Stephen looked up at the building stretching out above him. It was modern, with lots of glass, reminding him of his own apartment… Well before he spent all his money on experimental treatments and lost all his belongings. He was lucky Christine had stepped in when she did, so he at least didn’t go completely bankrupt.
His new place wasn’t terrible; it was small, and the old interior wasn’t his style, but it wasn’t bad. Yet, he couldn’t deny feeling relieved to be able to stay in a modern place for once.
More often than not, his charges had been young adults living in the suburbs, whose parents were willing to spend whatever it took to get their child back on track, but weren’t able/willing to look after their offspring themselves. Most addicts were either too prideful or too poor to get a sober companion of their own accord.
Having someone willing to pay for him directly was a first. It brought some extra difficulties now that he worked for them instead of a supervisor. He had been able to do his job even when his charges complained, because he worked for their parent/guardian/partner, not for the addict. This complicated matters, yet it was in his contract that he was to do whatever necessary to keep his charge sober. He was going to do just that.
He stepped his way into the building, glancing around at the fashionable interior before heading towards the elevator. According to the directions he had received, his new charge, one Tony Stark, lived on the 50thfloor. The top floor, then, apparently.
He made his way upstairs, and to his surprise the elevator dropped him off in the middle of a living room. He hadn’t even pressed in a special code or used a key. Stephen frowned, carefully stepping his way inside as he took in the white couches in front of the TV and the open kitchen to his right. He had loved cooking once upon a time, and even now his heart couldn’t help but jump in excitement at the counter space and modern equipment.
What really took his breath away though, were the huge windows lining the wall. If he didn’t know better, he’d think there weren’t even any walls to start.
New York looked beautiful from up this high, the white February sky covering the grey city in a cold haze. A dash of green was visible a little further away from the building, yet not close enough to get a decent view from Central Park. The Hudson sparkled to the left, and for a second Stephen forgot he was in a building at all.
“Doctor Strange,” a male voice spoke up, making Stephen jump slightly as his attention was forced back to the matter at hand. He frowned around him before settling on the ceiling; he shouldn’t be surprised a penthouse this expensive had the highest technology available. “Sir is in his lab downstairs. You can take the stairs on your left.”
Stephen glanced around until his eyes fell on a set of stairs a little further away from the elevator. One set ran upstairs, while another one curled towards the floor below them. Stephen followed those until he stopped in front of a glass door leading into what looked like a garage turned into some kind of workspace. Why there was a garage on the 49th floor of the building, he couldn’t figure out, but he filed his thoughts away for later.
The door opened up for him when he pushed against it, the keypad on the right of him bleeping to give him access.
He found a man, Mr. Stark presumably, sitting at a workbench, holograms floating around him and coating his features in a blue hue. There was some metal he was working on, and he seemed to be screwing wires in place, focus completely on the task in front of him.
“Mr. Stark?” Stephen asked, stepping closer. The man only hummed in response as he continued screwing a bolt in place. That was all Stephen needed, however. He found a chair a little further away and sat down on it. He needed his full attention before they could start their journey, and he wasn’t going to beg for it.
They sat in silence for about half an hour before Stark gave in and dropped his work, turning towards Stephen with a raised eyebrow. “Alright, get it over with. Whatever you need to do.”
Stephen raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him. “I don’t have to do anything. Just be here and make sure you don’t relapse. As you’re clearly not drunk at the moment, I’m good for now. Unless you’re about to pour a shot into your mouth.”
Stark frowned at him, suspicion floating through his eyes, before his shoulders relaxed and he huffed. He turned back to his work, apparently content to ignore Stephen for a little while longer.
Stephen would have to search the penthouse later, to make sure there were no substances hidden around, though.
In most cases he’d make sure no alcohol was in the house and then he wouldn’t have to keep constant watch over his charge. This would be different. From what he’d seen of the inventor and the penthouse this far, Stephen was certain there was no way of finding any hidden stash he might have.
They sat in silence for hours. Stephen didn’t mind too much; he just kept himself busy on his phone or stared off into the distance, pulling at his scarred fingers. It had become a habit he hadn’t been able to shake.
The lab had the same windows as the living room, so he could distract himself by watching the city move below them.
When it had passed eight pm and the engineer wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down his work, Stephen got up and walked towards him. “Come upstairs. Time for dinner.”
“If you’re hungry you can go eat,” Tony supplied absentmindedly, forcing his attention to stay on the – glove? – he was building.
“No, see, as your sober companion, I can’t let you out of my sight until I know you’re not at risk.”
Tony rolled his eyes and grit his teeth, but stubbornly didn’t look at Stephen. “You’re going to follow me in the bathroom next?”
“Not unless you make it necessary for me to.” Stephen crossed his arms and leaned against a desk to his left. “Also, I’m allowed to force you to do a breathalyser or a urine analysis if I in any way suspect you’re not sober.”
Tony didn’t dignify that with a response. Stephen sighed and turned to leave. “Look, you’re paying me. You wanted a sober companion. So why not make it easier for both of us and actually use my services?”
Stephen walked towards the door leading to the stairs and barely managed a grin of satisfaction when he could hear Tony sigh and groan behind him. His chair scraped against the floor and he could hear his footsteps following him up the stairs, but he didn’t look back.
“Really?” Stephen turned away from the fridge, which was empty except for some condiments and a mouldy packet of cheese. He rolled his eyes at Tony, who had taken a seat at the kitchen island. “You have an AI but no groceries?”
Tony shrugged at his question. Apparently, he still hadn’t left his work behind, as he had a conjured up a portable hologram to continue whatever he was doing digitally.
“Please tell me you don’t also have an eating disorder. I’m not looking forward to forcing food down your throat.”
Tony looked up to glare at him. “You’re very opinionated for a sober companion. And no, I don’t, and I don’t have groceries because I just moved here.”
Stephen raised his eyebrow at that piece of information, but Stark didn’t elaborate. Sighing, he closed the fridge and grabbed his phone. “Fine, we’ll order in tonight, but we’re getting groceries tomorrow.”
“Can’t we use a grocery service?”
“You’re planning on staying in the penthouse all the time?”
“Then no, we can’t use a grocery service.”
Tony rolled his eyes, but gave up the fight, getting up from his seat and walking back towards the stairs. “Yell when the food gets here.”
“I’m going to take a shower,” Stark turned around to square off with Stephen; “if that means breathalyser after than whatever. You can even have my piss.”
Stephen squinted a suspicious look at Tony, before rolling his eyes and focussing on the take-out menu he’d conjured up on his phone. He listened to Tony’s footsteps fading away on the upstairs floor, and allowed his mind to wander.
From what he’d seen about Stark this far was very different from any of his previous charges. Most had seemed anxious or angry at him, Stark was angry yes, but he seemed more tired than anything. Stephen didn’t feel like he was going to run off to a bar or crack den as soon as Stephen’s attention wavered. He listened to a tab starting up upstairs but couldn’t help imagining the man drowning as he spaced off in drug fuelled daze.
Perhaps it was too earlier to make that kind of assessment on the ex-addict. No, it most definitely was too early for any kind of assessment. He should have cleared the bathroom first, but he had been distracted with trying to figure Stark out. He also couldn’t help believing him, which is the dumbest thing he’d thought all evening.
Rule number one; don’t trust an addict.
Addicts can’t trust themselves either, so a companion definitely shouldn’t.
“Mister Stark is still sober, doctor Strange.” The voice from above him sounded once more and Stephen focussed on that instead of his own stupidity. Again, he shouldn’t allow himself to get distracted, but he needed to figure out how trustworthy the AI was. He was programmed by Tony, no doubt, which meant he could easily be programmed to lie to him.
“Should I just take your word on that?”
“Mister Stark gave me a program to help you check his sobriety before you arrived. At any time, you can ask me about his sobriety, and I am programmed to tell you the truth. Current status: no substances in the penthouse or anywhere in the building Mister Stark can reach. Mister Stark’s Blood Alcohol Concentration is currently at 0.000 percent. This programming is controlled by Colonel Rhodes and therefore can’t be shut off or altered by Mister Stark.”
“He could still hack it, though, right? Which is why I’m here as back-up?” The AI remained silent, but Stephen took that as confirmation. He sighed. This surely was going to be an interesting case.
When the food arrived, they ate together in silence, after which Tony – and by extension Stephen – moved back to the garage to continue his work. Stephen was used to having to entertain himself by now, yet when midnight came and went, he gave up trying to stay awake, instead moving to gain Tony’s attention from where he was talking to the AI, apparently named JARVIS.
“Stark. If you want to stay sober, you’re going to have to get a decent sleep schedule.”
“Sleeping is a waste of time.”
“So is being alive, but we still do it anyway.”
“Alright, mister Edge Lord.” Tony glanced up at him incredulously, but apparently it was enough to get him out of his zone. He turned back to his work with a confused glare, before sighing and moving towards the stairs ahead of Stephen.
Stephen followed, already looking forward to getting a few hours of sleep. He grabbed his luggage from where he had left it near the elevator earlier and followed Tony upstairs to where he assumed the bedrooms were. Stark pointed out a guestroom with en suite bath, but Stephen stopped in front of Tony’s door before Stark could close it on him.
“Look, I know I can’t be certain you’re getting any sleep or just head back downstairs as soon as my door closes. I most likely won’t even know if you’ll leave the building to go to a bar,” Stephen tried to gage Tony’s reaction, but his face remained neutral, “but you’re doing this for you, not me. So, for your sake – and whoever Colonel Rhodes is – try getting at least six hours of sleep.”
Tony stared at him, face considering as his eyes searched Stephen’s features. He leaned against his doorframe and crossed his arms. “JARVIS, let Strange know when I leave my room. Add it to the babysitter protocol.”
Stephen rolled his eyes but didn’t move from his place. He checked Tony over once more, before stepping away and heading towards his own bedroom.
Stephen could feel Tony’s eyes on him, but he closed his door without looking back.
All in all, it really was Tony’s responsibility. If he really didn’t want to stay sober, that was on him. Stephen’s job was to guide his rehabilitation process, not be his parole officer.
He still couldn’t figure the man out, though. He had gotten a sober companion of his own accord, but from what Stephen had gathered from the information he’d given him during the hiring process, it had been more than two years since he was released from rehab and hadn’t relapsed since.
He was fighting him at every turn yet let him use his AI to check up on him. Even though all he had wanted to do was sleep, it still took him much longer than he would have liked for him to fall asleep.
However, with the big comfortable bed and the floor to ceiling curtains, he could almost pretend he was still a world-renowned surgeon. He could pretend he was lying in his bed at his old apartment, even though back then he barely wanted to spend time there. He had always been at the hospital, seeking the high of an impossible surgery perfectly completed.
“Doctor Strange, Mr. Stark has just left his rooms and is on his way to the lab.”
Stephen jerked awake at the unexpected sound, but it only took a few seconds for his brain to catch up with the words being spoken. Right. He had started a new charge.
Waking up at unfamiliar places should have been business as usual for him by now, yet he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to sleep this well. His usual nightmares hadn’t made an appearance and the room had been devoid of any sound, allowing him to fall into deep sleep more easily.
He couldn’t say he was well rested, and a glance at his watch showed it was only seven am still – barely six hours of sleep. At least Stark had followed his orders to rest, but he guessed by the way he had followed his advice to the T that he hadn’t actually been asleep for long. Either that or he’d set an alarm. Stark seemed like the kind of person to be that petty.
Right. His job. Stark was awake, meaning he could drink whenever Stephen wasn’t looking.
“JARVIS, what are Stark’s stats.”
“Mister Stark’s alcohol level remains the same, and there is still no alcohol in the building.”
“Any chance you can tell me how much sleep he got?” This time it took the AI a little longer to answer, almost as if hesitating.
“Mister Stark has slept for three hours in total.”
Stephen sighed. He guessed he shouldn’t complain about being tired when Stark got half the amount he did, yet it was with difficulty that he extracted himself from the warmth of the covers. He made sure not to take too much time in getting ready, still needing to head down as quickly as possible.
He left his comfortable bedroom and started making his way downstairs. Though it was seven am, a respectable hour, it still felt too early with the darkness outside. By the time he pushed his way into the lab, he had to stifle a yawn behind his hand.
Stark didn’t acknowledge his presence, so Stephen just moved to sit back in the same space as the day before. Time didn’t pass any quicker today, but when nine am rolled around he stood up from his seat again, ready to bother Stark into taking a break.
“We were going to get groceries, remember? I’m assuming you haven’t had any breakfast either as you don’t seem like the kind of person to enjoy mouldy cheese.” Stark glanced up as he spoke, and though he’d apparently only had three hours of sleep, he looked better rested than the day before. Stephen knew how to take small victories, but he would only feel satisfied if the fridge was fully stocked.
“You seem old enough to be able to go to the grocers on your own.”
Stephen was done arguing, so he ignored him and instead raised an expectant eyebrow at him. When he didn’t budge, Tony sighed, but grabbed a mug from the corner of his worktable and downed it before getting up.
“Right. Let’s go then. But after we get back, you’re leaving me alone to work for the rest of the day.”
Stephen thought it over. It seemed reasonable, but since they were bargaining anyway, he might as well set up his rehabilitation routine. “I’ll leave you alone as long as you get three meals a day and continue trying to return to a decent sleeping schedule. Also, I’ll still be here to watch over you.”
Tony looked like he wanted to argue, but something made him change his mind. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, but headed for the door, nonetheless. “At this rate you’ll be fired by the end of the week.”
“I do like a challenge,” Stephen smirked, following the shorter man up the stairs.
Stark went upstairs to get changed and returned dressed in a hoodie and sunglasses. The hoodie seemed appropriate for the weather, but the sunglasses were totally uncalled for. When he made a comment on it though, he was shrugged off, so he just followed the man down the elevator and onto the street below.
“So,” Tony started once they were walking, “why did you become a sober companion?”
“So now you talk?”
“According to the internet, that makes you go away quicker, so yeah I talk.”
Stephen huffed, but wasn’t too upset about the development. He didn’t mind the silence, it made things easier for him, but perhaps it would make the time go by faster indeed. “Fine; why get a sober companion now? You’ve been out of rehab for two years, what changed?”
“I already told you: I just moved. You’re avoiding my question.”
Stephen sighed but grit his teeth together when answering. “I helped my brother get sober. Figured I might as well get paid for it.”
Tony gave that answer a considering hum, before letting it go as they entered the local grocery store.
“Why did you move?”
“Change of scenery.”
Tony didn’t answer to his accusation, only started piling in snacks and chocolate as they moved through the sweets aisle. Stephen made sure to grab normal foods as well, plenty of vegetables and protein, while also putting some of the sweets back while Stark wasn’t paying attention. He also made sure to stay away from the alcohol aisle, though from the way Tony was acting it didn’t seem like it would be a problem.
“Hey! Where are my snickers?”
“So, you have a piano. Do you play?” Stephen asked, ignoring Tony’s question as the man continued searching their cart. The search would be in vein.
Stephen frowned, turning their cart to head towards the register. “Then why do you …”
“My mom used to.”
Stephen tried to gage Tony’s mood, but the engineer was as neutral as ever, still assessing their haul. “I take it your mom is dead?”
“Wow, you sure sober companion is your calling,” Stark frowned up at Stephen, lips twisted in incredulity, sarcasm barely detectable. “With that tact of yours you should have become a shrink.”
“Why buy a piano now if you don’t play?” Stephen rephrased his question.
“You need a piano. It’s part of the style.”
“It is a beautiful instrument,” Stephen hummed in appreciation, keeping an eye on Tony from his peripheral vision as he put their groceries on the conveyor belt. The white piano stuffed in the alcove between the stairs and lounge hadn’t escaped his attention. It was true that it fit into the décor perfectly, but that didn’t make it feel like less of a waste, pining away unused.
“You play it then.”
“I can’t.” Stephen kept his face passive and didn’t allow his voice to give anything away, but Tony was too distracted to notice either way. Their cashier glanced suspiciously at Tony, the engineer ducking further into his hoodie as he took back his card and pushed a bag into Stephen’s hands.
“Then stop complaining.”
They walked back onto the street as Tony adjusted his glasses. Stephen hooked the bag over his arm instead of holding onto it by his hands. He was used to working around them by now, numb to the feeling of incompetence and bitter anger.
“You say you want to get this over with as quickly as possible yet refuse to tell me why exactly I’m here. You’re working against yourself.” Stephen commented, once again keeping his eyes on Tony’s features. He wished he wasn’t wearing the sunglasses. He was impossible to read as it was.
“You’ve only been here a day, Strange,” Tony smirked, “I won’t make it that easy on you.”
“You’re a strange man you know that?”
“Says you, stranger danger.”
“Really? Very mature.”
Tony moved to turn into the direction of his building, but Stephen put a hand on his arm to halt his movement, quickly hiding his hands before Tony could glance at them. “If you’re going to stay in the lab all day every day, we’re going to have to pass by my place so I can pick up some things.”
“Fine,” Tony huffed, clearly annoyed at having been delayed once more, “lead the way.”
Luckily it wasn’t far from SoHo to Greenwich Village, so they were stood in front of Stephen’s house before long. It was an old building, and it was shared housing, but he was grateful to have it, nonetheless.
Stephen stopped in front of the steps leading to the front door and turned towards Stark. The engineer was watching him with mild interest. “I have roommates and they know what I do, so if you want to keep your anonymity you can wait outside if you want.”
“No breathalyser after?”
“Not if you don’t run off.” Stephen promised, but he doubted Tony would mind too much if he did. He was behaving this far, and he had gone through withdrawal years ago. “I won’t be long.”
Tony shrugged and turned to lean against the railing marking the edge of the premises, he reached into his pocket to pull out his phone. Satisfied he could amuse himself for now, Stephen dropped his own bags next to him and reached into his pocket for his keys before climbing the stairs and opening the front door.
The hallway was quiet; Karl and Wong were most likely at work. He made his way up the first flight of stairs and turned left into his own bedroom. It had only been a day since he’d left but even if it had been longer, he knew Wong and Karl never disturbed his stuff. Wong barged in whenever he wanted to chat, but that would be useless when he knew Stephen wasn’t home.
He’d mainly packed clothes the day before, expecting to have to follow his charge to his workplace or social functions. Now it seemed like Stark would be spending most days in the lab, he figured he might as well keep himself busy.
He grabbed some of the books Wong had gotten him to study and stuffed workout clothes in a bag, lastly grabbing the big binders off the windowsill. As he did, he glanced out of the window to the street downstairs. Stark wasn’t waiting where he’d left him.
Stephen cursed, berating himself for being so stupidly gullible and flew down the stairs and out the front door. The grocery bags we’re gone too, which seemed a little strange for someone running off to get pissed, but rule number two, don’t bother trying to make sense of addict behaviour.
Glancing around the street to confirm he hadn’t just looked over Stark and to look for possible clues, he pulled out his phone and checked it for any missed messages. Finding none, he went to search for his contact and call him, but before he’d pressed the dial button, a voice spoke up from besides him, making him jump.
“You’re really bad at your job, aren’t you?”
Stephen tried to steady his breathing and shake off his anger before turning to face Stark. The man had apparently returned of his own accord, bags still hanging from his arms but now with a box clamped between his arm and side, and a donut in his hands.
“I’m very competent at my job. You weren’t supposed to run off!” Stephen bit back, gritting his teeth and clenching his hands in annoyance; at least the discomfort of the movement helped distract him enough that he wouldn’t do something stupid like kill the man standing in front of him.
“Isn’t that what addicts do? I got bored,” Tony shrugged, taking a bite from his donut, “And someone got rid of all my sweets, so I had to improvise.”
“I’m giving you a urine analysis out of spite.”
“You’re the one getting to enjoy my piss, so go ahead.”
Stephen groaned and buried his face in his hands. He allowed himself a moment to collect himself. He swore Stark hid a grin right as Stephen looked back up. If he wasn’t so pissed off he might have even considered it cute. He really wanted to go back to bed.
He ignored Stark and turned back to close his front door, keeping one eye on the engineer, and grabbed his stuff off the ground.
They made it back to the penthouse without further incidents and Tony moved downstairs as quickly as possible, barely taking time to drop the shopping bags off in the kitchen. Stephen needed some time away from him, so he asked JARVIS for his stats and figured that was good enough. If he hadn’t gone to grab alcohol when he could he should be fine here. JARVIS would also alert him if he were to leave the building.
He took his time putting away the groceries, made himself a cup of tea and checked the time. He figured since Stark had bought donuts, that could count as breakfast and he had at least an hour before starting on lunch. He already knew Stark wasn’t going to feed himself, and though he wasn’t a butler or nanny, he figured he might as well provide him with food as well as he’d have to cook either way.
He still liked cooking, though it had been a while since he’d allowed himself to indulge in preparing a meal. These days he did whatever was easy and didn’t cause his hands too much trouble. It had surely taken away part of what made cooking enjoyable, but Stephen had to take what he could get.
For now, he decided to do some reading to pass the time, before making the food and pulling Stark out of the lab to eat. After, he joined Stark in the lab, sitting at an empty workbench to do some work of his own. He may not be able to be a surgeon anymore, but he still loved neurology. Loved how the brain worked and the puzzles they provided.
Years had passed before he had been able to read a medical article after his accident. It had been Wong and Christine who had pushed him to return to the subject, now he was keeping up to date and working on peer reviews. It still hurt at times, to be so close to something that once had meant so much to him – that still did – used to be his whole livelihood and personality.
It was better than doing nothing, however. It kept him busy and his mind fresh. People hadn’t dared to ask for his consultations directly, but he knew from Christine that they had wanted to. Stephen stuck to the side-lines though, not ready to step back into the centre of the medical world.
Not that it would be his place. He always would be an outsider, a has-been trying to relive his glory days. He couldn’t even ask for pity; everyone knew about his reckless stupidity. Knew it was his own fault.
A car crash, because of something as stupid as an email.
They pretty quickly fell into a routine. At least Stephen did. Stark mainly stuck to the lab, but he was obedient whenever Stephen told him to go to bed and get some rest. Why he was complying with his demands, Stephen didn’t know. It would make much more sense if he was going behind his back, giving Stephen a false sense of security while in reality he was just toying with him.
That didn’t seem the case, however. JARVIS still updated him whenever he left his room at night, even if for something as stupid as a glass of water. Not once had he caught him even thinking of consuming an alcoholic beverage.
Tony was even starting to get more than a few hours of sleep at night, if JARVIS was to be believed, and it showed in his demeanour and the lack of bags underneath his eyes.
Despite it all, he consumed ridiculous amounts of coffee, so much that Stephen was afraid he had changed one addiction for another.
Stephen himself woke up when Stark did but didn’t always immediately follow him into the lab. He had taken up meditation when he had moved in with Wong and Karl, and he took time to enjoy the quiet of the morning before heading down.
Wong was a pseudoscience freak; anything from spirituality to ghosts he was obsessed with. In another lifetime Stephen would have immediately written him off, but after his accident he had been too desperate for human contact to dismiss his new housemate.
Some things had just rubbed off on him, he guessed. He had started joining Wong on his meditation and yoga sessions, and he honestly found it helped clear his mind. He had even started changing his afternoon coffee’s to whatever herbal tea Wong was into that week.
To call him a believer would be too ambitious, but there was no harm done in participating in the relaxing traditions. There was scientific proof to back the claim of their positive effects on the body after all.
After his morning routine he’d call Stark back up for breakfast that wasn’t just black coffee. They still mainly ate in silence, the engineer often distracted by his tablet, but Stephen didn’t mind. He was able to stay busy with his own work, cooking and going on a run whenever he felt like he could leave Stark alone for an hour.
He always missed sparring with Karl whenever he was working with a charge, but he managed to make do.
When Stephen came downstairs today though, Tony wasn’t alone. As he walked up to the glass door leading into the lab, he noticed a figure standing next to him. He frowned as he opened the door and stepped inside.
Stark, already used to Stephen’s presence, ignored his entrance, but the person – teenager, male – standing next to him couldn’t help glance back at the sound. Stark was explaining something to him but stopped when he noticed he had lost the teen’s interest.
“Ignore him,” Tony started to say to the teen, but before he had even finished, the kid had already taken a step closer to him and was holding out his hand.
“Hey, I’m Peter.”
Stephen didn’t return the handshake, subtly trying to hide his hands behind his back, but he was sure to nod politely at Peter. “I’m doctor Strange.”
“Doctor?” Peter asked as confusion wrinkled through his features and he dropped his hand. He glanced back at Tony, who was leaning against the work bench and watching the scene unfold with mild interest. “Are you sick?”
“No, I’m not -,” Stephen started, but Tony cut him off before he could continue.
“He’s just a friend, Peter.”
Peter glanced suspiciously between the two of them, but Stephen stopped him from asking further questions by moving to his spot in the lab. Stephen didn’t look up at them again, but he could hear Peter re-joining Tony and them starting up their work again.
Stephen wasn’t trying to listen in on their conversation. He had learned to tune out Tony’s rambling almost immediately, but Peter always spoke with such wonder and amazement that Stephen couldn’t stop himself from being curious. Most of their talk was hard to follow, involving engineering and science that wasn’t close to Stephen’s expertise. But every once in a while, he caught a question from Peter directed at Tony personally or the other way around.
They had already discussed Peter’s school and apparent aunt, switching back to science every few minutes, and had now moved on to Tony’s life. Stephen didn’t want to pry, but as he wasn’t getting anywhere with Tony, himself, it might be useful to have a jumping off point for a next attempt at conversation.
“So, how’s Colonel Rhodes?” Peter asked, and Stephen immediately stopped fighting his conscience. From all he’d heard of this Colonel Rhodes that was technically his supervisor if not his boss, he had never actually met the man. The name was vague and none descriptive and not the least bit intimidating.
“He’s still in DC for now.” Tony’s answer sounded distant, and the clunks of metal indicated he was continuing his work. Stephen was very familiar with the tone now in Tony’s voice, something he hadn’t heard during his conversation with Peter before.
He didn’t know who the teenager was to Tony, but he had noticed that much; the engineer didn’t just tolerate his presence. He had been more relaxed and airier than Stephen had ever seen him. That the mention of colonel Rhodes brought out that reaction said more about his relationship to the colonel than it did Peter. The colonel managed to get a fond look out of Tony, but it was always hidden behind a layer of guilt.
Tony quickly brought the subject back to their project and Peter obediently kept the focus on that for the next couple hours.
When Stephen stood up to go and prepare lunch, Tony turned towards him, before glancing at Peter. “Kid, can you go upstairs and grab us some sandwiches?”
“Sure!” The teen eagerly ran off but stopped in front of the door and turned towards Stephen. “What do you like, mister Strange?”
“It’s doctor. And whatever’s fine, thank you.” He added, trying to send the teen a kind smile. Peter just nodded in thought and ran off, taking the stairs two steps at a time. Stephen had to fight the urge to call after him to be careful.
As he was already standing anyway, he moved forward, and went to take the teen’s place on Stark’s side, keeping a little more distance than the kid had.
“So? Is he yours?”
Tony’s head snapped in his direction at the question, huffing at Stephen before looking back down. He didn’t miss the small blush on Tony’s cheekbones, however, nor the hint of satisfaction in his eyes. “No. He’s just someone I’m mentoring.”
Stephen hummed noncommittedly, taking the chance to peek at the project they had been working on. The metals had been shoved aside for some kind of adhesive, though what for, Stephen wouldn’t be able to tell.
“Just,” Tony started, making Stephen glance back up at him, “don’t tell him what you’re doing here. He knows about my … well he knows. I just don’t want him to worry that I’m in need of ‘extra help’.”
“I wasn’t going to unless you gave me the okay,” Stephen replied with a reassuring nod. “It’s in my contract.”
“Alright,” Tony sighed, shoulders relaxing as he glanced back at Stephen.
“I made different kinds to make sure there were ones you like, mister doctor Strange!” Stephen turned towards Peter who was carrying three plates stacked with sandwiches, balancing them precariously on his arms. He glanced over one of the towers of bread, stopping when he noticed Stephen standing with Tony and glancing between the two of them with something akin to suspicion.
“Thank you, Peter,” Stephen stepped forward, moving to grab one of the plates to unload Peter of his burden.
It was heavier than he had expected, and he grit his teeth together as he quickly clamped his broken hands onto the plate as to not drop it. He put it down on the table and sighed, hoping no one had noticed his pain. He flexed his fingers, wishing it to ease the strain a little.
“Strange?” Tony asked, the hint of concern in his voice, but Stephen ignored his questioning look, face twisting in annoyance. He grabbed two sandwiches, keeping his back to both Peter and Stark and moved back to his workspace.
He could feel both Tony’s and Peter’s eyes on him, but he ignored them in favour of returning his attention to his peer review. Eventually they continued their conversation, and Stephen could breathe a little easier. He shoved his laptop away, unable to read about neurology right now.
Instead, he grabbed one of Wong’s books, before quitting that as well and trying to meditate to get his mind off of his despair. In the end, he ended up watching the far wall until he figured it was late enough in the afternoon.
He stood up, not bothering cleaning up the papers on his desk and walked towards the stairs.
“I take it you’re good around the kid?” He stopped at the door to gage Tony’s reaction.
Tony glared at him, as if the thought of him drinking around the kid was an offense to his person.
“Good, I’m going to take a bath.”
He ignored Peter’s confused gaze floating between the two of them – perhaps that was just his natural state – and headed up the stairs without looking back.
His bath helped, both in easing the pain and stiffness of his hands and getting rid of the tension that had built up in his shoulders. Yet, when he walked back down to the kitchen, his mood hadn’t improved much. Luckily, it appeared that Peter and Tony had already eaten, so Stephen ate his own dinner before moving into the lounge to read.
Wong had apparently snuck in a book about homeopathy and even just staring at the images made his skin crawl with contempt. Yet, he had nothing better to do and at least it kept his mind sharp enough to dispel the so-called ‘science’ the book provided.
“So, your hands?”
Stephen looked up from his seat on the couch. Since they had been together for about two weeks, it became a natural step to loosen the supervision. Peter had passed by on his way out over an hour ago, waving goodbye to Stephen. It didn’t explain why Tony had willingly come out of the lab. He looked tired, though it was only ten pm. Stephen usually gave him until midnight.
He clenched his teeth together, refusing to get into the topic. Forcing his attention back to the book in his hands, he tried his best not to immediately snap at Tony in response.
“I assume that’s why you’re not a doctor anymore?” Movement of the couch indicated Tony had fallen down a little further away from him, wiggling to get more comfortable.
“If you’re ready to get into your issues, we can talk. But my past isn’t part of the equation.” Stephen bit his lip, angry at himself for not having been able to keep the clear disdain out of his voice.
Tony hummed in response, and his ease helped ignite Stephen further. “That doesn’t sound fair. I’ll trade you; truth for truth.”
“Then I guess you’re stuck with a babysitter for a while longer still. I can use the extra pay.”
They sat in silence, Stephen refusing to give in, but unable to focus on the book anymore. He was already on edge enough to add scientific inaccuracies and fraud to the mix.
Tony, apparently realising Stephen wasn’t going to acknowledge him anymore, asked JARVIS to turn on the TV. Stephen didn’t care enough to wonder why the man didn’t just go back to the lab, but when midnight rolled around, Tony stood up from his own accord and went upstairs, leaving Stephen to sit in the dark overlooking the city.
“Dr. Strange,” JARVIS spoke up when he stepped into the elevator.
“Mr. Stark has requested your presence upon your return.”
“0.000 percent and still no alcohol in the penthouse.”
Stephen frowned in confusion as the elevator started its way up. Usually he’d take some time to shower and change before heading back to the lab after a run, but now he obediently followed the stairs to the lower floor.
As soon as he stepped into the lab, he knew something was off.
Stark was tinkering yes, but Stephen knew it wasn’t work. For one, he wasn’t sitting in his usual spot. The metal he had been previously working on lay abandon on its table, but Stark sat on the floor against the far wall. His eyes were unfocused, staring at the piece in his hand, and his movements seemed useless and frantic.
He wasn’t talking to JARVIS or listening to music either, the lab eerily quiet without the constant noise.
“Tony, are you okay?” He kneeled down in front of the engineer. His jaw was clenched, eyes hard as he stared into the distance between their two bodies. He reached out his hand block his view. It took a minute, but eventually Stark’s attention shifted to him, resting on his hands for a second before flicking his gaze upwards to Stephen’s face.
“Hey,” Stephen asked, voice low, “You with me?”
Tony’s jaw shifted in response, but he didn’t unclench them. Stephen couldn’t help but frown at the hard look in Tony’s eyes. Tony was often tired or distracted, but his eyes always shone with almost a childlike wonder. They were usually a warm chocolate brown, but now they looked more like stony tree bark.
“Do you have to go to a meeting? I know you haven’t gone yet in New York but there are plenty around. If you’d rather just talk to me, I’m here.”
When Tony didn’t answer, he let himself fall back off his heels until he was sitting across from Tony with his back against a desk and his legs spread out in front of him. He was content to wait for Tony to talk if he needed to.
Stephen didn’t know how long it took for Tony’s eyes to start glancing towards him at regular intervals, but eventually Tony’s hard posture loosened. His shoulders were first, dropping slightly as he lifted his hands to cover his face. He brought his knees closer to his body next, letting his forehead rest on them as he dragged his hands towards his hair.
Stephen watched as if mesmerised, staring at him as if he was a puzzle with a missing piece. Things didn’t add up around him, didn’t fit right. Stephen thought he knew addicts, thought he knew assholes, thought he knew desperation. Yet, it still didn’t quite come together.
“Tony,” Stephen started, unable to take the wait anymore; it wasn’t the right thing to do. He should let Stark take the lead. Everyone knew that that’s what his job was. To be there and listen. Let them say their say. But nothing about his work here with Stark had been according to the guidelines. All the question marks around Stark were bothering him, were digging into his flesh like a tumour he should be able to remove.
“I’m fine!” He ground out; the sound clear despite being filtered by limbs blocking the view of his mouth.
“It’s okay if you’re not.”
Tony’s shoulders went slack in a shuddering sigh. “Just… I don’t…,” he lifted his head off his knees and looked at Stephen. The intensity of his stare overwhelmed him. The vulnerability clear underneath his eyes as if submerged in a shallow pool of water. “Is it my fault?”
Stephen considered Stark for a minute and had to swallow before answering. “As I don’t know to what you’re referring, I can’t give an honest answer. Perhaps if you give me a rundown of what happened?”
Tony groaned as he leaned his head back against the wall. “You’re insufferable.”
Stephen dug his hand into his lips in an attempt to stop himself from smiling, but a second later Stark’s shoulders shook with laughter. It was a strange sound, edging onto hysteria, but it made Stephen’s insides twist pleasantly, nonetheless. He laughed for what felt like hours, but when he was done, Stephen didn’t miss the redness of his eyes and the tears he was fighting back. He leaned forward, clamped a hand on his shoulder in silent support and searched Tony’s eyes as best he could. Tony’s locked onto him as well, piercing his gaze with an unreadable expression. Stephen frowned but got up from his spot.
“I’m going to shower before making dinner. I’m not sure I should leave you alone right now. Do you mind waiting in my room?”
Tony didn’t reply for a while, but eventually he nodded in agreement. It was stupid. He could still leave whenever and Stephen wouldn’t be able to do too much about it when predisposed, but it was the tiniest bit of faith he was putting in Tony. Though again, that shouldn’t be done, especially in moments of crisis, he couldn’t help but trust him. However stupid that made him.
Besides, he had a feeling that Tony didn’t want to be alone right now. He had asked for his presence after all. It seemed unlikely that he would run off now.
They moved up the stairs in silence. Stephen was still lost in thought when he pushed his bedroom door open, Tony immediately moving to make himself comfortable on his bed. He frowned momentarily at the sight, before quickly turning towards the dresser to pull out clean clothes. He didn’t know why it bothered him, itched under his skin. It was - after all - Tony’s house. He was the guest.
He glimpsed at Tony one last time before closing the door to the en suite. Tony had apparently taken his gauntlet from the lab and was distracting himself with it now as he waited for Stephen.
He put his clean clothes on the shelve where they couldn’t get wet and moved to undress. When he was in the shower, JARVIS spoke up from the ceiling, and Stephen wasn’t even surprised he was installed into the bathrooms as well. He almost panicked, however, as the alert could only mean Tony was leaving the room, but he was quickly sated when the words filtered through to his brain.
“Mister Stark asked me to inform you he’s moving down to the kitchen to start dinner. I’ll alert you if he moves from there.”
Stephen relaxed under the warm water and allowed the spray to hit his back a little longer.
He slowed his track down the stairs when he noticed Tony moving around the kitchen. He still looked crestfallen and more down than usual, but there were already pots on the stove and vegetables being cut.
“So, you do cook?” Stephen couldn’t help but ask, hoping to tease away some of the engineer’s heartaches. He smiled as he headed into the kitchen, bare feet pattering softly over the tiles.
Tony shrugged. “Usually it’s a waste of time, but since I’d be waiting on you either way, I figured this would go quicker.”
They sat in silence as Tony continued cooking. Stephen didn’t mind it, pleased to watch Tony work. The meal he was preparing wasn’t too complicated, but he had a way of making every move feel like strategic play. In the lab, his work seemed like breathing to him, so natural the tools in his hands looked like a second pair of limbs. Stephen could lie to himself, but it wouldn’t change the fact that he had caught himself staring at Tony multiple times now. The man was distracting, it was true.
Out here in the kitchen, might not be as simple to him, might not be like home, but Stephen could still see the passion underneath. For Tony it probably wasn’t anything conscious; he just had this way of making everything interesting, everything important.
“So, you mentioned to Peter that Harley was coming over this week,” Stephen started as Tony was turning off the stove and extractor fan. Stark had already placed his plate in front of him, and it smelled pretty good. “You want to tell me about him?”
Tony sat opposite him, grabbing his fork to start his meal. He took a bite of his potatoes, but he apparently didn’t mind the topic. “Harley is another teen I’m mentoring. He’ll be staying here for a few days, before heading back home to Tennessee.”
“Are you looking forward to it?”
“Of course,” Tony answered at once, frowning up at Stephen, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen him in person.”
Stephen hummed in response, thinking over his next question. He was getting further with Tony than he had before, and he hoped to make the most of Tony’s cooperative mood. The wrong question could make him snap close again. He’d seen it plenty of time before, but this wasn’t something practice would make you better at. Sure, staying away from obvious no-no-topics was a given, but every person was their own minefield.
“You know you’ve got me curious about what you’re building. Going to give me a hint?” Stephen continued eating, but he didn’t miss a single expression on Tony’s face. He gave Stephen a considering glance, the hint of a smirk toying around his lips.
“Think of it…” Tony considered his words for a second, before continuing, grin now clear in his eyes, “as a high-tech prosthesis.”
Stephen gave Tony a pointed look at that vague description. He’d seen him work on what appeared to be a boot and gauntlet, yes, but they could hardly be considered prosthetics. Never mind the fluid he had been working on with Peter. “Who’s it for?”
“They were supposed to just be for my friend, but I finished those months ago. This one’s for me.”
“Funny, I could have sworn you still have all your limbs.”
“So, what if I do?” Tony responded nonchalantly, putting his cutlery down on his plate.
Stephen rolled his eyes and gave up for now, leaning back in his chair and studying Tony. The man stared back, holding his gaze with an almost defiant intensity. In the end, it was Tony who gave in first, eyes glancing down and away before he spoke.
“I relapsed in New York.”
“What?” Stephen asked in confusion. He had been so intent on trying to figure Tony out that the idea of Tony sharing freely at this point seemed foreign.
“Truth for truth, right? Seemed fair.” Tony shrugged, eyes glancing back up at Stephen before pinning on something behind him.
“I didn’t give you anything.”
“Your hands?” Tony responded, eyes shifting back to Stephen’s, eyebrow quirking. Stephen glanced away from him, hiding his hands under the table. He knew the movement wasn’t subtle. “You always try to hide them, yet you practically shoved them in my face to distract me.”
“It’s still my job.”
“You could have used anything else.”
Stephen stared at his plate to avoid Tony’s gaze. He had forced himself not to think about his hands or insecurities, own anger shoved away to help someone in need. He had always been great at that as a surgeon. Whatever had been going on in his life, if he stepped into the hospital, he was the epitome of clearheaded. He never let external or internal influences distract him from the matter at hand.
Now, thinking about Tony having seen his hands, even if he wasn’t reacting negatively per se, made him uncomfortable. He forced the anger creeping its way onto his neck to stay down, swallowing it back into his core, and pushed his thoughts back to Tony. Tony’s truth. The first hint that could help him solve him.
“What happened in New York?”
“What happened to your hands?”
Stephen sighed in frustration, moving forward to lean his elbows on the table and rub at his temples. He could swear Tony was enjoying this. At least he knew the city – or something in the city – could be a trigger for him. Which might be why he preferred to lock himself in his penthouse instead of going outside. It was something he could work with, but Stephen wasn’t sure yet how.
Loud knocking on his door and the sound of his name being called woke him up two weeks later. Tony didn’t sound panicked, so Stephen just groaned in frustration and glanced at his watch. It was already eight in the morning, which probably meant he’d slept through JARVIS’ daily warning that Tony had left his room.
He rolled out of bed and yanked the door open, but halted his annoyed questions when he noticed what Tony was wearing.
While at home he usually stuck to jeans or even sweatpants, so seeing him in a suit was startling. He wasn’t just wearing a regular suit either. This was a three-piece Tom Ford, and he looked so put together that Stephen completely lost his train of thought.
“I- …,” Stephen started, shaking his head in confusion as his brain had to restart for the day.
“We have to go.” Tony simply replied, eyes barely hidden behind a pair of red-tinted sunglasses. Stephen didn’t miss how they flicked down before resolutely settling back on his face, suddenly keenly aware that he was only wearing pyjama pants.
“Go where?” He rubbed a hand against his eyes, hoping to wake himself up more and distract himself from the blush creeping up his neck.
Stephen rolled his eyes but backed into his room again, already turning to search for clothes as he commented, “do you always have to be so cryptic?”
“Do you always have to be so noisy?”
“Yes.” Stephen simply stated, but a glance at his door told him Tony had already left.
He got ready as quickly as possible but couldn’t help putting a little extra care into his appearance.
By the way Tony was dressed it seemed like wherever it was they were going was either important or somewhere Tony cared about his reputation. Even with his suit on, he’d probably end up looking too casual next to Tony, but he assumed it was hard to upstage him either way.
When he came downstairs, Tony flicked him a bored look before heading into the elevator ahead of him. They rode down the elevator in silence, but Stephen didn’t miss the way Tony’s hand nervously twitched at his sides despite the cool exterior he was putting on.
To Stephen’s surprise, a car was waiting in front of the building.
He fought against the urge to argue or look for excuses, burying his fear as deep as he could and focussing on Tony. Luckily for Stephen, Tony seemed too preoccupied with his own nerves to notice Stephen’s, but he had a hard time counting his blessings when he was already counting down the minutes to being able to step out of the vehicle.
It didn’t look like they were heading outside of the city though, the restricted roads and slow pace of the city helping to ease the tension in his shoulders. Still, it took them about fifteen minutes to reach the upper west side, and when Stephen was finally allowed to set foot on unmoving ground again, he took in a shuddering breath of relief. Tony’s eyes swept over to him momentarily, frowning at Stephen, before glancing back towards the building in front of them.
“If anyone asks, you’re my new assistant.”
Stephen didn’t take his cold shoulder personally. He focussed on Tony and frowned at how quickly his tense expression shifted into an easy smile as they stepped into the lobby. He was so distracted by how easily he faked his comfort, that it took him about a minute to figure out the name of the company they had stepped into.
The logo was painted on the wall above the reception area; Stark Industries.
Stephen didn’t know much about tech companies, but the logo did seem familiar. He raised an impressed eyebrow towards Tony, but stayed quiet, content to stay in the background where Tony wanted him.
Yet it was disconcerting to watch Tony smile openly at the secretaries, talking easily and charming his way through the crowd of people, when he knew how tense the engineer had been but a minute ago. He apparently had free access to the building, which shouldn’t be that peculiar since his name was on it.
They took the elevator to the highest floor, and by the time they reached it, Stephen almost expected to step back out into Tony’s living room.
Instead, the top floor held a hallway with a small desk for a secretary and assistant, but Tony just greeted them with familiarity before barging through the double doors leading into a giant office.
“I’d knock but this is still my building so…”
“Tony!” A woman with red hair pulled into a ponytail sat in front of the giant desk in front of the massive windows. She immediately stood up as soon as she noticed the two men barging in and walked around her desk towards them.
Stephen raised an eyebrow when the woman immediately threw her arms around Tony in a fierce hug, kissing his cheek in greeting. He didn’t miss the way Tony’s shoulders relaxed at once. “How have you been? I’m sorry I’ve been so busy, I really wanted to see you as soon as you were in New York.
He tried to melt into the background as Tony had wished, but her eyes quickly fell on him when she pulled away. “Is this him?”
Tony didn’t glance back towards Stephen but nodded his head. “Yeah, Rhodey told you his name, right? But I’d rather not talk about that right now. I’m good. I promise.”
“Okay then,” she smiled softly, first at Tony, then at Stephen. He almost felt uncomfortable with the woman’s attention on him, but he was sure to keep his face neutral and pleasant in turn. “Take a seat.”
“I will wait on you outside,” Stephen caught Tony’s eyes and the man nodded gratefully, relieved smile on his face. He tilted his head in response and moved back into the hallway, taking a seat in one of the chairs supposedly representing a waiting room.
It was an hour later when Tony stepped out again, looking more relaxed than Stephen had ever seen him. There was a new ease to his step and the smile on his face looked real and joyful. Stephen stood up from his chair, walking up to meet him.
“Thank you. For waiting outside.”
“She clearly cared about your sobriety,” he responded in lieu of an explanation. Tony’s smile softened as he looked back at the door, before the elevator opened and he led the way inside. Stephen followed, unable to hide his own pleased smile at the expression on Tony’s face.
“Yeah, she’s a dear friend.”
“Friend?” Stephen quirked an eyebrow at him. “Nothing more?”
Tony just rolled his eyes and huffed in exasperation. “Is that the truth you want to know?”
“I wasn’t aware I had traded one of my own. It was merely a question.”
“Yes. She’s just a friend.”
They finished the ride down in silence, but when they stepped out of the building, unlike previously, there was no car waiting for them. Stark started down the sidewalk and Stephen followed.
“Why was today so hard for you?” Stephen asked, thinking over his phrasing again before continuing, “I mean, you were clearly relieved to see her, why were you so tense before?”
Tony stayed quiet for so long, Stephen thought he wasn’t going to answer, but eventually his gaze flicked towards Stephen in a considering glance. “It wasn’t Pepper, but the company. I changed things up, before handing it off to her.”
“Stark Industries,” Stephen said the name, allowing it to stir his memories until something clicked. “Don’t they make medical equipment?”
“They do now.”
“Definitely a huge part of it.”
“What did they make before?”
“Don’t you know how to use Google?”
“I’d rather find out from you,” Stephen answered, almost disappointed their back and forth had stalled.
“They made weapons.” Tony kept his gaze forward, but Stephen could still see the anger in the way his jaw locked together. There was another emotion there, either shame or fear, but Stephen couldn’t figure out which. Perhaps it was both, though he couldn’t figure out why.
“What made you switch?”
“I think that was enough for your turn.” Tony closed his eyes momentarily, before turning them towards Stephen. “How long has it been since the crash?”
Stephen stopped walking. There was some annoyed muttering from the people bumping into him at his sudden movement, but he ignored them in favour of frowning at Tony and clenching his hands at his sides. “I didn’t tell you that.”
“I figured that’s why you reacted so badly to the car.” Tony answered, stopping in his tracks as well.
Stephen’s brain short-circuited for the second time that day, shaking his head in confusion as he tried to piece the information together. He had figured they were heading somewhere close by, which is why they had ditched the car, but they were already more than halfway to Tony’s building now. Had Tony really figured out his discomfort and decided to walk so Stephen wouldn’t have to ride in a car anymore?
His mouth moved, trying to form words, but he had no idea what to say. A thank you seemed in order but also out of place, and the irrational anger he was feeling wouldn’t allow it either way.
Tony didn’t wait on him to pull himself together, instead he sent him a considering glance and continued walking after making sure Stephen could still follow. They reached the penthouse a little while later, and they moved into the lab without second thought.
It was there that Stephen finally made up his mind. He had thought he was trying to figure Tony out, needed to piece him together so they could both go on their way, but more and more it seemed like Tony was in total control. Tony had figured out his past in a total of five minutes with two clues, Stephen was completely submerged in Tony’s life yet only had more questions than answers.
He waited until they were sitting in the lounge during the evening. After Peter’s first visit, Tony had started to sit upstairs with him instead of in the lab. It was yet another thing Stephen couldn’t figure out as it was completely counterproductive. He was supposed to become less supervised and get used to spending less time with Stephen, so he’d be ready to be on his own when he eventually left.
But Stephen didn’t say anything about it. He just let Tony sit with him and tried not to glance in his direction too often.
It took a while for Stephen to find his nerve tonight, but after making up his mind earlier in the day, he wasn’t going to back out now. He took a deep breath before speaking, trying to keep his mind empty of memories. “The crash happened two years ago.”
Tony glanced back at him at once, the tablet in his hands immediately forgotten.
“Why did you switch?” he continued when Tony didn’t seem like he was going to say anything.
Tony gave him a considering look, but Stephen didn’t miss the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Stephen immediately regretted giving in and playing into his little game, but he couldn’t back out now.
He sounded wistful when he answered though, mind darting a million miles away. “The same reason I didn’t switch sooner; Rhodey.”
Stephen raised a question eyebrow, urging him to continue. Tony gave him a reluctant groan, but continued, nonetheless. “My dad started the company. I didn’t particularly enjoy following his footsteps, but I had no reason not to. We made weapons for the united states military, and Rhodey was in the military so…”
“You figured you could help him? Keep him safe?” Stephen finished his sentence. It made sense with what he’d seen from him this far. He barely took care of himself, but when it came to Peter or Harley, he made sure they ate enough and were doing well in school. Even with Stephen today, he’d helped avoid an unsettling scenario as soon as he’d known about it.
Tony simply shrugged; self-hatred still clear on his face. “Yeah, well, he still got hurt.”
“Why are you always so reluctant to talk about him?”
“I’m not,” Tony frowned at him, “I love my Rhodey.”
Stephen sent him an unimpressed smirk. “Every time someone mentions him you avoid the subject.”
“I don’t like to think about it.” Tony sighed, eyes darting away from Stephen guiltily. “Even after the accident, he still didn’t want to give up working for the military. I just don’t like to be reminded that I have to worry about him. Even if he doesn’t actually get deployed anymore.”
Stephen hummed in understanding, unable to stop a fond smile from toying at his lips. He tried to distract himself from it but continuing his questioning. “Is Rhodey getting hurt what you felt responsible for? When you asked me if it was your fault? Because if so, then the answer is no.”
“No, that wasn’t what I asked. I feel guilty about Rhodey still, but I know logically that it wasn’t my fault.” Tony reassured him, eyes distant. His eyes brightened when they flicked back up at Stephen in something akin to excitement. “My turn: why do you feel anger when reminded of the accident? Pain, sadness, I’d get, but why anger?”
Stephen kept his face impassive, giving him the simplest form of truth, before moving back to Tony. “I don’t want people’s pity. I don’t deserve it. Why were you upset then?”
“Tell me about the car crash and I’ll tell you.”
Stephen thought it over before he sighed, leaning back against the couch cushions and rubbing his temples. “Not tonight.”
“Our game continues.” Stephen glanced up at the tone in his voice. Tony was smiling, though he was trying to hide it, attention back on the tablet. Stephen frowned at the warmth in his chest, but chose to ignore it for now, returning his focus to his reading and pretending not to glance at Tony every few minutes.
“One of these days you’re going to have to allow me to bring sweets into my penthouse.” Tony huffed, leaning his weight on the cart he was pushing. Stephen still forced him to come to the store with him whenever he went. Not because he was afraid to leave him alone in the penthouse for more than an hour, but because he’d otherwise never set foot outside.
He had visited Pepper a few more times. The last time he’d even gone on his own as Pepper had picked him up at the penthouse to go out to dinner together. Yet, those outings remained the sole outside time he got.
“There’s still a tub of ice cream in the freezer,” Stephen replied distractedly, trying to remember if they still had olive oil or not.
“Really?” Tony quirked up; excitement clear in his voice. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“If I’d told you sooner it would already be gone by now.”
“Do I pay you to be such a buzzkill?”
“No, it’s a complementary feature,” Stephen replied pointedly, sending him a sarcastic smile that only had Tony grinning wider. Stephen rolled his eyes, failing to stop the fond smile from itching at his lips.
“How did you meet Colonel Rhodes and Pepper?” He asked, trying to distract Tony from their boring task and keeping the conversation flowing.
“I met Rhodey at MIT. Pepper used to be my assistant.” Stephen felt satisfaction course through him at the fond smile that had settled on Tony’s lips. As usual, Tony was wearing his sunglasses and hoodie when going out for groceries. By now, he had figured it was because even if Stephen didn’t know who Tony Stark, owner of Stark Industries, was, some people might.
Even though he looked adorable in the hoodie with dark sunglasses, Stephen missed seeing his eyes. They were always so expressive, and it was honestly a shame to hide those away.
He forced himself to forget that line of thinking immediately.
“What about you?”
Stephen glanced back at Tony in confusion, realising he’d missed part of the conversation. “What?”
He sent Stephen a pointed look, exasperated smirk on his face. “Am I boring you?”
“No, I just zoned out for a second. My apologies.”
Tony sent him a suspicious glare, but clarified his question, nonetheless. “I was telling you about MIT. Where did you go to become doctor Strange?”
Stephen shrugged in response. He wasn’t necessarily fond of his school; it had simply been a means to an end. “I always wanted to move to New York.”
“You’re not a city boy? Where did you grow up then?”
“Nebraska,” Stephen sighed, glancing at Tony to confirm that he was indeed delighted by that answer. “Please shut up.”
Tony held his hands up in surrender but didn’t comment.
They left the store a little while later, and against Stephen’s better judgement he’d allowed Tony to buy an extra pint of ice cream. At least the engineer was sated, for now.
He turned around at the familiar voice, smile already on his face before he’d found the source of the voice. “Christine?”
She was standing a little further away. Her clothes suggested she had the day off. She stepped closer, returning Stephen’s joyful expression and pulling him into a hug. “How have you been? I heard from Wong you got a new job?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied, eyes darting towards Tony who was watching the scene unfold with an amused smile. “Christine, this is my friend, Tony.”
Tony shook her hand, but immediately faded into the background once her attention had returned to Stephen.
“Strange! I need your help!”
Stephen glanced up from the article he was reviewing, frowning as he got up and walked towards where Tony was working. Metal braces lay on the table. They were thin and light, and for once the metal wasn’t coloured a dark red.
As soon as Stephen stepped up next to him, Tony glanced up at him, eyes lighting up in a smile, before turning to pull a hologram closer.
“You were a neurosurgeon, right?”
“Perfect! I’m trying to make these braces connect better to the existing nerves.”
Stephen tried to help him as best he could, but he wasn’t well-versed with engineering like Tony was. Apparently, he could still give unique insight, according to Tony. It felt more like he was just rambling about neurons while Tony somehow managed to turn that into valuable information.
He didn’t get how he managed to flow over different subject so easily. How he could take biology and cells, live matter, and turn it into robotics. It was like he was creating life itself. And hadn’t he? JARVIS was basically sentient in Stephen’s humble opinion, and the bots that worked around the lab each had their own personality.
They made do however, and Stephen was so consumed in their work that he completely missed their usual dinner time. When he noticed the time though, he stepped away from what they had accomplished for the day this far. Tony was grinning, but he was watching Stephen instead of the braces.
They had moved closer together over the course of their work, and Stephen realised he was able to smell Tony’s natural scent. It was almost dizzying, wrapping around him like a warm hug, and he had to keep himself from breathing in more deeply.
Stephen cleared his throat, before starting for the stairwell, taking advantage of the movement so he wouldn’t have to look at Tony. “Want to help me with dinner?”
Tony didn’t say anything in response, but Stephen could feel him following him up the stairs, so he took that as a yes.
They worked in silence, until Stephen turned away from the pot he was stirring to watch Tony. He was still cutting up the last of the vegetables, but he quickly noticed Stephen’s eyes on him and looked up. There was a curious glint in his eyes, tilting his head in question at Stephen’s attention.
“See anything you like?” He smirked, and Stephen almost forgot what he wanted to say. He got a hold of himself, however, taking a step closer to Tony and leaning against the counter as he watched the engineer.
“After my accident I threw all my money at treatments to save my hands. Clearly didn’t work,” Stephen started matter-of-factly, pain long made peace with. “Luckily Christine stepped in. She got me help and counselling, made me go to groups. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it helped in the long run. I definitely didn’t deserve her help. I guess being a sober companion is my way of repaying that.”
Tony watched him. Stephen almost had to turn away from the soft look in his eyes. He didn’t deserve his sympathy, didn’t want his pity.
“What do you want to know?” He asked eventually, voice soft and knife forgotten on the wooden plank in front of him. He almost sounded amused, but there was still something else in his voice Stephen couldn’t place.
“This was me paying back.”
“What truth did I give?” He definitely sounded amused now, tone teasing as he smirked at Stephen.
“Compressed spinal injury. Caused by a fall from high altitude. Rhodey is military; air force?” He hadn’t actually said it, but he must have known Stephen could puzzle it together from their work in the lab today. He had started making prosthetics for a friend. As far as Stephen knew, he only had three friends. Two of which he knew for a fact still had movement of all their limbs. He already knew Rhodey had gotten hurt, just not that it was this severe.
He watched as Tony’s eyes dropped to the floor and he regretted having brought it up. Tony looked so small and sad, Stephen couldn’t help reaching out and grabbing his forearms where they were pressed against his chest. “Hey, it wasn’t your fault.”
“I know,” Tony groaned, rolling his head back, but Stephen noticed the smile that was itching at the corner of his lips. “All that time building weapons for the army but didn’t once think to update their parachutes.”
Stephen softly squeezed Tony’s arm where he was still holding it, but pulled back after, ignoring the soft blush that was undoubtedly visible on his cheekbones. He was glad it had gotten dark around them, the lighting of the room casting shadows over their faces.
“For the record,” Tony started, making Stephen glance back at him in curiosity. Tony was watching him with an almost fond smirk, throwing Stephen off slightly. “I think the real reason you became a sober companion is that you enjoy being the less damaged person in the room.”
“How am I the less damaged person in the room?” Stephen couldn’t help asking in incredulity, glancing at Tony as if he’d grown a second head.
Tony just smirked and turned away to continue cutting, sending Stephen one last pointed look. “You’re the babysitter.”
“Hey,” Stephen stuck his head through the door of the lab. Tony looked up at him from where he was working, smile on his face even as Stephen had broken through his concentration. “I’m going on a run. Want to come along?”
“Did I ever tell you about my weak heart?” Tony was grinning now, leaning against his counter with a thoughtful expression. “Working on my cars is my work-out routine. You’d be surprised how much muscle you gain from lifting heavy metals.”
“Jogging is actually a great way to improve how your body uses oxygen, which makes it good for your heart.” Stephen offered, smile tugging at his lips. “Exercise in general is also a great addition to your rehabilitation routine.”
When Tony didn’t budge, but kept looking at him with a considering expression, he rolled his eyes. “I’ll let you get donuts after.”
“You should have led with that, doc,” Tony smirked, immediately throwing his tools down and cleaning his hands on the rag hanging from his hip. “I’m warning you that I am disgustingly out of shape.”
They actually managed to run quite a distance before Tony insisted that they stopped for a break. He was panting, but he was holding on pretty well for someone who claimed to be out of shape. The part of Central Park where they’d ended up was pretty secluded, the lake sparkling to the left of them.
Stephen leaned against the railing keeping them from getting closer to the water, and watched Tony catch his breath. He looked pretty cute gasping for air, and Stephen let himself get distracted by the sweat clinging his shirt to his chest.
He must have been speaking the truth about working on cars keeping him in shape, because his shoulders were impossibly broad. He often wore long sleeves in the lab, but whenever he was actually building things, he’d wear a muscle shirt. Stephen had noticed before, of course; how couldn’t he have? Yet this was the first time he’d actually seen him from up close, thin coat of sweat making him shiny and even more distracting.
His gaze flicked back to Tony’s face when he caught himself, and Tony caught his eyes a second later when he managed to get his breathing under control.
“How are you still so…” he gestured his hand, trying to find the right word, before giving up and straightening his back.
“Daily commitment,” he smiled sardonically at Tony and then engineer immediately sighed at the look in Stephen’s eyes. “Ready to continue?”
“Nope. Nope. Nope. We’re going to walk for a bit now.”
“Fine.” Stephen rolled his eyes in fake exasperation and unzipped his hoodie to tie it around his waist instead. He glanced back at Tony but frowned when he saw the man staring distractedly at him. “Let’s walk it off.”
“Right.” Tony jumped back into himself, immediately heading off to lead the way.
Stephen couldn’t help glancing at Tony every so often. He had lost count of how often he had found the man to be distracting. He needed to find something to keep his mind occupied.
“What truth do I need to trade for you to tell me about why you first started drinking?”
Tony glanced over at him, but he seemed amused at the sudden question, so Stephen continued breathing. “I’ll tell you if you tell me about what made you become a doctor. You were dodgy about the subject before.”
Stephen sighed, but considered it a fair trade so he nodded, gesturing at Tony to take the first turn.
“My parents died in a car crash when I was eighteen. Couldn’t cope so I turned to booze and partying. I was young and rich and had nothing to lose so it only seemed natural. Rhodey pulled me out when he came back from his first tour in Afghanistan and send me to rehab. I stayed sober until two years ago as you know.”
“You didn’t drink for what? Fifteen years,” Stephen asked in surprise, turning to frown at Tony. It was impressive, that was sure, but it made him worry all the more about what happened two years ago.
“Yup,” He replied casually, but Stephen didn’t miss the pained expression that flashed over his face before he managed to hide it away.
With his reluctance to talk about it, Stephen knew it must have been something bad enough to still hurt two years later. He always froze up when Stephen tried to bring it up. It was hard to imagine what or whom could have hurt him this badly, especially with everything he’d already endured.
“I became a doctor because my sister drowned, and I couldn’t help her.” It was still painful to admit, hurt every time he thought about Donna’s brilliant smile and expressive eyes, always laughing and talking loudly for everyone to hear. But he was happy it distracted Tony from his own memories, the genius’ eyes flashing back towards his and holding his gaze. “Somewhere along the way, the more family I lost, the more the passion left. In the end I was doing it more for my own ego than anything else.”
Stephen smiled reassuringly at Tony, and quickly changed the subject to getting their donuts, continuing to chat about less serious topics for the rest of the day.
They could talk about science for hours, chat about their respective college experiences and their childhoods, and talk about the people they’d met along the way.
Tony didn’t go back to the lab when they got home, but they made dinner together, spending the evening in the lounge and continuing their conversation.
Stephen’s phone rang in the middle of a sparring session with Karl. Tony and him had split up at the start of the evening. The engineer was heading to Pepper’s, and Stephen was taking advantage of the free hours to spend some time with his own friend at the gym near their house.
It was nice to be able to fight again, letting his mind go blank and his muscle memory take over.
The number wasn’t recognised by his phone, but Stephen pressed answer anyway. Shying away from unknown callers wasn’t an option when clients could call in a moment of crisis. He had to hand out his number to family members, friends, or anyone who he thought could possibly need his help. He never minded. In a way it reminded him of his time as a doctor.
“Miss Potts?” Stephen frowned, immediately recognising the voice. She sounded panicked, which immediately had Stephen’s hair stand on end. “What’s going on?”
“Are you still with Tony?”
“No,” Stephen turned away from Karl’s curious look, taking a few steps to get some privacy. He moved over towards his bag, already shoving his sparring gloves inside and gathering his things. “We split up an hour ago when he left to meet you and mister Hogan.”
“He never arrived and isn’t answering our calls.”
Stephen’s blood ran cold, but he took a deep breath, forcing his training to take over. Fear coursed through him, and it took him a minute to recognise it as worry. “Okay, stay where you are and continue calling him. Send mister Hogan to any location you know Tony used to frequent. I’ll go back to the penthouse and hope he’ll come back soon. There isn’t anything else we can do, I’m afraid.”
“I understand. Was there any indication before he left?”
“If there was, I wouldn’t have left him alone,” he assured her. Just because he was missing didn’t mean he had relapsed. There were a million different explanations as to why he could have suddenly dropped off the face of the earth. Not all of them were pleasant of course, but Stephen tried to keep his mind on the innocent ones.
Like, perhaps he had gotten stuck in the underground? Even though he wouldn’t be caught dead on a subway. Or perhaps he had simply gotten distracted by donuts and kept his phone on silent? This explanation was now officially his favourite, and he chose to believe this until the truth came out.
He wished he was someone more positive, more easily fooled by fantasy. Before long, he was imagining Tony in a bar somewhere, drunk and miserable, hating himself for even being there.
He made it to the penthouse not even ten minutes later. He wasn’t surprised to find it dark and empty, but he still felt it when his hope eroded away. He asked JARVIS for help, but when he couldn’t give him any more information, Stephen fell back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling, and counted the minutes before Tony would come back home again.
It wouldn’t be the first time one of his clients relapsed, but it would be the first time his clients relapsed on his watch. Before the crash he would have been upset his perfect record was destroyed, but even thinking about it now made his blood boil with self-hatred.
Now all he could think about was Tony. Tony who only earlier today had been so vibrant and laughed so loudly. Who was excited to meet with Peter later this week and had been close to a breakthrough when forced to eat dinner with Stephen.
He didn’t know how Tony would return. Prayed to god he’d return at all. But he knew that if he did, he’d most likely be unrecognisable.
“Doctor Strange, Mister Stark is on his way up. He has a bottle of whiskey with him.”
Stephen sat up at once, forcing his unpleasant thoughts out of his mind as he cautiously moved towards the elevator. “Blood alcohol concentration?”
“Still at 0.000 percent.”
Stephen sighed in relief, didn’t dare hope, but counted the seconds until the elevator dinged open.
Stepping forward as soon as Tony had set foot on the penthouse floor, he let his eyes rake over the man in front of him. He looked fine, but Stephen was distracted by the strength with which he was gripping onto the bottle in his right hand. It was still full, still sealed, but it was hardly a relief with the look in Tony’s eyes.
He glanced up at Stephen, face hard. It made Stephen want to recoil, made a knot form in his stomach at the sight, but Stephen didn’t miss the hint of desperation in his eyes. He clung onto that desperation, needed to focus on that instead of everything falling apart.
“I-,” he started. Stopped. Frowned, and glanced at the bottle in his hands. “I bought alcohol.”
“Tony,” he started delicately, reaching out his hand to the engineer to get his attention back on him. “You haven’t opened it yet. It’s a setback, yes, but you haven’t jumped off.”
Tony looked up, but his gaze was avoiding Stephen’s face, instead focussing on a spot behind his left ear, voice filled with self-hatred. “I bought alcohol.”
“Yet, you clearly don’t want to drink it.”
“I do want to drink it! That’s the point!” Tony’s voice was getting louder, disdain dripping out like acid, but Stephen wasn’t giving in.
“You don’t; buying the alcohol in a moment of deep emotion was a habit, a reflex. If you truly wanted to get pissed, you wouldn’t have come back to the penthouse where you knew I was waiting for you. Where you knew you’d be stopped from opening the bottle,” Stephen hoped the despair didn’t shine through to his voice. He needed Tony to believe him. Needed him to be okay and not completely fall apart under his fingertips. “You reached out and got help. That’s a good thing. You did something good, Tony.”
“Please, we can sit down and talk about what set you off-”
“No. We’re not going to talk about it. No.”
“This isn’t something you can avoid talking about,” Stephen insisted, trying to keep his voice gentle when he felt like his entire body was coursing with electricity. “It will become a trigger if you don’t deal with it now.”
“It’s stupid,” Tony yelled back, gritting his teeth in frustration, “I’m fine!”
“You’re clearly not fine! Something must have happened for you to get this low. You were doing great for two years!”
“I- I can’t be around you right now,” Tony sighed out in defeat. Eyes turned away and avoiding Stephen’s desperate gaze.
Stephen tried to ignore the spike of hurt his words sent through him. He bit it away, dismissing the sharp pain as unimportant. There was no reason for the words to hurt the way they did. He was his sober companion. He had heard the same words from almost every one of his clients before; it was his job to be unwanted. To be the bad guy stopping them from doing something stupid. Like Tony had said: he was paid to be the buzzkill. “Tony, that’s why I’m here -,”
“No.” An emotion flashed through his eyes, so quickly hidden Stephen thought he had imagined it. Tony’s voice was quiet but firm, barely a breath of pain or gasp for air. “Please... don’t.”
Tony glanced back down at the bottle in his hands, and Stephen watched as fresh anger rippled over his face. He didn’t know if he was surprised or relieved when Tony turned away and threw the bottle at the far wall, the glass exploding in the quiet of the penthouse like the shatter of a broken heart. Tony had already moved up the stairs by the time Stephen had managed to pull himself together.
Stephen followed, but when he reached the floor and noticed Tony had snapped his bedroom door closed, he stopped in his tracks.
He should be able to burst in and drag him down to a meeting. It’s what he did. What he was supposed to do. He had been able to do it for charges three times as difficult as Tony.
But he couldn’t. Couldn’t cross this line with Tony. More likely didn’t want to cross this line with Tony. He didn’t want to be the babysitter for once. Didn’t want to be the collected one or didn’t want to be the bad guy.
He sighed, knowing he was going to hate himself for it later. He sat down, leaning his back against the wall next to Tony’s door, and left him alone like he’d asked. All he did was send out a quick text to Pepper, to let her know he was fine and sober. That he would be okay.
“No more alcohol in the building.”
He sat in dark for what felt like hours, trying to make sense of the mess of thoughts and emotions coursing through his head.
When he woke up the following morning, it was of his own accord. His door was still open, but Stark’s was closed. He confirmed with JARVIS that Tony was in fact still in his bedroom and groaned at his own exhaustion. It was in the late morning by now, and Stephen had no idea at what time he’d gotten to bed.
He moved to get dressed, before walking out into the hallway and stopping in front of Tony’s door.
He breathed in deeply before banging at Tony’s door, ignoring the bolts of discomfort shooting through his hands. “Mister Stark! We’re going to a meeting!”
Tony didn’t answer, but Stephen had gone past the point of caring. He pushed open the door, glad in the very least it wasn’t locked, and glanced around the room. Tony wasn’t lying in bed like he would have expected – like he had quietly hoped – instead he was sitting on the floor in the corner of the room, legs pulled up in front of him and turned towards the giant windows on the wall to his right.
He refused to meet Stephen’s eyes when he walked closer, but he clearly tensed. Even from his profile Stephen was surprised how red his eyes were, and he would have made him take a drug test if not for the obvious grief in them. It made Stephen’s heart jump into his throat and he had to swallow it down and push his own heartbreak aside.
“Don’t I have a say I this?” Tony asked, biting back his next words. It was obvious he was too exhausted to argue. Too broken to care. Stephen almost wished him to yell, wished for yesterday’s anger to return, wished for him to at least look at Stephen.
“You lost your right to choose last night when you refused to talk to me.”
Tony didn’t argue but he also didn’t move, just kept staring off into the distance. It was unnerving to watch, to see him so despondent and absent, while usually his mere presence in the room was enough to draw people in.
“Tony, I can’t…,” Stephen clamped his mouth shut in frustration, trying to breathe in through his nose to calm himself. “Mister Stark. You need a sponsor. If you don’t want to talk to me, you need a sponsor to help you get through moments like yesterday. You’re still clearly not okay.”
At last Tony’s head snapped towards him, and it was as relieving as it was frustrating; “Newsflash asshole, I’ve never been okay!”
“Oh, cry me a river, Stark!” Stephen snapped back. He hated feeling like this, hated feeling useless and unwarranted, hated feeling like he was standing in an empty room yelling at the walls to move.
What made it more hurtful was that it was Tony who wasn’t listening to him, and perhaps for the first time, he felt like he understood. Understood why people hired sober companions instead of getting loved ones sober themselves.
“I’m not letting this go,” he sighed, as the willingness to fight had left him completely, “You either come with me to a meeting and get a sponsor or I’ll call Rhodes. I don’t care how angry you get at me for it. Be angry at me while taking care of yourself and get a move on.”
Tony met his eyes for the first time, and Stephen had to swallow at the anger in them. He let nothing show on his face, though. He couldn’t.
This was it then, the point of no return.
It was a harsh reminder of his place in Tony’s life, but clearly one he had needed.
They walked in silence, keeping careful distance between each other. Stephen made sure to keep an eye on Tony, took extra care in making sure he wouldn’t run off.
Tony just hid in his usual hoodie, taking the lead and setting a firm pace with his short legs. The thought couldn’t even amuse Stephen, feeling too horrible and worried anything else felt trivial and unimportant. He still remembered Tony’s expression from the day before. Remembered his bloodshot eyes from this morning and tried to keep his own emotions hidden deep inside. He needed to focus on Tony. If he didn’t, he’d do something stupid.
They sat through the meeting, listening to other people’s stories and Stephen made sure to look for potential sponsors. In the end, they only found a good one four meetings later.
Tony had been the one to walk up to the man after he had done his account. He apparently had been a physicist and Stephen could see they were getting along splendidly talking about science together.
They went for coffee, Stephen staying in the background at a separate table like he was supposed to and tried not to let the loneliness get to him.
He was glad Tony had found someone to talk to, at least. Stephen watched from a distance as Tony opened up to him, talked about his life and listened to Bruce in turn. After their fourth meeting, Stephen stopped coming along.
For the next couple of weeks, things calmed down around the penthouse; both of them falling back into their routine but barely talking. Tony spent time in the lab and went to meetings with Banner. Instead of joining him in the lounge in the evening, Tony stayed downstairs to work until he went to bed.
Meanwhile, Stephen did everything to try and get his mind off of him. He worked on his peer reviews, met up with Wong and Karl when Tony was with Bruce and ran longer and further than ever before. But in the end of the day it was difficult to deny that he missed Tony. Even when in the same room.
Stephen could see he was doing better, saw him return in better and better moods from meetings and heard him laughing downstairs with Bruce. Stephen tried not to let it get to him. Tried not to notice how little Tony looked at him or how his spirits fell every time Stephen stepped into the room. It hurt more than it should.
For the first time since meeting Tony, he felt like a sober companion. Around to babysit and nothing more.
He still had no idea what had made Tony relapse two years ago. What had set him off that night. Stephen hated to see him hurting, but it wasn’t any easier to see him get better without him. At least he was getting happier. That when Stephen was no longer needed, he could continue being happy and carefree.
He was starting to spend less and less time in the lab. He told himself it was so Tony could get used to living without supervision. A test to see how well he could do on his own. He needed to learn to rely on his sponsor after all, needed to reach out of his own accord when he felt like he needed to.
But at night he had to admit that it was because he couldn’t stand being around him with the distance between them. He hated himself for it. Hated how he had let this man take over his senses and control. How he had let him get too close.
But that’s the way it was supposed to be.
Stephen had wedged himself into Tony’s world; a guide to send him on his way before disappearing again. To Tony, he was nothing more than an inconvenience until he had his affairs in order.
Meanwhile, Stephen’s entire life had become Tony Stark over the last couple of months.
It was on Stephen that he didn’t want to let that go.
Stephen sank down in front of the white piano. The view from here was ridiculous, the piano shoved in a glass alcove giving him a 180-degree view of the city below. It was raining, but the grey weather didn’t take away from the beauty of the New York skyline.
Tony was still out with Bruce, and with the penthouse to himself he could indulge himself. No one was around to hear him struggling; he could just enjoy the feeling of the keys underneath his fingers and try the same five notes a million times until his fingers could cooperate.
It had been way too long since he’d played. Even before his accident it had been months if not years. He had taken the presence of the piano in his apartment, along with almost everything else in his life, for granted.
Yet, he still remembered his favourite song. The song Donna would beg him to play and play and play until he went insane.
He started pressing the keys, surprised at how easily he still moved over the notes. It wasn’t perfect by a long shot. His fingers clamped up at times, couldn’t reach as far with his hand as he used to, but he could play and right now that was all he could care about.
He ignored the wrong notes, the loud clangs interrupting the beautiful melody and instead focussed on what went right. The music flowing out immediately sent him back to their parents’ farm in Nebraska. Victor lived there with his family now. Stephen hoped he was still doing okay. It had been way too long since they’d spoken.
As he played, he allowed his mind to wander to all the things he had avoided over the last few months. Allowed himself to think about Tony and the feelings that were getting harder and harder to ignore. Whatever he may feel though, it would never work. He tried to relinquish to said fact.
Tony saw him as nothing but a sober companion. He would always be a reminder of his drinking, would always just be the babysitter, the dynamic forced on them due to the circumstance of their meeting.
If only they had met a different way.
Stephen could imagine meeting him through SI’s prosthetic department if Stephen had still been a surgeon. Imagined seeing a stranger with sunglasses, and adorably hidden in a hoodie, filling his cart with nothing but candy and sweets. He thought about them being in recovery together, or about them meeting back when Tony had still been in LA, before Stephen’s accident and Tony’s relapse.
It was a longing he couldn’t acknowledge, because if he did, he wasn’t sure he’d ever get over it.
“Try To Remember.” A voice spoke up from behind him. Stephen immediately froze but didn’t dare look behind him. He tried to focus on the tone of Tony’s voice, the awe and familiarity with which he had spoken the name of the song. He hadn’t heard him come up, and he immediately had to fight back embarrassment at having been caught playing.
Yet another thing came to mind; this had been the first time Tony had spoken to him in weeks for something other than communicating his plans.
Tony moved and Stephen flicked his gaze away as soon as Tony was standing in his line of sight, taking a place next to the piano to glance over at Stephen’s hands on the keys.
“Please,” he asked, barely a whisper, “continue.”
Stephen didn’t know why, maybe it was the tone of his voice, or that Tony was finally talking to him again, but Stephen thought he’d have a hard time ignoring anything Tony were to ask of him. He was willing to give him anything he might want, and the thought was as thrilling as it was terrifying. In the end, he settled on hurt instead, again reminding himself that was all there was, and forced his attention to the music as he tried to continue the song.
He hoped Tony didn’t notice he was making more mistakes now; didn’t notice how he had a hard time remembering the notes when fighting against his own instincts telling him to look up at the man leaning over the piano.
Eventually he forgot his own reservations, channelling his attention to the notes and giving in, glancing up at Tony’s face and meeting his eyes for the first time in what felt like forever.
He sighed in relief at the sight, having missed the engineer’s soft brown eyes, the way his lips curled in an almost smile of their own accord, the dark curls messily covering his head.
He didn’t realise he had stopped playing until he saw Tony swallow and glance away from him, pushing back from the piano, and Stephen felt like a spell had just been broken.
Tony was refusing to meet his eyes again, distant and cold once more, and Stephen fought against the pain curling in his chest. He forced it away, twisting it until it turned to determination.
“What made you relapse three years ago?”
Tony flinched, making Stephen frown as he stood up from the piano seat. The engineer only shook his head in response, retreating and moving to head back down to the lab.
Stephen crossed the space towards him in less than a second, blocking his path.
“I was on my way to an event when I drove off a cliff.” Stephen admitted, letting the words flow out of him without a second thought, desperate enough that he barely even cared anymore. “I was an arrogant, reckless idiot, who couldn’t resist checking an email while going twenty miles above the speed limit.”
“An email! I read a stupid email and it cost me my career and could have cost me my life.” Tony was staring at him, mouth slightly parted as if trying to speak. To Stephen’s relief, Tony’s face stayed devoid of emotion. He wouldn’t know what to do with any of them right now; if Tony would feel pity, disgust, contempt, … “Truth for truth, right? It’s only fair.”
Tony turned away from Stephen as his own words were used against him. He could still refuse, but Stephen knew he wouldn’t, could already see the defeat on his face.
It took a while for him to work up to speaking, but when he did, his voice was acid. Stephen tried to ignore his stomach recoiling at the sound.
“I was in a relationship. I know now that it wasn’t a healthy one, but at the time I didn’t care. I might have even taken him back after he used me and cheated,” Tony spit out, disgust clear in his features. Stephen hated how it was directed at himself. “Yet, in the end, he left me.I threw away fifteen years of sobriety for that asshole. Because of something as ridiculous as heartbreak. So, when I say it’s stupid, I’m telling you the truth.”
“It’s not stupid at all.”
“It is,” Tony bit back, voice edging on hysteria as he continued, “Because even after all of this. Even after not being able to support my best friend through one of the worst times of his life because I was knocked out in some random blonde’s apartment. Even after going to rehab to hopefully be able to be there for some of Rhodey’s rehabilitation process. Even after moving on and realising he wasn’t worth the dirt I walk on… I still lose it when I see him walking around New York. Realising he’s still together with the best friend he cheated on me with!”
“Tony, like I said before it was a completely normal reaction. You never dealt with the heartbreak, so you -“
“I don’t need your expertise right now!” Tony yelled; frustrated anger clear as he still refused to look at Stephen.
“Then what do you need, Tony? Tell me what you want from me, because I’m stuck!” Stephen was starting to unravel. He had been trying so hard to keep himself together but with tensions running high it was all he could do to not shake out of his skin. “I don’t know what I’m still doing here if you are clearly doing better without my help! When you clearly don’t need me anymore and don’t even acknowledge me! What do you want?”
And then Tony kissed him.
He surged forward to capture Stephen’s lips and Stephen froze, mind processing way too slowly, short-circuiting mid-thought and restarting all over again. He vaguely recognised the soft feeling of Tony’s lips against his and the hand against his cheek, but the first question that came to mind was; why?
Why was Tony kissing him?
And Stephen wanted. Stephen wanted so deeply it scared him. And Tony couldn’t ... couldn’t want him…
Tony leaned back a second later when Stephen still wasn’t reciprocating. Stephen’s surprise was only broken when he noticed the flash of hurt moving over Tony’s features, the shutters going down behind his reddening eyes, and Stephen finally thought he understood.
“I’ve wanted to do this for quite some time.” Tony moved to step away, harsh lines of his face shifting as he retreated back into himself and Stephen couldn’t let it happen. Thought he’d lose Tony for sure if he didn’t stop him.
“No- Tony!” He grabbed onto Tony’s collar to keep him from leaving, ignoring the pain from his hands. Tony halted mid-turn when he noticed Stephen’s hand clutching at his shirt, frowning at how white they turned with how hard he was clinging on. Stephen hated the broken look in his eyes, the mix of self-hatred and heartbreak. He was a supposed genius, yet he stared at Stephen’s hand in confusion, as if he couldn’t figure out why Stephen would hold onto him. Would want to keep him close.
He carefully cupped Tony’s cheek with his free hand, curling his thumb under his chin to turn his head to face him once more.
“Do you really want this?”
Stephen’s eyes roamed his face, desperately searching for the truth in his expression. Tony didn’t answer, but Stephen saw him swallow as he was forced to look Stephen in the eyes, his own now bloodshot.
He itched his head closer, desperately wanting to reach forward but wanting to give Tony enough time and space to refuse.
He didn’t, and when his eyes darted down to Stephen’s lips, Stephen couldn’t help but smile as he leaned down completely to kiss Tony.
Tony immediately reacted to the contact, lips moving along Stephen’s like it was the only thing keeping him alive. Stephen smiled into the kiss when Tony’s hands reached up to grab at his hips, pulling him closer still.
Only now did Stephen fully allow his feelings to take root, to acknowledge what he should have known was inevitable all along.
Love wasn’t something he’d say he was good at. He had loved his family but had never been good at expressing said affection. The people in his life he’d consider family today would never know how much Stephen really cared. But Tony… Dear god, Tony…
He pressed himself further against Tony, clutching the shorter man against him and tilting his head to deepen the kiss. Tony went willingly, moaning against his tongue and sending a thrill down Stephen’s spine.
Over the last few weeks, Stephen had been keenly aware that one day he would have to leave Tony. That Tony would continue his life without him.
But hope blossomed in his chest now; the tiny seed flowering with every kiss, every movement, every touch. That maybe, just maybe, he would get to keep Tony. That Tony would want to keep him. That Tony would want him in every way possible.
Tony pulled back, and Stephen had to stop himself from chasing his lips, from groaning in dismay at the loss of contact. He blinked his eyes open to find Tony watching him, something akin to wonder in his eyes as they roamed Stephen’s face, eyes resting on his lips every so often. A blush crept its way onto his cheeks at the attention, yet he could hardly care about looking desperate. If desperate kept him in Tony’s arms, so be it.
“Stephen, I -,” Tony started before trailing off. Stephen focussed on the bobbing of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed, so the fear of rejection coursing through his body wouldn’t consume him. Perhaps it still showed on his face, because Tony shifted his hands, grasping more tightly onto his sweater. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking, I just… I didn’t think you would want…”
Stephen chuckled at the ‘me’ hanging in the air between them, glancing down at the floor between them as he rolled his eyes; “That makes two of us.”
He shifted his hands, stroking his thumb over Tony’s cheek, making him smile at the touch, before moving his arms around Tony’s neck. He tilted his chin up slightly, Tony following the movement and licking his lips.
The way tony was watching him was intense, eyes focused on his neck as they darkened, making flutters erupt in his belly.
He could have this, Stephen realised, and now the possibilities were endless, laying quite literally right underneath his fingertips. With the insecurities out of the way, the barrier between them broken, Stephen could do what he was best at; chase after what he wanted.
A smirk crawled its way onto his face, only broadening when he saw Tony swallow at the sight. He leaned forward, crossing the space between them and letting his goatee rub at Tony’s cheek as his lips stopped a breath away from Tony’s left ear. “What else did you want to do?”
He waited until he heard Tony’s breath hitch, before grinning to himself and clutching the engineer’s earlobe between his teeth. He felt Tony’s hands twitch in surprise, but he bucked further into Stephen, chests pressed tightly together.
“Stephen,” the engineer moaned as he continued soothing his bites with his tongue.
“What do you want, Tony?” He whispered again, making sure to keep his voice as low as possible, already loving the effect it was having on the other man. He ducked lower now, rubbing his nose at Tony’s jaw as he started kissing the other man’s neck, nipping and biting until he found the spot that had him moaning Stephen’s name once more.
Suddenly Tony’s hands moved up to grab at the base of Stephen’s neck, tangling his fingers in his hair as he yanked Stephen’s head back. Stephen whimpered at the sudden movement, the spark of arousal coursing through him and the sight now in front of him; Tony watching him with stormy eyes, pupils blown wide and already looking absolutely ruined. “I want to fuck you.”
“What’s the hold-up?” Stephen breathed out, the harsh tone of Tony’s voice making his toes curl. He watched in satisfaction as Tony’s face twisted in exasperation, barely containing a growl as he gritted his teeth.
“God, you’re bratty.” He used his leverage on Stephen’s neck to pull him down again, crashing their lips together once more. This kiss was more heated than before, Tony taking the lead as Stephen almost succumbed to the feelings it induced in his chest, leaving him breathless.
It had been a while since he had been fucked. It had been a while since he had done many things, but Tony had opened him up to working in neurology again, playing piano again, and he’ll be damned if he wouldn’t give Tony whatever he wanted. He hoped one day Tony would allow him to fuck him, and the thought only sparked more heat in his groin; they’d be able to do everything in time.
But today he wouldn’t mind being thoroughly wrecked, to be fucked to oblivion by Tony, to lose control to him. He needed Tony to dominate today, to leave their wretched roles of watched and watcher behind. It had almost destroyed him to be the bad cop for the last few weeks, to think Tony hated him for it, so he needed Tony to fuck his frustrations out on him. The thought was enough to make him moan, pushing his growing erection against Tony’s, pleased to find he wasn’t the only one already half hard.
“You love it.” Stephen grinned as Tony pulled away, starting to pull at Stephen’s wrist to guide him towards the stairs.
“Do you ever shut up?”
“Make me.” Stephen watched as Tony rolled his eyes, but the heating of his cheeks wasn’t subtle, nor was the tensing of his jaw.
Stephen blinked his eyes open, tired and sore in a good way, and noticed he was still lying in Tony’s bed. He figured that was alright, however, as Tony was watching him with a fond smile, leaning on his elbow as he looked down at Stephen. It was enough to make him feel bashful, which he could have sworn he had never felt before in his life.
He fought against the feeling, forcing a smirk onto his face as he turned to face him fully. Tony’s grin broadened, leaning down to press a soft kiss against Stephen’s lips. It made Stephen feel like he could burst with a happiness he hadn’t felt in a long time.
When Tony tried to pull away, Stephen only hooked his hand behind his head, pulling him back down until he was forced to lay on top of him, naked skin brushing against each other. Their kisses were softer than last night, slow and languid, and the fact that they were able to do this at all was making Stephen’s head spin.
Tony hummed happily, but eventually did break the kiss, glancing down at Stephen regrettably. “The teens are coming over, today, so we better get ready.”
Stephen nodded in understanding, but that didn’t stop him from sighing as he leaned further into the comfortable pillows. They still needed to talk about yesterday. Needed to talk about the truths they'd both shared, but for now Stephen thought they deserved a break. There would be more talking later today, tomorrow and hopefully until far into the future.
He had never been an optimist, but he could hope for that much.
Stephen hummed in response as he opened a questioning eye at Tony.
“You’re really fucking pretty.”
Stephen rolled his eyes but pushed him away. Tony had still clearly seen his blush, according to the satisfied smirk he levelled at him. He rolled out of bed and moved into his bathroom, and Stephen stayed in bed a little while longer, trying to process what his life had become.
Stephen smiled softly as he stepped into the kitchen. Even after living there for about three months, he still couldn’t get over the view, especially early in the mornings. The orange light of the rising sun lit up the kitchen in a warm glow, making Tony look even more ethereal as he absentmindedly poured himself a cup of coffee.
Another mug was already filled, and he pushed it over to Stephen as he went to stand opposite him, kitchen island separating them. He took a grateful sip, before sending Tony a careful look. “I just took another job.”
“Don’t.” Tony stated matter-of-factly, barely glancing up from his phone in his hands.
“Tony, I can’t be your sober companion anymore. And I don’t have to be.” Stephen argued, reaching out a hand to cover Tony’s phone and redirect his attention to him. Tony glanced up at him with a fond roll of his eyes, immediately sating Stephen’s worries. “I don’t want to be.”
“Then don’t,” Tony reiterated, leaning over the counter to fix Stephen with a pointed look.
“Don’t be my sober companion. Don’t be a sober companion,” he clarified, “You’re still an expert in your field. Stark Industries could use your knowledge. I know for a fact Pepper likes you so the hiring process should be smooth sailing.”
“Tony, I -,” Stephen wanted to argue, but the offer seemed like a great opportunity. He had enjoyed working with Tony, and it would be nice to feel useful again. Besides, being a sober companion had lost its appeal, the thought of having to start another case making his stomach twist.
“Please. You clearly enjoyed working with me on Rhodey’s braces,” Tony smiled at him, grabbing his hand and rubbing it softly, distracting Stephen from his thoughts. “If you don’t want to do it for you, do it for me; can’t have you going off and falling for another client now, do I?”
“No one else would be stubborn enough to win my affections.” Stephen smirked, rolling his eyes fondly at Tony. “I- I accept. I think.”
“You can still quit whenever you want, anyway.” Tony grinned, already letting go of his hands and walking around the counter to step closer to Stephen. He threw his arms around Stephen’s neck, making Stephen purr softly at having the engineer in his embrace.
“If I was a quitter, I’d have given you my resignation letter after a week of knowing you.”
“Oh, now that’s just cold.”
Stephen grinned, but moved his hands to Tony’s hip and leaned down to kiss him softly.
“Also,” Tony started up again once Stephen had pulled back, “this way, you can continue living here…?”
“I don’t know…,” Stephen started, faking a frown, “Have any good reason I should…?”
“Do you have to be a douchebag every second of the day?”
Stephen just smiled, leaning down to press his lips against Tony’s once more.
“Ha! You owe me sixty dollars now!”
Tony and Stephen startled at the noise, turning to find Harley and Peter stepping out of the elevator. Harley looked smug, grinning at Peter who looked back at him in bewilderment. “I told you I wasn’t taking the bet!”
“Hold up…,” Tony started, stepping back from Stephen but not moving too far away. He pointed a finger between the two boys, squinting at them. “What bet?”
“Peter, the sucker,” Harley started, making Peter stick out his tongue at the other teen, “believed you when you said you were ‘just friends’.”
Tony rolled his eyes, but didn’t correct them, pointing towards the stairs instead. “Okay, you two, down to the lab before I send you both home.”