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I Knew You For A Day

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Stephen couldn’t remember when he had started pacing. 

Levi had taken to trailing him down the long hospital hall, back and forth, crossing the same tiles over and over. He must have been at it for a while, because when he finally noticed he was doing it, the cloak was hovering over a line of chairs, expectantly if nothing else. Whipping his head around, Stephen checked to see if anyone had noticed his pacing. The motion set his head to pounding, blood loss and lack of sleep making him feel queasy. He sat down in an effort to focus on soothing his rolling stomach, letting Levi settle on his shoulders for the first time since they’d entered the hospital via one of his gateways. Only a few moments passed before Stephen tapped at the cloak covering his shoulder, signalling for them to get off of him.

“It’s too hot”, he lied. The hall, and the entire hospital, he figured, had the air conditioning on full blast in a way that was unpleasantly cold, even in contrast to the muggy day outside. Stephen let a shiver race over him, to which Levi raised one side of their collar in disapproval, but the cloak obeyed reluctantly. 

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting in that chair, in this hall. He tried to recount the events since the battle, calculating how many days had passed since, but his thoughts were blurred and muddled by emotions in a way they’d never been. He even tried consulting a calendar in the reception area, but quickly realized he had no idea what day the Undusting had happened. The Undusting. It was easier to think of the day as just that, since any thoughts of the battle sent him into a fit of hyperventilation and his cracked ribs couldn’t stand much more of that.

Despite the several battles he’d been in, Stephen was always shocked as to how shaken he was afterwards. This time was different, he supposed, what with being a battle for the entire earth and all. He recognized symptoms of shock within himself, like he could feel parts of his brain shutting down, but pushed through as more jarring thoughts fought for purchase on his mind.

Glassy eyes.

Jagged breath.

Blood dripping down a face that was supposed to be smiling, it was like sunshine when it smiled, though he’d only ever seen it pinched and distraught. In person, that is.

Stephen took a shaky breath as he leaned forward on his knees, fingers steepled in front of his mouth. One of the doors down the hall suddenly swung open and what looked like an assisting surgeon nodded as Stephen turned to look at him.

“He survived the surgery”, the Wakandan told him happily, but trying to maintain a professional and realistic front. “It should be uphill from here if things go as they should.”

“Thank you”, Stephen managed, remembering what was appropriate for humans to do in social situations, though it might have just been habit as his brain simultaneously spun and shut down. He wasn’t sure if the surgeon was compelled to tell anyone in the vicinity at the medical marvel they’d just accomplished, or maybe he thought Stephen was actually someone close to the patient, but he let it slide either way. His brain didn’t have the capacity at the moment to correct anyone on his relationship, or lack thereof, with Tony.

Tony.

Another wave of emotion hit Stephen as he thought the man’s name. He’d almost died, should have died based on the situation, but some foresight, okay a lot of foresight, on the sorcerer’s part had ensured the Wakandan hospital was ready to receive him. The man who’d taken the full, direct force of all six infinity stones. 

God. Why you?

Keeping him alive long enough to get him off the ground, through the gateway, and into the surgery theatre had been one of the hardest parts and the most nerve-wracking 77 seconds of Stephen’s life. Using his life force to keep Tony alive, maintaining three different spells, and walking while doing so drained half of his energy within that time, leaving the sorcerer staggering as he gasped for air.

He’d quickly disengaged Tony’s suit, to Pepper’s anguished protest, removing the man from his would be nanotech coffin, and lifting him up in his arms with the aid of magic. He’d opened the gateway simultaneously, trying not to be distracted by how small and light Tony felt in his arms, how tiny, wheezing breaths were escaping him every few seconds. There had been a moment of eye contact between them and Stephen had felt his heart jolt as he laid him on the operation table, taking in the already glassy-looking brown eyes that should have been so full of light.

Stephen’s heart started again as he rose from the chair in the hall, mind racing with a thousand possibilities. 

Don’t be too hopeful, he told himself. There could still be complications from the surgery, or the amputation site could become infected, or maybe the experimental serum used to help reverse the effects of the gamma radiation would be unsuccessful. But even as these thoughts ran through his head, Stephen’s chest pounded in relief, shuddering breaths leaving him as he pushed down all the conflicting thoughts and emotions, closing his eyes and facing the ceiling in some sort of silent prayer. A wet sob threatened to leave his chest which he stifled quickly, sitting back down in the chair which he found again with shaking hands. 

Hours passed, or it could have been days when Stephen felt a gentle hand tap his shoulder. His head whirled around too quickly, making him see stars and black and his stomach threatened to upset what he hadn’t eaten. He was finally able to focus on Pepper standing in front of him, still in her armour under suit and a massive cardigan that definitely wasn’t hers. She gave him a soft smile as he squinted bewilderedly up at her.

“He’s awake again”, she said, like she couldn’t believe it, but was definitely willing to. “He wanted to see you.”

“Me?”, he blinked, not believing her. Tony had so many people he cared about, who cared about him, and seeing as he’d only gotten out of surgery a few hours ago (or had it been more than that?), he’d likely only seen a few people. Pepper smiled again, like it had been a silly question.

“Yeah, you. Come on, I’ll show you where his room is.” Stephen’s hands shook terribly as he followed her down the long hall he’d become familiar with, shoving them in his pockets almost angrily. His shoulders were shaking involuntarily (he couldn’t tell if it was from the overzealous AC or his body trying to force itself to stay alive) and he was relieved when Levi wrapped around him protectively. As they walked, Pepper explained some things to him, like how Tony couldn’t speak right now due to the effects of the gamma radiation and would probably need speech therapy. She told him about the amputation, and the burn marks, just to prepare him, though he already knew about those. Stephen’s mind struggled to actually hear her voice; whenever he relaxed his hold on her words, it sounded like they were under water.

They came to a door marked 17A and something in the back of Stephen’s mind told him it was ironic, but he couldn’t remember why.

“You can have ten minutes with him”, Pepper explained in a hushed voice with her hand on the doorknob. “He gets tired quickly.” Stephen nodded, even though there was something in her tone that made him hesitant, but he brushed past it as his heart pounded. Pepper opened the door and walked in, but Stephen found his feet cemented to the floor. He watched her walk to Tony’s bedside and tell him he had a visitor, and she’d be back in ten minutes with a nurse.

“Ten minutes”, she reminded the sorcerer again as she passed him in the doorway. Stephen told himself the edge to her voice was due to anxiety and worry for her husband. She left and he continued to hover in the doorway before making his way over to the right side of the bed, on Tony’s left side.

If Tony had seemed small and weak in his arms, the effect only increased tenfold as the sorcerer looked down at him in the hospital bed. He pulled a chair up to the edge of the bed, feeling too imposing when he was standing. Tony met with his eyes with a look that said he’d been waiting five years just to see his face again and Stephen’s breath caught in his throat. He wanted to kiss him, and hug him, tell him how worried he had been, how much he loved him, but swallowed his tears instead. Stephen coughed gently, trying not to think about what those coffee brown eyes had looked like several hours ago. No, it must have been longer than that.  

“You look good”, Stephen said, surprised at how his voice croaked. “All things considered.” His words were sly, but his tone sounded like he was fighting tears. The left corner of Tony’s mouth twitched, as most of his face was encased in bandages and it made it hard to express much. The man’s eyes dropped to the drawing pad on his tented knees and brandished the Sharpie from its spot in the coils. Stephen noticed with an aching chest that Tony was forced to use his left hand, the right side of his body looking far too lonely, but Stephen did his best to ignore it. It took several minutes, but Tony finally tilted the pad towards him, looking at the sorcerer expectantly with his un-bandaged eye.

You look like shit, the pad told him after a moment of squinting at the chicken scratch and Stephen gave a half smile. He met Tony’s good eye and nodded in silent agreement. 

Well, I’ve been in this hospital for days worried sick about you, he wanted to say.

“Your writing looks like mine now”, he offered instead, voice raspy as he placed the drawing pad ever so gently on Tony’s lap. The other man lowered his brow marginally in feigned offence, though he winced after the motion, obviously having tugged at some stitches. Silence fell over them for a few minutes and, very aware of the clock ticking on the wall, Stephen felt a deep sense of urgency to say something profound, but everything that he wanted to say would either take too long or wasn’t appropriate. Tony seemed to sense his thought pattern and set to work with his Sharpie. Some of the most tense seconds of Stephen’s life ticked by as he waited for Tony to finish, wishing he knew the sorcery necessary to tap into Tony’s brain waves and talk to him via a mental link. When he was done, Tony mustered the strength to hold the drawing pad up facing the sorcerer.

Why’d you do it?

Stephen’s heart thudded traitorously in his chest as he read, not daring to meet Tony’s intense, but morphine-addled gaze. He couldn’t tell him about the futures he had seen, what he had seen of their relationship, of the life they could have had. He couldn’t tell him about mornings spent in bed after they’d both actually slept through the night for the first time in years. He couldn’t tell him about the morning coffee they’d shared, how they’d learned how to combine sorcery and technology to become the strongest duo in battle known to mankind, how they’d have gotten several cats and dogs as they got closer to retirement, and finally how they would have grown old together, sharing their twilight years in a certain cabin on a lake. 

“It’s my job”, he choked out, focusing on his fiddling hands. “Wouldn’t be much of a Sorcerer Supreme if I had let you…I’m glad I could help get you out of there”, he finished lamely, trying and failing to keep his tone professional. Tony regarded him for a moment and the sorcerer could see him resisting the tug of morphine trying to pull him under. Again, the Sharpie was dragged over the page slowly, painfully so, but Stephen watched every movement as if it were precious.

What did you see in those other futures?

Stephen tried not to sob, but one made it out of his throat just to be trapped under his teeth as he bit his bottom lip. Hard. He felt the hot trickle of blood run into his facial hair, but he didn’t pay it any heed.

“I, uh- can’t tell you that?”, he tried, even though he knew Tony wouldn’t accept that. “I saw what would happen, what would be our only chance, and saw that I had the chance to save you, so I took it. That’s…”, he cleared his throat and tasted the copper on his bottom lip. “That’s all that matters, really.” 

Tony didn’t believe him. He didn’t believe him and Stephen saw the betrayal in his good eye. He didn’t move for the pad again, but kept asking questions. Stephen could feel them, could see them in the deep ochre centre of his iris. Burning underneath, drug-induced sleep being pulled over the top. 

What aren’t you telling me?, the good eye asked. Why are you lying when you’ve obviously seen something important? Why am I important enough to you now for you to have risked your life to save me?

The questions faded as his good eye fell shut, and the clock ticked, and Pepper returned with a nurse as she said she would. Stephen quickly rose from his chair, hands shoved in his pockets, giving Pepper a polite smile as he turned to leave. Motion caught the corner of his eye, and he was met with sight of Tony struggling under the hold the morphine had on him, dragging the Sharpie across the pad diligently. Pepper picked up the drawing pad when he was finished, frowned in slight bewildered confusion when she read it, and held it up for Stephen to see.

Thanks anyway, asshole.

Stephen wasn’t sure anyone saw his teary smile in return, as both Pepper and the nurse had turned back to Tony who’d finally succumbed to the heavy pain medication. 

Stephen stumbled out the door, only staying upright thanks to Levi pulling him up by his shoulders. He let the door shut quietly behind him, slumping against the wall as his trembling legs nearly gave out on him. He considered seeing if he could get his wounds tended to here, looking down at the bloodied cuts drying black on his hands, but then decided he would heal better at the Sanctum. Tears dripped down his cheeks to land on his dusty robes, a sharp, wet sob finally escaping him. He almost allowed another, but Pepper opened the door suddenly, making him jump.

“Are you alright?”, she asked, brow creasing slightly as she studied him, scanning his tired, pale face. She took Stephen’s silent nod in turn, closing the door behind her and regarding him with a quiet smile. “Looks like you wore him out”, she joked lightly, though her eyes were tired and haunted. For not the first or last time in his life, Stephen wished people would be a little more honest in situations like these, bypassing the attempts at normality, washing over how truly terrible they felt. 

Pepper inhaled deeply, wringing her hands in front of herself as she mulled over her next words.

“I have to say…I’m beyond grateful for what you did.” Stephen’s breath hitched and he wondered for the fifth time that day if he was having a heart attack. He managed a nod and a grimace. Pepper swallowed before meeting his eyes.

“From what I’ve gathered, you're the only one who could have done what you did; the only one who was powerful enough. Though that still doesn’t explain why you did it.” Stephen was preparing a half-assed response when she continued. “And, Wong, was it…?” Stephen nodded. “Yeah, Wong said it was a near miracle you survived using your life force like that. You could have ‘gotten your dumb ass killed’”, she said, quoting the senior sorcerer.

“I’m still waiting for the day Wong approves of anything I do”, Stephen returned hollowly, hating himself for following along with her fake facade of half-hearted jokes. He tried desperately to ignore all that was sitting so physically in the air before them. It was like their discomfort and distrust of another had taken a physical form and was sitting on the cold tile between their feet. The redhead stared back at him like she could feel his tension.

“Still”, she insisted. “You almost died.”

“At least Tony would have been alive”, he muttered, not daring to look her in the eyes. Several beats of silence passed before he forced his head up and was taken aback when he saw Pepper’s mouth has dropped open slightly, faced screwed up quizzically, like he’d just declared himself suicidal. She brushed past her expression and the moment with visible great effort.

“Wong also said it was forbidden. To give another your life force.” This time Stephen had no problem with staring into the tired, grey blue depths of her eyes.

“Well, I obviously didn’t give it to him fully, or you’d be talking to a ghost”, Stephen rasped, gesturing weakly at his shattered self. This threw her off, and she tossed her hair over her shoulder quickly like an unconformable cat grooming itself. She toyed with the edge of her oversized cardigan, furthering cementing the comparison.

“Why?”, she begged suddenly. “Why’d you do it? Is there something I should know?; why a complete stranger would almost kill himself to save my husband’s life.” Something in her face changed, angered, as her cheeks coloured and she took a step towards him. “Did you keep him alive just so he can go and get himself killed later? Is that it?” Stephen met her eyes fully, feeling colder than ever, grateful for Levi around his shoulders to keep himself from shaking.

“No. I’ve already done that”, he said, broken and bitter. “Almost.” Pepper blinked, awkwardly looking away, her teeth gritted as she held this information between them. Stephen felt himself swaying on his feet, his head pounding, Levi keeping him standing more than his legs were. He really needed to get back to the Sanctum. The next words out of her mouth didn’t help his weak knees.

“Tony told me about the 14 million and something possibilities you saw?”, she said, more as a question than a statement, like she was pushing her cards onto the table, but wasn’t sure what doing so would bring. “You saw this one, you knew what was going to happen?” She was more sure now. This was a challenge. Stephen swallowed.

“It was the best possibility”, he lied. Okay, half-lied. It was mostly true. This was the future where the mad Titan was destroyed, the Dusted were returned to life, and he was able to save Tony. It was also the future where he and Tony wouldn’t see each other much after this hospital visit, though he hadn’t seen the end of it when Tony had jolted him out of his meditative state on Titan. The very thought was menial and selfish and made him sick to dwell on, how ungrateful he was after all the luck he’d had in successfully bringing this future about.

“What were some of the other possibilities?”, she asked, like she already knew, but didn’t want to know.

“We lost”, he replied simply. You lost, he could have continued. You died, your daughter never existed. Peter and I survived the snap, and so did all of the other important people in Tony’s life, so he was able to move on. We had a life together. We had each other. The words ran through his mind, but his mouth stayed clamped shut as she watched him, like she was trying to read what was going on behind worn, glistening eyes. She was trying to decide if his tears were tears, or from exhaustion.

“I’m sorry for badgering you”, she said finally. “You must be exhausted.”

“I haven’t done much the past five years”, he quipped dejectedly, trying to will some life into his voice. “A little excitement did me some good.” Pepper offered a weak smile for his efforts and something switched in her eyes as she reached out to place a hand on his arm. Stephen wasn’t sure which side of her he wanted to trust yet, and felt himself involuntarily stiffen under the contact.

“Thank you, really. What you’ve done for me…”, she teared up suddenly. “And for Morgan…there’s no way we could ever thank you enough.” I didn’t do it for you, Stephen thought, forcing a smile. He went to pat her hand, but his trembling fingers just hovered. He tried not to choke as she continued.

“Whatever made you do it, what ever you saw in those futures, what ever made you risk your life to save him, I’m glad you did.” Stephen felt his heart hammering brokenly, with grief above all else and was struggling with what to say when the pounding in his ears mixed in with the pattering of little feet. He turned to see Morgan charging around the corner, running towards her mom with Peter in tow, tugging on his hand as though they had been siblings for life. The sorcerer felt his heart thump painfully as the teen who had been like a son to him in another life greeted him with a weak smile. The boy was worried to death for Tony, no doubt, and Stephen wondered if he’d gotten to visit him yet.

Have you seen your dad yet?, he almost asked out of dream-like habit, but bit his tongue.

“Hey”, he said softly instead, heart singing when brown eyes met his with a small spark of light.

“Hi, Doctor Strange”, the teen muttered, a shell of his former self, and unable to keep his eyes from flicking towards the door behind Pepper. Stephen didn’t blame him.

“Go right in, you two, just make sure to be quiet. Dad’s having a nap”, Pepper said, guiding them towards the door. “I’ll be right there.” The kids went in, Morgan giving Stephen a suspicious look as they passed. Stephen didn’t realize he’d been watching them go until he heard Pepper cough discreetly. He blinked back into present, looking at her as though wondering why she was there, which she looked past. She began to extend her hand and then stopped herself.

“A handshake seems a little formal”, she said. No. It seems just right, Stephen thought. Considering we don’t know each other. You know who I’d like to hug? Tony.

He tried not to tense up as she pulled him into a careful hug, like she might be able to guess how much his ribcage felt like dry kindling in a fire. Their awkward embrace was cut off mercifully quickly when Levi patted Pepper’s shoulder and she jumped back in shock.

“Oh, God! Sorry, I didn’t know, um…” She gave the cloak a suspicious glance before jerking her thumb back toward the door. “I, uh, I better check on the kids.”

“Yeah, I should be heading back to the Sanctum”, he muttered, simultaneously ripping his own heart out. She gave him one last gentle, almost pitying smile, like she knew the kind of loneliness he’d be faced with back at the Sanctum, just rows after rows of ancient, dust-lined books, and a disgruntled colleague who was dutifully working his way through the nineties top hits.

The searing moment was broken as a whirlwind of long, dark hair and a purple t-shirt came tearing back out the door. Morgan’s eyes landed on Stephen and she bolted towards him.

“Doc!”, she called, though they had never met before this, Tony’s nickname for him obviously passed down in the past few moments.

“Morgan”, Pepper said, trying to call her back, but the little girl ignored her mother’s call. She bombarded Stephen’s legs at half-speed and Stephen was certain that, without Levi, she would have knocked him flat. Short, chubby arms wound their way around the back of his knees as she looked up at him, eyes sparkling dark and bright and all too familiar.

“Doc”, she repeated urgently in her small voice. “My Daddy said I should thank you. He said you saved him”, she said simply, and clearly expecting confirmation from him. Stephen swallowed the burs that had suddenly formed in his throat, keeping the wetness in his eyes at bay as he looked down at her.

“Er, yes. That’s…right-I.” He stopped and the words came. “It makes me very happy that I got to save your Dad. He’s a very good man.”

“I know”, Morgan agreed, absolutely entrenched in her response, brow lowered in a determined way Stephen had seen too many times. Over fourteen million times. She hugged his legs with surprising strength and he chanced a quivering hand on her shoulder, letting his fingertips ghost over the soft cotton of her t shirt in what he hoped was a comforting way.

“Make sure you give him lots of love, so he gets better soon, okay?”, he muttered, quietly enough that Pepper wouldn’t hear, finally letting the tears fall. The love I would have given him. Morgan looked up quickly, enamoured with her new mission.

“Yep”, she confirmed. “I’ll give him lots of extra love. He’ll get all better.”

“Good girl”, he rasped. She released him, running back to take her mom’s hand, who Stephen didn’t raise his eyes to meet, and they walked into the hospital room with the life he wished he had. He raised his left hand with his sling ring somehow still on, trying not to think about all he would miss, everything he wished he could be there for: Tony’s therapy, his recovery, being there to comfort him during the bad days, and to celebrate the small victories when they came. 

Tears flowing freely down his face, Stephen began to move his right hand in a circular motion in an attempt to open a gateway to the Sanctum. His vision flickered and he felt his legs buckling before he could register what was happening, and the world went black.

Chapter Text

Blood poured down Stephen’s face, out his eyes, blurring his vision in scarlet rivulets. It poured into his mouth and he choked, gagging on the all too familiar copper taste. A deep voice in the back of his mind spoke no words, but told him all hope was lost, it had all been a dream. Stephen thought he had saved Tony, that they could all have a happy ending, but he felt his very soul being torn in two as Tony lay exactly where he had fallen, broken and still. His eyes were glazed over, his mouth open, his last words just having brushed by his lips. Blood began to pour down his face too. It wasn’t coming from anywhere, but down it came, covering him, drowning him.

“I think you’ll find my will greater than yours”, Thanos whispered, suddenly towering behind Stephen. “And his.”

.

.

.

“Strange. Strange, wake up. Stephen!”

Stephen gasped back into a concrete plane of reality, his lungs refusing to draw breath. He felt like he was being crushed. He opened his eyes and found himself blinded by white light, resorting to using his hands to feel about frantically. His shaking fingers banged roughly against a metal bed rail and he drew his hand back to his chest with a hiss. Suddenly, there was the rough, familiar fabric of a tunic beneath his other hand, and hands gently holding his shoulders back to the bed.

Bed?

The last Stephen remembered, he’d been in the hall of the hospital with Morgan. No. She and Pepper had went back into Tony’s room while he had tried to open a gateway to the Sanctum.

Tony.

Stephen’s heart sobbed again, an almost comfortable feeling by now.

“You idiot”, a voice growled beside him. “Trying to open a gateway when you’ve just used your life force. The Ancient One had no idea when she said you would be great that you were also suicidal.” Stephen forced his eyes open, still squinting in all the bright whiteness of the room, turning his head to the right to see Wong sitting ramrod straight in a small metal chair.

“Wong?” His own voice surprised him. It sounded like it was coming from another person, someone much older. Also someone who was severely dehydrated.

“Who else would it be?”, the other sorcerer snapped dryly. “Foolish of me to think you’d be safe in a hospital. You still managed to wind up unconscious.” Stephen would have laughed if every inch of him wasn't on fire. He felt like he’d been flattened under a truck and then someone with half an instruction manual had tried to put him back together. Looked around slowly, he found himself in a hospital gown, in a private room, with all manner of medical equipment laid about. He noticed he was hooked up to several IVs, his forearm aching from where one had been inserted poorly.

“Same hospital?” he rasped weakly. Wong nodded.

“I’ve begun to repair some of the damage done to your life force. What I could, anyway. The Wakandan doctors have provided the best care otherwise.” Stephen tried to shift, but his ribs screamed in protest and he settled back on the sheets.

“How long was I out?”

“Two weeks”, Wong replied, unblinking. Stephen jolted, eyeing the other sorcerer to make sure this wasn’t one of his rare jokes. Panic gripped his heart.

Where’s Tony? Is he still here? Is he okay?

“Stark’s fine”, Wong said, reading his mind, but not literally. “He’s in the same room that he was before. You seem to have been successful in saving him.” Stephen’s heart soared, not at the almost-praise he’d just gotten from Wong, but the knowledge that Tony was still alive.

“Couple of stubborn idiots, both of you”, Wong muttered while handing Stephen a cup of water. He reached out to take it, his arm burning in retaliation, but his terribly shaking hands wouldn’t even allow him to wrap his fingers around the styrofoam.

“I’ll get a nurse”, Wong said gruffly, and left, though Stephen was sure it was to avoid the uncomfortable situation more than anything. He had wanted more information on Tony, but it looked like that would have to wait for the time being. 

*****

The next thing Stephen knew, he was blinking awake again, probably knocked out by what ever pain medication they had him on. The room wasn’t so bright this time, which helped with his searing headache. He turned his head to the side to read the label on the drip bag. He sighed. Great, he was probably going to get addicted to morphine at this rate. There was a rustling noise to his right and he slowly turned his head back over, expecting Wong. Instead, he was faced with a wide-eyed teenager who looked apologetic just for being there, perched on the metal chair Wong had vacated.

“Sorry. I hope you don’t mind, I dimmed the lights a bit. The hospital lights are way too bright for my senses. You know, spider senses and everything…” Stephen smiled softly at the boy perched in the chair.

“It’s fine. Doesn’t hurt my eyes this way.” He could tell Peter was thrown off by how small his voice sounded (so was he), but the teen didn’t let himself show it.

“How are you feeling? Sorry, dumb question.” Peter pointed to a small box on the nightstand and a small stuffed bear propped up against it, a purple ribbon tied around each. “I got you some chocolates. I didn’t know what you liked so… The bear’s from Morgan. She was so excited about getting it for you, I couldn’t tell her not to.” Stephen felt something warm and vibrating pool in his chest, a feeling that shot his nerves, but he reached out for the bear regardless. Hand shaking, he brought it back to rest on his chest, studying its small button eyes and cinnamon coloured fur, morphine clouding his vision.

“I like chocolate”, he muttered, giving Peter a sideways glance which had the boy hiding a smile as he looked at his feet. “And I’ll have to thank Morgan. Very thoughtful of both of you.” He sounded a hundred years old, and hated it, but Peter didn’t seem too affected by it anymore, beaming under the praise. He noticed the huge shadows under the seventeen-year-old’s eyes, how a worn grey hoodie absolutely dwarfed his slender frame, though that might have just been the way he liked to wear it.

“How are you doing, Peter?” The boy’s head shot up. He’d been asked this question a lot lately, but hadn’t been expecting it from the sorcerer laying in a hospital bed.

“Hanging in there. You know, I’m alright. A lot better than I would be if-.” He cut himself off too late. The tears pooled instantaneously, forcing him to bite his lip as he looked down at his hands. Stephen could see, with great effort, he made himself raise his head again, tears trickling down his face one by one as he met Stephen’s calm gaze.

“What you did-“, he choked, voice croaking a little. “I don’t know what I’d do…” He wiped his face viciously in his elbow and Stephen wished he could comfort him in some way: a pat on the shoulder, wiping his tears away, holding him.

“It’s alright”, he muttered, regarding the boy with his calm, green eyes.

“Thank you”, Peter mumbled wetly, forcing himself not to shut down. Stephen realized that, though in the moment he had done it for himself and Tony, he’d also done it for Peter. Saving the only father figure this boy had left, someone who had become so important to him. He really was just a boy; seventeen was so young and, more than anything, Stephen’s hands itched to hold him, like he had in millions of futures.

“It’s okay”, Stephen repeated. “Please don’t thank me. I care about him a lot, too.” The tears subsided a little and Peter’s brow pinched.

“I didn’t know you knew him before New York and Titan.” Stephen smiled, which made the stitches in his cheek pull.

“I didn’t. One day was enough.” Peter nodded quietly and seemed to accept this. Of course someone could learn to love Tony Stark in one day. He was past the hero complex, but Peter still revered the billionaire with something akin to guardian worship, though he did so in his own subtle, sweet way. 

This was why Stephen cared about this kid so much, why he and Peter had gotten along so well as father and son in almost ten million possibilities. He was good, kind, and accepting, he had so much love to give, never mind a genius intellect. Stephen was about to tell Peter something along these lines, that he was a good kid, at least, when a nurse came barging in.

“Doctor Mason wants to up your dosage, Mister Strange”, she said, beginning to fiddle with his morphine drip.

“It’s Doctor Strange”, Peter corrected before the sorcerer had the chance, what with his mind already being addled by so much morphine, and Stephen gave him a grateful half-grin which didn’t pull at his stitches. The nurse gave the teen a look before making a shooing motion with one hand.

“Alright, well, visiting hours are over now, young man.”

“We were still talking”, Stephen interjected, already fighting the heavy haze pulling him under.

“You need to rest”, the nurse replied patiently. “Doctor’s orders.”

*****

Stephen blinked awake into too bright lights once more, though he was immediately grateful that he couldn’t so acutely feel every part of his body anymore. He woke up a little more and wondered if that was a good thing after all, or just that they had him on enough morphine to knock out a horse. He looked to the chair to see who was in it this time, if anybody, and was surprised to find it gone. In its place was a one-armed billionaire in a wheelchair, watching him with fascination. Stephen tried not to jump in surprise, for the sake of his still aching body, his heart fluttering as Tony graced him with a half smile that was decidedly stronger on the left.

“For the love of Vishanti”, Stephen muttered good-naturedly under his breath, too giddy and in awe to say anything else. He was saved when Tony started to scratch diligently on his drawing pad, his black Sharpie replaced with a red one.

Sleeping beauty, the pad remarked sarcastically, with a sly smirk from the man who held it. Stephen’s hand flitted subconsciously to his own face. His beard and hair were overgrown and unbrushed, he knew his bruises would be an alarmingly bright shade of yellow at this point, and he hadn’t eaten anything solid in over two weeks (five years, if you wanted to be technical). Sleeping beauty, indeed.

“What are you doing here?”, Stephen asked suddenly, cheeks burning at the weak rasp of his own voice. He corrected his thoughts. “I mean, shouldn’t you be in bed?” Tony cocked his head slightly, gesturing down at himself with his arm. Obviously not, his face said. Stephen allowed himself a small huff of laughter.

“Not like you’re one to follow orders.” Tony raised a brow.

No doubt they had to chain you to that bed with litres of morphine, his grin said clearly.

“Touché”, Stephen rasped. He was overwhelmed for a moment, openly and unabashedly taking in the sight of the man he’d helped save. His love. Tears pricked the backs of his eyes, and he quickly blinked them away. He ignored the empty spot under Tony’s right shoulder; that was fine, he’d make do with a run of the mill prosthetic until he upgraded his own. The entire right side of his head was still bandaged, eye covered and wrapped over his jaw, barely allowing him the freedom to smile properly. But he was smiling. Stephen let the happy tears slide down his cheeks, the salt making his stitches itch, but he didn’t care.

That one, big, brown eye looked back at him with something close to caring and that was all Stephen could have ever asked for. Sure, he was covered in bandages and burns and stitches and new scars, and he couldn’t talk, or walk, or smile properly right now, but all of that was okay because he was alive. Tony was alive. Looking shorter and smaller than ever in his electric wheelchair, but solid, and warm, and as real as the shaky breaths Stephen was drawing. 

Tearing himself from Stephen’s gaze, Tony began scribbling at his pad. He’d gotten quicker writing left-handed. He held the pad up expectantly and Stephen read it, still squinting under the bright lights, and wishing he had the reading glasses he was beginning to need.

I’ve gone through three of these, the pad said, referring to itself. Stephen huffed.

“You do like to talk a lot.” Tony’s jaw dropped in mock horror, before he remembered that hurt. Everything hurt right now. It was excruciating being off morphine for more than an hour, and he was on his third. Stephen noticed his wince of pain, felt crushingly guilty for a second, quickly washing it away before he brought his arm across his chest to tear out his own morphine drip.

“That’s the last thing I need”, Stephen said, holding it up before letting the loop drape over a hook on the stand, dialling the drip down until it came to a stop. “Becoming a pain killer addict.” That was part of the reason, but he was also doing it to make himself feel better. There was no way Tony was going to die, get brought back to life, and be off of morphine before him. 

Tony held the pad up rather suddenly.

Had any visitors?

Stephen smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Was that Tony’s subtle way of asking if Stephen had anyone who cared enough to come check up on him? Did he know how mind-numbingly lonely Stephen truly was? No, that was just his own self-deprecating mind speaking.

“Uh, Wong. And Peter came by. We had a nice talk.” He pointed at the untouched box on his nightstand. “Brought me chocolates, not that I’d be able to keep them down right now.”

The bear?

“Morgan. Yeah, Peter said she was all excited to get it for me.” He chuckled lightly, the back of his mind asking why; why would she care enough to do such a thing? “You’ve got good kids, Tony.” Tony ducked his head to hide the smile that widened on his face, and Stephen realized too late what he had said. In those futures, in many of those possibilities, Tony had made the adoption official, regardless of whether May was alive or not. Yet another thing Stephen had to be careful not to let slip into this realm of reality where no one could know what he’d seen. 

“How’s Pepper?”, Stephen asked, though the question tasted bitter and dry on his tongue. Tony looked a little surprised too, though he wasn’t sure why.

Good. Home. Getting clothes and stuff.

Home. Tony was referring to the cabin, which made the word send a shivery jolt through Stephen that could only be explained like electricity, and it hurt just as much.

Stephen nodded, not really dwelling on the response, but storing it away regardless. He looked around the room quickly, bored by the white walls, momentarily thinking of how quick he’d be to get out of here under normal circumstances. But, right now, Tony was with him, watching him, no doubt. This was enough to pull Stephen’s mind back easily. He met Tony’s good eye again and felt himself soften, wishing he had the strength to pull him up on the bed without hurting him, to tuck into him and feel the solid physicality of him. He wanted to make sure he was really real. He pushed his unrealistic thoughts down and forced himself to ask the question he’d been avoiding, but needed to know, like he needed air.

“Uh, h-how are you doing? How’s your treatment? Do you - Pepper said you might need speech therapy.” Tony rolled his eye in a way that said, Obviously, asshole, but took to the drawing pad to embellish further regardless.

Okay. Hurts. Can’t walk. Can’t talk. But I can hug my daughter. He held it up, but then seemed to have a second thought and added more.

Thanks to you. Stephen was surprised by the tears which sprung to his eyes, out of frustration of all things.

“People need to stop thanking me”, he said, voice gravelly with the strain. “Pepper, Morgan, Peter, and now you. I can’t - any decent person would have done it if they could. Okay? I’m - I’m not special. Don’t thank me.” Tony’s brow furrowed in that way it did which was intimidating if you didn’t know him and endearing if you did. Stephen was stuck somewhere in the middle of the two. 

That’s not true. Couldn’t have done it without you.

Stephen wanted to kick himself, wanted to throw something, to scream and beg Tony to hate him, for him to understand what he had done. He’d set him up for slaughter and now here was this beautiful, broken, but strong and proud man, sitting in a wheelchair because of him, and thanking him for it. If Stephen had anything solid in his stomach, he would have thrown it up fully.

“Please”, he said, almost bitterly, except he knew his voice would never be able to hold any true malice while directed at Tony. “I know you could have. You’re a million times the man I am. You have no idea”, he almost sobbed, though the tears wouldn’t come.

The drawing pad took a beating as Tony scribbled furiously and Stephen saw a tear drip from the tip of his nose. When he held the pad up again, it was with a determined look that could level a house, eye glistening, jaw set, huffing slightly in his anger at having to write everything. And now his frustration with Stephen’s self-deprecating words.

You almost died. There are four people in the world who would do that for me. I didn’t know you were one of them.

“That doesn’t warrant any praise. You deserve-.” He stopped abruptly as Tony slammed his hand down on the arm of the wheelchair. He attempted to throw the drawing pad across the room in his frustration, but it was with his weakened body and left arm, so it only erupted in a flurry of pages before landing on the floor a few feet away.

Fuck, Tony mouthed, and used the joystick on his wheelchair to move forward. He leaned forward very slowly with great difficulty, a small wheeze leaving him before he straightened up just as slowly, backing the wheelchair up into its original position.

The look Tony gave him was heartbreaking, dark eye glistening, mouth set in a hard line as he gripped his Sharpie and looked back down at the pad in his lap. When he lifted the pad again, he stared Stephen directly in the eye at the same time.

I’m not fucking praising you. I’m saying we’re friends now. So deal with it.

Everything in Stephen’s chest turned and spun as his mind did the same. The farthest he had gotten to look into this possibility was up to the point he got Tony into the hospital. Everything after that was up to fate. He would have kept looking further, probably would have gone looking through possibilities until it killed him, but Tony had grabbed his arm just as he began to spiral, his touch bringing him back to a reality where kind eyes were looking at him with concern. He had told him it was alright, that he was back, had comforted him while the rest of them had hassled him for information immediately. He had looked at the man before him, with all of those possibilities in mind, knowing what was to come, and what he would have to do to him. The pain he would have to put him through. And while Stephen had figured he wouldn’t see him again after the battle, he figured saving Tony’s life had to be good enough for him.

Now here they were, in the selected best future Stephen had seen, and he was finally able to see how it would unravel.

Tony wanted them to be friends. What this meant yet, he wasn’t sure, but the red Sharpie bleeding into cheap card stock and spelling out that single word was the most beautiful thing Stephen had ever seen.

“I’m sorry”, he whispered, still staring at the raised drawing pad, not knowing what else to say. It had been the wrong thing to say apparently, as Tony’s face screwed up as well as it could under thirty feet of bandages.

Don’t be fucking sorry. Friends don’t apologize for no reason.

If only you understood what I’ve done to you, Stephen thought. Then you’d hate me as you should. But he pushed these thoughts away because this reality was almost too good to be true and Tony was still here, putting up with him and his bullshit, almost shaking in his wheelchair as he waited for an appropriate response.

“Yeah. I guess I’ll be your friend, douchebag”, Stephen whispered, with too much affection infiltrating his shaking voice, but he couldn’t possibly suppress it any further. Tony’s almost relieved smile was like sunlight, looking down to write something else on his pad when there was a polite knock at the door. Rhodey peered into the room, relaxing visibly when he caught sight of Tony.

“So, this is where you rolled off to”, he smiled, opening the door fully and walking to the foot of the bed. “You should have told someone where you were going.” Tony rolled his good eye in response, but Stephen could hear the worry pinching Rhodey’s voice. He couldn’t imagine the stress this man had faced trying to keep Tony alive for so many years. The colonel seemed to properly notice Stephen and came around to the left side of the bed. He extended his hand and Stephen made himself take it, hoping the other man could look past his violent shaking and scars.

“Doctor Strange, I don’t think we’ve properly met.”

“Colonel Rhodes, it’s a pleasure. And just Stephen is fine”, the sorcerer rasped, trying to  maintain an ounce of professional composure as well as he could from a hospital bed. He smiled gently and the colonel returned it. We were already good friends in a different life, Stephen wished he could say. The three of us fighting together? Now that was something formidable.

“Yeah, call me Rhodey. That’s what everyone does, thanks to him”, he gestured at Tony, who smiled impishly. 

Stephen watched as the composed military man began to flounder in his own mind, glancing between him and Tony. The sorcerer could feel with impending dread what the colonel was working himself up to say and wished he could disappear. Their short standoff was interrupted by Tony slapping the drawing pad on the bed to gain their attention, holding it up at an angle so only Rhodey could see it. Confusion passed over the colonel’s face, then relief, before he turned to look at Stephen again. His hand reached out and wavered, before ending up patting his shin a little awkwardly.

“I’m glad everyone made it back okay”, he said finally, nodding once before walking around the end of the bed to come up behind Tony and grab the handles of his wheelchair. “Okay, whether you like it or not, it’s dinnertime, Tones. So, let’s go see if we can get you to keep anything real down.”

Tony looked absolutely peeved at being carted around like a small child, but didn’t protest any further than a scowl, because it was Rhodey, so it was okay. 

See ya, wizard, the pad said as Tony was wheeled out, giving Stephen a mock salute and a smile that was too soft.

“I’m sure he’ll find his way back in here later”, Rhodey said with a sly look that Stephen felt like he was supposed to understand, but didn’t. He caught Tony glancing over his shoulder at him as he was wheeled away and Stephen’s heart jumped. 

Don’t be stupid, he told himself. It doesn’t mean anything. But it meant everything. Tony had said he wanted them to be friends, at least. And whatever sort of small role that meant he would have in Tony’s life, he’d like to think it was enough for him.

It won’t truly be enough, the small voice said and Stephen knew it was right. He’d always have the memories of all those futures, forever taunting him with what could have been. He’d always be tormented by the selfish thoughts which made him want Tony to himself, wishing desperately that he could have been obligated to pull one of those timelines about instead. Sure, being Tony’s friend would put a band-aid on the marriage-sized gash he’d carry around with him for the rest of his days, but would he ever truly feel at rest with their relationship? The answer was no and Stephen despised himself for it.

He’s alive, why can’t that be enough for you?, the voice asked viciously. The tears streamed down and Stephen whispered to himself in the empty, too bright room.

“Because I love him.”

Chapter Text

Five more weeks passed in the hospital.

Stephen didn’t have to be there anymore. In fact, Wong had convinced him home to the Sanctum a few times, but he could never stay there longer than a few nights. He was recovering steadily, but slowly, some parts of his soul and body healing faster than others. Surprisingly, his hands were the best they had been since his accident, though his chest, lungs, and all related systems were taking a beating. Wong told him to be especially careful of his heart. Stephen heeded his warning, perplexed by the crippling pain that gripped his chest periodically, though the tremors had little effect on his blood flow and overall health. His chest just ached. A deep, unexplainable ache, literally in that Wong wouldn’t tell him why exactly he was experiencing such pain.

Stephen used the weekly checkups as an excuse, as if the healers of Kamar Taj couldn’t give him all the medical help he could ever need, superior in some ways even to Wakandan medicine. He had given away part of his life force after all, Stephen reasoned with himself as he checked into his physio program at the Wakandan hospital. And peering into Tony’s hospital room to check up on his progress was nothing more than professional courtesy to the man who had saved the universe. He kept saying this to anyone who questioned it, but Wong didn’t buy it for a second.

Their conversations continued, Stephen spending more and more time with the billionaire as he regained his strength. The drawing pad was used less and less as Tony progressed quickly, the shaky Sharpie being replaced more often with even shakier words. There were lapses in his mind; the genius was still there, but he sometimes had trouble connecting his thoughts with expressible words. This happened pretty rarely and was happening even less frequently as he worked almost daily with his speech therapist, determined to drop the drawing pad forever. More often, it was the mechanical connection that caused the most issues; a simple lapse in muscle control as Tony struggled to form words, coming out much slower and less eloquently than he was used to. This frustrated him to no end, though not so much as when he forgot a word. Luckily, both his ability to use the drawing pad and Stephen’s patience were endless as they’d mince along in a lurching game of charades until they came upon the correct word.

It wasn’t just Stephen, of course. Tony had no end of supportive friends, family, and other visitors which would be allowed time with him usually at Pepper, Happy, or Rhodey’s discretion. Stephen told himself he had no right to be experiencing the jealousy he felt when anyone else spent any length of time with Tony, especially considering he had the engineer to himself most afternoons.

This was their physiotherapy time. One o’clock to four o’clock, six days a week was Tony’s allotted time for physical therapy, time spent alternating between the weight room, his mental stimulation exercises, and many other mild forms of physical exertion. Frequent breaks with water, snacks like fruit and granola, and Tony’s favourite smoothies were had; this was one of Stephen’s favourite times as it was when Tony was most inclined to pick the sorcerer’s brain. He’d spend several dedicated minutes drawing a tiny tidbit of information out of Stephen, who couldn’t decide if it was genuine caring or the thrill of a puzzle that drove him. He opened up slowly, there was no doubt, though he could tell from the quiet looks Tony gave him that he knew there was still a fairly stable wall up between them. And that was fine. Tony spent his time picking away at the forty two-year-old brick wall with a toothpick, his latest project if anything else, because he wouldn’t be working on suits of armour anytime soon.

Today was no different. The two had just finished a fiendishly green smoothie, Stephen contemplating the kale that was no doubt stuck in his teeth, while Tony set the bait for his latest side project.

“What’re you uh…” The word evaded him and Stephen could see the blank pause, followed by the satisfying click as it came. “Didn’t think I’d…see you h-here today.” A shiver trailed Stephen’s spine, but he ignored it as he climbed on a stationary bike, legs shaking.

“You know”, he drawled, though he knew Tony didn’t. “Slow day at the Sanctum. Wong didn’t need me, so I figured my time might be better spent here.”

“H-hanging out with a cripple with th-the vocabulary of…a three-year-old? S-sure, Strange.” Tony was joking about himself again, which was reassuring in itself only because it was familiar. His wry comments, often at others’ expense, the little pokes and jabs, meant that everything was relatively okay. When he was quiet was when everyone worried.

He’d had a lot of bad days in the past seven weeks, sure, but that was to be expected after what he’d gone through. There was the obvious physical damage that was irreversible; there hadn’t been any successful limb regeneration attempts since Extremis, none that were safe, anyway. Tony’s Wakandan doctor, Doctor Baradii, had gently offered the option of surgically removing Tony’s now blind right eye, to be substituted with a mechanical replacement not so dissimilar to Thor’s, but he’d refused. Tony and Pepper had argued about it for nearly an hour afterwards; why would he sacrifice his sight for what, pride? Tony had stayed quiet for a long time, only letting up with an answer when Pepper desperately pulled Peter into the conversation, thinking the teen may have some rational affect on his mentor. Tony’s voice was husky and strained when he finally responded to the initial question.

“I can see…better now th-than I ever have”, he muttered, more clearly than he had in weeks. He looked Peter in the eyes with a quiet vulnerability which unnerved the teen, before he turned to Pepper with deadly resolve. “I don’t wanna l-loose that.”

With this decision came more mental clarity than anyone had thought possible so soon after the Snap. Stephen knew the capabilities of the brain just as well as any of the specialists in the hospital, and he was blown away by the progress Tony made, not only with his speech therapy, but with his mental exercises and conversation in general. None of his wit was gone.

Stephen was relieved. Some terrible, dark, selfish part of himself had been deathly worried that the Snap would have obliterated or at least partially affected Tony’s long term memory. How much might he remember from one day five years ago? The only day that Stephen had a hold on in Tony’s memories? The sorcerer had been grateful, shaking and trembling with relief, when Tony confirmed his ability to accurately recount what had happened on that day. Not that they talked about it more than once, though. Tony had lost them both; the intriguing, stoic, yet incredibly emotional wizard and the boy he’d come to see as a son. Of course, Stephen couldn’t ask if Tony had mourned him. That’s not something you do after coming back from the dead, is it? He liked to think he’d left a bit of an impression on the billionaire’s life, regretful that their time had ended as it had, a traumatic nightmare that Tony had relived in his sleep three times in the past week alone. Stephen liked to think that the little moments, clutching each other’s forearms desperately in support, had been more than just that. Did Tony ever think about it, or were they so far past their reckless, disastrous venture to Titan that Stephen was alone in reminiscing about it?

*****

“Goddamnit!”

Stephen looked up from the stationary bike monitor at the loud clattering intermixed with Tony swearing. He’d been having a rough morning, mentally and physically, and apparently his afternoon wasn’t going to be much better. His usual round of daily physio started off with some mental warmups, sentence starters and speech therapy which he did one-on-one with his physiotherapist. Stephen usually wasn’t around for that; he gave Tony his space and privacy because he knew how frustrated he got when he struggled to hold control over his own words. After the speech exercises were some mild physical warmups, stuff Tony could do on his own now while Dr. Martins set up for his more intensive, and often painful exercises.

Tony’s warmup this morning was almost insultingly simple: It involved stacking and unstacking a simple block tower, matching the coloured blocks into their containers, and restacking them again. Usually, Tony would have done it within seconds, embarrassed, but willing to work hard at whatever was put in front of him. Today was a bad day, though. It was raining, the switch in barometric pressure affecting his coordination and nerves. His overly-sensitive hand shook, nerve ends frayed as he held the block out at arms’ length. Watching quietly and discreetly, Stephen knew the feeling all too well. He still couldn't quite lean his weight on his hands as he hunched over the stationary bike, using his forearms to support himself on the handles instead. Tony’s predicament was made even worse in that he was having to do these exercises with his non-dominant hand, the amputation site on his right shoulder still raw and bandaged heavily as it waited for its metal replacement.

Stephen let himself glance up again, heart panging in pity before he swallowed the feeling down. No, that wouldn’t do. Tony could always tell when people were pitying him and he hated it. But the sorcerer found it difficult to keep his emotions in check.

Such a simple task was made even more difficult with only one good eye as well, Tony’s blind right eye throwing his depth perception off the deep end. His hand wavered, setting the block down, but he overshot due to his remaining eye making the tower look farther away than it was. The blocks were sent crashing to the table and Tony growled his disgust, slurred swearing under his breath.

“Take a break if you need to”, Stephen suggested objectively. He wasn’t judging him, they both knew that, he was offering a voice of reason when Tony’s was often several hundred layers away from his grasp.

“Don’ need to”, Tony forced out, his anger tightening his throat, stressing the words and impeding them on their way out. Tony was embarrassed, not because Stephen noticed, but because there had been anything for Stephen to notice. The fact alone that Tony, the man who had built his first circuit board at age four, a pioneer in the world of technology, a certified genius, couldn't complete a task his daughter could as a toddler was purely mortifying.

His hand cramping coupled with his lack of depth perception made the exercise overtly difficult, but Tony persisted stubbornly. His speech therapy had continued to progress very well, and he had no trouble swearing when he knocked the small tower over again. Stephen dismounted the stationary bike as quickly and as gracefully as possible, which wasn’t very quick or graceful at all. He was still very weak from using his life force and had been at half strength ever since the battle; Wong didn’t show it, but he was worried about how long it was taking Stephen to recover. Magic could only do so much, but it was frankly concerning that Tony had improved more in the past weeks than the sorcerer had.

Stephen padded across the gym mats in bare feet (he felt more at home like that) and went to the low chair Tony sat in, his wheelchair discarded in the corner of the room like a child in timeout.

“Take a break”, Stephen repeated again, because he knew that’s what Dr. Martins would have him do. Tony wasn’t dense, but these days it often took repeating something for him to grasp it fully and see the reasoning behind it. This often happened when he was being stubborn and too hard on himself.

Tony shook his head silently, unable to find the words to express his frustration. His face said it all, though. He wanted help, but didn’t want to be any less than completely self-reliant, he wanted to be healthy again, but sometimes it was so hard to do everything he was required to get better, he wanted to complain sometimes, but didn’t want to seem ungrateful for the second chance he had been given, what Stephen had done for him, the sacrifice he had made.

You deserve it all, you’re worth it, you saved the universe, he was reminded by many people again and again and again. He knew all that, and he hated those words now, because he didn’t believe them fully and they didn’t help him when he could barely hold a half full mug on his own, never mind pick up his daughter. His chest burned with frustrated desperation, gripping the block in his hand so hard that his hand began shaking even more.

“Tony”, Stephen said softly, reaching for the block with his own trembling fingers.

“Dont’!”, the other man bit out, voice slurred, jerking his one remaining hand away like a scared animal jumping away from a trap. He tried to still himself, but continued shaking, the remaining blocks skidding loudly across the table in the silence of the room when he tried to place the block on them. Tony stood quickly, or tried to, as his body was still far too weak to support him. He’d began attempts at walking with the support of a grab rail, his physiotherapist supporting his right side, and joking with Rhodey even as he panted, and shook with pain and determination, and dripped with sweat. Tony dropped back into his chair heavily, though he hadn’t gotten far, reaching out to steady himself on the table and grimacing as his leg muscles spasmed.

“Jeez”, Tony hissed, chest heaving with the pain of the tremors and the tears came on their own accord. He clumsily swiped at his face, embarrassed by his tears, embarrassed by himself, but gave up quickly, sitting dejectedly and slumped in the uncomfortable wood chair. He stared at his one remaining hand, grateful for it and cursing it all at once. Tears streamed from his one good eye, the tears ducts in his right eye destroyed beyond repair, along with his vision. Stephen hovered uncertainly, hands shoved subconsciously in his sweatpant pockets before kneeling gently beside Tony’s chair, wary of backlash.

“I can’t-“, Tony hiccuped in a sob, interrupting himself. “I know you…everything you d-.” He couldn’t quite find the words, his emotions intermingling with the words he was trying to grasp, and Stephen was almost glad. They had gotten past the awkward thanking each other stage, but this moment of emotional outburst apparently broke the silent pact they had made to try not to mention it.

“It’s okay, it’s okay”, Stephen soothed, wishing he could say something meaningful, but Tony was inconsolable, and maybe rightly so. He was frustrated, fed up, dejected, exhausted, and he looked to Stephen with so much raw vulnerability in his good eye that the sorcerer almost choked. He had never been seen by someone like that, like they were truly looking into him. His soul felt touched, felt whole for a second, before Tony squeezed his eyes shut and forced more tears down his scarred cheek.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry-“, he whispered, almost doubled over in his inner grief, breaking down, chest caving with the weight of all that had happened.

“No, you’re alright…”, Stephen lied, wishing desperately that it were true. He reached out, grabbed Tony’s forearm gently, tried to steer him back into a sitting position so he wouldn’t put pressure on his chest or tear his amputation stitches. Tony followed his touch almost blindly, reaching out, still falling forward weakly. He couldn’t hold up the weight of his own pain.

Stephen found himself gathering the other man up in his arms, without thinking, it was just right. Tony leaned into his chest, forehead pressed below Stephen’s collarbone as he sobbed deeply, shaking under the effort of uncovering buried and repressed emotions. It was easy to be grateful for what had happened to him, but it was soul-breaking to be allowed to be angry about it. He was vaguely aware of the vulnerability between himself and the man holding him; they’d saved each other’s lives, and the sick necessity of that tore an angry sob from somewhere deep in his chest. Tony gripped Stephen’s forearm shakily, making sure he was real, convincing himself that the sorcerer wasn’t going to turn to dust in his arms. Concern knit Stephen’s brow as he allowed himself to be pulled in, heart thrumming heavily and he knew Tony could feel it, pressed against his chest as he was. He let himself shift his grip, wrapping his arms around Tony more securely so he didn’t have to worry about holding himself up because Stephen was doing it, kneeling as close to the chair as he could.

Tony responded numbly, forehead pressed to the sorcerer’s shoulder, releasing his grip on his forearm only to snake his hand around the other man’s side. Stephen let himself breathe, took a half breath, letting himself hold the small, broken, strong man in his arms, rubbing his shoulder gently while taking care to avoid his bandaged amputation site. Tony let out an almost relieved breath, turning his face inwards as he almost subconsciously buried his face in Stephen’s neck, wet with tears and prickly with stubble, his one arm wrapped around the sorcerer’s ribcage like he was a life buoy.

Stephen felt his heart jolt. How many times had he imagined this sort of contact? How many times had he lived this, in another life, to be allowed to hold and support this amazing man? Tony’s breathing had become less ragged, just hot puffs of breath that Stephen felt on his tear-dampened skin, felt the weak, desperate grip on his back loosen as Tony pulled back.

“Sorry”, he croaked in a whisper, staring at nothing, eyes red, body numb. Stephen shook his head quickly.

“No”, he said simply, and didn’t know what else to say, because he couldn’t express how okay it was. He would be there for Tony every second for the rest of his life if he could and his madly beating heart confirmed this. Silence enveloped them, save for the rain pattering, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Stephen’s knees were aching from kneeling so long, but he couldn’t feel them. He noticed abruptly that he still had a trembling hand rested on Tony’s knee and pulled it back gently before speaking.

“I can’t say I know what you’re going through, and I’m not going to pretend I do.” He held up his hands, the scarred backs of them facing Tony for him to see. “These are nothing.”

“Don’t”, Tony warned numbly. He couldn’t stand having his injuries compared to others, especially Stephen’s and Rhodey’s disabilities, because anyone else who had ever been affected by this much gamma radiation wasn’t around to be pitied on or held to a hero’s mantle.

“You’re doing so well”, Stephen said instead. “I wish you weren’t so hard on yourself.” He met the teary gaze Tony faced him with.

“Someone…”, he struggled to form the next words and Stephen saw the momentary self-hatred pass over his face. “Someone has to be”, he managed, though he looked exhausted.

“No”, Stephen repeated, because that was the only way to get through to him some days. He stood slowly, legs prickling as he sat on the table, not trusting himself to be that close to Tony and say what he was going to.

“You’re amazing”, he said simply. Tony looked up at him too quickly and Stephen made himself look away as he continued. “It will get easier. And you have a lot of support; people who want to help you.” He accidentally met Tony’s eyes again. Stephen’s brain was screaming at him to abort mission, but his heart fought back just as hard. “People who love you.” Tony blinked, nodded once, almost successfully hiding how overwhelmed and thrown off he was by the unexpected tenderness in the sorcerer’s voice, despite how hard he was trying to sound detached.

“Yeah, I-I know I’ve got great people…in my life.” He couldn’t decide if his stutter was the normal one or caused by his confusedly pounding heart, but he held Stephen’s gaze. “I’m not ungrateful.”

“I know”, Stephen said quickly. “I didn’t mean that. I just wanted to make sure you know that people are here for you.” That I’m here for you.

“Thanks.”

Neither was sure what move to make next, so they sat, on table and chair and breathed together in the thrum of the rain on the windows. Tony’s physiotherapist must have been having issues setting up the equipment, not that either minded each other’s company. It was best to ignore what just happened, Stephen thought. Forget it had ever happened, for both their sake’s. Tony had granted their friendship, but there had been a moment of something else, undeniable and poignant in reminding them of the way things where. Stephen put a chain around the feeling and buried it within himself, somewhere deep under his breastbone. It would hurt and fester there, he knew, but it was better than losing it to time.

“Sorry about the wait, Tony.” Dr. Martins came through the back door from the larger physiotherapy centre. “There were some issues with the aeration machine. How’d the exercise go?” Tony eyed the scattered blocks like they were a foreign entity.

“Not s-so good”, he replied, hiding his red eyes as well as he could. “H-hand’s acting up with the rain.” He jerked his hand over his shoulder at the windows and immediately regretted the movement. Dr. Martins gave him sympathetic look; not to show him pity, but because she cared and wanted him to know that she cared about him as a person and was invested in his treatment, not for the attention it got her in the medical community.

“That’s alright”, she said lightly. “We can try again another day, but we’ll go easy today, okay? No walking, so let’s grab the wheelchair.” From the beginning, Tony had been quick to correct her in calling it his wheelchair; he wasn’t planning on keeping it for long.

Dr. Martins gave Stephen a smile as she came back with the chair and he stepped out of the way. He wished more than anything that he could help, but his hands were more than useless and he was still too weak to risk using magic to steady them. Not that Amaya Martins couldn’t handle a crippled Tony on her own; she was a strong, sturdy woman and helped him into the wheelchair with ease, just short of lifting him up completely.

Stephen watched as they passed him to go into the heart of the physiotherapy centre, Tony looking too small and too vulnerable in that damned wheelchair, and he was overwhelmed with the desire to protect him. Tony’s eyes were still red, giving the sorcerer a tired, unsmiling wink as he was wheeled by, a silent thanks that left Stephen’s heart soaring.

*****

This comfortable routine of hanging out in the physio centre together could have gone on forever and Stephen would have happily complied, but all good things come to an end. Tony’s in-hospital physio was complete after several weeks, as he had continued to improve quickly despite what he had gone through. He would continue to have regularly scheduled doctor’s visits and physiotherapy sessions, but the beginning stages of his recovery were well underway.

Tony was going home.

Stephen was both relieved and heartbroken. It meant Tony was out of a majority of the physical danger and pain he might be subjected to, save for his cybernetic arm which he would return to the hospital to have attached within a month’s time. It also meant Stephen would see him a lot less, maybe not at all. They’d only known each other for a few months really, Tony did at least. Stephen was on uncertain ground in terms of what their friendship meant to Tony, how it might progress from this point forward. If Tony weren’t so severely injured, Stephen might expect a coffee meet up once a month. That’s what friends did, right? Stephen racked his mind for the last friend he’d had who wasn’t also a colleague, but all he could think of was Christine’s face, dejected and hurt as he had yelled at her, enraged by the aftermath of his accident. Kind, caring, brilliant Christine who he had treated so poorly. No wonder Stephen couldn’t recall any of his experiences in a mutual friendship, he didn’t have any friends.

“What’re you gonna do without me around to bug you, Doc?”, a voice asked behind him, coming from lower than it should have been. Stephen turned to find Tony wheeling towards him from down the hall. He was still using an electric wheelchair when not doing physiotherapy. He’d insisted otherwise, but with one arm, a manual wheelchair would have been unnecessarily difficult, nigh impossible in his current condition. Stephen forced a smile in response when he felt like crying instead.

“I’m sure I’ll find something to keep myself occupied.” Thinking of the quiet, lonely Sanctum, he wasn’t so sure, but drew his mind back to the present to focus on Tony properly. He knew this was goodbye.

Tony looked up at him with a half grin, glancing out the window at the view of the Wakandan forest Stephen had been admiring moments ago. He was lost in the sight and it gave Stephen a second to give him a once over: He looked amazingly well, all things considered. He’d taken to wearing a black bandana to cover the burnt, scarred side of his head where his hair had been singed away, and there had been many light-hearted jokes about the possible tragedy of that hair never growing back. The stump under his right shoulder was easier to ignore than talk about, not that any of his loved ones would ever shy away. He was pale, but looked less tired than usual as today was a good day, his good eye twinkling like warm brandy in sunlight. He still looked too small in the wheelchair; it would take a long time for him to gain muscle back, but if there was anyone who would put his all into his physio, it was Tony. It warmed Stephen’s heart just to see him breathing, talking to his family, joking when he could, smiling up at the sorcerer quickly.

“It’s been good to have you around. Everyone would always be asking me how I was feeling doing my exercises and shit, but you just talked with me. It was really cool of you, Doc.” The words should have had Stephen beaming, but the use of past tense was like a newly-sharpened knife to the heart.

“‘Course”, he choked out as smoothly as possible. “You’re good company, even when you’re bitching about doing reps.” Tony flashed him a grin, but Stephen missed it as he was staring at his feet. “You’re going to be going to a closer hospital when you go home, I presume?”

“Yeah, Doc Martins is gonna transfer my program over to one of the Upstate hospitals. They have a pretty good set-up, nothing like this, though.” He looked around appreciatively. “Still be coming here once a month, but I’ll be able to do a lot of stuff at home.”

“Good. That’s good.” Stephen was searching for what to say next; there was so much he wanted to say, he had to sift frantically for what was acceptable. A scampering noise from down the hall distracted him.

“Daddy!”

Morgan came pounding down the hall at full speed, stuffed rabbit clutched in one hand and long, dark hair streaming wildly as she ran towards her dad.

“Moguna!”, Tony greeted just as enthusiastically. He was always so loving with his daughter, but it was obvious that the prospect of going home had boosted his mood even more. Morgan reached them and Tony couldn’t pick her up, so she clambered carefully into his lap, wrapping small arms around his neck and peppering his face with kisses. Tony chuckled and kissed her cheek in return, holding her in the crook of his arm.

“We’re going home now! Mommy’s ready. She said to get you.” Tony grinned like this was the first he was hearing of the news.

“Mommy’s ready?”, he asked Morgan, who nodded enthusiastically. “That’s a first”, he muttered sideways to Stephen, who managed a small smile in return.

“We’re going home, Doc! Daddy can go home now”, the little girl informed Stephen, just in case he hadn’t heard, but he couldn’t help getting caught up in her excitement, for her sake at least.

“That’s amazing news, Miss Morgan. I bet you can’t wait to get him home.”

“Yep!”, she confirmed. He had crouched down to be on her (and Tony’s) level, which she mistakenly took to be an open invitation for a hug, and was off of her dad’s lap and wrapping her little arms around his neck before he could even blink. Stephen froze, hands trembling as he held them out, completely disarmed within seconds as this little person showed him affection unabashedly.

“I’ll miss you, Doc”, she told him, head resting on his shoulder, completely unaware of the effect she was having on his heart. Stephen hesitated, but caught Tony’s eye, who was watching them with an unbelievably soft smile, giving the sorcerer an almost pitying look. Stephen finally let himself hug Morgan gently, large, trembling hands held over her back carefully.

“I’ll miss you, too”, he let himself say, voice wavering ever so slightly. They had spent a lot of time together over the past few months and her happy, bright presence was like a small light he didn’t know he had been missing in his life. He stopped the tears from coming because that simply wouldn’t do, face to face with Tony as he was. “You’re a good girl”, he rasped, letting her go and crawl back into her dad’s lap, head leaning against his chest, utterly content.

“We’ll be seeing you, Doc”, Tony said with a nod and a grin and began to turn the wheelchair around, but Stephen held up his hand.

“I could open a gateway for you”, he said, without thinking.

“Really?”

“It would save you having to take the jet halfway around the world”, Stephen said logically. It was logical, really, but his offer wasn’t. He hadn’t been able to conjure a speck of magic since using his life force, a reasonable side effect, Wong had told him. It would take him a lot of time and energy to bring his abilities back up to their previous level, but Tony didn’t know this. It’s one gateway, Stephen reasoned with himself. And it wasn’t like he could back out now.

*****

It took about half an hour for Rhodey, Stephen, and Pepper to gather up the family’s belongings from their months spent at the hospital, scanning every inch of the hospital suite to make sure they had gotten everything. Tony amused Morgan to keep her out of the way, giving her wheelchair rides up and down one of the long halls until everything was ready.

“You’ll have to get everything through fairly quickly”, Stephen warned, casually leaving out the part where he wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to hold such a large gateway open in his current state. As long as Tony, Pepper, and Morgan went through first, everything should be fine. Stephen dug his sling ring out of his pocket, untouched for months, and slipped it on before quickly making the correct hand movements. He was surprised at how willingly the gateway formed; he’d been expecting resistance, but once it was formed, he felt his energy waining almost immediately. Tony and Morgan rolled through, taking a backpack and pillow with them, while Pepper and Rhodey brought the rest of their belongings through. Stephen could only watch, hoping his tension wasn’t too obvious as he strained to keep the gateway open. It began fizzling around the edges just as Pepper was bringing the last suitcase through. He heard her speaking to him, but couldn’t make out the words, so assumed they were of thanks and nodded quickly.

Aside from the tremors racking his arms, the pressure on his skull, Stephen thought he felt a piece of his heart leaving with the man who’d saved the universe. He wasn’t being dramatic in thinking this, as he felt something break in his chest, and even with all of his knowledge of human anatomy, he had no idea what had just left a hole inside of him.

“Hey, thanks, man. We’ll see you around”, Rhodey said, giving a wave as he stepped through, going to help the family get settled back in and so Pepper wouldn’t have to handle all the bags on her own.

“Yep. No problem”, Stephen managed shortly, his breath coming hard and his head pounding as he double-checked that everything and everyone were through before he allowed the gateway to close. The last thing he saw before doing so was a worried look from Tony, the man opening his mouth to voice his concern, too late as the circle of sparkling gold shut and vanished abruptly with a crackling noise.

Stephen collapsed, blood pounding in his head, cursing himself breathlessly as he tried to focus his swimming vision. He was panting harshly, but as soon as oxygen reached his body, it began to ache, muscles and nerves burning with an acidic intensity that he’d never felt before. His hands were trembling uncontrollably, his legs beginning to convulse as he doubled over, tasting bile in the back of his throat as he heard a familiar crackling noise behind him and an even more familiar, unimpressed voice.

“You’re an idiot”, Wong growled.

Chapter Text

Metal.

He tasted metal…on his tongue. Licking metal…? No. His mouth was closed. But still drowning in metal. In his throat, sliding down his nostrils, molten and hot. He tried to take a breath, but the metal clogged his throat.

Steel? No. Nickel? Too sour. The burning intensified.

Iron.

Stephen sat up quickly in bed, coughing raucously to remove the blockage in his throat. Blood that had begun to clot was lodged in his airways, spraying white sheets bright red as he gripped the mattress. He leaned over, heaving, feeling the rush of oxygen hit him in ragged waves, could feel it reaching his brain and his lungs and his heart, pounding with fear.

With ever growing dread, Stephen wondered if this was a new symptom, an addition to the ever-growing list of the effects the partial loss of his life force had had on his body. No, he realized, he must have bitten his cheek during a nightmare, as he traced the ragged gash in his mouth, still pumping out blood. Trying to contain the blood in his mouth as best he could without choking, Stephen stumbled from the tangle of bloody sheets and into the bathroom. He spat in the sink, splattering porcelain with diluted red, dark red tendrils dripping from his bottom lip as he caught a glance of his haggard appearance in the mirror.

It tasted like copper. Of course. Blood tasted like copper. Stephen blinked, still gripping the sink as he regained his breath. Why had he thought of iron, then?

Healing magic out of the question, Stephen stuffed a wad of gauze in his mouth, fumbling with the first aid kit, eyes bleary. He wetted a washcloth with warm water, running it over his face slowly, because once he put the effort in, it always mad him feel a bit better. The sorcerer flicked the light off, padding unsteadily back to his bed. He didn’t bother removing the blood-soaked sheets; they were contained to one side of the bed and he knew he wasn’t going to fall sleep again.

Stephen shivered as he pulled the covers up, despite the comfortable temperature of this floor of the Sanctum, wishing he had grabbed a sweater from his armoire. He swallowed, arms crossed over his chest as he stared up at the ceiling, still tasting blood at the back of his throat. Still copper. Nothing like iron. Iron. He scrunched his brow, annoyed with himself and his sleep-addled brain that he couldn’t remember why that would be relevant. The realization hit him in the same moment that he remembered his dream.

Tony. Bleeding out on the battle field. No gauntlet, just run through with a crude, yet enhanced alien weapon. Blood. Oh, God, so much blood. It was running in rivers, pulsing, and the small doctor voice in Stephen’s head told him that wouldn’t last long. Stephen held him, powerless, all of the sorcerer’s magic sucked out of his body, hands soaked red with Iron Man’s blood. Stephen cradled his head because he couldn’t do anything else, hand pressed over Tony’s heart, trying to staunch the flow of blood. Red, dark red. Rivers, choking, gagging. Light leaving kind brown eyes.

Stephen sobbed into his pillow, blood seeping past the gauze and onto the pillowcase, red spots, dark and poignant. He balked at the sight and resisted the urge to throw the pillow across the room.

It had been nearly two months since Tony had gone home and Stephen had left the Wakandan hospital. Fifty-seven days exactly if you were counting carefully, which Stephen had been. He’d been holding on fairly well at the hospital, but opening that gateway had been the last straw. Holding it open for so long had been enough to sap the last ounces of magical energy the sorcerer had and Wong had scolded him profusely for being so foolish. Stephen had seen the panic in his eyes, though, had realized in that moment, lying on the hospital floor, that he had been very close to death. Two months under Wong’s care had only reversed about half the damage Stephen had caused in those seven minutes of holding the gateway open.

He was delirious, feverish, vomiting constantly as his body rejected what ever was put in it. The first three weeks back at the Sanctum had been a hazy blur, as he was shivering one moment, and boiling hot the next. Wong could have easily healed him if the power of one’s life force wasn’t one of the most powerful natural magics, but it was the lack of that power now which had practically destroyed Stephen’s immune system, leaving his mind and body exposed. And it would take a very long time to heal, though never completely. This meant Wong was compelled to create a protection charm of sorts for Stephen to wear, a form of warding off both medical and magical threats. He had casually presented it to Stephen after several weeks of being back at the Sanctum, shoving it into the weak sorcerer’s hands along with a cup of tea, explaining it as he did. It was a small silver pendant (in the shape of the Eye of Agomotto for sentimentality's sake) on a short chain, which would act as a substitute for the half of Stephen’s life force which he had given away, providing some of the services to his body which he was currently missing.

Stephen fingered it now, ignoring the rolling feeling in his stomach, the aching in his limbs, his pounding head, swimming vision, but none of that was new. He’d gotten used to reducing the pain to a dull ache in the background while he escaped into his mind. He kept memories of a select few of fourteen million possibilities tucked away, thoughts of his other life, the one with Tony and Peter, which had been his salvation while his body tore him apart.

Most of his favourite memories where what you would expect: Peter graduating from MIT, helping Tony make updates to his cybernetic arm, late nights and early mornings spent working alongside or near his husband, Peter’s wedding when he got older, their wedding before that, finally convincing Tony to retire when he physically couldn’t be Iron Man anymore, moving to a cozy cabin on a lake, and becoming grandparents to Peter’s adopted children. His most treasured memory, though, was one of he and and a newly-retired Tony, watching the sun rise over the lake as they drank their tea and coffee, wrapped up in cozy, ugly sweaters in the morning chill. Multiple lifetimes of sweet memories filled Stephen’s thoughts, made his heart ache, because that hole he’d felt carved into it when Tony went home hadn’t left yet.

His chest was the worst part, really. It had been ever since he’d used his life force. His lungs, his ribs, his heart, occasionally trailing up into his esophagus, sometimes even his back, his entire upper abdomen was in constant, aching pain. It got worse sometimes, like when he moved around too much or thought about Tony. That was just heartbreak, he told himself reasonably. Of course, he knew a broken heart could manifest as physical pain, but this was something else. This was his entire chest telling him that he’d given a piece of himself away and now he’d lost it. The worst part was that he could distinctly feel how far away it was. The exact distance was 109 miles between the New York Sanctum and the cabin in Upstate New York, and he could feel it in every beat of his chopped up heart, his wheezing lungs, and the breath that caught in his throat when he couldn’t pull his mind away from reality.

Heart break was so much like grief, Stephen mused, not for the first time in the past two months. He’d lost someone, someone who didn’t even know he had ever had them. His possible future lives with Tony had only ever been a dangerous, ripping fantasy, millions of lifetimes reduced to milliseconds as he searched for the one where they won the fight. His heart had broken a little more each time he had to pass one of the good ones; one of the possibilities that was full of love and laughter, adventures and kids, magic and technology, coffee and dogs.

Tears rolled down Stephen’s cheeks as he stared up at the ceiling, having become intimately familiar with the dark hardwood boards above his head, breath coming shakily as he tried to focus on his pleasant pseudo memories without actually thinking about them. It was three o’clock and he hadn’t eaten anything yet, hadn’t moved from his bed save for dealing with his cheek injury moments ago. Not that he could eat anything solid, even if he wanted to. Wong had tried forcing him to in the first few weeks, but his body simply rejected anything he consumed like it was laced with poison. Stephen lost weight quickly, along with muscle, becoming a mere ghost of his former self, as IV fluids and healing magic could only do so much. Wong was worried, though he hid it well. It seemed that’s all Wong did nowadays; worried about Stephen and read up on healing techniques. But anything that had ever been written about damaged life forces was just that - someone who had suffered a magical attack and their life force had taken the damage. History couldn’t tell of anyone who had given away a piece of their life force and survived.

For the first time in a while, Stephen felt hungry, properly, ravenously hungry, he realized, swinging his legs slowly over the edge of the bed. The tall curtains in his room were drawn shut as too much sunlight triggered migraines, but he risked peeking between them. Raining. Of course. He scoffed, thinking of how much Tony loved storms.

Ignoring the cramping in his chest, Stephen slowly pulled on his worn, burgundy bath robe, old velvet with a paisley pattern that felt as old as everything else in the Sanctum. It was a meagre substitute for Levi, seeing as it wouldn’t catch him when he stumbled on the stairs, or even on his own feet. Despite this, Stephen braved the stairwell heading down to the third floor of the Sanctum which consisted of a kitchenette, Wong’s study, and an open reading area. Too much space for two men who barely spoke, even less nowadays. Wong was in the reading area when Stephen stumbled into the attached kitchenette, surrounding by piles of old books, many of which where at least half a foot thick.

“Strange”, Wong greeted, hiding his surprise expertly, a feeble stab at professionalism considering he’d been spoon-feeding the other man several weeks ago. “Do you want some tea?” Stephen shook his head in response. Words seemed pointless lately. Stephen shuffled to the fridge, barefoot as usual, chewing on the gauze still in his cheek absently as he surveyed the shelves. Leftover pad thai caught his eye and he held the glass container in question up to Wong, asking permission to raid his leftovers.

“Go ahead”, the senior sorcerer said, an incomprehensible expression passing over his face. Confusion? Most likely. Relief? Maybe. Worry? Definitely. He watched Stephen rattle around clumsily in a drawer, produce a pair of chopsticks, and walk over to sink slowly into the large, under-stuffed armchair opposite. He was tender, Wong could tell, grimacing even as he lifted the chopsticks. Movement was excruciating. And he’d seen him try to discreetly dispose of the wad of gauze in the kitchen garbage.

“What happened to your mouth?” Stephen didn’t look up, just focusing on getting rice noodles in his mouth and not all over himself.

“Nothing”, he rasped shortly. Not only did talking hurt his throat, it used up energy he didn’t have. Wong knew this, but also didn’t believe him.

“Sores in your mouth? If it’s a new symptom, I need to know about it, Stephen.”

“Bit my cheek”, Stephen all but snapped, accidentally dropping a peanut down the side of the chair’s cushion. He growled in annoyance and searched for it for a few moments before giving up. He’d find it when he was done eating. He enjoyed the taste of chicken, fish sauce, and lime coating his tongue before the flavours were overtaken by blood, the gash in his cheek irritated by the movement. He ignored it, though, swallowing blood thickly and trying to enjoy the first meal he’d had in…no, that was too bleak a thought.

Wong was shaken by the sight before him; it was sobering to see the powerful Sorcerer Supreme, his friend, reduced to the emaciated, shaking, half-dead mess before him. And there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Whenever he wasn’t taking care of Stephen, Wong was pouring over books full of information that was close to useless in their situation. Weeks worth of books, nearly a quarter of the library had been gone through, until today when he had stumbled upon a passage that provided a small pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel.

“Have you heard from Stark lately?”, Wong asked casually, though Stephen’s head snapped up at the name, eyes wide with alarm, like an animal in a trap that knew it was going to die.

“Why?”, Stephen growled defensively, because his throat wouldn’t allow his usual smooth timbre.

“I think I might have found something that could heal you, though I’m not sure how helpful it might end up being. Don’t get your hopes up too much”, he warned quickly, seeing the light in Stephen’s eyes. “It’s to do with Stark”, he started slowly, gauging Stephen’s reaction. Good so far. “And, if it works, it’s almost excruciatingly simple compared to what we thought the cure might involve.” Stephen didn’t respond, just watched him silently, like a cat hunting. “It’s to do with proximity. Returning one half of your life force to the other would…well, it wouldn’t heal you completely, but as long as you where within a certain physical distance, a majority of your physical symptoms would remediate themselves.” This information was turned over in Stephen’s exhausted brain for nearly ten minutes before he responded.

“So, you-you’re saying…”, he said, clearly struggling with the words. “I would just have to be…close to him? That’s ridiculous.”

“Think of it, Stephen, it makes sense. The only difference would be that the life force would be in two bodies instead of one. You’re never going to be able to repair it, but it’s the closest thing to a bandage we’re going to get.” Stephen let his jaw hang slack with the pathetic simplicity of it all, despair clear on his face. They had been searching for some complex spell or ritual to heal Stephen’s life force, or at least alleviate his physical symptoms, and though his protective charm was helping (he’d likely be constantly unconscious without it), they never thought it would be so simple as the matter of physical proximity.

But that isn’t simple at all, Stephen thought, container of pad thai forgotten on his lap as he stared into the middle distance, heart thrumming with pain that was shaking his entire body. Tony had offered friendship at the very most, not to be Stephen’s live-in pacemaker.

What Wong was trying to say was that Stephen and Tony were linked now. Forever. Explicitly. If anything ever happened to Tony, the chances of Stephen surviving were slim. Sure, he didn’t physically have his full life force anymore, but at least a piece of it was out there.

Wong sat quietly and watched him, also understanding the awkward helplessness of the situation; Stephen hadn’t complained once during the entire ordeal, throughout all the healing, or lack thereof, something Wong didn’t comment on since he knew it was because Stephen would do it all over again. He’d face the worst torture imaginable, he’d die billions of times over and over, or just once, if it meant Tony could be happy and alive instead. To him, this was the smallest price to pay for the life of the greatest man the universe had ever seen.

It was also exceedingly obvious, to Wong, at least, how the sorcerer felt for the billionaire, though he was so much more to him. During one of their conversations while first in the Wakandan hospital, Stephen had told him how he’d determined the winning reality by looking through all the possible futures, and the look on his face while saying that had been enough for Wong to know what he had seen. The not-so-subtle pining whenever Tony wasn’t in the room was just the icing on the cake.

“I think you should at least bring it up to him, let him know what you’re going through. It’s the least he could do-“. Stephen’s jaw clenched as he met Wong’s eyes.

“He doesn’t owe me anything!”, he managed, though his lungs were on fire and threatening to give out on him. “Were you not there? Didn't you see what he did?”

“Stephen-.”

“No! There’s no way I’m gonna guilt trip him into helping me! He doesn’t have any obligation to me what so ever!”

“Okay! Okay.” Wong held his hands up placatingly. “But you should know that this is the only lead I’ve had in six months.” Stephen blinked, remembered the chopsticks in his hand and realized how tightly he was squeezing them. He set them down, put the container on a side table, and met Wong’s eyes.

“You’re sure-.”

“Yes. This is it.” He looked at Stephen, unguarded for once. “No one else has ever survived what you’ve done, Strange. Only a few have been stupid enough to try.” Here there was a flicker of a grin from both men. “You need to get better, and I give you my honest word that this is the only way to do it.”

Stephen tried to breathe deeply, and that hurt, so he settled for a half breath, and looked to his friend with resolution.

“Alright. I’ll contact him at the very least. But what can I truly expect from him? He offered friendship…”, Stephen choked, though he couldn’t decide if it was on blood or his words. “What sort of arrangement would even fulfill…what my life force will require?” Wong shook his head.

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m sure you could find out through a bit of trial and error.”

“Right. And please don’t apologize. You’ve done everything you can for me, and I’m grateful.” The senior sorcerer didn’t know how to respond to this, so didn’t, instead turning back to the book in his lap.

“You have his number?”, Wong asked.

“Yeah, he gave it to me.”

“Good.”

“Yep”, Stephen said, then continued to stare at his hands.

“Are you going to call him?”

“I said I would.” The Sorcerer Supreme remained seated in the too-large armchair.

“Do you want me to call him?” This spurred Stephen into action.

“No”, he said indignantly, reaching for his container of pad thai. “Let me eat first.” Wong nodded in compliance, but continued watching his friend. He studied him for a moment, noticing acutely how steady his hands where, but how the rest of him trembled, like his body was breaking under its own weight.

“Good that you have an appetite”, he remarked.

“Yeah, that’s new”, Stephen said with a screwed up look, like he had only just noticed it as well. They left it at that, silently letting it hang in the air. This might be a sign of improvement; it seemed to be logically, but who knew. There wasn’t exactly extensive medical records kept about people who had been stupid enough to try and give their life force away.

Stephen picked away at his food, finishing most of it and then staying in the kitchen with a cup of chamomile on hand just in case it decided to come back up. It didn’t. Though he second-guessed his choice of calling Tony immediately after, stomach roiling as it was as he treaded slowly upstairs to retrieve his phone. He snatched it from the bedside table, lowering himself onto his bed slowly, muscles aching, joints cracking and popping in protest. He wasn’t about to have Wong hovering over his shoulder like a mother hen while he called. That would simply be too mortifying.

He scrolled through his few contacts, letting a smile slip in the quiet, dark of his room as he tapped on the contact named “Douchebag”. Tony had insisted he put his number in Stephen’s phone one day in the Wakandan hospital. They were friends after all.

It had been a good day: Tony had woken up with less pain than usual, their physio had gone over seamlessly, having burgers and salads for lunch together before watching movies with Morgan for the rest of the day. At some point during “Finding Nemo”, Tony had reached his hand out and out of nowhere said, “Pass me your phone, I’ll give you my number.” Stephen had complied almost robotically, heart thrumming as he watched, still holding Morgan’s stuffed rabbit on his lap at her request. Their eyes had met as Tony passed it back, that devilish twinkle reaching his good eye.

“Just in case you ever need a hand going for an emergency donut run”, he said with a wink. It had become an inside joke, what with Tony’s weakness for donuts, his tradition of eating donuts within large donuts, and the fact that the alien ship they crashed on Titan could only be referred to when jokingly called “the flying donut”, without causing someone to break down. The inside joke had turned into a weekly habit of raiding the hospital cafeteria, usually on down days or the few really good days. They’d go down for their weekly donut run, usually decked out in the most ridiculous pyjamas or outfits they could muster, Peter and Stephen distracting or charming or horrifying the cafeteria ladies while Tony snatched a box of donuts and made his getaway with the electric wheelchair, Morgan on his lap and clutching the box with unimaginable glee. Their party met back up in Tony’s hospital suite, everyone collapsing onto the couch after Stephen had helped Tony on to it from the wheelchair. They’d laugh and fight over the donuts with the most sprinkles, though Stephen and Tony both preferred the chocolate ones anyway. Stephen swore his heart had stopped one time when Tony had leaned over and casually swiped a thumb at the corner of the sorcerer’s mouth, saying, “Ya got a little schmutz there”, wiping the chocolate off as easily as he might have done for Morgan.

Stephen dragged himself out of his mind and found himself back in his room, smiling at his phone, and his heart dropped a little. But he held onto the happy feeling as best he could, wishing he had a picture he could use for Tony’s contact page.

“My douchebag”, he muttered quietly, running a thumb over the word on the screen. He let his thumb hover over the small, green phone icon, his heart pounding heavily, so quickly that it hurt. Oh, for the love of Vishanti, he was going to throw up. In a rush of bravery, he hit the button, almost forgetting to lift the phone up to his ear as it rang. He listened, his heart jarring with each new ring, breathing heavily while trying to calm himself at the same time.

“If you have this number, you know who you’ve reached. Leave an interesting message or risk boring me to tears.”

The message tone sounded and Stephen hung up quickly, tossing his phone across the bed. He drew his hands down his face in frustration. Why was he acting like a freaking teenager, for gods sakes? He stood up quickly, too quickly, and stalked to the washroom unsteadily, hovering over the toilet for nearly ten minutes before realizing his nauseous stomach wasn’t going to spontaneously empty on him. Stephen made his way back to the bed, planning on wrapping himself in his misery and an afghan while lying on the bed, when the phone rang. He almost jumped, froze, staring at it before he realized the rings where going to run out, and lunged across the bed.

Douchebag, the screen told him. Vishanti, help me.

“H-Hello?”, Stephen said, cringing at his own voice.

“Hey, Doc. About time you gave me a call. Sorry I missed you, I was finishing up some physio.”

“It’s okay”, Stephen insisted, almost crying at hearing Tony’s voice. Warm, familiar, comfortable, still a little slurred on the edges, but glad to hear from him. And then, Stephen felt a switch, like something in the universe was preparing itself for something great, as Tony said the words which would signal the beginning of the rest of their lives.

“How about you come around for dinner on Friday? I grill a mean cheeseburger.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The beginning of everything, though no one knew, had been on a Tuesday.

That dreary, rainy, bleak Tuesday when Tony had returned Stephen’s panicked phone call. After the initial shock had worn off, the sorcerer had let himself relax in the soothing lull of the other man’s voice. God, how he’d missed hearing his voice, all those weeks spent at the hospital, talking everyday, spending hours together working on their respective physio programs. Stephen could have sobbed with relief as he spoke with Tony on the phone, and almost did, clapping a hand over his mouth and holding it there whenever Tony was talking.

They didn’t speak for long, just casually going over whether Stephen had any allergies or other dietary limitations. Stephen, of course, failed to mention that the first food he’d kept down in two months was the pad thai he could still taste in his mouth.

To say Stephen was nervous would be the understatement of the century. Besides the very obvious conundrum of his sickly appearance, there was the prime opportunity just placed before him to bring up the matter of his damaged life force with Tony. As eager as he was to see him again, Stephen wished he had more than two days to gather his thoughts and formulate a somewhat nonchalant way of bringing up his shattered soul when all Tony had in mind was a casual dinner. Stephen swallowed thickly as he thought of springing this topic on Tony; unsuspecting and so out of the loop in terms of how sick Stephen was. Maybe this whole thing was a bad idea, Stephen thought as he stopped pacing around his bed and made his way into the bathroom.

His gaunt reflection stared back at him like a bony ghost and he cringed at the way his cheeks were sunken, neck looking far too sinewy, everything about him looking even more unnecessarily lanky than usual. Any of the muscle that he had worked so hard to gain was lost in the past two months, leaving sharp edges and pale, flat skin in their place.

“I don’t want him to see me like this”, Stephen whispered to the mirror. But you’ll only get worse if you don’t go see him, the little voice in his mind countered.

“Maybe”, he cautioned. “There’s no telling if Wong’s theory is right or not.” It better be, the voice warned. You’re not going to last too much longer if it isn’t.

“Shut up”, Stephen growled at the voice and considered fleetingly whether he was losing his mind or not.

Stephen spent the next two days seeing what his stomach could handle, in hope of at least creating a facade of well-being, hoping he’d be able to consume a semi-normal amount of the burgers Tony had promised. While he picked away at a half bowl of granola on Thursday morning, though his innards just felt hollow and not remotely hungry, Stephen worked over in his mind how he might bring up the subject of his life force to Tony. The other man knew the basics, of course. He’d been naturally curious about the power which Stephen had used to save his life, but wasn’t aware of much more than how it had rebooted his organs. He hadn’t been told how the very act was forbidden, that all types of moral debates came into play in the world of sorcery considering dispersing your own life force to serve another being, or that Stephen could have been suspended or eradicated from Kamar Taj and the sorcerer world completely for committing such a taboo act. And Tony definitely didn’t know the toll that his fractured life force was having on Stephen; his body running at even less than half power, immune system shot, will to live practically torn in half, one piece of which Tony was now in possession of. It was all too complicated to casually bring up over dinner and Stephen was attempting to wrap his mind around doing just that. It wasn’t socially acceptable, that was for sure, not that that had ever given him much pause. He wrestled with the concept for a half hour longer, before giving up, discouraged and desperate, hoping an hour or two of sleep may help him come up with a suitable idea.

Stephen slept through until Friday morning, his alarm blaring at eight o’clock because Vishanti forbid he be any less than perfectly prepared for his dinner plans at the Stark cabin. The sorcerer rolled over to turn his alarm off, before staring up at the ceiling, arms crossed over his chest as he often did now a days; the tiny bit of pressure on his chest felt good, like his soul was being gently bound back together. He imagined that feeling increasing tenfold when he would see Tony later that day and he smiled for the first time since he’d left the Wakandan hospital.

*****

Stephen had been standing in his bathroom for nearly half an hour. He was staring at his reflection, a symphony of terrible scenarios dancing through his head as he looked through the gaunt reflection staring back at him. There wasn’t anyway he could gain much weight back in the short span of two days, but at least he could dress nicely, he thought, fingering the collar of his navy blue button down.

Would Tony like this?, his mind asked of the shirt, and Stephen scoffed at his own mind.

“You’re practically about to be begging this man for your life”, he growled quietly at the mirror. “Maybe don’t flirt with him, hmm?”, he taunted himself. “Do you think you can handle that?” There was a sharp rap on the bathroom door and Stephen jumped, pulling it open with a wary glare to reveal Wong, because who else would be in the Sanctum?

“Are you ready to go?” Stephen brushed past him to grab his phone from the nightstand, fairly certain he had seen an amused glimmer in the other man’s eyes. He checked the time on his phone. 4:45 p.m. Tony had said to come anytime between 4:30 and 5:00, so an exact split down the middle had soothed the sorcerer’s OCD tendencies.

“Yes”, he snipped back, and then checked himself. “Do you think you could bear to not mention any of…what’s been going on the past few months?” Wong regarded him dryly for a second before adjusting his sling ring with a half smirk.

“So ungrateful”, he grumbled, but Stephen could tell he was teasing. “Don’t worry, Strange. I’m not even coming through.” With that, he drew a circle in the air with his right hand, the familiar ring of golden sparks forming in the middle of Stephen’s bedroom. Stephen regarded the senior sorcerer with a quiet grin, hands shoved in his jean pockets as Wong finished conjuring the gateway.

“I truly am grateful. I’d likely be dead if not for what you’ve done for me.”

“Okay, okay. Get out of here”, Wong said gruffly, just short of shoving him through the gateway. Stephen complied unsteadily as his nerves swamped him again, his legs trembling with anxiety. “Text me when you need a gateway back.”

“I will. Thank you.” The gateway sizzled shut behind him and Stephen found himself standing on a rolling lawn at a lake’s edge, a large, but welcoming cabin to his right. It was the cabin he had seen through the gateway when Tony had first gone home, a shocking relic from the futures which had never been, but felt like the past to Stephen, the only person who had ever seen them. He’d seen this cabin countless times in many thousands of possibilities, but never like this, never as an outsider. It had always been his and Tony’s; their retreat from the city and their busy jobs, and then their retirement home. It had been Grandpa and Granddad’s place for Peter’s kids, a place to heal and rest and love and have fun. He looked around, trying not to mix memories from his visions with the present. There was the tire swing, the old worn dock that never aged, but had always been old and full of splinters. There were the big willows at the water’s edge that Tony and Peter had tried to make a rope swing into the water from, only resulting in both becoming rope burned and water logged by the end of the day. And, oh Vishanti, the bench at the edge of the water. The bench where he and Tony had- could have spent the rest of their mornings watching the sun rise while they drank their tea and coffee.

But Stephen didn’t let his feet carry him there because he was supposed to have never been here, though he never really had save for in his mind. Stephen dragged himself back to the present as best he could, quickly scanning the front of the cabin and noticing a figure on the porch. He stalked across the grass unsteadily, hands shoved in his pockets as he recognized Tony seated on the porch, though the other man hadn’t spotted him yet. Stephen’s heart thudded loudly as he approached, relishing in the sight of the man he’d missed so much. He was nestled in a large cushioned deck chair, blanket over his legs in the chill of the cool fall evening, a blue flannel looking a little too big on him as he typed away on his tablet.

“Tony”, Stephen greeted gently as he made his way up the steps, breath catching in his throat, heart thudding, dry mouth making him choke as he stepped onto the porch. Stepping closer to the other man, he realized a spark had ignited right under his breastbone and was quickly growing with every passing second. His chest was light, it was free, like a rising sun was surging up into his ribcage, warming him from the inside out. His heart was beating like a faulty metronome, but at least it didn’t hurt, at least it didn’t feel like it was going to be crushed under the weight of it’s own ache. Stephen smiled as Tony looked up at him, and it felt foreign on his face, but he couldn’t help it.

To his surprise, when Tony spoke, it was through a female, Irish voice that came from the ceiling of the porch, obviously Tony’s words, though his mouth didn’t move.

“Hi, Doc. It’s been a while.” Stephen blinked in shock before he remembered that he should respond.

“Hey, how are you-.”

“Yeah, sorry about the voice thing”, Tony said in his mind, looking truly apologetic. “I figured out how to how to hook Friday up to my brainwaves”, and the AI’s voice came off as sounding both proud and regretful. “Oh, yeah, Friday, this is the Doc.”

“Hello, Doctor Strange”, the AI greeted pleasantly, no longer relaying Tony’s thoughts.

“Hi”, Stephen said uncertainly, not surprised that Tony had integrated advanced tech into his home, but he was thrown off by his use of the AI to speak. “Uh, what happened to your voice? You were doing so well with your speech therapy and everything.” He couldn’t help the concern laced in his voice, as Tony placed his tablet on the small table beside his chair. He looked grim, frustrated, but brushed past it as he gestured for Stephen to take the chair opposite him. Stephen complied, moving gingerly as he was still sore and hoped Tony didn’t notice.

“I slipped in the shower like a goddamn 80-year-old”, he explained through Friday’s voice. “It’s kind of hard grabbing the hand rail when you don’t have a hand on that side”, he said with a bitter grin, pausing, swallowing, and the look on his face made Stephen want to hug him. It also drew the sorcerer’s attention to his right side, Tony’s sleeve hanging empty beside him. He was supposed to already been fitted with his cybernetic arm, but Stephen let him finish before badgering him with more questions. “So, I hit my head like an idiot. Doc Martins said it’s just a temporary lapse in motor skills that’s messing with the connection between my brain and tongue. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong internally, like, I can still form coherent thoughts or you’d just be hearing gibberish right now. So, yeah, whatever I jostled around in there - you’d probably know even better than her - but I can’t really say much right now. She said I probably haven’t lost a lot of progress speech-wise, but there’s no telling how long it will last.”

“Probably something to do with the  cerebral cortex or cerebellum , but, you’re right, it can be hard to tell when it might improve. I mean, it depends. You haven’t been able to talk at all?” Tony shook his head out of habit, but then remembered the AI.

“No. Just through Friday. But at least with her I don’t have to use that goddamned drawing pad again.” The warm, Irish lilt sounded cold now, dejected, and Stephen felt bad for asking. There was a beat of silence in which Stephen considered offering comfort, some words of hope, and then mulled over whether it would be a bad idea to ask about his arm, but Tony beat him to speaking again.

“Enough about me. How have you been doing?” As innocent as it sounded, it was clearly a loaded question from the look on Tony’s face. Stephen could tell that Tony at least had an idea of how he had been doing. Thought he might be unaware of the premise, it didn’t take a genius to see that Stephen had been having a rough time of it lately. The sorcerer was painfully aware of his sickly appearance under Tony’s intelligent gaze; he was paler, more bone than anything, eyes haunted, wishing he had thought to bring a cardigan as the mid autumn wind picked up. He could almost ignore all of that, though, what with the warmth spreading through his chest like a soothing wave of healing energy.

He sorely wished that Tony didn’t have to see him like this, but the glow Stephen felt in his presence was more than worth it. He had been momentarily distracted as Tony had explained the loss of his voice, but his input as a neurosurgeon was quickly overtaken by the inexplicable joy and light he felt in his chest. For the first time in two months, there wasn’t the crippling pain that had been crushing his lungs and heart. He could breathe. He could talk without the sore rasp in his voice. His heart was pounding in Tony’s presence, but it wasn’t aching like it was being crushed, crushed by a giant hand trying to squeeze the life out of him. It didn’t feel like someone had reached into his chest and carved a hole, leaving one half of a ragged heart, a tattered soul, because the other half was sitting a few feet in front of him. He felt whole again. But he tried to downplay it, hands steepled as he leaned over his knees, not allowing himself to meet Tony’s big, casually concerned eyes.

“I’ve been better, I’ve been worse, you know.” Tony didn’t, but nodded. Stephen could feel that he didn’t want to push the subject. “Wong’s been looking after me.” He had said it to reassure Tony a little, but it had the opposite affect as he sat up straighter, obviously alarmed by this information. As sharp as ever despite his injuries, he quickly connected two and two.

“So, how’s the, uh…life force thing, then?” Tony gestured vaguely between them, obviously very uncomfortable with the topic, but not looking away. The guilt he felt was tangible. Guilt for what Stephen had done, giving him a piece of himself to save the other man’s life. It was worth it. I would do it again if I had to, Stephen wished he could tell him, but a part of him reasoned that it wouldn’t help if he did. He could see it in his eyes that Tony had to know, an intense look in his brown and blind eye alike, burning with a pained light as he faced the sorcerer. Stephen couldn’t lie to him.

“We, uh, we haven’t found a cure or anything. Rather, Wong hasn’t. I’ve been…”, and he trailed off because how could he tell him? He couldn’t possibly explain the pain he’d been feeling, because any guilt Tony felt in the first place would only increase tenfold. He wouldn't lie to him, but he couldn’t tell him everything either. “It’s been rough, honestly, but I’ll be fine.” A lie. Tony had a look on his face so distraught, Stephen couldn’t tell if he was going to yell or cry.

“Nothing? Really? All those sorcerers and their magic and they don’t have some voodoo shit they could pull off? Don’t those guys have healing powers or something that they could use on you?” The AI’s voice was strained, sensing Tony’s stress, the jump in his brain waves that relayed his bewildered frustration.

“The strength of the life force far surpasses any other natural energy or magic. I would have been the only one powerful enough heal a damaged life force, but not my own.” Tony balked at the information, but kept searching.

“Really, nothing? There’s nothing you can do? ‘Cause, honest to god, Strange, not to be a dick, but you look like you’re on death’s door.” The sorcerer met Tony’s eyes and saw real anger there, the kind of anger you fight for your loved ones with, and his heart jumped at the sight.

“Not nothing”, Stephen admitted slowly, voice gravelly, heart racing. “Wong actually might have found something right before you called me on Tuesday.” He fumbled with the jumbled up words in his brain, trying to set them in order as he said them. “Uh, it’s still not a cure, but…um, proximity to the…removed portion of my life force may alleviate some of the…symptoms I’ve been experiencing.” There. He had said it. He hadn’t been planning to tell Tony less than ten minutes into his visit, but now it was out. Tony blinked calmly, regarding him with something akin to quiet horror.

“Proximity?”, he tried quietly, Friday’s tone hushed and uncertain. “You mean if you’re close to your life force…” - he wasn’t going to say ‘me’ - , “You’ll get better?” His entire body was bristling with the complex mix of emotions racing between them. Guilt, gratitude, disbelief, cursing the universe out for the unfairness of it all, but maybe even a bit of relief mixed in. Stephen nodded minutely in response.

“That’s the short of it, yeah”, he choked out.

Silence fell over them, Stephen still clasping his hands together, listening to the autumn wind playing with the willow leaves, watching Tony take in the information he’d had half a year to process himself. Stephen had always known the risk of giving up part of his life force, and hadn’t regretted it for a second, sitting now as he was, across from the man who should have died saving the world. This timeline said Tony Stark shouldn't be alive right now, so Stephen had defied fate and the universe in order to bring him home safely. Any cost it took to accomplish that would have never been too much in the sorcerer’s mind. He’d seen too much, knew too much now, to ever go back to his life before, not thinking about Tony, and his shattered life force would ensure that.

“Do you feel better now?”, Tony asked suddenly, voice choked and careful, even through Friday’s lilt. He looked tentative, hopeful, scared, and oh so guilty. His wrecked body held the tension of his words, good eye a little misty, but dead serious as he waited for Stephen’s answer. Stephen’s heart was hammering, to say the least, making himself meet Tony’s gaze.

“Yeah, a lot, actually.” His voice was choked, wishing his words weren’t true, but praising them all at once. He wasn’t surprised by the tears he felt prickling at the backs of his eyes, threatening to spill over. He was relieved, relieved that Wong’s theory had been correct, that it meant being close to Tony, but the complexity of such a situation made the revelation bittersweet.

Stephen ducked his head, pressing his hands to his forehead as he drew in a shaky, wet breath. He couldn’t cry in front of Tony right now, that would be far too telling. Yes, it was emotional - he could feel the guilt and uncertainty rolling off Tony in waves - thinking of how they were physically connected now, though they barely knew one another. But what a relief, too, Stephen thought. He was overwhelmed by how good he had felt almost immediately; there had been a flicker of warmth in his chest the second he’d stepped through the gateway onto Tony’s front lawn, the two shattered pieces of his soul recognizing each other. He was nearly shaking from the relief of not feeling like he was constantly a second away from death, his body thrumming with life and purpose he hadn’t felt since before the Snap, and Tony was the reason. But how unfair is that? The only person who could keep him alive was also someone who he could never have a close enough relationship with to do so.

Stephen looked up, not meaning to catch Tony’s eye, but the other man was watching him intently, clearing struggling for words. He straightened up, tugging his flannel tighter around his shoulders and Stephen shivered with him.

“I’m sorry, Strange, I got nothing. I don’t know what to say to that, honestly.” Stephen gave a small smile, avoiding Tony’s honest gaze.

“It’s okay.” He crossed his arms, shoving his hands under them. “It’s a lot to…take in.”

“I gotta ask…”, Tony started, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “How much, uh…proximity does it-you require?” Stephen shrugged slightly.

“I don’t know, honestly. There isn’t a lot of research or history to go off with this sort of thing. Most people don’t survive once they-.” He cut himself off when he saw the panicked look on Tony’s face, coughing as he looked away, anywhere but Tony’s good eye looking at him with fearful guilt. The screen door creaked and both men looked over almost gratefully to see a pair of big, brown eyes watching them.

“C’mon out, Moguna”, Tony encouraged, and Morgan pushed the door open and came scurrying to climb into Tony’s lap, pressing her face into his shoulder shyly.

“Mommy thought you were talking to yourself again”, she muttered into his ear as if it were a secret. Tony’s embarrassment showed through his grin, but he quickly covered it, kissing his daughter’s cheek.

“Nope, just havin’ a chat with a wizard out here. You remember Doc, right, Mogs?” The little girl nodded, turning to face Stephen now that her dad had assured her he was still a friend.

“Yep.”

“Hi, Miss Morgan”, Stephen said, grinning when she gave a pleased smile at the nickname. “Where you helping your mom with dinner?” She nodded excitedly, eyes alight with pride.

“Yeah! I even got to cut cheese for the cheeseburgers, Doc.”

“Mmm, I’m sure they’ll taste even better now”, Stephen hummed appreciatively, earning another self-satisfied smile. Tony bounced Morgan on his knee, kissing her hair before pressing his mouth near her ear, though he still spoke through Friday.

“Why don’t you let Mommy know Doc’s here and we’ll be right in, okay? We just need to finish talking for a bit.” Morgan kissed her dad in returned, arms around his neck as though his scars didn’t exist, before jumping back off his lap.

“Okay, Daddy.” They watched her run back inside, hair flying behind her as usual, and Stephen swore he could feel his heart swelling with love. Is this what a real family felt like?, he found himself thinking. He’d only ever known this feeling in a whirlwind of possibilities, intermixed with his or Tony’s deaths, fleetingly happy before destruction and battle tore them apart in most cases.

“She kept asking when you were going to come hang out with us, like at the hospital, but I didn’t have your number”, Tony explained with a lopsided grin that made Stephen melt. “Not that that’s a problem anymore. I suppose we’ll be seeing a lot more of you.” His eyes twinkled as Stephen realized what he was saying.

“I-I don’t want you to feel obligated. I wasn’t even sure I was going to tell you yet”, Stephen admitted. “It’s not fair to expect you to-.”

“Bullshit”, Tony interrupted, almost offended. “What do you mean you weren’t going to tell me? I’m sure as hell not gonna let you keep going like this”, he gestured at Stephen’s weak body. “Do you have any idea how bad I’d feel if you died on me, asshole?” His tone was half-joking, but Stephen could see the sincerity burning in his good eye, levelling the sorcerer with a glare that could conjure respect from a being three times his size.

“Yeah, no, I - you can’t really-.”

“I can and I will and you’ll accept it or so help me, Strange…” Tony had no need to continue his half-hearted threat, as Stephen met his eyes with a moment of too-open vulnerability. Trust and gratitude passed between them before Tony broke their eye contact.

“Let’s head in”, he said, standing with surprising ease, and grabbing his tablet as he moved towards the screen door. “Don’t worry about eating much if you don’t feel up to it”, he muttered. “I won’t be offended.” The teasing tone was back and it was easier than the overbearing guilt, but the twinkle in his good eye set Stephen’s heart to thudding heavily again.

“Thanks”, Stephen managed, forcing himself up from the chair. They exchanged a smile as Tony held the door open for him, too close, too soft, the moment brief and delicate.

*****

Dinner went well with minimal awkwardness, specifically on Stephen’s part. He was relieved that he was able to eat most of a cheeseburger and some of his salad, making sure to praise Morgan on her expert cheese-cutting abilities. After he got past the initial tension of seeing Pepper again, everything unspoken and uncertain between them, the four were able to fall into casual conversation that could have seemed normal to an outsider.

They fell into patterns much like their conversations at the Wakandan hospital, the first comfortable starting point for them, something easy to go back to. Tony would interrogate him gently, picking away at the sorcerer’s hard exterior while they ate, Stephen interjecting with a wry comment now and again. Pepper either watched them with amusement, or tacked onto whatever Tony was talking about, steering the conversation whenever they neared a subject inappropriate for Morgan. The conversation was based around as much normality as possible, mostly about Tony’s physio, a bit to do with the new Avengers initiative, though Pepper got really quiet when Tony brought it up. They talked about anything, really. Anything except for what had happened. The battle for Earth, Tony almost dying, Stephen giving him his life force. For an hour, it was as if none of that had happened. 

That was, until, Morgan accidentally hit the ketchup bottle with her elbow, sending it flying off the table and Tony tried to catch it with the arm he didn’t have. He sat, dumbstruck for a moment as Pepper got up quickly to retrieve the ketchup bottle, placing it back on the table and looking to Tony with concern. It was a quiet, “Sorry, Daddy”, from Morgan that pulled him back, giving his daughter a distracted smile and telling her it was okay, though he was still visibly shaken. They pushed past it, while also giving Tony time to recover and come back into his own mind, Pepper keeping a hand on his forearm while asking Stephen how things were at the Sanctum.

After dinner, Pepper took care of loading the dishwasher, insisting Tony go start a movie with Morgan while Stephen offered to help clean up. The sorcerer was putting condiments back in the fridge when he felt Pepper at his elbow, voice hushed so Tony couldn’t hear her from the living room.

“He has a lot of bad little moments like that. Overall, he tries to keep up a positive front, but it wears him down.” She looked distraught, brow pinched, before realizing how Stephen was looking at her and she pulled back. “Sorry, I-I don’t have a lot of people to talk to about it. It’s nice to have a new face around.” Stephen shook his head. He didn’t want her to misinterpret his slight surprise at her confiding in him as disinterest.

“No, no, don’t worry about it. This has to be really hard on all of you”, he muttered, closing the fridge door and chancing a hand on her shoulder, bewildered by his own bravery. “I’m glad to help out.” She looked relieved by his reaction, turning back to the dishwasher as Stephen rinsed the plates before handing them to her to stack in it.

“It did remind me though-the thing with the ketchup”, he explained. “Uh, wasn’t he going to get fitted for his arm, like, a month ago?” Pepper gave an understanding nod at his confusion.

“They wanted to do some more updates before offering him that model, though god knows he’ll be making his own updates as soon as he gets it. Apparently their technologist is a genius teenager who gets inspired brainwaves”, she smiled, but it faded quickly. “And then he slipped in the shower and they want to see how he progresses with his speech therapy again before they move forward with the arm.”

“That make sense”, Stephen said, making sure to keep his voice hushed. “It might be frustrating him right now, but that would be a lot for him to handle at once; figuring out a cybernetic arm while not being able to talk without Friday.” Pepper nodded, but didn’t respond otherwise. “I’m sure he’ll be fine”, Stephen rasped in what he hoped was a comforting way. She nodded again and moved back to finish loading the dishwasher. Stephen wiped the counters down, respecting the quiet in the room, but wishing he could offer more.

“He likes talking with you, you know”, she said suddenly, voice still hushed. Stephen ducked his head to hide the flush he could feel spread over his face, coughing as he handed her a cup from the sink.

“That’s uh, good-good, yeah. So do I.” She responded with a warm smile and they went back to cleaning up, Pepper offering to make them all tea. When the kitchen was spotless, she thanked him and brought her tea over into the living room, sitting down with Morgan and gesturing Tony towards the porch. He gave her a kiss on the cheek before standing, walking into the kitchen and brushing past Stephen to grab his tea from the counter.

“Shall we, Doc?”, he mumbled, still embarrassed from the ketchup bottle incident, but keeping up a front, nodding towards the screen door. Stephen could only nod in response as he grabbed his own mug and followed him out onto the porch. The night air was cool, making Stephen realize how hot his cheeks where as they settled onto the cushioned seat, Tony pulling a wool blanket from the arm of the bench and spreading it over them both.

“’S cold out”, Tony said, as if way of an explanation. He had noticed how Stephen jumped under his touch, probably thinking it was in reaction to his scarred hand and Stephen felt guilty.

“You probably think my hand is-no, Friday, don’t say that, for God sakes!” It sounded like the AI was arguing with herself, but then she spoke and it was clear some of Tony’s innermost thoughts had slipped through. He was obviously embarrassed, shifting on the seat and turning his face away from Stephen. Stephen also realized in that moment why Tony hadn’t had his Friday use his own voice when she spoke for him; he wanted to make it very clear that this wasn’t a permanent arrangement, much like his attitude with the wheelchair.

“I’m sorry, Boss. I’ll make sure to check with you next time I’m uncertain.”

“There isn’t going to be a next time as far as I’m concerned”, Tony snapped. “I’m not going to be speaking through you for much longer, okay, Fri?”

“Apologies, Boss”, Friday replied, sounding about as apologetic as an AI could. Tony heard the hurt in her tone, looking truly guilty, and looked to the ceiling of the porch.

“It’s okay”, he muttered to the AI through her voice. “I’m sorry. You’re still my girl.”

“Of course”, she replied softly, as if nothing else in the world was so obvious. Tony closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the seat cushion, breathing deeply and slowly. Stephen watched him out of the corner of his eye, letting the quiet of the night wash over them, save for the wind rustling through the pine and willow boughs. Tony’s breathing had become even and Stephen thought he might have fallen asleep until he spoke.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, he was chanting quietly and Stephen felt his heart sink.

“No”, Stephen whispered and Tony lifted his head to look at him, good eye twinkling in the low light. “You don’t need to be sorry. And, just so you know…I’m the last person who would notice anyone’s hand scars”, he said, voice rasping in the same hushed tone. Tony nodded slowly, quietly, reluctant to speak through Friday again. Stephen was hit with a wave of guilt, seeing this vibrant, talkative man reduced to someone who was afraid to speak. It was his fault. His fault that Tony was left with this wrecked body, his brilliant mind trapped in a body that wouldn’t speak the words he wanted, a body that had lost an arm and an eye, a body that was scarred beyond recognition, weak and damaged.

“I’m sorry”, Stephen said, still whispering. “I’m sorry that you can’t talk properly right now. I’m sorry that this happened to you…” He met Tony’s gaze, realizing there were tears trickling down his face, but ignoring them. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault…” Tony’s brow was furrowed, face pinched with grief as he opened his mouth to speak, then remembered Friday.

“Don’t be ridiculous…”, he said softly. “I wouldn’t be able to complain about all of this if you hadn’t…You know what I mean.” He slipped his arm around Stephen’s shoulders and squeezed gently, willing a wet half-laugh from the sorcerer. “Don’t worry so much about it, Doc.” He let his grip on the sorcerer linger for a few moments longer, pulling away slowly before grabbing his lukewarm tea from the coffee table.

“I kind of can’t help but worry about you now, can I?”, Stephen rasped, half-jokingly. Tony realized he was referring to their now shared life force and his expression froze for a second before he smiled.

“I guess we can worry about each other, then.”

Stephen grinned quietly, and they finished their tea in relative silence, neither saying anything when their knees brushed together under the blanket, but Stephen didn’t mind the flustered warmth he felt. It was better than the cold autumn evening, better than being alone at the Sanctum. And then after thanking all three of them for dinner and having him over, walking back through the gateway to the Sanctum didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. Yes, the vibrant warmth in his chest faded, but remained weakly, enough that his heart didn’t ache. Enough that he could still feel Tony’s comforting grip around his shoulders, enough to send him off into the first restful sleep he’d had since leaving the Wakandan hospital.

Chapter Text

There was a crash as a kitchen chair went sliding backwards across the hardwood floor, hitting the wall with a thud and Pepper looked up from where she was elbow-deep in a sink full of hot water. The dishwasher had been broken for nearly a week and she wasn’t about to bother Tony with it; he was having enough trouble just getting around the house as painlessly as possible. Besides, the repairman would be able to make it out by Thursday.

“Tony, are you okay?” Pepper dried her hands on a towel as she moved from the sink to peer down the hall, her heart dropping and soaring in the same beat as she saw Tony carrying Morgan. He had her wedged in the crook of his left arm, her small arms clinging around his neck with all of her strength, though he struggled with her slight weight.

“Tony, put her down, please”, Pepper said, voice hushed as she tilted her head with a semi-pleading look. “You’re going to hurt yourself.” Something in Tony’s eyes was wounded as he grinned at her, though it looked more like a grimace.

“’S fine, Pep. I got her.” He kissed Morgan’s forehead. “Hey? I got my girl.”

“Can I have a turn?”, Pepper said, arms wide as a last ditch effort. “I’ve only had one Morgan hug today, and that just isn’t enough.”

Morgan immediately leaned towards her mom, arms opened wide and Pepper saw the flash of panic on Tony’s face as his arm nearly gave out on him and he didn’t have another to catch her with. Pepper scooped her daughter up easily, never with any fear that she would be accidentally dropped, wrapping arms and legs around her mom and burying her face in long, blonde hair. Pepper met Tony’s eyes over their daughter’s head, her heart panging in guilt at the devastated look on his face. He hated not being able to hold her, but he’d hate himself more if any harm ever came to her while she was in his care. He was still the most caring, loving dad Pepper could ever hope for their daughter to have, but his current physical limitations meant there was a lot he couldn’t do with her anymore.

Pepper gave him an apologetic look, but he brushed it off, kissing her cheek before whispering in Morgan’s ear.

“Want to make some muffins, Moguna?”

“Yes!”, she squeaked excitedly. “Muffins!”

They moved back into the kitchen, Tony collecting the ingredients and supplies while Morgan sat at the table choosing a recipe from the big cook book they had. Pepper helped Tony when he tried to take down the large mixing bowl from on top of the fridge with his one hand, giving him a look when she took it down and placed it on the kitchen table. He gave her a sheepish look before turning to ask Morgan what she’d decided on.

A lot had changed since the start of their relationship, but Pepper knew there were parts of Tony which where a part of him indefinitely. His stubbornness was one of those parts. Sure, it had driven him relentlessly through his rehab and physical therapy, but it also pushed him to do things which he knew might injure him in his current state, as a matter of pride and independence if nothing else. In those moments, when she wanted to scream at him for being reckless and stupid even after all that had happened, Pepper saw the reckless, floppy-haired 38-year-old who had first created the Iron Man armour. She loved that man, but he also scared her. She was scared she could lose him again, though maybe not so dramatically this time. It could be as simple as slipping in the tub, hitting his head and taking his ability to talk again, as it had, though he could have ended up with a concussion or landed in a coma for all she knew.

She had almost lost him so many times, Pepper had hoped that domestic life, fatherhood especially, would kill that reckless streak, but those five years after the initial Snap had just buried it. She had seen it whenever he thought about Peter’s death; that fire had been covered in ashes, buried under his heart, pushed underneath a layer of armour and playing possum, but she knew it was still there. It was recklessness, but it was also a desire to do something good, something amazing, like put everything on the line for the boy he loved like a son.

Pepper had been shocked by the risk he was willing to take to bring the boy back, but not surprised. Tony was a changed man when he was around Peter; he was poised, holding himself as what he thought a father figure should be, but also more relaxed, public persona dropped as he became like pliable putty under the teen’s open awe and affection. It had molded him into a better person, his time with Peter like an answer to a question he had been plagued by his entire life.

But coming back from snapping the gauntlet, back from the dead, really, also re-awakened Tony’s reckless streak. He could truly be alive again, not like the suspended state that arose in those five years when ever he wasn’t around Morgan; half dead because so was half the universe. Guilt ate away at him. And it was now replaced with an almost desperate drive to do more. If he were able to brave the stairs to the basement, Pepper was sure he would be down there right now, tinkering on something even more ludicrous and impossible than time travel. She could have scoffed at herself, thinking that he’d be able to rest once Peter and the rest of the dusted were back. It was almost as if the ridiculous impossibility of what had happened was enough to drive him to insanity. He paced now, even when he was staggering, when he should have been resting his new leg muscles. His doctors assured that it was just his way of adjusting to life after death, but Pepper wasn’t so sure. Everything was reformed. His body was the same, but foreign. This was one of the many processes Doctor Strange had explained while going over exactly how his severed life force had saved Tony.

Stephen.

Pepper corrected herself mentally. He had insisted they call him Stephen, even though he snapped at everyone else to address him as ‘Doctor' or nothing. Morgan was hellbent on calling him ‘Doc’ and there was nothing anyone could say to sway her, a fact Tony was impishly proud of.

Then there was something that she had been mulling over for a while now. Because the way Tony was around the sorcerer was different than she’d ever seen him act with anyone. He didn’t force his egotistical facade, though she was sure he had at first, instead becoming relaxed and at ease with the other man in a way he only did with people he had known for years, Happy or Rhodey, for example. Those months spent in physiotherapy with Stephen at the Wakandan hospital had been the only days since his Snap that Tony wasn’t in this sort of manic craze, like the world might explode again if he sat still and rested for one minute. But around Stephen, his whole being shifted. He became soft and calm, just wanting to sit and hold Morgan, drinking smoothies while chatting with the sorcerer, as though peace had finally come to him.

Then they came home and that all changed.

Tony’s depressive craze had gotten much worse since they came back to the cabin, expect for when he was around Morgan, of course. He would never let his little girl see him in such a state; mind reeling, trapped in his own body, feeling helpless, desperate, wishing he could build an impenetrable shield around his loved ones. He would break down in panic attacks, breath wheezing, tears streaming down his cheeks and Pepper would hold him, telling him everything was okay over and over, holding him in the same position for hours until his arm cramped under his weight. Those were the worst days, when Pepper would call Happy or May to come take Morgan for the afternoon, and of course they where always happy to, but Pepper couldn’t help but wonder how long this process of breaking down would carry on.

It had only been nine weeks since they had left the Wakandan hospital, though it could have been a lifetime. Tony’s mental state seemed to be declining just as quickly as his body healed, though his reckless endeavours caused by his disturbed mind were slowing down his healing process significantly. Just last week he had accidentally sliced his wrist open while cutting fruit for Morgan and thank goodness Pepper had just been in the next room or he would have lost much more blood. Or when he cracked his head on the coffee table because he fell after getting up too quickly from the sofa. Pepper had held a bag of frozen peas on his head while pleading with him to just think before he did things like that, to just be a little more careful. He swore he would try to be more careful, and she wished she could believe him, but there were days when she wondered how in control he was.

The worst part of Tony falling in the shower was the delay on getting his cybernetic arm fitted. Pepper could see how excited he had been at the idea of a more noticeable improvement in himself, then how disappointed he had been when Doctor Martins had told him they wanted to wait a few more weeks at least before trying out the prosthetic, to see when his speech came back. The ride back on the jet had been painfully quiet, and not just because Tony had lost his ability to talk again. He had stared out the window the entire flight, and Pepper could imagine the angry, dejected fire in his eyes as he watched the clouds, imagining himself back in his suit, formidable and fully capable.

“Careful, Mogs, you’re gonna get flour in your hair and look all grey like Dad.”

Pepper turned from the sink to see Morgan attempting to measure flour from a bag about as big as her, sending white puffs of flour clouds up in the air as she did. Pepper couldn’t help but feel relief blossom in her chest at seeing Tony like this, but it was short-lived. He was happy in the moment, gently helping Morgan while ‘she’ made muffins, but she could feel his unrest bubbling up underneath like a thunderstorm brewing. He had been happier, obviously, since his voice had trickled back in a little under a week ago, a few days after Stephen had been over for-.

Pepper almost dropped the plate she was drying as the realization hit her, turning her back so Tony wouldn’t catch wind of the mental gymnastics she was working through. It had to just be a coincidence, right? But then why had he been so calm at the Wakandan hospital, where Stephen had also been for months, and then such a wreck the moment they got home? Then his voice had returned almost immediately after seeing the sorcerer again, after being apart for two months of mental hell. She set the plate down and turned to look at Tony again, not trusting her hands.

Yes. There it was. Pepper was no sorcerer herself, but she could feel…there was a sort of difference in Tony since they had come home that wasn’t just his mood. It almost felt like there was a piece of him missing right now, and then, when Stephen was near, like at the hospital or dinner last week, he became whole again. It seemed so glaringly obvious now that Pepper was almost embarrassed for not noticing it sooner. She gave herself a break, though, considering what she’d been dealing with lately. Maybe it had been a little distracting for her to see her husband connect so closely with someone who was a practical stranger, on the porch bench where they always shared their morning coffee, no less. 

No, it was fine, she thought, putting the last of the cups away in the cupboard. Tony had been happy. Was happy. But she hadn’t seen him at such peace with anyone but Morgan in…well, five years. Peter was the only other person Tony showed a semblance of his old self with anymore; it was like adults stressed him out, reminded him of all that had happened. But if he could block out what happened with Peter, the teenager was like a salve to his burning heart, his frantic desperation, though he insisted on almost constant physical contact when ever the boy was around. Peter didn’t mind, of course. A squeeze around the shoulders from Tony’s one good arm, playing with his hair while they watched tv, forehead kisses, hugs at any given chance, it all helped remind the teen that he was solid and alive again. Pepper made sure they both had as many opportunities as possible to spend time together, as she could see how healing it was for them. They’d both come back from the dead, after all, and she couldn’t imagine what it had done to the seventeen-year-old’s mental health, never mind the fifty three-year-old who was still treating him like a ticking time bomb.

There had been times, when Peter was staying the night for a sleep over, that she’d find them both in the guest room bed, Peter waking both himself and Tony up with his screams as nightmares took over his mind. Tony would go to him, wrap him up in his embrace and blankets while pressing the boy’s head to his heart. He’d quietly remind him how to breath as Peter sobbed, finally crying himself to sleep. Pepper would find them in the morning, Peter holding on to Tony so tightly that he was almost a part of him, legs and arms curled around him, pulling him closer, face buried in his good shoulder while Tony cocooned him with his whole body in turn.

The mornings after bad nights where almost as bad, the two moving in tandem as Pepper practically forced them to eat something. They usually managed to eat half of what she made them, spending most of the rest of the day practically sitting on top of each other on the sofa, watching Disney movies. But it was okay, Pepper thought. Much more preferable than Tony spending the day in the fetal position, unable to move or talk or breathe properly or think, while Peter faced a similar response in New York. May would try to help as much as she could. Pepper knew, as the two women had gotten very close in the past six months, that May did everything in her power to help Peter, but she was often left feeling extremely powerless when her comfort had little effect on her boy. The women empathized strongly with one another as they navigated the breakdowns Tony and Peter were having, realizing dejectedly that it was hard to understand what the two most important people in their lives were going through. It was even harder to accept that, more often than not, Tony and Peter’s only comfort was each other.

Pepper was often frustrated with how helpless she felt in her inability to pull Tony out of the deep end once he had gone over. His bad anxiety attacks in the past had always been the worst they’d had to deal with, but this was different. This was Tony leaving his mind while being trapped in his broken body, angry and scared and lost, floating on a life raft in the middle of a choppy sea while Pepper could only yell to him from shore.

Tony’s hand on her waist pulled Pepper out of her thoughts.

“You okay, Pep?” She smiled in return, hand drifting to the unscarred side of his face since the right side was still healing.

“Just thinking. I’m all good.” She gestured to their tray of muffins, chocolate chip batter almost overflowing the paper wrappers. “Your muffins ready for the oven, sweetheart?”, she asked Morgan, who was focused on cleaning out the mixing bowl with one finger.

“Yes, Mommy! We made chocwate chip ones!” Pepper smiled as she wiped her daughter’s batter-smeared cheeks with a napkin.

“Chocolate chip? Oh, yummy. Good choice, Morgan.”

“They’re Petey’s favwite!”, she told Pepper excitedly as the tray was deposited in the preheated oven. Pepper’s heart swelled at Morgan’s nickname for Peter, watching Tony break into a huge grin.

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“Can Petey come over for dinner tonight?” Tony wiped some batter from her nose with a smile.

“Sorry, Petey says he has a lot of homework tonight, but he’ll be able to come over on Friday.”

“Okay! Can we go outside now?” Pepper could see the desperation pass over Tony’s face at the thought, his legs already shaking as he leaned on the counter. It had only been twenty minutes since they started making muffins, but even the strain of standing for such a short period of time was too much.

“Uh, how about a movie or a book, Moguna? Maybe we can go outside after dinner, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy”, Morgan agreed, only slightly disappointed as she retrieved a picture book from the coffee table and settled on the sofa. Pepper noticed Tony’s tremors had gotten worse as he tried to will himself to start walking towards the living room, but continued to cling to the counter with his one weak hand.

“Tony…”, she muttered, reaching a hand out to steady him, though he gave her a defensive look that chilled her spine. “We still have the wheel chair in the basement if you want to-.”

“Don’t even go there, Pep”, he nearly growled, pain making his eyes water. Pepper tried to swallow the tight feeling in her chest caused by his angry tone, turning to rummage through the cupboard.

“I’m getting your pain meds, then.” She brought the metal box down and Tony balked at the suggestion, even though sweat had begun to trickle down his neck, entire body shaking as his muscles spasmed.

“No, I’m…not taking any more than…I…need.”

“Well, you need them right now”, Pepper replied steadily, brow lowered. This was the stubbornness that caused him more pain than necessary. She knew he tried to limit his pain medication because he wanted to stay mentally sharp, especially around Morgan, but she argued that he couldn't do much with her anyway when he was writhing in pain. She saw the angry spark in his eyes fade as he relented with a nod, and she poured a glass of water from the tap, putting the pills in his mouth and helping him take a drink.

“Sorry”, he rasped as she slung his arm over her shoulders, steadying him as they made their way to the couch. Pepper didn’t even acknowledge him. He apologized a lot now a days, for every little thing he said because he felt guilty for being in such a bad mood constantly. It was the pain, she understood, she didn’t want him to feel bad. But it also grated on them both when he was constantly snapping, sometimes with pride, his apologies becoming desperately meaningless as they became more frequent.

Morgan made room on the couch as her mom dropped Tony on to it as gently as they could both manage, but his dead weight was a little too much for her. He relaxed on the cushions with a sigh, body stiff as he looked up at Pepper like a wounded dog, broken and apologetic. It made Pepper’s stomach turn. He noticed Morgan looking between them with concern and Tony forced a gentle smile as he made himself shift into a looser position.

“How about you show me your book, sweetie?” Morgan was happier as she nestled closer to her dad, careful not to touch his still-bandaged amputation site, pointing out the characters on the pages to him. Pepper left them, going back to the kitchen to finish washing the mixing bowl from the muffins. She was rinsing the large ceramic bowl when a thought suddenly seeped into her mind, like ink from a cheap pen bleeding into paper. Drying her hands on a cloth, she walked back into the living room, holding on to the top of an armchair as she watched her family for a few moments.

“Tony, I was thinking…” He turned to look up at her, and she still found herself surprised looking into his blind eye, though she didn’t show it.

“Yep?”

“Why don’t you invite Stephen over again? Maybe Friday, when Peter’s over too? That would be nice.” She was surprised when Tony’s brow furrowed, giving her a confused look.

“I thought you didn’t like him.”

“What? No. I mean, he’s a little odd, but I enjoyed having him over.” Pepper had been wary of Stephen and his intentions at first, but weeks at the hospital with the man, seeing how sweet and caring he was, especially with her family, was enough for her to warm up to him quickly. “Where did that come from? I don’t dislike him.”

“But you don’t like him either”, Tony countered, brow raised. He looked grim, face set like he was proving a point. Pepper’s head was swimming as she tried to discern where this was coming from. Did Tony not like him? Was he putting on a show around him? No, impossible. He was the most relaxed he had been since his Snap whenever the sorcerer was around.

“I like him, he’s really nice and interesting”, she assured.

“Yeah…”, Tony said, still looking skeptical. “That’s not what your face was saying when he was over last week.”

“When?”, Pepper prodded, scanning her mind for when she might have let her expression slip. It hit her in the same second that Tony said it.

“When he and I were out on the porch after dinner. I could see you through the window and you looked uncomfortable when ever you looked over. I thought maybe you didn’t like him.”

“I was just thinking. I was worried about you.”

“I was fine”, Tony said, expression softening as he regarded her. “And, yeah, I’d love to have him over again. I’ll call, see if he’s busy.”

“Who are you talking about? Petey?”, Morgan asked suddenly, no longer enthralled by her book. Tony laughed, though Pepper could see him wince as his ribs hurt from the movement.

“No. No way. We know we love Petey. We were just talking about someone else Mommy and Daddy know”, he said, giving Pepper a pointed look, and Morgan turned back to her book with an accepting nod.

It took a while for Tony’s pain meds to take full affect, but once they had, he grabbed his phone and called the sorcerer. Their conversation was nearly over by the time Pepper came back inside from giving vegetable scraps to Gerald, but she caught the tail end of it.

“Yeah, as long as you don’t get lost in that library of yours.” Tony was laughing. He hadn’t laughed for real in months. “Okay, okay, I get it, it’s Wong’s. I won’t make that mistake again.” He paused, smile frozen on his face as he listened to the sorcerer’s response and Pepper felt her heart fluttering in joy and jealousy at the sight. “No, no. Pep wants you over.” Tony glanced at her. “Yeah, she suggested it.” He paused again, smile softening as he listened to the sorcerer. “Don’t get all bashful on me, Doc. Yeah. Okay, see you then. Bye”

“So, two extra places for dinner on Friday?”, Pepper asked, out of nerves more than anything.

“Yep. Team Space Donut is going to be reunited at long last”, Tony chuckled, eyes twinkling like they hadn’t in a while, while turning back to Morgan and finishing reading to her.

*****

The rest of the week went by quickly, the repair man came, the dishwasher was fixed, but Pepper found herself standing at the sink again, elbow deep in soapy water as she watched Tony push Morgan on the tire swing. It was Friday, and a quiet family meal of casserole and garlic bread had turned into a dinner with guests, one of whom Pepper wasn’t so sure she wanted their company anymore. Stephen was a kind and gracious guest, sure, but she couldn’t stand the way thinking about how Tony acted around him made her skin prickle. Even after calling the sorcerer, Tony had seemed invigorated. Alive.

It was the pang of jealousy that threw her off more than anything else. Pepper only wished she could make Tony feel like that, to help draw him out of this dark cave his Snap had dragged him in to. On his worst days, she was the only one here to listen to his sobs, his rambling about the gross cruelty of it all, but not what had happened to him. No, he was worried about Peter, and what the boy had faced, how it might affect him for the rest of his life and how it was Tony’s fault for dragging him into it in the first place.

Guilt ate away at him.

He cried for the world Morgan was going to grow up into, something she almost had to do with out him. He almost left her behind, he’d sob over and over, and he felt tremendously guilty about that too. Pepper tried to make it better, soothe him with words of reason: Peter is okay, he’s alive and well and he has you and he’ll get therapy if he needs it. And Morgan is strong and will grow up fine because she does still have her dad and she loves you, so everything will be okay, right? But all the while Pepper couldn’t help but thinking, once in a while, What about me? You almost left me too. Why isn’t that one of the things keeping you up all night? But she could never say it, and after months of misery, she accepted that the only thing that could make Tony feel remotely better, the only thing that could pull him out of his spiral was Peter. It was to do with shared experiences, she reasoned. They had been through hell and back together, of course they made each other feel a little better.

Pepper was pulled out of her thoughts as Morgan came charging through the screen door.

“Doc’s here!”, she announced excitedly, careening past the kitchen and up the stairs, probably to grab a toy from her room. Pepper looked out the window to see the sparking remains of a gateway just closing behind the tall man now standing beside her husband. She could practically feel the huge grin radiating from Tony even from here. She wanted to run out and hold on to Tony’s arm like that day they had first met Stephen, during their jog in the park, but she figured that might look a little desperate.

*****

Dinner went over smoothly, especially once Peter got there, driven from Queens by Happy, of course. The good energy surrounding those three once they were reunited, as Tony had so jokingly put earlier that week, was practically contagious and Pepper couldn’t help but smile. It was obvious Peter respected Stephen, felt at ease around him, safe even, though that always increased tenfold whenever Tony put a protective arm around him.

The garlic bread Pepper had made received abundant praise, while Stephen seemed to appreciate it especially as finger food meant he didn’t have to navigate cutlery with his shaking hands. He meant to make appreciative eye contact with her several times, she could feel it, but expertly avoided his gaze as she looked everywhere else but, usually by helping Morgan cut up her casserole.

After dinner, when the kitchen was clean, and everyone was settled in the living room with a movie, Pepper was scooping bowls of ice cream for dessert when she felt a presence behind her. Too quickly, she spun to face the sorcerer who had practically snuck up on her and she couldn’t help the frown that passed over her face.

“Need anything?”, she said, too shortly and immediately regretted it at the hurt look he tried to hide.

“I, uh…just seeing if you need any help. Sorry if I startled you.”

“I’m fine”, she said, a little more calmly this time, figuring he wouldn't be able to scoop ice cream on account of his hands anyway.

“Okay. Um, dinner was very good, by the way. I don’t know if the inclusion of finger food was intentional, but I appreciate it anyway.”

“I might have had your hands in mind”, she admitted, because she really had cared about whether he was comfortable in their house, and this threw her off more than anything. There was a beat of silence as she heard him shift, moving beside her.

“I was wondering, uh…whether you might need a bit of help-.”

“I can handle the ice cream, Stephen. Just go sit down with everyone else”, she interrupted a little impatiently. She was surprised when he grinned at her, soft, but still guarded.

“I actually meant with other things. Uh, housework, for instance. Not saying your house doesn’t look amazing, I just thought you deserve a break.” Pepper swallowed as she set the spoon down carefully.

“Housework, hmm? That’s all you had in mind?”, she asked skeptically, levelling him with her gaze. The tall sorcerer shifted under her direct stare and fiddled with his sweater for a second before answering.

“Okay, I admit I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with Tony and Morgan. I miss the time we got to spend together at the hospital, really.” Pepper smiled knowingly and Stephen had the grace to look sheepish. “But I was also thinking a lot about how you fought in that battle too and, even though you didn’t get seriously injured, you deserve a break. You deserve some help. If you want it”, he added quickly.

Pepper turned his words over in her head, noticing the bowls of ice cream starting to melt slightly. She was at the end of her rope, though she would never admit that to Stephen. He was still mostly a stranger to her, despite how close he’d gotten with Tony and Morgan while they were all at the hospital. But, just thinking of the depressive episodes Tony had been having, how severely it was hindering his physical progress, in sharp contrast with how happy he was spending time around the sorcerer, the weight in her chest felt a little lighter.

“This has nothing to do with the conversation you and Tony had on the porch last week?”, she asked, though her gut told her this was true. Stephen put on a good show of looking thrown off by her question, ducking his head as he thread his fingers together.

“We were just talking about my life force, and some of the effects it might have on him, that’s all.”

“Like how he feels like shit unless you’re around?”, Pepper supplied dryly, surprised by the genuine shock on Stephen’s face this time.

“W-what?”, he managed, blue-green eyes wide as he looked at her almost blankly. “He-he’s been - are you sure it’s not just depression or mood swings? I mean, he’s been through a lot, there’s a good chance-.”

“No, I’m sure of it. I only thought of it on Monday when I got him to call you. And I was right.” Pepper shook her head. She hated that she was right. “He’s been doing better this week than he has in months. It’s like just thinking about you-.”

Pepper cut herself off as tears threatened at the backs of her eyes. She hated thinking how she couldn’t even comfort her own husband in the aftermath of his Snap, but some strange man could. She wanted to resent him for it, and would have been able to if not for the concerned look he was giving her, green eyes wide.

“That’s - well, that’s ironic, really”, he said with a nervous chuckle. “Last week, I was telling him how, uh, I haven’t been doing so well, since…everything because of my split life force.”

“Really?” Pepper knew he had been unwell; there wasn’t any way to hide how much weight he had lost since they last saw him in Wakanda, but she didn’t know of any of the particulars and hadn’t been concerned enough to ask until she knew it affected Tony.

“Yeah, I mean, you summed it up pretty well. Just…feeling like shit constantly.”

“And being around each other fixes it?”

“Uh, helps reduce the symptoms, yeah. That’s…pretty much it.”

Pepper was frozen and she could feel Stephen watching her, but she didn’t care, steadying herself on the counter as her mind spun.

“Right, uh, w-we don’t need to figure anything out right now. Or at all…”, Stephen started, but Pepper put a complacent hand on his arm.

“It’s okay. Let’s just have ice cream for now. We’ll talk with Tony later.” The sorcerer allowed himself a fleeting grin and Pepper felt herself relaxing a little. He was kind and gentle and made Tony and Morgan laugh. Maybe there wasn’t any need to be jealous, maybe she could open up a little, to let him into their little world in the cabin on the lake.

Chapter Text

Tony’s chest hurt.

His head hurt, his arm stump hurt, his ribcage hurt. It wasn’t even 6:00 in the morning, but he already knew today was going to be one of the bad days. He wondered mildly if it was anxiety, as he’d been up, tossing and turning for most of the night. He’d left his and Pepper’s bed just before 1:00 am, not wanting to keep her up as well, when she would be the one worried for hours on end in the waiting room tomorrow. Today, he corrected himself. He was finally getting his prosthetic arm today.

He hadn’t slept much since he clumsily crept down the stairs a little after midnight, dragging a duvet onto the sofa with him. He could have gone into the guest bedroom, but the mattress was too soft for his back with no one else in the bed, and it felt wrong without Peter there. So he had gingerly arranged himself on the sofa, making sure he wasn’t putting any pressure on his stump.

He hated it. He hated it to the point that he would avoid looking at it, hoping that maybe if he ignored it, it wouldn’t be real anymore. But his chest fluttered with anxiety and excitement thinking about his surgery today. Tony knew learning how to work his mechanic arm would be extremely difficult. It would hurt. It would hurt more than he could even imagine right now, drugged up on pain meds that he’d taken a little earlier than usual and tucked under a huge blanket. He knew it would make losing his arm more real. It would be definite, concrete.

You’re a cyborg now, his mind mocked at his future self. But what ever followed his surgery today would be infinitely more bearable than facing the empty spot beside the right side of his body. He looked lopsided, he felt lopsided, it was distinctly clear that something was missing, that something was wrong. His balance was terrible. Tony had spent his entire life up until this point with two arms. He’d gotten used to walking while having two arms, sleeping with two arms, eating with two arms. Now, the most accurate analogy he could come up with was a one-winged butterfly, except he felt crippled, weak, useless, and not nearly as beautiful.

The worst part, as every single one of his slew of doctors had warned, was the phantom aches.

It was like his body was missing the part of it that was lost, screaming in confusion whenever familiar brain pathways told him to grab something with his dominant hand, only for the scarred stump to twitch, leaving Tony in a fit of heart palpitations. Sometimes he could feel his lost arm, and imagined the nerves running through it, wiggling his fingers in his mind, stopping only once he realized his eyes were blurred with tears.

Tony breathed as deeply as he dared, shifting and stretching his trembling leg muscles. He had memorized the pattern in the wood on the ceiling, anything to avoid focusing on his stump, though it was difficult when it was on fire. He sifted through his mind, searching for anything to distract him from the pain, hoping his pain meds would numb him sooner than later.

Stephen.

Tony blinked in the quiet dark of the room, simultaneously surprised and not surprised by what his mind had landed on. His mind had been wandering to the sorcerer a lot lately, he realized, pressing his unscarred cheek into his pillow as he turned gently onto his good side.

Friday night dinners with Stephen and Peter had become a weekly habit, especially after Pepper’s revelation about Tony’s portion of the shared life force, and the resulting conversation. It was obvious that it benefited both men when they spent time together, physically, and mentally, so Pepper reasoned that they should do just that and see how much contact was necessary, for future reference if nothing else. It had been awkward at first, only because of the knowledge that their shared life force meant they were practically bound for life. But they quickly forgot that premise and fell back into something similar to the comfortable camaraderie they’d had back at the hospital, though it was different than it had been.

Tony would have never expected the stone cold sorcerer from Titan to be there catch him when he stumbled on the last step, or be willing to help make dinner no matter how his hands shook. Stephen was just as skilled at putting up a distant front as Tony, a completely different man from the one who he had first met. There was a softness about him now, something careful and measured, but oh, so free and vibrant when ever he smiled or laughed for real. Tony could see something in his eyes, in the unguarded moments, an entire life of loneliness and self-loathing, though he didn’t know that’s what he was seeing.

Their one-on-one conversations were his favourite, he admitted secretly to himself. He had never had someone who could keep up with him so well, jab for jab, witty contortions melded into rapid fire discussion that didn’t betray their ruined physical state. They bounced ideas and comments and thoughts of one another, rapid fire or slow and methodical, depending on the topic, flowing together like a leaf dancing on the current of a river, fluid and natural. And something in Tony told him that they would still be so evenly matched, even without the shared life force.

When Stephen had started coming over more often, the change in both men had been tangible, the change so sudden yet smooth that they had barely noticed it. Tony was so relieved to finally feel truly alive again, that he barely stopped twice to marvel at the wonder of it, he was so wrapped up in how right it all felt. Stephen’s reaction had been just as positive, though it manifested more in his body. He had expressed to Tony how he was relieved to be able to eat normally again, his body finally accepting food after over two months of starving. With increased proximity to Tony, his mood also improved drastically, as he had told the other man of his depressed state at the Sanctum, though Tony had an inkling it wasn’t only to do with their life force. Any conversation they had together, there would be those ridiculous green-blue eyes twinkling, smile lines creased in a way that was almost beautiful, Tony found himself thinking. The man was a piece of art, even when he hadn’t eaten in months, though he gained weight back quickly with his and Pepper’s cooking, always helping with the clean up, but resting with Tony afterwards as he was still incredibly frail.

Quiet footsteps coming down the stairs pulled Tony out of his thoughts and he propped himself up to peer over the arm of the sofa, catching sight of Morgan gripping the rail as she reached the last step.

“Daddy?”

“Hey, Moguna. You’re up early.” Tony reached his arm out of the covers, lifting them and gesturing for her to climb into the pocket of warmth. “Come snuggle, baby girl.” She happily obliged, a tumble of purple pyjamas as she climbed onto the sofa, moving more gently as she nestled against her dad’s chest. Tony hummed in contentment as he pulled the duvet back around them both, trapping their body heat in as he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “What’s got you up at this time, sweetheart?”

“My tummy hurts”, she grumbled, pressing her face into the crook of his neck, clearly tired, but unable to sleep. He held her closer, nuzzled her hair as he made a sympathetic noise in the back of his throat. Tony pressed a kiss to her forehead, noticing how her temple was unusually warm against his lips, a flicker of worry igniting in his chest. Something in the back of his mind told him whatever was wrong was a little more serious than just an upset stomach, but he didn’t want to scare his little girl.

“Aw, my poor girl. Probably from all that ice cream you ate yesterday, hm?” The only response was a small groan lost in his shoulder. A text alert came through on Tony’s phone and, recognizing Rhodey’s customized bling, he made himself reach for it. The screen was ridiculously bright in the still dark dawn of the room and Tony squinted for a few seconds before he could open the text, ignoring how his blind eye was unaffected by the intense glow of the screen.

Hey, I’ve got a dumbass council meeting today that I can’t get out of. I won’t make it to the hospital before your surgery, Tones.

Despite the tangible pang of disappointment in his chest, Tony couldn’t help but feel a little spark of warm relief at the nickname. Some things would never change.

Don’t worry, honey bear. I’ll survive one day without you.

He placed the phone on his chest, waiting for the perfectly-punctuated response. He’d gotten pretty fast at texting with one thumb.

Still wish I could be there. Happy’s got the jet ready for you, right?

Yep. And don’t worry. I’ll already have a circus sitting in the waiting room for me with Pep, Morgan, and a hysterical Happy.

But what’s a circus without a platypus? :(

Tony let out a huff of laughter that made Morgan stir from where she’d fallen back asleep beside him.

Just 3 people twiddling their thumbs for 9 hours…

lol See you when you get out.

Of course you will. Love you, platypus.

Love you, Tones.

Tony wasn’t surprised by the tears gathered in the corner of his good eye, and there wasn’t anyone to hide them from so he let them fall. Damn Rhodey for making him emotional even though he hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary. They were always open with each other, but he could practically feel Rhodey’s worry through the phone and it made him sick to his stomach. The older man had been the only constant in Tony’s life since he was a teenager and like a big brother, Rhodey had always taken care of him. He had always been the calm and level-headed one, so when he was worried, so was Tony.

Tears had soaked a dark spot on his t shirt and Tony patted at it numbly, accidentally nudging Morgan who gave a small frown and rubbed her eyes as she sat up.

“Sorry, Moguna.”

“My tummy hurts really bad”, she whined quietly. Tony sat up and brushed her hair back so he could see her face properly, gauging how much pain she was in. Her forehead was alarmingly hot under his palm.

“Where does it hurt?” She frowned plaintively while pointing just to the right of her navel before trying to burrow back into his side. “Hold on, why don’t we go to the kitchen and get some ginger ale, hmm? See if that helps.” Slowly, Tony shifted himself off the sofa, groaning softly as he stood and held a hand out to Morgan. She took it, but curled in on herself as soon as she tried to stand.

“Daddy, it hurts!” Tony quickly dropped to his knees, immediately regretting it as his vision swam, but focused on his daughter.

“Still the same spot?” She nodded. “Okay, I’m gonna get Mommy.” He wrapped the duvet around her shoulders without jostling her. “You stay here all cosy, I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Okay.” Tony nearly had to pull himself up the stairs with his good arm, legs shaking. He tripped about halfway up, regaining his balance and padding the rest of the way to his and Pepper’s bedroom. Pepper reflexively swatted at him when he shook her shoulder.

“Wake up, honey, please. Pep, wake up, c’mon.”

“Tony, what the hell? We don't have to leave for Wakanda for another hour.” Tony shook her shoulder again.

“No, Morgan needs to go to the hospital. I think she has appendicitis.” Pepper shot up in bed, fighting the tangle of sheets as she tried to step on to the floor before her legs were free.

“What?! What do you mean appendicitis?” Tony took a step back to give her room to stand up.

“I mean she’s showing the symptoms of appendicitis and we need to get her to the hospital incase it might rupture.”

“You’re a doctor now, are you?”, Pepper grumbled as she struggled into a pair of jeans. She paused as she noticed the edge in her own tone. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just early and you scared me.”

“It’s okay”, Tony responded, following her down the stairs. “She’s on the sofa. She came to see me when her stomach started hurting and she had a bit of a fever. She fell asleep for a bit, but it was worse when she woke up.” Pepper nodded and sat down beside Morgan, going through the usual list of questions they asked her whenever she wasn’t feeling well. After some gentle questions and comfort, Pepper agreed with Tony’s amateur diagnoses.

“What are we going to do?”, she asked suddenly. “She obviously can’t go on the jet like this, we need to get her to the hospital here. But that means you’ll be going to Wakanda by yourself.”

“I’ve got Happy. It’ll be fine, Pep”, he reassured, hand on her shoulder, surprised when she stood suddenly to come face to face with him.

“You’re getting a cybernetic limb attached to you, Tony. I’m not letting you go by yourself.”

“I’m not on my own. Happy’s coming, you know that.” Pepper looked like he had personally insulted her this time.

“I am your wife, I am not going to be accused of abandoning you when you’re having a huge surgery.”

“For our daughter, who might also need surgery? Yes, I think you are”, Tony responded, a little more forcefully.

“I need surgwery?”, Morgan interrupted, eyes wide in horror, reminding her parents that she was still there and extremely capable of hearing their conversation. Pepper dropped back onto the sofa beside her, putting a comforting arm around her daughter.

“No, no, baby. Daddy’s just being silly. But I think we should go see Doctor Rebecca so she can make your tummy feel better, okay?”

“Okay, Mommy.”

With this conclusion, Pepper gave Tony an uncomfortable look torn between frustration and pity. He returned the look with a smile that fell short. Feeling guilty for scaring Morgan, Tony turned to the kitchen, not hungry, but needing a few minutes alone with his thoughts. His legs were shaking as he leaned against the counter, pain meds wearing off already. The clock on the wall told him it was still far too soon to take any more and Tony groaned audibly, thinking of what the long flight to Wakanda would be like off of the drugs. His phone chimed in his pocket and he grabbed it, expecting Happy, surprised when ‘Doc’ showed up on the screen instead.

Good morning. Mind if I swing by before you leave?

Tony felt relief flood his chest, typing as fast as he could with his one thumb.

They let you leave Hogwarts?

Ha. Ha.

Of course you can come by.

Tony shuffled back into the living room, legs numb, to find Pepper on the phone with the doctor’s office, making an emergency appointment for Morgan with her GP. He sat down on the sofa beside Morgan, gently putting his arm around her while his legs trembled with the relief of no longer supporting his weight.

“Doc’s gonna come for a little bit”, he told her and something in her eyes brightened.

“Can he make me better?” Tony laughed a little despite himself.

“No, honey, but Doctor Rebecca will. She’ll make your tummy feel better. Alright?” He kissed her temple gently, careful not to jostle her. Pepper hung up and turned towards the back door immediately.

“Morgan, honey, let’s get your coat on. We’re going right to the hospital.” Tony stood as Pepper went to the back door to grab their coats, walking in the opposite direction towards the front door to grab their day bag. His leg muscles ached as he walked, making his gate stiff, a switch in his chest flipping as a tremor pulled at the fabric between dimensions, his gaze automatically flicking up to look out the front window.

The now familiar ring of sparking gold appeared on the front lawn, Stephen stepping through though it was obvious he still wasn’t able to conjure the gateway himself, as Tony spotted Wong on the other side of the luminous circle. Tony made himself wait for Stephen to reach the door before opening it, but not giving him the chance to try and knock loudly enough with his damaged hands. He was flooded with a soothing wave of warmth, like a balm to the soul, his anxiety-induced heart palpitations slowing as he met the sorcerer’s gentle smile.

“Hey, Doc”, Tony grinned. “C’mon in.”

“Thanks”, Stephen rumbled as he followed Tony back inside, a too-large denim jacket hanging on his still underweight frame. “How are you feeling?”

“Nervous”, Tony admitted in one breath without making eye contact, pushing past it as he gestured towards the living room. “But then Morgan decided to be the princess of good timing and get herself some appendicitis. So, we’re trying to figure that out right now”, he explained, heart thumping as Morgan’s face lit up upon seeing the sorcerer.

“Hi, Doc”, she greeted, a little more subdued than usual from the pain in her abdomen. Stephen settled on the sofa beside her after a moment of hesitation, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Hey, darling. I heard you’re having a bit of tummy trouble, is that right?” He continued at her nod. “That’s too bad. Let’s get you to the doctor’s and get you fixed up, hmm?” He looked up to Tony. “She’s not going to be able to go on the jet, I take it?”

“No. And Pep doesn’t want to abandon me since we were supposed to be leaving in-”, he checked his watch, “About an hour.

“I can text Wong and ask him to open a gateway to Wakanda, if you’d like”, Stephen offered as if it were the most simple and straight-forward thing in the world. “Morgan can be treated at the Wakandan hospital, your surgery can occur as scheduled, and Pepper can be there for both of you.” Tony couldn’t control the relieved huff that left him, grinning slightly.

“That would be amazing. You’re a life saver, Houdini.”

“Now that’s offensive”, Stephen smirked in return. “I’ll let you know when I’m reduced to being an illusionist with slight of hand and escapism as hobbies.”

“Stephen?” Pepper’s voice came from behind them in the hall. “What are you doing here?” The sorcerer stood quickly, almost as if he wanted to show he wasn’t doing Morgan any harm. Tony put a comforting hand on his wife’s arm as he took Morgan’s coat from her.

“He was just stopping by to check in, but turns out he’s the answer to our dilemma. Stephen’s going to open a gateway to Wakanda for us, so you can still be around for my surgery.” Pepper paused in shock for a moment, before her assertive mom instincts kicked in.

“That’s - thank you, Stephen. Let’s get going, then.”

It took several minutes of packing, grabbing required bags and coats before they all made it onto the front lawn, Stephen texting Wong, hoping he had his phone on him. Tony also sent a quick text to Happy, telling him to kibosh the use of the jet, but to get in touch so Wong could get him to Wakanda too. The sorcerer insisted he carry Tony’s designated hospital duffel bag, thought Tony kept Morgan’s day bag slung over his shoulder, letting Pepper carry their daughter since neither man was able to in their current condition.

“Impeccable timing, by the way, Doc.” Tony elbowed him lightly. “You don’t usually ever text that early.”

“I could feel that you were awake”, Stephen admitted and Tony couldn't decide if a dusting of pink brushed the sorcerer’s cheekbones or if it was just a play of the low light. Stephen blinked as he noticed the strange look Pepper was giving him. “Sorry, I guess that’s kind of weird, isn’t it? I’ll try not to do it again.”

“It’s kinda cool, actually”, Tony mumbled as he passed him, stepping forward as he noticed a gateway opening up from the Sanctum. Wong stepped through, giving Stephen a look which Tony couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of, before greeting Tony with a wordless, but respectful nod. “We really appreciate this, Wong. Not sure where we’d be without your help.”

“Don’t worry about it”, Wong replied, almost annoyed by Tony’s sincerity, turning to open another gateway which revealed the front doors of the Wakandan hospital. Pepper stepped through with Morgan warily but steadfastly, both men following her with the bags. Tony was thrown off when Stephen tried to pass off the duffel bag to him with an almost sheepish look, looking between the gateway and the sorcerer before his tongue could catch up to his mind.

“You can stick around if you want, Doc.” Tony gestured back through the gateway to where Wong was watching them. “Unless you’ve got Sanctum stuff to do, whatever-.”

“Really?” Stephen wasn’t confused by the offer like Tony thought he might be, instead looking hopefully uncertain.

“Yeah, I need someone to keep an eye on me until Happy gets here.” Tony could practically feel the pulsing relief and joy coming from Stephen, a sort of warm thrill of solidity and pleasure.

“You coming, Strange?”, Wong asked through the gateway, though he knew the answer.

“Not yet. I’ll text you later, if that’s okay.”

“Yep”, Wong replied shortly. “Let me know once you get a hold of your friend and I’ll get him here”, he said, referring to Happy, and Tony nodded.

“Will do. Thanks, Wong”, he said, and the gateway snapped shut.

Tony made the mistake of glancing at Stephen in the same moment that the sorcerer was looking at him, eyes too soft and vulnerable for a second before they looked away from each other. Trailing Pepper into the hospital, they found her already completed Morgan’s check in at the reception desk, telling Tony what room they were in, who imparted a kiss to them both before they disappeared down one of the many long halls.

“It’s kind of weird to be back here”, Stephen muttered, looking around as he held the duffel bag, letting Tony root around in it as he looked for his tablet which had his surgery sign in forms on it.

“Yeah”, Tony snorted lightly, glancing around as he thought back to almost seven months ago. “Hey, remember donut raids?”

“I do. I remember them very well”, Stephen said, a genuine grin cracking over his face, smile lines creased endearingly. Tony ducked his head again before unzipping yet another pocket and searching through it.

“Do you think they ever suspected us?”

“Peter, maybe”, Stephen replied teasingly. “Not Iron Man and the Sorcerer Supreme, though. They’re far too dignified to be involved in any shenanigans.” Tony snorted again and let it turn into a laugh.

“I never thought I’d hear you say ‘shenanigans’.”

“I didn’t. I was speaking for the cafeteria ladies.” The sorcerer winked and Tony was relieved to finally find his tablet, feelings his cheeks heat up in a rush as he turned to the receptionist. He could feel Stephen’s gaze burning a hole in his right shoulder, but kept facing forward as the receptionist checked him in. She explained that, as he had gotten there nearly twelve hours earlier than originally scheduled, there happened to be a recent surgery cancellation in the specialized cybernetics operation theatre, so his surgery had been rescheduled to an hour and a half from now. She directed him to a room where Doctor Baradii would give him a full body checkup and Tony would undergo some basic monitoring and testing before he was scheduled to be in the operating theatre.

They found the room after getting lost twice, Stephen trailing Tony into the third floor examining room silently, still carrying his duffel bag over his shoulder. Tony looked around the room nervously, ignoring the impending feeling of bile rising in the back of his throat, the buzzing anxiety in his chest intensified anytime he let down the wall between their halves of the life force. He could feel that Stephen was worried for him, deeply worried, though it didn’t show in the sorcerer’s calm expression as they sat in the spacious examining room. The room’s fourth wall opposite the door was all glass, giving them a view out onto a field of ochre grass, Tony perched on the padded examining table while Stephen sat in a chair opposite.

“Are you alright, Tony?”

Stephen voice was even softer than usual, bated, waiting, like he was trying to avoid spooking a wild animal. It sounded too small in the large room which echoed slightly for lack of much in it besides what they were sitting on.

“Just worried about Morgan. Pepper texted me, and she’s getting an MRI right now.” Tony swallowed roughly, thinking of how small Morgan must look in one of those huge white machines. “Even then, it’s hard to tell with the imaging, but they're 99% sure it’s her appendix.” Tony looked up to meet patient green eyes, simultaneously realizing that he was spouting information that Stephen probably knew by heart, but the sorcerer didn’t show anything but sympathy. “Kids under five are supposed to be at the greatest risk of a rupture, so she’s probably going to have surgery to be on the safe side.”

“I know it’s worrying, but she has some of the best doctors and technology in the world to do so. And at least you get to be in the same building as her”, Stephen offered gently, not wanting to overstep his bounds.

“Yeah, no, I’m not trying to sound ungrateful, Doc. She’s better here than with those quacks at the Upstate University hospital, anyway.” A grin tugged at the edge of Stephen’s mouth in response, but the look he gave Tony told him he was seeing right through him.

“What about your surgery?” Tony’s muscles visibly tightened.

“What about it?”

“Are you worried?”

Tony scoffed. “Yeah, I’m just getting a big hunk of metal attached to my brain and body. No big deal.” His voice was nonchalant, but tight as he looked everywhere but Stephen’s face.

They both knew that the chances of complications with this type of surgery were high. Attaching a cybernetic prosthetic meant connecting synthetic wires to hundreds of nerve endings, hopefully without damaging any of them. Besides this was the complexity of the whole surgery within itself, the challenge of connecting muscles and tendons in just the right way to pieces of metal and silicon. The likelihood of nerve damage was also very high, and damage past a certain point would render his cybernetic arm inoperable, meaning the surgery would have been for naught and Tony would be left with one arm for the rest of his life. If the surgery was successful, well, Tony had been warned countless times how much pain he would be in. Unimaginable pain for months on end. And there were only so many pain killers one could take.

“You’re allowed to be scared”, Stephen said suddenly. Tony turned, eyes dark with an affronted fire, mouth agape with angry words, but they died on his tongue.

“Okay. What are you getting at, wizard?” Stephen leaned forward in his chair a little.

“I’m just saying you don’t have to put on the brave front all the time. We know you’re tough, okay, look at what you’ve survived. We know you’re Iron Man, so you don’t need to prove it constantly.” Tony was practically spitting with a raging defence that wouldn't come. “Just be the patient, let yourself be scared, and let these people take care of you, okay? You should trust them a little, considering how your recovery has gone so far.”

The sound of a fly buzzing against the window was deafening as Tony stared at the toe of his shoe, anger bubbling up in his chest while he wanted to sob, to be held, to be taken care of like Stephen had just said.

“Oh, sure, if you want to be all logical about it”, he snarked instead. “That’s fine.” He went to cross his arms, then remembered he only had one, so ended up gripping his own side as a weak cover up. If Stephen noticed, he didn’t say anything. “Just let me be quietly dramatic about it, okay, Strange?”

“I’m just saying; the combination of your anxiety attack and my own is about to send me into cardiac arrest”, Stephen said, saying far more than he probably meant to. “I’d greatly appreciate it if you would try and calm down just a little.”

Silence filled the room again, but this time it was tense, vibrating, Tony’s question tangible in the air even before he spoke it.

“You can really feel that? Like you could feel when I woke up this morning?” Tony’s tone conveyed his awe, face open, heart bared, but Stephen seemed to miss all of it as he stared at the space between his feet.

“Yes, I can. And I apologized for that”, he muttered.

“And I said it was cool. No worries, Doc.” Stephen met his eyes again.

“Pepper didn’t seem to think it was cool.”

“Well, to be fair, she was a little weirded out.”

“I think most things I do weird her out.”

“You are pretty weird.” Tony smiled gently and was glad Stephen caught it this time, heart jumping as the sorcerer returned it. “It’s getting stronger, isn’t it?”, he pressed.

“The connection between our halves of the life force? Yes, it’s getting stronger.” Tony liked that Stephen had said ‘the’ life force as opposed to ‘my’, and he wasn’t sure why.

“And I’m guessing that’s to do with these…long periods of close proximity we’ve been having?” Tony was rewarded again with a genuine grin, albeit small and reserved.

“Nothing gets past you, Iron Man.”

Tony’s responding retort was silenced as Doctor Baradii entered the room with a polite knock, explaining that he would be conducting Tony’s physical. Tony agreed Stephen should leave the room, but only after a moment of hesitation, assuring the sorcerer that he would text him to come back up once the examination was complete. This promise quelled the anxiety that Tony could feel rising drastically in the other man’s chest, giving each other reassuring smiles as Stephen left the room. The sorcerer was left to wander the waiting areas, ending up in the familiar cafeteria and ordering a tea, refusing to get any food, especially not a donut because it felt wrong on his own. He sat at a window booth in the corner, closing his eyes and focusing on the feeling of his own breathing, hands wrapped around his tea as they shook. It took several minutes before he realized he had let himself focus on Tony’s breathing as well, the slight divide between their physical functions and emotions degrading as he let his mind slip. Quickly, he pulled the divide back, as if drawing a curtain closed over a window. He told himself he was impeding on Tony’s privacy, but it just felt like looking at another side of himself, like studying his own reflection in the mirror while it looked back at him. That’s what Tony’s soul felt like, when he let himself focus on it. Like a version of himself, though Stephen revered it much more than his own.

His phone buzzed on the table beside his arm and Stephen jumped.

Done. Taking blood now. Can you come back, please?

It was the wording, the question, the almost desperate use of the word ‘please’ that had Stephen jolting up from the booth and stalking far too quickly across the cafeteria, surprised he had remembered to grab his tea. He let the divide down and it felt like running into a concrete wall. Anxiety and fear swarmed his chest, bombarding his heart and lungs so he was gasping by the time he made it to the third floor, unable to form a gateway and not having the patience for the unreliability of elevators.

Tony startled as Stephen rushed into the room, soul crackling like electricity with withheld anxiety.

“Are you okay?”, Stephen asked breathlessly, trying to hide how out of breath he was, though his chest was still being crushed by the dual panic attack gripping his heart.

Tony could only shake his head as he sat in the chair Stephen had been in earlier, clamping a cotton ball in the crook of his elbow, obviously abandoned by the nurse after she drew a blood sample. He was gasping as if he had been running up the flights of stairs alongside Stephen, eyes hazy and tear-filled as he tried to focus on something. Stephen instantly recognized the panic attack they were both feeling, immediately dropping to his knees in front of Tony, head swimming as he did so.

“It’s okay, just focus on me. Tony, look, try to breathe”, he tried, but Tony was too far off to even hear him, trapped in the spinning cage of his own head. Stephen tentatively drew his hands up to grip each of Tony’s shoulders, the other man shuddering and gasping as he fought for oxygen and calm.

“Tony. Tony, breathe”, he reminded him again, demonstrating by inhaling deeply himself, holding the breath for a few seconds before letting it go. Forgetting the cotton ball, Tony reached out with his one arm to grip Stephen’s shoulder in turn, trying to ground himself. Stephen took over pressing on the cotton ball as blood started to trickle down Tony’s arm, still holding his shoulder with his other hand, breathing empathically so Tony could follow suite.

“You’re okay. You’re safe. Can you say that for me?” Deep, brown eyes met Stephen’s in a fit of desperation at the imposing simplicity of this task.

“I-I’m saf-fe”, he managed, his stutter finding its way back.

“Good”, Stephen soothed. “Keep breathing. What’s your name?”

“Tony S-Stark.”

“Alright. And where are you?” Stephen immediately regretted this question as Tony’s eyes flicked about the room in panic, his brain not recognizing this place. “That’s okay. Just breathe. In and out. Everyone’s alive, right?”

“Everyone’s alive”, Tony confirmed in a breathless mumble.

“Good”, Stephen repeated, seeing how the praise kept tearing down the panic brick by brick.

It took about fifteen minutes of reminding him to breathe, reminding him that he was alive and well, before Stephen felt it was safe to take his hand off Tony’s shoulder, though he didn’t stand up.

“You alright now?”, Stephen asked gently. Tony looked thoroughly embarrassed, though Stephen had seen him in far worse states than this.

“Yeah”, he muttered. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay. There’s no need to apologize.” The look Tony gave him suggested that there was reason to apologize, but Stephen wasn’t able to pry any further as the door was opened and a nurse came, armed with a translucent tablet and a folded hospital gown.

“Hi, Mr. Stark, I’m going to need you to change into this and fill out some last minute forms. These are just detailing any possible allergies since we found some discrepancies throughout your medical history.” Tony took both with a nervous grin.

“Thanks, I’ll take care of that. And Tony is fine.”

“Of course. Once you’re done with the forms, drop the tablet off at the desk just down the hall to the left and I’ll bring a gurney back in to get you prepped.” She exited the room as quickly as she had come and Tony was left a little dazed, staring at both the tablet and the dressing gown as if they were foreign objects.

“Here”, Stephen offered, stepping forward. “You get changed and tell me how to fill out these forms.”

“Okay”, Tony responded almost robotically, and Stephen could feel the other man’s heartbeat spiking as the reality and nearness of his surgery became apparent. Stephen spun the chair around with his back to the window in order to give Tony some privacy, and sat in it, scrolling through the forms on the tablet quickly.

“Yeah, like she said, there’s just some holes concerning your allergies”, Stephen relayed as he heard Tony sneakers being toed off.

“Okay, well, I’ve got a latex allergy…”, Tony started.

“What?” Stephen turned around halfway in his shock, accidentally catching a glimpse of Tony’s bare back, before remembering why he had been facing the other way in the first place, and turned back around. “You do realize most surgical gloves are latex, right?” Tony snorted in response.

“I’m just yanking your chain, Doc. I’m not an idiot.” Stephen heard his belt buckle clink and then tried very hard not to think about it. A loud knock on the door made them both jump, Tony leaping to grab the hospital gown still on the examination table.

“Don’t come in!”, Tony called. “People are getting naked in here!”

“No!”, Stephen quickly corrected, heart hammering in horrified embarrassment. “Just one person! Just him!”

“It’s Happy”, came a voice from the other side of the door and Tony walked past Stephen, now fully clad in the hospital gown, to throw the door open.

“Hey, Hap. Good timing”, Tony smirked, giving Stephen a teasing look that made the sorcerer drop his eyes back to the forms on his lap. “Just doing some forms and shit.”

“Here, I’ll finish those”, Happy offered, taking the tablet from Stephen with a polite grin. “Thanks. They should have sent these through to make sure they were done ages ago. They shouldn’t be bothering you with paperwork right before surgery. What are they thinking?” He looked extremely distraught as he completed the form almost automatically, while Tony put a hand on his arm to soothe him.

“Don’t worry about it. They’re just trying to do their job properly.” Happy met Tony’s eyes with a frown.

“Well, I am worried about it, okay?” Happy looked to Stephen. “Thanks for staying with him and the whole portal thing. It was a lot less stressful for everyone.” Ignoring Tony’s comment of ‘You mean stressful for you’, Stephen inclined his head.

“I’m happy to be around and help out”, he said, arms crossed, deciding to let the ‘portal’ comment slide. “Even if this one’s a handful.”

“I love being talked about like I’m not even here, and also like I’m a three year old”, Tony snapped in mock offence, and would have crossed his arms with a pout if he could.

Another knock on the door sounded and Stephen felt his heart pounding with it, watching the nurse wheel in a gurney, the world around him going mute. The only thing he could hear was his pulse thrumming in his ears as he watched Tony be loaded up like an animal going off to slaughter, last minute heart and lung checks as a cotton sheet was offered to go over his legs. Happy was confronting one of the nurses about the mistakes in the paperwork while the other took Tony’s blood pressure.

“If you have any jewelry, it’s advisable to take it off”, the nurse told Tony as she unwrapped the cuff from around his arm. Tony lifted his arm, the face of his watch glinting in the light, pausing as he realized he couldn’t take it off on his own.

“Here.” Stephen stepped forward, hands barely trembling as he unbuckled the simple leather band. He could feel Tony watching him, big brown eyes dancing over his face, watching for the emotions he knew were bubbling underneath. Stephen took the watch, about to say that he’d hand it over to Happy or Pepper for safe-keeping, but Tony beat him to speaking.

“Hold on to that for me?”, he asked, voice husky as it cracked a little, though his eyes remained dry as he met Stephen’s. They kept eye contact for a moment longer, eyes flicking over each other, and Stephen felt himself reaching for Tony’s wrist where the watch had been, long scarred fingers gently holding on to him. Tony swallowed audibly, grabbing the sorcerer’s forearm and squeezing, probably harder than he meant to as he shook with anxiety and dread.

“Of course”, Stephen managed to croak out, forcing a grin which Tony returned dryly, not reaching his eyes for fear had taken over there. “I’ll give it back to you once you get out”, he assured, releasing their grip on each other when the nurse came back over, fussing over Tony a little more, though the engineer didn’t hear much of what she said as he only had eyes for the tall man standing to his left.

The next ten minutes were a daze, Tony being wheeled towards the operating room, passing a desk where one last piece of electronic paperwork had to be signed. Happy nearly spat with annoyance as he grabbed the proffered tablet and signed it for Tony, saving him from the embarrassment of writing with his non dominant hand, and the nurses were too intimidated to object. Then Pepper came, practically jogging down the hall once Happy had texted her, holding on to Tony and telling him that Morgan was in surgery, but it was going very well, so he didn’t need to worry, but of course tears sprang to Tony’s good eye as he thought of his little girl under the knife. Pepper tried to reassure him, kissing his face gently, telling him he was going to be okay, that Morgan was going to be okay, until he calmed down a little. Or at least until the nurses came back to wheel him away.

Tony held his hand out to Happy, who took it gently, engulfed in both of his large hands as Tony told him something that Stephen couldn’t hear. The sorcerer hung back with Tony’s watch, still warm from his body heat, clutched in his palm. Tony finished what ever he had to tell Happy, and Pepper gave him one last kiss before the nurses and a transport assistant began to wheel him down the hall to a set of doors. He lifted his hand with a peace sign, an attempt to make his worried loved ones smile. It worked on Happy and Pepper, or maybe they faked it for Tony’s sake, but Stephen could only make eye contact with him until he disappeared out of view behind the doors.

Silence fell between the three, the intercom of the hospital buzzing, nurses racing about while armed with tablets and carts. Stephen stood away from them, wanting to give them space while Pepper let herself cry against Happy’s shoulder, composing herself somewhat before marching back to the waiting room to be ready for Morgan.

“This is all a bit messed up”, Happy said suddenly in the not-silence of the hall. His voice sounded far too small. “Having them both in surgery at the same time.” Stephen could only nod in response, standing limp but for Tony’s watch still held tightly in his now heavily trembling hand. Happy stepped away to hassle the receptionist about uncompleted paperwork for a bit, blowing off some anxious steam. Stephen remained rooted to the spot, shoes glued to the tile as he stared at the doors Tony had disappeared behind, wondering if there was any point in moving until he came back through them.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Happy was suddenly standing beside him again and Stephen would have jumped if he didn’t feel so numb. He regarded the other man in confusion.

“Pardon?”

“Tony told me to ask you to stay, if you don’t have anywhere else to be”, Happy explained. “It’s good ‘cause I know he’d be worried if I were out here alone…worrying about him.”

“Well, Pepper’s here too”, Stephen offered numbly, hoping to downplay what Happy was saying.

“I know”, he muttered in return, joining Stephen in staring after the doors Tony had been wheeled through. “I’m going to go find her. Do you want to come?” Stephen nodded, finally tearing his eyes away from the doors, feeling himself becoming grounded back in his own body slightly.

“Yes, but I think I’m going to grab a drink from the cafeteria first. Can I get you anything? Pepper likes tea, right?” Happy smiled, a small, but genuine smile, the first Stephen had seen directed at him.

“Yeah, peppermint with honey, if they got it. And just black coffee for me would be great.”

Stephen set off for the cafeteria with a nod as Happy headed for the waiting room. He had jammed his hands in the pockets of his jean jacket, a habit for when he felt insecure or anxious. He could feel Tony’s heart still pounding steadily with fear in his own chest and it brought tears to his eyes, alarming the young cashier a little as she handed him his change. The tray of three hot drinks was perilous to carry with his shaking hands as they were, so he didn’t chance the stairs on his way back up, leaning against the wall of the elevator as his head swam. He spotted Happy easily enough in the waiting room, thanked by him and a tearful Pepper as he handed them their drinks. Stephen was glad that they were focused on their own conversation, Happy trying to comfort Pepper a little. His vision became bleary and the tremulous pounding in his chest slowed as Tony went under anesthesia, the sorcerer struggling to hold his paper cup of tea as everything in his body became slack against his will.

It was going to be a long nine hours.

Chapter Text

A dry mouth and the now familiar fog of morphine greeted Tony as he blinked awake under fluorescent lighting. His body was warm and numb in a way that wasn’t unpleasant, though it almost felt as if he were suspended and not truly in his body. He tried to swallow, but the lack of saliva in his own mouth made him cough, reaching for the cup of water on the right nightstand when he remembered.

Almost fearfully, Tony looked down at the hunk of silver metal resting against his right side. Taking a shuddering breath, he analyzed the mechanical joints and muscles, currently strapped around his abdomen with a sling so that he would be less inclined to lift or move it immediately. Despite this, he lifted the elbow of the prosthetic up with his other hand, testing the weigh of it. He’d been expecting pain at the movement, but the clouded layers of pain killers were enough to dilute it. The arm was weighted well, only slightly heavier than his flesh arm so that he might also gain muscle and still be evenly balanced, though he felt rather crushed by the unfamiliar weight of it on top of his ribcage.

His mind finally gaining proper traction on his consciousness, Tony grabbed his phone and texted Pepper. He would rather talk to her directly than have to call a nurse and ask to see her.

Why don’t you swing by my place? Pudding and chill? ;)

Then a bleary selfie and message to Rhodey.

I lived, bitch.

The morphine did a good job of obscuring Tony’s memory, as he couldn’t remember if Rhodey had been at the hospital before he went into surgery. Flicking back through his messages to him, Tony nodded to himself. That’s what he had thought. Dumb ass council meeting. His phone blinged and he barely registered it, cursing the drag of the pain killers on his mind. Pepper had replied.

Morgan and I will be right there. <3

Tony let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding, tension leaving his shoulders. Morgan was okay. Stats told him appendix removal was routine and fairly safe, but he wouldn’t believe them until his daughter was back in his arms. Tony was disappointed when a nurse came into the room, only for his heart to swell when he realized she was opening the door for Pepper, rolling Morgan into the room in a wheelchair. His heart choked at seeing his little girl almost comically dwarfed in the wheelchair, bundled up in one of her blankets that they had brought from home, eyes lighting up as she caught sight of her dad.

“Daddy”, she greeted a little more quietly than usual, obviously still under the influence of her own pint-sized dose of morphine. She lifted her arms to get up on to the bed with him, Pepper lifting her up and tucking her in on his good side so as not to jostle his new arm. Morgan immediately snuggled against his chest, cradled in the crook of his arm as her eyes drifted shut.

“Hey, how’s my sleepy girl?”, Tony rasped, not expecting a response as he kissed the top of her head multiple times, looking up at Pepper who was watching them with a smile. “Hey, Pep.” She took his hand that was looped around Morgan’s back, pulling a chair closer to the bedside as she sat.

“How are you feeling?”, she asked quietly as Morgan’s breathing had already evened out into a light sleep.

“No, her first. Did everything go okay?” Pepper gave him a reassuring smile, rubbing his hand with her thumb in little circles.

“Yes, everything went perfectly well. Her appendix hadn’t ruptured yet, but was likely going to, so we made a good decision. The doctors here are amazing. The surgeon even came to visit Morgan once she woke up.” Tony nodded, but couldn’t hide his guilt completely.

“I should have been there when she woke up.” He knew it was ridiculous as he said it, and the look Pepper gave him agreed as she leaned forward to press a kiss to his temple.

“Oh, Tony…”, she chided gently, eyes patient as she pulled back, meeting his lips once he pursed them with a teasing grin. She lifted a hand to cup his cheek and Tony noticed with a shuddering heart that it was left cheek, the unscarred one. He brushed past it quickly though, not letting her see the momentary hurt on his face when she pulled back, giving him another smile. His right cheek was completed healed by now, it didn’t hurt at all to touch, his mind reasoned, but the morphine didn’t let him focus on it for long. Another wave of artificial sleep tried to pull him under and the circular motion of Pepper’s thumb on his hand let him succumb to it.

*****

It was hours later when Tony woke up again. There wasn’t a clock on the wall, he could just feel it. He noticed Morgan’s weight beside him was gone even before he opened his eyes, and his gut reaction was to panic, looking about the room frantically only to meet Pepper’s eyes. Morgan was settled on her lap as Pepper sat in the same chair not a few feet from the bed, giving Tony an almost sympathetic look.

“It’s okay, she’s right here”, she soothed. Morgan was still asleep, or maybe asleep again, Tony reasoned. She was straddling her mom’s lap, little legs dangling on either side as she slept on Pepper’s chest, cheek smushed and hair in rakish disarray. Tony’s brain was almost dragged back into sleep again once his panic had subsided, though one thought pushed through strongly.

“Where’s my Rhodey?”, he asked, surprised by the slur of his own voice.

“He just went down to the cafeteria to get us something to eat, actually. Happy was in here earlier too, but not having anything to do was making him anxious, I think. He’s probably stalking the halls”, Pepper smiled.

“Can you get Happy, please?” Tony was annoyed by the pull of sleep he felt. He wanted to see his friends. He needed to know they were okay, but the heavy warmth of sleep was tempting.

“He should have his phone on him. I’ll text him.” As if on cue, Happy came storming into the room as quietly as possible, a bundle of nerves carrying two cafeteria trays, closely followed by Rhodey who was somehow managing three.

“Hap”, Tony rasped with a grin and the larger man froze, setting the trays down on a table as he made his way over to the side of the bed opposite Pepper and Morgan. It was his blind side, so Tony had to turn his head to see him, but seeing the other man’s smile was more than worth it.

“Hey, boss”, Happy muttered, out of habit more than anything.

“You terrorizing the nurses?”, he teased, reaching his good hand out and Happy took it automatically, steady and calm.

“You think you’re so funny, don’t you?”

“You know I do.” The contact and a shared grin was enough for Happy as he turned to pull up another chair, Rhodey coming to take his place. He leaned down as Tony offered his good forearm, holding on to each other in some form of one-armed hug.

“Hey, Tones, you’re not allowed to lose any more limbs, okay? That’s a new rule around here, no exceptions.”

“No promises, platypus”, Tony muttered, cupping a hand to the back of his friend’s head, planting a quick forehead kiss before they parted.

“You hungry?”, Happy offered. “We got a bunch of different things from the cafeteria.”

“We”, Rhodey snorted. “I paid for it and carried most of it, but, yeah, ‘we’”. Happy gave an affronted look as he frowned.

“I didn’t even know you were getting food, okay? I would have paid for it. Do you want me to pay you back?”

“No, no. Don’t worry about it”, the other man shook his head, as he wheeled a bed tray over for Tony before grabbing another for Pepper and Morgan. “Besides, you would have known we were getting food if you hadn’t been sulking in the halls.”

“I wasn’t sulking”, Happy shot back, glancing Tony a look who was grinning groggily as he looked between them. His heart overflowed with love for these two men, friendly bickering or not. “We got burgers, Tony. You up to eating yet?” And as much Tony would have loved to eat, his stomach felt empty, but in a sick, dormant way, like it was better if it stayed like that.

“Don’t know if I can just yet. Thanks anyway, both of you”, he said pointedly, just to get a bit of a rise out of either of them. Both men just grinned, seeing right through him. Rhodey brought a tray over for Pepper and Morgan, the little girl waking up almost immediately from the noise and  the smell of food, before he set himself in the chair beside them. Tony let himself drop into sleep again, but willingly this time, as his family was content and surrounding him, and he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this safe.

*****

It was dark when Tony woke up again. He could see stars glinting outside the window, and he was overcome with peace like he hadn’t in years, the steady beep of his heart rate monitor like a soothing metronome.. He felt warm and fuzzy due to the high dose of morphine he was on, completely painless. It felt foreign, not to be favouring a part of his body because it wasn’t working properly or had been irreparably damaged. His room was in semi-darkness, the door open to the dim light in the hall where a tall figure was outlined in the doorway, leaning against the doorframe. Tony realized where the warm, comfortable feeling in his chest was coming from.

“Doc?”

“Hey.” The sorcerer stepped forward quietly with a little jump at having been found out. He pulled up the chair Pepper had been in earlier, making Tony wonder where she was, though he supposed she must have been asleep at this late hour.

“Thought you would have gone home by now.”

“I did…for a bit.” Tony couldn’t see his face very well, but he could sense the sorcerer wasn’t looking at him. “I wanted to come back, though. Wanted to see for myself that you pulled through.” Tony felt like he must be joking, but the sorcerer’s tone was clipped and uncomfortable.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily”, Tony replied lightly and silence fell over the room.

“How’s the arm?” Tony could practically see the soft, concerned look Stephen was giving him. His tone was very telling.

“Can’t really feel it yet. I’m absolutely drowning in morphine, Doc”, he said, looking down at the arm in the dark. “Looks to be in good working order, though. The doc was in earlier, said the surgery went over well despite everything. But I’ll have to give it a paint job at some point. Silver’s not really my scene.” Stephen laughed lightly and he was close enough that Tony felt the small puff of air on his flesh arm. 

“Red and gold, then?”

“Hotrod”, Tony specified, chancing a small laugh and was relieved when his chest didn’t hurt. “You know it.”

“Speaking of morphine, turns out it affected me as well when you went under.” Stephen huffed a laugh and Tony could feel a grin cracking over his own face. “I couldn’t move a whole lot.”

“Are you serious?”, Tony asked, a giggle slipping past his guise.

“Yes. Happy had to help me to the washroom at one point, so that was one of the most mortifying things to ever happen to me”, the sorcerer said in amused disbelief. He was almost cut off as Tony burst into laughter, trying to contain it while not moving his arm too much, wary despite the protective shield of morphine.

“Well, I’m glad you find that so amusing, douchebag”, Stephen rumbled affectionately, though he tried to sound annoyed. “If I ever have another surgery, I hope you enjoy your allotted time as human spaghetti.” This image didn’t help Tony control his laughter, wiping tears from his cheek with the heel of his palm. The sorcerer’s poker face cracked into a huge grin, smile lines creased as his heart soared at hearing Tony’s laughter.

“Ah, I’m sorry, Doc”, Tony said between dissolving giggles. “Did you know that was gonna happen?”

“Oh, yeah”, the sorcerer respond, voice already dripping with sarcasm. “I voluntarily chose to spend nine hours slumped in a hospital waiting room.” Tony felt a small pang of real guilt hit his chest. Stephen must have felt it, or realized his tone wasn’t as joking as he had meant, because Tony felt the sorcerer’s hand softly brush against his own, reassuring him. “I’m kidding, Tony, I could have called Wong at any time. I wanted to be here.”

“Thanks”, Tony muttered, and he was glad for the dark as he patted Stephen’s hand gently in return. For the first time, he felt rather than saw the raw scars underneath his own calloused fingertips, and was relived when Stephen didn’t balk at the contact, only pulling back when Tony did. Stephen coughed as he sat back in his chair.

“I, uh, gave Peter a ring since Pepper’s been worried about Morgan, she didn’t have a chance to.” Tony’s excitement and concern was tangible as he sat up a bit.

“Yeah, how’s the kid doing? I think one of the nurses confiscated my phone under orders from Happy. He wants to make sure I rest”, he snorted.

“Yeah, good, he’s good. He really wants to see you, though. I was going to open a gateway for him to come by if you’re up to it.”

“Of course, yeah. I’m gonna be in here for at least another week, so whenever he’s able to.

“He said Saturday would work.” Stephen huffed sympathetically. “Poor kid’s dealing with finals. He’s absolutely wound up with stress, hasn’t been sleeping, too anxious to eat. I think seeing you would do him a lot of good.” Once again, Tony thanked the darkness as an uncomfortable warmth rushed his cheeks.

“I dunno. I wish I could do better by him, sometimes, you know? Wish I weren’t such a bloody mess all the time. The kids deserves someone who’s stable, not someone who’s messed up by a ten year long version of what he’s dealing with.” There was a beat of silence before Stephen gave a sympathetic sigh.

“Tony, don’t be silly, you’re everything to him. You help each other, you know that.”

“What? He told you that?”

“I’ve seen it.

Tony nodded in resignation, though he realized Stephen probably couldn’t see it.

“Right.”

They sat and talked about nothing in particular for a while longer, but it wasn’t much more than half an hour later before Tony felt his eyelids dropping shut on him again, pulled closed as if there were lead weights attached to them. He didn’t feel like he needed to stay awake for Stephen’s sake, completely at ease to fall asleep in the sorcerer’s presence. He was safe. He felt safe with him.

*****

Two more days passed and Tony slept more than he had in decades. When he wasn’t sleeping, he was cuddling and resting with Morgan who was still recovering from her own surgery. They would read or play gently on Tony’s bed, both still sore and full of stitches, as Pepper had brought some of Morgan’s toys from home. Tony noticed how Pepper was still avoiding his right side, his new arm, even though she tried very hard to hide it, he picked up on her almost fear-like tactic of ignoring his cybernetic limb. He tried to ignore her reaction in turn; she’d gone through a lot in the past couple of days, hell, the past seven months, so he made a conscious effort to give her a break.

Saturday morning saw Pepper keeping Morgan occupied in the hospital’s play area while Tony napped after breakfast. As much as he and sleep had been mortal enemies in the past, it was liberating just to be able to rest, slipping into sleep easily when ever he felt tired. It had never been that simple. He’d always worked himself to exhaustion before he could go to bed without being plagued by his own thoughts, so the change was welcome now that he needed the rest to heal.

Tony met the mid morning sun without being disorientated upon waking for the first time since he’d come to the hospital. A bleary figure sat at his bedside, turning into Peter once he blinked the sleep from his eyes. The boy looked too small in an oversized blue hoodie, hair wild with curls and Tony’s heart melted.

“Hey, Underoos.” Peter sat up straighter at the sound of Tony’s voice, brown eyes big with concern as he pulled his chair closer.

“Hey, Mr. Stark.” Tony scoffed, trying to cough the rasp out of his voice more than anything.

“Oh, come on, Pete. I keep telling you, we’re so far past formalities it’s scary.” The teen looked guilty at the accusation as he ducked his head, playing with the cuff of his sleeve.

“Sorry. I’m just used to it.” Tony chuckled, reaching his good hand out for Peter to take, overcome with protective love at feeling his boy’s solid grip. Solid, not dust.

“Hey, no worries, kid. I’d just rather you call me Tony, but all in good time.”

“Okay.” Peter smiled as Tony patted the bed beside him, urging the teen to sit beside him as they talked. Tony filled him in on his prosthetic surgery, including some of the particulars of his healing process because Peter understood most of it and was interested. In turn, Peter caught Tony up on how school was going, recounting what Stephen had relayed two nights ago. High school sucked. Exams were here. He was stressed. But the almost haunted, sleepless look hanging under Peter’s eyes disappeared almost completely and was replaced with his bright grin as he and Tony spent the morning talking.

*****

It was nearly noon and Peter had gone to the cafeteria to get them some pudding cups, snatching one back from Tony as he tried to tear the foil off with his teeth.

“You’re ridiculous”, Peter teased, handing the cup back to Tony with a grin.

“Hey, have a little respect for your elders, young man”, Tony teased back. He chased the pudding cup around the bed table for a few moments as Peter watched him with a smirk, before the teen grabbed it and held it still. Tony’s slight embarrassment was tangible as he spooned some pudding into his mouth, chocolate as requested.

“You should be grateful”, Peter continued as a distraction. “I grabbed the last two chocolate ones and this old guy gave me the stink eye.” Tony snorted, watching as Peter trapped his own pudding cup between his knees. Silence fell over them and Tony noticed how the teen’s face had fallen as he stared at his spoon, still steadying Tony’s pudding cup for him.

“Well, he should know that vanilla’s an old person flavour”, Tony tried, but only the edge of Peter’s mouth twitched in the attempt of a smile. Chest falling, Tony softened his tone. “What’s eating at you, Pete? You can tell me.” He was alarmed when the teen lifted his face to meet him and there were tears in his eyes.

“It’s just…this is my senior year, you know and…I’ve always been really excited to get out and go to university somewhere but…the way things are now after everything…I don’t want it to change.” His voice broke on the last word, turning to look out the window abashedly.

“Hey”, Tony soothed, dropping his spoon to reach out for Peter’s arm, tugging on his sleeve gently so he would turn and look at him again. “I know it’s all been a lot. No one can blame you for wanting a little stability. But you don’t want to be in high school forever, right? Stuff’s gotta change, that’s what life does, but you’ll be okay.” Teary doe eyes met Tony’s face and his heart fell a little.

“I guess. It’s just scary and I-I…really like how things are now, you know…with-.” He looked at Tony, lost for words, hoping he’d be able to fill in the blanks.

“I know. So do I. But…once you’re at MIT”, this prompted a grin from the teen, ”…or wherever you decide to go, you’ve got big things coming for you, Pete. Even outside all of this Avengers shit.” Peter sniffed as he glanced away, overwhelmed with the subtle praise.

“You think?”

“I know”, Tony affirmed. “I’m already so proud of you, anything you do is going to blow the world away. But you know we’ll always love to have you back.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, of course. Think of it as a second home if you want. Alright?” Tony hadn’t been expecting his response as Peter burst into tears, covering his mouth with one hand to stifle a sob.

“I-I thought you were just…kinda putting up with me because of how f-fucked up everything’s been”, he managed between sobs. Tony’s heart broke, to say the least. After everything, the kid still couldn’t believe there were people besides his aunt who genuinely cared about him, and Tony took it as a personal failure.

“Wha-? Pete. No, no.” Tony gripped his arm again, wishing he had the strength to bodily pull him closer. “We love you, kid. You’re practically a Stark now, whether you like it or not.” Peter looked up as if Tony had just slapped him, affronted, scared, and disbelieving.

“Really?” Tony’s heart was crushed. It felt worse than it had waking up in the cave in Afghanistan.

“Of course.” He lifted his arm and, eyes glistening, Peter fell against him easily, burying his face in Tony’s chest as he laid down beside him lengthwise. Tony rubbed his back gently, wishing he could hold him with both arms. All in good time. The boy’s tears didn’t surprise him, but he was still a little alarmed as Peter choked on a sob and pressed against him harder. “It’s okay, it’s alright, Pete.” He found Peter’s forehead under his curls and kissed it softly. “You are so, so loved, kid. Please, never doubt that, okay? I know I’m not so good with saying that, but I can do better, okay?” Peter supplied his muffled agreement and Tony chuckled, pulling him closer against his chest.

“Okay, okay. I’ve got you, Underoos.” Tony had a thought and smiled quietly to himself, ducking his head near Peter’s ear as he whispered. “Hey. You know what I can’t wait to be able to do?” Peter turned his head slightly, eyes red as he moved his face from being pressed against Tony’s hospital gown.

“What?”, he croaked, sounding unbearably small.

“I can’t wait to be able to hug you and Morgan at the same time. That’s all I wanna do.” This prompted a wet, quiet giggle from the boy pressed against his chest.

“That would be nice”, Peter managed quietly, wrapping his arm around Tony’s middle without touching the sling. Tony was overwhelmed himself, barely keeping the tears from gathering as he nestled his cheek against the top of Peter’s head. He’d probably end up with a neck cramp, but he didn’t care. Right now, he just needed his boy, needed to feel that he was solid.

“Yeah, that will be”, Tony agreed, barely above a whisper as the warm, heavy lull of sleep pulled at him. This is what had always been missing. A boy who needed Tony almost as much as Tony needed him, sweet and caring and so smart and brave and everything Tony knew he could be. Maybe his life was complete now, maybe it would finally be allowed to fall together, without Tony needing to fight tooth and claw to keep it.

Yeah. That would be nice.

Chapter Text

‘Mr. Stark!’

Hearing Peter’s scream of terror, Tony scanned around, but couldn't see any new danger.

‘Pete, what’s wro-?”

Then he noticed how light the right side of the suit felt, how empty the right side of his body felt. He looked down, to see the result of the mad Titan swinging his blade only seconds ago. Tony thought the alien had missed, thought he had got away with a lucky break. But as the blood pounded in his ears, in the deathly silence of the battle field, he saw blood starting to drip from the empty socket where his arm used to be. The wound was almost cauterized by the magical heat of the alien blade.

‘Mr. Stark?’

Peter’s devastated expression was the last thing he saw before he blacked out.

Waking up, Tony felt the metallic bite of winter air on his face and the stony concrete his head was resting on, looking down at the mangled half of his right arm still hanging from his body.

No. Hadn’t Thanos chopped it clean off at the shoulder? Yes. But he wasn’t on Titan anymore. This atmosphere was distinctively Earthly, the air thin as it whistled through the Siberian bunker.

It came back to him in waves, the life ebbing out of him as the blood pulsed out of where his elbow used to be, staining the concrete a glistening, dark red. Fighting Steve and his…friend? Didn’t matter. They were giving Tony their worst while he held back, he held back a lot. He could have had Friday unleash hell on them, but he didn’t want to seriously hurt Steve, didn’t want to hurt Steve by hurting his friend. Bucky, wasn’t it? Weird name.

He got Bucky down, but then Steve got him on his back, knee pressing down on the reactor, as he raised the shield above his head, then brought it down hard. Maybe he hadn’t been aiming for his arm, it looked like he’d been aiming for the reactor, which would have made more sense. It would have debilitated Tony more. But now, bleeding out on the ice cold concrete, he wasn’t so sure.

Steve had run as soon as he saw what he had done, grabbing Bucky, nearly hoisting him over his shoulder, half jogging away from Tony without a second glance. Tony felt his heart flickering out even before the darkness came, the stump of his arm too cold to even hurt.

Tony opened his eyes again, the snow replaced by dust, dust from rubble that got caught in his throat and choked him. He recognized a street in New York, though he couldn’t remember the name. This time, he couldn't even feel his right arm, couldn’t even register any sort of pain, but it was the lack of sensation that was disconcerting. The dust took a while to settle, but it did eventually, only to reveal that he’d brought a Leviathan down on his own arm. He must have been taunting it, he reasoned, getting shot by an alien arrow which caused him to collide with the mammoth beast, his hand getting caught under a chink in its own armour. He’d gone down hard with it, heart permanently lodging itself in his throat when the creature hit a building and flipped, coming down on its back and on top of him. His comms were down, his helmet so crushed, he couldn’t believe that his skull hadn’t been crushed along with it. He yelled for anyone; Steve, Thor, even the Hulk, but no one heard him in the din of battle. He wondered who was going to deal with the nuke if he was trapped here, going into shock with thousands of pounds of metal on his arm. His question was answered as there was a sickening explosion followed by darkness.

Tony sat bolt upright in bed, floundering with the sheets wrapped around his good arm, making the mistake of trying to push himself up with his cybernetic arm. Already ripped through with pain, his arm audibly screeched in protest, the metallic whir of gears indicating that he had strained his prosthetic limb too far. He opened his eyes as wide as possible in the dark, trying to see where he was as he swiped absently at the right side of his face. There was something there, obstructing his vision, and he had to get it off. He couldn’t see. Then he remembered with a sinking heart: He was blind on that side. That eye was blind. He had to remind himself sometimes.

My right eye is blind. My right arm is metal.

Said vibranium limb creaked angrily as he bent his elbow a little, sharp, bone-deep pain coursing through the arm and up his shoulder, radiating into his shoulder blade, and all through that side of his ribcage. Tony had to choke back a sob, gritting his teeth as he bore down, trying not to yell with pain. The lamp on the other side of the bed suddenly switched on and Tony imagined he must look like a wild animal caught in head lights, eyes crazed with pain, writhing in pain. Fuck, it wouldn’t stop. It was all consuming.

Bleary-eyed with her hair strewn in all directions, Pepper fixed him with a look as she sat up in bed.

“Are you okay?”, she asked automatically, voice thick with sleep and tinged with annoyance. Tony’s heart dropped a little: He knew she had an SI meeting in the morning, and he felt terrible for causing her countless sleepless nights. The past year had been tough for all of them, to say the least, but Pepper had been the composed backbone through it all, maintaining a put together front, but Tony knew she was barely stringing herself together underneath. She was a little frayed, she was more than a little tired, and she was at her wits end. Pepper didn’t blame him, she never blamed him, but Tony felt guilty nonetheless.

“Kinda, not really”, he said, surprised at how awake he sounded, voice quaking with fear.

“Your arm?”, Pepper muttered though she knew the answer.

“Yeah. And I’ve already taken my limit for pain meds in the last 12 hours”, Tony grunted, sitting up and shoving a pillow behind his back. The full extent of sensation in his cybernetic arm hadn’t been enabled yet, at least until his stump healed fully, but there were days when every moment was agony regardless.

“Try the heating pad”, she suggested, rolling back over. Tony had been tossing and turning since they went to bed around 10 pm, keeping them both up. Now that it was 4 am, Pepper was more than frustrated. “It’s in the kitchen. And could you go in the guest room? I want to see if I can get two hours of sleep.”

“Sorry, Pep”, Tony muttered, knowing the sharpness in her tone was just from exhaustion. “Uh, that bed hurts my back when there’s no one else in it, though. The mattress is too soft”, he reminded her. He recoiled in guilt as she groaned, throwing the duvet off her legs, snatching her pillow as she stood.

“I’ll go sleep in it, then”, she sighed, stumbling past the end of the bed and into the hall.

Tony’s heart sunk as he heard the guest bedroom door close, and the kind of silence that only came in the middle of the night, quickly filling the house again. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting; he couldn’t expect Pepper to try to help when there wasn’t anything she could do to alleviate the pain in his arm. Sure, she could have grabbed the heating pad for him, but so could he, though the kitchen felt a million miles away at the moment. What he really wanted right now was a hug. Pieces of his nightmares were still flashing through his mind, reminding him of the pain in his arm, the events of his Snap manifesting in different scenarios from his past. The crushing emotion of the missile in New York, the fight in the Siberia bunker, and the battle on Titan: The worst moments of his life, cumulated and projected onto the crippling pain of his arm, easily prompted him to tear up. Tony breathed through a heavy sob, pressing his good arm over the centre of his chest, pushing down slightly. The weight was comforting, grounding him slightly while he fought the emotions welling up. He kept seeing Peter’s face moments before he collapsed in Tony’s arms, moments before he was dusted.

‘I don’t want to go, sir. I don’t want to go.’

Resisting the urge to scream into his pillow, Tony rolled over, hugging it instead. It was nights like these that he wished Peter was sleeping over, though he knew he would feel guilty if he subjected Peter to him being in this emotional state. The kid had seen him before, of course, a sobbing mess holding on to the boy like he might float away on the breeze again, but he’d rather prevent any future episodes. Another thing to feel guilty about.

The twisting of his metal arm had been building as the emotional pain took over, distracting him for a bit before it became unbearable again. Sniffing and wiping tears from his cheeks, Tony struggled out of the sheets and duvet, shuffling out of the room. The small night light in the hall lit his way to the stairs, making sure to avoid the loud creak in the third step down as he gripped the rail tightly with his flesh hand. The specialized heating pad was on the kitchen table, as promised, and Tony grabbed it, standing for a moment in the quiet dark of the kitchen before the voices and flashes in his head came back.

‘Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good.’

Fuck. No. Tony shook his head, sighing heavily as he made the trip back up the stairs, almost stepping on the creaky stair this time. He was shivering by the time he climbed back under the covers, only in a t-shirt and boxers as the winter cool of the night crept over his bare skin. Plugging the heating pad into the outlet by his nightstand, he wrapped it around his arm, and then curled into the fetal position around his arm, gravitating towards the heat like a freezing kitten. It took several minutes before Tony stopped shivering, allowing his mind to wander, though he chose where his thoughts were directed this time. He focused on his and Peter’s plans to meet up on Sunday, to spend some intensive relaxing time together once Peter had completed his homework for the weekend. He focused on what it felt like to hug Peter now that he was safe, now that they were both safe. That feeling was one of needing to protect, while simultaneously feeling protected by the boy’s presence. Fragments of nightmare material tried to slip in, but he quickly forced them out, bearing down and wrapping his mind completely within thoughts of holding Peter safe in his arms.

Heartbeat slowed, Tony was able to notice the ache in his chest. It was familiar now, even though the arc reactor had been out for almost eleven years. Now the grating tightness once provided by the reactor was replaced with a deep ache that consumed his ribcage, his entire chest, and gripped it until he couldn’t breath. Usually caused by anxiety, he now knew the longing pain in his chest was also caused by his shared life force with Stephen, the lack of close proximity making it feel as though there was something incomplete in his chest, screaming to be reunited with it’s other half. It was almost constant, only dulled when he and Stephen were together, or had just spent a significant amount of time together.

Tony wasn’t sure if knowing the source of this added ache made it better or worse, all he knew right now was that it was almost unbearable. He and Stephen hadn’t seen each other in almost a week; not for any particular reason, they had both just been busy. They usually made an effort to see each other at least twice a week, a meet up for coffee, a chat at the Sanctum, or dinner at the cabin, but their combined schedules of physiotherapy, doctor’s appointments, research, and mystic threats to deal with hadn’t allowed such meetings lately.

Tony always looked forward to those meetings so much, this past week had felt a little empty without them. He found himself missing the sorcerer’s subtle jabs and quick wit. Every conversation they had was like a thrilling mental exercise, except for when it wasn’t. When they both needed it, they would discuss things softly and slowly, especially concerning matters of emotional sensitivity, of which there were many. Tony tried not to turn their get-togethers into therapy sessions (that’s what his therapist was for), but it was hard to avoid sensitive topics when they spent as much time together as they did. Titan came up more than either of them would like to admit, but apparently it was something they both needed to talk about sometimes. And who better to discuss a traumatic event with than someone who had also been at said traumatic event? Turns out dying was almost as traumatic as watching your son figure and others die horrifically while you can do nothing but watch.

These conversations were never very long, though, both because they were hard to linger on, and because they usually changed topics immediately after a comforting hand was laid on the other’s arm. Tony tended to linger on these moments long after they had parted ways, Tony heading back Upstate while Stephen returned to the Sanctum. He would think about how soft the sorcerer’s fingers were compared to his own work-scarred hands, how his hands were a little below average body temperature. Seemingly so cold at first, Stephen had revealed himself to be one of the most kind, soft-hearted people Tony knew, working his way up to physical displays of affection or comfort only recently.

Tony blinked, huddling under the covers further and pressing his hand against his chest in an attempt to distill the pain. For him to think such thoughts about Stephen was more common lately, though he didn’t like to admit it to himself. What was there to admit? So he was thinking about a new person in his life, what was he stressing about? A new person who had become important very quickly, sure, but there wasn’t anything wrong with that, was there?

The pain in his chest spiked and Tony rolled over, trying to find a position which put enough pressure on it without causing more discomfort. It was like a hot metal spike was being driven through the centre of his chest, burning claws dragged down each rib and over his lungs. Tony took a gasping breath, causing a flash of pain so heated that his chest felt cold. He squeezed his eyes shut tight and thought about how the stabbing tightness melted away whenever Stephen was near. He’d be walking up the sidewalk to a cafe they were meeting up at and the constant dull ache would fade even before he saw the sorcerer. Tony wished he was here now, just to talk to, or for a comforting back rub, maybe even one of their rare hugs. He kept his eyes closed, picturing Stephen’s welcoming smile while pain rolled through his arm and chest hotly. The soothing lull of sleep took a while to come, darkness rolling over him and pulling him under as he kept his mind focused on memories of the gentle sorcerer.

*****

Eleven o’clock the next morning found Tony blinking awake to sunlight streaming through the bedroom window. The pain in his arm had been reduced to a dull ache, though a sharp twinge moved through his chest as soon as he sat up. Gasping, Tony tried to focus on the paisley pattern on the comforter as he breathed carefully through the rippling aftershocks of pain. The sunlight was too bright, prompting Tony to drag himself out of bed, dragging a thick cardigan around his shoulders carefully, managing to get his good arm through, but his mechanical limb was still too stiff to do the same. Pulling a pair of sweatpants on with one arm took a while, but he had had a lot of practice, stumbling into the hall after he toed on a pair of slippers.

The rich aroma of coffee intermixed with the pain in his lungs as Tony clambered down the stairs, recognizing the sounds of Pepper rustling about the kitchen. She must have gotten back from her SI meeting already.

“Morning, Pep”, Tony greeted as he came into the kitchen, receiving a small smile before she resumed digging through the fridge.

“It certainly is.” Tony glided past the small jab at the late hour of the morning, though he thought he deserved a bit of a break considering the night he’d had last night. He poured coffee into the hand-painted mug from Morgan, sipping it black as he leaned against the counter.

“Morgan’s at that playdate, right? Katie’s house, isn’t it?”

“She was late getting there because my meeting ran late”, she replied pointedly, producing a loaf of bread and head of lettuce from the fridge.

“Sorry, Pep. What did you want me to do, drive her?”, he said, gesturing to his cybernetic arm, not yet strong or coordinated enough to work a stick shift.

“No, of course not”, she responded, almost sarcastically, rinsing the lettuce under the faucet. Tony blinked, taken aback by her tone.

“Hey, I know I was a pain last night, but you don’t need to pick on stuff I can’t help.” Pepper sighed, shutting the water off and drying her hands on a towel.

“I’m just tired, Tony, okay? I know neither of us can sleep well on the sofa, but I didn’t get a single wink of sleep last night until I went into the guest room.” Tony set his mug down, crossing his arms carefully.

“I do everything I can to help it, alright? Some nights are just like that.”

“It’s okay”, she said, resting a hand on his natural forearm. “Don’t listen to me this morning, I’m in a bad mood.”

“Makes two of us”, Tony muttered, moving to grab his mug, but she stopped him gently. Placing a hand on his good shoulder, Pepper pressed a kiss to his unscarred cheek. Though the gesture should have eliminated Tony’s annoyance, his uncertainty only grew as he noticed she was continuing to avoid the damaged side of his body. He smiled as she pulled back, more of a grimace to soothe his desire to mention it.

“You planning anything besides physio today?”, Pepper asked, trying to not make it sound like the loaded question that it was. Tony swallowed the snarky retort he had ready to fire, reminding himself they were both tired and cranky right now.

“I was thinking of meeting up with Stephen, unless there was something specific you wanted me to do today?” Pepper ignored his question, arching an eyebrow instead.

“Meeting with Stephen? Why?” Tony’s brow furrowed slightly as he pulled his cardigan back over his metal shoulder where it was starting to slip off.

“Uh, my chest was hurting really bad last night. You know, thought I’d get my fix for the week over some coffee with him or something.”

“I thought you were starting to spend less time with him. Or at least trying to.”

“No, we’ve both just been busy this week.” Tony frowned. “Why would I be trying to spend less time with him?” Pepper huffed a little, crossing her arms as if the answer were obvious.

“I just think that you should be doing things with Morgan when you aren’t in pain. You know, spend time with your daughter instead of some strange man.” Tony’s brow furrowed again, feeling a surge of confused protectiveness in his chest.

“That ‘strange man’ is the reason I’m not in pain half the time, alright, Pep? You know that and I thought you were fine with it. What’s wrong with us hanging out?” Pepper frowned.

“Don’t turn this on me. I never said there was anything wrong with you two hanging out.” She sighed, hanging her head. “I just can’t help but think that you wouldn’t be in pain if not for him.” Tony’s heart was now thudding painfully as he tried to think clearly about what she had just said.

“If not for him. You mean if not for our life force?” Pepper nodded slightly, not making eye contact with him.

“It is the reason your chest hurts all the time, except for when you’re with him.”

“And you realize I’d be dead if not for him? If not for his life force that he shared with me?”, Tony asked, his tone slipping into patronizing as he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Pepper scoffed, wiping the counter down angrily.

“It’s kind of hard to forget, Tony”, she said tightly. He could see by the tension in her shoulders and the way she was pursing her lips together that she was close to tears, but his own emotions were reeking havoc with his sensitivity.

“You’d rather I was dead than be more dependent on someone else than I am on you?” Now her tears did come, in rivulets down her freckled cheeks and Tony felt a pang of guilt in his chest, but it wasn’t as strong as the overwhelming self-pity and grief. He felt painfully alone right then, standing alone with his wife in their kitchen.

“Tony, don’t say that. Please”, Pepper breathed. “I just want things to be like they used to.” Tears must have been glistening in his eyes too, which she took as a cue to move closer, holding on to him with one arm wrapped around him. Tony noticed with a jolt in his chest that she was hugging his left side only, her cheek pressed against his unscarred one. He stepped back, removing himself from her as best he could without actually pushing her away.

“Yeah, well, stuff changes, I guess.”

The bang of the screen door behind him had never been quite so loud.

*****

Tony had been sitting on the front porch for nearly half an hour when he heard the garage door opening and, a few minutes later, Pepper’s Prius was making it’s way down the driveway, disappearing amongst the trees between the house and the road. He figured she must have gone out the back door, purposefully avoiding him.

Tony pulled the porch swing blanket around his shoulders more tightly, shivering after sitting in the cold for so long. His and Pepper’s conversation ran through his mind over and over again until he had it memorized, pinpointing what he could have said differently, where he was being rude, and where he truly couldn't come up with anything better to say.

‘You wouldn’t be in pain if not for him.’

That’s what Pepper had said about Stephen, and those words kept running through his mind like a broken record.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t be in pain because I’d be dead”, Tony muttered quietly to himself. He thought about the text he had sent Stephen when he had first come out on the porch, asking him if he was free for coffee sometime today, hopefully sooner than later. The sorcerer wasn’t dependent on his phone at all, but kept it close on hand for both their sake’s. A painful episode resulting from separation could often be remedied by a quick visit, so they tried to remain on call for each other.

Half an hour isn’t a long time, Tony told himself. He’s probably just busy with some magic stuff.

Nevertheless, the chime of his phone twenty minutes after that set his heart to pounding.

I’m free right now. Be ready in 10, I’ll pick you up?

Tony’s chest fluttered with warmth, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he typed out a response.

Give me 15. Meet you on the front lawn.

Will do.

Tony was on his feet even before his phone chimed with Stephen’s response, back inside and hurrying up the stairs. It would take at least fifteen minutes for him to get proper clothes on with his one arm, and though Stephen was patient, he didn’t want to keep him waiting. Tony dug in his drawer for a pair of jeans, catching sight of Pepper’s engagement ring on top of his dresser. She often took it off for doing housework, but it hurt to see it lying there, glinting in the afternoon light. He felt guilty, extremely guilty for his argument with Pepper, but right now he was looking forward to the relief of seeing Stephen. He would fix the damage he had done when Pepper got home this evening, but now he couldn’t wait to feel the overwhelming rush of calm and lack of pain hit him when he saw the sorcerer.

Tony pulled on a navy blue cable knit over a clean t shirt, the sweater already altered so the right sleeve was removed, as most clothing couldn’t accommodate his cybernetic arm, save for some of his larger hoodies. He strapped his watch and belt on with some difficulty, but both were possible after months of practice with one arm. His current physiotherapy program included getting him to use his metal arm more lately, but after last night’s episode, he wasn’t willing to risk the pain that trying to use it might cause. After washing his face quickly, Tony then addressed the challenge of brushing his teeth with his left hand, something that hadn’t gotten any easier even after months of doing so. The task gave him the chance to survey his own appearance in the mirror, the burn scars dark and rough in stark contrast to the rest of his face, blind eye staring back at him in the mirror like a milky, blue marble. His heart sunk a little, chest feeling empty as he considered that maybe Pepper had every right to avoid his damaged body. Maybe he had been too horrifically scarred for their relationship to go back to what it was. His chance to mull over the sobering thought was interrupted when his phone dinged, picking it up from the bed to check the text.

I’m here.

Tony could barely help the smile that flitted over his mouth as he walked quickly down the stairs, feeling energized, especially compared to that morning. He forced all negative thoughts out of his head as he toed on a pair of loafers and pulled his wool coat over both arms, slightly oversized in order to fit his metal arm. Opening the front screen door, a rush of warmth hit Tony’s chest along with the late fall breeze, stirring his hair. Stephen was waiting on the front lawn, red coat bright like a drop of blood in the drear grey of the early winter afternoon, standing like a pillar of calm and peace.

“Red’s your colour”, Tony grinned, formulating a casual conversation starter in his head, thrown off his game from his argument with Pepper. Not that he needed to keep up a front with Stephen.

“Yeah, well, when Levi refuses to stay at the Sanctum, I don’t have much choice in outerwear”, the sorcerer said as he returned his smile, raising a brow when his collar flicked his cheek saucily. “They get anxious about me catching cold this time of year.” Tony nodded, moving closer to him automatically, already lost in the warm lull of the sorcerer’s presence. Without thinking, he stepped forward and wrapped the taller man in a one-armed hug, feeling him respond immediately with one hand on Tony’s back, the other on his shoulder. The thick fabric of the cloak-coat was soft against his cheek, revelling in the safety he felt pressed against Stephen’s tall, sturdy frame, the pain in his chest washing away completely.

“It’s good to see you”, Tony muttered before pulling back, head dipped in slight embarrassment at breaking his own nonchalant facade, but Stephen just smiled, reaching into his pocket for his sling ring.

“It’s good to see you, too. We can’t let this much time go between visits. I haven’t been able to eat much the past few days.” Tony frowned at his light comment, chest constricting in worry as he watched him make the movements to open a gateway.

“You should have called me. I would have made sure I could come see you.” Stephen must have seen the regret burning in his eyes, offering a reassuring smile.

“Don’t worry, Tony, I know to call you if it gets really bad.” The engineer just responded with a nod, giving Stephen a minute to open the gateway. It had only been in the past month that he had regained enough strength to control his magic again, though his abilities were currently restricted to opening gateways within New York, along with other simple spells. The progress had been a huge accomplishment in both of their eyes, a relief and a reason for joy. Several months ago, it had seemed like Stephen might never be able to use magic properly again.

The familiar ring of gold sparks formed, eliciting a warm, almost affectionate glow to grow in Tony’s chest. He’d been there as Stephen struggled through the loss of half of his life force, and he was relieved to finally see signs of healing on the sorcerer’s part. He glanced over at the chiselled mask of concentration Stephen wore as he finished forming the gateway, surprised to find that he was proud of him. Proud of everything this man was, proud to have him as a friend.

They stepped through the gateway which opened to their favourite cafe in the Village, only a few blocks from the Sanctum. They quickly found their usual window seat which was surprisingly empty at this time in the afternoon, ordering their respective tea and coffee. Stephen expressed that he wasn’t nauseous for the first time in days, causing a pang of guilt in Tony’s chest which he hid, and they decided to order from the lunch menu. The waitress came and took their orders and Tony found it ridiculously easy to fall into their usual banter.

“Curried quinoa? What’s that even supposed to be? Quinoa’s like seeds or something, right?” Stephen raised a brow as he sipped his tea, mouth twitching in amusement.

“It’s actually a pseudo cereal grain, Anthony.”

“Don’t ‘Anthony’ me, you”, Tony quipped back, trying to hide a huge yawn behind his coffee mug. Stephen leaned forward on the table on his elbows, placing his chin on his bridged fingers as he regarded Tony with a grin.

“I take it you didn’t sleep well last night?”

“Nah, my arm’s being a piece of shit, what else is new?” Stephen raised a brow again, gaze calculating even as he looked at Tony almost tenderly.

“Just your arm?”, he asked softly. Tony blinked. How did he know?

“Okay. Right, my brain’s a piece of shit, too. Nightmares and all that.” He waved a hand, taking another sip of coffee. “Nothing to be done about that, though.”

“Not exactly”, Stephen rumbled, refolding his napkin even though Tony had seen nothing wrong with it. “With your permission, of course, I could surround you with a spell which will prevent fight-or-flight responses in your amygdala during REM sleep, and lower the activity in that region of your brain.” Tony’s brow furrowed slightly. He understood what Stephen had said, but his wariness of magic meant he wanted to be sure about any risks that came with the spell.

“English, please, Merlin?” Stephen sighed, but it was with affectionate patience.

“The spell will reduce or maybe even eliminate your nightmares for as long as the spell lasts.”

“And how long does it last?”

“Two to three days at the most.” Tony considered this. A possible three nights of not worrying about his sleep being disturbed by haunting images sounded like absolute bliss.

“And it’s not gonna mess with my brain in any way? Like, I’m going to actually be able to reach REM sleep?” Stephen titled his head slightly and gave him a look.

“Oh, please, Tony. When have you ever actually been able to reach REM?” He laughed lightly. “Though you might be able to now.” Tony bit his lip as he thought. No nightmares about Peter and Stephen dying? No nightmares about Thanos taunting him as he had for over a decade? It sounded too good to be true. But his trust of Stephen overrode his apprehension.

“Okay, I’d like to try it.”

A moment of uncertainty overtook him, surveying the suitability of their current location, but he figured the residents of New York had seen much weirder things than a bit of mid afternoon sorcerery. Stephen pulled his chair around the table so their two chairs were almost touching, rubbing his hands together quickly to warm them before holding them up in front of Tony.

“‘I’m going to put my hands on either side of your head, and you might feel a bit of coolness or tingling, but I promise it won't hurt. It will take a few minutes to complete the spell, so stay as still as you can.” Despite the sorcerer being out of practice, Tony felt at ease even though he was completely vulnerable under his hands and his power.

“I trust you, Dumbledore”, Tony assured with a grin, though his heart was pounding. Stephen humoured him with an eye roll, moving to cup Tony’s temples.

“I’ll need to keep eye contact with you for only about ten seconds to establish the necessary sort of…mental link, you could call it.” Tony had been expecting the contact, but still had to suppress a gasp as cool, slim fingers pressed gently against either side of his head, molded around the curve of his temples and the edge of his jaw as if they belonged there. Stephen’s hand were large and steady in a soothing way, their shaking suppressed by magic, the pad of his thumb gentle as it rested against Tony’s scarred cheek. Tony felt his breath trapped in his chest at the contact; no one but himself and Morgan had touched that side of his face in nearly a year. He had to suppress the hot tears which suddenly threatened in the corners of his eyes, his throat becoming choked, like trying to swallow molasses.

“Tony, you need to look at me”, Stephen guided, concentrating on forming the spell, so he hadn’t noticed Tony’s reaction to his touch. Tony forced himself to look up, hoping the dampness in his eyes wasn’t too apparent as he met the now familiar blue-green of Stephen’s eyes. Except they were like sea glass in this light, more silver than anything and Tony found himself getting quickly lost in them. He usually found direct eye contact with people uncomfortable, hence the extensive collection of shades, but he felt more steady than usual as he was held in the galaxy-colored depths before him. Stephen met his eyes gently, open wide and trusting, with almost the same fervency, though he had to visibly pull himself in to focus on the spell.

“You don’t have to keep eye contact anymore”, Stephen mumbled softly, but Tony didn’t move. He couldn’t look away. Why would he want to? His heart was hammering in his ears, and his cheeks would have been flushed except the spell was emanating coolness the way Stephen had said it would. Tony suddenly noticed how close they were sitting to each other, Stephen’s chair pulled into the space between his legs, close enough so the sorcerer didn’t have to lean to reach him. His presence was warm, solid, the ache in Tony’s chest a distant memory as he was completely immersed in golden waves of relief and comfort. He dropped out of his dream-like daze as Stephen took his hands away gently, warm air rushing to replace them at the empty spot on Tony’s face. It felt wrong, like something was missing now.

"Oh, my god", Tony breathed without thinking. All of his physical pain was gone, along with the terrible thoughts that had been plaguing him all day. "Where have you been all my life?" They both blinked in surprise at his words, Tony hiding a blush as he ducked his head. Goddamnit.

“How do you feel?”, Stephen rasped, nonchalant as he tried to ignore what had occurred seconds ago. Tony blinked several times, drawing himself out of his mind so he could actually focus on what his body was feeling. Nothing was out of the ordinary expect that he couldn’t remember his nightmare from last night. Even though he searched, his real life memories were still there, of course, but the specific dream from last night was gone. Peace washed over him, lifting a weight from his shoulders.

“I feel fine”, Tony managed, his throat still tight, like he’d forgotten how to talk. “Yeah, everything feels normal. Can’t remember my nightmare from last night, though. Should that have happened?” Stephen shrugged.

“Happy accident. Do you want it back?”, he teased, his eyes twinkling. Tony went to punch him playfully, but found he couldn’t, his hand landing on the sorcerer’s upper arm gently instead. Their eyes met again and Tony could feel the embarrassment wash over the other man, so he drew his hand back, not wanting to make him uncomfortable.

“Thank you”, he muttered, still struggling to make his tongue cooperate.

“Of course”, Stephen said, though seemingly disappointed that he’d moved his hand. Tony coughed and lowered his eyes, watching the sorcerer move his chair back to its original spot.

Their moment of vulnerability and feeling too much was seemingly forgotten as their food came.  Tony sparked conversation with a quick quip, and they fell back into their usual comfortable camaraderie. But all the while, while Stephen smiled and told him a funny story from his first week at med school, Tony couldn’t help but think that that moment might have been a turning point. One of those moments you look back on and realize that it was one of the big ones.

Chapter Text

“I don’t know how you deal with that bullshit, honestly.”

Rhodey scoffed at Tony’s remark, though it was more like a short huff of laughter. It was Saturday afternoon, meaning the colonel was over for his obligatory weekly visit to the Stark cabin, venting to Tony about his week over a few light beers.

“Kinda comes with the territory, Tones”, Rhodey shrugged, leaning back into the sofa. “Though that mission I got sent on Thursday, that was a little out there.” He shook his head. “Seems like something you guys would have handled back in the day.” Tony shifted, uncomfortable, and he knew it must have shown on his face.

“‘You guys’? Meaning the Avengers? Sorry to break it to you, honey bear, but we’re not exactly functional anymore.” Rhodes gave him a look, brow furrowed a little.

“Obviously. I know that.” He gestured at Tony’s arm before he could stop himself, and had to watch something entirely different pass over his best friend’s face. Regret. “Besides, this probably would have been a little below your guys’ pay grade.”

“Enough with this ‘you guys’ stuff”, Tony growled, pulling himself forward like he was going to stand, but Rhodey pulled him back gently.

“Okay, okay. I get the message.” Rhodey decided to steer the conversation elsewhere. “What about Pepper?” Tony blinked, his good eye showing his discomfort clearly.

“What about her?”, he asked, more defensively than he would have liked. Rhodey gestured around.

“Well, where is she? I’ve been wondering since I got in the door, figuring you’d tell me, but you haven’t yet. What’s going on?” Tony shifted again, like the sofa was covered in ants.

“Nothing’s going on. She’s out.”

“Out?”

“Yeah, out. Geez, Rhodey, why so nosy?” The colonel put both hands up to distill the confrontation.

“Sorry, didn’t know I was bringing up a sensitive topic.”

“It’s not. You’re not”, Tony said quickly, massaging his temples. His head hurt. He glanced over to where Morgan was colouring at the kitchen table. “We had an argument yesterday and I haven't had the chance to fix it yet, that’s all.” Tony had been out with Stephen longer than he’d meant to, getting home around their usual dinner time to find Pepper and Morgan still weren’t home. He’d gone to bed early, though he hadn’t meant to fall asleep before Pepper got home. He had woken up early the next morning to catch sight of Pepper leaving out the front door, armed with a bag and a travel mug. Concerned, Tony had texted her several times, but she had yet to reply to him. Morgan had woken up several hours later, asking where her mom was, and Tony had had to lie to her, saying Mommy was visiting a friend when really he had no idea where she was.

“All this has been really rough on you guys”, Rhodey sympathized, a statement, not a question. He’d been there for most of it, he knew how the after effects of Tony’s Snap had slowly chipped away at their marriage.

“That would be the understatement of the century.” Tony sniffed, trying to resist shifting his position on the sofa again. He felt the overwhelming urge to deflect. “So, you’re handling everything alright? You missing your back up, eh?” Rhodey grinned, though he knew exactly what Tony was doing. He’d do anything to prevent actually talking about a problem.

“Oh, I’m suddenly not back up? That’s not what I’ve been hearing for the past decade.” Tony grinned in return.

“You’ve gotta be missing me watching your back, though. Sometimes I wish I could get back out there. Even just help out a bit, you know?”

“Out of the question”, Rhodey said, taking a sip of his beer and shaking his head. He pointed a subtle finger at Morgan, who had looked up from her colouring book, interest and concern piqued by her dad’s words. “You’ve got your little munchkin over there now, Tony.”

“I know, I know”, Tony muttered, love for his daughter inflicting his would-be dismissive tone. He sent her a look, like he was checking that she was still there. Satisfied that she was perfectly content in colouring a giraffe purple, he looked back to Rhodey. “It just feels a bit weird not doing it, I guess. It made me able to stand myself”, he said, almost too quietly for Rhodey to hear. It hurt to hear him talk about himself like that, like he hated himself even after all the good he had done. It just made Rhodey try even harder to show him how loved he was.

“You don’t need to anymore, though”, Rhodey insisted, voice gentle. “Rest, enjoy your family. Besides, it’ll take a good while for you to get used to that arm, right?” Tony lifted it a little, looking down and nodding, as if seeing it for the first time. “And by then you’ll have too much of a dad bod going on to even use the suit”, he said, gently poking at Tony’s side.

It was a risk, making a light jab at Tony’s weight. On one hand, it was good that he was continuing to recover and be able to eat after the damage the gamma radiation had done to his body. But on the other hand, between his arm and the constant pain he was in, it was nigh impossible for him to do anything physical besides his physio, though even that was a struggle some days. Tony had mentioned his weight gain to Rhodey as a joke, the only way he knew how to talk about things that bothered him, but his friend knew how it affected him. Tony was worried Pepper was loosing too much of the man she loved, he was worried it was his fault that she barely touched him anymore, never mind his scars and the metal arm. Unfortunately, he didn’t respond the way Rhodey had hoped, barely able to pull off a grimace of a smile as his gaze kept jumping between him and Morgan.

“Sorry. I was kidding, Tones”, Rhodey said, and placed a gentle hand on Tony’s metal shoulder.

“I know”, Tony assured with a rasp. “Just wish I didn’t feel so useless sometimes.”

“You’re not useless. Don’t be ridiculous, Tony. What you’ve done-.”

“Yeah, yeah, what I’ve done. That’s all the past. This is now and right now I feel like a burden. At least when I use the suit, it gives people a reason to like me.” Rhodey felt like he’d been punched in the chest, watching Tony watch Morgan, who was definitely listening to their conversation now. Tears glistened in Tony’s eyes. He turned to catch the affronted look Rhodey was giving him. “Not you, platypus. I know you love me.”

“Damn right”, Rhodey muttered, ignoring the tightness in his throat. “If it’s what you really want, you’ll be able to help with suit design and protection protocols eventually, but you just need to focus on getting better right now.” Tony lifted a brow, tilting his head in something like a half-nod. He’d heard him, but he didn’t agree. Rhodey had seen that look a million times, starting all the way back to their uni years together. If Tony Stark was anything, he was stubborn. “You’re not getting in a suit again, mister.”

“I know”, Tony whispered, too quiet for Morgan to hear, who had clambered down from the kitchen chair she was in. An enormous pout pulling her bottom lip out, brow furrowed as she climbed on the sofa beside Tony and laid on top of him, burrowing her face between his chest and his good arm. “Moguna?”, he asked gently, laying his hand on her back. “What’s wrong?”

“Stay here with me, Daddy”, she said in a small voice, muffled, not helped by the fact that her face was pressed against his sweater. Tony’s brow furrowed, glancing at Rhodey, confused.

“What’s that Morgs? I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.” Morgan frowned again, letting Tony brush the hair out of her face gently.

“Don’t go in the suit again”, she clarified, chin ducked to meet her chest, small fingers playing with the stitch of his knit sweater. “Don’t get hurt again.” Then she wrapped her arms across his ribcage again, hiding in the comforting warmth of his chest. Tony choked, blinking at her words.

“Of course not, Moguna.” He kissed the top of her head tenderly. He stole a glance at Rhodey, who gave him a look like, She’s right, you know. “If that’s what you want, then I won’t use the suit. I’ll stay right here, okay?” A small nod. “I promise.” He caught Rhodey’s eye again, and immediately wished he hadn’t. His best friend’s face was saying, Don’t you dare break that promise.

*****

Sweat was pouring down Stephen’s back in small streams. It poured down the divot his spine made, collecting at the small of his back. His underarms were clammy, hot droplets trickling down his forehead, collecting in his brows and then dripping into his eyes. He blinked, squinted against the sun, and wiped at his eyes with the back of his training gloves.

He was disgusted. Disgusted with the sweat covering him. Disgusted with himself and how weak his body was.

“You keep dropping your left elbow”, Wong barked, turning his back on him for the first time that day.

“I can’t help it, I have a pinched nerve in my shoulder”, Stephen growled back, taking the chance to lean forward on his knees, panting. They’d been working for hours, the air coming into his lungs hot and dry. “Can we turn the fucking heat down?” Wong raised a patient brow.

“Frustration is no reason for unnecessary profanity.”

“I’m not frustrated, I’m hot”, Stephen snapped, watching his temper get the better of him. Wong grinned, a wry grin that Stephen had learned to hate.

“We can open the windows once you relieve me of my staff.” Stephen groaned. It was winter, yes, but training in the designated workout room of the Sanctum seemed to have raised the temperature of the building by a hundred degrees. Not to mention they had been at it for hours, Wong pushing Stephen until he felt like he was about to crack.

“How is this even helping?”, Stephen rasped. “My problem is with controlling my magic, not my body.” Wong’s arms dropped, squinting as if he were looking at an idiot.

“You control your magic with your body.”

“No. My mind.”

“Which is part of your body.”

“No. My brain is. I think I would know. You know, former neurosurgeon and everything.”

“Ah, yes. I forgot”, Wong said sarcastically. Stephen huffed, fighting a smile.

“I just feel like I’m wasting time and energy. I’d rather focus on strengthening my magic again, practicing spells instead of martial arts.” The senior sorcerer raised a brow, clearly amused.

“Your body has weakened as well as your magic, Stephen. A year ago, I would have been no match for you physically. You have deteriorated with the loss to your life force, you need this training to strengthen your body. Then you may focus on your spells.” Stephen sighed, letting his arms hang limp.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been through a bit this year. Give me a break, huh, Wong?”

“No.”

Stephen scrambled to brace himself as Wong swung his staff at him, blocking it above his head. He huffed, trying to push down, but the other sorcerer’s arms were locked. Stephen thought he saw something smug pass over his face.

“Goddamn you”, Stephen hissed. He spun, reaching around to be ready for Wong’s counter attack, but the staff connected with his shoulder instead with a solid whack. Stephen spat with frustration, pushing the offending staff away with his knee, almost waiting for Wong to knock his other foot out from underneath him. He used his momentum to push off and connect their staffs head on, but Wong was solid, his stance wide. That approach wouldn’t have worked even if Stephen were at full strength. Instead, he ducked under Wong’s next swing, tapping his off elbow with the end of his staff, dancing around his opponent before bombarding him with hits on his weak side. Only years of knowing him had let Stephen know that Wong sometimes favoured his left knee, so he focused there. He swung his staff low, forcing Wong to jump to avoid it. The other sorcerer scrambled for a moment to regain his footing, then poured down on Stephen with a rain of ferocious attacks. Stephen felt the wood staff connect with his thigh, his ribcage, then spun to avoid a hit on his shoulder again, only to receive it exactly on the pinched nerve in his shoulder.

“Oh, for the love of Vishanti!”

Wong’s only response was to tap him rather gently on the side of his neck with his staff, nearly stunning Stephen as he dropped to his knees. Panting, he barely had the strength to throw his own staff away in frustration. His muscles were burning, everything was shaking. His arms and legs were shaking, his lungs were shaking, head spinning as he felt bruises forming all over.

“I’m done. That’s enough.” His voice shook terribly. Sweat was dripping off the tip of his nose as he stared at the floor, watching it darken the wood in spots.

“Ten minute break. Then we continue.” Stephen sneered up at his friend, but received only a patiently tolerant look in return.

“Slave driver”, Stephen groaned, hauling himself to his feet, hanging on his staff like a cane. “Almost makes me miss Mordo. Though he wouldn’t have had any remorse in knocking me out cold on that last hit.” Wong folded his arms, glancing at the ceiling in contemplation.

“I’m softer than Mordo? I’ll keep that in mind for next time.” His smug look made Stephen sneer, staggering to the door of the training room. “Where are you going?”

“Checking my phone”, Stephen replied casually, which wasn’t a lie.

“Seven minutes.”

“Yeah, yeah”, Stephen muttered, going to the sitting room where he’d been reading earlier, grabbing his phone from the side table. Pulling up the string of texts under the contact ‘Douchebag’, he entered a new message.

Can you call me in five mins? Pretend you need me to come over.

He was hoping Tony saw the text sooner than later, though he reasoned that he was likely busy with his family on a Saturday afternoon. Of course he would be. Stephen scoffed at himself and conjured a large glass of water for himself. It was nice to have the use of simple spells back after months of operating without them.

“Stephen?”

“Coming!”, Stephen called back. “For Vishanti’s sake”, he muttered, checking his phone as he walked back. Wong was already in a fighting stance when he re-entered the room, eyeing Stephen’s phone suspiciously.

“Stark?”, he asked.

“No”, Stephen replied, which wasn’t a complete lie since Tony hadn’t responded yet. He set his phone and water glass down on a bench, sighing as he grabbed his staff from where it was leaning against the wall. “We’ve been doing this for hours, I don’t know why you think another half hour is going to change anything.”

“We’ll keep going until you get it.” Stephen scoffed.

“By Oshtur we are. This isn’t training anymore, Wong. This is just you having too much fun.” Wong gestured down at his own sweat-stained training gear.

“You think this is fun for me? I’m doing it to help you, Stephen.” Something softened in the sorcerer’s chest, though he was too weary to pay much attention.

“I know, and I appreciate it. But I don’t think this particular training is helping.” Wong wasn’t impressed.

“We’ve already gone over your opinion of my methods. Let’s not fall into redundancies.”

“This exercise is redundant”, Stephen countered, sounding a little more childish than he would have liked. Wong was about to open his mouth again when Stephen’s phone rang, eliciting a jolt of joy in the sorcerer’s chest. He sent Wong a look over his shoulder which was borderline sardonic as he walked over and picked it up. “Hi, Tony”, he said as he looked straight at Wong before turning his back to him.

“Did Dumbledore get himself into a pickle?”, Tony asked in that way that would have been patronizing if his tone weren’t so affectionate.

“Some minor relish”, Stephen smirked, glancing at Wong, who’s arms were crossed as he frowned. Stephen could practically hear Tony’s smile as he replied.

“Did you actually wanna come over? Rhodey’s here, you two haven’t gotten to know each other that well yet, have you?” Stephen felt his chest flutter in anxiety. Oh God. Rhodey. The big gun.

“Y-Yeah. That would be great.” He noticed Wong was listening. “What ever you need.”

“What?”, Tony asked.

“Bear with me”, Stephen muttered. “I’m trying to get away from Wong.”

“Ah, well, in that case, I desperately need you to come over. Pronto. Stat. Rapido. What ever word you wizards use for ‘quickly’.” Tony was joking, of course, always ready to dramatically play the part required, but his words set Stephen’s heart to pounding nonetheless. Trying to hide the flush in his cheeks, Stephen turned back around to make sure Wong did actually hear his next words.

“I’ll be right over. Just have to shower first.”

“Cleaning yourself up for me, wizard? I’m touched.”

“Ha ha. See you in half an hour.”

“See you, Steph.”

Stephen almost choked on the force of Tony shortening his name. The way he’d said it was debilitating. Intimate, familiar, like they’d known each other for years. He knew the pink tinge to his cheeks must have been unmistakable from the look Wong was giving him. Tired, and all too knowing.

“How’s Stark?”

“Fine. He needs me to come over, though.” Stephen frowned slightly. “And you’re allowed to call him Tony.”

“Why would I?” Stephen shrugged. It was a good question.

“I don’t know.” Wong raised a brow. All too knowing.

“Didn’t you see him yesterday?”

“Only for a bit.” That was a lie. They’d spent nearly four hours talking in that cafe. “And he’s in a lot of pain again. His chest.” He didn’t know if that part was a lie. Wong sighed, finally putting his staff back in the stand.

“As long as I’m not your taxi service anymore. It was back and forth, back and forth. All the time.”

“Okay, okay, Wong. I get it.”

*****

Stepping out of the gateway, Stephen could feel there was something wrong the second the ring of energy snapped shut behind him. The front lawn was dusted heavily with frost, frozen grass crunching under his feet as he made his way to the porch. There was a disturbed energy surrounding the entire house. He could feel Tony’s presence, and it was agitated. Restless and unhappy. Tony must have been faking the easy affection he seemed to ooze during their phone conversation, putting up a front for Stephen’s sake. Stephen felt something in his chest crumble. He forgot sometimes how easily Tony could throw up his walls again, even after the sorcerer had been chipping away at them for eight months.

Stephen signed heavily, feeling condensation freeze on his facial hair, and knocked on the front door. Tony was a blur of distracted energy when he answered. Stephen noticed immediately that his cybernetic arm was in a heavy duty sling, a bad sign.

“Steph. C’mon in.” There it was again. Shortening his name like that. He gives everyone nicknames, Stephen told himself. “You look a little worse for wear.”

“Thanks”, Stephen said sarcastically, but without any malice. He couldn’t be defensive when his heart was melting from the inside out. The golden warmth Tony held in their shared life force seemed to reverberate and settle into its usual corners of Stephen’s soul, cushioning his joints, and softening his cold, empty edges. He decided not to mention that Tony also looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. “How’s the spell working?” Stephen followed him into the kitchen.

“Good, good. Out like a light last night. No nightmares. Nothing. Notta. Thanks again for that.” He was distracted, agitated, and Stephen couldn't help but think it was something to do with his presence. He was snapping repeatedly as he stared at the bubbling coffee machine, which Stephen had come to recognize as something he did when he was working through a problem in his head.

“You alright, Tony?” Tony blinked up at him, regarding the sorcerer’s face carefully until Stephen squirmed with self consciousness. They were facing each other, leaning against the counter and table respectively. Tony shifted his weight, looking away before answering.

“Always. Like I said, no nightmares.”

“Okay, but-.”

“Coffee? Let me get you a coffee. And go say hi to Rhodey. He’s in the living room.” Stephen started. He hadn’t noticed the colonel’s presence when he had come in, but backed out of the kitchen, leaving Tony to glare at the coffee maker. Sure enough, the colonel was seated on the sofa, thoroughly looking like he’d been abandoned mid conversation while he nursed a beer.

“Doctor Strange.”

“I’ve told you Stephen’s fine”, the sorcerer corrected gently as he took the armchair opposite him. “It’s been a while. How are you?”

“Alright. Worried about him”, Rhodey replied with a raised brow, jerking a thumb towards the kitchen. “But what else is new?”

“Well, it’s a full time occupation, I’m sure.”

“You’d know”, Rhodey replied with a look that was all too knowing for Stephen’s comfort. “With the split soul deal, and everything”, he clarified, allowing Stephen a breath of relief. “Like, I know he’s told me you can feel stuff, like when he’s awake, or whatever.”

“That was only once. I didn’t let that happen again”, Stephen said, immediately defensive, but Rhodey raised a hand in a soothing gesture.

“Nah, it’s all good. Gives me a break from monitoring him, right?” The colonel cracked a grin and Stephen felt himself returning it.

“Right.”

“I mean, I don’t know about you, man, but he’s a wreck when he hasn’t seen you for a while. He just doesn’t want you to feel like you need to be around all the time.” Stephen’s heart did a weird flip flop in his chest at Rhodey’s words, forcing himself to nod as everything in him froze.

“Right”, he repeated, trying to maintain focus as his mind spiralled. He’d overstayed his welcome with his visits to the Stark cabin. He’d been calling Tony too much, he knew that now. Rhodey had practically just spelled it out for him; Tony didn’t want him around so much, even if it meant constant physical pain. He was getting sick of him and didn’t want him to come over anymore. Maybe Tony had never really liked him, maybe he had just been tolerating him while he healed, while he still needed to be in the presence of Stephen’s half of the life force. That must have been why he’d adopted an over-exaggerated friendliness on the phone, only for his energy to be practically brimming with distaste once the sorcerer actually showed up.

“You okay, man?” Stephen’s head snapped up as he realized he had zoned out, the colonel watching him with concern. Stephen checked his own expression, blinking several times.

“Yes. Of course.” He squinted hard for a second, trying to concentrate. “Uh, what-what was it that had you worried about Tony? His, uh, was it his arm or…something else?” Rhodey balked visibly, uncertain.

“Uh, no. No, not his arm. He’s just dealing with some relationship stuff. Nothing you need to be worried about, though. He’s working it out.” Don’t be worried about it. Right. Relationship stuff. He couldn’t mean him, right? Stephen felt like he was going to throw up.

“Right, okay. Um, I think I better get go-.”

“Coffee’s ready”, Tony announced as he entered the room, passing a mug to Stephen, practically forcing the sorcerer to sit back down as he stepped too close. Stephen’s mind was whirling, skin tingling from where Tony’s hand had brushed his.

“I was actually just about to-.” But Tony was back out of the room as quickly as he had came, returning seconds later with his own mug, metal arm trussed up in its sling as it was.

“Sure you don’t want one, sour patch?”, Tony asked his friend as he took the armchair across from Stephen, alive with trembling energy.

“No”, Rhodey replied. “You just need to sit still for five seconds so we can talk about this.”

“Not with him here”, Tony frowned, glancing over at Stephen, who had never felt so crushed as he did then. “No offence, Doc”, he remediated quickly, but his words fell on the sorcerer numbly, uselessly. Stephen held his mug of coffee like a lifeline, knuckles white even though it was hurting his hands. The brand of coffee was familiar and it smelled like Tony, or Tony smelt like coffee. It was tinted brown with a drop of milk, exactly how Stephen took it. His stomach turned sharply as he realized this was something Tony had picked up on over the past few months.

“I can leave”, Stephen offered. His voice sounded like it was coming from someone else.

“Nonsense”, Tony interjected before Rhodey could reply. “You need to hide out from Wong, so stay here. We can talk about this anytime.”

“That’s-no, that’s not exactly true”, Rhodey cautioned. “There’s kind of a time crunch here, Tones.”

“It’s also kinda not really any of your business, so there’s that”, Tony growled, sipping his coffee. Stephen was about to interject, or suggest he was leaving again, he was’t sure which, when the front door opened. Tony jumped visibly, his face tightening into a nervous grimace, entrenching himself further into the bundle of tension he was currently occupying. “Pepper?”, he tried hesitantly, not moving from his position wedged in his armchair. High heels clacked on the wood floor, matching Stephen’s heart beat as Pepper came into view, expression clipped and uncomfortable.

“Ah, I see we have company”, she said, smirking as if she’d said something funny. “Haven’t you seen enough of these two lately?” Her voice was tense underneath, just barely holding onto a thin veil of politeness. It didn’t escape Stephen’s notice when she very pointedly avoided looking at him, instead focusing on Tony who was shifting in his seat as if it was agony to sit still.

“What’s wrong with having these two over? I told you they both help me with…”, Tony frowned, not sure what they helped with, but he knew they helped.

Oh, great, Stephen thought. Pepper didn’t want him over anymore either, though this was much less surprising. Her polite tolerance of the sorcerer in the beginning had lately turned into passive-aggressive disdain, to the point of leaving the room whenever he came to visit or pick up Tony. Her response was warranted, Stephen thought. He’d practically invaded Tony’s entire life, sometimes spending more waking hours with him than Pepper did. Of course she’d be pissed at him. He was pissed at himself, stuck between trying to melt into the chair and wondering how painlessly he’d be able to excuse himself without his voice breaking. Leaving with his dignity intact at this point would be a victory.

Pepper had only frowned in response to Tony’s weak attempt at a rebuttal, hands on her hips.

“Right, but we have some stuff we need to talk about, I think. So, if you two don’t mind”, she said, raising a brow slightly as she addressed Rhodey and Stephen. “I’d like to talk with my husband alone.” Even Rhodey had been looking uncomfortable at this point, getting to his feet with a nod, muttering a goodbye to Tony and an apology to Pepper, providing Stephen with the opportunity to trail him silently out of the room. The sorcerer left without glancing at Tony, the thought of seeing any sort of spite or even relief on Tony’s face too much for him to bear.

Levi settled on Stephen’s shoulders as he ducked out the front door quickly behind Rhodey, closing the door behind himself as quietly as possible. The colonel was silent as they paused on the porch, looking out at the grey drear, the first snow falling in thick, lazy flakes. The silence was deafening and Stephen didn’t dare shift his weight for fear of the porch creaking.

“I shouldn’t have come”, Stephen croaked out, only realizing he had expressed this thought aloud when Rhodey turned to look at him.

“What? No. None of that was your fault, man.” Stephen raised a skeptical brow, hating to contradict himself.

“Wasn’t it?” The colonel shook his head, pulling his gloves out of his coat pocket and pulling them on.

“No. Come on, you know as well as anyone that those two have been through hell and back this year. Heck, so have you.” Stephen ducked his head, wishing Rhodey wouldn’t acknowledge what had happened. He didn’t deserve any sort of recognition for being a selfish, love-sick fool, especially not from Tony’s best friend. “Anyway, couples have spats. You just happen to be one of them.” Rhodey offered it as a joke, but Stephen took it as a punch to the gut. He found it hard to draw in his next breath, the air cold and stale in his chest once it had squeezed past his tight throat.

“I’m not trying to be”, he offered numbly, mind whirring too much to think of anything less obvious to say. Rhodey laughed lightly.

“Of course you aren’t. Just try to give them a bit of space, let them figure their shit out. I gotta get going.” He clapped him on the shoulder, letting his hand rest there warmly for a second. “See you around.”

“Bye”, Stephen choked out, watching him walk to his car before slipping down the snow-covered steps himself. He conjured a gateway almost robotically, not really seeing anything in front of himself, and it took Levi nudging him for him to step forward through the gateway.

Chapter Text

Two hours of talking hadn’t resolved much, Tony pondered as he stared down at his mug of cold coffee. He and Pepper had ‘talked’ their way through every room of the house except Morgan’s bedroom after Rhodey and Stephen left, conversing in circles as they argued the same points over and over, but slightly different each time.

Pepper was adamant: He needed to spend more time with her and Morgan. Morgan especially. He didn’t disagree with her on this, but it was hard to spend time with them when they left every time Stephen was invited over, or scheduled to show up. She was always running off with Morgan to some play date or errand, neither of which Tony could handle for more than an hour or two at a time if he were to go along. His pain medication was powerful, but once he’d reached his daily limit there were often times when he was left to simply ride the waves of pain, frozen in agony as he tried not to cry and scream into his pillow. He brought this point up to her and she relented a little. Well, of course he didn’t need to force himself to go out when he was in pain. So, why couldn’t they stay at home more?, Tony reasoned. Pepper didn’t say it, but it was because of Stephen. She had an obvious dislike for the sorcerer that Tony couldn’t quite wrap his head around, but they didn’t dwell on that point for long.

Why did Tony have to have him over all the time, anyway? Okay, so they were back on that.

Tony’s mind was reeling, his headache from earlier settling into his temples like a stake being driven in with a mallet. Stephen helped with the pain. Pepper knew that. Being near Stephen’s half of the life force stopped the pain in Tony’s chest and helped everything else. But you don’t need to spend so much time with him, Pepper countered. Surely some of that time would be better spent with Morgan? Tony had nearly pulled his hair out at this point, as they had approached this question from about four different angles by now. He couldn’t spend that time with Morgan instead because, without Stephen, he’d be in too much pain to do much of anything. And he wasn’t willing to have Morgan see him lose his mind with pain. She didn’t need to see him sob because it felt like someone was tearing his lost arm off inch by inch. She didn’t need to see him sick over the toilet for three days straight because his reformed organs hit a hitch in their code. Pepper argued that he should be able to better schedule when he took his pain meds so that he could spend his painless periods with Morgan, which set off the cyclical nature of their argument again.

Tony tried to find the words to explain how Stephen made his pain go away like nothing else. He couldn’t explain how his presence felt like golden warmth and light, like slipping into a pool of honey where he could be completely painless for as long as he stayed there. How could he explain that several thousand tons was lifted from his chest every time he saw the sorcerer, saw his smile? He couldn’t, he realized, not without sounding like he was in love with the man. It was ridiculous, how this severed magical energy they now shared had so closely entwined him to someone who was a complete stranger in the beginning. Someone who would have been a good friend within several years time, but it hadn’t even been one year and Tony felt like he’d known him his entire life. There was plenty that they didn’t know about each other still, but he was so incredibly comfortable in the sorcerer’s presence that it didn't even matter.

“I thought you were fine with me needing to be around Stephen”, Tony sighed, trying once more even though it felt like a moot point. He was so tired right now

“I didn’t know it would be to this extent”, Pepper admitted tearfully, forehead creased with stress, before turning and going into the kitchen, and Tony could hear her slamming cupboard doors and then chopping something vigorously. Several hours later, Morgan had been picked up from her playdate and they’d had a silent dinner. Now, Tony stewed over his mug of coffee while Morgan looked through a picture book across from him at the coffee table.

“Daddy, are you sad?”

Tony looked up to meet his own brown eyes looking back at him with concern, guilt flickering through his chest at being so transparently miserable in front of her. He smiled reassuringly, reaching across the table with his good hand to give her hand a squeeze.

“No, Moguna. Daddy’s just tired.” Morgan seemed to consider this.

“Is your arm hurting?”, she suggested quietly, looking at the corner of her book instead of his face.

“No, it’s all good. I’m fine, baby. You don’t need to worry about me, okay? That’s my job.” Morgan nodded, but didn’t respond, like she didn’t believe him fully, and went back to her book silently. Tony watched her for a moment longer before digging in the pocket of his jeans, checking his surprisingly empty lock screen. Pepper had moved on to angrily baking in the kitchen, so he chanced sending Stephen a quick text.

Sorry about today. Make it up to you with lunch?

Pepper came into the room, dusting flour off her jeans as Tony slipped his phone back into his pocket.

“Morgan, time for bed, sweetie. Go brush your teeth and maybe Daddy can read you a story?” She raised a brow at Tony, who nodded, giving her a glance before turning to Morgan.

“Yep. Let’s go, little miss. Teeth and PJs, then you can pick a book.”

“Yay!”

They held hands all the way to her room, Morgan’s picture book wedged under one arm as she ‘helped’ her dad up the stairs. She’d seen him stumble with weak leg muscles on the stairs more times in the past year than she was comfortable with, making her now slightly paranoid about him climbing them alone. Tony supervised and praised her teeth brushing, though she was completely capable of doing it on her own, his phone weighing heavily in his pocket as he waited to feel the text vibration. He was given a chance to glance at the lock screen while Morgan selected a clean pair of pyjamas, chest empty and hollow as the screen remained devoid of notifications. He was worried that his and Pepper’s argument, what he had seen of it anyway, may have driven Stephen off, or made him feel unwelcome at the very least. This worry intermixed with his guilt over his argument with Pepper, twisting together and settling into the pit of his stomach in a knot.

Morgan’s bedtime story was selected and read by the time Tony’s phone went off. He left several soft kisses on her already half-asleep forehead, before leaving her room, quietly shutting the door behind himself before pulling his phone out.

A text from Rhodey flashed on the screen and Tony couldn’t help the slight sliver of disappointment which found its way under this breastbone.

You okay?

The disappointment was replaced with gratitude as Tony typed out a reply, and a hint of warmth sparked in his chest at his friend’s concern.

I’ve been worse.

He then sent another text to Stephen, hoping the new notification would gain his attention.

Lunch on Thursday? You free?

Rhodey replied to his text.

Use those sleeping pills if you need them. I’m off tomorrow if you need to talk.

Thanks. Night, platypus.

Tony sighed, pushing away from the wall and shuffling down the hall to his and Pepper’s room. He could still hear her baking in the kitchen, less noisy than before, but since it was only eight o’clock, he figured she wouldn’t be up to bed for a while. He flopped down onto his side of the bed, wincing as he remembered that was a bad idea, his cybernetic arm contracting and sending a jolt of pain up into his shoulder. Groaning as he lied on his back, he held his phone above his face and typed a text to Stephen.

You alright?

The typing bubble popped up almost immediately and Tony’s heart jumped in his chest.

Won’t be able to make Thursday.

Any other day work for you?

Really busy this week. Sorry.

Tony couldn’t help the sharp feeling of hurt which spread itself across his chest like spilled ink. He quickly reasoned with himself that it made sense that Stephen would be getting busier with his duties as a sorcerer now that he’d made good progress in his healing, and as he’d regained some of his magic abilities. He supposed he’d gotten used to having the sorcerer at his beck and call, while Stephen had always jumped to spend time with him.

A creeping feeling of horror slowly consumed Tony’s chest, intermixing with the hurt, as a horrible thought occurred to him for the first time: Maybe Stephen was feeling used.

Maybe he had felt used ever since that first dinner at the cabin, when the sorcerer had brought up how close proximity to each other would heal some of the physical pain they were both feeling. Had Tony been taking advantage of him this entire time? He hadn’t been intending to, that was for sure. Of course, the whole deal with their life force had bred a sort of premature dependence on one another, sparking the beginnings of a bond that might not have formed otherwise, or taken longer to form, at least.

Tony tossed his phone across the bed, sighing deeply as he crossed his hands over his chest. He didn’t know what to reply, if there was anything to reply at all. How could he have been so blind to how the stoic sorcerer felt around him? Granted, it had seemed like they’d been getting closer over the past five months especially, Stephen’s layer of ice being chipped away ever so slowly. Tony sniffed, running his flesh hand down his face. Maybe he’d been imagining it. Maybe Stephen’s supposed comfort and ease had been a facade to hide how trapped he felt by their newfound relationship.

A quiet sob caught in Tony’s throat.

Stephen had given up a part of his soul, his life, his very being, and they hadn’t even talked about the premises of their new relationship. What did it mean to give a piece of yourself to a complete stranger? And so readily, it had seemed. Not that there had been a lot of time to dwell over it.

Tony almost choked on the bile rising in his throat, rolling over as hot tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes. Did Stephen regret giving him a part of his life force? Most people would. Splicing yourself in two and handing one half over to someone you had known for barely a day was as insane as it sounded. His mind spun desperately for a sane snippet of his thoughts that he could text to Stephen to try and confirm his own fears. But everything that came to mind was too desperate, too intense, too much. He stared blankly at the blinking cursor in the text field, thumb poised to type. A million frantic thoughts reeled in his head, but none of them were appropriate to put into words. After about ten minutes, once his arm had begun to ache, he let his arm and the phone drop to the bed.

Footsteps sounded at the top of the staircase and Tony’s heart lurched, settling into a rhythmic thump while he listened intently, waiting for Pepper to come into view in the doorway. Instead, her footfalls faded away down the hall, heading towards the guest bedroom.

Oh. That’s how it was...

Tony spent the rest of the night with his arms crossed over his stomach, falling in and out of a fitful sleep which was pockmarked by silent tears and periods of staring at his text messages. Never before had his heart felt so heavy, and he couldn’t help but feel that it was all his fault.

*****

Some days Peter was completely fine. Other days it came in waves and washed over him, like a tsunami of pain and memories and horrible images that he was scared he might never be able to get out of his head.

Today was one of the good days, luckily. It was a Sunday, and he’d spent the morning with Tony, currently trying to wrap his head around the game of cribbage they were playing. Tony was teaching him, insisting that it was abysmal the teen didn’t know how to play a single card game. And apparently magic card tricks didn’t count.

“No, no, you wanna put your bigger suits down first, okay? Especially if you have an ace or a five.” Tony’s tone was patient as he picked the card up and put it back in Peter’s hand. “Try again.”

“Wait, why? Aren’t I trying to get to fifteen?” Tony nodded.

“Yeah, but you want to save that in case we start another set, and the ace is for trying to get to thirty one.” Peter nodded, though he didn’t really understand, quirking a brow as he selected another card. He took his time, glancing up at Tony who was studying the pin board with a blank expression.

“You okay?”, Peter asked lightly. It was a dangerous question nowadays. They asked it a lot of each other, definitely more than the average person did, while prepared for the varied responses that were bound to come after all that had happened. He had noticed the way Tony’s left hand was a bit twitchy as he dealt out the cards, something that happened when his nerves and anxiety were getting the better of him.

“What? Of course”, Tony replied, giving him the familiar look that said, I’m the adult, you shouldn't be worrying about me. “Put your card down, kid.” Peter complied, but kept a wary gaze on Tony’s left hand.

“You just seem kinda antsy”, Peter said innocently, twiddling with his hands while glancing up to appraise his mentor’s expression. He was met by one dark eye, one milky blue, lowered brow pinching his features slightly.

“Nope”, he replied, popping the ‘P’ emphatically while avoiding eye contact. Clearly lying. He played his last card and then laid the stack out in front of Peter. “I’m fine. Alright, count your points out.”

“Mr. Stark”, Peter insisted, making sure his voice didn’t evolve into a whine.

“I’m alright, I’m all good”, Tony said airily, hands spread wide. “I don’t know what you’re getting all worked up about. I’ve never been better.” Peter’s enhanced vision didn’t fail to notice the sharp intake of breath when Tony raised his hands too high, quickly dropping them as he masked the jolt of pain by spreading his own cards out.

“The vein in your forehead says differently”, Peter muttered under his breath, laying his cards in sets to make fifteen. Tony scoffed in aghast horror at his response, though playfully.

“I cannot believe - are you accusing me of lying? You better watch it there, young whipper snapper”, Tony drawled, giving the teen a crooked smirk, and Peter’s heart thumped soundly with affection.

“‘Course not. Just worried about you”, he admitted.

“Don’t be”, Tony growled good-naturedly, moving his peg on the board several spaces. Peter still felt the unrest stirring in his chest though, determined not to be swayed by Tony’s defensive attitude. He followed suit, placing his white marker six holes away from its previous position.

“You’re kicking my ass”, Peter observed matter-of-factly. He needed to set up their conversation so Tony didn’t suspect he was being questioned about his well-being. A different plan of attack was in order.

“It takes practice to get strategic with it. Experience will tell you what cards to keep once you start to notice what moves might be possible. Here, shuffle these for me. You need the practice.” Peter took the deck Tony handed messily to him, even though it was his turn to deal. Peter noticed how his cybernetic arm was shaking of its own accord, causing Tony to clamp his good hand around his wrist, chest heaving silently, though he tried to downplay his discomfort. “Do you want a drink?”

“I’m okay”, Peter responded, dropping a few of the cards as he shuffled them, even though he knew Tony would grab something for him to drink anyway. The man had long ago picked up on his tendency to decline offers of food even when he actually wanted something, combating this habit by simply proffering food and drink whenever he got it for himself.

He watched as Tony got to his feet with some difficulty, leaning on the table with his good arm too heavily, stumbling a little as he walked the few feet to the fridge.

“Do you want me to-?”

“Just shuffle those cards”, Tony responded a little shortly, pointing at the deck. Peter rolled his eyes slightly. The man was too proud for his own good sometimes. He watched as Tony took a bottle of ginger ale out of the fridge, Peter’s favourite, and poured it into two glasses, pushing one across the table in front of the teen. He saw Tony’s jaw set as he braced himself to lower himself back into his seat, a grimace passing over his face as a visible muscle contraction squeezed his chest. He huffed a deep breath involuntarily, causing Peter to meet his eyes with raised brows.

“Do you need your pain meds?”, he asked, feeling like he wasn’t nearly competent enough to ask such an adult-sounding question.

“Nope. Already took them”, Tony groaned, doing his damnedest to pretend he could still focus on their game. “Deal those out for me?” Peter ignored his request, setting the deck down with a small frown, his own jaw set in determination

“If you took them, you shouldn’t be in this much pain. If they aren’t working, then maybe you need to up the dosage or-.”

“Peter”, Tony cut in sternly, embarrassment showing in his good eye. “I get enough of this from everyone else, I don’t need you treating me like some incompetent invalid.” He took a breath, looking guilty for speaking in a hard tone. “I’m just sick of all of it, alright? Sick of my body, sick of my head, but you’re the kid here and the last thing you need is to be worried about me.” Peter looked down at the deck of cards he had rested his hands on.

“But I care about you”, he said in a low voice. “I just don’t want you to be in pain anymore.”

“I’m...not. My meds are working, everything’s fine. Alright? Deal the cards.”

“You’re lying to me”, Peter said, forehead tight, hating how his voice broke. Tony’s brow creased, frowning to see the teen tearing up.

“Pete-.”

“If your meds are working, then why are you in so much pain again? You haven’t been this bad in months”, he insisted almost desperately.

“It’s just been this past week that it’s gotten bad again”, Tony admitted, mumbling under his breath as he spun his glass of ginger ale around with his good hand. Peter’s brow furrowed, concern and anxiety making his heart thump in his chest. This man meant everything to him; thinking of him being in constant, excruciating pain was painful within itself.

“Why? Do you know what happened? Has anything changed?” The look on Tony’s face - which Peter was surprised to find looked embarrassed - told him that he knew exactly what had happened to cause this sudden change for the worse. His mentor drew a hand through his hair tiredly, looking older than usual as stress pinched his features, his eyes adopting a faraway look as he avoided Peter’s gaze.

“I, uh, it’s not really -.” Tony stared blankly at the ceiling for a second, brow furrowed in a frown. His expression clearly said that he had no idea how to word this appropriately, and Peter felt like he was about to become privy to something that was none of his business, something that would be uncomfortable for him to know. Tony took a deep breath before letting it out again. “You know how Strange and I are linked now, with the life force thing?” Peter nodded. Tony had explained everything to him in as much detail as was appropriate, though Peter hadn’t had a lot of time to form much of an opinion about the whole thing, as he was busy dealing with everything going on in his own head. All that mattered to him was that the sorcerer helped Tony experience less pain on a day-to-day basis, and for that he was grateful to him. But now the pieces clicked together.

“You haven’t seen him this week”, Peter said, more of a statement than a question, and was satisfied to see Tony nod, though reluctantly.

“Two weeks, actually. But that shouldn’t be a problem. I can’t be so dependent on him, I mean, the guy does have a life besides being my human pain medication.” Peter decided there was something both odd and endearing about that statement. He could also see that Tony was trying to downplay how much the situation, even the words, were affecting him emotionally.

“But I’m sure he’d come over if he knew you were in a lot of pain.” Tony’s head snapped up.

“Hey, now, I’m not guilt-tripping him into coming over. Just because I’m too much of a wuss to handle a couple of muscle aches.” Now it was Peter’s turn to give an unimpressed look. He knew the discomfort that Tony felt, the aches in his chest especially, could render him bedridden and unable to move for long stretches of time on the bad days. He knew because he had spent hours with Tony on those days, just lying with him silently or talking when ever Tony felt well enough. Casually belittling the soreness and aches he felt as his body tried to recuperate after a full-body douse of gamma radiation was a disgusting understatement of what he was recovering from.

“You guys like hanging out together, though, don’t you?”, Peter asked, feeling out of place, as if some adult version of himself should be having this conversation instead. “Like, you’re kinda friends now, aren’t you? I thought you were, at least.”

“Yeah, yeah, totally”, Tony nodded, looking uneasy. “It’s just, well, we had a bit of a disagreement. Well, Pepper and I did…about Stephen, I suppose you could say. But it’s not his fault. My fault, actually, more than anything.” He blinked, apparently realizing he’d said too much, though Peter didn’t understand anymore of the situation. His confusion must have been evident on his face as Tony sighed, drawing a hand down his face again, taking a sip of his ginger ale as if to wash the taste of his jumbled words out of his mouth. He pressed his fingers to his temples, resetting his brain to try and make some semblance of sense.

“Look”, Tony started again, setting both hands on the table in front of him. “There’s some complicated stuff that I need to work out - that I’ve been trying to work out, which Stephen inadvertently got caught up in the middle of. Not his fault.” Peter watched him chew on his cheek, working out his next words more carefully. “But this whole thing with relying on him to make my pain lessen…it couldn’t last forever, right?”

“But if your medication isn’t working”, Peter interjected. “And being around Doctor Strange is the only thing that works well enough so you’re not in pain, then I think should work through what ever you need to so you can spend time with him again.” Tony blinked, like he was surprised and simultaneously expectant of how mature Peter sounded.

“It’s not that simple”, he said numbly, making Peter’s chest tighten with frustration.

“Yes, it is. It’s none of my business what’s going on with you or Mrs. Stark, or whatever, but can’t you just call him? Tell him you’re in a lot of pain? Or word it differently, I don’t know…”

“I have”, Tony supplied dejectedly, though he tried to hide it. “I texted him a couple times and he’s just been busy, that’s all.” Tony took a deep breath and Peter was pretty sure he didn’t imagine the glossiness he saw in his good eye. “I don’t want him to feel used, Pete. Like you said, we are friends, and friends don’t treat each other like shit.”

“If he’s actually your friend, he’ll want to help you”, Peter said stubbornly, and he could feel his brow furrowing in that way that May always infuriatingly said was cute. Tony sat up slightly, like he was physically building a defence.

“I’ve been in contact, alright? He says he’s busy. You gotta remember, just cause he’s had all the time in the world to goof off with us while he was healing, he is Sorcerer Supreme, whatever that means. He’s got a lot on his plate, so I can’t hold it to him if he does’t have the time or want to hang out anymore.” Tony relayed all of this matter-of-factly, but Peter could hear the emotion bubbling underneath his rock-hard composure. He was seriously hurt by the loss of his closeness with the sorcerer, and the thought made something in Peter’s chest boil.

“I’ll call him if you don’t”, he muttered darkly to the deck of cards, an empty threat as he would never invade Tony’s business like that unless he thought it was completely necessary. Though maybe it was necessary if Tony continued to be this stubborn.

“Deal the cards, Underoos”, Tony grinned as he called his supposed bluff, reaching across the table to ruffle his curls good-naturedly to signal an end to their serious conversation. Peter complied, though he did so with a pout that was meant to imply that Tony hadn’t won the argument completely.

“I’m gonna kick your ass this time”, he declared, dealing Tony his six cards. His mentor gave him an affectionate smile that worked away at the concern knotted in his chest.

“Petey, honeybun, you’re thirty points behind me. Not gonna happen, kid.”

*****

Peter had felt small before, sure, but never quite as small as he did standing in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum, craning his neck and leaning back to look up at the top of the five-story building. He recognized the seal on the uppermost circular window, and it took a moment of sorting through his brain before remembering that he’d seen it on Doctor Strange’s amulet. His heart pounded in anxiety as it had been since this morning, in anticipation of his surprise visit to the Sanctum all day. It was only a week after his conversation with Tony over their game of cribbage, but he knew it was time for him to take matters into his own hands.

He had been over for his customary weekend visit to the Stark cabin again, and had been shocked and worried at how much worse Tony had gotten in the week since he’d seen him. It wasn’t unusual for Peter to make it Upstate on a school night, but this week had been particularly busy homework-wise, so he had decided to wait until Sunday. Now, he regretted it, seeing Tony laid length-wise on the couch, a cold cloth covering his eyes, not even able to get up to answer the door.

“C’mon in, Pete”, Tony had called and Peter had let himself in, toeing his boots off at the front door and dropping his backpack on a chair. He’d come into the living room, expecting Tony to be reading or messing around on his tablet, instead finding him nearly comatose as he was so knocked out on pain meds that he couldn’t keep his eyes open and his speech was slurred. It was also obvious that the pain meds weren’t working, as Tony held his face in a grimace which only got worse with each breath. He had tried to sit up, Peter had tried to stop him, but Tony was stubborn and forced himself into an upright position anyway. In that moment, trying to hold a conversation with his delirious mentor who was forcing words around the stabbing pain in his chest, Peter knew exactly what he needed to do.

And so, that visit led him to a decision which changed his after school plans, taking him from the familiarity of his usual bus route on a Monday afternoon. He stayed on past his stop and crossed the bridge to Manhattan, enduring all fifty minutes of the crowded, rattling bus ride which would take him to Greenwich Village.

Now he stood, scarf pulled up around his face in the cold, staring up at the building and the door in front of him, rooted to the spot as though his boots had become frozen to the wet pavement. Any words of encouragement he might have had for himself were swept away on the wind which buffeted his thin jacket, cursing himself for neglecting to grab his winter coat that morning.

“C’mon, Peter”, he muttered to himself as he strode up the front steps and finally knocked on the door. “For Mr. Stark.” It wasn’t that he was intimidated by Doctor Strange so much as the ominous majesty of the Sanctum itself, feeling very small as he stood in front of the door. And it didn’t help that Peter had just realized the sorcerer might be busy, or an unexpected visitor at the Sanctum may be unwelcome. He was able to stop himself from jumping when the door was suddenly thrown open, revealing the glowering figure from within. Definitely not Strange, Peter decided instantly, for this man was squat and broad, wearing a burgundy tunic similar to the one Peter had seen the Sorcerer Supreme wear. Doctor Strange had mentioned him enough times that Peter had been able to produce a mental image of his friend, and wasn’t disappointed by reality. His mind scrambled for the man’s name for a moment, panic settling in under the sorcerer’s accusatory gaze.

“Uh, sorry. Hi, Wong, right?” No negative reaction. No reaction at all, actually. “Um, I’m Peter. Peter Parker? You’re Doctor Strange’s friend, right? Or are you someone else? Are there other wiz-sorcerers here or-? Sorry, I don’t know how it works, I was just…uh, could I maybe speak to Doctor Strange?”

“I’m not his receptionist”, Wong finally growled, but retreated back into the Sanctum, leaving the door open in what Peter took as a sign to follow him in.

Peter wasn’t sure what he had been expecting the inside of the building to look like, but this was certainly close. Very Hogwartsy. It was cleaner than he’d expected, or at least the foyer was. He’d expected a lot of dust for some reason, but maybe that was reserved for the books, none of which were in sight. Peter unzipped his coat as he spun around once, taking in the regal, dark wood of the foyer, ridiculously satisfying in its symmetry. He watched as Wong started walking up a large flight of stairs which were incredibly wide, Peter thought.

“Should I follow you?”, Peter asked carefully. Wong gave him look that could have meant anything, but didn’t mean no, leaving the teen to hurry after him up the steps. He followed the sorcerer down a long hall lined by ornate windows, the sunlight filtering through to make the wood gleam and the glass sparkle. Wong was silent as they walked, Peter struggling to keep up though the sorcerer seemed to be walking at a leisurely pace. “Are you a Sorcerer Supreme too?” Wong looked at him like he was an idiot.

“There is only one Sorcerer Supreme at a time.”

“Oh.” Peter glanced at some of the tapestries on the walls as they passed, wanting to see if they were as textured as they looked, but he also decided that touching anything would probably be frowned upon. Mostly by Wong. “Is Doctor Strange busy? I don’t want to bother him if-.”

“The Sorcerer Supreme is usually busy, yes.” Wong shrugged. “But I have no clue what he’s doing. Like I said, not his receptionist.”

“Right. Sorry.” Wong gave him a look that was less accusatory, but Peter couldn’t decipher much past that.

“Stop apologizing.”

“So-. Okay.”

At the end of the hall they came into a room that was made of books. Or so it seemed. Books lined the walls floor to ceiling, covering the floor in a pile that was big enough to be used as a table which held more books on top. Books were stacked on the windowsills so they blocked half the window, dust filtering through the sunlight allowed through the top half. There were bookshelves too, so covered in books that you couldn’t even seen the wood. The only decoration in the room was a patterned red carpet, visible right by the door and in narrow paths between all the stacks of books. And in the middle of this sea of books, looking more than a little flustered, was Doctor Strange.

“Strange”, Wong barked, getting the sorcerer’s attention. “Stark’s kid is here.” Peter’s cheeks flushed at the title, trying to hide his embarrassed joy.

“Peter”, Doctor Strange greeted pleasantly with a small smile as he looked up from the stack of books he was working on, his voice much smoother in contrast to Wong’s. “How are you doing?”

“Good”, Peter was distracted by the empty spot beside him previously occupied by Wong, but heard footsteps receding back down the hall behind him. “Uh, how are you?” Strange gestured to the sea of books.

“A little overwhelmed. Trying to reorganize the history volumes in Wong’s collection, but it’s not going as smoothly as planned.” Peter balked, looking around the room.

“These are all history books?” Strange laughed, a deep sound that filled the corners of the room.

“No, just-“, he gestured vaguely to several piles, “-this section. I’ve yet to tackle any other subjects, though just gathering these has taken me a week.” He picked his way out of the pile, disappearing behind a bookshelf for a few seconds before reappearing around another stack. “Anyway, enough about this mess.” He set the book he was holding down on a nearby pile as he walked towards Peter. As he got closer, Peter noticed he looked paler than usual, maybe a bit thinner as well, while his hands were deliberately hidden behind his back. “I’m sure there’s a reason for your visit.” Peter suddenly felt slightly guilty for never visiting before, but pushed past it. They saw plenty of each other at the Stark cabin anyway.

“Uh, yeah, I wanted to talk to you about something, I’m…I’m not sure if I should be, exactly, but I feel like I need to.” Strange raised a contemplative brow.

“Go on.”

“Well, for starters, Mr. Stark doesn’t know I’m here.” This hit a distinct cord with the sorcerer, Peter could see, but Strange hid it well. “He’s, uh, well, he’s not doing so well lately. I know with your life force thingy, you guys are kinda connected or something, and he said he hadn’t seen you in two weeks, and then I went and saw him yesterday and he could barely move because he was in a lot of pain so he took a lot of pain meds. But then the pain meds weren’t working, so he was still in pain and he told me how you’re the only thing that actually helps the pain, but he doesn’t want you to feel used or something? Then there was something with Mrs. Stark, but he didn’t really tell me about that, obviously. I just think that whatever disagreement you guys had you need to work through, because I know you’re his friend and he needs your help, but he won’t listen to me and talk to you himself because he’s so goddamn stubborn...so I’m here.” Peter was taking shaking breaths by the time he had finished, blinking at the tears that had accumulated in his eyes as he spoke. He met the sorcerer’s face and was surprised to find sympathy and worry written over his face as opposed to annoyance. Surprised, but relieved.

“That’s, um”, the sorcerer cleared his throat. “I’m glad you came. And, um, Tony and I didn’t have an argument, he just doesn’t want me around anymore.” Peter was almost overwhelmed by the heartbroken look on the sorcerer’s face, but got distracted by the blatant untruth of his words.

“Wait, what? That’s not true, he’s-.” Peter paused. He couldn’t say heartbroken. Or devastated, though those were both the most accurate descriptors for the look he’d seen in his mentor’s eyes last week. “He misses you. What ever made you think that, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Extremely wrong.” Doctor Strange blinked several times, looking overwhelmed, nodding slowly as he leaned against one of the book-covered windowsills.

“Alright, I believe you. I’ll, uh, get in contact with him, then. Thank you, Peter.”

It had been infinitely easier to convince Doctor Strange to brush away his pride and get in contact with Tony, and Peter was proud of the chance he’d taken going to see him without Tony’s knowing. Doctor Strange was every bit as stubborn as the engineer, but in a different way. While Tony was closed off about emotional matters, Peter had noticed the sorcerer tended to hold steadfast when he felt strongly about his intellectual standing in a situation. And it seemed that he was particularly pliable when it came to anything concerning Tony’s well-being, physical or otherwise.

*****

Tony stared down at his phone blankly for the seventeenth time since he’d received the text from Stephen.

He was in the passenger seat of his own Audi while Happy drove, which stung a little, but there wasn’t much he could do with his cybernetic arm acting up as it was. Besides, he was barely in a fit enough state to be out in public, never mind well enough to drive. Tony looked down at the text again, simultaneously relieved by its existence and offended by its nonchalant simplicity.

Come by the Sanctum this week. Tomorrow, if convenient.

That had been yesterday, when he’d heard the sorcerer’s custom notification go off, and he was still appalled by how casual the text sounded.

“‘If convenient’”, he growled, turning to Happy. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“I have no idea”, Happy replied idly, concentrating on navigating the Manhattan traffic. “Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it means exactly what it says and nothing else. And maybe you need to chill out before you get yourself all worked up again.” Tony flicked him in the side of the head, receiving a frown.

“Don’t go all Driving Miss Daisy on me. I’m not an old woman having a fit, okay, Hap? You’re the one who needs to chill.” Happy gave him a look which Tony worked very hard to ignore.

“Tell that to the corner of your glass table.” Tony gaped, but his drug-marinated brain couldn’t come up with a good enough retort, so he shut his mouth and stared ahead instead. They drove in silence until Happy pulled up in front of the Sanctum, rush hour traffic crawling by as they miraculously found a parking spot. “Spooky-looking”, Happy commented, leaning forward so he could survey the entire building. “Do you want me to come in with you?”

“I’ll be fine”, Tony replied, though he was less sure than he had been an hour ago. “This isn’t going to be a conversation open to spectators anyway.” Happy nodded, giving him a look that was all too knowing.

“If you’re sure.” Tony wasn’t sure, but nodded.

“Yep, thanks for the ride, Hap. N’ sorry for being a dick.” Happy smirked.

“Yeah, well, you’re only this much of a dick when you’re in a lot of pain, so…”, he pointed to the Sanctum. “Go get this sorted out. How long do you think you’ll be? Want me to wait here?”

“No, it’ll be a while.” Tony opened the door, early winter air prickling his bare arm as he stepped out, leaning down so he could still talk to Happy. “Go home. I’ll call you, or take the bus to Pete’s or something.”

“No, call me”, Happy insisted. “And take your coat.” The door was shut on his words as Tony gave him a cheeky wave and walked up the steps to the Sanctum, unsteady despite himself. His head was already pounding, cold seeping under the fabric of his long-sleeve, and he pulled his rolled-up sleeve down. He knocked, head low against the wind, looking back over his shoulder to make sure Happy had left. He didn’t want him sitting there waiting for who knows how long. Tony’s stomach was coiled in knots of anxiety, hidden well by his surface annoyance brought on by the crippling ache in his chest, the trembling of his limbs. He had lied to Pepper about where he was going with Happy, so guilt worked its way under the anxiety. The door was finally thrown open and Wong exuded annoyance, though maybe a little less so in Tony’s presence.

“Stark”, he greeted, blunt, but respectful, and gestured for him to come inside.

“Hey. Strange is here, I take it?” Tony felt distracted, jittery, his left hand twitching of its own accord. He hated the feeling, like he was going to tremble his way out of his own skin.

“Second floor. Study to the left of the staircase. You know it.”

“Yeah. Thanks, Wong.”

Oh, for god’s sake, he was getting nauseous as he trudged up the stairs, though the prickling feeling on his skin had stopped as he got used to the warmth of the Sanctum. The warmth only increased as he turned down the hall, though he realized it wasn’t just external anymore. His chest was absolutely blooming with warm relief that felt like taking a soothing sip of a warm drink, encompassing his chest with pleasure and comfort. It trickled down into his limbs, warming his core, working him back to life as he got closer to the other piece of the life force. It wasn’t as if all of his pain dissolved, though. His headache was still pounding in his temples like a sledge hammer, nausea knotted in his stomach, while his metal arm felt as if someone was slowly tugging it off his body.

Clutching the artificial limb to his body, Tony entered Stephen’s study, the subtle scents of incense and mint filling the air. He took a deep breath, trying to quell the anxiety rising in his chest, choking him from the inside out like reverse drowning, but it was no use. Various possibilities of how their conversation might go flooded his thoughts, though he tried desperately to block them out. In Tony’s mind, it could go one of two ways: One, they worked through the obvious miscommunication and things could go back to normal, whatever normal meant nowadays. Two, he had offended the proud sorcerer and damaged their relationship to the point of no return, and they would go their separate ways. The second option was unbearable, so he pushed it away. He couldn’t lose Stephen, and not just because of the pain relief he offered. No, he was so much more to Tony, though he didn’t have the words to describe it.

“Hey, Tony.” Tony turned to face the sorcerer, who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He looked tired and grizzled, exactly like Tony felt, his hair in slight disarray. He was looking at Tony like he was watching the most beautiful flower bloom, and Tony almost choked at the magnitude of affection in his eyes. Even worse was the flicker of fear, the fear of getting hurt.

“Hey”, Tony responded numbly, not sure what else to say. His arm had gone numb, the shooting pain reduced to a dull ache that was much more bearable. He wondered if Stephen had anything to do with it.

“Thanks for coming. I thought maybe you wouldn’t.”

“I was surprised to get your text, honestly.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have texted you…” Tony’s heart broke a little. “I didn’t want to bother you. But Peter said you weren’t doing well and that your meds weren’t working, so I-.” Tony met his eyes in confusion.

“The kid was here?”

“He was worried about you”, Stephen explained gently, the look on his face saying that he was as well. “And it seems he had every right to be.” Tony tugged at his sleeve self-consciously, wondering if there had been that much of a visible change in three weeks.

“Well, you don’t need to worry about that, Strange. I’m not your patient or anything, so how I’m doing physically isn’t really any of your concern, life force or not.” The words came out harsher than Tony had intended, and he regretted saying them immediately. “Is that why Pete came to you? ‘Cause I told him you used to help me?”

Used to. Stephen had to bite his lip to keep from tearing up. Is this what their bond had been reduced to? He cursed himself for being so clingy, for visiting Tony too often, for splitting a rift in his marriage. Goddamn him and his clingy, stupid ass.

“Yes, I suppose. Like I said, he was worried about you.”

“He shouldn’t have-.” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “He shouldn’t have bothered you.”

“He wasn’t bothering me. Don’t tell him that he was, I don’t want him to-.”

“You think I would actually say that to him?” Tony looked offended. “The kid feels guilty for asking for a glass of water. I’m not a monster, Strange.” Stephen nodded in acceptance, trying hard to ignore that apparently they were back to a last name basis.

“I know. Sorry, I was just-.” He didn’t know what he was doing. He’d been miserable the past three weeks without Tony and now that he was standing here in front of him, he had no idea what to say. Tony’s brow was pinched, staring at the floor as he was obviously gearing himself up to speak.

“Why’d you start avoiding me?”, Tony asked suddenly. He couldn't bear dwelling on that question in his head anymore. It was a mental nightmare. “Not once have you declined plans to get together and then, out of nowhere, you start ghosting me.” Tony held back his tears, for now, at least. “You weren’t even texting me back, what’s with that? What’d I do?” Stephen blinked, completely blindsided.

“I-I thought you, uh…didn’t want me around anymore. What with Rhodey said-.” Something in Tony’s eyes snapped.

“What the hell did Rhodey say?”

“Last time I was over he, uh, mentioned that you didn’t want me to feel like I needed to be around all the time.” Stephen glanced up to find Tony looking at him, mouth pulled into a tight line, though the corner was quirked up in the beginnings of a grin.

“And you took that as me not wanting you around anymore?” Stephen blinked again, suddenly feeling very stupid.

“Well, yeah. And you sounded happy to see me when we were on the phone, but I got there and…well, I could feel how angry you were. Your energy-.”

“Stephen”, Tony interjected, forcefully but not unkind. “I had just had a fight with Pepper the day before and I knew she was coming home soon. That’s why I was pissed. At myself”, he clarified, tilting his head slightly. His voice softened. “Why the hell wouldn’t I want you around?” Stephen could think of a million reasons, but explaining would take too long, so he shrugged instead.

“I don’t know. I’m sure you could find your reasons.” Tony gave him a look that was enough on the teasing side of sympathetic that Stephen didn’t feel like he was being pitied.

“You’re ridiculous”, Tony rasped, affectionate. Stephen grinned despite the nagging feeling of apprehension in his chest, dropping his head to stare at his feet. They’d moved closer to each other almost subconsciously throughout their conversation, like two opposite magnets drawn into each other’s orbit. “We’re, um, both ridiculous, actually. I thought you were pulling away because I’d been taking advantage of you.” Tony’s face fell slightly. “Have been. Still am, actually. Kind of doing it right now.” Stephen’s brow furrowed.

“What? What do you mean ‘taking advantage’?”

“Using you so I’m not in constant pain, Stephen! Like Peter told you, my pain meds do shit all! I’m so drugged up right now you have no idea, and I still feel like I’m being torn in half!”

“So, let’s just keep doing as we were. I’ll still visit and we can spend time…I’m sure Pepper will understand if you-.” Tony cut him off, frustrated.

“No, she won’t. She doesn’t. That’s not her fault. I don’t understand it myself most the time.” Stephen frowned.

“Our life force-.”

“No, Steph, I know that part, obviously. I mean…it’s because of the life force that we’re still in each other’s lives at all, right? Like, if not for the physical effects of being apart, do you think we’d even be friends?” Stephen had to focus hard on not tearing up, doing so by forcing himself to keep his eyes on Tony, as much as his heart was slowly shattering.

“I’d like to think so, yes”, he said, choked up. That was something he had never questioned. After all the futures he’d seen, he knew he would go to the ends of the universe for Tony Stark. “I’d hope so.”

Oh, piss off, Strange. Admit you feel a little obligated to be around me.”

“Tony-.”

“I did take half of your life force, after all!”

“You didn’t take it, I gave it to you. More than willingly.”

“Why the fuck did you do that?!” Stephen felt like his heart had stopped, forgetting how to breathe as he watched Tony’s face break down in grief. He realized in that moment that Tony’s anger wasn’t actually anger, it wasn’t even dislike for him. It was fear. Fear, frustration, and lack of understanding rolled into one and confusing his moral compass. Confusing his heart.

“What do you mean?” His couldn’t force his voice above a whisper.

“‘Cause, I-I did the thing-”, Tony ground out, snapping messily. His voice was suddenly deathly quiet, his body trembling. “To kill that bastard and keep everyone else alive, but you…” He paused, looking away as he teared up. “You kept me alive. You could have died instead, but you risked that and…”, he looked at Stephen again, meeting his face with an intensely sad look, “-I’m still trynna wrap my head around that, Stephen.” Stephen’s mind was reeling, realizing that Tony must have been mulling on this in the back of his mind all along.

“I-.”

“Why’d you do it when you didn’t even know me?” Tony was still trembling with pain and anger, his eyes intensely sad, but challenging. Stephen hesitated again, paralyzed for fear of how his response may affect Tony.

“I-I can’t tell you.” Shit. He should have said that differently.

“Fuck you and all your mysterious wizard shit! You don’t have any right to save my life and then not even tell me why! I didn’t know you, Stephen. We were complete strangers, right? I knew you for a day and then you went and almost died for me! Do you see how that might freak me out a little?!” Stephen took a deep breath, trying to suppress his own frustration. Frustration at not being able to just explain everything to him.

“Can’t you just accept that I wanted to keep you alive if I could? Whether I knew you before that or not?”

“It doesn’t make sense”, Tony whispered coarsely, covering his eyes with his good hand, drawing it down his face slowly. “It does’t make any fucking sense. You doing that-. I’ve gone over it so many goddamned times, and it still doesn’t make any sense.”

“I’m sorry. This is a situation no one else has ever had to deal with. There’s a lot of it that doesn’t make sense.”

“Stephen!”, Tony said desperately, almost pleading. “Stop with all the sage bullshit!” The frustrated fire was back in his eyes. “I know you’re not telling me everything and it’s exhausting. If we were actually friends, I’d think you’d at least trust me!”

“Tony, please-.”

“I can’t deal with this. I can’t lose someone else because they’re lying to me.” His tears came back to join the fire in the darkness of his one umber eye, meeting Stephen’s face for one moment of fiery grief before turning and leaving the room.

*****

Tony’s breath was knocked out of his lungs as he stumbled out onto the sidewalk, immediately gripped with cold as the winter wind slapped him in the face. He hadn’t called Happy and he certainly wasn’t waiting for him in the foyer. He just needed to walk right now.

It hurt too much to think about what had just happened, not yet ready to come to the realization that he had just lost Stephen. He’d lost him, by his own choosing, at least. He couldn’t wait until the sorcerer stabbed him in the back, as his paranoia insisted he might. That would hurt far more, though the little voice in the back of his mind insisted Stephen would never do that to him, would never turn on him, despite any rough spots they went through. But he had just ruined any chance of letting the sorcerer prove his loyalty, stumbling down the sidewalk as he was almost grateful for the returning ache in his arm to distract him from the pain in his chest.

Nausea gripped his stomach as he found himself at a bus stop, hugging his shoulders while he watched the bus approach through a flurry of snowflakes. Tony climbed onto the bus wordlessly, managing to dig in his pocket for some change, and if the driver recognized him, he didn’t mention it. The seat directly behind the driver was free, but Tony elected to stand and hang on to the grab rail. Sitting felt wrong right now. He was delirious, vision swimming as he became feverish in the clammy semi warmth on the bus. Swaying on his feet, Tony tried to ignore the throbbing in his head, overwhelmed by the pain in his arm as he focused on the road ahead. It took him fifteen minutes to realize that the bus wasn’t heading to Queens as he had originally thought, instead going towards the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He groaned, pulling the cord to request a stop and stumbled out onto the sidewalk, back into the cold and the snow. He trudged down the pathway and stumbled a little, shivering hard enough that he had to clench his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.

He knew he should just call Happy and go home with him to spend the night at Peter’s, but this knowledge was somewhere in his peripheral memory, buried under miles of pain and anger. He was angry at himself. He deserved to freeze in the late November snow, to walk through this windy night until he couldn’t feel his hands anymore, until he couldn’t feel the pain of his metal arm anymore. Maybe if he stayed out here long enough, the cold would reach his chest, and freeze the deep, jabbing pain that lived there permanently. Tony looked up, noticing he was surrounded by trees for the first time, lining the path he was walking on. There was a small body of water, he recognized The Pond to his left as he walked, a thin layer of ice covering the surface of the water and clinging heavily to the plants on its banks.

Tony stopped, wind slowed by the tree cover as snowflakes fell in a flurry all around him. He sucked in a breath and the air was so cold in his lungs that he choked on it, sending a jolt of pain through the entire right side of his body. He was so sick of being in pain. So, so tired. A ragged sob left his chest and that hurt too. His tears felt cold as they ran down his numb cheeks, tilting his head up to try and decipher the snowflakes between the few stars visible through the clouds.

He missed Stephen. He just wanted everything to be okay.

Everything in him was numb, limbs slack as he realized that he didn’t feel so cold anymore.

He should call Happy.

“Tony!”

Tony turned robotically, stiffly, hearing the vibrant crackling of a gateway before he saw it. There he was, appearing like some tall ghost in the cold and dark, amber sparks sputtering out behind the outline of his cloak. Suddenly Stephen was in front of him, and a tiny ember of Tony’s earlier anger ignited in his chest.

“The hell are you doing here?” Tony’s lips felt like plastic, his face stiff from the cold. His jaw was so tight he had forgotten that it was supposed to be able to open. He couldn’t focus on anything, vision swirling with the snow. There. His eyes remained fixed on the two, worried, blue-green eyes in front of him.

“I could ask you the same. Why don’t you have a coat?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Tony’s voice was slurred. “Doesn’t hurt.”

“Tony-.” Stephen tried to take hold of his arm gently, to gather him closer, but Tony pushed him away.

“No. ’S fine. Just don’t want it to hurt anymore”, he muttered, barely audible. He dodged Stephen’s second attempt to grab his arm, to stop him from swaying. Tony left the path and headed towards the trees, slip-sliding over the fresh snow as he made his way down the gentle slope. He could hear Stephen’s boots crunching hurriedly in the snow behind him as the sorcerer tried to convince him to stop.

“Tony, please. I don’t know why you’re out here, but-.”

“Trying to get away from-.” What was he running from? Stephen? Technically, yes, but that’s not why he was stumbling around Central Park half frozen. His pain? He needed it to stop, by any means possible. He needed relief. He needed Stephen. He stopped, letting the sorcerer catch up with him, turning to face him. The warmth in his chest from being near him was finally registered by his numb brain, a small wave of relief beginning to trickle down throughout his spasming ribcage. “I can’t deal with this. I can’t deal with this pain. I can’t deal with you - losing you…” He met Stephen’s face with delirious desperation. “Don’t do this to me, please. Not you.”

“I’m never going to hurt you.” Something in the sorcerer softened, his shoulders slackening. “Please, let me show you that you can trust me.” He took his cloak off, stepping closer to Tony and wrapping it around his shoulders tightly. Stephen had worn a coat underneath Levi, so Tony didn’t feel quite so guilty as they stood under the bare trees in the dark and cold. The cloak was heavy, too long for him, and would have been dragging on the ground if it weren’t wrapped around his legs and upper body tightly, the fabric soft against the ice cold skin of his neck. He could feel the warning spell wash over him as Stephen made a quick, gold-flickering movement with one hand, relief shuddering through his tense muscles, almost sagging against the sorcerer’s front as his legs nearly gave out on him. But Levi pulled him up and kept him standing, though unsteadily.

“How’d you know where I was?”, Tony wheezed out, some semblance of a sane thought process returning as his body warmed. He couldn’t ignore the satin-smooth relief nestled in his chest, taking another step towards Stephen in subconscious gratitude.

“I didn’t really”, Stephen admitted. “I just felt you were in distress, and kind of…felt where you were. It doesn’t make sense, but I found you.” Tony laughed bitterly despite himself.

“That’s, uh, that’s something. You realize how weird that is, right?” The sorcerer didn’t let himself feel hurt at the question. It was Tony’s last futile attempt at keeping his armour together, Stephen knew. His defences were disintegrating as quickly as he tried to keep them up, and it was terrifying him. Stephen would help him let them down as gently as possible, but it wouldn’t be painless.

“Yeah, it’s a little weird. No one else in the history of the universe has ever had this type of bond before, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Tony face was overcome with rejection and grief. He scrabbled for the last scraps of an argument that would fill the hole created by the desperation he felt; the desperation to justify his dependence on Stephen, in a way that didn’t completely destroy his moral framework. He was a man of science. His mind liked the numbers, and the provable hypotheses, and the metal, and the things he could hold and understand. Now a physical part of him was infiltrated with a magic he couldn’t wrap his head around. And it was terrifying. His dependence on Stephen meant he was vulnerable, and his vulnerability meant that he could get hurt. He’d been betrayed so many times before, his brain didn’t offer any other options. His reaction to this helplessness was to lash out, make sure he hurt Stephen before Stephen had the chance to hurt him, no matter how much he actually cared for the sorcerer.

The fear took over. And Stephen understood.

“It’s okay that we need each other”, Stephen croaked out, trying to hold his composure for Tony’s sake. “I need you too. And I’ll never hurt you, Tony. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to not be in pain.” The last link in his armour snapped and Tony pulled back, lashing out once more, like a great, proud creature mortally wounded in too many battles. Battle after battle, with little to no support. He was bleeding, he was worn out, the fire was dying in his tired eyes, with barely enough energy for one last roar of defiance.

“For fuck’s sake, Stephen! I didn’t deserve you giving up half your soul for me!” He cowered in on himself, exhausted, gripping Levi around his shoulders tightly. His breath was haggard, his legs unsteady. Stephen’s heart was beginning to fracture at the sight.

“Yes, you did”, he whispered, taking a careful step towards Tony. The other man, cloaked in red as his eyes glistened with tears, shook his head. He took a step back, but Stephen carefully matched it. “You did deserve it. You still do. I wish you could see that.” Tony just shook his head again, but stayed where he was, glaring at Stephen and daring him to come closer.

“No”, he whispered bitterly. His body language was defensive, but Stephen saw the desperate fear in his eyes. He could break Stephen’s heart right in two sometimes.

“I don’t regret it, Tony. I never have, not even for a second.”

“You should”, he sobbed, crumbling. “You should regret it.” Stephen took another step forward, extending his arms subconsciously.

“No. Never”, he assured, gathering Tony in his arms as he broke. He bodily held him up, wrapped tightly in his arms as Tony fell against his front, fractured, dissolving, falling apart into so many different pieces of a human while Stephen desperately tried to gather him back together.

“I don’t believe you”, Tony choked out between sobs, forehead pressed against the sorcerer’s collarbone. Stephen adjusted his grip, wrapping both sides of his coat around Tony as Levi continued to cocoon him. The two halves of their life force hadn’t been this close to each other since they were Stephen’s alone, and the comfort provided by the closeness was indescribable.

“That’s okay”, Stephen whispered. “You will. I’m not going anywhere until you do.” A gut-wrenching sob shook Tony’s entire frame at his words, and he pressed into the sorcerer’s embrace even more, letting out all his tension and pain in tears which wracked his whole body.

“I’m so sorry, Steph”, he sobbed, barely audible with his face against Stephen’s chest. He finally allowed himself to wrap both arms around the sorcerer’s middle, ignoring the stabbing ache of protest from his cybernetic arm. “You shouldn’t have to deal with my bullshit”, he muttered wetly, pressing his face into the taller man’s sweater. Stephen’s only response was to hold him tighter, one gloved hand drifting up to cup the back of his head as he rested his chin on snow-damp, greying hair. Snow fell around them in lazy flurries, blanketing the park in a thick quiet that settled over them both in something akin to peace. Stephen’s only though was that, of all the universes in which he could exist, how lucky he was to be in this one.

“I can only hope that you’ll let me.”