Tony was waving his arms around, passionately telling a story. At his side, Stephen was looking rather bored, scanning the menu. He was distant and aloof, had been formal since they'd met and pretty much every second Rhodey had interacted with him. Never a hair out of place (except for that stubborn strand, but he made even that look proper). Rhodey traded a look with Pepper. She seemed to be sharing his thoughts.
Their friend had invited them to have some coffee with him and his new boyfriend. So far, they were both completely unimpressed.
Pepper had dated Tony. She knew what he needed. He was a very touchy feely individual, always requiring physical contact with whoever he was in a relationship with. Stephen might as well have spikes. Poisonous spikes. What's worse, Tony wasn't even attempting to engage. It was like his affection had been turned off.
Rhodey could maybe forgive the physical contact, particularly so in public. But Stephen was cold. Tony was a ray of sunshine around his friends and his new paramour was pretty much the moon, eclipsing him.
"You ok there, babe?" Tony asked. And maybe that was the thing? Maybe Stephen actually had a problem?
"Mhm, fine," the other man replied distantly. "Say, you think this has a straw?"
What neither Rhodey nor Pepper could notice was Tony squeezing Stephen's thigh under the table, or the trembling hand that came on top of it. They just saw Tony's smile waver visibly before it turned fake and the way Stephen didn't meet either of their gazes.
"It's hot cocoa, we can sue if it doesn't," the billionaire retorted.
Stephen smiled politely.
"Then I guess I'm ready to order."
Tony waved the waitress over and they ordered. Stephen ended up getting a hot cocoa while the rest of them chose coffee. They chatted about random things, tension mounting.
"So what do you do all day?"
"Well, it is quite a dull job most of the time." Tony scoffed, making Stephen roll his eyes. "I did say most. I study a lot. I have a few classes I teach about proper form and answer various questions students have, but those take around 4 hours each week. Occasionally, our dimension gets attacked and I have to take care of it."
"Occasionally. I saw him talk to a mermaid," Tony explained. "And a demon. And... whatever the hell that red thing was."
"A Chinese dragon."
Tony waved his arms as if to say "see what I mean?"
"That's... I represent our dimension in interdimensional negotiations and treaties."
"We have demonic allies?" Pepper asked.
"Surprisingly, yes. Not for internal affairs, but we do."
"Thanos was an internal affair?" Rhodey pressed, because Thanos had been a big deal.
"He came from our dimension ergo, unfortunately, yes."
"What about those worms from last week?"
"We took care of them ourselves."
"They would fall under the category of 'interdimensional threats', but we need to keep in mind that we need to have a certain amount of strength ourselves if we are to be of any value as an ally."
"Understandable," Rhodey conceded. "So how does this work, anyway?"
"Rhodey," Pepper warned.
Stephen sighed, glanced at Tony, then said
"I think I have exhausted this topic. I'm afraid we met so you could get to know me better. While I do understand the necessity of my employment information, further inquiries are gratuitous and indiscreet."
A small pause followed. Tony himself seemed unsure of what to say to fill it, while the other two were speechless. Stephen eventually took a sip of his chocolate (through the straw) before he realized it fell upon him to fill it.
"My apologies for the brusque shutting down. I am unfortunately under the leadership of a very conservative group and constantly berated for sharing any information with outsiders."
"Apologies accepted," Rhodey replied reluctantly.
The atmosphere was decidedly more tense the rest of the meeting and they all felt it. Tony left with Stephen, keeping a few centimetres between them as they walked off through a portal.
"I don't know what to say," Pepper told Rhodey as soon as the other two were off.
"I've talked to him before, and I'd like to say he's not always like this, but he is usually like this," the man told her with a sigh. "Today he was worse for some reason."
"I'll give him another chance."
"Yeah, me too. But this wasn't really a good start."
"I'm sorry," were Stephen's first words as soon as the portal closed behind him and his boyfriend.
Tony sighed and grabbed his arm, steering him towards the couch.
"I know. And I'm sorry I made you come when you wanted to postpone." He gave the other a reassuring squeeze. "Do you want me to leave?"
"If you're busy. I'll just have a slow day."
"Well..." He took his phone out of his pocket. "I can be with you for 78% battery."
Stephen chuckled. He sat down on his couch and changed into his sorcerer garb with a short gesture. The Cloak floated in with a book. Propping it with one arm, he opened the other, inviting his boyfriend to cuddle with him. Tony chuckled and joined him, stretching his legs on the couch while the Cloak came to cover him like a blanket. He felt a kiss being pressed to the back of his head. His eyes fell to the trembling hand on the back of the couch. Stephen probably noticed, because it moved closer, wrapping around him. He could feel the increased vibrations against his skin.
Pepper was in Tony's lab when Stephen entered.
"I need your help. Oh. Hello, Miss Potts," he greeted casually.
"Hello, babe." Stephen rolled his eyes at the endearment. "What's up?"
"It's a relic. Well, more like a box. I'm afraid it requires anything but magic in order to be opened."
"Yes. And... umm, dexterity." He seemed to be uncomfortable with the admission.
"Ok. Gimme." Tony made grabby hand motions.
Stephen sighed and moved his hands a bit, until a mechanical box appeared.
"I'm always careful." He got a look in response. "I haven't died yet."
"I won't bother dig up your medical history in order to bring compelling evidence for an argument whose ending we both already know."
"Can you believe this guy, Pep?" Tony casually turned towards her. "He's using big words when he's losing the argument."
"I'm not the one dating him, Tony."
"What can I say? He makes up for all his faults in bed." He winked.
"I don't have to listen to this." Stephen lifted his hand and made a portal. "I'll come take the box this evening. You should have opened it by then."
"I'll call you!" Tony called. Stephen didn't answer before the portal closed. "Isn't he the best?"
And while Pepper didn't really like Stephen any better, she could emphasize with both his annoyance and Tony's eternal desire to annoy him.
Avengers Movie Night wasn't quite a periodic event, but it happened roughly twice a month. Somehow, Tony managed to convince Stephen to attend.
Rhodey was a bit late, so he had to sneak in and sit next to the couch.
"Oh, Rhodey-bear!" Tony yell-whispered. "Don't sit on the floor. I'll just cuddle my boyfriend."
"Does your boyfriend get a vote?" Stephen asked drily.
"No. You made your choice when you agreed to date me," Tony retorted, picking up the popcorn bowl from Stephen's lap and sitting down.
Rhodey joined them, warily side-eyeing his friend. Tony was now eating popcorn, one hand rubbing Stephen's head and messing up his hair. For his part, the sorcerer looked like he'd swallowed a lemon. Tony had to arrange his arms around himself.
Rhodey definitely liked Stephen less and less.
As time wore on and their interactions with Stephen Strange increased in number, Pepper and Rhodey were more and more certain that it was only a matter of time until Tony was single again. Stephen wasn't exactly a bad person, per say, he was just... pretty much everything Tony didn't like in a relationship. He was cold and formal, he avoided physical contact and his attempts at humour were... bad, to say the least. Oh, he had redeeming qualities aplenty, but they redeemed him as a friend, not a lover.
Tony did not take it well.
"What do you mean he's not good to me?"
"For you," Pepper corrected. She looked sorry.
"Look, he's a nice guy," Rhodey pointed out. "We just don't think he's the right guy for you."
"He's different when it's just the two of us." It was almost a plea.
"Is he really?" Pepper was definitely unconvinced. "Tony, I know you're probably attached already and we should've told you this a while ago, but we wanted to be sure."
"You always get like this when you're in a new relationship. Love blinds you."
Tony looked devastated.
"Just think about it, ok? We want to avoid you getting hurt."
"You don't have to break up with him just because we said so, but it's something to keep in mind."
And who knew him better than Pepper and Rhodey?
They were wrong. They had to be wrong. They couldn't be wrong about this and they wouldn't say it lightly.
But if they were right, was Stephen really bad for him? He couldn't be, could he? He made him sleep and eat and-
"Follow my rhythm. In... out..."
But that would mean that the two people who knew him best, who were like family to him, were wrong. And they couldn't be wrong.
"In... out... it's okay, you're doing great."
"Keep breathing, I'll tell you afterwards. Just a few more. In..." Stephen took an exaggerated inhalation, then exhaled slowly. "Out."
A few times after Tony followed his lead, his mind cleared and he could focus on Stephen's reassuring smile. Tony weakly returned it.
"Better." He looked around. He was in his workshop, on his couch. "What happened?"
"Well... you had a panic attack and Friday called me."
Why would she call Stephen? Why not Rhodey or Pepper, who had just left? Why not Bruce, who was working in the lab next door?
Stephen turned regretful.
"I'm on sanctum duty..." He sighed, but then a metaphorical light bulb lit up above his head. "Do you want to come with me?"
"Okay. Let me just- Friday, load my project on my phone."
"Done, boss. Can I suggest setting up a work station at the sanctum?"
A short pause followed.
"You do spend quite a lot of time there," Stephen acknowledged. "I could give you a room."
"I have yours."
"We use that one for sleeping. I meant a lab."
"Oh." Stephen was offering him a lab at the sanctum. He wanted him around more. "Thanks. Can I paint it?"
"You can do whatever you want inside it."
"Great." Tony smirked. "I'll hold you on to that."
"Don't make me regret it." After a short pause, Stephen asked "Do you want to talk about it?"
Tony stumbled up on shaky legs, tired after his panic attack. Stephen wrapped his arms around him and held him tight into a hug. It took Tony a few moments to realize what was happening. Stephen was hugging him. (It wasn't that Stephen never hugged him, but he was quite stingy.) The Cloak, too, was wrapped around him as if he was a burrito. He wasn't asking what had happened, he was just offering support. The shorter man wrapped his arms around his lover and buried his face into his collarbone. Stephen had a strong smell of the perfume Tony had gifted him a while back, mixed with his own fragrance. More importantly, he was warm and felt like home.
They stayed like that for a few minutes, until Tony took a step back, looking up at his sorcerer, who gently cupped his cheeks with shaky hands. He felt better. The problem wasn't solved, but he felt better.
Stephen smiled, kissed his forehead and opened a portal.
"Locotenent Rhodes, I need to speak to you," Stephen said while bursting into his office one day.
"Come in," he said, waving his hand. "No. I wasn't busy, thank you for asking."
"It's Tony. And I used a scrying stone to make sure I wasn't intruding."
Rhodey rolled his eyes, but this was about Tony.
"Okay. Tell me what's up with him."
"Okay. Okay..." He ran a hand through his hair, growing uncomfortable. From one moment to the next, he seemed to turn into a different man. His shoulders slumped and he fell into a chair. Rhodey was growing concerned and it must have showed. "Well, it's nothing tragic or urgent, but..." Stephen finally met his gaze. He did look worried. It was probably the most expressive he'd ever seen the other. "There's something bothering Tony. Has been for a while. He won't talk to me about it, but I know it's always on his mind. I figured he might talk to you about it."
"No clues what it might be?"
"Unfortunately not. Unless it has something to do with myself." He offered a wan smile at that. "But I'd rather not lead you the wrong way."
"You're not- I... I'll see what do. But, fair warning: when Tony doesn't want to talk, he doesn't talk."
"I know. I just hoped... well, that I'm the wrong person." Stephen shrugged. "I know I'm not the best at communication and you probably know his support system better." He stood up. "That would be all."
"I'll keep you updated."
"No need. I'll see for myself whether you were successful or not. Thank you for your time."
This time, he didn't bother with the door. Stephen simply made a portal and left through it.
As soon as he was sure he was alone, Rhodey texted Pepper.
"I think we were wrong"
Stephen lazily rolled his head towards Tony. There was a now familiar look of uncertainty on his face and it hurt the sorcerer to see it there, particularly after they'd just had sex. He lifted a hand, brushing Tony's cheek with its back.
"What's going on with you?" he asked sadly.
Tony rolled his head towards him in turn, looking at him. He seemed to be taking in every detail of his face. His gaze stopped on the downturn of his lips.
"It's nothing." He grabbed Stephen's hand, guiding it back to his cheek. He held it there for a moment, then pressed a soft kiss to the scars. "Iluvya," he muttered, unintelligible
"Hmm?" Stephen asked absently.
"I love you," Tony repeated, with more determination, staring into the other man's eyes.
The tranquillity that had begun to unwind Stephen's body after his orgasm suddenly vanished. His half-lidded eyes became alert and the hand in Tony's tensed, then withdrew. Stephen crawled closer, grabbing both of Tony's cheeks in his weak grip. Could this be what had been bothering his lover? Could he be that lucky? For the moment, it didn't matter. Tony loved him.
"I love you too."
The shorter man grinned.
"Then what were you waiting for, a written invitation?"
Stephen huffed in mock irritation, then planted a deep kiss on his lips. It was quickly ruined, though, because they both began laughing happily.
This time, Stephen probably hadn't seen Pepper, because he opened portal facing Tony and entered with a scroll in his hand, completely disregarding his surroundings.
"You're good with languages, right? Decryption, I mean."
"I'm decent," Tony replied, pushing aside his holograms to see what his boyfriend had for him. "Friday helps."
"That's what I was relying on, to be honest. We received this message from another dimension, but we're not sure how... friendly it is."
Stephen opened the scroll on the table and Tony wrapped an arm around him, using the other to guide Friday.
"Do you know their spoken language?"
"Unfortunately not." Stephen guided a few holograms himself. "We can assume a different sentence organisation compared to English."
"Is it an emergency?" The sorcerer sighed. "Right, you don't understand and don't know anything."
"They just came, dropped this and left. We have a spell translating speech, but not writing."
"Well, that's your homework now."
"Sorry, babe." Tony placed an apologetic kiss to his cheek.
"You're not wrong, though, just... ill timed."
They kept fiddling with holograms, but Pepper had to admit that there was a familiarity there she hadn't noticed before. They worked well as a team. She had never denied that, she thought, sipping at her coffee. But a relationship, particularly one as old as theirs now, required something else too.
Tony seemed to have forgotten her presence as well, caught up in his work. It barely took them 10 minutes to finish. They read the message together. It was a trading proposal.
"They want our translation spell for... one of theirs. By our choice. Ok. Wong was researching their civilisation."
"So not bad news? Yay," Tony offered. Stephen smiled.
"We're still on for tonight?"
"8. See you soon."
Stephen kissed Tony before he spun around, freezing when he saw Pepper.
"Umm, hello. I was intruding, wasn't I?" he asked, awkward.
"A bit. We weren't discussing anything urgent."
"Nevertheless, my apologies."
"You scare my boyfriend, Pepper," Tony teased, wrapping his arms around Stephen's waist. The taller man visibly relaxed, ducking his head. He muttered something that made Tony laugh. "You remind him of your girlfriend."
"You're dating Christine?" Stephen finally lifted his head.
"Yes. She has nothing but praise for you," Pepper said sarcastically. No, it hadn't influenced her dislike. Not at all. Really.
He winced, appropriately embarrassed.
"I like to think that I've changed, but I can't undo the past."
"She thinks you have," Pepper decided to say.
"Thank you. If you don't mind..." He managed to turn and kiss Tony again, then slid out of his grip. "I need to deliver the translation to Kamar Taj and brag about my boyfriend."
Tony had little hearts in his eyes as he stared at the portal. His eyes met Pepper's after the last of the sparks vanished, turning apologetic.
"No, Tony. We can be wrong."
His relief was palpable.
"No! You need to sl- WHAT THE HELL, TONY?"
A big thud was heard. Like two fully grown men falling down. Which was what had happened.
"GIVE ME COFFEE OR SUFFER!"
Rhodey had to stop in the doorway to do a double take. Tony was straddling Stephen on the floor, trying to reach the coffee bag the sorcerer was keeping away from him. He still had the height advantage.
"Take it, James!" Stephen yelled when he saw him. "It's for the greater good!"
"NO! RHODEY, YOU LOVE ME!"
"He hasn't been sleeping in 3 days, don't listen to him!" Stephen called. "Haha, stop!" Tony had begun tickling him.
Rhodey grabbed the coffee bag and slowly walked away. Tony tried to follow him, but Stephen pounced and rolled them over.
"NO!" Tony screeched, struggling.
"Put him to bed," Rhodey advised, unsure.
"I'm trying, I swear. WHAT THE HELL? YOU'RE A GROWN MAN!" Tony had bit him. And not in a fun way.
"Only after coffee!"
Rhodey figured he might actually like this version of Stephen. He was play-wrestling with Tony, arguing, yes, but this was what he'd been lacking before. Feelings. He'd always been cold and proper, overly professional no matter what. This right here was what Rhodey and Pepper wanted for their friend. Someone who gave as good as he got.
Tony managed to slip out of Stephen's grip while Rhodey was reminiscing. The locotenent took a few steps back, planning to toss the coffee back to Stephen, but the sorcerer had other plans. Brightly coloured ropes wrapped around Tony, dragging him back.
Before they could start fighting again, Stephen had bent down, covered his mouth with his lips and wrapped him in his arms. He pushed Tony back, into a portal which seemed to lead to Tony's bedroom.
And that was it.
Some time later, Stephen came to the Avengers living room, where Rhodey was idly watching TV.
"Where did you put the coffee?"
"Back where it belongs? You put Tony to sleep, right?" Rhodey asked in turn.
"Yes. I'm sorry for my earlier behaviour. It was terribly improper."
"Don't apologise. I know Tony and he probably deserved it. No. Scratch that. He totally had it coming."
Stephen smiled, amused, then headed towards the kitchen.
"Strange," the other man called.
"That thing you talked to me about..." The sorcerer nodded, fully turning his body towards him. "I talked to Pepper. We'll fix it within the week."
And a few weeks ago, Rhodey would have found the summative expression of gratitude rather dismissive, but now he saw it in a different light. Stephen wasn't pressing the matter. He was respecting Tony's choice not to talk about it with him.
Screw a week, he'd talk to Tony as soon as he woke up.