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This Doesn't Mean That I Like You

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Prologue

Stephen saw stars as Tony swallowed him whole with the practice of someone who had done this a thousand times. His hands knew just what to do with Stephen’s balls and his tongue danced along Stephen’s length.

Tony made sure Stephen came swiftly and with an intensity that had both men panting within moments.

“Strange,” Tony addressed him once his mouth was free, “this doesn’t mean that I like you.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Stark.”



Chapter One: Twenty Years Earlier

“Pepppppppppppppp,” Tony whined. “He’s the wooooooorrrrrssssttt.”

“You can make all of your sentences a thousand syllables and it still won’t make me care,” Pepper replied, casually flipping through her magazine. “Strange is… well, a bit strange, but he’s not the worst by far. Hammer is the worst.”

Tony considered this from his place draped across his best friend’s lap. “I’ll take it. But working with Strange is the worst.”

“Still, no,” Steve addressed the pair from the other bed, where he was attempting to finish his calculus homework. “That’s Barton.”

“They’re the worst in different ways, though,” Tony countered. “I hate doing group projects with Barton because he never gets anything done. I hate doing group projects with Strange because he’s the worst.”

Steve and Pepper both rolled their eyes in unison - a trait Tony had gotten used to after being friends with the twins their entire lives - and Steve pointed his pencil at Tony. “Listen, either you help me with my calculus or you get out of the room. I can’t figure out functions with your constant whining.”

“Oh, just give it here,” Tony made grabby hands for Steve’s notebook and was rewarded with another eye roll.

“No,” Pepper bopped Tony on the head with the magazine. “He has to learn so that he can pass so that we can all get out of this godforsaken hellhole and get to college. Just because you’re bored out of your mind in class doesn’t mean the rest of us are.”

“I don’t understand why Howard won’t let me just go to college, I already have a GED,” Tony mumbled.

“Help or silence,” Steve threatened.

“I’ll help,” Tony sighed and switched over to Steve’s bed. Settling into his other best friend, he pulled Steve’s textbook into closer view. For the next thirty minutes, he worked with Steve on optimization problems while Pepper finished up her issue of National Geographic - a lifelong obsession. The room phone rang just as Steve was starting to complain about being hungry.

“Rogers,” Steve answered the phone. “Uh huh, yeah. Let me ask.” He covered the receiver and turned towards their side of the room. “You guys up for Taco Tuesday at Mamacita Loco’s?”

“I still say that name is racist,” Pepper replied, “but yes, always. Who?”

“Señora Villanueva named it herself, so I don’t think it is. Okoye, Scott, Hope, Sam,” Steve trailed off.

“And?” Pepper asked with a glint in her eye.

“We’re on our way,” Steve reported into the phone with a glare at his sister.

“And,” she prompted once more.

“Barnes, okay? Barnes will be there. And the two of you will not be weird about it, do you understand me.”

“I have never been weird a day in my life,” Tony protested, scrambling to put his shoes on and layer up as was appropriate for the autumnal Vermont day they were enjoying.

“Sure, that’s the other guy I grew up with who lit my grandfather’s toupee on fire just to double check the burn point of synthetic hair,” Steve drawled.

“It was a valid scientific enquiry!”

“Anthony,” Pepper said, with an exasperated fondness she had perfected when they were all six years old and Sarah Rogers took a job at Stark Industries. There was no formal child care in those days for employees, but Maria Stark had found out that Sarah’s twins were the same age as her boy and suddenly after-school care became available.

Tony, the Rogers family also quickly discovered, was in desperate need of affection - something the three of them had in spades. Tony essentially became part of the family.

“Mama,” Pepper asked the night after her 10th birthday. “Why do you think Tony never wants to go home?”

Sarah considered her daughter and weighed her words. “I think he is home when he’s here, Pep.”

Pepper screwed up her face in slight confusion. “But he lives with Grumpy Howard and his mom.”

“Well, chicken,” Sarah bopped Pepper on the nose gently, which caused the young girl to giggle, “there’s a difference between a house and a home. I think that Tony’s parents love him very much but don’t have a lot of time for him and he gets lonely over there in that big house. When he’s here, he’s playing games with Steve or helping me in the kitchen or -”

“I see what you’re saying, Mama,” Pepper interrupted. “We’re his family.”

“Yes, chicken. We are.”

Sarah Rogers would always be quick to tell people that she didn’t think the Starks were bad parents, just that they had no idea what to do with Tony. They wanted a quiet child, but got an exuberant ball of genius that couldn’t be contained if any of them tried. Instead of adjusting their parenting techniques, they were quite happy to just hand him over to the Rogers family.

Five generations of Starks had attended Durham & Grasham Preparatory Academy in Chittenden, Vermont for their high school years. The fact that - even for a family as powerful as the Starks - they would not wave the minimum age of 12 for attendance or residence in the dorms was the only thing that kept Tony in a class with his peers. He’d finished a GED in his spare time in 6th grade, but Howard and Maria still insisted on D&G.

So he insisted on Pepper and Steve and they all schlepped from their hometown in New York State up to rural Vermont.

The Trio - as they were known at D&G - were basically inseparable. Steve and Tony shared a room, while Pepper roomed with Okoye Umbanda - a general’s daughter from an unspecified African country Pepper was afraid to ask too many questions about. Steve played football, Tony built computers, Pepper ran the student council. Everyone generally loved Steve and was intimidated by Pepper - opinions on Tony were mixed.

D&G was small - only 75 students per year - and getting new students after freshman year was rare. Therefore, the boat had been a bit rocked when James Buchanan Barnes had been recruited to captain their soccer team their junior year. Steve had fallen hard for the charismatic boy, who had eased his way into their circle with little conflict. Everyone knew Steve was gone for Barnes - except, it seemed, Barnes. With graduation only eight short months away, Tony and Pepper had decided to give Steve until Christmas to say anything or they were gonna shovel talk the kid themselves.

“I’ll drive,” Tony declared as they exited the dorm and piled into his car. “I’m feeling at least ten tacos today.”

“Hard shell or tortilla?” Steve asked, fiddling with the radio until he found a song they all at least tolerated.

“No, we’re not doing this every week,” Pepper said, shutting down a debate that had been raging between her brothers for years.

They ignored her and launched into their bickering, so she simply leaned forward from the backseat and turned up the radio.


“I hate him,” Stephen said simply when Nat asked why he wouldn’t come inside the restaurant. “You didn’t tell me he was here and he is and I hate him and Natasha, this has been discussed previously.”

Nat briefly closed her eyes in what could only be described as exasperation. “As I am not a mind reader I did not know that Okoye had called Rogers. Had I known she had done that, I would not have invited you because you are a childish spoilsport. But she did, and I did, and now we’re here, and if you fucking leave because you don’t like Stark, I’m going to make you figure out how to make me sopapillas yourself. So, learning how to cook or sucking up your pride? Your call, asshat.”

Stephen leveled her with a gaze, which she returned with equanimity.

God save him from his need to befriend strong women.

“One hour,” he held up a finger. “One.”

“Fine,” she agreed and pulled open the door to the restaurant. Mamasita Loco’s was a staple in their tiny town. Mamasita herself, Juanita Villanueva, was a first-generation immigrant from Campeche, Mexico who had landed in Vermont after following a terribly abusive man. Her plight was brought to the attention of a local pastor, who talked to an immigration lawyer, who found a sponsor, who worked the system, and after about three years of fighting, Juanita had been granted her green card and the right to own and operate her own business.

Ten years on, there was nowhere in town more beloved, and no woman in town more feared. You did not mess with Juanita - well, unless you were Tony Stark, who got away with murder and Stephen could not understand why everyone put up with him.

Snarky and disrespectful, too smart for his own good, and an absolute jackass to top it all off, Stephen could not stand his peer. It was even more frustrating to Stephen’s closeted self that Tony was essentially who he’d order out of a catalogue as ‘his type’, but that was no one’s business.

Nat probably knew, if he was honest with himself.

Honesty with self was not, however, a Stephen Strange strong suit.

He growled quietly as his eyes landed on Tony at the center of the large group of tables that were pushed together. He was in between Pepper and Steve - as usual - and across from Okoye and Nakia. There was some heated discussion going on between the five of them, but the tension that Steve held his body with had nothing to do with it…

Ah.

Stephen’s mouth curled slightly when he registered the boy on the other side of Steve - James Barnes, the new captain of the soccer team, who nearly the entire campus except James knew Steve had a massive crush on.

Nat pulled him farther into the room and sat them down in two chairs that Barton and Scott had clearly reserved for them. A Pepsi found its way in front of Stephen - even though he always made it clear that he did not consume the beverage, preferring Coke products - and the server was over to take their orders.

You can just ignore him, Stephen reprimanded himself. He doesn’t matter.

The mantra worked… for about fifteen minutes. And then Stark said something that just could not go unaddressed.

“You will not be valedictorian,” Stephen countered Stark’s pronouncement. “Everyone knows your grades in English suffer due to your lack of critical thinking skills.”

The table went quiet and Stephen could see Nat and Pepper exchange glances. He was dangerously close to the point where Nat would haul him away from the table, but he couldn’t help it.

“Well, Haughty McGrumpy, it’s not gonna be you,” Tony threw his napkin down with a snap, “because everyone knows you can’t handle physics, which is going to bring down your grade, which is going to make it realllll hard to get into med school like your old man. Hopkins doesn’t take below the top 3%.”

“How pedestrian,” Stephen countered, “to drag my personal aspirations into a calm conversation.”

“How pedestrian,” Tony sneered, “to insert yourself into a conversation you weren’t invited to in the first place.”

“You were, as always, talking loudly enough for the entire restaurant to hear you, much less our table.”

“Boys,” Nat said quietly, but with an authority no one at the table was going to question.

“I bet you $500 that I’ll finish top of the class,” Tony blurted.

“You’re on,” Stephen said quickly.

“Oh fantastic,” Pepper drawled. “Just what we need.”

“Are we done now with the adolescent posturing?” Okoye stared them both down. “You are distracting me from my tacos.”

“Apologies, Okoye,” Stephen replied. “All business has been concluded.”

Tony glared at him, but Stephen felt satisfied. Besting Stark in grade point average was going to be simple. It would give him a goal to focus on until he got out of this terrible school, and then he’d move to Baltimore and study orthopedic surgery and then move to New York City and be the world’s best orthopedic surgeon and never see Tony Stark again.


“You know,” Steve smiled at his twin, “I’m proud of you a lot.”

“I’m proud of you, too,” Pepper grinned at her brother.

“But I think I’m most proud of this.”

He reached over and took the valedictorian medal from her hand and turned it in his. The pair were back at their childhood home, sitting on the front porch and talking about … well, it had started as a conversation about getting ready to move to Boston the following week - Pepper was bound for Boston College and Steve for Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Tony would be at MIT, and Barnes at BC with Pepper. As soon as Steve had gotten brave enough to use his words, the football star and the soccer captain had fallen quite quickly for each other.

“Really,” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “You’re not mad I beat Tony? Even after this summer?”

Steve made a face and laughed. “Oh, God, no. He and Strange have been on my last nerve since that stupid taco night. Can’t fucking…” He shook his head. “They were both so busy being assholes to each other that they didn’t notice that you’d jumped them in GPA.

“Plus,” Steve continued, pressing a kiss to Pepper’s temple, “you’re my sister. Tony’s my brother and I love him, but you’re… Pep. Come on.”

She laughed. “Sometimes, it’s just fun to fluster you. The pair of you have always had this… this thing I’m not a part of.”

“He says the same about you,” Steve countered, “and I can say the same about you two. Your brains work the same, it scares me the way you both see patterns so quickly and can solve problems so fast. I know you guys joke about you going to work for him when you’re done, but -”

“Work with him,” Pepper corrected. “With.”

“Of course,” Steve grinned.

“As long as we’re doing an affirmation circle here,” Pepper smiled, “you made that crack again at dinner, the one about how we’re all going to real schools and you’re just learning to draw. You know none of us think that, right?”

“Pep-”

“I thought Buck was gonna bite your head off right then and there, actually,” she continued, ignoring his interruption. “You are so good already at animation, I can’t wait to see how you’ll be once it’s your job.”

A funny look passed over Steve’s face and Pepper grabbed his jaw and turned it towards her. “What?”

“It’s just…”

“Words, Rogers.”

“I’m not sure about it any more,” he blurted quickly, as though he needed to get the words out before they exploded in him. “The animation, the graphics, MCAD.”

Pepper was quiet, but rearranged her body to indicate she was listening.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about it since Strange’s accident, actually, and about how the doctors said that if any of us had known basic first aid and hadn’t been stupid enough to pull the spike, they would have been able to save his leg.” Steve ran his hands through his hair. “I was there, I was right there, when the dock collapsed and I couldn’t get it off fast enough and I know you’re gonna say that I saved Buck and Scott and Nat and I know, but I didn’t get to Strange fast enough. Or Tony.”

“Well, Tony… they said it didn’t matter, really.”

Graduation weekend at D&G had a tradition of letting the senior class have a barbecue at the old quarry outside of town where a mountain stream had created a small lake. It wasn’t safe, per se, and everyone knew it, but the town turned a blind eye, and the kids promised to clean up and everyone was pretty happy. Except that year. When there had been too many people on the rickety dock that extended out into the swimming hole and it all collapsed.

Everyone lived, but Stephen Strange and Tony Stark had both sustained life-altering injuries - Strange with the loss of his left leg and Tony went into cardiac arrest from being a little too drunk when he hit the very cold water. Steve had been on solid land when it all happened and immediately leapt into action and had dragged nearly everyone from the water. The adrenaline had been so strong that he hadn’t stopped to register that there was a rusty spike sticking through Strange’s hip and that his shin was basically floppy, nor was he able to process that Tony wasn’t breathing before he was bundled into an ambulance and given warming blankets for the shock.

Tony’s heart had stopped for six minutes and thirty four seconds before he started breathing again and Pepper had felt every single moment. Nat had managed to do CPR and get his heart started again, but before all was said and done he’d ended up with a defibrillator implanted in his chest cavity because the damage to his aorta was so severe.

The Trio was still recovering.

No one really knew how Strange was - he’d been transferred to a rehabilitation facility closer to his house and that’s all anyone but Nat had been told. And Nat was evidently under instructions to not share more than that.

“So, what are you thinking, when you’re not beating yourself up for not being God,” Pepper asked.

“I’m thinking medicine, somehow. Not sure I’m smart enough, but -”

“Hush your mouth,” she snapped. “Did you or did you not just graduate from one of the top high schools in the U.S. with a B+ average?”

“I did, but -”

“No, buts. You’re no slouch, Stevie,” Pepper smiled. “Being with Tony for so long has skewed your view. You want to do medicine, then do medicine.”

“I can’t do that from MCAD,” he said.

“I’d imagine not,” she said pragmatically. “But we’ll figure it out.”

“I just feel like… like everything’s different,” he whispered.

She leaned back into him and replied, “you know what’s not?”

“What?”

“Tony and Strange still hate each other.”

“As far as we know,” Steve corrected.

“Oh, I feel like we’ll be able to count on that one forever.”

Chapter Text

“Boss,” Francine’s voice came through Tony’s intercom. “You have Ms. Romanov on Line 1. Says it’s an emergency.”

Tony raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. “Sure, Francie, put her through.” He clicked off the schematics he was looking at for the proposed bridge expansion project in Turtle Bay that SI’s infrastructure division was pitching and hit the accept button for the incoming call.

“Tony,” Natasha’s voice was warm over the phone, which Tony knew meant she needed something for D&G. Nearly all of his interactions with her since they graduated had been through her role as the Director for Operations and Alumni Management.

“How much this time, Nat?”

“Three months of your time.”

“What?”

“Mr. Lee,” Nat began, “the older gentleman who has been teaching our upper level physics class, was in an accident over the weekend and will be out for the remainder of term. I was hoping you could possibly work remotely and join us up here through December.”

“Mr. Lee was still teaching physics? He was there when we were, Nat,” Tony scoffed.

“The laws of physics changed much in twenty years, Stark?” Nat countered.

“I can’t just move to Vermont,” Tony replied, avoiding Nat’s point.

“Steve already said you could stay with them,” Nat said. “And I happen to know that Effie could use more family close.”

“Using my niece as a bartering chip is beneath you,” Tony replied.

“Strange said you’d never.”

Tony was silent for a moment. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he whispered, “you absolute fucking bitch. When do I start?”

The sound of Natasha’s self-satisfied cackle haunted him the rest of the day.


WhatsApp Chat: #TheTrio

Tony: Which one of you gave Romanov the idea to call me.

Steve: Happy.

Pepper: Sorry.

Tony: This is what happens when I got two family members on the fucking board of governors. Why am I doing this?

Pepper: Because young enquiring minds of D&G deserve to have someone with your passion for physics teaching them.

Steve: Oh, fuck that, Buck and I asked Happy to do it for Effie.

Pepper: It would help if she had someone in the building, I think.

Tony once again pinched the bridge of his nose. He could hear the smallness of his best friend’s voice and feel her pain through the phone.

Effie Miranda Hogan had been born Anthony Grant Hogan exactly seven months after her cousin Patrick Edward Barnes-Rogers had been adopted into the family. Thick as thieves from day one, Trick and Ant had bumbled through life with five parents and got into the normal amount of mischief. The adults had always had a bit of an inkling that Ant wasn’t quite comfortable in his skin. Nothing any of them could put their finger on, but enough that they weren’t surprised when, in seventh grade, he asked about therapy.

Happy and Pepper had been thrilled - if not also completely petrified - to send their baby boy to therapy. Ant was, not for lack of trying, their only child. They were pseudo-parents to Bucky and Steve’s ever growing brood - which at that point counted not only Trick (age 13), but also Sarah (age 8), Maggie (age 7), and Aoife (age 4) - but Ant was their life.

So, Pepper and Happy would be the first to admit that when Ant approached them and said he thought he might actually be her and would they please call her Effie, they didn’t hit a parental home run.

Blessed be grace and love, however, because the only issue now was external conflicts in the form of terrible bullies at D&G that could not seem to handle the fact that while Effie hadn’t had surgery, she was absolutely female.

Tony: I’m sure, Pep, and I’ll do anything for Effie, but someone could have called me before your little Durham cabal went running to Romanov.

Pepper: Sorry.

Pepper: You’re right. I’m sorry.

Steve: Sarah and Aoife are already getting Uncle Tony’s room ready.

Tony: Deploying the children against me is low.

Steve: Fuck off you already said yes. Nat texted the BoG.

Steve: You start on Monday? So we’ll see you tomorrow.

Tony: Tell Bucky and Trick I expect that barbecue thing with the peaches.


“Hold on,” Steve laughed loudly. “Are you seriously telling me that he wanted a year-long lift pass?”

Pepper laughed and wiped tears from her eyes. “He honestly thought that we ran the lifts all year round and that he could use them to go to the top to pick wildflowers.”

Pepper and Happy lived in Killington, Vermont, where Pepper ran one of the larger ski resorts in the area, while Happy was part of a small business that hosted - in his words - “rich idiots with death wishes and too much money” on extreme ski trips. It was about an hour and a half away from Rutland, where Steve and Bucky and the kids lived, with D&G forming the top of their distance triangle. Everyone saw each other frequently, but FaceTimed even more frequently.

That evening’s call had actually started when 10-year-old Maggie had asked Bucky if she could call Auntie Pep. Bucky’s hands had been covered in flour from the fried chicken he was making and sent her to Steve, who dialed his sister to hear Maggie give her aunt a detailed description of the fashion show she was putting on with some of Aoife’s dolls (“I can’t sew all the clothes big enough for humans yet, but the American Girl dolls would work, right?”) and did Auntie Pep and Uncle Happy want tickets?

Steve bit his lip over his daughter’s head and listened intently as Pepper counseled the young entrepreneur on appropriate ticket prices for a few moments, before Maggie thrust the phone back into Steve’s hands and ran off to ostensibly help Bucky with dinner, but most likely to just bother her older sister into helping Bucky with dinner.

“I think I got about 10 minutes before I really need to make the girls wash up for supper, so real quick - have you heard from Tony outside of the WhatsApp?”

She shook her head. “Do you honestly think - “

“Neither one of them will behave themselves, Pep,” Steve shook his head. “They’ve been doing this for how long?”

“They just need to schtup and get it over with,” Bucky said from over Steve’s shoulder. “Hi, Peppy.”

“Hey Bucky Bear,” she said fondly. “I don’t disagree.”

“Babe, can you please do something with Aoife? She’s decided to build a castle out of the boxes of pasta in the pantry and I may kill her,” Bucky addressed his husband and then headed back into the kitchen with purpose.

“Sounds like I need to go prevent child slaughter,” Steve said. “But seriously? You’re with him on this?”

Pepper rolled her eyes. “There are only two reasons why two people have that much animosity. There is legitimate trauma between the two of them, or they just need to…”

“Small children are all out of earshot,” Steve grinned, “but got it. I can’t see it, but sure. If you and Buck say that if we just locked the two of them in a room with only one bed and they’d get it out of their system, it’s worth a shot.”

“Oh!” Pepper brightened. “Do you still have the key to the supply closet on the-”

“NO,” Steve interrupted, laughing. “That room is off-limits after I walked in on you that time with what’s his face -”

“Fine.” Pepper licked her lips and laughed. “I have a child, you know, and it’s not like Tony isn’t -”

“You are my siblings, can I not?”

“PEPPER,” Bucky yelled from the kitchen. “STOP EMBARRASSING YOUR BROTHER.”

“Well, that’s me told.” Pepper’s eyes were full of warmth. “If they haven’t… mamboed by Christmas, I’m getting that supply closet key back.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Love you, Pep.”

“Love you more.”


Tony entered Durham & Grasham’s main building the following Monday morning with a travel mug full of coffee and a stomach full of nerves. Upon entering the main office, he laughed right out loud.

Bucky, Pepper, and Happy were all fundamentally peacemakers and wanted to use the “proper channels” to protect Effie. Steve, who had been beating up bullies since before he could walk, had responded by teaching his son how to box.

“Uncle Tony,” Patrick smiled up at his godfather. “Whuddya doing here?”

“The more significant question,” Tony countered, “is why you have a black eye and are bleeding all over the shirt I got you for Christmas.”

Patrick grinned so widely that his lip split. “Two of the football goons were giving Effie a hard time.”

“I’m guessing this is one of those times your Pops wishes you had a different dad.” Tony grinned wryly, just imagining how the scene would play out in the Barnes-Rogers house whenever Trick went home next. Bucky would - once again - advocate for going through the “proper channels” and Steve would - once again - tell Patrick to just beat the living hell out of anyone who bullied his cousin and platonic soulmate.

“Oh, Pop is gonna be pissed when he gets the disciplinary report next week or whenever they send it through the mail. I’m not planning on heading home for a couple of weeks,” Patrick replied. “But Dr. Strange - “

“Asshole is a doctor? I always forget that.” He could hear Pepper’s voice in his head as soon as it was out of his mouth. No, you forget it intentionally just to be an ass.

“I mean, he’s a doctor like you’re a doctor not like how Dad is a doctor, but yeah,” Patrick looked confused. “Again, Uncle Tony, why are you here?”

“Oh, that Romanov lady on the Board of Governors called and asked if I could fill in for Dr. Lee between now and the end of the semester,” Tony absentmindedly replied as he punched out a text.

He therefore missed his nephew rolling his eyes and saying, “you mean Ms. Nat? You know her, Uncle Tony.”

WhatsApp Chat: #TheTrio

Tony: Trick’s got a black eye. How’s Effie?

Pepper: Fine. It was that Logerhan kid and his goony sidekick going on about what was under her skirt. Trick got to her before they could touch her.

Steve: Someday that kid is gonna die and no one is going to be sad.

Steve: Someone clean him up before Buck sees him, will ya? I got a late shift.

Tony: I’m here for this stupid formality interview with Dr. Asshole. There’s no way someone hasn’t told Buckaroo, sugarplum. This place runs on gossip and everyone knows this is the one area that divides the Golden Couple.

Steve: Could you not with that?

Tony: Sore subject, Dr. Rogers?

“Mr. Stark.”

The voice of his childhood enemy broke Tony’s concentration away from the phone and away from his nephew and niece and the drama of his family. His eyes snapped to the voice and saw Dr. Stephen Strange standing in full carriage in the doorway of his office. His hair was slightly gray, his clothes impeccable, and his face was grim.

Fuck if he wasn’t the hottest thing Tony had seen since the last time he’d seen Stephen Strange at the school fundraiser six weeks earlier.

“Doctor Stark, actually,” Tony corrected.

“Yes, quite,” Strange replied, and gestured for Tony to enter his office. Tony rolled his eyes and winked at Trick as he passed.

“Make sure to get Uncle Happy that shirt and he’ll get the blood out,” Tony remarked. The man was a genius with stains.

Once Tony was settled on one of Strange’s supremely uncomfortable chairs, he allowed himself a glance around the headmaster’s office. Degrees from Dartmouth and Princeton and Oxford hung on the walls - in early childhood education, psychology, and … did that say anthropology? Pictures of the school, of Strange with various alumni and dignitaries also adorned the well-appointed room.

“I’ve been told I have no choice here, Dr. Stark,” Strange intoned after a few moments. “And I will admit we are in a bind, so I suppose I should thank you for your service.”

Tony grinned, imagining how much the words pained his nemesis. “Well, it’s not like we’ve been particularly satisfied with how the school is protecting Effie, so having one of her parental figures on staff might be helpful.”

“Now, wait here -”

“Listen, Strange, we both love this school, and it did a lot for us, and if I ever find someone to put up with my hours, I may even send my own sproglet here someday, but in the meantime the kids I love the most in the world are already here and one of them is getting bullshit she doesn’t deserve because you don’t expel children for verbal threats,” Tony taunted.

“It’s a complicated situation, Stark,” Strange said slowly.

“I’m a pretty smart guy, maybe you can break it down for me.”

Strange did nothing more than blink at Tony for a full minute before quietly responding. “You will be teaching three classes, which each meet twice per week. Two on Tuesday/Thursdays and one on Wednesday/Fridays. As you're such an active parent,” Strange sneered, “I believe you are aware of our block scheduling. You have one AP Physics class and two college prep physics classes for juniors and seniors.

“You will sign a code of conduct and abide by it. I don’t care who actually hired you, but I am your boss for the length of time you are here, do we have an understanding?”

“Aye, aye, captain,” Tony drawled sardonically.

Strange glared at him. “I still loathe you.”

“Mutual.”


“So, let me get this straight,” Bucky raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t hand anything off at work? You’re just adding three classes of high schoolers?”

Tony shrugged. “I didn’t have anyone to hand more off to. My R&D department is stretched as it is and there’s no one on staff who can solve this problem. I don’t have a choice.”

It was about 8:30 on the night that Tony met with Strange. Autumnal sunsets in Vermont were often a sight to behold and that night was no different. Steve was on the night shift at the regional hospital in Rutland - he was one of the ER residents there - and Tony had helped Bucky wrangle the girls through dinner, and homework, and baths, and bed. Now the pair were on the wrap-around front porch, enjoying the view.

Bucky was quiet for a few moments, and Tony huffed. “Just spit it out, Barnes.”

“You know what we always tell Sarah when she gets overwhelmed? We tell her she always has choices.”

“Well,” Tony replied, “she’s 11. So that’s true.”

“You think just because you’re 37 you don’t have choices?”

“I think I run a global company and I’m very aware of my choices and their limits,” Tony retorted, and made the mistake of making eye contact with Bucky. “You’re social working me. I hate it when you do that.”

Bucky smiled. “I’m not, actually, I’m brother-ing you. Because you have been working sixty to seventy hour weeks since we met, basically, even back in high school. We’re all lucky if you sleep four hours a night and remember to eat something other than trail mix. You’ve burned through, what, forty-seven assistants in the last two years or something equally ridiculous. You’re not okay, Tony, and I love you too much to stay quiet about it.”

Tony rolled his whiskey glass in his hands and smiled sadly. “You know how I feel about quiet.”

“Buddy, I have placed all four of my children in your legal care if Stevie and I kick the bucket before they’re of age, so I clearly trust you with my fucking life, but hear me say that you are an idiot,” Bucky said. “I’ve said my piece. You need to find someone in your life to hand things off to - even if it’s your eating schedule for fuck’s sake. Just… just let us in a little.”

“If I find someone to fuck will you get off my back?”

Bucky barked out a laugh. “How long has that been?”

Tony winced. “A year? Maybe?”

“Listen, pal, no judgement, but -”

“No,” Tony laughed. “I want to, trust me, but…”

“You told me three years ago you didn’t want to do one-night-stands anymore,” Bucky replied. “So really, what you’re telling me is that you’re ready for commitment but can’t find the time.”

“Oh, Buck,” Tony's laugh grew a little louder. “What’s that line? I’m scared to find out I have a fan club because any club who likes me, I wouldn’t want to be a part of?”

“Something like that.”

“Who the hell would want to saddle themselves to my mess? I mean,” Tony took a sip of the whiskey, “we’ve just discussed my better qualities. I’m an insomniatic workaholic who can’t say no, ever, and I obviously have a death wish because my heart has been bad since I was 17, but I still drink coffee like it’s my literal job and just take more heart medicine and I’m a mess, Buck. Who wants this?”

Bucky was silent for a second and studied his friend. “All of that is nonsense to those of us who love you. Do you need boundaries? Yes. Do you need to take fucking better care of yourself? Please, at your leisure. Do I wish you would actually sleep versus collapsing on whatever you’re working on? Sure do, cupcake. But you have loved me and my husband and my kids and my sister-in-law and nearly everyone we know so well that all of that is nonsense.”

Tony made a face and finished his whiskey. “You know I don’t let anyone else talk to me like this.”

“Do you want me to analyze why that is? You just banned me from social working you,” Bucky smirked.

Tony flipped him off and sighed. “I don’t know how to make any different choices until this contract is up, is that fair? Christmas morning if I still haven’t hired a R&D chief, you get to force me to take a vacation, is that fair?”

“No,” Bucky said, “because you’ll work on the vacation. You haven’t hired someone by Christmas break and you get a headhunting firm, deal?”

“Fine.”

Bucky laughed. “We gonna talk about how you’re working for your nemesis?”

Tony was thankfully given a reprieve from answering that delight of a question by Aoife calling quietly at the door for her dad. As Bucky went to tend to his youngest, Tony let his mind wander.

How did he feel about working with his nemesis? And, if he was being honest with himself - not a typical nocturnal activity, but Bucky had tripped something - he could have seen himself as friends with Strange in another life. Sure, there was that whole mess in high school - God, had Strange been a dick then - but temporarily dying had a way of resetting one’s priorities and he’d been ready to let bygones be bygones.

Shame Strange didn’t feel the same.

No, when Tony had met the man again eight years previous, the acerbic wit had been biting as ever, and he’d upgraded Strange to ‘nemesis’.

“We hired him,” Steve said calmly. “He was the best candidate.”

“But he’s the worst! I didn’t even know he was in education,” Tony sputtered. “Wasn’t he going to be a doctor?”

“Well.” Steve took a long pull of his beer bottle, and Tony knew it was a way of avoiding the answer. “It seems like I killed that dream when I pulled him from the lake and then pulled the spike. He lost his whole leg and a good chunk of his hip. Had a bunch of replacement surgeries and told us in the interview that standing for long periods of time wasn’t feasible. He switched majors to early childhood development and has been in education ever since.”

We are not touching any of that with a ten foot pole, Tony thought to himself as he glanced around the backyard picnic at Pepper and Happy’s - wondering if anyone had overheard. Not that anyone besides their little unit even cared about the happenings at D&G as it was full of Happy’s work friends (who all called him ‘Harry’ which just felt wrong), but one could never be too careful.

“Early development though, not high school?”

Steve nodded. “I asked the same question, and so did a few others. He explained that it gave him a real insight into formation years and that he’d also done qualifications in secondary and post-secondary education and, honestly, Tony, he’s an alumna. He gets the culture and he graduated 3rd in our class.”

“Damn straight he did,” Tony said emphatically.

“You are the worst.”

The first time Tony had run into the man himself had been at a fundraiser several months after that conversation. Strange had stared at him like he’d had something growing from his forehead.

“Stark,” Strange remarked, not offering his hand. “I’m surprised to see you here. I never viewed you as the type to be loyal to an institution.”

Tony’s hackles prickled. “I’m the fifth generation of Stark men to graduate from this school, Strange. You’re what? The only?”

“Relying on your family name as always,” Strange drawled. “How predictable.”

“Turning what could be a politely distant but completely innocuous conversation into verbal warfare as always,” Tony countered. “How predictable.”

Sitting on the porch, Tony catalogued hundreds more of those tiny moments throughout the last few years. God, what a completely self-important tool. He thwarted nearly all of Tony’s attempts to donate lab equipment, had been outright rude to him at nearly all alumni events, and yet…

And yet Tony would strip him naked with his teeth if given the chance.

How frustratingly inconvenient that he was now Tony’s boss.


“I could kill you,” Stephen looked at Nat over his tea mug. “Very easily. Perhaps even with that fireplace poker.”

“Oh, but you so hate a mess,” she replied calmly, “and that would bring blood.”

He rolled his eyes but conceded her point.

“You understand I didn’t do this to you,” she continued. “We can’t afford a new faculty member without touching the endowment, and we can’t touch the endowment without a formal search process, and we can’t launch that -”

“I know, until Stan is ready to be public about how bad his accident is, I know,” Stephen sighed. “Just… Stark? Did it have to be Stark?”

“Yes,” Nat said simply. “For several reasons which you know, but are being obtuse about so let me remind you.”

“You really don’t have to, we can pretend I was being rhetorical.”

“One,” she began, ignoring him, “he’s free. He’s giving his time as a donation to the school and could teach this stuff in his sleep. Allow me to remind you that he taught himself physics for fun our freshman year.”

“He never let us forget it,” Stephen muttered.

“Two, he has room and board with Barnes and Rogers and he’ll keep Pep and Happy from driving up here so often because I know what you tell me but there must be something more we can do for Effie,” Nat glared.

“I have-”

“Not done,” Nat continued. “Three, your hatred of each other stems from twenty years ago when you were both different people. I know Stark a little now and he’s mellower, and I know you a lot now and you’re… well, you’re still an ass, but you’re an ass who loves working with teenagers which is not something you knew about yourself back then.”

“Nat -”

“And finally,” she emphasized. “You’re both out of the closet, so maybe you can do something about all that sexual tension we all had to suffer through in high school.”

Stephen gaped at her. “There was no sexual tension.” She cocked an eyebrow and he repeated himself. “There was and there is no sexual tension, Natasha Kathrine.”

Nat cackled for a full six seconds before she shook her head. “For a genius, you’re an idiot.”

He glared at her and changed the subject to something less controversial than his feelings regarding the person of Tony Stark - namely the current rounds of peace talks between factions in the Middle East.

Stephen was not from a family that took risks. Plans were made and were executed with little fuss or deviation. Thus, once his parents had realized his aptitude for studying and memorization, they set him on the path to take over his father’s orthopedic practice. His summers were spent volunteering at hospitals and on trips to learn techniques abroad. Every moment was planned and every decision was leading to one goal: becoming Dr. Strange.

Even after the accident, he thought he was on track. He dutifully did all of his rehabilitation - there was no need to fuss or cry, not when there was so much work to do - and worked as hard as possible to get through his undergraduate pre-requirements. He cursed Stark that first year, several times, because if he hadn’t been so caught up in all their contests, perhaps he would feel more confident in organic chemistry.

The first time he stepped into a clinic, though, he knew blaming Tony for the struggle was unfair. The smell of the antiseptic gave him a panic attack, and all of a sudden a limb he didn’t have anymore was screaming at him in pain, and he was back under the water trying desperately to find the surface.

Medicine, it became clear, was no longer his path.

Neither he, nor his parents, had any way of handling that truth and so they just kind of stopped handling each other. It wasn’t traumatic - Stephen hadn’t really known them anyway - but was instead a quiet drifting that was only tempered by Nat. His only true friend in high school quickly stepped in during their sophomore year and managed him into a functional life. They’d been at separate colleges, but Nat convinced him to transfer to hers and to get a house with her and her “friend” (he swore they were more, Nat played coy) Christine.

It was Nat and Christine who convinced him to switch to something that would still involve the scientific method, but would not involve blood or surgery, and after a lot of talks and literally just throwing darts at a board with several options, he settled on early childhood development.

He loved it.

He had never really known what a calling was until the first time he helped a parent understand something wasn’t wrong with their child, their child was just on their own timeline. The clinics that he worked at as an interventionist loved him because he was unflappable. Angry parents? Send in Strange. Frustrated child? Strange’s patience would calm them. He was magic.

Nat’s smug smile was unappreciated, he told her frequently.

One thing led to another and he found himself chasing experts around the world, needing to learn more and to understand more. He found his niche with the boarding school crowd, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone, and his references all said that he had a special way with the students who were on the outside looking in.

Which is exactly why he knew how he was handling Effie Hogan’s situation was fine. No matter what eye rolls Nat threw his way.

“When do we normally approve the budget for the Senior Trip?” Nat asked, interrupting his thoughts.

“Beginning of October,” Stephen murmured and absentmindedly rubbed his hip. The pain was high for some reason. “So, next week? Week after? We’ll need to meet with Sadie and the rest of the student council to see what they propose. I’m disinclined to allow them their rumored request of Paris.”

Nat snorted. “The rules clearly state that it has to be within the continent, so why every class thinks they’ll be the one to get you to break it is hilarious.”

“Ah, Natasha,” Stephen smirked, “that’s part of my plan. They all think they’re special. When, in fact, none of them are.”

“Spoken like a burned-out educator.”

“Takes one to know one, Natasha.”

The pair smiled at each other - neither was truly burned out, but it felt that way some days - and went back to watching the episode of Law and Order: SVU that was droning on in the background.

Later, much later, after Nat had departed and he was alone in bed, Stephen allowed himself to think back to that morning with Tony. He was always Stark out loud, but Tony in Stephen’s private thoughts.

The man was infuriating.

There was no one else who had ever been able to match Stephen’s brain or challenge him the way Tony did. No one else who had ever made him feel so small and yet so powerful. No one else who looked at him the way Tony did - like Stephen was both infinitesimal and delicious.

That sexual tension that he’d denied - and would continue to do so for as long as there was breath in his lungs - was definitely real and he’d been reminded of it in full force this morning. The spark of challenge in Tony’s eyes, the way his jeans fit his ass, even the cadence of his speech only served to wind Stephen tighter. But now that he was alone, and therefore safe, he could allow himself to indulge in his favorite fantasy.

“Stephen,” Tony said softly as he walked through the parlor in the headmaster’s suite, barefeet silent on the thick carpet. “I think you’ve been working a little too hard, handsome.”

Stephen looked up from a pile of papers and addressed the smaller man. “I think I have to get these reports finished for the Board of Governors meeting.”

“I think those can wait,” Tony’s voice was predatory and matched the look in his eyes as he rounded the desk and dropped to his knees. Making quick work of the zipper of Stephen’s trousers, Tony’s talented hands and mouth joined in their task and soon all reports were forgotten.

Stephen came quickly and forcefully. After finding a few tissues and putting himself to rights, he dropped his head back to the pillows and breathed out one word.

“Fuck.”

Chapter Text

“How long as it been going this time?” Nat asked Darcy Lewis, the school social worker whose office was next to Stephen’s.

“This particular explosion?” Darcy replied and winced as they both heard Tony roar, ‘but that’s what the money is for!’ “About ten minutes. The behavior in general? Since about Tony’s second day.”

Nat rolled her eyes. “And we’re at week what of his contract?”

“Four,” Darcy checked a file. “Of ten.”

“Fantastic,” Nat sighed and adjusted her blazer. “Well, I honestly should have predicted this.”

“Were they really as bad in high school as Mrs. Hogan says they were?”

“Well,” Nat prevaricated, “yes and no. They never spoke without snapping at each other and there was a really stupid set of bets our senior year, but this yelling is new.” She told Darcy stories for a few minutes - knowing her mission of getting Stephen to sign a ream of early acceptance offers to incoming freshman was a lost cause as long as Tony was in there.

In the middle of an explanation of the time Tony managed to dye the entire swimming pool fluorescent green the day before Stephen’s diving competition, the door wrenched open and Tony stalked out, hair slightly mussed and walking just a little oddly.

Nat caught his eye and raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Stark?”

“Ms. Romanov,” he replied with a faux dignity that caused Nat to swallow a snort. As soon as he left the office, she turned to Darcy.

“Oh, I’m tucking that away.”


On just the other side of the door, while all that was happening...

“Oh just shut the fuck up, Stark,” Stephen snapped. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“No idea? God, you are insufferable, you want me to shut up so badly, you need to make me.”

Without thinking, Stephen crossed the room in three strides and shoved Tony against the wall, covering his mouth with his own. For one millisecond, Stephen panicked until Tony breathed into the kiss. The height difference was problematic, so Stephen picked Tony up and balanced him against the wall, wrapping Tony’s legs around his hips, making sure to catch most of Tony’s weight on his good leg. He would pay for this, he knew, but fuck it would be worth it.

Stephen had no idea how long they made out like teenagers against the wall of his office, but eventually he pulled away to breathe and address the shooting pains in his hips and lower back and Tony wriggled back to the floor. With eyes wide and hair mussed, he snapped at Stephen that they weren’t going to be doing that again.

And technically, he was kinda right, because the next two times that they found themselves in such a position, they were in the staff room and not in Stephen’s office.

The time after that, however, and the time after that time?


By the middle of November, they had a routine and Tony was honestly shocked that he wasn’t getting hell for it from anyone. He had checked and double checked the employee manual - he was a temporary contractor and therefore exempt from the “no fraternizing amongst the staff” clause in the code of conduct - because while he had no idea what was happening, Tony knew when he was in over his head.

Strange was… strange. He was brilliant and cutting and fucking infuriating and yet warm and Tony could not handle this many contradictions in one person.

Probably best to just keep concentrating on the fucking.

That part was pretty straightforward and completely incredible.

Better to not explore how his breath caught a bit if Stephen looked at him during staff meetings, or how he would see a three piece suit on an actor on television and mentally place it on Stephen. Let’s definitely not explore how he was tempted to just download WhatsApp onto Stephen’s phone because the gifs in iMessage were nowhere near as fun and texting all day with the man had become one of Tony’s favorite past times.

Tony Stark didn’t catch feelings for his fuck buddies.

It simply was unheard of.

Which is why he was petrified.

Because that was exactly what was happening.


“What I can’t understand,” Tony’s voice was nearly reverberating off the walls of Stephen’s living room, “is how you haven’t just told the kid he’s expelled!”

“Because if I do, then they’ll fire me, and they’ll expel Trick and I can’t risk that,” Stephen yelled back from his seat on the sofa. “I know it isn’t perfect, I know it isn't great, but Effie is alive and Trick and I have made a deal and -”

“PAUSE,” Tony roared and crossed the room abruptly to stand directly in front of him. “Pause. What the fuck are you talking about?”

Stephen sighed. “Lougheran, the ringleader. Do you know who his step-father is?”

“Mr. Lougheran?”

Stephen let out a sardonic laugh. “No. It’s Paul Anderson Bentley.”

Tony blinked a few times. “The family that owns the school? The kid who is making Effie’s life miserable is the… fuck.”

“They don’t own the school,” Stephen corrected as Tony plopped on the sofa as well. “We’re owned by a trust, but the trust was set up by the Anderson Bentley family 172 years ago and is largely still controlled by the Anderson Bentley family.”

“And Paul, I’m going to guess -”

“He’d make me expel Effie if I filed her paperwork and even if Pep and Happy sued the school, all it would do is embarrass Effie and make this all a mess. Transgender children have no specific legal protection in the state of Vermont and I’ve checked,” Stephen sighed. “So, to keep everything as calm as possible, Trick and I made an arrangement over the summer. As long as all his best Steve impersonations were directed at people who were verbally harassing Effie, I would… fudge some reports and make sure both Effie and Trick stayed in school.”

“I have,” Tony said after a few seconds, “nineteen questions off the top of my head. First, why hasn’t Mr. Fancy Pants demanded to know why his stepson keeps getting beat up?”

“Ah, see, that’s the genius of your nephew,” Stephen smiled. “It doesn’t actually happen that often and the few times it has… Effie’s actually been the one to punch first.”

“Effie.”

“Trick has taught Effie how to box as well,” Stephen explained, “but they’ve concocted a routine where Trick takes the blame.”

“So let me get this straight,” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “Instead of just clearly communicating any of this, you’re in cahoots with two fifteen-year-olds, one of whom is being raised with Steve Rogers’ moral compass and tendency to punch his way out of problems.”

“I don’t exactly have a lot of support, Anthony,” Stephen sighed. “Yes, I know Steve and Happy are on the board and I’m thrilled for that, I am, and Nat is an excellent board liaison, but if I lose my job, I know who they’ll put in my position. You know who they’ll put in. It’ll be one of those supposedly-progressive-but-actually-conservative yes men who will quietly dismantle all the work me and Nat have gotten done over the last five years. They’ll get rid of the scholarships for Indigenous children and the cultural competency classes and the gender parity that we have. I already get push back on the gardening elective because some parents have asked me why we’re bothering to teach their children something only poor people do.”

“Well, the parents of D&G have always been the worst,” Tony conceded. “But Effie-”

“If anyone ever lays a finger on Effie, I’ll destroy them and I don’t care who stops me.”

Tony was baffled. “Are you seriously trying to tell me that you see that as different?”

Stephen blinked a few times. “Well, in one she’s physically harmed and -”

“In both she’s physically harmed. Both.”

“Oh, great, is this where the great and wise Tony Stark comes back? I was wondering where he’d been,” Stephen sneered. “Please, please tell me all the ways I’m wrong at my job. Forgive me for my delusion that fucking me meant you trusted me.”

“Don’t drag our dicks into this, you insufferable asshole,” Tony started. “You’ve always been like this -”

“Always,” Stephen scoffed. “That’s not hyperbolic at all!”

Tony rolled his eyes. “We have known each other for, what, twenty, twenty-five years? So, yes, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been like this. You blow things out of proportion and you stomp around with your big words expecting all of us to listen just because you use those words. You’re detached and aloof and yet demand we all trust you. How can we trust you, Stephen? None of us know you.”

“Is that how you see me?” Stephen marveled. “Truly, is that how you see me? Even now?”

Tony screwed up his face in disbelief. “Are you under the impression that having your dick in my mouth means I either know or understand you better? Because allow me to dissuade you of that notion immediately. I have learned more about you in the last six minutes than I have in the last handful of decades, so yes. I do see you as Rapunzel all up there in your tower. You told me this was just sex, just back scratching, just - “

Tony cut himself off and his face shed its anger. “Sugarplum, I’ll blow you for the rest of our lives, happily. No complaints. Anytime you let down your hair and I can scamper into the tower, sure. The sex, obviously, is mindblowing. But…” He trailed off, casting his eyes about the room to avoid looking at Stephen. “I have to go. I can’t… I can’t do this right now.”

He leapt off the couch and darted for the door, movements purposeful, but cast one look back at Stephen once he reached the door. “Just… Just think about trauma, will you? Words and bodies and … just think about it.”

And with those enigmatic words, Tony headed out the door and left Stephen to puzzle out what the hell had just happened.

Chapter Text

“Ms. Potts.” Stephen knocked on Pepper’s office door ten days before Christmas. “I hope I’m not interrupting, but do you have ten minutes to spare to discuss this weekend’s party?”

Pepper skewered him with a glance. “If we can also talk about what you’re doing with my brother, then yes.”

“Dr. Rogers and I -”

“You know who I mean, Stephen,” Pepper smirked and gestured to her seats. “I have trouble believing that you drove the 45 minutes it takes to get here just to talk to me about a party that is largely planned, so if we’re operating under that fiction, I’d like to also talk about what you’re doing with Tony.”

Stephen took a deep breath and flashed back to his conversation with Nat the previous evening.

“You owe them some answers,” Nat said. “I know what you just explained to me, and I get it, I see your logic, but I speak Strange. I’d imagine everyone else is going to react like Tony did last night and I have no idea how long he’ll keep his mouth shut, so you owe Pepper and Happy some answers.”

“And probably Barnes and Rogers,” Stephen admitted.

“Of those four, who will help you the most with the others?”

“It’s all five of them,” Stephen corrected. “And I already blew it with Tony.”

“You didn’t blow it,” Nat gently corrected. “You… you had never said those things out loud before. You were clumsy. Clumsy can be redeemed.”

“Pepper,” he answered her earlier question. “I think I start with Pepper.”

“I think you’re right.”

Stephen’s hands were clammy as Pepper asked if they could get him coffee or tea. He graciously accepted a cup of earl grey (lemon and honey, please) while he and Pepper made some appropriate small talk about the party the school was hosting for all students and the host families who would host the students who had no where else to go over the holidays. Pepper and Happy, for instance, had basically volunteered to host Effie’s entire field hockey team.

Once Pepper’s assistant had cleared the room and the two of them were alone, Stephen took a deep breath. “I don’t know what I’m doing with Tony, and I thought I knew what I was doing with Effie, but now I’m not so sure. Which one would you like to tackle first?”

It was a testament to Pepper’s professional poise and their familiarity with each other that all she did was tilt her head and reply, “my daughter. I’d like to start with Effie.”

“Yes, well,” Stephen sighed. “Let me start by saying that I’m sorry. Tony mentioned something the other night that encouraged me to re-evaluate my understanding of trauma and so I have done that. I was laboring under the impression that as long as I kept Effie physically safe at school, that was good. I knew she was emotionally safe at home, that your whole family loved her unconditionally and my job was just her physical safety. I know now that I was wrong.”

Pepper blinked as Stephen explained the bargain he’d made with Trick and the dynamics of the board and his perceived precarious employment and how Effie was really the one throwing the punches and concluded by apologizing again. He let out an exhale at the end that struck Pepper as odd. In all her years of knowing him, he’d never had a hair out of place, never a misspoken word, never even sloppy diction. An idea crossed her mind and she decided to test it out.

“Stephen,” her voice full of fondness for this man who tried his best to love her kid, even though he was rubbish at it, “I think I just figured out something. Can I make a comment you may find as terribly personal?”

Stephen barked out a laugh and rubbed his hands over his knee - one bone and one polycarbonate. “Ms. Potts, I believe I have earned nothing less than your total candor.”

“Why do you think you’re going to lose your job?”

Stephen looked shocked at that statement. “Mr. Anderson Bentley has made it clear -”

“No, sorry, let me rephrase.” Pepper leaned forward in her chair, closing the space between them. “Why are you so scared of everything?”

If someone had literally hit Stephen in his kidneys, the effect would have been less. “I’m not-”

“I think you are,” Pepper said softly. “I think that’s what this is about. I think you could revolutionize the school - I dug up your thesis, you know, and I read what you wrote about accessibility - if you would just put more than a toe in the water. Don’t get me wrong, the changes you’ve made have been great, but I was there when Happy came home from the interview, Stephen.

“He said you had all these ideas and that you were exactly who we wanted in the school we knew we were sending our kid to, that you would - and I quote here - ‘fiercely love the entitled adolescent asshats that called D&G home’ and force them to be better. And then you showed up, went straight for the middle of the road and you’ve stayed there. The first few years? Sure, lots of politics to navigate, I got it. But we’re close to a decade now, Stephen, and you are beloved if not completely feared.”

Stephen laughed. “Thank you for your encouragement, Ms. Potts - “

“Pepper, Stephen. We have known each other longer than I’ve known my husband. Please call me Pepper.”

The look on Stephen’s face when she said that made her realize that she never had. How could I have missed this? This man is lonely. That’s why he can’t risk, he doesn’t have people to tell him it’s okay to fail.

“I think,” she said slowly, “I think you’ve been in love with Tony for a long time, but are content to just take whatever he’ll give you and you could not be more wrong about him because my Tony would give you the world if you tell him you want it.”

Stephen screwed up his face and shook his head. “Pepper,” he said slowly, as though testing out the name on his tongue and Pepper wondered if he had ever used it in her presence since they were children, “I respectfully disagree with your assessment of my relationship with Tony.”

“Okay,” she said, knowing when to stop pushing. “You’re allowed.”

He looked surprised at that and Pepper was reminded again that this man’s only friend was the human bulldozer who was Natasha Romanov, so there was work to be done.

“Stephen, let me say this, and then we’re gonna talk about how we’re really going to make sure Effie thrives at D&G the way I got to.” Pepper went to her desk, pulled out her cell phone, and started writing some numbers on a piece of paper. “Here is my personal cell, and Steve’s, and Bucky’s, and Happy’s. As we start putting these plans into motion and no matter what happens with Tony, I know he would want me to say this, you are not alone. In fact, what are you doing for Christmas?”

“I’ll be home, nothing else significant.”

“Would you like to come to our circus? It’s at Steve and Bucky’s this year and I think we have about 35 including the students, but if your introvert sensors start to freak out, the girls always construct a quiet room so that Sarah can escape all the noise,” Pepper smiled.

“Is she neurodiverse?”

Pepper shrugged. “She might be, but I honestly think she’s a second child in a chaotic family and really craves quiet. Either way, she always creates a quiet room. I think I spent an entire Christmas Eve in there with her once.”

“I’ll consider it,” Stephen said softly.

“Thank you,” Pepper replied kindly as she handed him the paper with the numbers. “Now, here is what I propose we do.”


Stephen: Tony, are you free this evening for dinner?

Tony nearly dropped his phone when he read the incoming message from Stephen. Since he’d blown-up at him the week before, he hadn’t seen or heard from the other man at all.

Tony: I can be.

Stephen: Can you come here at 7. There are matters to discuss.

Tony fought a slight roll of his eyes, but found himself laughing instead. There were two things this conversation could be about - Effie or them - and both were personal enough that the Victorian language was laughable.

It was, however, one of the elements of life with Stephen he’d become quite accustomed to.

Tony: I look forward to a robust discussion regarding matters at hand.

Stephen: You’re an ass.

Tony: you like my ass.

Tony nearly dropped the phone again when Stephen sent an emoji in return.

Tony: you do know waht the eggplant means, right?

Stephen: I’m an educator of some of the brightest and filthiest minds on the planet.

Stephen: Of course I know what the eggplant means, Mr. Stark.

Stephen: Just as I know you could easily correct your typographic errors but choose not to in order to irk me.

Tony laughed right out loud at that and was about to type back when another pinged in.

Stephen: In common parlance, we need a DTR and your sister informed me that it is time. I wish to take our relationship past clandestine assignations. If you do as well, then please come for dinner. If you do not, please come to my office tomorrow so that I can inform you of a new course of action regarding your niece.

Tony found tears springing to his eyes unbidden. He took a quick screenshot of the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for him and then texted back.

Tony: I will see you in two hours with your favorite malbec that i’ll start breathing now so that it’s appropriately aerated for your snobbery.

Stephen: I’ll leave the front door open.


Stephen wiped his hands on his trousers for at least the seventh time since he sent the text. He didn’t usually keep the prosthetic on when he was at home, but tonight he was afraid he’d have to pace. Tony was due any minute and while his rational brain understood that Tony’s presence meant good things, his various biological systems had not gotten the memo.

The front door clicked open and Stephen steeled himself for Tony’s appearance. He chose to come, and you made clear what that means. Breathe.

“Ghost?”

Stephen smiled.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” he replied to Tony.

“Me calling you ‘hot stuff’ makes you uncomfortable?” Tony clarified.

Stephen nodded and launched into an explanation of how he wasn’t ‘hot’ and was instead an odd collection of features which held little to no aesthetic value based on current cultural standards of beauty until Tony had simply grabbed Stephen’s hand and placed it upon his erection.

“Bullshit, Stephen, that you’re not, because this is what happens and what has been happening when I see you, but we can compromise.”

“You know the word?” Stephen raised an eyebrow and moved his hand to unbutton Tony’s trousers and it was another several minutes before the nickname conversation was broached again.

“How do you feel about a word that references something that is hot, but is not me calling you hot?”

“Like?”

“Well, the hottest pepper on the planet is a ghost pepper, so I was thinking I could call you ghost and maybe…” Tony trailed off.

“Acceptable,” Stephen whispered, a bit overwhelmed by the entire idea, but also overwhelmed by the man he was building something with.

Tony called again and Stephen heard his footsteps move closer to the family room.

“On the couch,” Stephen called back and turned to see Tony leaning on the doorframe. Clad in sweatpants and a hoodie he’d confessed to stealing from Bucky, this was Stephen’s favorite look on him. No one saw Tony like this except for his family and Stephen. He was always immaculately dressed in public - three piece suits and cufflinks and shined shoes and fresh manicures. For those who got to know him, he was cotton blends and calluses and dirty hair from forgetting to shower.

If Tony was appearing in Stephen’s house in that outfit, it meant he hadn’t come wearing any armor.

The men caught eyes for a minute and Stephen opened his mouth to speak but was stopped by Tony’s slow smile. “I hear you’re spending Christmas with our family.”

Stephen swallowed. “Are you… is that…”

“I’m fucking delighted,” Tony whispered. “I’ve been afraid to ask.”

“Why?”

“Because I thought we were just fucking around and fuck arounds don’t hang out with family.”

“I…” Stephen swallowed. “I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Tony tilted his head, as though considering this, but then crossed the room and drew Stephen into a tender kiss. “I can’t say this is my skillset, either, the whole relationship thing, but you stopped being my fuck around a while ago.”

The tone was low and confessional and Stephen let out a breath he’d been holding since he sent that text earlier in the day. “I have felt this way for a very, very long time.”

Tony’s eyes went wide as Stephen continued. “I fell in love with you in 10th grade when you verbally eviscerated that Rumlow boy for his racist remarks against Jim Rhodes, and then again in 11th when Nat told me about how you just quietly paid off her tuition once someone told you her parents’ divorce meant they had no money to allow her to come back, and how she had to sneak into the main office to check the files because you kept telling her you didn’t do it.”

“But we…” Tony was at a loss for words and the expression on his face told Stephen he was walking down memory lane. “You hated me.”

“No,” Stephen said with a sad smile. “I was deeply jealous of everyone you loved, and I desperately wanted to be part of your little gang, but I was also not mature enough to acknowledge any of that and instead turned it all to animosity. You were everything I wanted to be and could never figure out how - charismatic yet kind, fiercely loyal to those you loved without alienating anyone else, and generous to a fault. You spent money like it didn’t matter on people who you didn’t even know.”

Tony blinked. “I don’t really know what to say.”

Stephen shrugged. “After the accident, I’ve told you that my parents and my program both required therapeutic releases before I could be admitted back into a surgical program. I found it helpful to have someone help me sort through my own thoughts and feelings and I’ve gone back several times.

“The thing it really gave me, however, was the tools to do that work myself, and so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past week. Between our fight and a very significant conversation with Pepper, I realize I need to make some changes to how I view the world,” he finished and wound his fingers through Tony’s. “I am undeniably in love with you. Not only the you I observed, but the you I know now.”

“I love you too,” Tony affirmed and cupped his hand over Stephen’s jaw. “It hasn’t been as long for me, I’ll admit, but it’s still true.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” Stephen whispered and something passed over Tony’s face.

“Well, I don’t love that,” Tony replied, “because you’re not Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. I love you, you get all of me.”

Stephen blinked back some unbidden tears at the simplicity of that statement. “Then I suppose I’ll learn to believe that.”

Tony smiled. “I suppose you’ll have to.”

The pair smiled at each other for a few moments before Tony kissed Stephen lightly and raised an eyebrow. “Now, tell me the plan for Effie.”

Chapter Text

“Stop being such a fucking know-it-all,” Uncle Tony snapped at his boyfriend.

“Then stop being a stubborn child who won’t listen to reason!”

Effie rolled her eyes and shot a glance at Trick, who was smirking on the other side of the table. A lot had certainly changed since Christmas of their sophomore year, but Uncle Tony and Dr. Strange bickering was not one of them.

Stephen and Tony had talked to both Mr. Lee and the board and - with Nat’s help - Tony’s position was quickly shifted from contractor to faculty member in January, and word quickly spread that Drs. Stark and Strange were a thing.

The plan that Pepper proposed - and then swiftly put into motion with Stephen’s permission - was to hire a lawyer as a consultant to the Board of Governors on their terribly lax policies regarding student equity at D&G. Since Effie had no real protections within the governing documents, Pepper figured other students or staff at other intersections of diversity didn’t either. The consultant quickly pointed out all the ways they’d get destroyed by the EEOC or the ACLU and the board voted swiftly to get aggressive on making sure they were safe because they couldn’t afford a scandal. Asshat Anderson Bentley (as Tony had dubbed him in their circle) resigned from the board in a fit of protest. Happy had agreed to be interim board president while they conducted a nationwide search for new members.

“Anthony,” Dr. Strange said with a practiced patience that Effie knew all too well. “You hired a CFO for a reason and we all agreed - including your board and both Pepper and Steve - that Nakia was the absolute best candidate. Either you trust her to do her job, or you fire her. Stop giving her half measures because you will frustrate her and she will leave and you will deserve it.”

Uncle Tony blinked at his boyfriend a few times and huffed out a ‘fine’. The conversation moved on to other topics and Effie found herself, once again, a little weirded out that she had dinner at her headmaster’s house. Not to mention that her headmaster was probably going to be her uncle soon enough, if the ring she’d found in Uncle Tony’s car last week was any indication.

After dinner, Trick and Uncle Tony headed to the study to work on Trick’s calculus and Effie worked up all the courage she had to ask her Almost-Uncle-Stephen a question.

“Dr.-” she started and he raised his eyebrows at her. “Sorry, Stephen, that’s still weird, I know it shouldn’t be, but it is, and okay, I’m rambling, but did you mean what you said at dinner last week? That I should ask Carter Matheson to prom if I wanted?”

“First of all, Effie, you can call me whatever you want, but the name differentiation is an attempt to remind you that I am not here right now as your headmaster, but as your uncle’s boyfriend,” Stephen said kindly. “And second, absolutely.”

She let out a breath. “Everyone else is wigging out.”

He laughed and she smiled. “I know they are - one of the downsides to having so many adults who love you, I suppose. They also don’t know about the other boys.”

She blushed and fiddled with the hem of her shirt, afraid to look into his eyes. “I wasn’t sure you did.”

“Effie, I know far more than I want to about you and your classmates,” he clarified, “but I only share what is necessary. You and Mr. Saperstein, I believe, earlier this year? And then there was that time just before Christmas with Mr. Potter?”

“The new rules have made it a lot easier to be myself,” Effie affirmed.

“And you are a girl who likes boys,” Stephen replied. “And that’s perfectly normal and lovely, in fact, and I think Mr. Matheson is a fine young man.”

“Will you,” she paused, worrying her lip. “Will you tell my parents to back the hell off?”

“As your headmaster, absolutely not, but as Tony’s boyfriend, it would be a joy,” Stephen affirmed and Effie laughed. She hugged him tightly and said she was going to walk back to her dorm to work on a project for her Shakespeare class.

It was another hour before Trick was also on his way and Tony found Stephen writing recommendation letters while an episode of Parks and Recreation droned on in the background.

“I thought those all had to be in by now,” Tony said as he curled up at Stephen’s side.

“I’m getting a jump start on next year’s,” Stephen replied and kissed the top of Tony’s head. “For the early admission students, anyway, so that I can try to relax when we go on the cruise.”

Stephen’s Christmas gift to Tony had been a cruise from New York to Bermuda after a suggestion from a new favorite person in their lives - Tony’s CEO, Hope Van Dyne.

“Have you ever tried a vacation where you actually don’t need your phone?” Hope had asked one evening the previous fall. She’d been in the job for six months, but had quickly realized that ordering Tony to stop working was part of her unwritten job description.

“What do you mean?”

“Like, when you go to Europe or a city break or whatever, you may need your phone for a map or a Yelp review or whatever. But on a cruise, you never actually need your phone. All your meals are planned, all your excursions off the ship can be too. You can sleep by the pool or go to salsa dancing lessons or just stay in your cabin with Stephen and spend the entire trip naked. Doesn’t matter, but you don’t need your phone.”

Stephen had immediately asked for the name of Hope’s travel agent and Tony agreed to give it a try.

“I still don’t think this is going to work,” Tony grumbled.

“Humor me,” Stephen said, his tone wry.

“I’m going to get bored.”

“So I’ll bring the handcuffs.”

“I’m going to pester you.”

“I have become incredibly adept at ignoring you,” Stephen replied, eyes not moving from his laptop.

“Do you really want to be trapped on a boat with me for seven days and no escape?” Tony asked and Stephen bit back a smile. Ah, there it is. The real reason he’s all in knots.

“Considering I want to spend the rest of my life with you, I don’t view this upcoming adventure as a hardship, no,” Stephen replied and felt Tony still next to him.

“Is that an official statement?”

“Yes,” Stephen said. “Why not. Yes, Anthony, I want to be with you forever, will you join me in holy matrimony?”

“Fuck you,” Tony muttered. “I was gonna ask next weekend when we go to Boston for that thing.”

“Your response to my proposal is to tell me to fuck myself because I asked before you?” Stephen’s voice held a tinge of incredulity wrapped in overwhelming affection.

“Yes,” Tony grumbled and twisted himself on the couch so he was facing Stephen. “I had a whole thing planned and you ruined it by your casual ask.”

“Are you really going to hold this against me?”

“For as long as we both shall live, Ghost,” Tony smiled. “For as long as we both shall live.”

Stephen sighed dramatically and Tony took the laptop away from his fiancé and …

Well, then they all lived happily snarkily ever after.