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It's Not a Bed of Roses

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Prologue

Staring out at the lights of New York, Tony sighed a sigh of the bone weary, of living through too much crap in one lifetime and wishing he could go back in time and do so many things differently. Not that he could, but it was nice to imagine that if he'd made just a few choices in an opposite direction he wouldn't now be standing on his penthouse balcony alone and in the dark.

So many things had been decided about him by the public without his consent or understanding of what or how those opinions would dictate his future long after he started paying attention to it. It didn't help that a once trusted family friend had encouraged, hell... Stane had enabled his addictions; putting booze, drugs and women directly in his hand to "help" him recover after he lost his parents.

It had taken much, much longer for Tony to see the truth of it all and it physically sickened him to know that if not for Afghanistan, he might never have discovered Stane's duplicity. 

Yet despite his very public past mistakes and the overdone, blown-out-of-proportion playboy reputation he'd gained, there were several people who really just wanted to date Tony Stark. Of course, most of those people had no idea what that looked like or what they were actually signing up for until they were standing at his side being photographed and shouted at every time he was out in public.

 

***2008***

Tony rolled to the edge of the bed, holding his face between shaking hands. A light snore was coming from the blankets behind him. His partner of the previous night's festivities he assumed, making him groan. God, was this his life now?

As quietly as he could, he retrieved his clothes from the floor trying not to wince when his gaze caught the empty bottles and half-filled glasses of whisky littering the room. His head throbbed and his eyes hurt, wincing as he slipped his arms into his sleeves. He looked down to see a bruise forming on his hip as he gathered the rest of his clothes into his arms.

A quick glance at the bed to where a head of long blonde hair spilled over the pillow made him wince. Whoever she was, she was still snoring as he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. His shirt hung open as he regarded his reflection in the mirror. Love bites, he scoffed, totally in an internal derisive voice, since they looked more like bruises, were scattered across his collarbone. More littered his hips and a shift of fabric revealed long scratches down one side of his back.

As if that wasn't bad enough, his eyes were more red than brown, bloodshot from lack of sleep, dehydration and alcohol. Deep purple bruises under his eyes made him look ten years older and faint lines creased his skin, which he assumed were caused by stress. Shit, he swore under his breath, as he scrubbed his face clean and ran a brush through his unruly curls. This had to stop. 

It wasn't the drinking or the playboy reputation or even his poor care for his own well-being in his reflection that scared him. It was that what he saw in the mirror wasn't Tony Stark; genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.... but Howard Stark, Merchant of Death, founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. and worst ever father of the year.

It scared him and he made a vow to himself that he would put more effort into cleaning up his already tarnished reputation until the man staring back at him in the mirror no longer reminded him of a father who'd never wanted him. 

It wasn't a promise exactly because despite the haunted expression staring back at him from the mirror, he knew himself well enough to realize that he wasn't going to change overnight. Nor even in a week. He might be a genius and a futurist, but he was also a realist and he wasn't delusional. His habits were part and parcel of the man he'd worked hard to portray to the public for over a decade. Just as Rome wasn't built overnight, neither could he eliminate all the bad habits that had been his go-to for dealing with anything that made him uncomfortable. He knew it would be hard and that it would take time, but he also knew that despite all of that, he feared becoming his father more than he wanted to hold onto all things that were leading him down his father's path despite himself.

Dressed, and as refreshed as he could be with a quick swipe of a wet cloth, and an attempt at putting his hair in some kind of order, he slipped out of the bathroom and out into the hallway of the hotel room, determined to try harder to curb his self-destructive behaviour. 

 

***2012***

"Seriously Point Break?" Tony repeated, staring up at the broad shouldered, delicious, shut up Stark, male specimen before him. "This isn't some 'make fun of Tony' bet you've got going with Barton is it?"

"I have no idea of what you speak Man of Iron." Thor replied, giving him the most heated once-over Tony had ever seen. "We are shield brothers and I find you to be an intoxicating man of untold depths. I would like to get to know you better."

"But you just said you wanted to go on a date with me." Tony protested. "I thought you had a thing going with Jane."

"Ah yes. My fair lady Jane." Thor said, looking wistful. "Alas, we have decided to take a break and therefore we are no longer tethered to one another. She wished to have time to think while exploring other options, which means I am free to do the same."

"And you want to date?"

"Yes."

"You want to date me." Tony repeated.

"I do not understand your reluctance Stark. It is a great honour to be desired by a god and you are a very attractive man. I am not blind to your charms and I would enjoy the opportunity to show you some of my better qualities."

Tony swallowed hard, his throat dry at the mention of the demi-god's finer qualities. "But..." He protested weakly.

"There is no need for your confusion Man of Iron. I merely wish to show you a good time. From there, you can decide if we should move forward. Will you grant me this chance?"

Tony nodded, a frown still carved between his brows. "Okay, sure. I still don't get it but okay, yeah. Let's give it a shot."

"Wonderful!" Thor beamed, wrapping his arms around the smaller man and crushing him into his chest in a fierce hug. "You will not regret it, I can assure you."

"Right." Tony wheezed when Thor put his feet back on the floor. "Sure, just... try to take it easy on the hugs big guy. I'm not a super soldier remember?"

"You are being modest." Thor replied, his voice gone husky. "I find that most endearing. I shall see you tonight at 7."

"Uh, okay. Seven it is." Tony nodded, still unsure about what he was agreeing to. "Anything in particular I should wear?"

Thor looked at him thoughtfully, dragging his eyes over Tony's entire body. "Whatever makes you most comfortable. Oh, and warm." He added with a playful smile before sweeping out of the room in a move all sinew and muscle as he sauntered out the door.

=====

Thor was punctual, if a bit mysterious about their destination when he arrived at the tower dressed in his usual garb. Though Tony noted he'd done something with his hair that made him look more rugged and if possible, even more handsome. It made him go a bit weak in the knees when the Agardian looked at him with unmistakable heat in his eyes.

"Do you trust me?"

"Uh..." Tony hesitated. "Yes?"

The demi-god frowned slightly, a bit of the warmth fading from his eyes. "You don't sound certain friend Tony."

Tony flushed. "Um well, I trust you as a... brother in arms to watch my back and stuff, but I think you meant something else with that question."

"You are right, I apologize." Thor continued, his smile returning. "I meant, do you trust me to take you somewhere that will please you?"

"Oh! That's a yes then."

"Good." Thor nodded, slipping his left arm around Tony's waist and pulling him tight into his body. "Hold on to me." He said with a grin before lifting Mjolnir into the air and seconds later they were airborne.

Tony let out an indignant cry of surprise as the Asgardian tightened his hold, the wind streaming past them at speeds he'd only ever experienced inside his armour. It was both exhilarating and terrifying all at once knowing there was nothing but Thor's arm to keep him from falling.

Several minutes later they landed on a grassy hill where a picnic had been laid out, complete with a blanket and pillows. From the height, Tony could see the city skyline and beyond that the sun lay low on the horizon. It was a breathtaking view and Tony had to suppress his sense of surprise. Who knew the rash and brawny Asgardian could be romantic? Certainly not him.

Thor smiled at him where he'd reclined on the spread blanket, holding out a glass of sparking gold liquid to him. "You look pleased." He said as Tony settled beside him.

"I suppose I am." He admitted, still feeling a bit awkward about the whole thing. "I never would have guessed you had a romantic streak Point Break."

"In that case, I am pleased to have surprised you." Thor said, his voice dropping to a husky whisper.

"Uh... okay, sure." Tony replied, downing the glass of sparkling champagne Thor had handed to him. He still wasn't entirely comfortable with what they were doing but was determined to relax enough to at least try to enjoy himself. For the next hour, they ate, drank and told each other stories; though it was mostly Thor regaling him with his adventures across the nine realms, which grew less romantic and more suggestive with each new tale. 

By the time they'd eaten and drank their fill, Tony was reclined against the Thunder God's chest while Thor pointed to the stars to show him the places he'd been in the universe. The sun had long since set and it had grown chilly, but Thor gave off heat like a furnace and it's effect was making Tony drowsy despite his efforts to fight it.

"Tony, you are drifting off my friend." Thor whispered in his ear.

Tony jolted where he lay and sat up, moving away from the demi-god trying to get his bearings. A warm hand settled on his shoulder to press into the tight muscle there in an effort to ease the knotted tension.

"You are entirely too tense." Thor muttered into his neck, letting his breath ghost over his ear, making him shiver. "Come, I shall take you back to the Tower where we can be warm."

====

Back at the Tower, Tony felt some of his earlier trepidation return. He still wasn't sure he wanted to do... this, with the God of Thunder. If he was being honest, he wasn't entirely sure Thor did either when they returned and sood staring at each other in the penthouse kitchen. Thor was watching him with a thoughtful expression on his face, a small thread of nervousness lingering in his eyes.

"What is it Point Break?" Tony finally asked, pouring them both a drink to calm his nerves. Whiskey for himself and a glass of Asgardian mead for Thor which he'd saved from the last time Thor had visited Stark Tower.

"I believe I may have been overly hasty."

A sinking in Tony's gut followed the burn of the whiskey sliding down his throat.

"You are a very unique man Tony Stark, one I would be honoured to have at my side. You deserve to be cherished for all the days to come, but I do not believe I am the one to provide you with such admiration."

"Cherished huh?" Tony smirked to cover the sudden stab of disappointment he felt.

"Yes." Thor repeated, putting a gentle hand to his cheek. "As an Asgardian I will live for many years to come and though it's possible for me to slow the advancement of your own years, I believe it would change the man you are too much to do so. You deserve to have someone at your side through all things, something that I cannot do no matter how much I might wish to. With Loki imprisoned now, it is my destiny and my duty to rule Asgard one day and as such I cannot stay with you on Midgard. It is true you could accompany me should you wish to, but I think you would not be as happy there without your friends and your work to keep you satisfied."

"Right." Tony nodded, feeling a sense of relief and disappointment hit him at the same time. "Well, you are a god Point Break. But I think I agree with you there. Don't get me wrong, I had a good time tonight, it's just..."

"Something feels off?" Thor finished, a wistful look in his eye. 

"Yeah, exactly." Tony nodded sadly.

Thor smiled and pressed a light kiss to his forehead before releasing him and putting some space between them. "I feel the same Man of Iron. I too enjoyed our evening and I hope that things have not changed too much that we cannot still be friends."

"Of course not." Tony smiled. "We're good Rock of Ages, better than good."

"Thank you, but I think I should take my leave now."

"Sure thing big guy. Thank you for dinner."

"You are most welcome."

 

***2013***

Cold, cloying darkness, unrelieved by the mass of stars streaming past him as the alien ship grew closer and larger, filling up his vision and awareness until everything was black and cold and he's alone. Alone in the dark, stars mere blips of light in the distance and it's pressing in on him and he can't breath, can't breath and it's getting darker and he can't see, everything is dark and cold and he's alone and he gasps at the sound of a startled scream in his ear, his eyes snap open and he can't focus. 

It's an eternity before he can recognize he's in bed and it's Pepper crying and his armour is by the bed and he blasts it apart with the gauntlet on his wrist and Pepper is stumbling away and out the door and he can't think, can't breathe...

"Wait, wait... just wait..." Tony stammered, his heart still hammering in his chest as he struggled to full consciousness. "I can recalibrate the suit, I must have called it in my sleep. Pepper, come back, I can fix this."

"I'm sleeping on the couch Tony." Pepper cried, a hand covering her mouth to stifle her frightened, angry tears as she hurried out of the bedroom. "Calibrate that."

====

"I can't do this anymore." Pepper repeated with a glare. "I can't stand by while you risk your life over and over again, wondering if today's the day you're going to die. I'm sorry Tony, but I just can't."

Tony watched her leave, a metaphorical hole forming in his chest to replace the hole he'd had fixed, removing the arc reactor from his chest in an attempt to prove to Pepper he was listening. His .... protocol a literal fireworks display that he'd written to show her he was serious about her, and yet... 

Saving her life, fixing Extremis, destroying his Iron Man suits, removing the arc reactor and moving to New York... none of it mattered. He has to wonder if it had ever mattered to her or if she'd only used that part of his life to distance herself from him, to hold back from feeling too much while allowing him to think it was all his fault. He's empty now, as empty as his workshop where the suits used to stand, as empty and hollow as an old fallen log and he's not sure he can do this alone anymore.

 

***2014***

"I'm glad you agreed to this Tony." Steve smiled at him as he slid a hand over his where it rested on the dinner table. "I didn't think you'd want to, given how we didn't get off to the best start when we first met."

"I have to admit it took me a while to realize you were serious." Tony replied, smiling back into the most vivid blue eyes he'd ever seen. "I never imagined Captain America would ever be interested in someone like me."

"I surprised myself actually." Steve chuckled, giving his hand a squeeze. "I saw you and... I don't mean to upset you, but when I first saw you, all I could think of was Howard. He was a good man, but he's not you. You're beautiful Tony and a helluva lot smarter than he was."

"Now that's some sweet praise coming from you Cap." Tony smiled back, ignoring the faint twinge of discomfort he felt at the mention of his father. 

"I mean it Tony. Once I got to know you, I could see how you care deeply about everything and everyone. I admire that in you."

Tony ducked his head as the waiter cleared the table of the remains of their meal. "You're gonna make me blush Steve."

"It looks good on you." Steve whispered back huskily as he leaned close to press a kiss to Tony's lips. "Makes me want you even more."

Tony returned Steve's gaze with his pupils blown wide with desire, a warmth he couldn't ignore pooling in his stomach. "What do you say to getting out of here?"

"Thought you'd never ask." Steve grinned as they stood, a hand pressing into the small of Tony's back to guide him out of the restaurant.

The flash of a dozen cameras blinded them both the minute Steve paused on the stairs outside the restaurant to kiss him. Tony felt a smile curl his lip, along with a weary internal groan. He knew this would be par for the course after Steve had told him where they were going, but he'd thought it would take longer for the vultures to arrive. 

He'd tried to talk Steve out of this particular restaurant, having had similar things happen in the past, but Steve had been adamant. And, if Tony was being honest, placating in a way that the super soldier just  couldn't quite believe just how quickly a wildfire could spread when Tony Stark was involved.

The second the flashes went off, Steve leapt away from him so fast, Tony nearly fell into him. He'd been leaning towards the other man, perfectly ready to deepen the kiss and give the vultures something worth printing when Steve's abrupt departure from his personal space upset his balance. He couldn't help the flash of hurt and surprise that lit his features, his eyes flicking up to Steve to see the most blatant expression of horror he'd ever seen. 

Cap's face had gone bright red and there was no mistaking the look of panic in his eyes. Swallowing his hurt to cover the leaden feeling that settled in his gut, he took Steve by the elbow, his signature smile plastered on his face and steered him through the shouting reporters to Happy who was waiting for them at the curb.

Steve said nothing as they pulled away from the restaurant, his cheeks still flushed while he stared stonily out the window. The silence stretched out and Tony grew increasingly uncomfortable until he couldn't take it anymore.

"I know you weren't expecting that Steve. I tried to warn you..." He said, willing the other man to look at him.

When there was no response, he slid his hand over Steve's where it rested on the seat between them, hoping to reassure him. "You know it doesn't mean anything right? It's just bored reporters, probably a slow week in the news world. It'll blow over in a couple of days."

"Steve?"

Steve's shoulders tensed and Tony could see a muscle working in his jaw before he turned to face him. "I'm sorry Tony." He muttered with a sigh.

"Hey, it's not a big deal Cap. It's every other Tuesday in my world. I know it can be shocking at first, it just takes some getting used to."

"That's... not what I meant." Steve continued, his voice sad.

"What do you mean?" Tony asked, his palms suddenly damp as he pulled his hand back into his lap.

"I thought I could handle it you know? And I didn't really think... I thought maybe it was an exaggeration when you said it would be like this. I wasn't expecting this to happen tonight and I know you warned me, but..." Steve shrugged helplessly. "I froze, and the thought of that happening again... I just... I'm sorry but I just can't."

"Uh, what? You said you were fine with it." Tony protested, confused. "I told you what would happen, hell I even tried to warn you about that place and now you... can't?!"

"I'm sorry." 

"Yeah." Tony snapped, his voice gone cold as he turned to stare out the window. "Me too."

 

***2016***

The man he'd woken up next to was seated on the edge of his bed getting dressed as the sun spilled over the horizon.

"You want breakfast?" Tony asked carefully. Normally he didn't bother since his hook-ups rarely stayed till sunrise, but he was getting tired of being left behind the day after. "I know this nice little restaurant that does a mean eggs benedict."

The man, whose name Tony had already forgotten, peered at him over his shoulder with a playful smirk of disbelief in his eyes. "You serious Stark?" He asked with a laugh as he finished dressing. "You might be fine with everyone knowing you're bi-sexual, but I have a career and a reputation to maintain. Which means I really can't afford to be seen having breakfast with you. I didn't come here for romance. If you thought otherwise, you should have said so last night. I never would have agreed to this if I'd known." He added, waving his hand between the two of them. 

"I wasn't proposing anything asshole." Tony retorted, pulling his pants on with a huff while ignoring the flash of hurt that pierced his heart. "I just thought you might be hungry. I certainly am, I just thought you might be too. But suit yourself, you know where the door is."

"Right." The man nodded as if he knew him. "Because the great Tony Stark doesn't need anyone." He said as the elevator doors closed behind him.

"Not if I can help it." Tony growled to the empty room, suppressing the prick of tears in his eyes the man's words had sparked.

 

***2017***

"How long has it been Tony?"

"What are we talking about now?" Tony groaned, glaring at Rhodey who was watching him where he sat in a chair, his leg braces whirring quietly. Fuck! What he wouldn't give for a tall glass of high-end whisky right now.

"Since you were with someone. And I'm not talking about what you had back in college."

"Where is this coming from platypus? You've never commented on that before so what gives?"

"You've been... tense Tony, you've been..." Rhodey paused.

"Go ahead Rhodey-bear." Tony sighed. "You can say it."

"Hiding in your workshop, avoiding everyone. Avoiding... well, I don't know exactly what or who you're avoiding and I know it's perfectly normal for you, but I'm worried."

"What?" Tony blinked. "Is this because of Pepper? Because this has nothing to do with her."

"Then what is it about Tones?"

Tony rolled his eyes to glare at the ceiling. "That ship has sailed Sourpuss. Whatever I might've thought could happen, it's over. I'm done and I can't do it again. I'm not looking for anyone, not anymore. I can't."

"Shutting the door like that won't do you any favours."

"I'm not looking for favours Rhodey. I'm resigning myself to a life of bachelor-hood, my bots and my work. I don't need or want anything more than that."

"You deserve to be happy Tony."

"I am." Tony replied, flashing him a plastic smile. "Now go bother someone else. I've got some things to finish up before the party tonight."

"Fine." Rhodey nodded. "But I'm not giving up on this. You should have someone in your life, you deserve someone in your life."

"The universe thinks otherwise, just look at my history. There's no one lining up to play that role for me. I should know, I've looked long enough. It's past time I accepted that it's never going to happen for me."

 

 

Chapter Text

***2018***

"You don't seem to be enjoying the party." A melodic, masculine voice said.

Tony glanced to his side, a jolt of surprise hitting him when he recognized Doctor Strange. As always, the sorcerer had on his usual garb, the Cloak resting lightly on his shoulders. "Wasn't expecting you to show Doctor Wizard. I thought you said parties weren't your thing?"

"I thought I'd make an exception since it isn't a typical party. More a celebration for everything we went through and as an opportunity to let off some stress."

"Mmm." Tony nodded, that had been his intention when he'd first announced it to the gathered allies. Now that the party had begun and after everything he'd survived, his former festive mood had vanished only to be replaced with something cold and empty. "You should talk to Quill. Did you know his dad was a demi-god? Something called a Celestial named Ego. Interesting stuff. And Mantis, that girl... she can be a bit off-putting at first, but her innocence can be endearing."

"I just might do that." Stephen nodded, giving him a smile.

Tony nodded, pushing away from the railing and barely acknowledging Stephen's presence. "Right. Well, maybe we can catch up later Doc. I was just about to get a refill before I go have a chat with Shuri. Been meaning to ask her something. See you later Stephanie."

Stephen's entire demeanour changed to one of disappointment, his eyes filling with concern as Tony made his way through the crowd of guests. He didn't know the Tony of this timeline well, but he knew more than he should from the timelines he'd seen and Tony's current behaviour was setting off alarm bells in his head. 

He watched as Tony crossed the crowded room, throwing out a smile or a pat on the shoulder to those he passed. He stopped at the bar, picked up his drink and then slipped through the crowd, heading to the exit. With a quick but furtive glance around the room, Tony nodded to himself once before he slipped inside an elevator and disappeared through the door.

Stephen's brow furrowed in concern as he made his way through the crowded room in pursuit. He steered clear of the former fugitive Avengers, their acts in the Civil War still leaving a bitter taste in his mouth despite their contribution against Thanos. His use of the Time Stone on Titan had left no doubt in his mind that Steve Rogers' crusade five years ago had directly resulted in Thanos' victory over earth. 

As far as he was concerned, Captain America was responsible for the death of half the universe. If not for his selfishness and his arrogance in defying the wishes of over a hundred countries, he would have never had to give up the Time Stone or see the look of shocked horror on Tony's face when he'd been reduced to ash before his eyes. 

Steve caught his cold glare as he passed, his gaze flicking nervously away when he recognized him. He and Rogers hadn't spoken more than a few curt words of greeting, but he knew the soldier was well aware of what Stephen thought of him and that they had nothing to say to each other.

He felt more than saw Steve's cluster of friends turn to watch him cross the room before returning to their conversation. He could care less what they thought of him. For all their speeches and forced smiles for the cameras none of the people standing with Rogers spared much thought for the man who'd helped save them all. 

====

Tony arrived in his penthouse, his hands loosening and discarding his tie as he crossed the room, tossing the offending bit of fabric on the couch as he passed. "Lights at 40 percent JARVIS. And light the fireplace."

"Of course sir." JARVIS replied, the sound of his AI's voice doing more to ground him than anything else had in... god, years. "Is there a reason why you've chosen to ditch your own party?"

Tony shrugged as he crossed the room to stare out at the lights of the city. Having JARVIS back never failed to surprise and delight him, yet in this moment all it was doing was making him sad. The AI had been his touchstone, his anchor and his friend for years before the events that led to JARVIS's destruction. A time before, when all he'd seen was hope and the promise of an endlessly bright future. He'd had his company, the Avengers, Pepper, and the world was still his oyster despite Afghanistan and the Chitauri and everything in between. 

Hearing JARVIS now, alive, in the epilogue of the vision he'd seen of Thanos destroying everything, only reinforced the question that had been running in the background of his mind for weeks now. 

If this was the end of his nightmares, he couldn't decide if any of it had been worth it. That he was any better off now than he'd been before, that all the suffering and loss and betrayal he'd endured was worth standing here alone, with nothing to show for it, while everyone around him moved on with the next chapter in their lives. If this was his next chapter, then maybe he'd have been better off not surviving at all. 

It wasn't like anyone would notice his absence for long. Much like no one currently in his tower attending his party would notice he wasn't there now. They never had before as far as he was aware, and even if they had, he knew they would just assume he'd gone somewhere private to spend time with his next conquest, or start a work binge while ignoring the fact he hadn't had a conquest in... well, more years than he cared to think about.

"Sir?"

"Yeah J?"

"You haven't answered my question."

"Just not feeling it tonight J." Tony shrugged, his gaze pinned on the twinkling lights of the city and feeling more alone than he had since the night his parents died. God, what was with him tonight? "I guess I'm just tired? I never imagined my life playing out the way it has and every time I look back at what's come before, all I see is loss and pain and betrayal. I'd ask why, but I already know there's no answer to that. Though I suppose 'growing as a person' and 'gaining wisdom' is an answer, but it doesn't change how... resigned it makes me feel."

"Sir..." JARVIS hesitated as though Tony's confession had pained him... but maybe it had. He'd long since given up deciding if his oldest AI could evolve so much that he had developed complex human emotions, because he knew he had. "Are you saying you're without hope?"

"Maybe?" Tony replied, his brow furrowed in thought. "Sounds bad if that's the problem. I honestly can't think of where to go from here. Saving the galaxy kinda feels like an end. I mean, what could I possibly do to top what I haven't already done? I've revolutionized clean energy, improved the world of prosthetics, medical advancements... I've created AI's, improved operating systems in security, mobile communication, personal computers, saved the world and saved the galaxy. Everything that lies before me is just improving on what I've already done, most of which Pepper and SI can handle without me, so all I see is..."

"Is what sir?"

"Nothing J."

"Tony?"

Tony whirled at the sound of the voice behind him, his heart thumping in his chest at the unexpected intrusion.

"JARVIS?"

"My apologies sir. Doctor Strange has  arrived."

"Why didn't you warn me?" Tony muttered as Stephen closed the distance between them.

"I assumed based on previous behaviour with others that you were expecting him to follow you discreetly. The pattern you presented at your party seemed to indicate a similar scenario. My apologies if I've misread the situation."

"I didn't mean to intrude." Stephen said, coming to a stop and leaving less than an arm's reach between them. "I was concerned when you left unexpectedly. I thought you were going to speak with Princess Shuri?"

"Changed my mind." Tony huffed, wishing Stephen didn't look so... enticing. He'd deliberately avoided looking at him all night. Stephen stirred things inside him he'd rather ignore. History and experience told him that spending any time with the man would make it impossible to hide his interest and attraction, which would only lead to heartache and disappointment. Having him here, alone, was painful enough when he knew he couldn't have him.

"You weren't enjoying the party?" Stephen asked, concern lighting his eyes.

"Not really." Tony shrugged. "Guess I'm just getting too old for that sort of thing. Not as fun as it used to be."

"You're not old Tony."

"Meh." Tony scoffed. He really wasn't in the mood to argue and his confession to JARVIS had effectively drained him enough that all he wanted now was to sleep and forget about it. "How much did you overhear Stephanie?"

"Not much." Stephen replied, not denying he'd overhead him talking to his AI. "Though I would like to hear what it is that you see."

Tony frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"You said everything before you "looks the same as it always has"... but you broke off when you said, all you see is..."

Tony shrugged. "It's nothing Doc. Besides, I'm more interested in what you're doing here. Why'd you follow me?"

"I wanted to talk to you. I thought you were going to speak to Shuri, but then I saw you get on the elevator. It didn't seem like you were planning on coming back."

"I wasn't." Tony shrugged again, turning away to stare out the window at the city. "And I wasn't aware anything I did interested you. Why'd you follow me Stephen? For that matter, why'd you watch me leave?"

"I know I haven't been as... available as you would have liked and... I thought we could talk."

"Talk? About what?" Tony asked, moving away from the window and into the kitchen to grab a coffee. "Want anything? Tea?"

"No. Thank you." Stephen replied, following him to stand at the kitchen island.

"Well?" Tony prompted, moving to settle himself in the living room. "You gonna tell me what you came here for or do I have to guess?"

Stephen frowned as he sat down, nervousness settling in his gut as he clasped his hands lightly in his lap. "This is... not exactly what I was expecting tonight."

"If you think that was an adequate explanation, you've fallen far short of the mark Strange."

Stephen pursed his lips, leaning forward in his seat to catch and hold Tony's eyes with his own. "I'm aware of that... just... We've both been through some... traumatic experiences and my work when I returned from our fight with Thanos took priority. I needed time to get the Sanctums back in working order... to repair the wards and protections around earth... and I wanted to give you time to recover as well."

"Thanks Doc, but I'm fine." Tony grunted, narrowing his eyes in frustration. "But I'm still not getting why you followed me up here."

"I don't think you are fine." Stephen countered. "Not completely anyway, but that's not why I'm here either, I..." Stephen looked away, a faint flush rising in his cheeks. "Dammit this is harder than I expected."

"Come on Stephen. It can't be that bad." Tony scoffed and a moment later, paled in fear. "Unless you're dying. You're not are you? Please say you're not. I don't think I could handle any more bad news."

"Of course I'm not dying. Why on earth would you think that? No, it's... I, bloody hell." Stephen swore. "You know I looked at millions of futures?"

"Yeah..." Tony replied, hesitantly.

"Well, it's not possible to do that and not get to know someone. Specifically... I got to know you and... well, I liked what I saw."

Tony's confusion morphed into one of disbelief as he sank back in his chair, all his previous tension vanishing as he resumed drinking his coffee. "Is that all? Geez Doc, I thought you were setting me up to tell me a new threat was coming to earth."

Stephen blinked in confusion at Tony's reaction. "What do you mean, is that all? I'm trying to say that... I like you Tony. Quite a lot actually."

"Okay. I like you too Stephen, just not sure why you're making such a big deal of it."

"I was hoping you felt the same."

"I just said I liked you back didn't I?" Tony retorted. "What more do you want?"

"I want to take you out to dinner douchebag." Stephen snapped, then clapped a hand over his mouth in horror over what he'd just said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that."

"Yes you did Stephanie." Tony countered, a look of wonder in his eyes. "Run that by me again?"

"No." Stephen huffed, a faint flush rising in his cheeks. "You heard me well enough the first time."

"I think I did..." Tony replied. "But I also think I imagined it because it sounded like you said you wanted to take me on a date?"

"I did."

Tony snorted and got to his feet, his annoyance clear in the stiff set to his shoulders as he marched into the kitchen to put his mug in the sink. 

"Why the hell would you want that?" He demanded, his glare filling with irritation. "No one wants to date me. I'm damaged goods Doc and I come with a lot of public irritations and well documented issues. Press all the time, interference and commentary on my life, on the people I'm seen with, on the people I date... last I checked you wanted to stay hidden from the world like the mystic monk you are. Don't tell me you're going to throw that away just to date me. So... is this a joke then? Are you putting me on, is that what this is? Cuz I gotta tell you, I really thought you were better than that."

Stephen frowned and followed Tony to where the inventor was leaned against the counter, arms crossed and glaring daggers at him. "It's not a joke Tony. I really would like to get to know you better, but what in the world happened to you that you think I would joke about something like this?"

"Really Stephen? What hasn't happened to me? You aren't the first person to want to date me. Thing is, none of them really understood what they were signing up for and if they did, they didn't last long. Or they were horrible people who just wanted to use me." Tony said bitterly, whispering the last so quiet that Stephen almost didn't hear it.

"Who are we talking about?"

"What does it matter?" Tony retorted, his voice rough with anger and bitterness as he swept an arm around the empty room. "Do you see any of them here now? No you don't, because they couldn't handle it."

"It matters because whatever happened, it hurt you." Stephen said, moving closer until he had come within arm's reach of the inventor. "Will you tell me who you're talking about? I'm being sincere Tony. I'm willing to listen if you're willing to talk."

"Fine, whatever." Tony shrugged, staring at the floor. "You'd have to have been born in a different era to not know about Pepper. But what you don't know is why we split. It wasn't just my being Iron Man... it was Killian and Extremis and... well, no that part doesn't matter so much. Mostly it was about the night my armour almost hurt her when I had a panic attack and it came to my defense."

"You... created technology to call the armour to you?" Stephen gasped, his eyes wide with wonder.

"It's not a big deal." Tony huffed. "Did you miss the part where it threatened Pepper?"

"Of course not, though I assume she wasn't hurt. And creating something like that is nothing to scoff at."

"Uh okay... but no, she wasn't physically hurt. I woke up in time to shut it down."

"You were asleep when it happened? A nightmare?"

"Yeah."

"Alright. I can see how something like that would be upsetting to her, but surely she understood what had happened?" Stephen frowned, his gaze sharp as he watched the other man.

Tony's laugh was bitter. "Yeah, you'd think so wouldn't you?"

"Will you tell me what happened?"

 

Tony frowned. "You're not going to let this go are you?"

"No, I'm not."

"Fine." Tony huffed, his shoulders dropping in defeat. "She left the room. Went to sleep on the couch for the night."

Stephen narrowed his eyes. "And?"

"And what? That's it."

"What about you? You must have been upset and not a little disoriented..."

"It took me two hours to recover from the nightmare or the panic or whatever it was... and I spent it fighting not to leave the tower and drown myself at the nearest bar."

Shock, disbelief and anger at Pepper warred for Stephen's attention at Tony's words, finally settling on trying to wipe the look of resignation of Tony's face. "You didn't deserve that."

Tony's face paled, his eyes wide with shock as he gaped at him. "What?! I scared her Stephen. She thought the armour was going to hurt her."

"And how hurt were you that you called the armour to protect you while still unconscious?" Stephen hissed, his brow furrowed in anger. "You said yourself the armour didn't hurt her... where was her concern for you in that moment? I understand she'd be upset... but she didn't even spare a thought to the state she left you in. Never mind the fact that she's clearly never understood what it takes out of you to be Iron Man. Surely she knew you well enough by then to know what you needed in that moment and it sure as hell wasn't leaving you to wallow in guilt and fear for hours on end."

"What... how..?" Tony babbled, his eyes wide as saucers as he gaped at him.  

"I'm not sure what I've said to confuse you. It's true isn't it?"

"She was hurt... she... I scared her Stephen."

"I'm aware of that Tony. But her fear doesn't cancel yours. It doesn't make what you were going through to cause such an event any less important."

Tony stared at him with a stunned look on his face. Several minutes passed where he simply gaped at him as if Stephen had stolen his voice and didn't know how to get it back.

"Has no one ever told you that?"  Stephen asked quietly.

"No." Tony scoffed. "Why would they? It was my fault the armour activated. It could have hurt her."

"Your trauma is not your fault Tony. And it didn't hurt her and I highly doubt it would've done anything to her other than remove her from the room."

"How do you know that?" Tony demanded. "Pepper didn't know that."

"Because I know you Tony. You would never write a program to kill someone regardless of the danger you might be in. Incapacitate yes, but not kill. Not if you're not in control."

Tony's eyes were glassy with unshed tears when Stephen finished talking, making the sorcerer wish he could gather the other man in a hug and comfort him. But he did know Tony well enough to know that the inventor would not accept sonething like that from him - at least not yet.

"What else happened to make you believe I wouldn't want to date you?"

"Lots of things. Like I said." Tony replied, though there was a note of insecurity in his voice as though he wasn't so sure anymore. "Steve couldn't handle it. Though considering what happened later that's definitely a good thing."

"You and Rogers dated?" Stephen exclaimed as though he couldn't picture it.

Tony narrowed his eyes. "One dinner is not dating Stephen. We were caught outside the restaurant by reporters. Steve couldn't handle the attention and it was over before it started."

"He gave you up because of... what? Publicity? Gossip?" Stephen scoffed. "I already didn't like him, but hearing that makes him even more shallow than I already thought he was."

"Really? You don't like Steve? Everyone likes Steve. He's history's great hero."

"He's a selfish, self-righteous ass who never left the forties. He's an arrogant prick of a man who broke the law, injured civilians and defied over a hundred countries, all for the safety of one man. I don't know about you, but none of that makes him a hero."

"Wow," Tony huffed, though a corner of his mouth twitched as though he were suppressing a smile. "Tell me what you really think Doc."

"I will always tell you the truth Tony." Stephen countered, his words making Tony's smile give way to cautious wonder.

"You're serious."

"Yes."

"You don't care about the press or what I do as Iron Man?"

"It isn't an issue. You're Iron Man, you saved everyone Tony. You are the most selfless, forgiving, brilliant man I've ever met and I can't imagine a world without you in it and I would never want to."

Tony stared back at him, his expression shuttered as though he couldn't quite grasp the reality of what Stephen had just said. 

Stephen smiled and took a step closer to him. "Am I imagining things or have I somehow managed to render the great Tony Stark speechless?"

"Maybe." Tony replied, his usual stoic countenance wavering under Stephen's scrutiny. "Seriously Stephen, this isn't a joke right? You're not just toying with me to... I dunno, make fun of me?"

"Though I do enjoy our banter, this is not something I would ever joke about with anyone, least of all you. I admit I was unaware of how certain relationships in your past have played out, but if you will allow it, I would welcome the chance to prove my sincerity."

"Wow Stephanie, I never knew you could talk like that. No wonder they made you Sorcerer Supreme with all that charisma you hide just waiting to unleash it on the unsuspecting masses." 

"It does have it's uses." Stephen agreed with a twitch of his lips in obvious amusement. "So? Do you have an answer for me?"

Tony glanced away a moment before meeting Stephen's blue green eyes with his chocolate brown ones. "If you're serious, I'm willing to give it a shot Doc."

Stephen smiled and ran a hand up Tony's arm in a gentle caress. "In that case, may I kiss you to seal our agreement?"

Tony nodded and Stephen wasted no time in pulling the other man into his arms, sliding one hand to Tony's waist as the other slid up his chest to gently rest against his cheek. "You're sure?" He whispered, watching as Tony tracked the movement of his lips before flicking up to meet his eyes. 

"I'm sure." Tony grated, his voice wavering as the pulse beneath Stephen's hand picked up speed. "Kiss me."

"Oh, I will." Stephen whispered his breath ghosting over Tony's lips as he inclined his head towards him. Their lips touched, Tony letting out a sigh of need and want as Stephen pressed them together firmly, the touch gentle and careful until Tony moaned, his grip on the sorcerer's waist tightening and drawing the other man closer. 

A moan escaped him, his lips parting, his tongue ghosting over Tony's bottom lip followed by a satisfied huff of pleasure as Tony parted his lips, inviting entrance as their tongues brushed against each other. Heat pooled in Stephen's groin when Tony pressed against his leg, the feel of his hard length sending shivers of desire coursing through his limbs.

"Tony..." Stephen gasped, pulling back to meet dark pupils, the desire and want reflected there making him shudder with anticipation. 

"Mmm?" Tony hummed, pressing soft kisses along Stephen's neck, the sensation making his arms break out in goosebumps. "Yes Stephen?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, but we should stop."

"What? Why?" Tony demanded, his body tensing under Stephen's touch.

Stephen brushed a thumb over Tony's kiss- swollen lip, a look of tenderness in his eyes making the other man sigh with longing. "Because I want to do this right and I want more than just one night with you. Will you go out to dinner with me?"

"What? Now?"

Stephen huffed a laugh and pressed a chaste kiss to Tony's lips. "No of course not. It's a bit late for dinner now. Are you busy tomorrow?"

Tony frowned, his confusion slowly giving way to surprised wonder. "I don't think so."

"Good." Stephen nodded, reluctantly releasing his hold on the other man. "How about I pick you up at 7?"

"You really want to do this?"

"More than you seem to realize."

Tony smiled, pulling Stephen into his arms again and pressing a heated kiss to the sorcerer's lips. "I'm beginning to get the picture, though I'd love to continue this right now."

"So is that a yes for dinner?"

Tony laughed, hugging Stephen close once more before releasing him. "Definitely Mr. Wizard. Looking forward to it."

"Good." Stephen smiled, taking a few steps away from the engineer to conjure a portal. "Until tomorrow then."

"Sweet dreams Doc." Tony replied, the sadness Stephen had seen now completely replaced with a look of happy anticipation.

"They'll be of you, so no worries there." Stephen said, an amused huff of laughter escaping him at the look of wonder he saw on Tony's face as the portal closed behind him.  

Tony remained frozen in place for a moment, the sparkling lights of Stephen's portal repeating in his vision as his parting words left him stunned. Shaking himself, he let the warm feeling the man's parting words wash over him, clearing his mind of the dark thoughts which had plagued him earlier to be swept away in anticipation of his impending date.

As his head hit his pillow and exhaustion began to pull him under, a pleased hum escaped him while his mind filled with blue-green eyes staring back at him with affection. His last thought before sleep claimed him was that maybe, sometimes, dreams can come true.



*fin