Tony Stark was cold, which wasn’t anything new. Tony had been cold since Siberia. Longer, if he was honest with himself.
Lately, lying to himself was easier. He could say that he was cold after Siberia because going hypothermic was hell on the body and he was damn lucky he still had his ears, nose, fingers, and toes after the captain’s little stunt.
But that was a cold he could combat. What he felt now, every day since Thanos had been turned to so much beach sand, wasn’t a cold he could shake.
It was bone deep, soul deep.
He knew the truth. He’d never be warm again.
Another Avengers meeting. Tony sat back in his chair, arms crossed over his stomach, trying to at least look like he was paying attention instead of focusing on the cold nibbling away at his bones.
It was the middle of summer and was hot as hell in New York, yet he wore long sleeves and a light jacket. He’d wear more, but if he did the others would question him and he just wasn’t in the mood to deal with it.
He wasn’t capable of dealing it.
He flexed his left hand, trying to get feeling back into it. It was perpetually numb. A side effect of wearing his infinity gauntlet. It was the other reason he wore long sleeves all the time; the scarring was horrific, and he was a man who was used to scars.
Tony sighed, tucking his left hand under his right arm to try to warm his fingers. A fruitless endeavor, but he tried nonetheless.
He felt eyes on him and looked up. Stephen Strange watched him, those iridescent eyes glinting in the light of the meeting room.
Tony stared at him for a moment. They hardly had any interaction since Tony had wrenched everyone back from the soul stone. Strange had reluctantly joined the Avengers, and Tony knew that Peter went to the doctor fairly often. Peter said they talked about the soul stone, about what had happened and that it helped Peter make sense of everything.
Tony was glad that Peter had someone to talk to about it. God knew Tony couldn’t. The others had tried to get him to speak of it.
They quickly realized it was a bad idea. Tony lost track of the panic induced rages those questions sent him spiraling into. He’d lose time, black out, come to hours later.
He shook himself out of his morose thoughts, eyes meeting Strange’s again. Strange tilted his head, watching him intently.
Tony didn’t care. Let the man stare.
He flexed his left hand again. The numbness was turning into sharp pins, agony digging into his flesh.
He needed to leave soon. He needed to take care of it.
They didn’t know. They couldn’t know.
Pain traveled up his arm, thousands of needles driving into his flesh, burning at his nerves, eating at his bones. He grit his teeth, hunkering down in the seat. He held his left arm to his body, cradling it carefully. His face was flushed, heart pounding loudly in his ears.
It hurt, it hurt, it hurt.
He stayed silent. He was used to pain; it was a constant, his closest friend and greatest foe. He bit the inside of his cheek, blood exploding across his tongue as he worried the raw insides of his mouth.
“Are we about done?” he asked breathlessly. He needed to leave. He needed to be alone.
Who was he kidding? He was always alone.
The Avengers fell silent, turning to look at him. He knew what they saw; bloodshot eyes, flushed skin, labored breathing.
“Are you drunk?” Steve asked incredulously.
“Not nearly drunk enough to deal with your bullshit,” Tony said.
“Enough, both of you,” Carol said, looking between the two men. Steve crossed his arms, sitting back in his chair.
Tony let his head bang against the desk; his breath escaped his mouth in a rattle and a fine tremble started throughout his body. Carol watched him, silent. He often wondered if Carol knew more than she let on, but he wasn’t brave enough to ask. He didn’t want to know.
“Tony, go,” Carol said, jerking her head to the door.
“Thank you,” Tony said, getting to his feet. He unconsciously cradled his left arm. “You’re my favorite captain.”
He staggered towards the door, bouncing off the door frame and barely swallowing the pained cry. He knew his inability to walk straight certainly was more than enough to have the others believe he was drunk.
He wasn’t. Mostly.
Tony felt eyes on him as he escaped the meeting room. He pretended not to hear Rhodey call his name, pretended not know how what a disappointment he was as a man, an Avenger, and a friend.
As a father.
His bloodshot eyes watered, tears rolling down his face as he slammed the door to his private quarters open. He was unaware of the high pitched whine escaping his throat as he tore open the drawer next to use little used bed. He couldn’t remember the last time he slept through the night.
That was a lie. He didn’t like coming back to an empty bed.
He grasped the bottle of high end whiskey and struggled to open it. He cursed his useless left hand as it spasmed, lightning sharp pain streaking through his arm.
“Fuck!” he snarled.
He finally got it open and didn’t even bother with the glass; he wrapped his lips around the mouth of the bottle and let the whiskey burn down his throat.
He could almost pretend that the fire of the whiskey warmed his soul.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, but the bottle was mostly empty by the time he roused himself. He asked FRIDAY to call his driver. He needed to get out of this stupid compound.
He staggered through the halls, ignoring the way people parted before him. His arm throbbed with every beat of his heart. He finally reached the outside and collapsed into the back of the car.
He swallowed back the name.
He remembered. Happy wasn’t his anymore. He had joined Pepper—
Oh God, Pepper.
Tony hadn’t spoken to either of them since the disaster of what was supposed to be his wedding.
He sunk down in the seat, pulling out another bottle of whiskey.
“Just take me back to the penthouse,” Tony said, pulling the cap off the bottle and taking a long swallow.
He stared out the window, eyes glazed and throat burning with unshed tears.
Another mindless meeting, another day of being cold.
Tony stood in front of the window, back to the others.
Maybe if he asked nicely Steve would finish what he started in Siberia.
The summer sun streamed in through the window and Tony could almost pretend it warmed him up. He tucked his hands under his armpits, staring at the grounds below them. He saw the young Avengers sparring on the grass and he focused on them, trying to ignore the way the cold gripped him.
He nearly slammed into the window in shock when he was engulfed by Strange’s Cloak. He went rigid, heart pounding under his breast. He managed to quiet the surprised—fearful—squeak that escaped him.
He had vague memories of the Cloak fighting on Titan, and he had watched it move and seemingly communicate with Strange on multiple occasions, but this was the closest he had been to it since it slapped his ass the day everything went to shit.
It was warm.
Tony slowly relaxed and the Cloak tightened around him. He ran his fingers down the seam. He ignored the meeting, focusing on the feel of the fabric under his fingers.
Stephen watched him, head cocked to the side.
Tony Stark was a puzzle, even after watching him in fourteen million possible futures.
Tony hadn’t been able to fully don the Iron Man armor since he had snapped his fingers and wrenched half the universe back from the soul stone. He panicked every time he tried.. The first time, FRIDAY had called for Rhodey.
Rhodey had a new scar across his cheek from where Tony had struck him in fear.
Tony would never forgive himself for that.
One of many things that ate at the shattered remnants of his soul.
Rhodey forgave him, he knew that. Rhodey stood with him, stayed by his side, even though Tony knew everything that had happened to him was his fault. His injury during the Civil War, the scar on his cheek. How many times had Rhodey stepped in and saved him from himself, even when he didn’t want it.
Next time, you ride with me, okay?
Tony’s hands shook as he tapped the arc reactor on his chest. It wasn’t removable, not anymore. He needed to be ready for the next threat, the next power hungry titan. Why didn’t anyone else understand that?
He knew why.
No one believed Thanos was coming. He had been a Cassandra, crying out a true prophecy only to be ignored.
If they wanted to bury their heads in the sand, so be it. He would be ready.
If only he wasn’t utterly terrified.
He double tapped the arc reactor and felt the nanites swarm from his chest, embracing his body. His heart rate spiked, his breathing increased, sweat poured from his body.
He was fine until the gauntlet formed around his left arm.
“Shut it down, shut it down!” he yelled. The nannites slowed, stopped, and retreated back into the arc reactor, leaving him a trembling, nearly sobbing, mess.
Tony screamed, picking up a bottle and throwing it against the wall. The ensuing shatter made him fiercely happy, so he grabbed something else and threw it, listening to slam against the wall. His hand found something else on the desk and he hurled it across the room. He was pretty sure that had actually been a rather expensive computer or something, but he’d just buy another.
He found a bottle of vodka and took a swig, barely managing not to spit it up. Fuck, that tasted awful. He threw it, suddenly angry again. He was a failure.
The bottle flew through the air, slamming against the door frame right as a glowing orange portal opened next to it.
Stephen Strange leapt sideways, managing to avoid the blowback from the bottle. He spun to face Tony, eyebrow climbing.
“What the fuck do you want?” Tony said, turning to find another bottle. The high he’d gotten from throwing things and watching them break was gone. He was left only with the pain, and the cold.
“Good afternoon to you, as well,” Strange said, the portal collapsing behind him.
Tony held another bottle of whiskey, making aggressive eye contact as he slammed it back, throat working as some of the liquid escaped his lips and ran down his chin, staining his once white shirt.
Stephen just watched him, those eyes that haunted Tony as inscrutable as ever.
Tony…There was no other way.
“I asked you a question, Merlin,” Tony said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Colonel Rhodes said you haven’t left the lab in days and had locked everyone out.”
“Maybe I did that for a reason, Gandalf,” Tony sneered, taking another long drink of the whiskey.
Stephen didn’t reply, those damn eyes locked on Tony. He took in the stained shirt, the heavy bags under Tony’s eyes, the gauntness of his cheeks. Tony knew he looked like shit. He didn’t really go out anymore. He couldn’t.
Tony lifted his left arm to take another drink, letting out a string of curses when the arm seized up, pain lancing down his body. His hand spasmed around the bottle and it shattered in his hand.
He stared at his palm, thick shards of glass embedded in his flesh. He could barely feel it.
He could only feel the cold winding through his veins.
He let out a shout when a pair of scarred hands took his wrist, jerking back and slamming against the workbench behind him. Stephen immediately held his hands up, watching Tony warily.
“I mean you no harm,” Stephen said.
Tony let out a high pitched, half hysterical laugh that made the hair on Stephen’s neck rise. He stared at Tony, watching as the smaller man’s legs buckled and he went to the ground.
“Tony, you need to treat that,” Stephen said gently, kneeling in front of him.
Tony focused on him, or at least tried to.
“Are you doing the body double thing? Why are there two of you?”
Stephen sighed. “You’re drunk.”
“Your powers of observation continually astound me, Sherlock.”
“May I clean your wound?” Stephen asked.
“Why bother?” Tony slurred, head thunking against the workbench.
“Because I am a doctor,” Stephen said gently. “And you’re bleeding all over your floor.”
Tony shrugged, and Stephen took that as assent. Between him and the Cloak they managed to get Tony to the couch. The smaller man was of absolutely no help, his feet dragging as Stephen heaved him half into his arms.
“Apparently you hide a lot of muscles under those Jedi robes of yours,” Tony leered at him.
“I am far from a Jedi, Tony,” Stephen said.
Tony snorted, half melted into the couch. He watched Stephen through bleary eyes. Why was the sorcerer here?
“First aid kit?” Stephen asked.
Tony gestured to one of the cabinets; Stephen was smart, he would find it. Stephen let out a quiet huff and moved to the drawers and cabinets, opening them until he found a large, well-stocked first aid kit. He carried it back to the couch and sat down on Tony’s left side.
Tony tensed as trembling hands took his own left hand, carefully looking at the cuts.
“These are deep,” Stephen murmured. Tony grunted, shrugging.
“There’s blood higher up your arm,” Stephen said quietly. “I need you to remove the shirt.”
At one point—before Thanos, before Vormir—Tony would’ve made a quip about Stephen wanting to see him naked. He stared at their hands, looking at the dots and dashes of Stephen’s own scars.
Fine. He was a doctor. Let him stare. Tony had never shown anyone the scars that traveled along the left side of his body. He wore gloves around everyone else. He had taken them off only to attempt to wear the armor.
He grabbed the bottom of his shirt, ignoring the way the movement dug the glass in deeper. He tore it off his body, leaving him in nothing but the undershirt he wore, with the distinctive glow of the arc reactor permeating through the fabric.
Stephen froze, staring at the scars that ran from Tony’s left hand, up his arm, disappearing under the sleeves of his undershirt. They were a horrifyingly familiar gray.
The same gray those who had disappeared in the snap had turned just before vanishing into so much dust. They almost looked like burn scars, though no fire he knew of had ever burned anyone like that.
Tony glared at him, daring him to say something. Stephen swallowed and opened the first aid kit, pulling out a pair of tweezers. He gently took Tony’s hand, and Tony managed not to jerk it back.
He wasn’t used to people touching him.
Stephen turned his wrist and let out a quiet breath. A long scar went from Tony’s elbow to his wrist, ragged and startlingly white against the gray of the burn scars.
“I can’t even kill myself right,” Tony said flatly, staring at the scar with something akin to disgust.
Stephen didn’t say anything. He knew, better than most, that there was nothing he could say to make it better.
He’d been there, in the pits of despair.
“I can numb the arm,” Stephen said, glancing up at Tony.
“Don’t bother. I can’t feel the cuts anyway.”
Stephen nodded and placed Tony’s hand on his lap. Tony was acutely aware of how solid—
—Stephen’s thigh was beneath his hand. He watched as Stephen carefully started plucking glass from his palm. Blood welled, staining his skin and running across his palm.
“You’re going to get your pants dirty,” Tony said.
“They’re spelled to resist staining,” Stephen said, focused entirely on Tony’s hand.
“That’d be super handy to have,” Tony said, glancing at his own oil, grease, and bloodstained pants.
“There are some advantages to making balloon animals.”
Tony actually cracked a smile.
Stephen dropped the shards of glass into a cup, the clinking of glass on glass the only sound besides their breathing; Stephen’s slow and steady, Tony’s ragged and rough.
“I’m going to have to stitch these,” Stephen said. Tony shrugged again. He couldn’t feel it. It was odd, watching his hand bleed and only feeling a vague sort of pressure.
“Your hands are very cold,” Stephen murmured, digging through the first aid kit. He couldn’t feel much with his own damaged hands, but Tony’s hand felt like ice.
“I’m always cold,” Tony said, starting when the Cloak slithered off Stephen’s shoulders and wrapped Tony in a tight embrace. Tony stared at it, swallowing audibly.
“What’s it doing?” Tony asked quietly. “Are you making it do this?”
“It’s a sentient artifact,” Stephen said, “I don’t make it do anything. It chose me, and we work together.”
“So slapping my ass that day?”
“I had nothing to do with that,” Stephen said, tearing open the sterile thread with his teeth.
“Uh huh. So my perfect ass in front of you wasn’t even a temptation?”
Stephen rolled his eyes, lips twitching in a smile. This was the Tony Stark he remembered.
The Tony Stark he’d never actually met.
Tony grinned, watching as Stephen prepped the needle. His hands shook on the uptick of each stitch, but Tony didn’t care. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the way those Morse code covered hands carefully knitted his skin back together.
The Cloak tightened around him and Tony sighed. He could admit to himself that he was lonely. Like the cold, it ate at him, driving him to be around others. But once he was there, he felt like the walls were closing in on him, like everyone was judging him, blaming him, and he ran away, trying to drink away the loneliness, the sorrow, the memories.
He didn’t feel the need to run with Stephen. This was the closest he’d been to anyone since he dusted Thanos. It was…nice.
The Cloak was warm, wrapped tightly around him in a comforting hug.
Stephen started to stitch the next cut across Tony’s palm, aware of the other man’s breathing. He started when he felt a heavy weight slump against him and he lifted his head.
Tony’s head rested on Stephen’s shoulder, soft snores escaping his mouth. Stephen’s heart thudded wildly in his chest as he stared at Tony. This close, he could see those long eyelashes, chapped lips, pale skin. He sighed, wondering how long it had been since Tony had slept.
The Cloak tightened around Tony, fluttering its edges at Stephen.
“Yes, we’re staying,” Stephen murmured, turning his attention back to the hand in his lap. He ran his fingers slowly over the gray scars. The flesh felt dry and papery.
Like Tony would vanish into ash if he kept touching him.
Stephen finished stitching the deep cuts on Tony’s palm, using the glue to seal the smaller ones. He found bright pink medical wrap and wrapped his hand in gauze and then the self-adhering wrap.
He was reluctant to let go of Tony’s hand.
Stephen leaned back, staring into the distance. Fourteen million futures— and they had won— but as he looked down at the man sleeping against him, he wondered at the cost.
Tony woke screaming, tears on his cheeks and a name he couldn’t say on his lips. Stephen steadied him, whispering quietly to him as the Cloak stroked Tony’s side.
Tony stared at him, those whiskey brown eyes bloodshot and tear filled.
“You stayed,” Tony whispered.
Stephen tilted his head.
“Of course I did.”
Tony found himself orbiting Stephen Strange. His moods changed violently, mostly depending on the amount of alcohol he had in his system; half the time he wanted to be around Stephen, the man was calming, didn’t seem to judge him, the rest of the time he wanted to wrap his hands around that long neck and choke the life out of him.
Did Stephen know what it had cost?
He was afraid to ask. He didn’t want to know if Stephen knew what he’d had to do—to give up—he just didn’t want to know. He thought they were toeing the line of friendship, or something dangerously close to that, but if Stephen did know…if Stephen had willingly sent him to that future, that choice…he’d kill him.
Winter had fallen in New York, snow shrouding the buildings and streets in white.
Tony walked the streets, breath fogging before him. He hated the cold, but he embraced it.
Finally, the cold outside matched the ice that flowed through his veins.
Two years. Two years since the defeat of Thanos, since Tony had snapped his fingers and brought everyone back. Two years that the universe had been rebuilding.
So of course there had to be a party.
It seemed like the world loved an excuse to party after half of them had been snapped out of existence. There hadn’t been anything to celebrate for so long that they loved to celebrate even the littlest things.
The Avengers were no exception. They’d held the party in Wakanda the first year; this year someone had wanted it held at the compound.
Tony stood in the corner of the room, cradling a glass of whiskey. His eyes darted around the crowded room, gauging ways to escape. His skin crawled, the cold inside him dug its claws in deeper.
He half expected to see his own breath.
He didn’t, of course. It was warm in the compound, according to Peter anyway. The fireplaces crackled with fire and the heater was on, but it didn’t touch Tony.
It never did.
He took a sip of his whiskey, frowning when he realized his ice had melted and it was watered down. Useless. He drank it anyway; he wasn’t in the mood to move through the crowd searching for someone to fill it up.
He let his eyes roam over the room. There was Steve and Wilson, talking to one of T’Challa’s guards. Shuri was talking to Barnes, and the former Winter Soldier was flexing the metal arm under her watchful gaze. Peter and Ned were talking to Bruce and that Valkyrie woman who had shown up at some point. Thor and Loki were talking to Stephen, and neither magic user looked particularly thrilled to be there.
Tony tried not to let the fact that Stephen didn’t want to be there hurt.
Wanda and Wong stood in the corner with Vision, the stone long gone. Clint and Natasha were dancing, or doing some drunk approximation of it. Even Fury and Hill were there, and Coulson danced with Carol. Scott and Hope sat on the counter, snacking with T’Challa, while Hank Pym sulked. He hadn’t been thrilled to come to the compound.
The Guardians were there, Quill and Gamora dancing cheek to cheek, Groot and Rocket talking to Janet Van Dyne, Drax and Mantis stood to the side, watching the humans. Nebula stood near Tony, just as quiet as he was.
There were others there as well, those who had helped with the technology and magic needed to defeat Thanos. Tony didn’t know them. He didn’t care to know them.
He glared down at his empty whiskey glass.
He didn’t want to be here.
The elevator door slid open and Tony looked up. Everyone was here. Who the hell was late?
The world slipped sideways, the ground fell from beneath his feet.
Tony dropped his tumbler of whiskey when Pepper and Happy walked in. The shattering of the glass seemed horribly loud.
He let out a strangled noise as Pepper lifted her head. Their eyes locked across the room and Tony felt like he was going to be violently ill.
Who had invited them? Who had decided this would be a good idea?
He watched as Carol approached them, shaking their hands and thanking them for coming.
He staggered back, his hip slamming into the wall. He couldn’t stand the sad look in Pepper’s eyes, the way Happy’s hand rested on her lower back. He clutched his arm as he shouldered his way past the others.
He had to get away. He couldn’t be here. A scream was trapped in his throat; once he started, he’d never stop.
He ran, air burning in his lungs as he finally escaped the confines of the building. He ran, tears freezing on his face. He ran, ice coursing through his veins.
He didn’t see the sad, resigned look on Pepper’s face, the way Happy pulled her close, the way Carol apologized, the confused and awkward silence that settled over the room.
He didn’t see Stephen slip out after him, pursuing him through the dark.
He only saw Vormir.
Tony drove into the city. He knew he shouldn’t be driving; fuck, he should never drive. He was pretty sure he hasn’t been sober since he got the gauntlet off his arm. He didn’t care; he didn’t get pulled over.
He parked in front of a liquor store and went in, making a beeline for the most expensive stuff in the store. He bought three bottles of the best whiskey they had and walked back out. He stared at his car and left it there, walking down the snow covered streets with a brown paper bag under his arm.
He found himself in Central Park, though he didn’t remember getting there. He sat on a swing, a bottle crammed between his thighs as he drank from another.
His suit was soaked, his sinfully expensive loafers ruined. Snow fell, powdering his shoulders and hair. He had stopped shivering about the time he reached the swing set.
He emptied the bottle and dropped it to the ground, a strangled sob escaping his throat.
He was a failure. Worthless.
He looked around the dark and empty playground, and he cried.
Stephen found him in Central Park, sitting on a swing alone in one of the playgrounds. His arm was wound around the chain, and a bottle of whiskey sat between his thighs. He stared at the ground, head forward. Stephen swore he saw tears dripping off Tony’s cheeks.
The Cloak immediately flew from Stephen’s shoulders and engulfed Tony. The smaller man barely moved, the half full bottle slipping off his lap and hitting the ground. Stephen knelt before him, alarmed at the blue tinge to Tony’s lips.
He stood up, quickly making a portal to the Sanctum. He helped Tony to his feet and started to guide him to the portal.
Tony howled, struggling against his grip. Stephen’s hands weren’t strong enough to hold him and Tony tumbled to the ground.
“No portals,” Tony panted, scrambling backwards. Stephen cursed his stupidity and let the portal collapse. He knelt next to Tony, the Cloak wrapping around the other man.
“I guess we’re walking,” Stephen muttered, getting one of Tony’s arms over his shoulder. The height difference made it a bit awkward, but given how inebriated Tony was, Stephen was amazed the man could talk, let alone walk. He didn’t like to think about the fact that he had passed Tony’s car on the way here.
He put his other arm around Tony’s waist and together he and the Cloak hauled Tony Stark through the park. Stephen could feel how cold Tony was, his snow damp clothes soaking Stephen’s own.
Stephen concentrated on Tony’s breathing; it was a sign he was alive and that Stephen wasn’t dragging a corpse through the park. Tony mumbled incoherent words next to him, his head lolling on his shoulder.
Stephen was thankful for the bad weather. Most people were smart enough to stay inside, so no one saw a man half carrying a drunk Tony Stark through the city.
The Cloak wrapped around them both as best it could, keeping the snow off them. As they staggered down the sidewalks, the wind picked up, snow getting up under the Cloak despites its best efforts, and by the time they reached the Sanctum—what felt like eons later—they were both covered in melting snow.
The door to the Sanctum opened and Stephen dragged Tony over the threshold. The Cloak bundled around Tony, carrying him up the stairs to Stephen’s room. Stephen flicked his fingers at the fireplace and it roared to life, heat filling the room.
Stephen pulled off his robes quickly, changing into a pair of sweats and a long sleeved shirt. If he was cold, Tony had to be freezing. His lips were blue and his eyes were glazed, focused on something Stephen wasn’t privy to.
The Cloak settled Tony on the bed and Stephen knelt next to him, fingers fumbling at the laces of Tony’s shoes. He managed to get the wet leather shoes off, followed by the cashmere socks, dismayed at how utterly cold Tony’s feet were. His toes were a faint blue.
“Oh, Tony,” Stephen murmured.
Tony sat up suddenly, lunging off the bed and lurching to the fireplace. He panted, staring at the dancing flames. Stephen stood slowly, joining him at the fireplace. Tony’s body was occasionally wracked by shivers, but he still didn’t move from his spot leaning against the mantle.
“Tony,” Stephen said.
Tony’s eyes snapped to his, confusion and anger sliding across his face. His lip curled as he looked at Stephen.
“You should’ve left me in the park.”
“No,” Stephen said simply.
Tony sneered at him, his eyes suspiciously wet. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Stephen looked at him, patient. “Like what?”
Tony waved his hand, his face shuttering. “That! With…pity in your eyes,” Tony spat. “I don’t want your pity!”
“Then what do you want, Anthony?”
Tony froze, breath stuck in his throat. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had said his name like that, like he was someone precious, beloved. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked him what he wanted without wanting something in return.
Stephen watched the shock and confusion slide across Tony’s face, waiting.
Tony swallowed, opened his mouth. What did he want?
To sleep without nightmares.
“I want to be warm again.”
Stephen thought his heart might break at the words, at the way Tony’s voice cracked, the way his eyes dropped, shame and regret crossing his face.
“We have to get you out of these wet clothes first,” Stephen said gently, approaching him like he would a skittish colt. Tony nodded miserably, fingers fumbling as he tried to get his suit jacket off.
“I can’t feel my fingers,” Tony said quietly.
“I’ll help you,” Stephen said, stepping closer. Together, they managed to get Tony down to his skivvies. He stood in front of Stephen, arms crossed over his stomach, teeth chattering. Tony stared at the fire, head pounding. Stephen stared at him, saddened and horrified by the extent of the ash gray scars. They traveled from his left hand up his arm to his shoulder, streaking across his chest like stars raining down from the heavens. They cut across his old scars, overtaking some of them.
“You got anything to drink in this museum?” Tony asked, rubbing his arms as Stephen handed him a towel.
“No alcohol, but I can get you some tea.”
Tony made a face but finally nodded. The Cloak engulfed him as he dropped the towel and lowered him to the floor in front of the fire. Stephen hurried out of the room, coming back minutes or hours later with a tray of tea and soup.
“Here,” Stephen said, kneeling next to Tony. Tony stared blankly at him, shivering occasionally. Tony reached out, taking the tea with a shaking hand. Stephen sat cross legged next to him, cradling his own tea cup.
Tony threw back the tea, making a face as it burned the roof of his mouth.
“It’s hot,” Stephen said.
“No shit,” Tony said, glaring at him. Stephen just arched his eyebrow.
“Eat the soup. We need to get your internal body temperature up.”
Tony made a disgusted noise and took the soup. It was simple; canned tomato soup he was pretty sure, but he was surprised at how good it tasted. He frowned, staring into the bowl. When was the last time he had eaten?
He wasn’t sure, but he ate the soup and drank the second cup of that horrible tea without saying a word. He hunkered down in front of the fire, trying not to think about the party, about Pepper.
He was thankful Stephen wasn’t asking about it. The man was quiet, steady, calm. He didn’t seem to want anything from Tony, and Tony was thankful for it.
But he was suspicious. Everyone wanted something from him.
“Why are you doing this?” Tony asked.
Stephen looked at him, carefully setting his cup down. “Doing what?”
“This, all this,” Tony said, frustration lacing his voice as he waved his right hand around for effect.
Stephen let out a quiet breath, iridescent eyes locked on whiskey orbs.
“Because when I looked into those fourteen million futures, I fell in love with you.”
Tony’s head jerked up, eyes wide and mouth open in shock. Stephen just smiled wryly.
“It was hard not to. I do not expect anything from you,” he said gently. “But I do this because you cannot love yourself right now, so I will do it for you.”
Tony just stared at him, heart beating wildly in his chest as another shiver ran down his body. Tony didn’t—couldn’t— reply.
Stephen might love him, but he’d leave like all the others.
“Come, we need to get you warmed up,” Stephen said. He helped Tony to his feet and led him to the bed. Tony seemed to be in shock and Stephen knew that the cold addled his brain. He pulled down the heavy down comforter on his bed and Tony crawled in without a word.
Stephen sat on the edge of the bed, his hand resting on Tony’s shoulder. Tony’s skin was cool to the touch, and Stephen was concerned about it.
“Tony, body heat is one of the best ways to warm someone up,” he said quietly.
“You j-j-j-just want-t-t-ed me in y-y-your bed,” Tony stuttered, his teeth chattering.
“This is not how I imagined it,” Stephen said. He thought he saw a quick smile flash across Tony’s face.
Stephen stripped off his shirt, but left his pants on in deference to Tony. He didn’t want to seem too excited to crawl into bed next to a nearly naked Tony Stark. He crawled into the bed next to him, carefully touching Tony’s back.
Tony sighed, and Stephen took it as permission to move closer. He spooned his body around Tony, the mechanic’s cool back pressed against Stephen’s chest. Stephen wrapped his arms around Tony, pulling him close and trying not to let the almost overwhelming stench of alcohol on Tony’s body drive him back. He could handle it.
The Cloak pulled the blanket back over them before dropping over the blanket, wrapping them both tightly in its embrace.
Tony sighed, his body shaking with both tension and the cold. Stephen closed his eyes, willing his body to relax.
Yes, he was in love with Tony Stark, but he expected nothing in return. Knowing Tony was alive, was safe, was enough.
That’s what he told himself, anyway.
Tony counted Stephen’s breaths, and between one and next, sleep took him.
He didn’t even realize he was warmer than he’d been in years.
Tony woke in the middle of the night, staring up at the ceiling. Stephen’s arm was around his waist, his breathing deep and even. Tony moved slowly from his embrace, staring at the man. The Cloak fluttered, but Tony ignored it.
Stephen Strange said he was in love with Tony, that he had fallen in love by watching him in those fourteen million six hundred and five futures.
Tony got to his feet, fighting back the urge to vomit. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the man in the bed, the man who had cared for him, found him, made sure he didn’t die. He wanted to believe Stephen, he really did. He ached for it, for being touched, being held, for being loved, but he had to know the truth first.
Had Stephen chosen his path? Had he seen what Tony had to give up to win and sent him down that road anyway?
We don’t trade lives.
If Stephen had known, if he had made Tony make that decision and then professed to love him…Tony would destroy him or die trying.
It wasn’t fair.
He didn’t want to get attached to Stephen, only to have to fight him—kill him—if Stephen knew. He needed to know the truth, and he needed to know now.
He was hardly aware as his right hand and forearm were encased in the Iron Man gauntlet. The repulsor powered up, glowing the same blue as the arc reactor in his chest.
He pointed it at Stephen, and he waited.
Stephen woke with a start, realizing the bed next to him was empty. What had woken him?
He lifted his head at the whine of a repulsor, his heart in his throat. The Cloak fluttered warily next to him as his eyes found Tony in the dark.
He stood in the corner of the room, in nothing but his underwear. Stephen sat up excruciatingly slow, eyes locked on the man in the corner. The arc reactor glowed blue, casting strange shadows across Tony’s face.
He looked like a demon—
—or an avenging angel—
—and it terrified Stephen. He had the feeling they stood on a precipice; what happened next was pivotal to both of them. If he answered wrong, only one of them would leave the room alive.
Stephen was certain he could overpower Tony. The man was weaker physically than he’d been in a long time due to poor diet, lack of sleep, and whatever cancer ate at his soul.
Stephen could sense it, a malignant thing.
But it would break something in Stephen to have to kill Tony Stark.
“Do you know what it cost to get the soul stone?” Tony asked softly, the light from the arc reactor and the repulsor reflected in haunted eyes.
“I watched Gamora fall fourteen million six hundred and five times,” Stephen said carefully, slowly getting to his feet. The Cloak settled across his shoulders, flared out. Stephen could feel that it didn’t want to attack Tony any more than he did.
Tony lifted his arm higher, a flash of grief crossing his face.
“And tell me, Doctor, did you see who I had to give up to get you all back?” Tony’s voice was thick with grief, with anger, with self-hatred.
“No,” Stephen said. He’d wondered multiple times; Rhodey and Pepper and Happy, all those that Tony had loved enough to be a sacrifice, were all still alive.
“You’re lying,” Tony said.
“I’m not. I didn’t see everything in every timeline. I only saw flashes. I saw you had the gauntlet, and I knew that was the only way you could defeat him and bring us back.”
Tony’s left hand spasmed at the mention of the infinity gauntlet. He stared at Stephen, right arm shaking. Tears rolled down his face.
“You didn’t see?” Tony said, voice shaking. “You swear to me that you didn’t see who it was or I’ll end you right now.”
“I swear, Tony,” Stephen said. Who could it have been to get this kind of reaction from Tony?
Tony dropped his hand, a cry escaping his throat. His knees folded and he collapsed to the floor, covering his face with his hands.
Stephen stood stock still, unsure of what to do. He was telling the truth; he didn’t know who Tony had sacrificed to get the stone. He had seen those timelines, yes, but he hadn’t spent time in each one. He had scanned them at most, searching and searching and watching Tony die over and over again, until he landed on the one timeline that Tony lived. By that time, he was already hopelessly in love with the man. He only wanted Tony to live.
What had the consequences of his choice been? What had he done?
Stephen approached him cautiously, dropping to his knees in front of the crying man. His trembling hand reached out, coming to rest on Tony’s shoulder.
“Tony, who was it?” Stephen asked as gently as he could.
Tony shook his head, his face still covered.
“I can’t, I can’t,” he sobbed.
Stephen carefully pulled Tony into his arms, well aware of the armor’s gauntlet still on his arm and extremely cognizant of the damage it could do.
Tony leaned into the embrace, clinging to the edge of the Cloak. He had never spoken of it to anyone, and he didn’t think he could. It was a private hurt, a solitary demon he couldn’t exorcise.
Stephen let out a breath. “If you let me, I can…look into your memories.”
Tony went completely still in his arms, listening. Stephen knew what Wanda had done to him, knew that Tony had a serious aversion to magic users rooting around in his head.
“I will not implant anything, and you will be able to boot me out the moment you want to.” Stephen gently grasped Tony’s chin, tilting his head back so their eyes met in the glow of the arc reactor. “You can’t go through this alone, Tony. It’s destroying you.”
Tony stared at him, eyes haunted.
He swallowed. “So, what you’re saying is you can do a Vulcan mind meld,” he said, voice cracking.
Stephen nodded. “Basically, yes.”
“Never took you as a Vulcan type,” Tony said, trying desperately to lighten the mood.
Tony’s whole body shuddered, his forehead coming to rest on Stephen’s bare shoulder.
“Do it,” Tony said.
Stephen was well aware of the amount of trust Tony was placing in him, although a part of him wasn’t sure if it was trust or if Tony was just done. Stephen hadn’t lied to Tony; he was being destroyed by whatever this was, by whoever Tony had sacrificed.
Stephen only wanted Tony to live, to be happy.
“Do it, and if you still love me after you see what I did…”
Maybe we can make something of this.
Stephen pressed their foreheads together, breathing the same air as Tony. Tony unconsciously matched Stephen’s breathing, trembling in his arms. Stephen could almost smell his fear.
Stephen’s eyes closed, and then—
Tony stands on the edge of a great abyss, the Red Skull silent next to him.
Tears roll down his face, and he’s crushed by a sense of despair and hopelessness.
It was all for naught. There is no one he would sacrifice.
A soul for a soul.
A life for half the universe.
How can he make this choice after everything he’s gone through to get here?
The nearly complete infinity gauntlet sits on his arm, a heavy weight dragging him down.
They’ve lost. Strange was wrong. This is the wrong future.
They’ve lost, and it’s Tony’s fault.
He’s lost in his despair when someone steps up next to him. He doesn’t move at first, unsure of who it is.
They take his hand and he’s flooded by warmth and a love he’s never felt before.
Blinking tears from his eyes he turns his head to look at them.
It’s a young woman, maybe in her early twenties at most. Her long, dark red hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail. She’s taller than him, not that that’s surprising.
She isn’t quite solid, and he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. He can see through her, but he can feel her fingers laced with his, see her chest rise and fall as she breathes.
She turns her face to look at him, and Tony’s heart stops.
His own eyes stare at him from a beautiful face.
He knows, suddenly, who stands next to him.
“No,” Tony whispers.
She smiles at him, a smile laced with love and heartbreak.
He doesn’t know how he knows, but he does. Pepper was pregnant when Thanos snapped his fingers, and his daughter, barely an idea in her mother’s womb, was trapped in the soul stone.
He sees her soul, and she is beautiful.
He lets out a sob, trying to pull his hand away but she doesn’t let him.
“No,” he says again.
She reaches up to cup his cheek, and he can feel callouses on her hand. She is used to work, and he can’t help the image that comes to mind of them working in the shop together.
He feels the first fracture along his heart as her eyes look into his.
“Who would you give up?” she asks. Her voice is simultaneously familiar and that of a stranger.
“Not you,” Tony whispers.
“Who then? Rhodey, Happy…Mother?”
“I can’t,” Tony whispers again.
“I know,” she says. She takes his hand and places it on her throat. “You can save them all.”
“I don’t want to save them at the expense of you.”
The smile she gives him is sad.
“No matter what you do, you never get to hold me.”
Her words are a knife to his heart. He knows she’s speaking the truth. If he doesn’t sacrifice her, she and all the others remain trapped in the soul stone. If he does, he gets the stone, but she will never exist.
He doubts he will be able to look Pepper in the eye ever again after this.
“Know this,” she says, her eyes full of a wisdom that no one should hold. “Souls go on, and you will see me again.”
“I can’t do this,” Tony said, stepping back.
“I know,” she says again. She leans forward, pressing a ghost of a kiss against his cheek.
He reaches for her, and she steps back.
“Please,” he whispers, “not this. Not you, anyone but you.”
“Know that I loved you always,” she says, taking his hand.
“No, please…” Tony says. He doesn’t care about anyone else trapped in the soul stone, not in the face of this.
He lies to himself with every breath.
Her fingers are tangled with his as she takes a step back, heels right against the edge of the abyss.
“I love you…Papa.”
She takes a step back, slipping through Tony’s fingers. Tony screams, trying to grab her. He fails, as he always fails.
He watches her fall. Her face is serene, she has accepted her fate.
He watches her hit the ground, sprawled across the bones of Gamora, and Vormir goes white.
He wakes half covered by water, colder than he’s ever been in his life, the soul stone nestled in his hand, and he shatters.
Stephen wrenched himself backwards, tears on his cheeks and mouth opened in horror. He stared at Tony, the smaller man’s face blank with pain. His hands trembled violently.
What had he done?
It was his fault. He had sent Tony into that timeline, that path. He had made the choice for Tony.
“Oh God,” Stephen said, covering his mouth. Tony just watched him, cold and dead inside.
It all made sense now; Tony’s downward spiral, the very public, very ugly, breakup of him and Pepper, the way he cut himself off from everyone, even the attempted suicide.
He wanted to see his daughter again.
“Tony…Tony, if I had known…I’m so sorry,” Stephen said, reaching out for him.
Tony stared at him. “You what, wouldn’t have sent me on that path?”
Stephen shook his head. “I would’ve found another way. This is my fault. I made that choice for you, not her, not you. No parent should have to sacrifice their child. I’m so sorry.”
Tony closed his eyes, letting out a shuddering breath. He had mourned for more than two years, the phantom kiss of his daughter’s lips on his cheek driving him mad. Looking at Pepper only brought pain. He knew that she hadn’t known that she was pregnant at the time of the snap, and he couldn’t tell her the truth of what he had done on Vormir. To save them both, he left her at the altar. It was horrible of him, and he just added it to the list of things that he hated himself for.
Vormir broke his spirit.
It wasn’t only his daughter’s soul he sacrificed; his own died that day too.
He had never told anyone what had happened on Vormir. He had taken the gauntlet and used the space stone to travel there alone. Nebula had told him where it was, but even she hadn’t known the true price. She only knew that Gamora had gone with Thanos to Vormir, but she hadn’t returned.
He knew he hurt people after Thanos was dead. He broke Pepper’s heart, and Rhodey’s, and Peter’s. He couldn’t stop his downward spiral, his daughter haunted him. He tried to drink himself to death, and when that didn’t work he pressed a nannite knife into the ashy flesh of left arm and tried to do it properly.
He failed even at that.
He was always cold. He was always alone, lost in a sea of thankful faces.
Lost in a grateful universe.
Stephen reached out and pulled Tony into a bone crushing hug.
“I am so sorry,” Stephen whispered in his ear. “I am so, so sorry. No one deserves what has happened to you. No one deserves to go through that, you have gone through it alone. I don’t know if you can forgive me for what I did, but I am here for you. I’m here, Tony, I’m here and I’m sorry.” Stephen was babbling, but Tony didn’t care.
Slowly, his arms folded around the sorcerer’s waist. He believed him. He believed that Stephen hadn’t known.
Stephen rocked him back and forth, whispering in his ear. Tony didn’t really know what he was saying, but it didn’t matter.
“Let it out, I’ve got you,” Stephen whispered, “I’ve got you.”
Tony stopped trying to hold the pieces of himself together. He broke, a wretched sob escaping the confines of his throat. He finally, finally, let himself mourn for everything, everyone, that he lost.
He had never really grieved before. He had raged, he had screamed, he had begged, and he had run, but he never let himself grieve. If he let himself grieve, it would be real. If he drank enough, he could pretend it wasn’t real.
Stephen Strange held the shattered pieces of his soul, and he felt something kindle, something he hadn’t felt in years.
Tony and Stephen orbited each other, both slightly unsure of what to do next. Stephen knew Tony’s deepest and darkest secret, and Tony was raw and still hurting. The pain would likely always linger there, beneath the surface, but Stephen saw signs of hope.
Tony went back to the compound and found Carol training with Steve under Coulson and Rhodey’s watchful gaze. Rhodey’s gaze made him falter a step, shame for how he’d treated his closest friend bubbling to the surface, but he pushed it down, offering Rhodey a timid smile.
Rhodey seemed surprised, but he gave Tony a smile in return.
“Carol?” Tony asked, standing respectfully to the side and waiting for a break in the sparring. Tony nodded to Steve as Carol walked up to him, wiping sweat off her brow.
“Tony, what can I do for you?” Carol asked.
Tony took a deep breath. “I want to be off the active roster.”
Shocked silence met his request. Tony had been adamant that he be on the active Avengers roster from the moment the gauntlet was peeled from his arm.
“I need to be off the roster,” Tony said after a moment. “I…need to take some time. I should’ve done it after…” his voice choked. He still couldn’t talk about it. “I’m not in a good place right now. I’m a liability to the team and I know that. I know you’ve all been picking up my slack because I’ve been an alcoholic mess since we got everyone back and I—”
Carol held up her hand. “Tony, it’s okay. Of course you can have the time you need. Will you be staying here?”
Tony shook his head, his hands shoved in the pockets of his hoodie.
It was one of Stephen’s, picked up in a thrift store, but no one needed to know that Tony stole it.
“Stephen’s offered me a place at the Sanctum. He’s…helping me deal with some things. Fallout from this,” he said, pulling off his glove and showing the ash gray scars. He heard Rhodey’s sharp intake of air, saw the way Steve swayed on his feet, noted the flash of compassion across Carol’s face. They knew of his scars, but he had been so very careful to keep them covered around the others.
A month ago, it would’ve angered him to see the look on their faces. Now, he was finally starting to let himself believe that maybe, just maybe, they did care about him.
He tucked his hand into the pocket of the hoodie. “I just need to pack some things, and then I’ll be there. You can still contact me, but Stephen’s pretty adamant about me not fighting anyone but Wong over the best slice of roast beef for a while.”
Rhodey laughed quietly, pulling a surprised Tony into a tight hug. “Good. I’m glad, man. You scared the shit out of me.”
Tony knew what he meant. Rhodey had been the one to find him the day he had tried to cut the scars from his left arm.
“Sorry,” Tony said, letting himself be held.
“Just don’t do it again.”
Tony nodded and stepped back. Coulson squeezed his shoulder and Carol nodded at him, taking the offered water from Coulson. Steve watched Tony, head cocked to the side.
“You really doing okay?” Steve asked.
Tony looked at him. “I’m getting there, I think.”
Steve nodded, and surprised Tony by pulling him into a tight hug. Tony squeaked in shock as Steve’s arms tightened around him.
“I never got to thank you,” Steve whispered against Tony’s hair. “And I never got to apologize. I’m so sorry, Tony, for everything.”
Tony didn’t say anything; he wasn’t sure there was anything he could say. He closed his eyes, and let himself relax into the hug.
Inside him, there was a flicker of warmth.
Tony stared at the alcohol in his room at the compound, literally thousands of dollars of booze set out before him. The urge to drink was there, it was always there, and he knew it always would be. It had been after he’d quit the first (hundred) times, and would be until the day he died.
He ran his fingers around the lip of a half empty bottle of bourbon. He wanted to drink so badly, to fall back into that half black hole of misery that he swore up and down booze was the only cure for, but he didn’t.
He turned and finished packing his bag. He’d gotten some clothes from his penthouse a few days after the disastrous party marking two years since Thanos’ defeat, but he had decided on his own that he didn’t want to go back there.
There were too many memories, too many triggers. Stephen had agreed, and had offered Tony a room at the Sanctum. Tony had accepted gratefully, and now, a month later, he felt like he was finally making progress.
He shouldered his bag and looked at the alcohol again.
It called to him, but he took a deep breath, turned on his heel, and walked out.
Time slowly passed, and Tony tried to move on with his life. Stephen was incredibly patient with him, which made Tony angry some days. He sometimes just wanted the man to snap at him, but Stephen never did. He was supportive, quiet, calm. He was nothing like the man Tony had met that day in the park.
He wandered the Sanctum. Stephen said the place liked him, which kind of freaked Tony out at first, but he’d grown used to the fact that it seemed to anticipate his needs, letting him explore or leading him to a quiet room to break down.
There was no booze in the building, but that didn’t mean much.
Tony tried, but he failed more than once and Stephen would find him nursing a bottle of whiskey. He never stopped Stephen from gently prying the bottle from his hands, but he couldn’t seem to help falling back into the habit.
It was easier. It still hurt so much and the alcohol numbed the pain.
It didn’t, but he could tell himself it did.
He and Stephen still orbited each other. He knew Stephen loved him, and Tony could admit to himself, in rare moments of honesty with himself, that he was falling for the sorcerer. More often than not, he fell asleep in Stephen’s bed. The man was a furnace and Tony liked the feelings he got when Stephen held him close.
He had tried to kiss Stephen once, but the man had gently stopped him.
“As much I want this, you’re not ready for a relationship like that,” Stephen said softly, his thumb tracing Tony’s greying goatee.
Tony wanted to argue, but he really couldn’t. He knew he wasn’t emotionally stable enough to handle a romantic relationship.
“But…you…” Tony started.
“I am more than content to wait,” Stephen said gently, pressing a kiss against Tony’s forehead. “Your well-being is more important than any kiss.”
Tony swallowed, his head resting against Stephen’s shoulder, his arms around Stephen’s waist. Stephen hummed, swaying back and forth, and Tony knew he was right.
Slow was okay. Tony wasn’t there yet, but he would be. One day.
Stephen tended the tiny flame of warmth in Tony’s chest.
One day, he found himself in a garden on the Sanctum’s roof. It was neglected and overgrown. He wasn’t even sure Stephen knew it was up there. He sat in the early springtime sun, surrounded by weeds and dead plants.
He got to his knees, kneeling in front of one of the flower beds, and he began to pull the weeds, gathering them in a pile. It was soothing, something simple and physical for his body to do.
Stephen found him many hours later, the garden empty and waiting to be filled. Tony looked up at him.
“I want to do this,” Tony said. He had a smudge of dirt on his nose, and his hands were covered in soil.
“Okay,” Stephen said.
Stephen and Tony went to a garden store, and Tony bought everything from vegetable seeds to flower seeds, to soil and fertilizer. Stephen simply watched him, hope blossoming in his chest. It was the most interest Tony had shown in something in years. He’d have to text Colonel Rhodes and keep him apprised.
Tony took his purchases up to the garden and lost himself in the planting. His hands shook as he carefully covered each seed. He rarely wore his gloves anymore, leaving his gray, scarred hand free for Stephen to see.
Tony sat back as he covered the last of the seeds, head bowed. He wanted them to grow; he wanted to feel like he could cultivate life.
“Please,” he whispered, staring at his flower beds.
He sat in a patch of sunlight, arms wrapped around his knees, and he let the silent tears fall.
His garden bloomed into a riot of color. He had flowers from all over the world and Stephen and Wong appreciated the vegetables. Tending the garden gave him something to focus on, something to do. He would spend hours on the roof, cultivating his little corner of the Sanctum.
Stephen watched him, leaning against the door to the roof. It had been over half a year since he had discovered the truth about Tony’s daughter.
Guilt would always eat at him. It had been his choice that sent Tony down that path.
Tony seemed to be doing better. He met with Rhodey a few times, even with Steve and Barnes. He didn’t go to the compound, but the others were more than willing to meet with him in neutral places.
Tony spent hours walking Central Park. He wore a hoodie even in summer, having never given Stephen his thrift store Yankees hoodie back, and no one stopped him. He wasn’t sure if Stephen had put a spell on it to make him indistinguishable from the average Joe, or if the past few years of the horrible press Tony had given himself had finally made it so he wasn’t a public figure anymore.
Stephen often joined him on his walks, though Tony didn’t mind walking alone. Barnes joined Tony a few times, the two walking in a companionable silence. Most of the Avengers would show up from time to time; Tony almost always walked on a predictable schedule.
He was healthier than he’d been since Thanos’ defeat, and he owed that to Stephen. The man was more stubborn than anyone Tony had ever met in his life.
Tony had bad days, days he would walk for hours and hours, his mind incapable of shutting down. The hateful little voice in his head constantly whispered what a failure he was on those days, and he ached for a drink to silence them. He’d stand in the liquor stores, staring at the whiskey. More often than not, he managed to walk away without buying any, though he did occasionally fail.
On a particularly bad day late in the summer, Stephen found him curled up in the garden, a bottle of whiskey between his legs. It didn’t look like he had drank anything from it, but Stephen didn’t try to pry it away as he sat next to him.
Tony’s face was haggard, tear tracks clearly marked on his cheeks. He lifted his eyes to Stephen.
“I saw a family at the park today,” Tony said. “Nothing unusual, but…I saw them together, and happy…and…” he choked, wiping his eyes angrily. “The father recognized me. He thanked me for what I did, said that I brought his wife and son back. It…fuck, it hurt so much.”
That nameless stranger had everything Tony would never have.
Stephen pulled Tony close, resting his cheek against Tony’s hair. Tony wound his arms around Stephen’s waist, closing his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Anthony,” Stephen whispered.
Tony let himself cry, soaking Stephen’s shirt as shaky hands stroked his hair.
The sun had set by the time Tony sat back. They were surrounded by an explosion of colors; Tony’s flowers had flourished under his care.
“Tony?” Stephen asked.
“Yeah?” Tony said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
“What was her name?” Stephen asked.
Tony’s breath caught in his throat and he swallowed. He dropped his eyes, flinching when Stephen took his left hand in his. He stared at their scarred hands; Stephen’s covered with dots and lines, his streaked with ash. He laced their fingers together, and he decided he liked the way their scars fit together.
He took a deep breath and let it out, looking up at the darkening sky.
“Morgan. Her name was Morgan.”
Nearly a year after the disastrous party, Tony asked Stephen to take him to Malibu. Stephen agreed, and made a portal to the beach. When Tony was sober, portals didn’t bother him as much. It was certainly handy and made traveling long distances easier, especially since he still hadn’t worn the suit.
He held a bouquet of flowers in his hand as they walked to one of the Stark Industries buildings overlooking the beach. He shook slightly as he asked to see Pepper Potts, the secretary’s eyes wide when he realized who stood before him.
They were led up to her office and the door was open. Pepper was on the phone, talking with someone. Pepper was still CEO of the company. Tony had been forced to step back after Thanos. It hadn’t been fair to Pepper to expect her to still run everything after the way he’d left her at the altar, but she had. Even with all his negative press, she managed to run the company beautifully. She managed to keep Stark Industries afloat. He could see the back of Happy’s head, and he was glad that Pepper had someone as solid and steadfast as Happy Hogan at her side.
He froze on the threshold, suddenly terrified. He clutched the bouquet to his chest, heart beating wildly in his chest in panic. Stephen put his hand on the small of Tony’s back.
“You’ll be okay. Deep breath,” Stephen said, his voice soft.
Pepper looked up at the movement at the door, her eyes widening in shock. Happy turned, getting to his feet and looking between Tony and Pepper.
Stephen kept his hand on Tony’s back as he urged the smaller man through the door. “I’ll wait for you right outside, okay?” Stephen said gently.
Tony nodded, swallowing audibly.
“I’ll go with you,” Happy said, glancing at Tony. Tony tried to smile at him, but he wasn’t sure his face was working right. It certainly didn’t feel like a smile.
Happy rested his hand on Tony’s shoulder briefly, and the contact helped calm Tony down. He nodded at Stephen and Stephen brushed his hand along Tony’s back before turning and going out the door. Happy followed him, shutting the door gently behind them.
Tony looked at anything but Pepper. Being this close hurt, and he trembled as he shuffled closer. He thrust the bouquet out to her, and she took it, noting the way the flowers shook in Tony’s grip.
“Thank you,” she said softly. The bouquet was colorful, full of many flowers that she had never seen before. Knowing Tony, they each had a meaning.
“You’re welcome,” Tony said, voice rough.
“You can sit,” Pepper said, gesturing to one of the chairs on the other side of her desk. Tony nodded jerkily and sat down, knees bouncing.
“What kind of flowers are these?” Pepper asked, touching one of the petals.
“There’s azaleas, cyclamens, purple hyacinths, white poppies, sweet peas, and zinnias,” Tony said, not looking up. She knew that each one had been chosen with a purpose, and she’d look into the meanings later.
Tony gripped his knees, trying to stem the bouncing of his legs. He failed miserably, staring at his feet.
He swallowed. “I grew them. The flowers.”
Pepper looked at him in surprise. Tony had never shown any interest in gardening in the past. “They’re quite beautiful.”
Tony flashed her a smile, and she saw a hint of the old Tony in that smile. “Stephen said I needed a hobby, and told me in no uncertain terms that finding the bottom of a whiskey bottle didn’t count.”
She smiled slowly at him. “Well, it seems you’ve taken to it.”
Tony nodded. “I have vegetables too. Wong says I have the best tomatoes.”
Pepper was glad to hear that he had something to do, that he had people that cared for him. She looked around for something to put the flowers in, finally coming across a half empty glass of water.
“Stephen spelled them. They won’t die.”
She looked surprised but gently set them on her desk. She took in his appearance. His goatee was going grey, and his hair was slowly starting to turn. She could still see those heavy bags under his eyes, sadness etched in the lines of his face. He played with the knees of his pants, still not looking at her.
“Tony, why are you here?” she asked gently.
He hunched down in his chair, seeming to shrink in on himself.
“I wanted to apologize,” Tony said, voice thick. Pepper went absolutely still, staring at him in surprise. Tony Stark wasn’t the type to apologize.
“I…I treated you horribly. You didn’t deserve what I did to you. I should’ve said something before the wedding, I shouldn’t have left you standing there. I shouldn’t have done that to you in public, and I’m so sorry.”
She looked at him, eyes sad. He finally looked at her, flinching back at the look in her eyes.
“I don’t…God, I suck at this,” Tony muttered, running his hand over his face.
He took a shuddering breath, the silence growing strained and heavy. “I’m sorry I panicked at that party. I didn’t realize Carol invited you.”
“That much I gathered by the look on your face when you saw me,” Pepper said. Tony winced, picking at the knee of his pants.
“I’ve been sober for a month,” he said.
“That’s great, Tony,” Pepper said gently, stroking one of the petals of the flowers.
“I know,” Pepper said. She had been there for much of his battles against alcoholism, though after Thanos he had descended far deeper into the bottom of the bottle than she had ever seen before.
He scrubbed at his face. “On Vormir…” his throat seized up, eyes flooding with tears. Pepper sat up straight. It had been after he disappeared to Vormir only to come back with the completed gauntlet that he had changed. He refused to speak of what had happened there, how he had gotten the stone.
Tony closed his eyes, concentrating on his breathing. She watched him fight back panic, and she had to push down the urge to go to him. It would do neither one of them any good.
He opened his eyes, finally meeting hers. “I had to give up part of my soul to get the stone,” he said, voice cracking. “I gave up part of myself that I’ll never get back, and it destroyed me. It still does, every day.”
He sniffed, trying to get himself under control.
It was true, from a certain point of view. He had given up a piece of his soul for the stone. It had died alongside Morgan’s soul on Vormir. He would never be able to tell Pepper the truth of it, though. He would never tell anyone but Stephen. He couldn’t.
“I can’t…I can’t be…”
“I know, Tony,” Pepper said.
They sat in silence, the ticking of the old analog clock on the wall the only sound.
“Happy takes care of you?” Tony asked.
“He does,” Pepper said. “We’re…moving forward.”
“Good. That’s really good. I’m…happy for you both,” Tony said, lips twitching at the pun.
Pepper smiled, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“And Stephen Strange, he treats you well?”
Tony looked at his hands. “Better than I deserve.”
They fell back into that weighted silence, time ticking away.
Tony stared at his shoes, starting when Pepper stood up. He watched her walk around her desk to stand next to him. He got to his feet and they stood there, years of love and heartbreak between them.
Tony didn’t know what to do. They looked at each other, standing on either side of a gulf neither would ever be able to cross again.
“Goodbye, Pepper,” Tony whispered.
“Goodbye, Tony,” she replied, not bothering to wipe the tears away.
Tony reached out, his hand falling to his side before he touched her. He swallowed and turned and walked to the door, hands shaking as he opened the door. Happy and Stephen stood in the hall, talking about blues music. They fell quiet as Tony stepped out.
Tony looked at Happy, his chin quivering almost imperceptibly. “Take care of her, okay?”
“You got it…boss,” Happy said quietly.
Tony nodded, clapping Happy on the shoulder. He turned to Stephen and the sorcerer lifted his arm and Tony gratefully slid under it, pressing himself against Stephen’s body. Happy watched them walk away, then turned to walk back into Pepper’s office.
She held the bouquet from Tony to her chest, tears falling slowly into the flowers. Happy closed the door behind him and went to her, pulling her into his arms and holding her as they both cried.
Pepper and Tony would never have a private conversation again.
Tony fell off the sobriety wagon after his conversation with Pepper. Stephen wasn’t surprised, but Tony hated himself for it. He had one drink and then poured the rest of the bottle out, moving to hide in his garden.
He sat against the trunk of the small apple tree he’d planted. It seemed that the garden grew bigger every time he added to it. He had asked Wong, and the man had just looked at him. He guessed it made sense, given that the Sanctum was magical.
Stephen found him asleep some time later, and the Cloak carried him back down to his bedroom. He knew how difficult it had been for Tony to talk to Pepper. He knew that he hadn’t told her the truth, but he was proud of Tony for taking the initiative to talk to her. Tony truly was making progress.
He sat on the edge of the bed, gently stroking Tony’s hair. Tony mumbled in his sleep, moving closer to Stephen and pressing his face against his thigh. Stephen rested his head against the headboard of his bed, content to just sit with Tony, to be there with him.
His hand rested on the back of Tony’s skull, keeping nightmares away.
Tony took a deep breath and knocked on the door before him. He heard a voice on the other side of the door and shifted nervously. The door opened.
“Mr. Stark!” Peter said, staring at his mentor in surprise.
“Hi, Pete,” Tony said.
“Come in,” Peter said, standing back. Tony walked through the door, glancing around Peter’s apartment. He lived near the university now, on his own for the first time.
“How are you doing?” Tony asked. He had rarely been in a good enough state of mind after Peter’s return to really talk to the boy.
Being around him had reminded him of his daughter.
“I’m okay, Mr. Stark. Do you want anything to drink or eat? I got soda, juice, chips…uh…sorry, I haven’t been grocery shopping this week.”
“Juice would be nice,” Tony said. Peter nodded, jumping over his couch and scurrying to the kitchen.
“You could’ve just walked around the couch, you know,” Tony said. Peter grinned, bringing back a juice pouch. Tony actually laughed, shaking his head as he took the Capri-sun and poked the straw through.
“Thanks,” Tony said, sitting on the couch. Peter perched next to him.
“How’s your first semester at Empire State?” Tony asked, trying to keep his voice normal.
“Pretty easy. Organic chemistry is a joke.”
“You could’ve gone to MIT,” Tony said.
“I wasn’t ready to leave New York, or Aunt May,” Peter said. He tilted his head to the side, looking at his mentor. “I wasn’t ready to leave you, either,” he added softly.
Tony looked stricken, dropping his eyes. Peter reached out, his hand coming to rest on Tony’s shoulder. He could see the gloves on Tony’s hands, the circles under his eyes, half hidden by designer sunglasses.
Tony closed his eyes. “Peter…I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Mr. Stark! Doctor Strange has been helping me, and I know he’s been helping you.”
“I should’ve been there for you,” Tony said.
“You were,” Peter said. “You brought me back.” He noted the way Tony flinched at that, and wondered again at what happened on Vormir. Doctor Strange wouldn’t tell him, but an indescribably sad and guilty look would cross his face each time Peter brought it up.
Peter changed subjects. He showed Tony his homework, told him about attending classes with Ned, and his nightly outings as Spider-Man. Peter was glad to see that Tony seemed to be getting out into the world more, and he knew that Doctor Strange had something to do with it.
A couple hours later, a portal opened in Peter’s living room and Stephen stepped through. Tony gave him a tired smile and Stephen greeted Peter.
“Are you ready to go home, Tony?” Stephen asked quietly.
“Yeah, I am,” Tony said, getting to his feet. He looked at Peter, just staring at him for a moment. He was so good, everything Tony hadn’t been at his age.
He was the only child Tony would ever have.
Tony pulled him into a tight embrace with his right arm, his left arm hanging limp at his side. Peter hugged him tightly, burying his face in Tony’s shoulder. Tony was surprised to realize that Peter was taller than him, and he felt a pang to realize just how much he had missed in the past three years.
“I’ll see you around, underoos,” Tony said, “I’m living with Stephen if you need help with homework.”
“Sounds good, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, wiping his eyes on Tony’s shoulder.
“Tell me you didn’t just wipe your nose on me,” Tony said.
Peter grinned while Stephen scoffed. “I’ll never tell.”
“Ugh, gross,” Tony said. Peter kept smiling, watching Tony tuck himself against Stephen’s side.
“Bye, Mr. Stark, Doctor Strange! I’ll see you around!” Peter called after them.
Tony waved his free hand at Peter as they stepped through the portal and it collapsed behind them, leaving Peter alone.
Peter dropped onto the couch, smiling slightly. He was glad that Tony seemed to be doing better. It made him happier. He had missed hanging out with Tony. He didn’t know what had happened while he was trapped in the soul stone, but he wasn’t stupid. He figured out how one had to obtain the soul stone, and he would always wonder who Tony sacrificed.
Tony sat in his garden, his phone on his lap. He took a deep breath and hit send on the text he’d written.
He hadn’t been in contact with Harley in years, and he hated himself for it. He knew that Harley had tried to get in touch with him, but Tony hadn’t been able to reach out to anyone after Vormir.
Especially a child.
His phone buzzed as Harley sent back a surprised and excited reply, and Tony felt a knot inside him loosen.
He could do this.
He could start rebuilding his life.
One person at a time.
Three years. Three years since Thanos was dusted.
Peter chose the location this time, an arcade of all places. The Avengers actually seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Tony sat between Rhodey and Steve, watching Bucky and Peter compete at Dance Dance Revolution. Shuri recorded it for posterity, T’Challa and Everett Ross chatted nearby, eating the bad pizza. Bruce was showing Valkyrie skeeball, while Thor challenged Carol to another arm wrestling match.
“You realize you’ve lost three hundred and four times, right, brother?” Loki asked wryly.
“Three hundred and five,” Carol said, smashing Thor’s arm to the table.
Thor groaned while Loki laughed.
“Again, Lady Carol. I will beat you one day.”
“Keep dreaming, Thor, but sure, if you want,” Carol said with a grin. Coulson spoke to Nebula, standing near Quill and Gamora who were shooting hoops. Tony was glad to see Gamora utterly destroying Quill. Scott and Hope were buzzing around somewhere, though Tony was pretty sure that Carol had told them not to bring their suits.
Stephen, Wanda, and Wong seemed to be enjoying themselves using magic to continually pull Clint’s pizza away while Natasha laughed.
Tony cradled a can of ginger ale. He was tired, but he found that he was actually enjoying himself. Steve was solid next to him, hooting with laughter as Bucky danced.
“Were you that good of a dancer back in the day?” Tony asked.
Steve grinned, sipping his own soda. “Buck was always the better dancer.”
“Because you were nothing but a scrawny little punk!” Bucky called from his DDR platform.
“That too,” Steve said.
Peter groaned as Bucky beat him, the super soldier grinning at the younger man. “Best two out of three?”
“You’re on, gramps,” Peter said, making Shuri snort with laughter.
Tony finished his ginger ale and stretched. Steve nudged his arm and pointed to the vacant racing game.
“You on?” Steve asked.
Tony actually grinned at him. “Oh, bring it, Spangles.”
It didn’t take long for the two to gather a crowd. They straddled their fake motorcycles, racing along the virtual track. The Avengers stood around them, cheering them on.
Tony easily won each race, and after Steve vacated his bike, Natasha dropped into his place. Tony grinned, and they started again.
Stephen stood back, watching Tony wipe the floor with everyone.
Tony finally stood up, bowing to the others after winning each race. “It’s like you guys forget that I actually used to race.”
“Oh, yeah,” Steve said, shrugging. Tony rolled his eyes and worked his way through the crowd to Stephen.
“You looked like you were enjoying yourself,” Stephen said.
“I did,” Tony said. He sounded a bit surprised, and tired. He covered a yawn, watching as Peter and Ned started racing while Bucky decided to show Steve the ropes of DDR.
“This place was a good choice of Peter’s,” Stephen said.
“Neutral territory,” Tony said with a nod. “I requested it. I didn’t want to be anywhere…yeah. I didn’t want to be where I might drink.”
Stephen pulled him into a one armed embrace and Tony sank into the hug, eyes closed. They hadn’t moved their relationship beyond the very deep friendship they had cultivated. Tony still felt that he wasn’t ready, especially after tearing off the scab of his relationship with Pepper.
“I have something to show you,” Stephen said. “Are you ready to go?”
Tony nodded, and they headed to the door. Tony said goodbye to Rhodey, getting pulled in for a tight hug. He waved at the others, not able to hide the smile as everyone yelled their goodbyes to him and Stephen. He grabbed his heavy jacket and pulled it on.
He had actually had fun. He had enjoyed spending time with everyone for the first time in three years. He had fallen into his own mind sometimes during the night, but Stephen was always there to pull him back from the depths of himself.
He appreciated Stephen more than he could say.
He smiled at the sorcerer as he quickly made a portal back to the Sanctum, and together they stepped through.
Tony stripped his jacket off, looking out the window at the falling snow. He was cold, but it seemed because of the weather, and not the soul deep thing that had haunted him for three years.
“This way,” Stephen said gently, taking Tony’s hand. Tony followed him willingly.
He would follow Stephen anywhere.
Stephen led Tony up to the garden. Unsurprisingly, the garden still bloomed even in the depth of winter, a sea of color amongst the white of the snow. Tony looked askance at Stephen as the man pulled him through the garden to the flower bed at the very end of the garden, under the limbs of the empty apple tree.
Cyclamen filled the flower bed, surrounding a blank stone with whites and pinks. Tony frowned. He didn’t remember this being here.
“Touch it,” Stephen said gently.
Tony let go of Stephen’s hand and knelt before the stone. It was larger than his head, and he thought it was marble. His fingers shook as he brushed the cold stone with his bare fingers.
He gasped as a name etched itself onto the stone, and he felt his eyes fill with tears.
Tony covered his mouth, swallowing a sob. Stephen rested his hand on Tony’s shoulder, letting him cry.
“She deserved some kind of memorial,” Stephen said gently.
“But…there’s nothing…she never…” Tony couldn’t talk around the lump in his throat.
Stephen knelt next to him, gently cupping Tony’s chin.
“Tony, memorials are not for the dead. They don’t care. They are for the living, for those left behind.”
Tony looked at him. Stephen pulled him into a gentle hug, cradling the back of his head. “It will only respond to your touch. Anyone else will only see a stone in the garden.”
Tony sniffed, his head on Stephen’s shoulder as he stared at his daughter’s name. Stephen always seemed to know what Tony needed. Tony had quietly lamented the fact that he had nothing physical, no way to mark his grief outwardly, and Stephen had come through for him.
Stephen always came through for him.
He reached out, his hand coming to rest on the headstone. He swore it was warm, like Morgan’s hand had been on Vormir.
He let out a quiet sob and Stephen rocked him back and forth.
“I did not do this to make you sad,” he whispered into Tony’s hair.
“I know,” Tony cried, “I know. Thank you…God, Stephen, thank you.”
Stephen held him, the snow falling down around them.
The flame inside Tony flickered, but Stephen didn’t let it go out.
Time passed, and Stephen continued to fit the fractured pieces of Tony’s soul back together. Tony didn’t feel cold when he was around Stephen.
He had made the decision to step down from the Avengers. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to fully devote himself to it again; he would always flash back to Vormir when he wore the armor.
Stephen was privately thrilled. Tony was doing better every day, slowly rebuilding his life. Stephen saw the way Tony watched him, calculating, desiring, and he knew that he wouldn’t turn him away the next time the man wanted to kiss him.
Tony made peace with his decision to step back from the Avengers. He remained friends with them, having put in the effort to rebuild those friendships. He walked in Central Park every day, joined usually by Steve or Bucky or both. Peter did transfer to MIT, much to Tony’s pleasure.
Tony always made sure that the memorial stone was surrounded by beautiful flowers. He spent hours there, talking to Morgan. Those long conversations helped him more than alcohol ever did.
His life had meaning to it again. He would always mourn his daughter, and looking at Pepper would always be a knife to the heart. He had friends, he had family.
He had Stephen.
Four years after the defeat of Thanos, they held another party. It was in the woods somewhere in the Cascade range. Having some portal making wizards on the Avengers certainly made getting around easier.
The bonfire roared in the center of the clearing, embers twisting and dancing into the night sky, casting shadows over the Avengers.
Tony huddled next to Stephen, enjoying the warmth the other man exuded. Stephen’s arm was loose around Tony’s waist, the Cloak over both of them.
The sounds of the others fell away as Tony looked at Stephen. He was so very grateful to the man next to him. He knew that without Stephen, he wouldn’t be there. He rested his head on Stephen’s shoulder, watching the fire.
Stephen squeezed him in a gentle, one armed hug. Tony wore a burgundy hoodie, another one of Stephen’s, and Stephen loved that Tony wore his clothes. He turned his head, looking down at Tony.
His breath caught in his throat as their eyes met, flames reflected in his eyes.
Tony smiled at him. It was a soft, open smile and it made Stephen’s heart race to see it.
Tony looked at him; the way the fire cast shadows across those cheekbones, the absolute love in Stephen’s eyes.
They stared at each other, waiting for an unknown signal from the other. The Cloak tightened around them both, edges fluttering in anticipation.
“Are you going to kiss me sometime this lifetime?” Tony whispered.
Stephen’s lips twitched in a smile and he lowered his face towards Tony’s. Tony lifted his face to meet Stephen’s, impatient. They bumped noses, both laughing quietly. Tony tilted his head and their lips slid together, warm and chapped and everything they wanted.
Stephen deepened the kiss, his tongue moving along Tony’s lips—
—And Tony ignites.