been Vincent Strange, but not as he knew the doctor. 

Then both Vincent and the Asian man had disappeared. 

That had been the start. 

The moment that had confirmed all the rumours he had heard about Vincent travelling to Nepal to find a mystical cure for his hands. He had scoffed at that initially. 

He hadn't after that moment. 

It had started over two decades of searching and obsession to discover the nature of that power that Vincent had wielded and how to obtain it for himself. 

To harness the power that Vincent Strange had been handed. 

There was nothing and no lengths that he hadn't gone to for that power. He had searched high and low. He had spent every bit of money he had earned and had been given by the generous trust fund his parents had given him. 

It hadn't mattered. 

Because with magic, he knew he could have everything he wanted and be everything that he had wanted. 

Eventually, he found his answer. It had taken a lot of research and dealing with many an unsavoury person, but he had found out that Vincent Strange was a member of the Mystic Order. An order of sorcerers tasked with protecting the universe. 

From there, it had been almost too easy to find a few disgruntled sorcerers or former sorcerers that had been stripped of magic at one point or another and search together for the means to get the power back. 

When Vincent came back out into the world as Stephen Strange and won back absolutely everything that he had held before his supposed death. Only this time, he was also incredibly wealthy and he had kept his youth too, he had burned with rage and hate. 

It was about that time that he and his fellows have been able to find a source of power that they hadn't expected. An Artefact, as one of the former members of the Order had called it, had been sold in the black market. 

With that artefact, they had been able to channel dimensional energies and they had been able to search for more artefacts. Between that and channelling power from the dark dimensions, it became possible for them to wield power unlike anything they had imagined. 

But it hadn't been without a price. 

The prices that they paid for with blood. Both their own and those of others that the world would not miss. The vagrants, the orphans, the addicts. It had been almost too easy. 

The dark energies they wielded corrupted the Artefacts that they utilised until the only way to use them was through making blood sacrifices. 

It was a small price to pay for such power. 

It was what had allowed them to attack the Hong Kong Sanctum. To shatter the shields. They had learnt that it would weaken the Sorcerer Supreme when the shields came down. 

Nicodemus hadn't expected Vincent to show up  at the Sanctum. It was only then that they realised that Vincent was the Sorcerer Supreme. 

Oh that realisation had burned him.

Not only had Vincent Strange had been given intelligence, his photographic memory, the love of the woman that he had desired, but had been given magic more powerful than any other. 

The world was well and truly unfair.  

Oh, it had been so incredibly satisfying to take the opportunity to plunge the knife deep into Vincent's exposed back and to feel the hot blood run down his hands and fill the Artefact knife with power unlike anything they had experienced before. 

But it had been a short lived triumph. 

He strokes his chest, where the burns are still fresh despite it having been months of healing, medication and magic. It didn't matter what sacrifice they made, his wound refused to heal completely. 

But even as he had been at death's door, Vincent fucking Strange had been healed from a wound that ought to have been fatal in the space of mere weeks. 

He had seen the news reports. He had seen the man's name pasted all over the newspapers, linked with one of the most powerful men on the planet, Tony fucking Stark. 

He hadn't planned to take Vincent's life. But now he does. He will have his rival's life and he will take everything that was owed to him. Everything that Vincent Strange had stolen from him. 

He laughs and listens as the sound echoes through the empty chambers of his mansion. It doesn't matter what price is required. He will have Vincent Strange's head on a platter. 

He was Nicodemus West and he didn't care what it took to get what he wants. 

He never has. 

~~~

Chapter Text

Wednesday 

24 November 2010 

It takes some adjusting, but they do all go back to normal life, as normal a life as they can have considering all the chaos that is in their lives, that is. 

Normal is overrated anyway. 

They settle into the normal rhythm of life that they had before they lived in the Stark Mansion. Stephen and Clea spend Mondays to Wednesdays in New York. Stephen works with his patients, the hospitals and the doctors. 

Clea works at the practice whilst working with both Tony and Pepper through FRIDAY and JARVIS to organise their schedules and smooth out their days. 

On top of that, they work with the Order to prepare for the upcoming New York battle with a new fervour. Stephen has more and more visions from the Time Stone now that he is sleeping at the Sanctum and away from Tony. 

It gives them more information to work with and to ensure that they can preserve Loki's life with the same care that they have been looking into and ensuring Tony's survival. They may not know the will of the universe, but there had to be a reason why Stephen was Connected to both of them. 

They know that they still have months to go till the invasion itself happens, but after Harlem, they are determined not to risk dropping the ball. They want to ensure that all the buildings that they identified that may come under attack are protected and warded. 

They all know and have accepted that they can't save everyone . But they also refuse to fail as badly as they did in Harlem. They will do better. It motivates them to work harder and prepare better than ever before. 

Tony and Pepper are working to re-organise Stark Industries so that they can leave the manufacturing and the bulk of their operations in LA whilst taking the rest of the Headquarters to New York and the Stark Towers that were coming along nicely. 

Tony was catching up on all of the work that R&D had done in his absence to get inventions ready for the market and he was working on projects that didn't require Stephen's input during the days when he wasn't there. 

Tony was running a few missions here and there with SHIELD and for the US government, but there was a good working relationship and balance that was starting to form between Tony and the US Government, as it were, if not with SHIELD. 

Tony's actions during the Harlem incident had won him a great deal of favour in Washington and in the public and it helped to smooth out many of the ruffled feathers that had risen with the Senate Hearing. 

So between all that work, Tony was busy and so were Pepper and Rhodey. 

But the bonds that they managed to form as a group during their trip to Sydney hasn't faded but had only grown stronger. When Stephen was in LA with Clea, she lived with Pepper and they all made time on Saturdays to meet up at the Malibu Mansion. 

They spent time playing board games on some nights, movie marathons during others and just spending time together and relaxing and reminding themselves and keeping in touch whilst at the same time, working on some issues for the Maria Stark Foundation and the Harlem rebuilding project. 

It was an ongoing project that they focused and worked on together and it helped them all to heal from their experiences of seeing the horror that had been left behind by the incident. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. 

Spending their Saturday nights with the group was always lovely and enjoyable. Stephen has to admit that considering the fact that he had never had a group of friends, there is a certain comfort to the meetings that he truly enjoys. 

Sundays, he usually spends alone with Tony, usually with lazy sex and last minute work before Stephen and Clea return to New York. 

Stephen has to admit that spending the time away from LA and from Tony is difficult. He spends his Sunday nights at Kamar-Taj , using the ancient temple and the help of the Masters to channel the power that he needs to contact Loki and to ground both of them. 

It is enough to keep him going for the three days away from Tony, but by Wednesday afternoon, Stephen is exhausted by the strain and desperate for Tony. 

Still, it is better than it had been. That, Stephen has to admit. Besides, ensuring that the god retains some sanity by the time he comes back to New York with the Chitauri Army can only be a good thing. 

It's still not... entirely easy for Stephen and there are moments when he feels entirely unlike himself and he realises that there are moments when he feels distant and confused. But the dissonance that he used to feel isn't as bad as it used to be. 

Contacting Loki isn't... entirely without discomfort still. The apprehension and anxiety that Stephen feels doesn't dissipate. There is a certain dread that settles in his stomach every Sunday night, but at the same time, every time that he does contact Loki and feels his pain , there is ... only more sympathy that grows inside of him. 

He isn't sure how it is going to go when he sees the god face to face and that is something that he dreads and if he is honest, causes cold sweat to break out all over him, but more and more, as Stephen sees the visions and deals with the god, he grows somewhat confident that he might be okay. 

That Loki... may not hurt him or at the very least, had no intention to harm him. That, Stephen believes. He isn't sure whether or not the... god's intentions will matter in the end. Which... is a problem. 

Stephen sighs as he looks over the paperwork that he was meant to be concentrating on. It's the day before Thanksgiving and Stephen doesn't have as many appointments as he usually does, which is a good thing, if the annoyed look on Clea's face was any indication. 

Thanksgiving is... a family holiday and it was one where the Strange family used to come together at the house in Philadelphia and where Caroline used to throw the best of Thanksgiving dinners. 

This would be their first Thanksgiving without them and it's in moments like this that the loss of Caroline and Matthew feels painful and fresh as they try to figure out how the holiday was going to go. 

Miranda and Jonathon have moved into the family home after some months and Miranda was determined to continue the tradition of the dinners. She had all of Caroline's recipes and she had been helping out in the past, but she was feeling the pressure of trying to create a good holiday for them. 

Stephen honestly hadn't been sure if he could go back to the home without Matthew and Caroline. But Miranda and Jonathon had insisted and he had seen that it had cost them a great deal of effort to make the suggestion and the efforts that they were going to in order to bring them together for the holiday? 

Yeah. He couldn't refuse. It helped that Jonathon and Miranda had extended the invite to Tony and to his great surprise, Tony had accepted it. It wasn't as if Tony had any plans of his own. He usually went to Rhodey's for Thanksgiving, but this year, he was choosing to accompany Stephen. 

It feels... like a milestone

Stephen knew that Tony considered their relationship very much permanent and serious. But this was an indication unlike any other that he meant it. They were building a life together and it meant involving family. 

In a way, Tony's family of Pepper and Rhodey were already involved and Tony was making the effort to get to know Jonathon and Miranda and Stephen can't help but love him all the more for that. 

Tony was making more and more of an effort that shows he cares for Stephen and for their relationship and there were moments where the genius still showed some reticence for displays of emotion and declaration of affection, but that was disappearing quite quickly. 

"Will you help me hide a body?" Clea asks out of the blue and Stephen raises an eyebrow at her. 

"You're not killing Miranda." Stephen says with a dry tone. Clea sighs dramatically. 

"I might not but dad might. She's doing last minute shopping." Clea says as she slides her phone over to Stephen for him to read over the rather panicked text messages Miranda has sent the group chat. Stephen had been ignoring his phone. FRIDAY had stopped notifying him at some point. 

"If she's finding it too stressful maybe-" Stephen tries but Clea gives him a glare that would have terrified lesser men. 

"If you dare cancel on her, I will never hear the end of it and I will make your life hell Stephen. I swear ! " Clea tells her somewhat vehemently and Stephen nods slowly. He knows better than to argue when her when she's got that tone. 

"Besides, mum might be driving me insane, but it's important." Clea says and with that, he does have to agree at the very least. She's right. It is important for them to remember their losses and to keep the tradition alive for both their memories and for their comfort. 

"Well in-" Stephen starts to say but he is cut off when the phone rings. He isn't too surprised by that. Tony usually calls him during his lunch hour and FRIDAY doesn't even bother to identify the caller. She knows the pattern too well enough. 

"Good afternoon, Anthony." Stephen says quietly into the phone but he doesn't hear a response for a moment. Instead, what he gets is the noise of clothes rustling and Stephen frowns before looking down to check the phone. 

"Anthony?" Stephen can't help the little bit of alarm that goes through him as he tries to concentrate and reach through the space between them to figure out if there is anything wrong with Tony or if he is in any danger. 

The Bond, as much as Stephen wishes wasn't the case, was maturing quickly between them. All their close contact, the emotions that has grown between them and frankly, the ridiculous amount of sex they indulged in, helped to speed it's growth through. Though it was by no means mature yet, if Stephen concentrated enough, he can definitely feel- 

Heat hits him as does the heady arousal and he feels his mouth go completely dry as his eyes dilate and he is almost dizzy as the blood rushes from his head to his crotch as his arousal forms rapidly. 

He is so very glad that he has a desk between him and Clea and that his chair was pulled in. He hears the moan echo through the phone and he has to take a deep breath to stop himself from moaning as well. 

"Anthony, what-" Stephen starts to say, but Tony interrupts him, as does the heady and heavy arousal. 

"I missed you." Tony moans out and Stephen hears Clea's sigh and looks up just in time for her to mouth '15 minutes' to him before she leaves the room rapidly and closes the door behind her. 

Trust Tony to be such a fucking tease, Stephen thinks even as he leans back into his chair and has to quickly reach down to his crotch to adjust himself to ease the discomfort of his sudden erection straining against his pants. 

"Tell me." Stephen almost demands. He can't share all the sensations with Tony. Their Bond isn't strong enough for that. But he can feel each pulse of arousal as it goes through him and it's so very lovely as he closes his eyes and lets his lover talk to him. 

"I'm in bed. Got myself all worked open and wet- an-and you know that purple dildo?" Tony asks and it's clear that he is struggling to talk with any coherency. He is moaning and panting as he talks and Stephen can hear the squelch of lube and he knows exactly what his lover is up to. 

From the sounds of it, he was using the phone on loudspeaker and of course his tech had to be so fucking good that Stephen couldn't help but hear each and every moan, rustle of the sheets and the movement of the dildo as his lover fucked himself with it. 

"Did you call just to tease me?" Stephen asks thickly as he debates whether or not he should get his own cock out and try to stroke himself to completion. 

His hands weren't really up to the task but there was something else that he could definitely do but... Clea was going to know. Oh she already probably fucking knew what was happening but, is Stephen really ready to pleasure himself knowing that Clea was just outside? 

The thing is, he doesn't really get to make a choice when Tony starts crying out his name and moans. All rational thought goes out the window as does any propriety, really, and it's so fucking easy to focus with Tony's voice in his ear and Tony's arousal coursing through their Connection. 

With a twist of his hand, Stephen summons the clone and they don't hesitate. They never do. They kneel in front of him with a twist of Stephen's hand and they undo his pants and free him from the confines of his underwear and without even a moment to prepare him, they suck him down and Stephen moans too into the phone. 

"Tell me?" Tony bites into the phone as he works himself with the dildo and Stephen closes his eyes, wraps the hand not holding the phone to his ear over the head of the clone as they swallow his cock. 

"Clea's just- just outside Tony and I'm in my office, pleasuring myself." Stephen says. He most definitely doesn't open his eyes to look at the clone. It's technically not a lie. He was literally using a clone of himself to pleasure himself. 

The lie is of course, in the fact that Stephen was using magic to make that a possibility. Stephen wonders what Tony will think if he ever finds out that Stephen can do this and has been doing this. 

"Oh yeah? So you missed me too huh?" Tony asks with some glee and there is a sudden childish nature to it that has Stephen choking out a laugh as his clone swallows him down completely and he almost loses himself in the pleasure. 

"Shit! Oh- Oh God!" Stephen pants out and bites at his lips to keep the noise down but he can't suppress all of it and just like that, Tony sounds frantic as well. 

Stephen knows that Tony has a thing for his voice. Always had. He likes the fact that the genius finds his voice attractive and it's even more so in moments like this when they are desperate and near coming. 

"Oh God Stephen, fuck baby, I wish it was you." Tony says as he fucks himself with the dildo and Stephen can almost see it as the orgasm builds on two fronts for him. One from Tony's end through the Connection and another through the warm heat of his clone's mouth sucking hard onto his cock. 

Stephen lifts the hand from his clone's head to cover his mouth and all but bites down on the meaty palm of his hand as he comes hard into the clone's mouth and they eat up every single bit of his cum before they pull off, put his clothing to order and disappearing

Stephen pants as he listens to Tony reach his own orgasm and tries to settle his breathing. The room is far too warm and there is an unmistakable scent of sex lingering in the room. Stephen loathes to use magic so casually, but it's honestly a bit too late to worry about that now. 

"I'll see you tomorrow?" Stephen says as he waves his hand lazily and forms the right patterns and intentions in his mind to clear up the room of the scent and allow a fresh breeze to come through the non existent walls to feel the room with the fresh scents of the bamboo forests of Kyoto. 

"Yeah. Yeah. I'll- I'll uh, see you then." Tony huffs into the phone and Stephen smiles as he hangs up and leans fully back into his chair to enjoy the afterglow. 

When the afternoon's few patients are done, he was going to be in a meeting with the Council. They have last minute emergency plans to set up just in case before the Thanksgiving holidays hit. 

Tomorrow morning, he was meeting with Tony at the D'Arte. The genius was flying in so that they can travel together to Philadelphia to the Strange family home for the Thanksgiving holidays. 

Stephen isn't very sure how all of that is going to go, but as long as he has Tony with him, he doesn't mind too much about the rest. Missing him for three days and only having the phone calls to keep him company has been difficult. 

Once the genius knows about magic, he can stop with the pretence of needing to travel and just be there with him whenever and wherever the inventor was. But for now, even with Tony's somewhat vague knowledge of his ability to travel, it was a restriction that he had to keep up. 

Sometimes, Stephen can't help but wish that he was someone else. Something else. Not the Sorcerer Supreme. Not the Chosen of the Time Stone but just Stephen Strange. Who can be with his lover at any time without the pressure of the universe upon his shoulders. 

If only wishes came true. 

~~~ 

Thursday 

25 November 2010  

Okay. 

That could have gone a lot worse, Tony thinks as he all but collapses into the bed that was far smaller than what he was used to. But then he supposes that most normal houses don't have the custom built giant beds that he has nor the extra large King size beds of the D'Arte Penthouses that he'd grown accustomed to. 

It's fine though. 

As long as he has some sort of surface where he can collapse on, for the time being, it's all fine. He just needs to maybe breathe and nap for a bit and then maybe he can digest the copious amount of delicious turkey, veggies and pie that he'd consumed. 

"I regret all my life's decisions." Tony declares as Stephen joins him at a more sedate pace and slips the shoes from Tony's feet and strips them of the socks and helps him to settle properly onto the bed. 

"I'm not sure about all your life's decisions but I did warn you about the last slice of pie." Stephen tells him dryly even as he settles against the headboard and pulls Tony up into his arms so that they are laying with Tony's back against Stephen's chest. 

"You didn't stop me. Why didn't you stop me?" Tony groans out as he feels like he is about to burst with all the pumpkin pie that he'd managed to stuff into his stomach. He can swear that the food was somehow expanding in there and he was most definitely going to die from an explosive death of pumpkin and spice. 

"I tried, if you would be so kind to recall." Stephen tells him with an amused tone, but he does gently start running a hand up and down Tony's stomach and he's not sure if that's supposed to help with digestion, but it feels good enough and he's drowsy enough that he relaxes into the touch. 

"You didn't tell me that Miranda can cook up a storm like that." Tony says somewhat accusingly and Stephen shrugs his shoulders. 

"I didn't know that she could." Stephen kisses the side of Tony's hair and continues to gently rub at Tony's stomach and they relax in each other's company and the feeling of lethargy of having eaten far, far too much food. 

For a while, they are quiet as Tony drowsily looks about the room and slowly links his fingers through with Stephen's as they lounge. 

Tony had been apprehensive about this whole Thanksgiving thing. Family traditions and he really didn't get along all too well and although he used to always go to Rhodey's house to attend the Thanksgiving dinners there, that was mostly because Mrs Rhodes was a terrifying woman and Tony hadn't known how to say no to her. 

But when Stephen had gotten the invite and so had Tony and he had seen that look of conflict and a flash of pain, the decision had been a little too easy to make. 

He remembered that Stephen was Vincent Strange. That he hadn't lost his grandparents, which was bad enough, but his parents. And that if he recalled the conversation that Stephen had shared with Clea during their funeral correctly, then they had died without knowing that their son had been with them the whole time. 

They had grieved for him and continued to grieve for him until they passed. The room that they were in was a great indication of that. 

They hadn't planned to stay the night. They really hadn't. But when the snows hit hard enough to make it difficult for them to drive back or to fly back with a helicopter to New York or anywhere for that matter, Jonathon and Miranda had insisted that they stay overnight

The bedroom that they had been asked to use had been Vincent's and it was obvious that the Strange’s, Jonathon included, had greatly loved Vincent and that they would never stop grieving for his loss. 

The room was a shrine to Vincent and his memory. Everything down to the pen on the desk, from the looks of it, was how Vincent had left things. Everything was clean and well maintained as if Matthew and Caroline had expected their son to come home at any moment. 

Tony suspects that Jonathon and Miranda had kept it up to give Stephen a connection to his father, never realising that the connection was going somewhere else entirely. Tony wonders if it is painful for Stephen to be in this room. 

To be reminded of the love that his family had for him and yet having to still hide who he was from them. He wonders about the guilt that he had heard in Stephen's voice when he had mentioned that his parents hadn't known who and what he was. 

Tony wonders if he should have somehow made it possible for them to go home. Or whether he should try to do that now, but even as he is thinking that, Stephen speaks.

"It's better with you here." Stephen says quietly and Tony doesn't look up. Even though he wants to. He knows that for him, it's easier if he wasn't looking at his lover as he has the more difficult emotional conversations and he gives the same courtesy to Stephen. 

Tony lifts Stephen's scarred hand up so that he can kiss the back of it and the fingertips and express all the love that sometimes he just doesn't know how to say in words. 

"I know it wasn't- I know that this isn't what you-" It's always odd when Stephen stumbles over his words, but Tony knows that it is usually when Stephen is overwhelmed by emotion and he knows what Stephen is trying to say. 

Yeah. This really wasn't what Tony found comfortable. The family etc. And yeah, it's something that he had never done but he had no regrets. 

Jonathon with his dry, sarcastic sense of humour in addition to what Clea called 'dad humour' had been entertaining enough and though Miranda had been flustered and blushed and clearly worried too much over everything including the table cloth and down to just the right amount of stuffing in the turkey, she had eventually relaxed and had been a delight. 

Clea had kept everything more or less smooth by playing interference with Miranda to keep her calm and with Tony to make sure that he felt comfortable. It hadn't been completely free of the awkward moments and silences, but they had fumbled through. 

It helped that neither Jonathon or Miranda hadn't blinked an eye when Tony had reached out to comfort Stephen or to pull him into the bedroom. There was a certain level of acceptance from the Strange family that he hadn't expected and was somewhat grateful to find. 

It was unfortunately the kind of acceptance that Tony wasn't willing to push by ravishing Stephen in their home, but still. It was more than what he had expected of the situation, that was for sure. 

"If you had deprived me of Miranda's pumpkin pie, I would have been hurt." Tony tells him as he turns around in Stephen's arms so that he can kiss the doctor softly. 

Stephen's lips taste of the brandy they had ended the massive meal with and though Tony really, seriously, had no intentions of starting anything in the childhood home and childhood bedroom of the good doctor, he can't resist licking at those lips until he can get a full taste of the brandy and Stephen's lips. 

"The walls are thin." Stephen reminds him quietly and Tony swallows as he realises that the doctor wasn't saying no. That Stephen's hands were moving to encourage rather than discourage. 

Oh. Well then, Tony thinks as he steps up the kiss and the doctor moans quietly and reaches between them to get at his pants pockets and pulls out a small bottle of lube and that has got to be one of the hottest things that Stephen has ever done, Tony thinks as all thoughts of being a good guest goes careening out of the window. Along with his brain. 

"You had that with you the entire night." Tony states even as they struggle to remove their pants. They are too impatient and desperate to actually get fully undressed. Though, eventually, Tony knows that they will . He adores seeing naked Stephen too much to not indulge in that. 

"I missed you." Stephen says simply. They haven't had the chance to indulge since the trip to Philadelphia that had been short and also because of Clea. They hadn't seen each other for four days and apparently, Stephen had been just as desperate for him as he had been for Stephen. Good. 

The prep is short, sloppy and messy. They never are quite elegant about it the first time they fuck after being apart for a few days and even though of late, Stephen had seemed more... balanced and better than he used to be, there is a certain desperation in Stephen that has lingered. 

Tony keeps the doctor's lips sealed with his hungry kisses and they pant and moan into each other's mouths only to swallow them so that they can be as quiet as possible as Tony's fingers are buried deep inside of Stephen, indulging in the warmth of his lover's body and the wet pull of those internal muscles. 

Stephen's hands cling onto his neck as Tony enters him slowly and carefully. Tony swallows each of the moans and groans as the doctor releases them and when he is fully seated inside of Stephen, he stops. 

He raises himself up so that he can look down at the beautiful picture that Stephen makes. His hair an absolute mess against the pillows, his eyes dilated black and his shirt and sweater combo racked up to show off those beautiful abs. 

The doctor looks beautiful . The faint moonlight that comes through the window and the snow falling just outside of it only adds to the atmosphere as Tony smiles down at his lover and lifts Stephen's knees into his arms. 

"Do you think you can keep quiet baby?" Tony all but whispers to him as he kisses Stephen's knee and slowly rotates his hips. With Stephen's legs raised and bent, Tony can go a little bit deeper and the genius clamps a shaking hand over his mouth. 

"Would it be easier if I gag you?" Tony asks and Stephen's eyes widen and dilate even further if that was even possible. Tony smirks as he hunts around them for his pants and pulls out a handkerchief. 

A gentleman always carries one, Jarvis used to say and it had become a habit for Tony to always have one. Tony is glad that his handkerchief is large enough for his purpose tonight. He ties the knots around the centre and ties the whole thing around Stephen's mouth and watch as the doctor clamps down onto the improvised gag. 

"There you go. Just perfect." Tony says as he kisses the edge of the gag and Stephen's lips as he smirks. The thing is, he would never gag Stephen in a normal situation. He adores the doctor's voice far, far too much for that. But the idea of Stephen enjoying him and their encounter so much that he can't keep himself quiet and that he has to be gagged so that other people don't hear those beautiful moans? 

That's a delicious thought that sends pleasure straight down his spine. 

Tony moves his hips experimentally and luckily, the bed is both sturdy enough and flush against the wall so that there are no serious creaks or movements that could alert anyone. Tony smiles as he leans down over Stephen's bent legs and meets Stephen's beautiful eyes. 

"Alright baby. Hold on." Tony tells him and before Stephen can respond with a nod or anything, Tony snaps his hips. It's a sharp movement that he knows will hit just the right spot inside of his lover. 

They have been at this for more than a year now and Tony knew all the right places to get Stephen to be feeling all the right things and soon enough, he knew that it was going to be him struggling to keep his own cries down, but it really didn't matter because by the gods, for now, he was so focused on Stephen's. 

Seeing Stephen writhe as he tries to hold back the moans that still try to escape through the gag as Stephen's hands move to touch Tony's chest and neck and anywhere they can touch as Tony fucks into him hard is really quite something. 

Tony knows better than to make this a long thing. The last thing they need is for someone to come up to check up on them or anything like that. So, Tony lets go of one of Stephen's legs and wraps a hand around his cock and start to jerk him off at the same rhythm as he was fucking into Stephen. 

It really doesn't take too long. Their first time after a few days apart, never did. Tony sees Stephen's eyes rolling back as the doctor's body goes taut and he tightens like a vice around Tony's cock. It takes some serious fucking willpower not to come right then and there, but he can't. 

Tony reaches down to cover Stephen's lips one hand even as with the other, he makes sure that he milks every last bit of cum from the doctor's hard cock. 

When he is done, Tony makes sure that he takes the gag off before he kisses those abused lips and he isn't too surprised when Stephen rolls his hips. Tony smirks into the kiss and this time, he doesn't think. He doesn't plan. He just acts on primal instinct. 

His hips move quickly as he looks for his own pleasure and when he is about to hit the end of it, he knows that he can't help but cry out. As the thought comes to him, he feels Stephen's hand close around the back of his neck and he all but bites down onto Stephen's shoulder to hold back the cry as he comes hard inside of his lover. 

He hears a few barely held back whimpers from Stephen as his head clears and he lifts his head to lick at the rather nasty bite mark he has  left on his lover's shoulder. When he looks up though, Stephen looks pleased as he pulls Tony up and kisses him. 

"That was perfect." Stephen whispers as their kiss draws to a close and Tony can't agree more. He lowers Stephen's legs and slowly pulls out and catches the moan that he knows his lover will release with that. 

Stephen loves the feel of his cum leaking out of him. Tony does too, but not the way that Stephen luxuriates in the feeling. Tony moves them so that he can curl up behind Stephen and spoon him as his fingers play with the loosened hole and the cum and lube that was leaking from it. 

"When we get home, let's use those jets Stephen. Use it to clean you out so I can lick the cum out of you after I've fucked you full of it." Tony mutters into his lover's ear and isn't too surprised when Stephen shudders against him. 

"Promise?" Stephen says cheekily and that's a commitment that Tony is more than happy to make. He kisses the back of Stephen's neck as a response. 

Together, they look out the window at the winter night skies and the falling snow. They cover up and cuddle up as they doze off. Their bellies full of good food, their hearts with good company and their hunger for each other satiated for the time being. 

Thanksgiving wasn't so bad after all. 

~~~ 

Thursday

25 November 2010 

"Sir! We found him!" Fury hears before he hears the rushing feet running up into his office.

There isn't even the polite knock on the door or anything, not that he would have required it by this time, if he was being honest. He sighs as he looks up from the paperwork he had been attempting to read.

The specifications that they have received from the military in relation to the suits that Colonel Rhodes and Tony Stark was all over the shop. The capabilities were all over the shop as well and the close analysis of the footage they got from the helmets, the ones that Tony Stark had willingly released to the media had only confirmed that a normal person's brain would be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data and input required by complex motions.

On top of that, the contract and NDAs that Stark Industries had signed with the military and with Colonel Rhodes made it impossible for anyone to legally get their hands on the suits to even take a look. All the repairs were done at a SI lab and they were only done by Tony and Rhodes . No one else knew how the suits worked.

When one of his agents had managed to get close to Rhodey's suit, they hadn't been able to access the suit at all or hook anything up to it to get any data off of it. 

The hardware, software, absolutely everything about the suits were completely locked down and impossible for SHIELD to get their hands on. Which was... frustrating. 

That was on top of the fact that yes, he had been forced to sign that damned contract to have Tony Stark and Iron Man act as a consultant for SHIELD rather than being able to use him as Fury had intended. 

The legal department and the PR department had been clear in their advice to him, as had the psychiatrist on site. Tony Stark's position was too strong to be controlled and so was Tony Stark as a person. Unlike what Fury had assumed, Tony had sufficient support and allies through his friends and that Dr Strange fellow not to hanker for the mentor and friendship that Fury and SHIELD can provide. 

Fury really was going to have to get his hands on Dr Strange, he thinks as he puts the report down and looks at the agent that had all but burst into his office. 

"Found who?" Fury questions as he casts his eye over the young agent with clear disdain. He hates being interrupted when he was trying to deal with the legalese bullshit. 

"The Captain sir, we just intercepted a military broadcast from the Arctic . They found Captain America sir." The agent says and Fury finds himself smiling. 

Fantastic. 

He was in need of a pawn and he just found the best one yet. 

~~~

Chapter Text

Friday 

24 December 2010 

The edge of the universe is a desolate place. 

The jagged edge of rock that Thanos's base sits up on is devoid of life other than the 'Court' that Thanos holds and those imprisoned like Loki himself. There are cries of pain and screams at every corner of the prison that Loki has called home for months now. 

They cannot break Loki's body. 

Not really. They can hurt him, but he heals. They can't take away his magic. They break his focus, but the magic remains and heals him and comforts him. But he is shackled and limited. He cannot fight back. He has tried. 

But he hadn't succeeded yet and he knew that he wouldn't succeed. Not now. Not when his mind was clinging on by its fingertips and he could barely focus on his magic and his mind just enough to upkeep the one shield that kept his mind from completely shattering into a thousand pieces never to be put back together again. 

Ebony Maw and the Other had broken through every other pieces of Loki's mind through their foul magics, the twisted power of the Mind Stone and the physical pain they had constantly put him under. 

They know about the Tesseract and its presence on Midgard. They know about the Asgardian defences. They know about the Bifrost. They are twisting him, forming a personality within his mind that is not his own with the Mind Stone. Putting his body, his magic and his mind under their control. 

That's fine. 

Loki hides himself in the farthest and darkest corner of his mind behind all of the shields that he can think of. At its core, he keeps his knowledge of magic, the Connection and the most important of all, Stephen and Hel, safe.  

They do not find out about Stephen and they won't. Not now. Not when they think that they have seen everything in Loki's mind that there was to see. 

There was only so much that Loki could hide of himself, but he saves as much as he can. Loki is a strategist. He knows that in every battle there has to be some things that must be given up in order to protect what is most important. 

Loki saves the information about Stephen, every little scrap of it , including the presence of the Time Stone and the Midgard's Order, safe and away from Thanos's eyes and ears. He safeguards Hel and her presence in the world safe. 

Loki does not care to know what they would do with the information. He wishes that he could have protected the information about Thor and Frigga, though he does not care much for Asgard itself. But he cannot. 

In order to hide them, he has had to make the hard decisions. Even with the regular faint contact he receives from Stephen, Loki's focus is slim and he hangs onto his sanity and his secrets by a thread. 

But he will. 

He will protect Stephen. He will protect their Bond and their Connection to his last breath. He will protect the one that Stephen loves. 

Loki hadn't intended to live through his fall. When he had fallen through the void, he had closed his eyes and let himself go. It would have been a fitting end to the terrible deeds that he had committed. 

He had known that Jotunheim would survive the attack from the Bifrost. He had chosen an area of Jotunheim already so devastated by the wars that none lived there. He had done what he could to reduce the collateral damage. 

Not for Asgard. Not for Jotunheim and certainly not for the Jotuns. He had done it because Stephen was his Soulmate and his sins could taint Stephen and he had already done enough harm to the mortal that shared his soul. 

Loki has recalled over and over again, the short moments he had spent with Stephen and had seen of Stephen. It always leaves him with a bitter taste in his mouth to know that he had hurt his intended. That he had caused him fear and that fear continues even to this day. 

He feels it every time that Stephen Connects with him. Focuses him and gives him that bit of strength he needs to hold on. He feels the fear and apprehension that the Sorcerer Supreme tries to hide as their minds Connect for those short periods. 

Unlike the shared conscious dream state that Loki had been able to create for the two of them, the contact he gets now are short bursts of stability, focus and comfort rather than conversations. 

He cannot reach out and touch Stephen's consciousness anymore. He doesn't have the strength. It had been with the last of his strength that he had reached out to cast that spell. 

He had done it with the purpose of having the Sorcerer Supreme destroy the last remnants of sanity in his mind and to destroy the essence of him. Instead, the Sorcerer Supreme has given him comfort.  

Instead, he had asked to be taught how to contact Loki. How to keep him sane. How to support him through the hell that has become his existence. 

The mortal was far too kind, far too good for a being like Loki, despite the pain that he had caused the man and will continue to cause him. 

But his Soulmate had decreed that he will live and so he must, Loki thinks as he closes his eyes and lets himself drift. 

He has a new purpose. One he had not expected but one that had been forced upon him. 

Thanos plans to send him to Midgard with the Chitauri army that he is building. It was the best chance to escape the Mad Titan that Loki has. It is also the best chance that Loki has to atone for his sins against the Soulmate that he has harmed. 

Even if it is not Loki, Thanos will send the army. Even if it is done by Ebony Maw or the Other or the many other children that Thanos has. But if Loki was to go, if he is able to hang onto the sliver of sanity that he has, he can... reduce the damage. 

He will do everything in his power to ensure that the people that his Soulmate has sworn to protect will be protected. Will be safe. 

But it is a risky plan. 

Even now, Loki can feel the Mind Stone's power clawing at his mind and shaping it into what Thanos wants. A caricature of himself. A being twisted by jealousy and hungry for power. A being that will not blink as he destroys the humans and the world that they inhabit. 

As he provides the Chitauri Army the entrance they need into Midgard and from Midgard, onto Asgard and the rest of the Nine Realms. The plan is a solid one, even Loki cannot deny that. 

The Chitauri, with their hive minds are easy enough for Thanos to control. Especially with the Mind Stone and the Queen of the Chitauri twisted and turned into his own plaything. 

With her mind firmly under his control, Thanos can command the Chitauri to do anything, everything that he desires. Loki can see it. He has been seeing it. 

The proud Chitauri Queen being brought down under the physical and mental torture until she broke and with it, her people. Thanos had ordered for them to prepare themselves for the war and so they did. 

They created the motherships. They created the weapons. They worked and worked until they could no longer work. Loki pitied them, but he also knew that they had always been the warring kind. Just now, instead of going about their thirsty conquest of worlds, they were under Thanos's control and rule. 

Loki does not have a plan yet. He cannot plan when he does not know what state he will be in, what the commands will be and just how insidious the Mind Stone's control over him will be. 

But he does know that by the time he arrives on Midgard, he will not be himself. Loki fears for Stephen. He knows not what he will do to his Soulmate. He fears that he will cause further harm to the being that he was meant to love and protect

He must not, Loki thinks as he prays to the Norns even as he feels the focus begin to fade away. It has been some time since Stephen had contacted him. Loki does not know how long. He cannot think clearly enough to keep track of that. 

But soon enough, the last of the focus will fade until Loki becomes a mindless husk. But with the next contact with Stephen, he will have his moment of clarity and perhaps then, he can think. Perhaps then, he can plan. 

But for now, Loki sinks into the false calm the Mind Stone forces upon him as it works its magic to twist his magic, his mind and his body into Thanos' pawn

Loki fades. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

25 December 2010 

Christmas is a difficult time. 

Stephen had declined the invite to the Christmas Dinner with Jonathon and Miranda. Instead, he had chosen to spend the holiday with Tony. They are understanding and accepted his decision easily enough. 

It was a difficult time for Tony and Stephen knew that. It too... has become a difficult time for him and Stephen wasn't quite sure how the holiday was going to with the two of them, both dealing with the grief of losing parents, but it was better than being alone and it was better than trying to pretend that they weren't suffering. 

Stephen doesn't comment when Tony grabs the bottle of whiskey and begins to drink first thing in the morning. Tony doesn't drink too heavily and Stephen keeps an eye on him, but he also gives himself time to grieve and to reflect. 

It has been a year now. 

Just a year since he lost Caroline and Matthew and the guilt of having them... pass without knowing that he was the son that they had believed they had lost and grieved for, is heavy and it lingers on his heart heavily. 

But at the same time, Stephen knows that they had loved him, as much as they had loved Vincent. He had felt their love and he knew that perhaps, if he had been able to tell them who he was and what he was, they would have understood. 

Stephen knows that they would have been confused and amazed, but they would have accepted him. They would have been happy to know that Vincent had lived, even if he had become something and someone different. 

He wonders if they would have been proud of him now. If all the pain that he had caused as Vincent could have been healed. He isn't sure. 

He holds Tony tightly in his arms as they watch the Christmas Special Doctor Who episode and try to enjoy it despite the pain in both of their hearts. Tony is mellow now with all the alcohol he had consumed. 

Pepper is off with her family in Washington, Rhodey with his family in LA and Clea was with Miranda and Jonathon. It feels right for Stephen to be with Tony, sharing the grief that they carry and letting it out, even if it is only for that one day. 

They spent the day so far just... grieving. They talk about each other's families. They share the good memories, paying tribute to their losses. They hold each other and comfort each other as they remember the ones that they have lost. 

"Next Christmas, we should... have everyone over. Start a new tradition." Tony says quietly and it surprises Stephen, but he simply holds his lover and kisses his hair to encourage him. Stephen remembers the Christmas dinners that he used to have with his parents and brother. 

He remembers the games that they used to play. The old family videos that they used to watch even as they created new ones. The way that they would spend the Christmas period going over all of their old photographs and remembering the good times. 

"That sounds wonderful Anthony ." Stephen tells him softly as the Doctor quickly comes up with the solution to the latest problem that he had encountered. Stephen half pays attention to the fast talking Doctor as he looks down at his lover and see the sombre expression on his face. 

"We used to play Monopoly every Christmas." Stephen tells Tony and the genius scoffs. 

"Let me guess, you won?" Stephen chuckles at that but shakes his head. 

"No. Jonathon always won. He cheated." Stephen says fondly and Tony chuckles softly as he nods. The fireplace roars and the living room is almost too warm and cosy, but it feels perfect. It's the comforting atmosphere that they need. 

It's not as if they were going to be cooking up the storm that Caroline or Jarvis used to in the kitchen to create a wonderful Christmas meal. 

Instead, they have the pre-made Christmas meal that Eliza had prepared with hopes that they will actually eat it that they can heat up. So far, they hadn't but perhaps they should, Stephen thinks. 

Or perhaps, they will just take the snack foods and veggie out in front of the couch as they watch movies. Stephen isn't sure. But he doesn't care either. As long as he has Tony in his arms, the grief that threatens to overwhelm him can be kept at bay as the memories echo in his mind. 

"Do you want to play?" Tony asks him and Stephen chuckles but he shakes his head.

"No. Gods, I know better than to play a business related game with one of the best businessmen in the world, dearest." Stephen says dryly as Tony raises an eyebrow at him. 

"Are you telling me that you are scared, Dr Strange?" Tony asks him and Stephen chuckles as he holds Tony tighter in his arms just in case the genius does have a monopoly set somewhere in the vast mansion. 

"No Anthony. I'm telling you that I'm smart enough to not start something I know I won't win." Stephen tells him and Tony shrugs his shoulders before he looks up and moves until he is straddling Stephen and looking down at him. 

"How about we start something that we can both win at instead?" Tony suggests and Stephen knows exactly what his lover intends and raises an eyebrow. 

"I don't know how a G-rated show like Doctor Who manages to get you all rowdy like this." Stephen says, but he knows that it's not the show. It never was. It was the closeness with him that has Tony in the mood for something more than just cuddling. 

They do plenty of that. More and more, they find themselves curled up together at the couches or on the bed watching TV shows, talking quietly or just enjoying each other's warmth, but eventually, it always does lead to something more. 

They were both hot blooded men that were very much attracted to each other. It was only logical for them to... take it further. 

"What can I say? I have a thing for fast talking, incredibly clever men." Tony says as he leans down to kiss Stephen. 

The harsh taste of the whisky is gentled by the taste of Tony on his tongue as Tony skillfully plays with his tongue and draws a moan from him as he slowly starts to rock his hips back and forth.

"Should I be jealous of the Doctor?" Stephen asks as Tony's greedy hands slip into his pants and takes his fast forming erection into it and starts to slowly stroke it. 

"Well, you can be my Doctor, if you like. Whisk me away on a journey through time and space and all that." Tony says with a tongue in cheek expression. 

Stephen wonders what Tony will think if he knew just how true that statement was. Stephen could, he thinks, take Tony away on a journey through time and space. He could portal them anywhere in the world. Anywhere in the Universe, if that is what Tony desired. 

He could take Tony to the past. To the future. He could show all of that to Tony. And perhaps one day he will, Stephen thinks as he starts to lose himself in the pleasure that Tony's rocking hips provide him as he grabs both of their erections together in his firm hand and strokes them. 

"Would you like that? To be taken away on a journey to the unknown? Even if you will see things that you won't understand?" Stephen asks and Tony shrugs his shoulders as he looks down at Stephen with eyes filled with love and adoration. 

"I already have seen things that I don't understand baby and as long as it's you, I don't care." Tony tells him as he leans down to kiss him and Stephen's heart wells with the love that he has for the man. 

"In that case, I should probably work on building a TARDIS." Stephen tells him even as he arches into Tony's touches. The genius smiles at him. 

"Yeah, you better." Tony tells him before he kisses him and for a long while, they don't talk. They couldn't even if they wanted to. 

Between Tony's so very talented hands, the heady kisses and their need for each other, they lose track of everything. Even the great adventures of the Doctor and Rose cannot distract them away. 

JARVIS quietly pauses the show and rewinds it to the start. He knows all too well that they will want to watch it again and properly this time as they enjoy the afterglow

Stephen notices it all, but he doesn't care. Not for the time being. For the time being, all he can think about is Tony and the love that somehow continues to grow between them. 

And maybe... building a TARDIS. 

~~~ 

Wednesday

29 December 2010 

This can't be real. 

Right? It can't be. The world couldn't have- No. Steve Rogers curls into the bed that SHIELD had provided him with. 

There was a booklet of information that he knew that he should be reading to acclimate himself to the way that the world has changed so vastly but he can't focus on that. 

All he can think about is Peggy and the smile and the promise that he will never be able to keep. The pain of losing Bucky is fresh in his mind and it all hurts and overwhelms him until he can barely breathe. 

The world is not as he knew it or remembered it. There is no one that he knows or recognises anymore. 

New York and the streets of Brooklyn that he had been so familiar with like the back of his own hands are no longer familiar. They are filled with loud noises, people and technology that he cannot understand. 

He looks at the 'phone' that they had given him. It sits on the bedside table and he has gotten lessons on how to use it, but it isn't as if there is anyone out there in the world that he needs to or wants to contact. 

He was meant for more than this, Steve thinks as he looks at the hands that are far bigger than what he was used to. 

If he really thinks about it, everything had happened so fast since he had met with Dr Erksine , that he never really had the opportunity to really get to know himself.

Losing the man that had made him what he was, someone special, and losing his guidance on the same day had been difficult. If Steve really thinks about it, he hadn't even processed that grief and hadn't been able to come to terms with what he had become before he had been thrust into the limelight. 

He had just acted and continued to act. 

As the circus monkey that Brandt had wanted him to be and then as Captain America that he had become, it had been a long and difficult ride but he had gotten through it one day at a time without thinking too much about it all. 

It hadn't been the time for quiet reflection. 

He had gotten everything that he had wanted. He had become big and strong enough that no bully could ever hurt him again and so that he could defend others. He had been able to serve. 

His one dream had come true, but the price? 

He wasn't sure if that had been worth it. He had lost Bucky. He had lost Erskin. He had lost the Howling Commandos. He had lost his identity and time and he has lost the ability to die with them. 

He has survived being frozen under the ice of the Arctic for over 70 years. He had survived the thawing out procedure, which Fury assures him had taken a great deal of time to develop and even greater risk to actually institute. 

He was no longer human. 

Not in the way that he understood the word to be. Bullets could hurt him, but they could no longer kill him. He healed too fast for that. He couldn't even drink until he was blind drunk so that he can at least get a few moments of numbed pain. 

No. 

Instead, he lays curled in his bed, trying to make himself as small as possible as he waits for the next mission. 

He didn't even care what the mission was anymore. He would be serving the country, Fury said, but Steve isn't sure if he recognises the country that he was meant to be serving anymore. 

The war that was meant to end all wars hadn't ended anything. There were still wars raging and they needed him, Fury said, but not on the front lines as the soldier that he was meant to be. 

No. 

What they wanted him to be was like Peggy. An agent. A spy. A one man team to be able to go into a situation, clear out the hostiles and to let the others do the clean up. 

On top of that, he wasn't the only one that was special in the world anymore. There were humans out in the world that had abilities that Steve could not understand. Abilities that Steve would have scoffed at as being tricks. 

There were people that could bring lightning and storms with just a thought ; people that could walk through walls as if they weren't even there. People that could light a fire with their minds and others that could turn that fire into ice. 

Then there were yet others, like Tony Stark, who took the legacy of Howard Stark and his genius and created a suit of metal that could give Steve a run for his money and by far, greatly bested Steve in terms of the sheer firepower that he could produce. 

The world had heroes. Not just heroes, but superheroes and with them, the villains. Steve knew and understood that he had a role to play in that new world. 

He just wasn't sure what the role would be and whether or not he wanted to be the hero that Fury and SHIELD clearly saw him as. He didn't even know who he was or what he was. He didn't even know what the country that he was meant to be fighting for stood for anymore. 

And yet, all he could do was follow orders. 

That is what he had trained for, that is what he had wanted to do all of his adult life. To be a soldier . To be given orders to follow in order to protect the people of America and give them hope. 

Only now, he was fighting Americans to protect Americans and Steve didn't know how to deal with that. 

He wished that he could have Peggy by his side, telling him what was right and wrong. To give him a sense of purpose that would fill him and shake away all the doubts that he had. 

Instead of her gentle hand and challenges, he had Fury and the missions from SHIELD along with the worship of a hero figure that he has become cemented in history without knowing whether or not he can live up to those expectations. 

Steve closes his eyes and wishes that he can just sleep and that he can wake up and find out that this is all a nightmare. He can't even think clearly. He doesn't even know what he feels or how he should feel and he just- He can't do this, he thinks. 

But the moment of peace that he longs for doesn't come and neither does the sleep. Instead, what he gets is the door to his dorm room being thrown open as a red haired woman saunters in and sits on his bed as if the room belongs to her. 

"Natasha Romanov. That would be my name. You might know me as Black Widow, if you read that." She says as she points her chin towards the paperwork on his desk. 

She is dressed simply in a pair of denim jeans and a tight tank-top t-shirt that shows far too much of her figure that Steve doesn't know where to put his eyes. 

"Ma'am, I don't believe it is appropriate for you to be in my-" Steve tries. Peggy had told him that he didn't know how to talk to women and apparently 70 years of sleeping under the ice hadn't helped him at all with that. 

"It's the 21st century Cap . You're going to have to get used to women like me. Consider it your exposure therapy." Natasha informs him as she looks down at her nails with a bored expression on her face. 

"With all due respect, ma'am, I would like to ask that you leave my room ." Steve tries again as he considers sitting up properly. It was very disrespectful for him to remain in bed with a woman in his room, surely. She rolls her bright green eyes at him before she sighs. 

"So you can wallow and try to will yourself back to the past? No thanks. Get up, Captain. We are going out." She tells him and there is that fire in her tone that reminds him so much of Peggy that he is moving before he catches himself. 

"Where? Is there a mission?" He asks and she shakes her head as he looks for a shirt to put over the plain white t-shirt he had been wearing. They had provided him with clothes. Clothes that at least were familiar enough to him. 

"No. I thought I might take you out to see the city Captain. To familiarise you with your new environment." She tells him and already, Steve wants to say no. Oh the woman is beautiful but Steve doesn't want to spend time with another woman.

Not when he longs for Peggy and wishes that he could have her in his arms instead. She sees his hesitation. Her sharp green eyes catching his own blues. 

"I know this has been jarring and difficult for you. But you can't hide yourself away. Not when we need you." She tells him but there is no urgency in her voice. It's a matter of fact and stern voice . Steve feels the shame go through him. 

He knows that he has been wallowing. That he had been spending the time pitying himself rather than trying to adjust to the situation that he had been handed. But how could he not? He tries not to look too sullen as the woman sighs. 

"Look. Someone told me that even people like us needs friends and you look like you most definitely need a friend. So, let's go out and see the city and see if we can get you feeling familiar in this brave new world." She says and there is finally some warmth in her voice. 

Steve looks over her carefully and he recognises the sharpness and intelligence in her eyes as well as the strength of character that he has seen in Peggy before. 

He is not sure whether or not he could be friends with a woman, but he can't refuse the warm hand being extended to him. He needed someone , anyone to cling to and Fury wasn't going to be it. Neither were the SHIELD agents that looked at him with sheer awe in their eyes. 

"Yeah. Let's- Let's do that." Steve says as he takes a deep breath and goes to his closet to grab out a shirt. She gives him a small smile and nods firmly. 

"Good." She says firmly and Steve has no idea who this woman is and why she was extending her friendship and how it was all going to work out, but perhaps she is what he needed to guide him in this new world he found himself in. 

The past is the past and there was no means by which he could return to that and Steve doesn't run away. He hadn't when he had been five feet and too scrawny to fight off a single bully and he won't now. 

Even if he couldn't understand what it was that he was fighting for anymore. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

1 January 2011 

Yes, the ridiculously expensive champagne had been great, but he really, really ought not to have indulged, Rhodey thinks as he groans. 

He isn't the only one that is groaning either. 

From somewhere to the left of him, he hears the groan from Pepper, which he recognises and somewhere closer to him, he hears Clea groaning as well. 

Stephen and Tony are conspicuously missing and Rhodey knows that it was probably a good thing. 

He has seen enough of their displays of affection to last him a lifetime by now. The two of them were seriously the worst. They were incapable of keeping their hands away from each other and their lips away from each other. 

But having said that, Rhodey didn't actually mind. It took some getting used to, he is willing to admit that, to see Tony with a male lover being so... intimate, but as he got used to it, he also realised that Tony was happy. 

Well and truly happy in a way that Rhodey hadn't seen before. 

There was an ease about him as if he had no cares in the world as long as Stephen was with him and over time, Rhodey realised that there was a little bit of jealousy inside of him that wished for someone to love like his best friend loved Stephen and was loved back. 

He knows that the feeling is shared with Pepper and Clea as well. They watch over their friends and their love fondly but at the same time, wish that they could have what Stephen and Tony has. 

"That last bottle was a mistake." Pepper groans and Rhodey opens his eyes just enough to look at her and chuckle softly. He agrees wholeheartedly. 

He could swear that there was a dead mouse in his mouth from the awful taste and there had to be scratch wool in his head that made everything seem ridiculously fuzzy. From the looks of it, Pepper shared the pain. 

They were all spread out over the warm fluffy carpet of the Malibu Mansion, bottles of champagne spread everywhere and they were all covered with blankets. 

Rhodey knows that it was most likely Stephen that covered them up with blankets. He had been the only one that actually stayed sober during the night after all. 

Pepper and Clea were curled up together not a foot away from him, sharing one of the oversized pillows that also littered the floor. Eliza was going to kill them, Rhodey thinks as he looks over the mess. 

Once he got his head screwed on properly, he was going to have to clean up. He can't ask the poor woman and Finn to take care of all the mess after all, he thinks as Clea opens her eyes carefully before screwing them shut again. 

"FRIDAY, baby girl, please make things dark around here." Clea mumbles out and Rhodey hears the giggle from the AI before the blinds go down and the atmospheric lights within the living room are dimmed sufficiently to the point where he can actually keep his own eyes open. 

Oh thank God. Why hadn't he thought of that? He thinks. Jo would have done it if he had asked. But then he wasn't as used to the presence of the AI in his life as Clea was. With Jo’s existence being a secret from the military, Rhodey couldn't talk to her as much as he would have liked and his home wasn't automated like the mansion was. 

"Should I organise for a McDonalds delivery C?" The AI asks and Clea hums before she turns to Pepper, who simply groans. 

"Oh god yes. Hash browns. I need hash browns." Pepper moans and Rhodey can definitely get on board with that. 

"Same. And coffee. Lots of coffee." Rhodey adds and Clea is about to speak up when they are interrupted.

"Cancel that FRIDAY. What they all need is electrolytes and water." Stephen's voice come through nice and clearly and Rhodey groans. He doesn't want water and electrolytes. He wants the fatty goodness but he knows the doctor well enough by now to know that he wasn't going to let them veggie out. 

"FRIDAY, no! Please ignore Stephen." Clea cries out but Rhodey already knows who FRIDAY will side with. 

"Sorry C, but the Master always wins out with me. Alright, Stephen, did you want me to order omelettes with spinach and cheese and the wheat toast?" FRIDAY asks and Rhodey has to admit that sounds pretty goddamn good too. Actually, right now, everything sounded good to eat. 

He was starving. 

"Yes please FRIDAY and please start the coffee machine if you already haven't." Stephen says as he walks up towards them and carefully checks them over. Rhodey obligingly lets the doctor take his pulse and fights back the sigh. 

This is what he gets from being close friends with a doctor, he supposes. Besides, from the way that Tony sighs as he comes downstairs, he had already gotten the same treatment from the doctor. 

"Stephen baby, can you stop doctoring and get me coffee instead? Please?" Tony moans as he flops down next to Rhodey and uses Rhodey's stomach as a pillow and waves vaguely towards the girls. 

"This is what I get for being the sober one, I suppose." Stephen sighs as he stands up and makes his way towards the kitchen. 

This isn't new either. 

It's been mostly the same for every single weekend they have spent together, though this hangover was by far the worst Rhodey has had since college and that was saying something. 

But then it had been New Years Eve and it had been a great night they spent playing ridiculous games, drinking and stuffing themselves with ridiculous amounts of food as they celebrated. 

They hadn't gotten to see the fireworks and they didn't do a count down but it had been a New Years celebration that was well worth its time and Rhodey couldn't think of a better way to bring in the new year than spending time with his family away from family. 

"Coffee, dear friends." Stephen says as he returns with a tray filled with coffee mugs. Thanks to Clea, it was all too obvious who each cup belonged to with all the right amounts of sugar and half and half they required. 

Slowly but surely, they all scramble up until they can grab a cup each and settle into the couches to curl up with their cups and try to get their brains into gear. 

When the breakfast gets delivered, they will no doubt all devour it with enthusiasm before they most likely warm up and get some exercise in to shake off the last of their hangovers before they get into some sort of games or conversations. 

It's times like this that Rhodey truly appreciates the fact that his rank is high enough now to get the holidays off. He needed this time with his friends to relax and to recharge before he has to deal with the chaos that was work and being War Machine. 

As does the rest of them, he imagines, especially considering the odd work that he knows that Stephen and Clea do on the side apart from their medical practice and the work that they do with Tony. 

Rhodey honestly doesn't know how they manage it. He barely manages his work with the military. 

Yeah, the suspicion and worry that he once had for Stephen was well and truly gone. What was left behind was admiration and respect for the man and a fondness and friendship he hadn't expected that came through seeing the true nature of the man over and over again. 

"Is there something you can do to just make this headache go away?" Tony asks and Rhodey sees with some surprise as Clea looks at Stephen with some alarm and shakes her head firmly at him and Stephen sighs as he settles next to Tony. 

"Sorry dearest, I wish that I could." Stephen says quietly and Rhodey remembers the baby. The baby that should have been dead that the doctor had somehow magically saved. Given that, Rhodey gets the feeling that if Stephen really wanted to, he could simply wave a hand or something and their headaches would be gone. 

He'd already asked if Stephen was a mutant, but Tony had been firm in the denial, even showing the blood tests that he had already done on the doctor for the mutant gene. But having said that, Rhodey had no other logical explanation for what he had seen and neither did Tony. 

But in the end, it seemed that it didn't matter to Tony and when Rhodey thinks about it, it doesn't matter to him either. Whatever Stephen was and whatever he could do, he knew that the man was a kind and considerate soul that cared for those that loved those around him fully and completely. 

As Rhodey looks around his friends, he can't help but hope that 2011 will be a better year for all of them. By Gods, they can use a year without drama, but he gets the distinct feeling that wasn't a wish that was going to be granted. 

After all, he was a superhero now. 

Damn. 

~~~ 

 

Chapter Text

Thursday 

3 February 2011 

It's too hot. 

Stephen feels like he is burning up from the inside out, though there was no actual heat. The room's temperature is perfectly monitored and it should have been so very comfortable. 

But it isn't. 

"God- To-Tony!" Stephen cries out as Tony thrusts hard into him. Stephen wants to reach up and touch him, but he can't. 

Tony has him tied down onto the bed with the soft leather cuffs and Stephen can only take the punishingly hard thrusts his lover is giving him. 

All he can do is moan and writhe on the bed as Tony fucks him almost brutally and it's so fucking perfect that Stephen is lost in the ecstasy of it all. 

It's not all the time that they fuck like this. Most of the time, it's passionate, sure enough, but it's not brutal. This time, it is and it's just what Stephen needed. 

A reminder that Tony was well and healthy and that he was so very much alive. The reminder of what the day means weighs heavily on Stephen's mind. 

He can still remember the pain that had lanced through him as Tony's truck had been hit and the Ten Rings had taken him. It had almost broken him. But it wasn't only him that was affected . Of course not. 

"You-Your f-friends will-will b-be here soon." Stephen manages to say between the cries, the moans and the pants. Tony smirks at him and lifts Stephen's legs and pushes them over his shoulder and bends over Stephen so that he is almost bent double and Tony reaches the furthest depth inside Stephen. 

Despite the fact that Tony had eaten him out and had prepared him very thoroughly for this, Stephen feels the stretch as the root of Tony's cock pushes into him. He moans as he tries to focus on Tony looking over him. 

"Then we better hurry up." Tony tells him. The glint in his lover's eyes and that is the only warning he gets before Tony starts to fuck into him hard and fast until Stephen can't think, can't breathe and can't focus on anything at all but the pleasure anymore. 

It washes over him like heat waves. Wave after wave of heat rushes through him and his orgasm builds and builds but there is no release. The black leather cock ring around him prevents him from coming. 

The tears start unbidden as he is overwhelmed with the pleasure and the need to come. 

It's been hours. 

Tony has kept him constantly aroused and sensitive for hours now and he hasn't been able to come. He's been in subspace for awhile now but they've broken their scene as Tony had leaned down to kiss him and fuck into him some time ago. 

"To-Tony p-please. Pl-please I- I- I need- I-" Stephen feels the tears start to fall down the side of his face as the strain gets to him and he is overwhelmed. 

"Shh baby. I know. I know baby." Tony tells him almost gently despite the fact that his hips are still slamming hard into Stephen and hitting all the right places constantly as he struggles against the bonds and it takes all of the little focus he has left over to stop himself from using his magic to take the goddamned cock ring off. 

Tony spreads Stephen's legs open and makes room for himself and leans over Stephen's face and gently reaches out his hands to wipe the tears away from Stephen's face. 

"I love seeing you cry in my bed." Tony tells him and his voice is so gentle and loving as he kisses him softly. 

"Do you want to come baby?" Tony asks him and Stephen moans into the kiss and arches his back as Tony's hand wraps around Stephen's cock. 

"T-Tony p-please!" Stephen begs and Tony doesn't tease him anymore. He all but rips the cock ring off and leans down to kiss Stephen properly as he continues to fuck into him. 

It doesn't take much for Stephen to come all over himself. He comes with a sob as the sensation overwhelms him. It feels like more than just an orgasm. There is a relief that washes over him and he feels so warm and loose as Tony ruts into him until he comes deep inside of Stephen. 

As soon as he is done, Tony all but collapses over Stephen's chest and kisses his neck lazily as he undoes the cuffs and brings Stephen's arms around himself. 

"That was wonderful, thank you." Stephen manages to say as the exhaustion pulls at him. He knows that Rhodey, Pepper and Clea were coming over soon. 

Stephen wasn't the only one that needed to see Tony today. He wasn't the only one that felt the distinct pain and loss, though his had been physical, theirs had been emotional and mental. 

Stephen had known that Tony was... alive. He had been able to see it through the Cup of Jamshid. He had been able to feel Tony through the Connection, but Pepper and Rhodey hadn't had any of that. 

They had waited, fretted, prayed and used all of their resources in order to try to find Tony in the depths of Afghanistan. They had never given up hope, but for three months, they had lived through hell. 

It is no wonder that they were even closer than ever with Tony now and that they wanted to spend time with him during this day in particular with him, knowing that he was safe with them. 

Stephen's arms are numb and there is cum and lube leaking out of him from the hours of hours of pleasure that they had indulged in. He is quite deeply in subspace and he is struggling to keep himself awake. 

"Don't sleep yet. Let me get you something to drink before you do." Tony tells him firmly and Stephen nods, but his eyes are sliding shut. He drifts as Tony gets up dresses in cotton sleep pants and goes to the kitchen. 

"Come on baby, drink this. Okay?" Tony rouses him carefully and Stephen struggles, but he does manage to wake up just enough to drink a sports drink that tastes honestly, far too sweet for his tastes. 

When Tony has deemed that he has had enough, he feels the genius leave the bed again. Stephen drifts again until he feels the warm wet towel caressing his body over and over again until the layers of sweat, cum and lube has been taken off his body. 

By the time that Tony is satisfied, kisses him softly on his head and covers him up with the blanket, Stephen is almost too far into his sleep to hear the genius's soft whispered words. 

"I love you." 

~~~ 

Friday

8 April 2011

The new Stark Tower is... amazing. 

The workers had been working hard on it and around the clock to get everything as ready as it was possible. 

It's actually happened a lot faster than Stephen had expected from what he had seen from the visions of the New York Invasion. 

But it's not something that was going to vastly change the universe and Stephen isn't too concerned. 

Tony had started the project earlier than he had in the other universes for one. Stephen has found out recently through Pepper that Tony had asked about building a headquarters in New York quite early in their relationship. 

Which has both surprised and warmed Stephen to hear. So much so that he hadn't even minded the light teasing Pepper and Clea had given him at his pleased smile. 

Looking at the space around him though, it's impossible to doubt Tony's love for him. Not that he does. Not anymore. Not in the way that he used to. 

There is still the fear inside of him that once Tony finds out everything, the genius might spurn him but the little bit of insecurity is something that he supposes will be impossible to get rid of. Not until everything is out in the air. 

And it was going to be. Soon. 

Stephen was fast running out of time. Some time in May, Loki was going to arrive. Stephen wishes that he can use the Time Stone to see into the future and get the exact time that Loki will arrive, but he knows better. 

His control isn't perfect. Not with Loki so far away from him and the Time Stone requires finesse that he doesn't quite possess right now. But at least he knows that he will feel it when the Tesseract begins to stir and he will also feel it when Loki arrives on the planet through the Space Stone inside of the Tesseract. 

Given that, Stephen and the Council had reluctantly agreed that there was no need to risk Stephen's sanity with the Time Stone. The preparations are done. They are as ready as they will ever be. 

New York is flooded with sorcerers from all over the world. The D'Arte bookings has been halted in New York for some time now to make space for them in the guise of tourists and the like for them to be in place. 

The others that already reside in New York have lent their homes and organised their schedules. The wards and the spells are up and in place, ready to be triggered when the invasion happens. 

Their Healing Chambers are ready and set up for injured Sorcerers. Everyone is aware that not all of them may make it through this ordeal. This is the greatest threat they were going to be facing since Dormammu and that had cost them greatly. 

Stephen tries to push all of that out of his mind as he looks about the apartment that he knows Tony had prepared for him. 

The Stark Tower isn't the one that Stephen had seen over and over again in his visions. It is, but it isn't. The outside looks the same. The penthouse suite is almost the same. 

But there are differences. 

For one, there are apartments that have been built into the top four floors aside from the Penthouse that Tony had designed to be more than just housing for his staff. There was a separate building for that next to the large spacious office tower.

No, these apartments were designed for Tony's friends with 12 other apartments left as spares. The apartments are all two bedrooms with a spacious living room, an office and two bathrooms and a designer kitchen. 

That is if you discount the three apartments designed for Clea, Pepper and Rhodey, which are tailored perfectly to their tastes and are just a few floors beneath the penthouse complete with their own elevator access to the Penthouse. 

Right beneath the Penthouse, which, in all honesty isn't as big as one might assume, there is a level that is divided half into a lab that connects directly to the Penthouse and another apartment space. 

One that is dedicated to Stephen. 

It's impossible to deny it. Unlike the sleek modern aesthetics of the Penthouse and the fact that it is actually in an office building, the apartment is almost quaint. There are wooden floors and wooden panels all throughout, making the space seem warm and cosy. 

There are luscious rugs, antique furniture and more books than anyone could read in a lifetime stashed away in a large library space. There are sitting rooms reminiscent of the Victorian Era and though it is far from anything magical, Stephen almost feels as if he is back in the Sanctum. 

Tony has taken what he has seen of the Sanctum and Stephen's admiration of the Stark Mansion and put everything that Stephen enjoyed into an apartment just for him. 

"I thought you might want somewhere to be alone." Tony says from the elevator, which is disguised with wide wooden panels. He had really spared no detail. Stephen turns around to see his lover. 

Stephen isn't speechless all that often, but in this case, he is. He doesn't know what to say, how to say it and more importantly, whether his voice will even come out. 

"I mean, you don't have to move in here or anything. Like, if you wanted you can still stay at the-" Tony starts to say, flustered by Stephen's silence and Stephen doesn't let him linger in the torture for too long. 

He strides over quickly to cover the space between them and cups the genius's face in his hands and kisses him hard. It's the best way that he has of expressing his gratitude. Tony smiles against the kiss and Stephen takes advantage of that to dive his tongue right into his lover's lips to taste the bitter sweetness of the coffee he'd just consumed. 

"I love it. Thank you." Stephen tells him with all of his heart and Tony smiles widely at him, relief obvious in his eyes. 

"Well, there's one more thing, of course." Tony says and just as he does, the curtains around the wall to ceiling windows opens up and the glass itself darkens until a holographic image of a girl appears. 

"Hi!" The voice is all too familiar and Stephen gapes as he looks over the image. She's young. 14? 15? Blonde curls tired to either side of her heart shaped face and her eyes are bright blue and full of sparkle. She's wearing a bright blue dress that works well with her colouring and it takes Stephen a moment to realise that this is FRIDAY. 

"Don't ask me how or why, but she's kinda obsessed with Japanese fashion trends right now." Tony says and Stephen raises an eyebrow as he looks over the heavy use of lace, frills and ribbons on her dress and sighs. 

"At least she fits in with the decor?" Tony tries and Stephen sighs again even as he turns to look at FRIDAY and gives her a smile. Given the vast difference in the way that FRIDAY was developing and actually 'maturing' compared to the way that JARVIS and JOCASTA's personalities had been programmed, it stands to reason that she would be representing herself as a young girl. 

It also stands to reason that given the personality traits that she had of abundant curiosity and the desire to interact with people and be helpful would manifest in a desire to present herself in a human like form. 

"You look very pretty FRIDAY." Stephen smiles warmly at her and she claps her hands in delight as she twirls for him and smiles widely. 

"Do you like it? I picked it out from the Kawaii catalogue." FRIDAY tells him and Stephen has no idea what that means , but he is happy enough to smile and nod as she looks over the two of them and sighs. 

"You two probably want some time alone right? And I'm not supposed to watch when you guys are doing adult things. So I will be off for now and JARVIS will monitor instead. Okay?" FRIDAY says with a wink and before long, the screen come window brightens up again until she is gone and they can look out into the New York skyline again. 

JARVIS was taking the role of her big brother quite seriously, which Stephen is astonished by but he loves the fact that the AIs have formed an accord and were working together so seamlessly despite the fact that they were all housed in different servers and satellites. 

"Did I know that she could do that?" Stephen asks and Tony shrugs his shoulders. 

"If you did, that's a surprise to me because I didn't until she popped up on my screen." Tony tells him and Stephen chuckles softly as he pulls Tony closer into his arms and kisses him softly on Tony's hair. 

"You are brilliant." Stephen tells him and Tony chuckles in his arms before raising his face and all but demanding a kiss. Stephen chuckles before he gives into the kiss. 

"I mean it Stephen. You don't have to move in. If you want to you can stay at the Sanctum." Tony tells him softly and Stephen looks at him for a long moment before he speaks. 

"I might not be able to be here all the time, but I do like the thought of coming home to you . " Stephen tells him and Tony smiles brightly. 

"Good. Is... is this going to make things easier for you?" Tony asks him seriously and that surprises Stephen for a moment before he sighs and nods slowly. 

"Yes. Being closer to you and being able to be close to you will help." Stephen tells him softly and Tony nods slowly. 

"Good." He says firmly. Stephen isn't surprised that he doesn't ask questions. Not anymore. Tony's patience which him has been amazing and given the almost two years that they had spent time together, Stephen knows by now that Tony was willing to overlook his secrets as long as Stephen is there and loves him. 

"I love you." Stephen tells him quietly and Tony hums as they look out into the New York skyline whilst enjoying each other's company. It may not last long, but for now, Stephen is happy and loved. 

That's enough. 

~~~ 

Monday 

25 April 2011 

He shouldn't have taken the fucking offer. 

But it had been so tempting that he hadn't been able to deny it. Working with shady government organisations was always bad news. He'd known that. 

Still, Erik had taken the offer because he had known that there had been no other choice. Not really. It was either take the offer or to miss out on the knowledge that he knew would stretch before him. 

As he had been for months now, he is torn between fascination for the Tesseract and the odd energy signature that it emits and the fear of the unknown object that he feels. 

Oh, he did his research on the damned thing. Not a lot of it was known to him and the providence of the object isn't handed to him by SHIELD and he knows that there was a lot that they didn't tell him about, but he knows enough. 

The Tesseract was brought to Earth and left to be protected by the Vikings. It was meant to be hidden, protected and never to be touched or used by mortal hands. 

It was an artefact of the gods. 

Not for mortal hands to touch or to use. Everything that he had seen from the Tesseract confirmed that. He wonders briefly what Thor would say or think if he knows that humans were meddling with it. 

It's a part of the human condition, isn't it? 

To meddle with things that they don't understand. To advance technology before they know how to control it and to learn only after the fact that they should have been more careful, that they should have taken their time. 

This insatiable hunger and need to know and to find the answers and to 'better' their lives has led to global warming, the energy crisis, the global hunger problems. 

But they can't stop.

Can they? Not when the universe has so many unanswered questions and though Erik knows better, he can't help but think that perhaps if he understands the Tesseract a little better, then perhaps he can know a bit more about the universe. 

It's a failing of his to keep his own curiosity in check. He is aware of that. But it's too late now. Now that he knows about the Tesseract and he has the resources at his disposal to study it, to get to know it, to understand it, he can't stop. 

He is but another moth, drawn to the bright light that is science. 

~~~ 

Wednesday 

26 April 2011 

It stirs. 

The moment that it does, Stephen feels it. He feels the energies of the Tesseract coming to life and intimately connected as he is to the Time Stone, he feels it lance through him like a hot knife and he doubles over. 

It has begun. 

"Dr Strange?!" The patient cries out in alarm as Stephen clutches at his chest and tries to keep himself upright. His hand catches on the holotable and he barely manages to keep his feet even as the door slams open and Clea rushes in. 

"Stephen!" She cries out and she's right there, holding him up and supporting him as he tries to get his breath back. As he tries to sort out the energies coursing through him as the Time Stone too comes to life to answer the call of the Tesseract. 

"It'-" Stephen tries but he can't speak. Not right now. There are too much going on his head, in his mind and in the energies surrounding him to do that. It's Clea that does. 

"Can you give us a minute?" She asks the patient, who is highly alarmed, but is quick to leave the room. The moment they do, Clea helps him to sit on the ground as he focuses on what he can and throws up a powerful shield around them. 

He can't let the others, the ones that will have been watching the universe for the signs of the Infinity Stones feel the presence of the Time Stone. He can't. 

He hadn't known that this would happen. He hadn't seen this in any of his visions. But then in most of his visions, the other Stephen Stranges of the other universes were still going about their daily lives, practising medicine and being the arrogant fucks that they are. 

Once the shield is up, Stephen can at least focus on the Time Stone. To calm it down. He feels Clea's energy joining his to try to help him tame the beast that is the Time Stone as it tries to reach out to the Tesseract and the Space Stone contained therein. 

The Tesseract both warps and protects the Space Stone. It focuses it and holds in its power. But it's being awakened now by the Mind Stone that Thanos was wielding. 

The way that the energies echo and move together is powerful and so very incredibly difficult to stop. But between Stephen and Clea, they manage. 

As the energy storm settles around him and the Time Stone sullenly settles back down and goes back to its dormant state, Stephen lets out a shuddering breath as Clea sits down heavily next to him on the floor and wipes a hand down her face. 

"Shit." She says and he can't help but agree with the sentiment . He tastes blood on his lips from where he must have bitten down on his lip and he knows that he is pale and that his hands are shaking. 

He is in no state to see any more patients. 

It's a good thing that they had cleared out their schedule for May, but Stephen also knows that he has patients left to see in the afternoon that will need to be somehow rescheduled

The Tesseract was going to continue to be active. As it is and until Loki comes through and takes custody of the Tesseract, it was going to still be reaching out. 

No one else may be able to see it nor understand it, given that they are not the guardians of the Infinity Stones, Stephen can. The Stones long for each other. They were born together and they were meant to be worked together. 

But no living being can harness that much power and to touch it with bare hands as a normal human being would destroy it. The Infinity Stones, at least in this universe, were meant to be wielded by their respective Guardians. 

Without them, the Stones continued to seek, continued to search and resonate with each other until they could find a hand that could hold them, protect them and use them. 

Stephen can feel the echo of longing left behind by the Space Stone inside of him and he feels the emptiness that he had been without for sometime now as he had kept up his regime of contacting Loki on Sunday nights, spending that one night a week away from the Tower and Tony. 

But now, the hunger and the need to fill the emptiness is back and he can't control it. He feels himself lose the focus and he looks at Clea with wide eyes, panic overwhelming him. 

"What do you need?" She asks him seriously and he swallows hard as he tries to control himself, even a little. Just barely long enough to tell her what he needs more than anything else in the world. 

"Him." Is all that he manages, but it's all that he needs to manage. Clea gets the message loud and clear. 

"Are you going to last long enough for me to put you in a car?" She asks and Stephen isn't sure. She looks at him with fierce, determination filled eyes as she takes a deep breath. 

"Never mind. I'm going to make you last." She tells him and he nods dumbly at her as the emptiness turns into desolate loneliness and he feels his heart and mind sink into the darkness of human emotions. 

"One minute." She tells him before she rushes out. Stephen loses all track of time. He loses himself in the dark emotions and loses his grip on his sanity, slowly but surely and by the time that she returns, he can't even respond to her presence. 

"Stephen Strange, look at me." She demands, but he can't comply. All he feels is the darkness closing in around him and the magic starting to lose control. 

Then it clears. 

"Focus on me. Use me." She tells him and Stephen does. Her warm hand closes around him as she pulls him up and he lets her. She pulls him out the door, with him leaning heavily against her. He notes that there are no patients left in the office. 

He wonders how long that it must have taken. He doesn't know. All he knows and can feel is Clea's warmth, the bright sunshine that was her soul, her magic and her heart anchoring him in place and keeping the darkness away. 

He clings to her. 

She gets them into a car that she must have called. She pushes him into the car and follows quickly, her hand a death grip on his. It should hurt. That strong a grip. He doesn't feel the pain. All he feels is the fear that the darkness was going to close in again and he would be left in it, lost and confused. 

Insane. 

If Stephen was aware, he might have felt the spells he had placed on himself starting to stir. But he doesn't. He isn't focused enough to feel magic. Only her. Clea's willpower, her own magic and strength of character was forcing him to focus on her, to push his own will and his own mind and their desires aside to fill him with herself. 

It's something that he hadn't even been aware that she could do. But then... he hadn't been the only one that has prepared for emergencies. This is a new spell, Stephen thinks, if it's a spell at all. 

Magic works either with spells or with strong enough intention and sheer amount of power. In this case, he's not sure which one it is. He will have to ask. 

Later. When he can focus. When he can think. When he wasn't huddling against her and holding onto her like a lifeline. 

"Hurry." Is the only instruction that she gives the driver. Stephen thinks vaguely that it might be because as powerful and strong as Clea was, there was a limit to that power and limit to that focus and concentration. She was holding up admirably, but he knows that sooner than later, she wasn't going to have enough to keep him together. 

Stephen loses track of time again. 

It's not difficult to do, considering just how little awareness that he has. But he does rouse when he feels a different presence. One that fills him naturally and anchors him naturally. 

There is a hand on his face, a kiss upon his lips and there is warmth unlike anything else. Even Clea's warmth and her bright light is nothing compared to this one. 

She was a bright spark, a dwarf star, if you will but he was a supernova. Stephen clings desperately onto that warmth, that heat and relaxes into his arms. He will be safe there. 

The darkness lingers. Of course it does. It's hard to shake off once it has dug its claws in. Stephen hears the conversation between Tony and Clea that happens over his head. He doesn't care to listen. He doesn't care what is being said. He only cares for the warmth and the hunger that rises for something more. 

"I need you." Stephen voices and it's the first time he's spoken properly since the Tesseract had stirred. 

"Shh I know baby. I know." Tony tells him softly and Stephen doesn't notice Clea leaving. He doesn't notice Tony taking him to the bedroom. 

What he notices is the way that Tony enters him and fills him. Physically, mentally and emotionally until the darkness is completely gone, wiped from his mind. 

It's only then that he realises that they are on the bed and that he has been stripped naked. That he is laying on his back, his hips supported by a pillow and Tony was leaning over him, slowly filling him with the most concerned look on his face. 

"Oh." Stephen breathes as the heady arousal hits him all at once. It had been building there in his body for some time, no doubt, but he hadn't been aware of it. He had been too lost inside his own head and the gaping emptiness he felt. 

"Welcome back." Tony tells him. There is still a tone of worry in his voice, but with it was relief and relief is good, Stephen thinks as he tries to speak but as Tony's cock brushes against his prostate, whatever he was going to say turns into a moan. 

"You know, I heard stories about healing cocks but I didn't ever think I was going to possess it." Tony tells him with a snarky tone that honestly, Stephen deserves. Stephen manages a smile and reaches up to cup his lover's face gently in his hands. They are trembling so incredibly badly and there is pain there, but Stephen can ignore it for the time being. 

" Not long now." Stephen tells him. Even now, wrapped up as he was in Tony's presence, the dread sinks into his stomach. The Tesseract has woken up. Loki will come through the portal. Then, he will form up his army of mind controlled minions. 

He will organise for the portal to be opened. Then the armies of the Chitauri will fall through them. By the time that happens, any hopes that Stephen had of keeping his secret would be thrown wide open. 

The moment Tony sees that portal, the moment he sees the magic that Loki can do, the genius will draw the conclusions that are obvious and impossible to deny. 

"Till what?" Tony questions him even as he pistons his hips slowly in and out of him and leans down to kiss him over and over again, as if he was desperate to check over and over again that Stephen was responsive, that he was alright. 

"Till you will get all the answers that you wanted." Stephen tells him softly and Tony looks down at him and stops. He cups Stephen's face into his hands and looks fiercely down at him. 

"Why the tears Stephen?" Tony asks him and it's only then that Stephen realises that yes, he indeed was very much crying and he hadn't even realised. Tony's gentle fingers wipe the tears away as Stephen looks at him with the growing fear inside of him. 

That ugly insecurity rears its head again. 

"Do you honestly think that after almost two years, I'm going to change my mind about you when I get those answers?" Tony asks him and Stephen doesn't know how to answer it but Stephen's silence is answer enough. 

Tony's anger is obvious and Stephen can feel it rush through their wide open Connection as Tony pins him hard down onto the bed and looms over him, making Stephen look into the angry, golden caramel eyes. 

"Listen to me carefully Stephen Vincent Strange." Tony bites out and Stephen nods slowly even as his eyes blur here and there with the tears. 

Stephen's legs are crushed into his chest in a slightly uncomfortable position and Tony's cock was buried deep inside of him and yet, he couldn't focus on any of that. All he could focus on was the bright flash of anger in his lover's eyes. 

"I didn't love you for over a year with the intention of giving up on you when I found out what you are. This? This isn't going to change." Tony tells him as he reaches between them and rests a hand on Stephen's chest. 

"Who you are isn't going to change and the fact that I fucking love you isn't going to change just because I find out what you are. You can be a fucking blue alien for all I care. As long as you're Stephen Strange, I'm going to love you." Tony tells him fiercely and Stephen is lost for words as he flounders. 

The love that pours through the Connection fills any of the emptiness that had been left behind by the Tesseract. He feels almost too full as he takes in everything that Tony has said and what it all means. 

The tears flow even heavier now as he reaches up to cling onto Tony's neck and the genius let's him so that he can kiss him. The kiss is soft, warm and gentle. It's intimate and sweet and loving. 

It is everything that Stephen had needed to remind himself that perhaps this was going to be alright after all. That perhaps he will come out on the other side of all this with a man that still loves him. 

Even if there is a god to worry about. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Thursday 

28 April 2011

The practice is closed. 

The sorcerers are at the ready, preparing themselves for the invasion. They are gathered in the Sanctums, Kamar-Taj and everywhere, they are bustling with nervous energy. 

The Council and the Mystic Order overall , other than the members that were necessary to hold the various safe houses etc in place, have taken leave of their usual lives. 

They won't take chances by not being ready when the invasion hits. Not this time. Not like Harlem. 

So they have prepared themselves the moment the Tesseract had woken and they were gathered. Some were practising their spells last minute, others were meditating and yet more were nervously talking and thinking about everything but the invasion.

They are about to go into a war. 

The Mystic Order wasn't meant for wars. Not before Stephen's changes to the Order at any rate, but now, they are preparing for one. They aren't soldiers, but they are willing to sacrifice themselves and see the horrors so that others didn't have to. So that they can save lives. 

Stephen looks over them all from the windows of the Council Chamber in Kamar-Taj . The Council is ticking off the list of preparations to triple check that everything was ready to go. That everyone would be put into the right places. 

That they could keep the secrecy of the Order alive whilst they protected the lives that they needed to and wanted to. It wasn't quite pandemonium, but it was close. 

Stephen himself is too filled with nervous energy. The dread that had settled deep into his stomach the moment the Bifrost opened the first time lingers and only grows heavier as the hours go on.

It's hard to think past the dread. 

It's a combination of factors that grow the dread and the fear in his stomach. Loki and meeting the god again is one that lingers and claws deep into his soul. 

The other is the knowledge that soon, magic will be known to the wide world and it will make it all the more difficult for the Mystic Order to stay hidden. But they have contingencies for that. 

Another is the fear of Tony's reaction when he finds out, no doubt, that Stephen is a magic user for one and for another... about Loki. 

Stephen knows that he won't be able to hide it. He won't be able to stay away. Not when his soul has longed for the god for months. Even with those contacts that they have shared, the emptiness and longing had remained and Stephen knows that once the god is on Earth, he won't be able to stop himself from going to him. 

And Tony will know. 

Tony is too clever, too observant and knows Stephen far, far too well to be blind to it when he sees them together, no doubt. Stephen isn't sure whether the Connection and his soul will be able to override the fear that lingers inside of him. 

And that only adds to the dread that he feels. 

"My Lord?" Anne's voice breaks through Stephen's thoughts and internal debate and he turns around to find that the Council was all looking at him with some worry in their eyes. He sighs. 

"My apologies. I was preoccupied." Stephen says easily as he steps back into the chair that he was meant to be sitting in

The Council Chamber and the layout, if nothing else, is reminiscent of the Arthurian round table. The Council Members sit around the table, paperwork for some of them, tablets for others as they try to organise everything before the invasion hits. 

Stephen has been neglecting his duties. 

"My Lord, we were wondering do you plan to visit with Loki before the invasion occurs?" One of the Council Members, Janet, asks and Stephen thinks over the question slowly. 

There is definitely some benefit to be gained from seeing Loki before he opens the portal. That, Stephen can't deny. It could allow both of them focus and stability to make it through the invasion, but Stephen isn't sure if the risk is worth it. 

There was every chance that the influence of the Mind Stone may be too powerful for Loki to fight back against and he could lash out against Stephen. More than that, Stephen's presence could be made known to the Other and Ebony Maw that controlled Loki through the sceptre and saw through his eyes. 

That is a risk that Stephen isn't sure if it is worth taking. Even if it would allow him to focus and channel the vast amounts of power he knows he will need to pull to trigger all the wards and spells at once the moment the invasion happens. 

But even as he thinks that, the Time Stone warms against his chest and he sighs. Of course the Time Stone wants to be near the Mind Stone. Of course it wants to make that contact as soon as possible. 

"It may be possible if I were to use the Time Stone to stop time." Stephen says and a murmur goes through the Council Chamber. 

That's a risky proposition. 

Stopping time, rewinding time or going forward in time is what the Time Stone specialises in. The visions that it has been sending him is not quite what it's role in the greater scheme of things is meant to be. 

But there is always a risk to doing something like that. Once time is stopped across the universe, no one but the Elders would most likely be able to sense that an Infinity Stone was at work. They won't be able to tell when, where and how, but they will know that someone was in possession of the Time Stone. 

That isn't the huge risk, however. Elders were mostly uninterested in what was happening in the universe. They were solely focused on their own obsessions and desires and their own worlds. 

The risk was in Stephen himself and using the Time Stone. It took a great deal of focus and power to use the Time Stone and not to be sucked into the allure of power. To not be corrupted by that power. 

It is easier for Stephen to resist the call than most likely any other being in the universe, given that he was the Guardian of the Time Stone and it had accepted him as the rightful wielder of its power, but still. 

All power corrupts and Stephen was all too aware of that. He always double and triple checked himself and ensured that the Council acted collaboratively for the good of the world and for the balance of the universe. 

It was a balancing act with the greatest of risks available. The end of the Universe itself. 

Still. It's a game they have been playing for thousands and thousands of years now as an Order and decades now as this current Council and the Order in this form. Stephen takes a deep breath. 

"If I could activate the Time Stone in the safety of the Sanctum and portal over to see to Loki, it should ensure that we are given the privacy required to speak unheard by others." Stephen says and the Council considers it for a moment. 

"That may be so, but what if the Mind Stone's influence on Loki is so great that even your Connection cannot break through it?" Anderson asks and that's too fair a question for Stephen not to consider it carefully. 

He has spent months now getting into regular contact with Loki to ensure that he can keep that bit of sanity hidden and in check. But that was just a sliver of Loki that was left untouched by the Mind Stone and Stephen isn't sure whether or not that is enough to bring Loki back from the brink of destruction. 

Loki's very soul was so incredibly fragile right now that Stephen isn't confident if the god could even recognise him when they meet in person with the Mind Stone in hand. 

But if Loki was to continue with the invasion without seeing Stephen, there will be even less of the god left behind when the dust settles. Of that, Stephen is sure. Loki isn't a god that desires for wanton destruction and death. To know that it was his hand that did that would destroy what little sanity the god has left with guilt. 

Stephen has to take the risk. 

"That may be, but it is worth a try. If I deem it too dangerous, I will portal back." Stephen says and the Council seem uncertain, but they all nod slowly. 

The conversation moves onto the best time for the meeting to take place as Stephen takes a deep breath and focuses on the Time Stone and what it wants. 

Resonance. 

~~~ 

Friday 

29 May 2010 

Finally. 

Things were finally getting interesting around here, Clint Barton thinks from the perch near the ceiling of the underground bunker that SHIELD had built for the Tesseract and the energy weapons that Hydra had once used. 

The fact that they were trying to make the very weapons that made Hydra so fucking powerful with their own hands is a bit disturbing and Clint isn't quite sure how he feels about that. 

But it wasn't his decision to make. He's not a shot caller. He is a foot soldier that goes where he has been told to and does what he has been told to

It's not that he isn't clever enough to make his own decisions. He has to be in order to be such an efficient agent of SHIELD. It is that he prefers not to make the hard decisions. He'd rather leave it up to those that likes that kind of power. 

For him, he prefers the stealthy means, the quiet whistle of an arrow, the thud of it hitting a target and being able to leave before anyone even knows that he had been there. Information gathering, surveillance and being unseen is what he specialises in and that is what he prefers to do. 

Let the big wigs make the decisions and give him the orders. Let them pay him the vast sums so that he can upkeep the ranch and feed his children and house his family. 

Yeah, being a member of SHIELD requires dedication to the cause of trying to protect the world, but Clint also knows that it's a job. It's not a job you can easily leave behind, because he's not the type that can do private security and he really would miss the thrill of the chase .

But he's not as dedicated and hardcore of an agent like Coulson for example. To Coulson, SHIELD was everything. He loved the organisation, the people in it and he loved the role that he played as Fury's trusted right hand man. Clint doesn't care. 

He knows that Fury likes him and finds him useful. Good. That means that Fury protects Clint's family and gives him the interesting jobs to work. 

Except this one. 

This one had been one of the most boring jobs he had ever worked. There was no enemy, there was nothing. Just the Tesseract, sitting there whilst the scientists poked and prodded at it and gathered information from it. 

Well, that was at least until three days ago. 

Then all of sudden, the Tesseract started to give off energy that it hadn't before. The geeks had gotten so overwhelmingly excited, but Clint hadn't cared. He reported it back to Fury, of course, but it hadn't been that... interesting. 

Until now. 

Whilst before, the energy signatures had been random and small, it was slowly starting to form a rhythm and was getting stronger and stronger as if it was matching the beat of something else. As if the frequencies were trying to marry up. 

Which of course, begs the question. 

What the fuck was the Tesseract trying to match rhythms with? What was making it beat and pulse and give off energy in such a reliable rhythm all of sudden? 

Clint doesn't know. The scientists don't know and Fury doesn't know. 

He does send a request to Fury for the facility to be evacuated barring the most pertinent of staff members. Fury had, for once, heeded his advice and had cleared out the non-essential staff from the bunker, but there was still plenty of them about. 

It was hard to empty out an entire bunker of employees after all and there were security concerns. 

Dr Erik Selvig didn't sound very certain, but he did point out that the Tesseract's energy signature had become very distinct and that if anyone knew what the power signature was and wanted to track it, they could. 

So, the security personnel stayed, even if most of the lab rats were gone and so were the office staff. Which honestly hasn't changed much as far as the lab is concerned. 

Clint leans his head over his arms over the railing as he looks down at the Tesseract and the scientists milling around it. 

"Talk to me doctor." Fury commands as he strides into the room, leather coat flapping behind him as he moves. For a master spy, he really was quite dramatic, Clint thinks as he looks down and observes the scene. 

"Director." Selvig acknowledges even as he continues to move. There is just far too much to be done now that the Tesseract was moving and emitting energies and being so very much alive. 

"Is there anything we know for certain?" Fury asks, as if Clint hadn't sent him hourly updates on the situation. Clint sighs. He wonders why he bothers sometimes. It's not as if bureaucracy was going to save the world. 

"The Tesseract is misbehaving." Selvig says as one of the engineers or scientists or whoever he is pokes a metal stick at it and is shocked by the energy of the Tesseract. Clint rolls his eyes. 

"Is that supposed to be funny?" Fury, like his namesake , sounds furious. Given that it was kind of his thing, Clint isn't surprised. Some people really do become their namesakes. 

"No it's not funny at all. The Tesseract isn't only active, she's behaving." Selvig says after some hesitation and Clint rolls his eyes again. The doctor may be smart and he really may be a genius in his field, but his ability or lack thereof to actually explain concepts clearly to someone else is amusing. 

"How soon can you pull the plug?" Fury asks and Clint has to fight back the temptation to scream. He does so internally. He had already sent a report through that afternoon outlining the fact that the Tesseract was an energy source and that when they tried to pull the plug, it just turned the power back on. 

That's why he had recommended the evacuation that had taken place and was still continuing to take place. They surely don't have time for this. They should be getting everyone out of there, including the doctor. 

Clint doubts that anything can destroy the Tesseract and after it does whatever it does, they can excavate the rubble, find it again and deal with it then. 

That's what he would do. But apparently, Fury has different plans, because of course he does. 

"Where is Agent Barton?" Fury ask eventually and Selvig sighs. 

"The Hawk? Up in his nest as usual." The doctor replies and Clint looks down. What else did Fury expect, he wonders. He's a mutant with very limited abilities. His namesake , Hawkeye is what the ability is called, at least in his mind. 

It allows him to narrow in and see things that most people can't see from distances. His accuracy with the bow is a result of that. He can see the air currents as it moves about and he knows just how to aim his arrows and his gunshots to get right where he wants to hit. 

Fury was aware enough of his Mutant abilities to know that. Yet he questions where he may be. Clint sighs as he slowly makes his way down to the ground level towards Fury. 

"Have you seen anything that might set this thing off?" Fury asks after dressing him down for not being close in with the Tesseract. If Clint was being honest, he wouldn't have been near the damned Tesseract even if he didn't see better from afar. 

There was something about the brightly glowing blue cube that gives him the heebie jeebies. Every instinct in his body yells at him to stay away from the goddamn thing. Not that he has a choice now as Fury and he walks toward it. 

"No one's come and gone. Selvig is clean." Clint reports, just as he had done in the written reports he had been sending every fucking hour. 

"If there was any tempering sir, it wasn't at this end." Clint says as he crosses his arms protective around himself and looks at the cube and its glowing pulses of energies. 

"At this end...?" Fury questions and Clint looks over to him, meeting his one good eye. He really does need to ask questions to find out how the hell Fury lost the other one, he thinks to himself. 

"Yeah the cube is a doorway to the other end of space right? Doors open from both sides." Clint tells Fury and the director looks thoughtful as he nods slowly and looks over the cube. 

As he does, a few things happen simultaneously. The scientists murmur about the energy signature and there are sounds of machines whirring and something high energy building. It sounds just like those science fiction movies and the dramatic space battles. 

The Tesseract pulsates and as it does, Clint feels it hit is chest like an energy wave from a bomb going off and his chest reverberates as he feels it echo through him. 

The pulse is big enough that it shakes the entire bunker and Clint feels the adrenaline rush through him as his instincts tell him to run. He tampers that instinct down and instead focuses on the situation and tries to pick up as many clues as he can to figure out what's happening.

As the Tesseract pulsates and spits out energy left right and centre, Clint can't look away from it. It's the threat. It's a threat that he doesn't quite know what to do with. His hand goes instinctively toward his weapon but it's not a threat that he can shoot the centre mass to make it stop. 

Nothing in all of his training and years of experience has taught him how to deal with this shit. Clint feels his mouth go dry as the Tesseract forms a straight beam across the space, luckily away from Clint and Fury and in the opposite direction and what he can only describe as a portal forms. 

The door was being opened for the other fucking side. Shit. 

Clint hates being right. 

~~~ 

Thursday 

28 April 2011

Get the Tesseract. 

Open the Portal. 

Destroy all those that interfere. 

The orders are drummed into his head over and over and over again. The Mind Stone's influence is tight around his mind. Loki can't think. Not really. He can only obey. 

His body moves though he does not intend to. He raises the Mind Stone Sceptre. The Mind Stone is twisted to act as an energy source. Its purpose and its form distorted by the foul magics that Ebony Maw and the Other had used. 

Loki's magic pours into the Sceptre. 

It's not his doing. It's the doing of the other presence in his mind, the other personality that had been twisted and formed from the darkest corners of his mind to create a caricature of himself. 

This Loki is the Loki that loves nothing more than to destroy, to kill and to see chaos unfold around him everywhere. This Loki takes pleasure in cruelty and in death in ways that Loki never truly could or would. 

Loki peers out through the eyes of this other personality within him and he tries to protect the little sanity he has left as the magic pours from him, stripping him of the resources he needs to keep himself safe in that little corner of his own head. 

"Go." The order is simple. 

The portal opens through the Mind Stone resonating with the power of the Tesseract and the Space Stone contained within. Loki's magic is what forces that resonance to happen, to grow until the door opens. 

Once the portal is opened, Loki is all but forced through the portal. Pulled in by the Mind Stone and the Sceptre until he finds himself on Midgard. 

The portal dissipates. That's not a surprise. The power generated by mortal means isn't sufficient to keep the portal open for long and Loki himself doesn't have the power to continue to hold onto the portal either. Even with the Mind Stone in his hand. 

The Sceptre and use of the Mind Stone is restricted. So is his magic. Loki has hidden enough of his knowledge of the powerful magics that he can wield in his mind behind the shield that Stephen has helped him to upkeep. 

This Loki, this monster Loki that controlled his body didn't have access to the higher level magics. The most that it could do was create illusions and teleport and call upon the daggers. Nothing more. 

IT, Loki decides. IT deserves no name. Nothing more than just two letters to signify IT. To refer to IT. 

IT is still deadly enough, especially with the Sceptre, but IT isn't a deadly as Loki himself would have been with his full faculties, should he have wanted to destroy Midgard and its people. 

Once the portal closes, to Loki's surprise, he finds that the iron grip over his mind that Ebony Maw and the Other had wielded is weakened. They are still there and the connection with them is still there, but it's faint compared to before. 

Loki feels like he can breathe again as he bathes in the Tesseract's energies left over from the portal. He feels it integrate seamlessly into his own magics until he can stand up. 

Even with the weakened control, Loki isn't the one that is in control. It's the dark twisted version of himself that is.

IT.  

IT feels the power rush through it and even though every bit of IT's body aches from the months of physical torture and malnourishment, IT relishes in the freedom of being out of a cage and being able to do what IT wishes to do. 

Kill. Destroy. Rule. 

Loki wants to reign it back. He really does. But he can't. He can only watch as IT smiles a cruel smile. Even from the depths of his mind, Loki can feel the facial muscles move and his lips curl into that cruel, cruel smile. 

IT stands up and fights back against the humans that attack it. It's self defence. It's instinct. That? Loki doesn't have many qualms about. If they weren't human, that is. And if he hadn't promised his Connected, the one that owns his soul, that he won't harm the beings on this planet.  

It wasn't as if the bullets from their guns were doing any serious damage. Compared to the pain that IT and Loki had suffered for months, this was nothing.  

But IT still reacts and kills. Loki yells in the back of his head for it to stop, but IT doesn't. IT continues on, enjoying the kill and the thrill of the fight. IT is lost in the sensation of being able to move freely again, to being able to fight again. To kill. 

Until there is no more to kill or to fight. Everyone that had the capacity to fight is either dead, trying to get up and biding their time. 

IT feels it the moment that a man tries to aim the firearm towards it. IT catches the man's arm and looks deep into his eyes. With the Mind Stone and the Sceptre in his hand, the man's mind opens like a book to IT's curious eyes and by extension, Loki's.  

In a split second, Loki can see the man's life flash before him. All those that are dear to him and important to him. Those that he loves. Those that he hates. The thrill of the hunt and the chase, the mundane humdrum of paperwork and office politics. Amongst them all are the sights of beautiful children. A daughter that reminds Loki of Hel. 

IT doesn't understand why IT is drawn to this man and does not wish to kill him as IT had done with the others, but Loki's will and desire slips through and IT decides that there might be a use for him. 

"You have heart." IT mutters. No, that's not it. It is more Loki than IT that speaks. Oh. Loki is confused for a moment as IT raises the sceptre and touches the point of it on the man's chest and the Mind Stone activates. 

With a flash of magic that IT expands to activate the Mind Stone, the man's mind opens up and bends to its and Loki's will. It's a n odd feeling. 

The Mind Stone's influence through the Sceptre isn't true mind control. It isn't insidious like Loki's. It's an enchantment, an entrancement, designed to get whoever the Sceptre touches to become loyal to Loki. It doesn't take away their freedom to act and to think. Just creates false loyalty. 

The desire to follow Loki and help him with his plans, whatever that may be. Loki is glad that it isn't true mind control and a destruction of the person's very heart like it is for him, but he also wonders if true mind control would have been better instead. 

When the mind control fades and the man is back in control again, the awareness that he had willingly acted would be destructive, depending on what task IT assigns to the man. 

Loki watches with horror as the man's eyes fill with the bright blue of the Sceptre. Behind him, Loki can feel the Tesseract being removed. He can almost feel the Space Stone being touched, pulled away from its little enclosure as if it is his own very skin that is being touched. 

"Please don't. I still need that." Loki isn't sure who speaks. Him or IT. But either way, his body turns around to face the dark skinned man with an eye patch over his eyes and leather coat that he rather likes. 

"This doesn't have to get any messier." The man says as he turns around and Loki and IT both get the understanding quickly. They have the information from Clint Barton's mind now. They know that this man is Director Fury of SHIELD. 

The human organisation that had imprisoned Thor and had tried to 'study' Mjolnir. Well then, that is certainly interesting, Loki thinks as IT speaks. 

"Of course it does. I've come too far for anything else. I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose." IT says proudly as it tries to stand up straight. 

"Loki? Brother of Thor?" Another voice interrupts and his body turns a little to the side to see who has spoken and both Loki and IT recognises him right away. 

Erik Selvig. 

A man that Loki had seen through the All-Seeing Throne as he had tried to watch Thor. A man that was a scientist. A man that could be useful. Clint Barton's information tells him that Erik Selvig was in charge of the operation here. That he is the one that built the contraption that allowed for the Tesseract to be activated. 

Good. 

"We have no quarrel with your people." Director Fury says with a calming voice. It's not something that is going to work with IT nor with Loki. 

But as the conversation goes on and Loki settles into the new balance of power within his own mind, he realises quickly that he can influence IT. It takes effort and the little pool of magic he keeps away from IT to do it, but he can. 

He will have to use that influence when it is important enough. When IT comes face to face with Stephen or the man that Stephen loves. Anthony Edward Stark. 

Loki will risk his sanity and his death if it means that he can protect the one that he had sworn to protect and to atone for the sins that he had committed against that soul. Loki firmly swears it upon the soul and life of his own daughter as he slowly settles back and watches. 

"An Ant has no quarrel with a boot." IT says with a cruel, dismissive tone. This Asgardian monster of a prince that the Other, Ebony Maw and the Mind Stone created has no morals, no qualms and no values. IT is just hungry for power, for death, and for destruction. 

IT is almost... a simple creature. 

"You planning on stepping on us?" Director Fury asks and IT smiles as IT opens their arms wide open. 

"I come with glad tidings, for a world made free." IT says. The madness that is contained within IT's mind and thus Loki's mind is all too obvious. 

"Free from what?" The Director asks. Something is off, Loki thinks. This isn't the kind of situation for talks and yet that is what is happening. The strategic mind within Loki tells him that something is wrong and he should do something. He doesn't share that with IT.

"Freedom.. Freedom is life's great lie. Once you accept that, in your heart..." IT trails off as IT turns around and puts the tip of the Sceptre against the chest of Erik Selvig and activates the magic. 

"You will know peace." IT says even as IT's mind and Loki's mind is filled with the memories and life of Erik Selvig. 

The scientist that simply wanted to know everything that he can about the universe. A man whose mind was blown wide open and possibilities had multiplied with the arrival of Thor. The man that considered the God of Thunder a friend and wished him well, though he hadn't been able to see the god for months now.

Erik Selvig's heart is a warm one and his mind is a fragile one. Loki sees it immediately even as the Mind Stone does its job and breaks through the feeble defences of a mortal's mind and implants itself into it. 

This will shatter the man's sanity. 

Loki knows that. IT knows that but does not care. Loki does. He feels the guilt build within him as he counts slowly the deaths that he has caused and the lives that he has destroyed. 

Not five minutes on Midgard and he had already destroyed over 9 lives. 

"Yeah, you say peace, I kind of think you mean the other thing." The Director says even as Loki and IT can feel the power of the Tesseract remaining within the building, the unstable portal to nowhere and yet everywhere deteriorate. 

"Sir, Director Fury is stalling. This place is about to blow. Drop a hundred feet of rock on us. He means to bury us." Clint Barton says and IT and Loki both understand it. Well done, Loki thinks inwardly. Clever to engage a being clearly bent on obtaining power into a conversation to draw out the motivations whilst at the same time, trying to trap them. 

"Like the Pharaohs of Old ." Director Fury says, not denying his plans. IT looks to Clint Barton and the others that managed to remain standing to figure out a plan. 

Loki isn't able to fully remain... conscious, if that was the right word, throughout all the exchanges. He sees enough to understand what is happening but it is overwhelmingly difficult to keep himself safe with the Mind Stone so close.

It's an odd balance.

Loki can feel his body faltering and one of the agents catching him and helping him towards a vehicle. The information from Clint Barton, Erik Selvig and the two other Agents of SHIELD that IT has managed to control with the Sceptre provides Loki with a lot to think about. 

Inside of Clint's mind are information about Stephen Strange and Anthony Edward Stark that he hadn't expected. 

Loki relishes in the tidbits of information that he can see from Clint's mind. He doesn't care much about the rush of the escape as IT slumps in the back of the vehicle and they speed along. 

IT can take care of all that. 

There is nothing Loki can do to stop the wanton destruction and even though he was on the same planet and realm as his Soulmate, their Connection was still stretched far enough that he can't feel Stephen all that strongly. 

But it's enough for Loki to hold on and to focus on the information on hand. 

Tony Stark,as Anthony Edward Stark is known to the world, is a billionaire, which means that he is incredibly wealthy and a man that possesses a brilliantly intelligent mind that allows him to create wonderful technologies that frankly amaze even Loki. 

Asgard has a great deal of advanced technologies available, but it is an amalgamation of magic and science and technology. But this man seemed to be creating magic with science. 

Loki is fascinated by the information and by the images of the man. 

Anthony Edward Stark is not just a man. Not just a wealthy man and not just the Soulmate of Loki's Soulmate. He is a hero of the people. 

Loki sees the bright red and gold suit of metal that the man constructed and flies in to protect the people of Midgard. Clint has watched the videos, seen the pictures and read the reports. Loki drinks all of that in. 

The man is beautiful. 

Caramel brown eyes and short brown hair styled perfectly in a casual mess and his facial hair neatly trimmed and fashioned. Loki hungers for physical contact with another being. He hungers for the warmth of another's gentle touch against his skin. 

He has been without it for so long. 

Loki remembers the way that Anthony Edward Stark had made love to Stephen and how wonderful the man must have felt buried deep inside of Stephen. 

Loki doesn't even realise that IT and by extension him, are out of the bunker and out of danger. IT settles as Clint comes up with a plan of action for them to find a place to hide. One of his 'safe houses'. Loki and IT knows where that is. 

Both Loki and IT know that they need to rest. Their body is weakened by the months of torture and they need to recover. To heal. They had never been able to heal completely before they had been struck again and been broken again. 

Now perhaps they can completely heal. Maybe they can pull on the power of the Yggdrasil and refill the emptying reserves of magic. Maybe Loki can concentrate enough on Stephen and to be able to use the Connection to focus and fill up the fast emptying reserves of his own little tiny pool of magic at the corner of his mind behind all of the shields. 

Perhaps Loki can get through all of this with his sanity intact. He isn't confident but he does see hope in the distance. 

With the tight grip from Ebony Maw and the Other lessened by distance and the ability for Loki to exert his will upon IT even if it comes at a great cost, it will be enough to ensure that at least Stephen and the man that he loves does not suffer at Loki's hands. 

Even if the rest of the world burns. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Friday 

29 April 2011

There is a foreboding shadow over their lives. 

Something is wrong . Stephen has been on edge for awhile and Tony doesn't like it. It has been... odd in the last little while. 

Since the day that Stephen had come home, barely supported by Clea and desperate for him, Stephen has been tense. But then so had Clea. 

From that day, when Clea had all but thrust Stephen into his arms and barely managed it out of the bedroom after helping him to get Stephen onto the bed, before collapsing into a heap on the living room couch, unconscious. 

Clea had been explicit when she had told Tony that Stephen needed him. That Stephen needed closeness and he was the only one that can hold Stephen together. 

That kind of rhetoric wasn't new to him. Not now and not when it concerns Stephen. It doesn't mean that Tony likes it. On that day, Stephen had been so incredibly needy and desperate and clingy. 

The thing was, it was as if Stephen hadn't been there. Not quite. It had been so primal and desperate. The unnatural nature of all of that hadn’t escaped his notice. 

When it had been all over and Stephen had fallen asleep, Tony had stayed up, running his fingers over and over through his lover's hair to keep him comforted and sleeping whilst he thought through everything. 

Something was coming.

Something big . Tony recognises the signs now. Before Stane, Stephen had been just as desperate for him. Before Vanko, Stephen and Clea had been just as tense. Whatever was coming was bigger and scarier and it had both Clea and Stephen seriously concerned. 

When Stephen had woken after that day, he had been normal as he could be, but it was clear from that moment that he had been on edge. So had Clea. 

Tony doesn't like that Stephen has advised him not to move the Headquarters for Stark Industries officially over to New York until June. The advice hadn't been given as a suggestion. It had been a plea

He also doesn't like the fact that Stephen and Clea both insisted that Happy, Rhodey and Pepper stay in LA rather than move to New York as it had been planned until June either. There had been something odd about the way that Clea had made that call that made him worry. 

Oh, Clea and Stephen gave plenty of good logical, reasonable reasons for why that should be the case, like the fact that Pepper should stay to coordinate the move from her end and make sure that all the housing for the staff members were actually finished before they moved them in. 

Tony also doesn't like that Stephen was pale and worried and distracted all the time now and whenever he saw Clea, which was often, she was in the same state and they shared looks of concern and worry often. 

When he asks both of them what is wrong and what he can do to fix it or help, all they tell him is that he will find out in time and give him those reassuring smiles that don't quite reach their eyes. They were putting up a good front but it wasn't good enough. 

Tony doesn't like being in the dark. 

The thing is, until all of that had happened, Tony had really enjoyed the couple of weeks since Stephen and he had officially moved into the Stark Tower together. 

It was nice to have a home that was truly their home. The Malibu Mansion and the Stark Mansion had been Tony's homes. His space. The furniture, the design, everything had been to his specifications and his needs. 

But with the Stark Tower, they had a home that was truly theirs . It was designed together, built together and everything was designed with both of them in mind. It was the little details too, like making sure there were automated tea machines for Stephen and coffee machines for Tony. The taps being one of the easy swivel ones rather than the tight screw types that can hurt Stephen's hands. 

The playroom that they haven't christened yet but will soon enough. The 'apartment' that Tony had designed and had surprised Stephen with had been designed to ensure that Stephen had space within the Tower that was his own if and when he wanted it.

Most of the time, they spent their time in the Penthouse proper and in their shared labs. Their private lab, spanning two levels allowed them a lot of freedom and room to work on whatever they wanted to. It also allowed for a lot of room and ability to work on individual projects. 

Even the lab space was designed with Stephen in mind too. There were areas of the lab that were warmer, since Stephen's hands did better when it was warmer than cold. The lab had the medical equipment that Stephen could use to conduct his research, if he so desired. 

There were servers upon servers set up so that they could work together on programs and AI systems and whatever else that they wanted to do. Both FRIDAY and JARVIS had the run of the place and depending on the situation, either or both assisted them. 

When Stephen needed time away from Tony, which, no matter how loving and perfect a relationship may be, was something that they both needed, he spent time in his side of the apartment. Tony doesn't quite know what his lover does there, but he knows that Stephen loves the space that Tony has created for him and that's what matters. 

Tony has his own retreat in the garage, where he can work on his cars and just relax if needs be. 

Clea has moved into her apartment and she usually joins them for meals. She was working full time with Tony now rather than with Pepper, in person at any rate. Tony knows that she still does most of the scheduling work for Pepper and makes sure that her day goes smoothly. 

With the Headquarters still in LA, Tony spends a lot of his time on video conferences, which is fine. With the Tower's facilities, it's easy enough to conduct those pretty much anywhere and he gets to talk to his Board and the R&D Team whilst he still works on his various projects. 

The amount of work he's managed to get done in a short time is quite astounding and he is quite pleased. It's a good distraction to keep him occupied as he worries about Stephen. Yes. He's turned into that guy. 

There are still staff in the Tower, even without it being the Headquarters. There were some reception staff, coordinating the Tower's official opening and the move from this end as well as security and the cleaning and maintenance staff that a building like Stark Tower can't do without. 

Eliza and Finn had luckily agreed to move to New York and were pleased with the apartment that he had set them up in the building behind Stark Towers. They took care of the Penthouse, the other apartments and them. 

All in all, the move from Malibu had worked out rather well. Tony liked the fact that Stephen came home to him whenever he finished work or whatever else that he did and for the first little while, until that day, that is, Stephen had been happier and he had been more... stable. 

Tony isn't stupid. He knows that something has happened a couple of months ago and the effects of that was lingering. It was serious enough that Grimshaw had accused of Stephen of dying. That? Whatever that was? That hasn't been resolved. 

It's not something physical. Tony knows that. FRIDAY has been keeping such a tight leash on Stephen's health and well being that Tony knows that his lover is alright physically. 

But mentally and emotionally? Stephen was doing better now, but he still had moments of instability in both areas. Moments when he loses his concentration or focus and moments when he seems overwhelmed with emotions that he doesn't want to be feeling. 

It hasn't been easy to watch him go through all that and not being able to do something about it. Tony is a mechanic. A fixer. To know that he can't fix his lover, help him or do something, anything? That is not easy for him. 

But Tony hasn't pried. Aside from the first few times he had questioned Stephen about it, he hasn't asked any further questions. He just has been doing what Stephen had asked him to do. Be there for him. He had hoped that it would be enough. 

But the last couple of days? 

Stephen looks haggard, distracted and worried. Tony really, really , doesn't like it. He feels the worry as it gnaws at him and he isn't quite sure what he should do. Ask the questions again or just wait. 

Luckily, or unluckily, that choice is taken away from him. 

They are in the middle of dinner. Clea was talking animatedly with FRIDAY, who was manifesting herself on the fridge for some reason. They were sitting around the breakfast bar rather than the formal dining room, as they generally did. 

The Middle Eastern inspired char grilled meats, hummus , fattoush salad and thin breads were delicious. It wasn't a meal that you eat with a knife and fork. It's the kind that involves fingers ad messy attempts to wrap enough of the meat, salad, hummus and garlic sauce into the thin bread and delivering it to your mouth before it all falls apart on your lap. 

It's the kind of meal that involves laughter and teasing. 

"No, no, no, FRIDAY! Gothic Lolita! You need to try Gothic Lolita! Here. Use the website I bookmarked for you." Clea says as she browses her phone with one hand whilst dipping the bread into the garlic sauce. 

Tony honestly couldn't care less what the girls were talking about. He was just pleased that FRIDAY seems to be happy with the way that he had helped her to render herself and made the program so that she could pick out clothes from online stores and 'dress' herself in them. 

The crash course he'd given himself on graphic design and computer animation had been worth it. 

"Are you sure about that C? They are kinda dark you know. Everything is black!" FRIDAY replies as she flips through the catalogue that Clea had sent her and the two of them become engrossed in the pictures. Tony turns to look at Stephen. 

Who is observing the two of them with a fond look on his face that very much makes him look like the uncle that he was. It is only in moments like this that Tony remembers that Stephen is at least 25 years older than he is. Not that it matters in their relationship. 

"Well that's the-" Clea pauses mid-sentence as her eyes widen and she stiffens. But she's not the only one. Tony has to react incredibly fast to catch his lover as Stephen doubles over and almost falls out of the chair. 

"Stephen?!" Tony can't help the panic that goes through his voice. He pulls Stephen close to himself and feels the way that Stephen is trembling and the panic only grows as he looks up at Clea, who stands so quickly that the chair clatters behind her. 

"He's- He's here." Stephen moans out and leans heavily into Tony and Clea stiffens even more, if that was a possibility before she grabs for her phone and starts dialling. 

"C, I can-" FRIDAY tries, but Clea shakes her head and holds up a finger as she finishes dialling and puts the phone to her ear. As soon as the call is answered, she says only one word before she hangs up. 

"Now." She says and once that's handled, she is calling another number as she looks over Stephen. 

"Are you able to move, my Lord?" Clea asks and Stephen looks up at her for a moment before he nods slowly as he releases a shuddering breath. Tony doesn’t miss the odd way she addresses him, nor does he miss the seriousness of her tone. 

"In- In a minute. I just- I just need a moment." Stephen says and Clea nods as the phone connects and Tony can hear a faint, polite voice on the other end. 

"I need a vehicle at the Tower. Now." She says and hangs up as soon as her part of the conversation is done. Tony is almost impressed at how charismatic she is as she seems to take charge of the situation. 

"Stephen, what- are you alright, baby?" Tony asks, worry and panic at his throat and Stephen trembles in his arms and takes a deep breath to speak just as FRIDAY speaks up. 

" I am so sorry Boss, Master, but agent Coulson of SHIELD is demanding entry and he's threatening to disable the power to the Tower if I don't let him up here." FRIDAY says and Tony rolls his eyes even in the situation. 

Trust fucking SHIELD and their fucking agents and their fucking inability to understand fucking boundaries. It was really, really starting to do Tony's bloody heady in. 

"He does realise that he can't disable the power in this building right? It's connected to the fucking Arc Reactor. Under. The. Fucking. Hudson!" Tony exclaims as FRIDAY shrugs her shoulders as she manifests herself against the wall in front of him. 

"I know that, Boss, But he doesn't and he's being an idiot. He's threatening to cut the power line if he has to." FRIDAY says and Tony is about to tell her to get security and make him fuck the hell off when Stephen speaks up. 

"No. You need to speak to him. FRIDAY, let him up please, but make sure you give me five minutes?" Stephen says and FRIDAY seems just as surprised as Tony is, from her expression, but she nods slowly. 

"Of course, Master." She says and Tony is almost annoyed at the way the decision is taken away from him, but at the same time, he's also happy that Stephen is actually speaking and his voice seems a bit more steady now. 

"I'll keep him distracted." Clea says as she nods to both of them before leaving the spacious kitchen and heading to the living room. Stephen takes that moment to sit up and to turn so that he is looking directly into Tony's eyes. 

"Do you remember me telling you that there are some things that are going to happen that need to happen?" Stephen asks and Tony nods as Stephen slowly lifts his head from Tony's shoulder and steels himself. 

It's clear that there is something physical happening with Tony. He is in pain. A great deal of pain, if the hazy look in Stephen's eyes are any indication. Tony feels his heart jump at his throat even as he nods. This is important, whatever Stephen is going to say.

"Agent Phil Coulson is going to tell you some things. Some things that are happening that they need your help with. He's also going to give you information. It's- you're going to have questions." Stephen says and Tony finds his eyes narrowing even as he nods. 

"Stephen, what is happening?" Tony asks and Stephen looks away from him for a moment, as if he is thinking, as if he is calculating before he slowly replies. 

"I can't tell you that. Not yet. But when- when you have those questions Anthony, can- Can you promise me that you will give me a chance to answer them be-before you make any decisions about me or us?" Stephen asks and there is so much desperation and insecurity and fear in those eyes that Tony finds himself blinking. 

He hates this. 

He hates that there is something about their relationship that still makes Stephen feel insecure and fearful that Tony would cast him aside. It's almost been two years. Two years of loving each other and working on their relationship and going through the difficult moments together and yet, he still hasn't done enough to make Stephen feel secure. 

But perhaps once that secret, whatever it is that Stephen holds deep inside of him is out and they have dealt with it, he would be better. 

Tony can only hope. 

"Yeah. Yeah Stephen. I can do that. I promise you that." Tony tells him thickly and Stephen gives him a relieved smile as his hands, trembling as badly as Tony had ever seen it, rises up to cup Tony's face gently in his hands. 

"I love you Anthony Edward Stark. I need you to stay safe. I need you to make sure you don't take unnecessary risks . Okay? You're going to see things. You're going to hear things that you don't understand. Let- let me answer those questions. I will answer them. I promise." Stephen says and Tony sighs as he nods and cups his hands over Stephen's as well. 

He can hear Coulson's voice and Clea's. They are out of time, but he doesn't want to break this moment. There is something about the way that Stephen is talking, the way that he is behaving that tells him that this is it. Something bad enough was going to happen that Stephen was preparing to say goodbye and that thought is terrifying. 

"Stephen, you're going someplace aren't you? Somewhere dangerous." Tony asks and Stephen gives him a small smile and nods as he kisses Tony's lips softly before replying. 

"Yes. You have a role to play in the upcoming events, as do I. But I- I will be available if you need me. If you ever need me, all you need to do is call me and I will be there for you." Stephen tells him softly and kisses him again. 

It's a kiss that is intimate and sweet and gentle. It's a kiss that whispers love and care and desperation. It's the kind of kiss that lingers upon both Tony's lips and his mind and will for some time. 

"I love you." Stephen whispers against his lips right before he lets go of Tony's face and stands up and he is about to walk out of the kitchen when Tony grabs him by the arm, turns him around to face him and kisses him hard. 

"I love you too, so don't go and do something stupid." Tony tells him with a faux light tone and Stephen smiles and that smile, that's the one that Tony had needed to see. It was a real smile. Not a reassuring smile, not a smile to hide his feelings. A real, beautiful smile. 

"Shall we?" Stephen says quietly and Tony nods as he breathes and puts on his game face just as Stephen does. They make their way out of the kitchen and Stephen manages to hide his tremors, his unsteadiness until he manages to get into the elevator with Clea and departs. 

Leaving Tony with Agent Coulson. Great. Tony isn't sure what the fuck is happening and if the world is ending, but it better be if he has to deal with fucking Phil Coulson. 

A moment later, he seriously regrets that thought. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

30 April 2011

This is a surprise. 

The moment that they are out of danger and there are no more orders to follow for the time being, like magic, IT slides into the background almost and Loki finds himself almost in control of his own body. 

He blinks and his eyes blink and Loki feels the joy of being able to control his own body overwhelm him for a moment. Oh thank the Norns, he thinks as he takes in his surroundings. 

They are in some sort of underground space. Another bunker, he would assume. Somewhere they used to store weapons and the like, from the looks of it. 

Clint Barton was an effective agent and he was directing everyone and everything. It was one of the lesser known SHIELD facilities, apparently and there was plenty of equipment and facilities available for Selvig to start his work again and Barton was arranging for the rest to be brought over. 

No one else was killed as they took over the facility. Loki hadn't been quite present, but IT had been mostly under control, mostly due to the physical pain that IT and Loki suffered from and the heavy drain of power it had taken them to get to Midgard to begin with. 

The knowledge that they would need the assistance of the humans to accomplish their goals had also helped for IT to take the more pacifist approach to the situation and had taken to subduing them all by putting them under control rather than killing them. 

Loki supposes he should be glad. 

"You alright?" The gruff voice of Clint Barton asks and Loki looks up at him and wonders what response he should give, but he doesn't really get to decide when the archer does it for him. 

"You need to eat and you need to sleep." He says and Loki lets out a huff that could pass for a laugh if he was so inclined. He's not. Clint Barton looks at him with some concern before he sighs. 

"There's not much we can do until we get all the equipment in place. We have the security set up and you need to rest up if you are going to actually do something." He says and Loki has to agree. 

Clint Barton looks exhausted and so does the others that he'd taken from the initial bunker that they have been in. Loki is, if he were to be honest, actually too tired to stand up under his own power. He's not even quite sure how IT has managed the escape from the bunker to begin with. 

They are low on all the resources that they need to keep their body functioning. Clint Barton takes the exhaustion and his inability to walk out of the equation by pulling him up and slinging his arm over his own shoulder. 

"There are bunk beds here." Clint Barton says as he starts to walk and Loki manages to get his feet to shuffle along to the movement. 

"Do you not resent me?" Loki asks and Barton pauses for a moment before he continues to walk. 

"There is a part of me that does and once this is all over and whatever you've done to me goes away, I probably will." Barton says and Loki nods slowly. That's a fairer response than what he had expected. 

"Good." Loki says quietly and Barton pauses again and looks at him. Quizzically. 

"You're different. Your eyes aren't as- it's not as bright blue as it was." Barton says with some surprise and Loki nods slowly. He had figured as much. 

IT must have exhausted ITs own pool of energies and had more or less fallen asleep inside of their minds and the control had shifted over to Loki. With that, with IT not being in control, the Mind Stone's power over his mind was limited and it must show in his eyes. 

"When my eyes are bright blue, be wary. IT is a creature that enjoys the death and destruction that IT causes." Loki says and Clint Barton nods slowly as he looks at the Sceptre that Loki still holds and has not yet let go once. 

He was incapable of letting it go. He figures that until all of the commands have been obeyed and until the control from the Other is snapped, he will be forced to hold it and be linked to it and be enslaved to it. 

"You're just as much of a slave as I am, aren't you?" Barton asks and Loki isn't too surprised by the sharp observation. What this man didn't have in academic smarts, he more than makes up for the street smarts. Loki had seen that much in the man's mind. 

"It matters not. The destruction and deaths will still be wrought by my hands." Loki mutters as he slumps further. It's exhausting to keep control over the body when there is so little of his own resources left. 

Now that he is on Midgard, he can actually feel Stephen. Their Connection isn't so stretched anymore and there is a certain amount of focus that he can draw upon. But there is no power that he can draw from that Connection. 

Even if that were to be possible, which it eventually will be when their Bond is strong enough, Loki will not ever do that to his Soulmate. Not without his permission. Not when he had already violated enough of the Connection between them with his heinous actions. 

"Yeah well. When this is all over, is there going to be anything left to fix?" Clint Barton asks and Loki wishes that he can reply, but he can't. Already, he can start to feel the Other clawing back into his head and he sways heavily in Barton's grip as he quickly pushes himself into the back of his mind and relinquishes all control over the body. 

The Other all but shakes awake IT and pulls it back into the shared mind space and Loki does everything that he can to crawl into the deep dark corner he had been hiding out in and forces himself behind the shield and waits with bated breath until it is over. 

He doesn't watch. He doesn't listen. He doesn't make a single sound even in his own mind because there is no where for him to be safe.

Despite that, the message is so clear and so harsh that Loki cannot ignore it. 

"Do not fail us." 

~~~ 

Saturday

30 April 2011 

Get out of the country. Go somewhere quiet and safe. Now. - N.R

Clea looks down at her phone and at the message and fights the urge to sigh. Then a moment later, she gives into the urge because why bother hiding it? 

There is a warm feeling in her chest. The friendship with Natasha has been difficult to build. For a woman like Natasha, who has lived mission to mission, training to training and work to work, there hasn't been much of socialising outside of her profession. 

Natasha Romanov had a grand total of one friend, no social media presence and though she knew enough about what was generally happening in the media, very little cultural awareness and definitely very little pop culture awareness. 

It had taken time to get her to open up and to accept that Clea really didn't want anything other than a friend and for the woman to relax enough around her. For her to make the time out of her schedule, which it turns out was really easy when even as a SHIELD agent, outside of missions Natasha really didn't have all that much work to do. 

Either way, they had been meeting up quite regularly for movie nights, for theatre nights, for musical nights etc. In other words, the things that Clea would be dragging a boyfriend to if she had one, she was dragging Natasha to because that's what BFFs do for each other. 

Clea knew that Stephen and Tony were both worried about her friendship with Natasha, as was the Order, but everyone had agreed that Clea was mature enough and smart enough to be trusted with handling Natasha. More importantly, Clea knew exactly what Natasha was. That helps. 

The Natasha that Clea manages to get to know prefers the comedies over the tragedies. Finds political dramas frustrating and spy movies an affront to her profession. She likes diet cherry coke, likes her popcorn with no butter on it and only salt and loves chocolate milkshakes. 

Natasha is protective of those that she cares about and because she has so little that she does care about, Clea, it is clear, becomes a priority for her, as is Clint Barton. 

Though she never mentions any names, Clea knows that Natasha was trying to extend the hand that Clea had extended to her to Steve Rogers. To help him adjust to the new world. To be the friendly face and support that he needs. 

She finds it difficult and she is worried about making mistakes. Clea helps her through that, telling her that it is always scary to take the first step, but sometimes, all someone needs is to know that they are loved for and is cared for in this cruel and crazy world. Natasha had laughed at that. 

I can't. I don't know what's going on but stay safe. - C.S

Clea messages back and hopes that the Black Widow hasn't ditched the phone yet. The message wasn't sent from the usual number that Natasha uses. 

Which means that she was breaking protocol to even warn Clea about the upcoming dangers and she was doing that because she cares. 

I will. You too. Take care of Pepper and your cousin. I'll take care of Tony.  

The reply comes before Clea has a chance to look away from the phone. Clea smiles before her attention is drawn back to the preparations being made by one of the younger Disciples approaching her. 

"Master Strange, what did you want me to do with this?" She asks as she lifts up the box of unclaimed artefacts. 

The Mystic Order is preparing for war. They will hide their identities and themselves as much as possible and hide the presence of magic as much as possible, but a war was coming to Earth and they weren't going to sit back and watch it take place. 

"Pass them along the other Disciples. See if any of them will activate and choose a Disciple." Clea instructs them and they nod grimly before walking off towards where their members are gathered. 

More and more artefacts were choosing their masters now than ever before. That's not a surprise and it has been a trend for the past little while. Given what was going to be occurring, there is no doubt in the Council's mind that the Artefacts were waking up to the dangers and choosing to be useful in the upcoming battles. 

Which was a good thing. 

But also a bad thing. For them to awaken, so many of them, so rapidly, it meant that the danger that they faced was bad enough that they felt it call from the Universe. 

Clea straightens and puts her phone away before she takes a deep breath. There is a quiet humdrum happening in the Kamar-Taj and the Sanctums now as they all prepare. 

Stephen is making his final preparations too. The Masters are dividing up their numbers to make sure that Kamar-Taj and the Sanctums will have all of the personnel necessary to protect them just in case and to hold up the shields around the planet as much as possible even as they work. 

New York is where most of their members will be. The Sanctum has already expanded with rooms with bunk beds and healing chambers so that the Order members that will need to stay there for the duration can. It's amazing how instinctive the Sanctums are to their needs. 

Clea needs to return to the meeting with the Council. She may not be an official member of the Council yet, but she has a role to play in the upcoming conflict and she needs to know what to do in the case of emergencies. 

There is a faint tremor in her hands that she stops by pulling her hands into tight fists. This is no time for self doubt, fear and hesitation. This is the time to act, to move and to do whatever it is necessary to make sure that New York and indeed their world will survive through this turmoil. 

But even as she thinks that, Clea can't help but remember the tragedy she has seen in Harlem even as she knows that this will be worse, no matter what she or they can do. 

But it is better than standing still and watching. 

Anything is better than that. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Saturday 

30 April 2011 

Well. 

Tony looks over the files that Coulson had brought over and stares at the screen for a long time as all of the pieces slot into place. 

The Avengers Initiative. 

A group of extraordinary people, brought together to fight against the threats that normal people could not deal with. It's a noble idea and with the right execution, there is every chance that it can accomplish some amazing things. Of that, Tony has no doubt. 

But he's not sure if SHIELD has the right approach to the situation. 

Agent Natasha Romanov. 

The specs on her are incredibly impressive, Tony will grant anyone that. She has the intelligence gathering skills, the abilities to both fight and fight well and kill without a blink of an eye. She will be both deadly on the field and off the field. 

Black Widow, her code name isn't just her code name. It is what the Russians used to call the female assassins that they would send out. Some of them were the Red Sparrows, trained in the red rooms and others were called Black Widows. 

It stands to reason that would be her code name. 

Agent Clint Barton. 

If that man isn't a Mutant, Tony would eat his own hand. Tony sees the feats that the spy pulls off and there is no way, Tony knows, that a human being would be able to aim so accurately, so quickly whilst moving at a moving target. 

There is a reason why the suit had programs for that shit and why he left it up to JARVIS to aim and do what he needed to do to get things done. Rhodey can do some of that himself manually with his experience, but he can't fine aim like Clint Barton can and he also can't do it with an arrow, which by all rights is lighter and easily led astray by the winds. 

He's not a bad addition. 

Whilst Black Widow is ground force and would be required to be a hitter on the ground, Hawkeye, as Clint Barton was known, would be up high, acting as the eyes and scout as well as their long range support. That makes sense. 

What doesn't make sense is the fact that they are both long time SHIELD agents with clear allegiances to SHIELD and their agendas. Which is worrisome. 

With both of them well trained in manipulation tactics, Tony can already see what Fury's plan is for the team and he really, really doesn't like it. 

Dr Bruce Banner is a surprise. 

And when Tony sees the wanton destruction the Hulk, Dr Banner's... alternate form, so to say, does to Harlem in the footage? Tony is outraged. But he does watch the footage carefully enough to understand that it isn't the Hulk that was doing the bulk of the damage or had instigated the conflict. 

The 'mindless beast' as the SHIELD file had called him, wasn't so mindless. He was trying to stop the Abomination , the other green monster from destroying and killing. So that, at least, Tony can somewhat forgive. 

Besides, Dr Bruce Banner is brilliant. Both as a medical doctor as well as a brilliant scientific doctor. Tony had read enough of his work before he had all but disappeared from the academic and the medical world that he was actually looking forward to meeting the man. 

Giant green monster or not. 

But Tony can already see what SHIELD's approach to the man was going to be. They were going to be calling him an ally but treating him like a threat. And the more that they treat him like a threat, the more confidence that Banner will lose in his humanity and in himself until he has nothing left to hold the creature back and that is truly dangerous. 

Something to look out for there. 

Steve Rogers. 

And that is a surprise to Tony that he really, really hadn't expected. Captain fucking America. Seriously . Tony hadn't really believed Howard's drunk talks about Agent Peggy Carter and Captain America and Steve Rogers and all the adventures that Howard had allegedly had before he settled down, married and had Tony. 

He has a feeling that at the very least, the part about Steve Rogers may have been true and that he really had worked with the creator of the one and only working super soldier serum that had been stable enough and strong enough to create Captain America, the legend. 

Tony had heard enough of the stories as he had grown up from both his father and from his tutors. Superhuman strength, durability, stamina and the bravery and courage to be the soldier that the world had needed at the time. 

Only, after extensive research, Tony had come to a simple conclusion about the man. He was an idiot. A brave one, but an idiot. Yes, some of his strategies had been brilliant and it had worked out well. But even in the glowing reports that were no doubt made after the fact with the view of presenting the good ol' Captain in the best way possible, Tony can see the gaps in his tactics. 

Honestly, a lot of the guerrilla tactics? Brilliant. Well thought out and well planned. The actually assaults? Reckless and dangerous. For a man that talked about every man counting and wanting to serve and protect the people, the Captain had left a good old trail of death and destruction in his wake that Tony doesn't like. 

Tony knows that there isn't a lot that he can judge the captain on considering the fact that there was blood on his hands too, but he wonders if the Captain's approach of all Nazis are evil and must die took into account the collateral damage of the forest fires lit, the buildings that were destroyed, including historical buildings etc. 

Tony gets the distinct feeling that Fury plans to bring the 'Avengers' together under the banner of good ol' Captain America and put him in charge of them. Which as far as Tony is concerned, isn't the most brilliant idea considering the fact that the man has been under ice for 70 years and was still yet to catch up on history let alone media and technology. 

But his file isn't what really has Tony worried and staying up far later than he should be considering the meeting he knows will happen in 26 hours on top of the Helicarrier flying over the world to pick up the various passengers. 

He hasn't slept a wink since he'd gotten the file and that was... the night before. 

He's really not quite sure if he should have consulted on the Helicarrier design, if he was being honest, He's also not sure if he should have sold SHIELD his Quinjets but it was almost too late to be worrying about that now. 

Thor. 

A fucking god. Alien, if Tony was going to be exact about it, but close enough to a god from what SHIELD has gathered that Tony could agree with the designation. Impervious to pretty much anything that humans could throw at him. 

Armed with a hammer. A hammer for godsakes that can call lightning and can make him fly. A man that dressed in ancient Viking clothes and was the very origins of the legends and myths of entire countries. 

Holy fucking shit. 

Tony had not been prepared for that. But between seeing that and the odd file that had been slipped in about the energy signatures that could not be explained and the bright lights that were used as a method of some sort of travel that allowed the god to move between the ' realms ', as they put it, Tony has more questions than answers. 

And they are not for Thor. 

The immediate question that comes to him is whether or not Stephen is like Thor. That would explain Stephen's youth and his abilities, but from what he has seen so far, Stephen didn't dress in Viking outfits and he avoided alcohol rather than enjoying it. 

Tony isn't quite sure whether or not alcohol should be a category for godhood but it's all he's got to work with. He googles the Norse mythology but honestly? He's not sure what is myth and what is based on truth. 

But amongst the SHIELD files is the mention of the one word that he had never thought about that would actually explain far more than what he was willing to accept. 

Magic. 

If magic was real, then what defies science and logic could happen through it and if that is the case then what Stephen can do, which goes beyond the limits of Mutants and humans, and if Stephen wasn't a god, then magic had to be the answer. It's the only answer that makes logical sense. 

And the mere fact that he'd just used the words magic and logical in the same sentence in his head is enough to drive him to insanity. 

But that's not what he should be focusing on. He should be focusing on the Tesseract and what it is and what it might be doing. He'd found notes from his father's journal that mentioned the Tesseract but he hadn't understood it. 

The Arc Reactor and the new element that he had created to put inside of it is something like the Tesseract. The bright blue glow that they both give out is unfortunately a common factor that Tony can't ignore. 

Tony wonders if it's okay to call Stephen. It probably is, but, whatever Stephen was doing seemed serious and he's not sure if he wants to be interrupting him if he's busy. 

But as he thinks of that, the phone rings. 

"Sir, it's Dr Strange, shall I put him through?" JARVIS asks him and Tony nods sharply. Speak of the devil and he will come calling, as they say.

"What time is it where you are?" Tony asks and there is a pregnant pause on the other end of the line before Stephen sighs warily and answers. 

"It's... 4 in the morning." Stephen says and Tony knows that his lover didn't take a flight. He would have found out about that. But for the time zone to be so vastly different? His lover was on the other side of the fucking planet. 

"So. Thor." Is the only thing that Tony says and Stephen doesn't say anything for a long while before he takes a deep breath. 

"Do you want me there?" He asks and Tony considers it. He really does. But Stephen's voice sounds exhausted and Tony might not know a lot about what Stephen can do but he does know that it requires a price and he's not sure if Stephen should be paying that price right now. 

"Is it going to cost you a lot to be here?" Tony asks and there is an almost forced chuckle on the other end of the line. 

"No." Stephen says and that's answer enough for Tony. He nods slowly to himself. 

"Then please." Tony says politely and he hears the phone hang up just as he hears a soft whooshing sound. The one he'd heard the night Stane took his reactor. Tony isn't too surprised when Stephen slowly walks out of the bedroom, looking incredibly tired and drained. 

"You look like shit." Tony tells him and Stephen gives him a weak smile but keeps his distance. Which is... new and Tony doesn't like it. 

Stephen hasn't kept that polite distance between them since they'd officially started... dating, Tony supposes is the right word for what they were doing. Became involved. That might work better for his sensibilities. 

"There is a lot going on." Stephen says and Tony nods slowly as he gestures to the screens all over the lab and what he had been looking at before Stephen had called. 

"You will have to watch out for the Hulk. Dr Bruce Banner is mild mannered and I believe that you will quite enjoy his company, but the Hulk can be dangerous. Impervious to pretty much anything anyone can throw at him." Stephen says as he looks over the files and Tony doesn't stop him or question him. 

"Steve Rogers too is more durable than you would think. Strong too. He is a heavy hitter but he prefers close quarters rather than being ranged." Stephen continues. 

"Natasha Romanov, you already know about. She uses tasers with the widow bites, the bands around her wrists and that can be dangerous to your heart so you will have to be careful." Tony raises his eyes at that. He hadn't looked that closely into Black Widow's arsenal. 

He'd been too distracted by Thor. 

"Clint Barton is deadly with a bow, a gun, any ranged weapon you can think of. He is good on his feet and close range as well. His Mutant powers pretty much gives him the senses of a hawk like his code name." Tony mulls over the questions that he wants to ask even as he smirks a self satisfied smirk at that last tidbit.

He was right with the whole Clint Barton being a mutant thing. Good. 

"And Thor... If you are wearing your suit, his lightning won't affect you too badly. But Thor has a temper and he tends to get a little... blinded by his emotions." Stephen says but as he looks over Thor, Tony can see the stark difference in his lover's approach. There is tension in the lines of his body that had appeared with mentioning Thor that Tony doesn't like. 

"What he does. That's not science is it." It's not a question. Stephen doesn't turn to look at him but nods his head sharply enough for Tony to see from behind. 

"And it's not mutant abilities." Another sharp nod. Tony takes a shuddering breath as he asks the last question. 

"It's magic isn't it?" There is a hesitation this time but Stephen nods and Tony needs to sit down. 

He gets his shaky legs over to the sofa and sits down heavily. He's really glad that he'd created a lounge area in the lab with sofas wide, big and comfortable enough for the two of them to get into any activity that they wanted to get into. 

"Are you like him?" Tony asks and he keeps his eyes on Stephen, who shakes his head. 

"No. I'm not an Asgardian god or an alien. I am human like I told you." Stephen says and yeah. Tony remembers that well enough. Stephen's shoulder slump as he decidedly does not turn to look at Tony but keeps his eyes focused on the screen and the various action shots and movies playing on the screen all over the place over the Avengers. 

"What you do. It's like what he does." It's not a question. Stephen nods slowly. Tony wishes that his lover would turn around so that he can see the grey-blue eyes. 

"I wasn't going to come. I was going to wait until everything was over and then I was going to talk to you. But I couldn't. I couldn't stay away from you and I needed- I needed to be near you." Stephen says and there is a soft tremble in his voice as Stephen leans heavily on the table in front of him. 

"Why were you going to wait?" Tony asks and Stephen lets out a broken laugh. 

"Because when you see him, you will have more questions. And I thought that it would be best to answer it all at once but I couldn't stay away. Not when-" Stephen pauses as he takes a shuddering breath and Tony can't help but feel that there is something distinctly wrong with his lover and that somehow, something was hurting Stephen and breaking him apart. 

"We call ourselves Sorcerers of the Mystic Order. It's a ridiculous name that is a remnant of our history. The Order has been around for thousands of years." Stephen says slowly and the constant flow of Stephen's voice and the heavy atmosphere stops Tony from going to his lover. 

"The Order has one purpose. To protect this planet from all mystical harms." Stephen says and Tony raises an eyebrow at that. Mystical harms, what the fuck does that mean? 

"Stephen, what have you been doing to do that? What has it cost you?" Tony wishes that Stephen will turn to look at him. But he doesn't. 

Tony can't do this anymore. 

He gets up from the sofa and makes his way to his lover and wraps his arms around Stephen's waist and lays his head against Stephen's shoulder and feels the doctor stiffen. 

"This is why you said that Vincent died isn't it? He really died." Tony says and Stephen huffs out a laugh. Tony hates it when he's right. 

"1082 times." Stephen says quietly and Tony holds him tighter as the realisation hits. He wants to ask how that was possible. How was Stephen alive in his arms right now when he died that many times. Who killed him? 

Was there pain? 

That's a question that he doesn't have to ask as Stephen's body trembles in his arms. This is a memory that Stephen would rather not recall. Tony coaxes Stephen to turn around and the doctor does so with a sigh and hangs his head, hiding it immediately in Tony's shoulder as he leans heavily against Tony and his hold. 

That's fine. 

Tony can use the comfort and so can Stephen. The idea of his lover dying 1082 times at the hands of something to protect the planet... 

Fuck. 

Tony can't process this. Not right now. He is going to add the image of Stephen dying over and over again into his nightmares and he can't even think about the magic stuff and what that all means. Not yet. 

"So you are a wizard huh?" Tony says with a light tone. He can't help it. He is still processing the information and the disbelief is still there but it doesn't change the way that he feels about Stephen or about their relationship. 

Just as he had thought, knowing that Stephen uses magic. Or that he was Vincent Strange, or that he is a three headed snake, won't change the way that Tony feels about him. 

It's too late for that. 

He is already in love with everything that Stephen is, was and will be. That love is eternal and the thought of that is quite terrifying. Tony blinks when that thought passes through his mind. He had known that this was permanent between them but eternal? Whoa. 

Everyone that Tony had loved had gotten hurt or had died. He's not sure about the emotional investment and the pain that may be coming his way. 

But with Stephen in his arms, Tony has a feeling that he might be able to get through it all. Somehow. 

"So, what is your job exactly, besides making balloon animals?" Tony asks him lightly and Stephen huffs out a laugh. It's a watery one, but it's a laugh and when he lifts his head and looks into Tony's eyes, his grey blue eyes wet with unshed tears, the warmth of his love is there and so is the amusement. 

"Protecting your reality, douchebag." Stephen tells him and Tony laughs as he pulls the doctor close and kisses him. 

"Good. I always knew you were looking out for me." Tony tells him and Stephen smiles as he leans down for another kiss. 

It's a sweet and intimate one. 

There are more questions to be asked, of course and they will be asked and no doubt answered. But for now, Tony has no more questions. 

All he wants is the comfort of his lover in his arms and the awe that he feels for what his lover is and has been. What the cost of being what he is , must have been. Tony doesn't want to think about Stephen dying those deaths. He doesn't want to think about what it means to have the love of his life risking his life every day to protect their world and reality as it were. 

With Stephen lightly trembling his arms, Tony shoves all of those thoughts out of his head and focuses on kissing those beautiful lips and wiping away the tears that have gathered in those wondrous grey blue eyes. 

"So I have my very own wizard." Tony says as he pulls away from the kiss and Stephen gives him a suffering look. 

"Sorcerer, Anthony. Sorcerer." Stephen corrects him but they both know that Tony has no intention of calling Stephen anything other than a wizard. Tony smiles as he pulls Stephen towards the sofa. 

"Well, Mr Wizard, how about we make some magic?" Tony suggests with the wriggle of his eyebrows and Stephen laughs as Tony had wished. 

Good. 

Tony needs this moment just to take in the comfort of his lover in his arms and Stephen needs the physical contact to reassure him that Tony still loves him, cares for him and wants him. 

Besides, sex always did help Tony clear his head. 

~~~ 

Saturday 

30 April 2011 

Steve looks around with unveiled wonder. 

The aircraft carrier is impressive. It is even more fucking impressive now that it's flying and it's even more amazing than anything he had seen in the movies. 

The aircraft carrier's interior is straight out of a science fiction movie as far as Steve is concerned. 

He had seen the technology available in the SHIELD facilities before as he had trained and tried to learn about the 21st century and catch up on the time that he had missed out on, but this is a a whole new experience. 

Natasha's presence at the aircraft carrier is... reassuring. She has been his guide through the reintegration process that he has been going through. She's the one that taught him the modern weapons. She's the one that taught him the joys of living in New York city. 

The one that took him to Brooklyn and organised for him to have an apartment above the old boxing gym that he used to go to. She's the one that helps him deal with the pain that he couldn't deal with on his own. 

Slowly, he is adjusting. 

It's not a quick process and he has to be patient. Everything feels new and different and his world has been turned upside down by all of this. It's a pain that he doesn't want to deal with but must deal with in order to move forward. 

That isn't a fast process either. 

There is so much anger and rage inside of him that sometimes, it's not enough to just punch the punching bags. 

Sometimes, Steve just wants to let the rage out against the fucking Nazis that had taken away everything that he had cared about. Hydra and their insidious weapons and machinations is what has destroyed the life that he had hoped to build. 

But he doesn't have that enemy. 

Not right now. Right now, he has an unknown enemy that claims to be a god. Steve doesn't understand all the talk about Loki and Thor and the Hulk, but he knows that there is a job to do and he has to get his head on straight. 

Coulson and Natasha lead him and Dr Banner, a rather mild mannered scientist that reminds him of Erskin. A little too much, even. The pain of that loss is still fresh in his mind too. 

It may have been 70 years for the rest of the world, but for him, it was less than 6 months ago. Steve can't help but pay attention to the mild mannered doctor and wonder how someone so calm and so quiet could turn into the green monster that he had seen in the videos. 

"You do realise that Coulson is a huge fan right?" Natasha says as soon as Coulson is out of earshot as she leads him and Dr Banner towards the bridge. 

"I thought Coulson was gonna swoon. Did he ask you to sign his Captain America trading cards yet?" Natasha asks and there is a light teasing tone there that he recognises. It's the tone that she uses whenever she teases him about his fame and legacy and legend status as Captain America. He sighs. 

The adoration and near worship that he gets and the awe he inspires isn't new. He was used to that from back in the day too, the moment they realised what he could do. But it's different now. 

It's more and he can't help but smile a little easier, be a bit more confident, stand up a little straighter when he sees those adoring looks. But it's only really Natasha that treats him as if he is a normal human being. 

"Trading cards?" Steve asks as he fights off the blush that rises. He's not sure how he feels about being a legend. There is a certain pride in there, certainly. He has visited the museums and had seen the displays on him. It's... odd. 

He had been a scrawny kid with too many health problems that couldn't even pass the basic medical tests required to get into the army. But with Dr Erskin's help, he had become the super soldier that the world had needed at the time. 

But his actions and what he had become has now passed into history and has become legendary and he's not... quite sure how to deal with that. No one recognises him of course. They are used to the outfit, the mask and all that. But there are plenty of photographs of him out in the world that there are times when people turn to look at him for a second time. 

When he visits the museums to mourn the losses of his friends and visits the memorials, he has to wear the hats and cover his face to make sure he isn't recognised. Natasha has been helping him with that. 

Teaching him to be stealthy, to hide in plain sight. She makes it possible for him to go out and do the ordinary things that he used to like to do. Like walking through the city, running around the parks and enjoying the life that he now gets to live. 

"They're vintage, he's very proud." Natasha tells him with a tongue in cheek expression and Steve rolls his eyes. 

Despite his reservations about having a dame as a friend, she has become his friend. A pillar for him to lean on and he was grateful for her support. 

It's as they walk that Steve realises that he has been incredibly rude and forgot to introduce himself or acknowledge the doctor next to him. 

"Dr Banner." Steve says, turning to address the mild mannered man. Steve can't help but run his eyes over the man. The messy light brown curls, the clothes that look slept in and the furtive look in his eyes. He's not confident and well put together like Erskin used to be. But he has that odd calm mild demeanour that Erskin used to have. 

"Oh yeah, Hi. They told me you'd be coming." Dr Banner says but it's clear that he is distracted. Ah. Of course, Steve thinks. He'd read the report and he hadn't been able to understand all of it, but he does know that Dr Banner is the one that had been picked to look for the Tesseract.

"Word is you can find the cube." Steve says warmly to the doctor. It's obvious that the doctor is nervous. Steve can see it in the way that the doctor's eyes dart about here and there. 

Steve knows why. The files that he has read on the good doctor has clearly outlined why he might be distrustful of the government types. Being surrounded like this is most likely not giving him a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings or a sense of security no doubt. 

By all accounts, the man is a fugitive. A man with a beast inside of him that has destroyed countless homes and buildings and lives. But Steve can accept that it was out of the man's control and that if he was willing to fight for the right side, he can accept working with him. 

Erskin too had worked for the wrong side of the conflict before he had turned his back on them. He'd been forced to give up secrets that gave the Red Skull the power that he had held. 

Steve isn't quite sure if there is anything he can do to make things any easier for the doctor, except show that he has no fear. 

"Is that the only word on me?" The doctor asks and Steve gets his chance quickly enough. He gives the man a smile. 

"Only word I care about." Steve tells the man and there is visible relief in the other man's face that tells Steve that he has made the right decision. 

"Must be strange for you, all of this." Banner says and yeah, Steve can appreciate his sentiment too. Steve must look like a lost soul in a place like this, his eyes wide open and trying to take in as much as possible. It's difficult for him to adjust. 

"Well, this is actually kind of familiar." Steve says as he looks around to all of the agents around him. That at the very least is familiar. He's not familiar with the rest of the settings. 

The doctor nods slowly and Steve wishes that they can talk a little more and to get to know each other better. He always preferred to work with those that he knew. But there is no more time. 

There is a job to do. 

~~~

Saturday 

30 April 2011 

Stephen looks down at Tony's sleeping visage. 

He is exhausted. He knows that he ought to rest. Everything hurts. The sex that he'd shared with Tony, hurried and passionate had been perfect and it was enough for him to forget the physical and emotional pain for a short while, but not for long. 

As soon as Tony had come deep inside of him and they had shared those sloppy afterglow kisses, the pain had returned. It was sharp and almost unbearable. But Stephen had ignored it, held himself together so that he could get Tony to bed. 

Now that his lover was asleep and he could relax the control he'd kept over himself, he can't help but curl into himself as the pain overwhelms him. 

This isn't his own pain. 

And it's not Tony's either. It's Loki's. His pain. His anguish. His despair that was raking through Stephen and making it so very difficult to breathe. Loki most likely doesn't even know that Stephen was pulling away as much of the pain and as much of the suffering as he can from the god through their Connection. 

Stephen hadn't meant to. 

But the moment that Loki had arrived on Earth, Stephen had felt the sharp pains that he was under and it had been overwhelming. Loki was in extreme pain. The pain had travelled along the Connection that they share and Stephen hadn't been able to refuse the call for help. 

The Connection snapping back into place had also been overwhelming and though they haven't had physical contact outside of that one night in the clearing, the magical contacts that they have shared has matured the Bond just enough for Stephen to feel the god's pain and anguish as if it were his own.

It is... unbearable . Stephen doesn't know how the god was continuing to function. Being near Tony and being with him and the physical contact they have shared and the strong Connection between them helps to focus Stephen and keep his control tight. 

But that's it. 

Stephen can't share his pain with Tony. Even if he could , he wouldn't. He can't bear the thought of Tony being in pain. He has suffered enough with the poisoning that Stephen could have prevented but... hadn't. 

Stephen needs to go.

He knows that. He should go back to Kamar-Taj . He should meditate. The Council was resting up for the night, but soon, it will be morning at Kamar-Taj and they will be back to their planning and plotting. 

Tonight, Tony will go to the Stuttgart Gala and intercept Loki. It is also in that Gala that the Council and Stephen had decided would be the best time for Stephen to see Loki. 

There is a lot to be done still. 

There is a fight coming. A bad one. Stephen isn't sure how the meeting between Loki and Tony is going to go, but he gets the feeling that it might not be the most pleasant meeting and he worries for the inventor. 

If Loki reveals anything about the Connection to Stephen, Stephen isn't quite sure how the inventor was going to react. 

The conversation that he had been dreading had not been as difficult has he had thought it might have been. Tony had been patient and accepting. 

The time had been right. 

The fear had always been that if Tony were to learn about the existence of magic too early, there was every chance that he could have used his science and technology to... harness it and to abuse it and become the villain that he must not become. 

Tony's intelligence is unparalleled and so is magic's ability to corrupt those that aren't meant for it. But now, with Stephen firmly in his life and able to guide him, if magic is truly what he desires, there is very little danger that those horrible courses of actions would be repeated in this universe. 

The Time Stone and the geas hadn't prevented Stephen from speaking and answering the questions. There hasn't been many to be answered. When Tony processes all the information and truly grasps what Stephen is, he knows that there will be more questions. 

But for now, all Stephen can feel is relief that Tony hadn't spurned him. That Tony had accepted quite easily that Stephen was a sorcerer and had let that information sink into him. 

Stephen isn't sure how he could express that gratitude he feels at the acceptance. At the fact that the love that Tony had for him was somehow strong enough to survive the reveal. 

Stephen is still disbelieving himself, but he is most definitely comforted by the knowledge and it makes things a little easier. 

Still, it is but one hurdle that their relationship has passed. Loki is a hurdle Stephen isn't sure if their relationship and himself could survive. 

Yet, the time moves forward and with it, the course of action that he must take. Stephen sighs as he looks down at his lover again and suppresses as much of the pain as possible so that he can reach out and gently caress his lover's sleeping face and lean down to kiss him gently. 

"I love you Anthony Edward Stark." Stephen whispers to him softly. So soft that he knows Tony won't stir. He should go. He really should. But before he does, there is one more thing that he must do. 

Stephen lays a hand over the titanium bracelet that he had gifted to Tony Valentines Day. He lays a hand over it and checks the spells. He makes sure that they are all in place and adds one more. 

Whatever happens during the invasion, Stephen knows that Tony is going to take a nuclear bomb through the portal. He knows that there is a chance that Tony might not come back through it. There are universes in which he doesn't and he perishes. He also knows that there are universes in which Tony does not survive the fall. 

That cannot be allowed to pass. 

Stephen strengthens the spells. He adds the spells to ensure that when that portion of the fight happens, he will be aware of the situation. Stephen doesn't care what it takes. Revealing himself to the world, his own life, his own goddamn soul. 

Anthony Edward Stark will not perish. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Saturday 

30 April 2011

Barton is clever. 

He is so very good at his job and so is Selvig. Finding the people that Barton had pointed out is all too easy. Compelling them with the Sceptre has been all too easy for IT. Loki had watched from the background and leaned on that need for more people for the operation. 

IT doesn't kill anyone else. With Stephen on the same Realm as him and the Connection not as stretched as it used to be, Loki can actually breathe and focus without the regular contact. 

That means that Loki has a little bit more control on IT and he can pass on the suggestions. It has worked better than he had expected. 

Loki and IT has also been resting. Taking the time that they need to breathe and to get their plans and equipment sorted. Selvig hasn't been resting. He has been working around the clock with the Tesseract and his obsession with it is dangerous. 

Loki knows it, but IT doesn't care and neither of them can afford to stop Selvig. Not right now. Not when the order given to them is so fiercely embedded into their minds. 

"Is this the stuff you need?" Barton asks as he pulls up something on a tablet and moves towards Selvig. 

All the information that Loki and IT has managed to gather from the minds that they have overwhelmed help Loki and IT navigate through the world. They understand a lot more of what is happening in this world and these people than they had expected. 

"Yes, iridium. It's found in meteorites, it forms anti-protons. It's very hard to get hold of." Selvig says and he is a bundle of nervous energy and Loki feels sympathy rise at seeing him. 

There are minds that are more fragile than others. Selvig's mind was one of those. Fragile and already with enough of that light madness that the Sceptre and the contact with the Tesseract has broken down the man's poor mind and Loki isn't sure if anything could put it back together again. He sighs inwardly. Another name to add to the list of those that he has harmed against the will of his Soulmate. 

During his introspection, Loki has lost track of the conversation between Selvig and Barton, but he does pay attention when Selvig addresses him directly as he walks towards the pair. 

"Hey! the Tesseract is showing me so much. It's more than just knowledge, it's... truth." The man says and Loki understands. IT doesn't. Not really. Not without Loki's full magical knowledge available to IT, but IT does know that the Tesseract is powerful and it isn't... sentient per se, but there is enough in there that for a mind like Selvig's, it must be enlightening. 

IT too is drawn to the Tesseract as Loki and Selvig are . There is so much power to be harnessed and though it is trapped in the Tesseract and it's power strangled by it, IT and Loki both knows what is inside and what it is capable of. 

Loki hungers for it. 

For the freedom it can offer. The Space Stone with its power to close the gap in any bit of space and to allow the user to travel freely despite the differences? There is nowhere that Loki would not be able to go with it. 

He could instantly travel to Asgard to see Frigga. He could see Hel. His Hel. Oh dear Norns, Loki's heart breaks when he thinks of his daughter. He wonders if she knows that he is alive. Whether or not she has grieved for him. She would have. He knows that. And that hurts. 

When this is all over, he will see to her. He will apologise. He will hold her and drown himself in her warmth and her beautiful soul and let her heal the pains and aches left in his soul. 

But not yet. 

Even if he was able to take control of the Tesseract, which he knows IT and the Other and Ebony Maw would never allow him to do, he won't be able to go to her. Not when his mind is so corrupted and when IT is more in charge of their body than he is. IT is too dangerous to be allowed anywhere near his daughter. Or even to know of her. 

"I know. What did it show you Agent Barton?" IT asks and Barton shrugs his shoulders. The knowledge from the Tesseract isn't as interesting to the agent. He has a job to do and he is focused on that. 

"My next target." Barton says easily enough as he walks towards the equipment they have managed to procure for him and for the others. 

"Tell me what you need." IT tells him easily enough. For all the talk of IT wanting power and wanting to rule over the humans, IT is surprisingly polite with those that IT has working for them. Loki is glad that is the case. 

He has never been the arrogant prince that was rude to the help. He'd always thanked them, he'd never forgotten his pleases. Because unlike most of Asgard, he had always known what it felt like to be put down. To be shunned. He had made a point of ensuring that no one was made to feel as such by him, unless of course, they had deserved to. 

"I'll need a distraction." Barton outlines and IT nods. Distractions are their speciality after all. Barton shows them a photograph through the tablet of his. 

"And an eyeball." Barton says and that is going to be a problem, Loki thinks as he looks over what is required. The man's eyeball needs to be extracted and Barton hands him a device that can do exactly that. 

Unfortunately, Loki has enough of the medical knowledge to know that such extraction, if done wrong could cause someone a great deal of harm. Loki debates over how they should proceed with this and whether or not Loki should risk influencing IT again to ensure that the procedure is done in a way that won't harm the human. 

As he does, Barton readies himself and organises a team to strike at the lab. Loki sighs. The portal must be opened. He cannot find a way to avoid that. 

But the portal must be opened in a location where the heroes of Earth would be able to intervene. By now, Thor and Odin would know of his return. Odin's All Seeing Throne would have seen him and IT has no powers or knowledge available to shield them from the prying eye or the eyes of Heimdall. 

That is fine. 

Thor's intervention would be useful. They also know through the information from Clint Barton that there are others. Anthony Edward Stark as Iron Man, the one that Loki must not harm at all costs, Natasha Romanov, Clint's friend and an assassin with interesting skills, the super soldier, Steve Rogers and of course, the Hulk. 

IT has plans. Loki has plans. 

The plan is deceptively simple. With Clint Barton's information, it is all too easy to plot and plan and in their minds, their actions are set and it is all too easy to ensure that Loki pushes on the desire that IT has to create a spectacle until he can be assured that IT will make the fatal mistake. 

Loki cannot be certain that everything will go smoothly. But he does know that Stephen Strange will already know what will happen and where. He will be able to stop them. Hopefully. 

If nothing else, Stephen will ensure that not as many lives are lost through the conflict. But Loki knows well enough that he cannot prevent the Chitauri army from pouring through the portal. That is beyond his control and ability. 

The only thing he can do is perhaps get in contact with Stephen and make sure that lives could be saved and the planet could be protected as Stephen had wanted it to. 

Loki sighs as he sinks back into the depths of IT's mind and simply watch as IT moves through the motions of getting ready. 

It is time. 

~~~ 

Saturday

30 April 2011 

Just in time, Tony thinks as he finishes up working on the Mark VII. The alarm goes off on the computer and he sighs as he turns around to look at the screen. 

Well shit. 

"Sir, I do believe that the anomalous energy signature is from Stuttgart, Germany." JARVIS informs him as he zooms into the map. Yeah, Tony can see that. 

"Get the Mark VI ready J." Tony says as he puts the tools down. Well. He's glad that he'd gone ahead and put the satellites around the world with the extra sensors he thought he might be needing. 

They had been sent up there to give JOCASTA, FRIDAY and JARVIS safe homes and to ensure that they had a solid connection with Rhodey and Stephen at all times, but Tony always did believe in everything having multiple purposes. 

So he had re-programmed the satellites to focus on the gamma radiation energy that the Tesseract emits. Not a lot of things emit a lot of gamma radiation and it was easy enough to recaliberate his satellites to be on the lookout for that. 

The files from SHIELD are by no means extensive but he does get the understanding that the Sceptre that Loki, the purported god from Asgard holds, also emits gamma radiation. It's that reading that the satellite had picked up it seems. 

Tony gets a good view of what is happening before he sighs and gets himself into the suit. With the newer suits and the speeds he's been able to get out of it now that he was no longer worried about the poisoning and the power supply, he knows that he can get to Germany impossibly fast. 

Tony steps into the suit and lets JARVIS run all the checks the AI likes to run before letting him go anywhere. With the new Tower and the flight platform and all, it's almost too easy to work as Iron Man. The access from the lab and the assembly line and all is really quite perfect. 

He doesn't bother with the assembly line for the time being. JARVIS is able to move the suit out to him and he has the hatch from the lab to access the roof. That will do. By now, it's almost all automatic to him and he doesn't have to think his way through the process. 

Which means that he has time to think. 

There are a lot of thoughts rushing through his head. Most of them are focused around Stephen, of course. The revelation of the magic thing is seriously something that is going to be whumping him over the head for awhile. 

Magic. 

Magic!!! Who the fuck would have thought to go with 'magic' to explain the oddities that Stephen could do? Not him, that's who. The thing is, with Tony's mind being so logical and so focused on science and technology, he would rather have believed that it was technology from the future or another planet before he believed that it was magic. 

It had been so far outside of the realm of expectations and beliefs for him that he had simply never considered it an option. But to know that it exists and that it's real? Tony knows that he was going to have to sit down and really talk it out with Stephen to make sure that he can understand it and to see why Stephen had to keep paying those ridiculous high prices to do what he does. 

And what he can do to make it better. 

If there is anything he can do to make it better , that is. There is so much about all of that, that Tony doesn't understand and won't understand until he can really sit down with Stephen and get through the information and figure out what magic actually is

But he really hopes that information isn't going to come too late considering the fact that he's pretty sure he is about to go and deal with some... god that uses magic. 

If the legends about Loki holds true, he is a magical creature. A god that can use magic to transform the way he looks. Can even change genders. Can cast illusions and can cause death and destruction with the flick of a finger. 

Tony isn't foolish enough to not feel the tendrils of fear that grips his heart at the very thought of all that. He's dealt with mutants and terrorists and active shooters, But gods? He's not even sure if the suit can stand up to magic. 

But he has no choice, does he ? He hasn't ever since he put the suit on and started going out on those missions. He has atonement to be done and he has promised the world that he will protect it if it comes down to it. If the need is there. 

The need is there now. 

And he can't renege on his promise. He can't take back that need to follow what his heart demands. To help. To protect. To be the shield for those that need it. He has already seen the loss of lives in Harlem. He has dealt with the consequences of those conflicts. 

This time, he wants to be there. To save as many lives as possible. 

The suit takes off and as it does, he thinks for a moment before he speaks up to JARVIS. 

"Hey J, contact me to the good doctor, will you?" Tony asks and JARVIS doesn't hesitate. Doesn't question. He knows how important Stephen is to him and just how dangerous a situation Tony might be heading into. 

"Anthony." Stephen's voice is tense and Tony closes his eyes. Stephen knows then. Of course he does, he thinks as he takes a deep breath. 

"Stuttgart. Germany." Tony says and there is a pause on the other end of the line. 

"He- He is more dangerous than you can dream of. You- Please, Anthony, please be careful." Stephen tells him and Tony can hear the fear in his voice. But he also notes that there is no attempt being made to stop him. 

"But you won't stop me from going." Tony says it as a statement. There is no pause this time. 

"No. I know that you will do it regardless and I am never going to stop you Anthony. I will support you and protect you but no. I won't stop you." Stephen says and to Tony, that sounds more like an 'I love you' than all of the times that he's heard it. 

Tony feels the warmth spread through his system as he smiles. 

"And this is why I can't stop loving you Stephen. Just so you know, same. I know that what you're probably doing right now is dangerous and eventually we're going to have to talk so I know what I can do to protect you. Just... just tell me you'll be careful." The last sentence is a demand. There is a short pause on the other line. 

"You may see me in Stuttgart." Stephen says and before Tony can reply to that, the phone hangs up and Tony doesn't need to tell JARVIS to hurry up. 

The suit speeds up. 

~~~ 

Saturday

30 April 2011 

IT strides through the Gala looking for their target. IT does not find him straight away. They had not expected to. The Gala is just starting to get underway and as the most important guest of the shindig, it was likely that he would be attending late. 

It was of no matter. 

There was a show to be put on and IT takes the time to stride into the bathroom to look themselves over in the mirror. 

The human garb isn't particularly to their tastes but they do like the sharp lines of the coat and the scarf that Selvig had particularly liked. Loki reminds himself to get one for Selvig when this is all over and done with. He has to compliment Barton and his people on getting the outfit. 

They are high quality and fits him well as if tailored to him. Given the short time that it had taken to find the outfit and get it all sorted, it is extremely well done on Barton's behalf and whoever else he was working with to procure the outfit and the invite, not that IT needed an invite to go anywhere IT pleases. 

Loki looks at the image of them in the mirror. 

It is quite a striking image. With the rest that they have gotten, they actually look as they used to. Their skin isn't sallow and pallid. There isn't a healthy glow yet and there won't be until they can heal all the injuries that they have obtained and rested up sufficiently, but they are doing better.

There is more power to be accessed as well. They are close enough to the Yggdrasil that even with the limited amount of knowledge left inside of IT's mind, IT is able to draw upon the Yggdrasil for power and they are filled to the brim as it were. 

It is easier to present the image of the confident god that has come to relieve humanity of their free will with the power coursing through their blood. 

Loki is worried about the plan. He isn't sure how much of his will he can impose on IT to stop IT from killing all the humans in the Gala. 

The plan is simple. They are a distraction. It will allow them to get onboard the Helicarrier as the distraction required. It would also allow IT to disable the Helicarrier when the time came to ensure that they wouldn't have the ability to interfere when the time came. 

With the understanding that the humans will not allow him to keep in possession of the Mind Stone Sceptre and the fact that they are likely to study it and those that will study it will be Dr Banner... the plan really, really is far too easy. 

Then there was the matter of the Avengers and breaking their spirits. Loki is worried about that part of the plan. Iron Man, or Anthony Edward Stark will be present, no doubt. And he, Loki has to protect. 

Even if he was not the other half of Stephen's Soul and paramount to the wellbeing, he is the man that Stephen loves and Loki knows that he has to ensure that Anthony Edward Stark is protected. 

There is much harm that has been done to Stephen Strange and much that he must atone for and seek forgiveness for, if such a thing were to be possible and Loki knows that protecting Stephen's Soulmate would be the first step for that atonement. 

As those thoughts are circulating in Loki's mind, all of sudden, he feels the oppressing hand that had been clamped over their minds disappear and the control suddenly shift to him as IT falters without the control. Loki gasps as the sensation of being in control again overtakes him. 

Behind him in the mirror, Loki can see a portal opening as Stephen steps through. He is dressed as he had been before in the clearing. The last time that Loki had seen him and when he had committed his greatest of sins. 

Loki breathes as he takes in the beautiful form of his Soulmate. Stephen is ethereal in his beauty, surrounded by the portal he had opened up. On his chest, the bright green light of the Time Stone glows and Loki feels the pull from the Mind Stone immediately. 

The Time Stone is active and Loki is amazed to find that time itself has stopped. The magic and the amount of power that such a feat must take is... bewildering. Yet his Soulmate was doing it. 

With them being in the same room, the Connection flares hot and brightly between them. Loki feels the desperation lance through him and he turns to look at his Soulmate with his own eyes. 

"Stephen." The name is breathed out like a sigh of relief. Stephen looks at him, tense and distant, but he closes the portal behind him and steps forward towards him. 

"Loki." Stephen acknowledges and hearing his name uttered by that voice, by his Soulmate feels like a warm balm washing over him and Loki shivers as the sensation travels down his spine. 

"I cannot feel them." Loki says with a vague wave at his head and Stephen nods slowly. 

"Am I to assume that you are yourself?" Stephen asks and Loki considers the question for a moment before he nods slowly. IT slumbers within Loki's mind, with its leash cut off from the Other and Ebony Maw. The Mind Stone is still present, but it is resonating with the Time Stone and it too has had the connection cut. 

"Good. We do not have long." Stephen says and Loki understands. He can only imagine the strain of power it must take to stop time. Not just here, but he assumes, throughout the entirety of the universe, if the connections have been cut. 

"If you were concerned about the welfare of Iron Man, you need not be. I will not harm him." Loki says but Stephen shakes his head slowly. 

"I assumed you wouldn't. I came... for you." Stephen says and Loki can see it. The strain. Through the Connection and through their shared Bond, Loki can feel the fear and apprehension but at the same time, sympathy and pity. 

Normally, Loki would have felt disgusted that someone would dare to feel pity for him, but with Stephen, he doesn't mind. The mere fact that the man feels anything other than horror and hate is enough. It is more than he deserves. 

"You need not have-" Loki tries, but when Stephen steps forward and gently lays a trembling hand on his face, Loki can't speak. He falters and every fibre of his being focuses on that single point of contact between them until he can only feel Stephen and focus solely on Stephen. 

He wants. 

Oh by the Norns, he wants. He wants more contact. More Connection. More Stephen. 

More. More. More. More

But he can't. He knows he can't. The need and desire burns through him but he knows that he should step back. He can't let his desire and need overtake him lest he brings up that fear again inside of Stephen. 

"You need me don't you?" Stephen says and there is resignation in his voice. Loki wonders how the months they have been apart has been for Stephen. Had he felt the void and the emptiness as Loki had? The desire to be filled and to fill and to connect? 

From what he can see and sense, he feels that perhaps they had shared that longing and need and that Stephen's fear and his emotions are being overtaken by the needs of the Connection and the Bond between them. 

"I do. But beloved, you- you fear me still." Loki says with the sorrow that he can't help but feel and the guilt that he will hold in his heart for all the days to come. Stephen looks deep into his eyes. Loki wonders what colour they are now. He hopes that they are green . He hopes that Stephen can actually see... him

"I do. But there is no time for fear." Stephen says and before Loki can say anything more, there are trembling, hesitant lips covering his and Loki is lost. He cannot think. He cannot breathe. He cannot remember to be considerate. 

All he can do is drown in the sensation of the kiss and the hunger and the need and the desire that is impossible to control at that point. He surges forward and invades the surprised lips of Stephen until he can taste his Soulmate. 

Loki kisses him as if he is drowning and needs that kiss to breathe, to live. His drops the Mind Stone Sceptre disguised as a cane. The forces that had connected to him and held him prisoner to it is no longer there. He can let go so he does. He doesn't even notice it clatter. Neither does Stephen. 

His arms wrap around Stephen and he pulls the sorcerer close so that he can feel every inch of that man's body against his. It feels... glorious

Stephen is pliant in his arms and eventually the doctor's trembling arms do encircle him and Loki relaxes into them. The kiss is passionate and needy from both sides. It's not Stephen's will. Loki can feel that and understand that. 

But the need of the Connection to get contact is too difficult for either of them to fight against. All they can do is give in and let the Connection fill itself with the contact. Loki doesn't want to push the boundaries but he isn't sure if he can stop himself. 

His hands are roaming over the sorcerer's body, feeling the toned muscles through the thick clothes. The Cloak of Levitation isn't around him and Loki wonders briefly why the sorcerer has come without it. 

"I- I shouldn't- I-I can't-" Stephen mutters out between the kisses and Loki understands. Having seen the love that Stephen and Anthony Edward Stark had shared, he knows that to do this, to kiss Loki, to feel Loki would be a violation of that relationship and that trust, but they are slaves to their desires and the Connection. 

The decision comes easily enough and so does the magic. 

Loki uses his powers, so familiar and so warm on his fingertips to trap the sorcerer against a convenient wall, his face against the cold hard marble. Stephen's eyes widen with fear and Loki can feel it thrumming through their Connection. 

They need this. 

Loki knows it and so does Stephen. The distance that had been between them for months upon months and the way that the Connection has now snapped shut and closed in, the need for physical contact is beyond their ability to control. 

But with Stephen nearby and his magic and body under control and his focus sharp, the thousand years of practice and experience gives Loki a bit more control than Stephen. 

The Sorcerer Supreme may be powerful, but he is not resilient as Loki is. Not as practised and experienced as Loki is. Stephen will resent him for this, no doubt. This is yet another violation that will only add to the sorcerer's fear. But it is better for the sorcerer to fear him and resent him than for him to feel the guilt of breaking his relationship with his loved one. 

Better that he blames Loki than feels guilt. 

"I am sorry, my beloved." Loki whispers into his ear as he strips the Sorcerer Supreme down. His need burns. It screams at him to just take Stephen. To bury himself deep inside of the Sorcerer Supreme and to relieve himself of the ache and the burning desire. To sate himself. To sate the needs of the fledgling Bond and the Connection. 

Loki tampers that down with the promise that his needs will be met. He may violate the man, but he means to do it without the violence of the action demanded of his needs. 

The sorcerer trembles as Loki covers his back and lays his lips against that beautiful stretch of neck. With a simple wave his hand, Loki spreads the sorcerer's legs out and holds them in place. 

Stephen's lower half is completely exposed. His pants spread out near his ankles. It is not a dignified position, no doubt and Loki can feel the shame, fear and self-hatred go sharply through the Connection. The self-hatred for wanting Loki despite the humiliation and the fear. Loki understands. 

He can't hold his emotions in check either. He knows that they share the desire and the need. He wonders if Stephen can feel his guilt and anguish at having to do this. 

The thing is, without doing this, without strengthening the fledgling bond between them, Loki knows that IT will have more control than is safe. With the Bond strengthened between them through this contact and through the strength that he can draw up on through the Connection as a result, Loki knows that he will have more control, more say in the actions that their body takes. 

He needs that. 

Without it, Loki fears what could and would be done to the people of this planet and Stephen and the man that Stephen loves. This is an unforgivable act. Loki is aware of that. It is unfortunately an act that they both desire and require. Loki is grateful that Stephen does not ask him to stop. That the Sorcerer Supreme merely closes his eyes and bites his lips. 

Loki slips a finger between the sorcerer's well toned buttocks. He feels the hole and his desire burns even hotter if such a thing were to be possible. It is easy enough to remember the magics that Svaoilfari had taught him to wet the orifice to ease the passage. 

Loki conjures the oils onto his fingers as he slips one easily enough into Stephen's hole. It is not as tight as most are and Loki realises with a start that Stephen has most likely recently made love with Anthony Edward Stark. Loki bites down on the jealousy that rises. 

Stephen is not his. He is his Connection and his Soulmate but he also belongs to another. One that has a prior claim and one that has Stephen's heart. He is the intruder. The cuckold . He has no right to be jealous. 

"This is not your doing Stephen. This is my desire. My need." Loki whispers as Stephen's eyes slide shut and he hangs his head and bites back the moans as Loki locates that spot inside of the sorcerer. 

Loki increases his fingers quickly. He doesn't have a lot of time before he can no longer hold back the flood of desire and need and he will violate Stephen without the precautions. As it is, he only manages to get two fingers in to try to widen Stephen before the need takes over and he cannot hold it back. 

"I am sorry." Loki manages to mutter but as expected, there is no reply as he plunges into the tight heat. Loki is not small. He is wide and thick and he knows that the preparation hadn't been enough. He feels the resistance from the ring of muscle as he forces his way into Stephen. 

The Sorcerer Supreme cries out in pain and anguish. Loki wants to stop. He really does. He does not want this. He never wanted to do this. But the Connection pulls and cajoles at him until he can't do anything other than bury himself into his Soulmate's body, irregardless of his pain. 

Stephen feels wonderful around him. 

The Connection snaps and flourishes with the sexual contact. Loki feels it settling in. He feels it take proper root between them and he feels the Bond stretch before it too takes its place. 

It is by no means mature and it is by no means complete, but it is in place and that is far more than what it had been before. Loki kisses the Sorcerer's neck in apology, but Stephen merely shudders and the fear spikes. 

Ah. 

Loki pulls his head back and places his hands on Stephen's hips. Stephen is still aroused despite the pain. He may not want this, as Stephen, but the Connection and the Bond wants it and it is enough to arouse his body. Loki wonders if Stephen understands that this is not his desire. That it is the Connection's. 

"Do you feel the Connection burn, my beloved?" Loki purrs into Stephen's ear and the man shudders as he finally lets out the moan that he had been holding back. Loki can't help the self satisfied smile that manifests onto his face as he slowly withdraws before slamming back into Stephen's shuddering body. 

"The Bond purrs between us Stephen. It is being satisfied by our contact." Loki says as he drags his cock along Stephen's prostate. He wants his lover to enjoy this. This may be the only chance Loki has to have him. Stephen may not recall this moment with pleasure, but he also does not want this moment to be remembered only for the physical pain. 

Loki slams his hips into Stephen's body over and over again. The desire burns too hot for him to hold back and the need is desperate and heady. Stephen moans and pants as the pain of the forced entry turns into pleasure as Loki hits that spot over and over again. 

The orgasm builds quickly for both of them. Loki holds Stephen tightly as he fills the tight channel inside of his Soulmate with his spending. He wraps a hand around Stephen's cock only to find that his lover has already come against the marble walls. 

Good. 

The Connection purrs as does the Bond. There is a satisfied settling of both as Loki pulls himself out and with horror that he cannot hide, sees the blood coating his softening cock. He had not meant for this to happen. 

With the Connection and the Bond satisfied, the cold reality of the situation hits them both. 

Loki looks down at Stephen's bare lower half and sees the blood trailing down his pale legs. The revulsion that he feels at his own actions is heavy and Loki's hand trembles as he tries to reach out to touch Stephen but the sorcerer shudders and shivers and he can't. 

Stephen recoils at the mere idea of Loki touching him any further and that is fair enough. Whatever magic the Bond and the Connection had wielded is broken now with them being satisfied with the contact. 

Both of them are as clear headed as they could be for the first time in... months upon months.  

Loki undoes the magic that had been holding the sorcerer hostage and the moment he does, Stephen crumbles against the wall. With a wave of his hand Loki corrects the clothing that he had pulled off of Stephen's body. Stephen doesn't seem to notice as he curls around himself and trembles. 

"I- I apologise Stephen. The act was-" Loki starts to say but Stephen shakes his head. 

"N-Necessary. I-I know. It- It wasn't your fault. I knew that you would need this when I came here. I knew that the Bond had to be settled and that the Connection had to be fed. I just- I hoped-" Stephen's voice falters and Loki dos not know what to say. He does not know how to make this better. 

He knows that there is only one thing he cannot do. Touch Stephen. As much as he wants to. He knows that he cannot touch him. Ever. Again. Not without consent. Not without Stephen desiring him. For real. Not just the Connection or the Bond demanding it. 

Loki feels the despair, the pain and anguish that Stephen feels as the Sorcerer Supreme picks himself up with trembling legs and looks at him. 

Loki sees the unshed tears. He sees the pain etched into those beautiful grey blue eyes. He sees the trembling lips. The sheer effort it takes for the Sorcerer Supreme to keep himself from falling apart. 

They may both have benefited from the sexual contact with their magical focus being restored, their Connection and Bond satisfied after months of no contact, but emotionally and psychologically, Loki assumes, the Sorcerer Supreme is breaking apart. 

Just as Loki is. 

"I cannot keep the time stopped for much longer. I- I need you to promise me that you will not hurt him." Stephen says despite his earlier confidence and Loki looks into those wondrous grey blue eyes and nods slowly. At the end of the day, it is Anthony Edward Stark that will always come before him. 

"I swear that I will do everything in my power to protect your Anthony Edward Stark." Loki says and Stephen looks at him for a moment longer before he nods and lets out a shuddering breath. 

"The man that you will require the eye from. Do not kill him. Or anyone else." Stephen says and Loki nods. He cannot say no. He will never say no. He will never be able to say no. Not to this man. Not to the one he had wronged so gravely. 

If at the end of all this, if Stephen wishes for a blood price to be paid for the heinous acts, than so be it. He will pay it. But for now, he must act to ensure that the Chitauri Army is destroyed. The Thanos does not get the foothold onto the planet that would allow him entry into the Nine Realms. 

"I swear it, Stephen. With the strength you have given me, I hope that I will be able to control the beast within me." Loki says and Stephen's eyes widen for a moment and confusion is obvious. As is curiosity. 

Loki almost smiles as he notices that. The mind of a magic user is almost always infinitely curious. Almost always drawn infinitely towards the knowledge that may or may not burn them. 

Loki reaches out between their Bond and shares the state of his mind. Shows Stephen what has happened. The fracture that has taken place between himself and the fragile bit of his mind he'd been able to keep safe and the rest of his mind, where IT has taken residence. Stephen recoils and retreats quickly into his own mind. 

"You- How-" Stephen starts to say but the answer is obvious enough as Loki picks the Sceptre back up. Even now, the two Infinity Stones are resonating, joyous in their ability to be near each other. 

"Go. You have strained yourself enough." Loki says and Stephen nods slowly as he opens up the portal to take him back to where he had been. 

"Thank you." Stephen says quietly and Loki is startled for a moment but before he can question it, Stephen disappears into the portal and it closes behind him firmly. 

For a moment, the Time remains frozen and Loki has just enough time to straighten his clothes and tighten the shields around the corner of his mind just as the Other and Ebony Maw reasserts the control. 

He knows that to them, it wouldn't have felt like there was even a break. They would know nothing of what has taken place and hopefully, neither will IT. But Loki is stronger. More focused. More power courses through his little corner of the mind. 

Loki sends the tendrils of commands and thoughts through to IT. Quietly, surreptitiously so that the Other and Ebony Maw would not be able to feel it. But the ideas sink in easily into IT's mind. Just as if it had been IT's idea all along. 

It is so very easy to plant the ideas and the plans. IT is after all, a part of Loki himself. And he knows his own mind better than Ebony Maw and the Other does. 

But there has been enough delay. 

It is time for the show to begin. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Saturday 

30 April 2011

It is easy enough for Stephen to blend into the crowd in Stuttgart. The pain is sharp and it is difficult to walk. He can feel the remnants of their activities starting to leak out and wet his underwear and no doubt his pants. He knows that he is bleeding. There is enough damage done to his rectum that he knows that the bleeding won't stop very quickly. 

He doesn't have the time to stop and to heal himself. He doesn't have the time to gather himself. He fears that if he were to stop for even just a moment to breathe, he may never be able to start moving again. 

It takes effort to shroud himself in magic, to hide himself from plain view. People do see him, he isn't invisible, but they don't notice him. It is as if their eyes slide away from him and their minds do not register his existence. Just as he wished.  

The drain from using the Time Stone is not as great as he had feared. The Stone had desired the meeting and had desired the time it spent resonating with the Mind Stone. In fact, the Time Stone feels more powerful than ever before against his chest as it hums, filled with power and hungry to be used again. 

It's a call that takes a great deal of focus to ignore. 

Power corrupts and Stephen will not fall into that trap of abusing the Time Stone, as much as he wishes to. He will not risk this reality and he will certainly not risk this universe where his Soulmate lives. 

Stephen clamps down on his self control and commands the Time Stone to obey him and it does after a moment or two of issuing the siren's call. 

That is more exhausting than the spell itself. Between that, the magic and the focus that he had shared with Loki, the trauma of what has taken between them, the bubbling confusion of emotions and thoughts inside his own head and the physical pain is what truly exhausts Stephen. 

Stephen lingers in the background. 

He watches as Loki attacks the security guard who draws the firearm to attack him. Stephen notes that he doesn't use enough force to kill the man, but he will most definitely have a concussion. Stephen makes a note to ensure that a doctor sees him. 

The pandemonium that erupts is one he has seen many a time. Stephen watches quietly, blending in with his magic as he feels Tony approaching. Stephen takes a deep shuddering breath to focus. He needs to hold on for just a moment longer. 

It's time. 

Stephen has to clamp down on the need to intervene. He can't. What will come to pass must come to pass after all. It is not his job to interfere and alter the path that the universe must take. It is his job to ensure that everything goes smoothly and to reduce the harm. 

Stephen has to close his eyes as Loki grabs the doctor with violence and throws him onto the table and pulls out the device to extract the doctor's eye. 

Loki is quick and efficient. Nothing about his movement shows any hesitation or doubt. But as Stephen has requested, Loki does not kill. 

Stephen feels the revulsion he had felt at realising the state of Loki's mind. The fracture runs deep within it and Loki has only retained such a small portion of his mind to hide and to keep his sanity Stephen isn't sure if it is enough. 

When this is all over, Stephen isn't sure if Loki can remain sane and how he would bring about the reunification of his mind or how he is going to weed out the bits of false personality, needs and desires that had been embedded into his mind by the Mind Stone.

Even the best Mind Healers in Kamar-Taj may not be able to assist Loki and Stephen himself knows that he couldn't himself. He is no master of Mind magics. He now regrets not spending the time to study it more in the decades that he had waited for this time to come. 

Stephen waits until Loki is outside and most of the crowd is outside before he moves towards the injured doctor. The man is curled up on the table, half falling off, screaming in pain. Stephen cannot replace the eye. But he can ease the pain and he can stop the bleeding. That's what he does. 

He simply leans over the man and works the spell through his will and intention until it settles inside of the doctor and does the job required. Healing magic is easier for him than with most of the other sorcerers. He, after all, knows how the human body is supposed to work intimately. That is why most of the Healers are medical professionals. 

When it is done, Stephen steps back so that the doctor cannot see him. Stephen steps to one of the windows. 

He watches as Loki speaks to the crowd before him. It is so easy to see now that he understands. The bright blue of Loki's eyes is disturbing to see even more so now that he knows what it means. 

"I said kneel!!!" Loki shouts and he is obeyed. The crowd shudders with fear. Stephen can understand their fear. If he had not known about gods and magic, he too would have been afraid at this show of cruelty, power and magic. The unknown is always terrifying and the unknown coupled with cruelty, all the more so. 

"Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation." IT speaks, as Loki had called that personality within his mind. Stephen can't help but recall the terrifying clown, but IT works as well as any other name for the monster that is wearing Loki's face. 

He is fully garbed in the Asgardian clothing befitting a prince. He looks powerful. Confident. Dangerous and if Stephen is going to be honest with himself, majestic and beautiful. 

"The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel." IT says with some satisfaction as it looks around at the kneeling humans. 

This is what IT wants. This is what Thanos wants. Respect and power that they do not deserve. Stephen hates that this will be the image of Loki that will be burnt into the minds of the people of this planet. 

He is not this. But this is how they will remember him, that is how they will see him and punish him as. Stephen's head is a complicated mess of thoughts and emotions as he looks over at the crowd and the crowing king to be of Earth. 

There is a part of him that feels nothing but fear and hatred for the god for what he has done to him in the clearing and just now in that lavish bathroom. 

But the more honest part of him is grateful. 

Stephen had been torn by the choice. To betray Tony and their relationship and their trust by engaging in the sexual activity he knew that the Connection needed or to leave Loki without the settled Bond and the satisfied Connection so that he will remain all the more unstable and weak during this important conflict. 

Hobson's Choice. 

That is what it had been. An impossible choice to make where both options were just as horrible and difficult as the other. 

But Loki has done him the greatest favour that the god could have done in that moment. He had taken that choice away. He had locked Stephen down with his magic. As his face had touched that cold marble wall and he had felt the god's presence close, Stephen had lost control with the fear and anxiety that had gripped him. 

As the god had prepared him and violated him, Stephen had felt the heady arousal from the Connection, but he had also felt the revulsion, pain and anguish. But his body had more than enjoyed even the pain. There was still the shame, the self-hatred and the guilt, but he knows that Loki has done that to ensure that Stephen's guilt in the matter was lessened. 

By taking away the choice. By forcing the act upon him. By ensuring that it wasn't Stephen that betrayed Tony. 

Loki had known. Stephen had felt that when their minds connected. Loki had known that to do that would mean that Stephen's fear of him would be strengthened. That Stephen would resent him. But he had done it regardless because it is what they needed and he took the role of the villain to allow Stephen to be the victim. 

Unfortunately, their minds being connected for that split second before Stephen retreated into the safety of his own had made the god's intentions and desires all too clear for Stephen. 

It is that moment of care and deep consideration that the god has shown Stephen for the sake of his mind and emotional well being that lessens the horror of what has taken place. 

But it doesn't lessen the self hatred that he feels. 

Stephen watches with the emotions rushing over him as Captain America fights with Loki. This too is a fight he has seen far too many times. It almost always happens at the same time with the same moves and the same results. 

Sometimes the elderly gentleman is murdered by Loki before Captain America arrives, but most of the time he doesn't. He does not this time and for that, Stephen is grateful. Exhaustion pulls at him and he knows that he needs to go somewhere safe soon. 

Using the Time Stone, the incident with Loki and the healing he had done has all but drained what was left of his energy. He is tired. But it isn't just the physical or magical exhaustion. There's an emotional and psychological exhaustion there as well that drags him down. 

He feels that niggling need at the back of his head. He needs to go somewhere and break down. He wants the comfort of Tony's arms telling him that it's okay. But he can't have that. Not right now. 

Stephen watches as Tony arrives with the blast of Shoot to Thrill echoing from the Quinjet's speakers. Trust Tony to make a dramatic entrance. Despite the situation, Stephen finds his lips curling up into a small smile. 

He feels a little more settled and better with Tony nearby. Their Bond is so much stronger and settled than the one he has with Loki. Stephen keeps watching out of that window as Tony knocks down Loki and the god falls. 

Stephen's view isn't perfect, but he sees the blue light dim in the god's eyes for a moment as he recognises the suit. 

"Show me your face!" Stephen isn't sure if it is Loki or IT that demands that. From the dimming of the blue glow of the Mind Stone, he thinks it might be Loki. He is not sure. 

Stephen wants to tell Tony not to do it. Not to take off the protective helmet, but the genius is never one to back down. 

The helmet slides back and the god looks up at the visage of Anthony Edward Stark and their eyes meet. Stephen feels it. 

The universe stops. 

This time it isn't him. It's not even the Time Stone. Not really. This is the universe itself stopping to mark a moment. A moment that is so important that everything must stop for a moment so that the three of them could all feel it. 

The Connection snaps closed between Tony and Loki and with it, the triad is completed and it slams into place. Stephen lets out a gasp. Loki does too. At the same time. They breathe in the same rhythm. Their hearts all skip beats until they beat at the same rhythm. 

Stephen falls to his knees. he can no longer stand. It is too much. It is too overwhelming. The feeling of being complete is everything and the only thing that Stephen can feel. He wonders how he had survived so far without this completion. 

There is unbound joy that rushes through him as he feels his soul coming together, forming, knitting the three of them together until they are one. 

At the back of his mind, the fear sits. The dread sits and so does the pain and anguish. But for the time being, he can't feel any of that or notice any of that. 

All he feels is the sheer and utter joy. 

The moment breaks and as it does, Stephen feels himself centre and he feels a calm and peace rush over him and through both of the Connections until he lets out a shuddering breath. 

"Make your move, Reindeer Games." Tony's voice echoes in the sudden silence in Stephen's mind as everything settles and Stephen manages to get himself to stand up on his shaking legs until he can look over at Tony and Loki. 

"I surrender to you." Loki says and the purpose of his words and the warm heat in his words echo through to Stephen and he shudders. It's too much. 

This is all too much. 

Stephen feels his consciousness starting to fade and he knows that he needs to hurry. He rushes towards the back where there are no prying eyes and manages to open a portal. 

He doesn't care where to. He just opens the portal and stumbles through before the darkness claims him. 

"Master?" 

~~~ 

Saturday 

30 April 2011 

Odin's fury rages. 

Frigga has heard his shouts. She has heard his commands. She knows what Thor is being tasked to do. She has but a moment to speak to him before he goes. 

They don't share words. There is no need to. A look is enough and they both understand what must be done. Odin will be watching. As will Heimdall. But they will be not swayed. 

Loki is to be protected. Thor is to ascertain his welfare and his safety. This action, this invasion of Midgard is not like him. It does not make sense considering his character and his person. 

No. 

Something is wrong with her son and Frigga must know what it is. She must know what it is that she could do to restore him and his mind, if that is what is broken. She must imagine that is the case for this is not her son's behaviour that she has seen through the All Seeing Throne that Odin has shared the visions of. 

Odin will conjure up the power he needs along with Heimdall to send Thor to Midgard. That is magic that she needs not be involved in. 

But there is magic that she must be involved in. 

Frigga hurries to his chambers. She has not used so much magic as she has been in the past months trying to search for any signs of life from Loki. 

The news from Hel that she has received in secret and only shared with Thor had been joyous and it has brought her comfort. Unlike her, who has been frantic thereafter to seek the presence of her son throughout the universe, searching for his familiar soul, Hel has been content to remain in Helheim, to tend to her souls. 

Her words to Frigga had been easy and clear. Loki lives. She will pray for him and pray for his soul, but there is a path that he must walk that will not bear interference. 

Frigga is still amazed and shocked at the wisdom and patience the young goddess expresses and carries with her. But she is not surprised. If nothing else, her mother had been a gracious enough noble despite her power hungry family and she had been calm and peaceful. 

Added to that was Loki's infinite patience to wait until his plans and plots came to fruition and the calm that she has learnt through the souls that she cares for. Given the domain that she rules over and the souls that she is responsible for, Frigga assumes that both the patience and the calm is very useful for the young goddess. 

Still, Frigga has not been able to be so calm and so patient. She had hidden her activities, of course, from Odin, which was no small task in its own right, but she has managed it and she will again as she retreats to the heavily shielded and heavily warded bedchambers Loki used to inhabit. 

It is easy for her to tap into his magic and to activate the wards and the shields. They come to life with a flourish. She has taught him the very magics and he has spent centuries working on these wards, imbuing them with power over and over again until they were nigh impenetrable. 

Frigga steadies herself as she gathers up the power she needs for the spell and stills her mind. It is difficult to focus with so much happening within her mind, but she manages. 

The tendrils of power flow through her fingertips until she can see her target and she manifests herself to them. An illusion, a projection of herself right into the throne room of Helheim, where Hel sits, patiently upon her throne, the room empty, as if she had been waiting for Frigga. 

"You have come with news of my father." Hel says and Frigga is not surprised. Not anymore. Perhaps like the first time when Hel had projected herself to Frigga, she had felt his power. Frigga is not certain. 

"Yes. Both the Allfather and Heimdall has seen him on Midgard. He... he is acting not like himself." Frigga says and Hel nods slowly and Frigga is once again amazed at the beauty that her grandchild possesses. 

Her long midnight blue hair flows down her back, as straight as her father's hair is and curls at the ends as his hair does. Her eyes are bright shocking green like his and her skin is pale and porcelain like him as well. The only thing that Hel has inherited from her mother is her petite form. Nothing more. Frigga is grateful for that. 

"His soul has been broken. But it will mend again once he is with his Connected." Hel says quietly and Frigga nods, though the news is disturbing. She is right however. Loki's Soulmate is in Midgard. Perhaps with him there, Loki might be able to survive whatever it is he has experienced and has hurt him. 

"What has been done to him?" Frigga asks but Hel shakes her head slowly. 

"I do not know. All that I can feel and know now that he is in the Nine Realms is that his soul is damaged and heavily scarred. I- I do not know if even I could repair such a broken soul." Hel says and it's the first moment of uncertainty and hesitation that Frigga has seen in the child goddess. 

Frigga moves forward to offer the child comfort, but even as she does, she knows that like this, there is no physical comfort that she can offer her. She is but a projection, a creation of light and magic. Nothing more. 

"Loki is strong, Hel, my beautiful child. He will survive this and he will mend. I know this to be true." Frigga says and Hel looks at her, her green eyes wide and innocent and filled with doubt but she nods and Frigga gives her the best reassuring smile that she can. A mother's smile. Hel eventually smiles back. 

It is only then that Frigga remembers that Hel, like her, wears a crown and has the responsibilities of a Realm of beings to represent and to take care of. Even if she had been upset and had been doubtful, she could not have expressed it before. 

Frigga had forgotten that Hel was indeed Loki's daughter and that she, like him, could act the part even with the doubt and the pain plaguing them. She ought to have remembered that. Offered the child more comfort and support through this experience. She will do better, she promises herself. 

"I plan to see Laufey to pass the news onto him. He deserves the know." Frigga says and Hel nods. Loki has not poisoned her mind with the fear for the Frost Giants as his mind has been poisoned with the tales of imagined horror committed by the Jotun. She has no fear of them. 

"Please, Queen Frigga, pass on my regards to King Laufey." Hel says with an incline of her head and Frigga bows her head too as a sign of respect. It's a formality, of course but it needs to be done. They are royal and they all have roles to play after all. 

But that is not all that they are. 

"I love you child. Be well." Frigga says with all the warmth and love that she feels for Hel held in her voice and Hel gives her a beatific smile as she slowly nods. 

"And I you, grandmother." Frigga's smile only grows wider as she pulls her consciousness to her own body. 

They are family. 

And there is one more family member that must learn the news of Loki's survival. It is straining now. To do two projection spells back to back across the different realms without the Bifrost to connect her consciousness to? It's difficult. 

But Frigga hasn't been a mage for four thousand years for nothing. She takes a deep breath, takes a deep pull of power from the Yggradisil and projects herself to Laufey. 

"Queen Frigga! Do you have news of my son?" Laufey asks immediately. His voice is half frantic, as it has always been when she appears before him. He has been asking the same question for the past months, whenever she had visited him and she had visited him often. It had been comforting for both of them to meet regularly. 

She has kept him updated on the search that she had been conducting since Hel's news had reached her ears. And he too has been updating her on the rebuilding of Jotunheim and how the damage that Loki has done with the Bifrost was being repaired. 

But their conversations has not been just about the business side of things. No. She has spent hours regaling him on Loki's childhood and learning the histories and cultures of the Jotuns so that if an opportunity came, she could provide Loki with the knowledge that should have been his from the very start. 

"He is on Midgard." Frigga says as soon as she has ascertained that the room was empty barring the King. His blood red eyes widen as he hears the news and he is standing up and pacing as he waits for her to explain more. 

"Loki... I do not believe Loki is himself. He has declared his intentions to rule over the people of Midgard." Frigga says as she bites her lip. Loki has never desired power. Not like that. Oh he likes power, of course he does, he was born a Prince for Norn's sakes! But he's not a god that desired a crown. 

He liked political power and the ability to sway minds and decisions. He preferred to work in the background. Play the spy, the diplomat, the negotiator. No. He prefers for others to wear the crown whilst he plays them from the background. 

"Is- Is that his true intentions?" Laufey asks with a frown. It has taken Frigga some time to be able to read the finer details of emotions on the faces of the Jotun. He is not accustomed to showing much expression. The lines etched across his face, his Clan Markings, as Laufey had called them, made it even more difficult for her to read him at first. 

But by now, she can read his expressions as well as she can read them on Loki's face. There are some facial expressions that they share. She had pointed them out to Laufey to his great happiness. 

She has to admit that when she had first visited Laufey, she had not expected to find that he still loved Loki. That despite the fact that he had lost the child as a babe, he still longed for his son and loved him as deeply as she loved him. But then she never should have doubted the love of a father for a child, even if she did not see it in Odin. 

"I- I do not know, your Majesty. My other son, Thor is on the way to Midgard to ascertain his welfare and to investigate this... action." Frigga puts it as carefully as she could but Laufey's frown makes it very obvious that he knows what she really means by that. 

"Odin sends Thor to capture my son." Laufey is not an idiot. Loki didn't come by his sharp intelligence, political insight and his ability to read and to judge situations and people from somewhere and though Frigga knew that Loki's mother was long deceased, Laufey certainly had those qualities. 

"Thor will do what is right by Loki." Frigga says with some confidence but Laufey has doubt in his eyes and Frigga sighs. Of course he doubts Thor. The last time Laufey has seen Thor, he had been a bumbling, self entitled brat that demanded respect without earning it. 

"Thor is much changed, King Laufey. He has seen the errors of his ways through the sacrifices that Loki has made. He has been spending the last while working on his skills and learning what it means to be a wise King that his brother wishes him to be." Frigga says and he does not yet seem convinced, but he nods. 

"If Odin will not have my son back in the Golden Palace, Loki has a home here by my side and he always will." Laufey says with conviction and she understands that well enough. She nods. 

They both know the implications of those words. He means to offer Loki refuge. Even if it means that he will bring down the wrath of Asgard upon Jotunheim and if that were to occur, Frigga knows herself, where she will stand in the conflict. 

"And I will stand with you to protect our son." Frigga says with just as much conviction and for a moment, the silence stretches between them as they share the strong glances. They both know where they stand when it comes to Loki. 

Laufey carries the guilt of not having been able to protect his son. For having put the rage he had felt at the Asgardian demands made by Odin and rising up against him without being able to defend his people and his son. 

Frigga carries the guilt for not having protected him better in the Asgardian Courts. For not having been able to protect him from the steely glances from the hostile members of the court. For not having been able to tell him of his heritage. For not ensuring that he received the education befitting his background as a Jotun Prince. 

Their shared guilt and shared pain and shared love for Loki provides enough common ground that it does not matter to her that he is Jotun. She has come to consider him family. 

"Thank you, Queen Frigga. Your support and your love for my son is something I will always be grateful for. If- If it is possible, would- would you keep me apprised of further incidents as they occur?" Laufey asks quietly. They both know the cost of the magics that she performs to see him. 

But she doesn't hesitate as she nods. He deserves to know and if it is within her power, then she will ensure that he knows all that is occurring. Besides, she could always use the help to ensure that Loki survives through all of this.

"I shall, your Majesty. But for now, I must take my leave." Frigga says as the magical drain starts to hit her and she knows that the projection was most likely starting to fray around the edges. 

"Of course. Please, Queen Frigga. Be well." He says and Frigga gives him a warm smile as she bows to him and is about to pull her mind back when she remembers. 

"Oh! I almost forgot! Hel, Loki's daughter and your granddaughter wanted me to pass on her greetings." She says and Laufey smiles widely. 

"I would dearly love to meet her." He says a little forlornly and Frigga understands both the desire and the feeling. With the Bifrost closed and even if it weren't closed, she knows that he would not be able to visit Helheim and it would not be possible for her to visit him either. 

Hel can project herself, but she does not know Laufey well enough, nor is she well enough versed in magic to ensure that she can safely send her mind through the distance. Loki has been teaching her, but she has much to learn still. 

"Perhaps we can arrange a meeting sometime." Frigga says even as she thinks of possible solutions. He gives her a small smile and a polite nod as she dissipates. Frigga has to hurry to pull her consciousness back to her body before the magic completely collapses and leaves her mind affected. 

She slams back into her body with a gasp and falls to her knees as the drain overtakes her. She has to breathe for long moments to regain her focus and control over both herself and her magic. By the time she is done, she is shaking and trembling. 

She lays her head against the bed that her son used to sleep in. His scent still lingers on the sheets. His rooms are maintained by his staff. The ones that had adored him despite the rumours because he had always been so polite and lovely to them. Even at the worst of his days. 

Frigga lingers in Loki's chambers for awhile longer before she picks herself up and takes a deep breath and checks herself in the mirror to make sure that the tears that had fallen unbidden are cleared up. 

She has a role to play in this game of politics. For now, she must put her emotions aside. She must put her game face on, as Loki used to call it and be the Queen of Asgard that she needs to be. 

It's time to speak to Odin. 

~~~ 

Chapter Text

Saturday 

30 April 2011

"Sir, I do apologise for the interruption, but I do believe that you should- you should know that Dr Strange has returned to the Tower and you need to return home." Is what JARVIS tells him softly into the earpiece. 

Tony is all too aware of the eyes and ears on him and it means he can't question JARVIS or figure out what's happening and that- fuck. 

The worry and fear that jumps into his throat is harsh and consuming. But Tony forces himself to concentrate on the situation on hand. As impossible as that seems. 

"Mr Stark." Steve Rogers calls his attention as Natasha and Fury talk in the background. The aircraft is making its way towards US airspace and travelling fast. 

The Quinjet that he has designed and improved for SHIELD and for his own p