The mission seemed to have gone as well as any of them could have hoped for, seeing as how it was the first time going to a new dimension for fix out of the six of them. As Stephen had said, numerous times, he hadn’t needed any help. Tony and Rhodey would have been sufficient backup, but Danvers had insisted on a bigger team. Partly so that they could get some experience, but mostly because she was still having a hard time trusting the sorcerer.
Due to the compound still being mostly under construction, and the parts that weren’t being fixed were occupied by the newly returned Rogues, they reconvened at the once again Avengers Tower in the city to debrief. Thanks to Stephen’s insistence, it was short lived. After just about a half hour they disbanded, beginning to go their separate ways and go about the rest of their day. Stephen, Tony, and Rhodey were the only ones remaining in the conference room. Rhodey had just turned to demand Tony’s help in his argument with Stephen over who was more annoying between Lang and Barton when he noted the sudden change on his best friend’s face.
“Tones?” he asked softly. “What’s wrong?”
Tony shook his head slowly. His eyes were glassy, skin pale but also starting to flush. “I don’t, uh, I don’t know.” He appeared to try to swallow, but couldn’t. “I don’t feel that great all of a sudden.”
In a heartbeat, Stephen was around the table and next to Tony. He took the brunet’s wrist into his unsteady hand. His heart jumped at the racing of Tony’s pulse against his fingers. Stephen leaned down, trying to hide his growing concern when Tony looked up at him.
“How do you feel?” Stephen asked, surprised his voice was so calm. He had a hunch as to what was going on, but wanted to be sure before he said anything.
“It kind of feels like I’m drunk, honestly,” Tony said with a humorless laugh. “Lightheaded, my mouth is dry, I feel really weak. But my heart is going crazy and I can’t...I’m having trouble breathing. But that could just be an anxiety attack on its way.”
Stephen shook his head once. “I don’t think so,” he disagreed. He raised the hand that wasn’t still holding Tony’s wrist and pressed the back of it against his forehead. Definite fever. “What was on the other side of that hill back there?”
“I told you,” Tony replied with a slight frown. “Nothing.”
“Nothing we were looking for, but there had to be something.”
Tony shrugged the best he could. “Just more of that grass stuff, rocks and dirt, a few flowers, something that looked like a crater or-”
“What did the flowers look like?” Stephen cut in.
“I don’t know,” Tony said weakly. He was feeling worse by the second, and his vision was starting to fade at the edges. “Stephen, my eyes...I’m starting to lose my vision.”
Rhodey’s eyes were darting between Stephen and Tony desperately. But Stephen calmly sat in the chair next to Tony so they were level with one another. He curled his hand around Tony’s, squeezing it firmly to try to ground him.
“Tony, I want you to take a couple deep breaths. Try to think, just about the flowers. As much as you can remember, okay?”
As always, Stephen’s voice got through to Tony. He tried to take deep breaths, but his lungs didn’t really want to cooperate. So instead he focused on the feeling of Stephen’s cool hand and his eyes, which were green today.
“They were more like weeds, really,” Tony eventually said. “Maybe three feet high. Some of them were wrapped around each other. Brown at the top, like cat tails, but they looked like petals, just dead.”
Stephen nodded encouragingly. “How close did you get to them?”
Tony chewed his lip. “I walked through a small patch of them. To see the bottom of the crater, to make sure.” A wave of dizziness swept over Tony, making him sway in his seat. “Stephen...”
“It’s okay,” Stephen promised. He looked over at Rhodey. “I know what’s wrong with him. He’s going to be fine. He must have inhaled some spores of a plant that – it doesn’t matter. I know what to do. But I need you to go find the others and see if anyone else feels sick. If they do, call Wong. He’ll be able to help. No one else went with Tony, and I didn’t see the plants anywhere else. But we want to be sure.”
Rhodey was out the door almost before Stephen had stopped talking. The sorcerer turned all of his attention back to Tony, who was looking back at him with scared brown eyes.
“You’re going to be fine, Tony,” Stephen assured him. He put his hand on the back of Tony’s neck to help steady him. “I promise you, I know exactly what to do. But I need to get you upstairs, to your floor. Are you okay with a portal?”
Tony felt like he was listening to Stephen from the bottom of a pool. It took so long for the words to register with him, and even when they did, he wasn’t sure he had caught them all.
“Yeah,” he forced out through his completely dry throat.
Stephen didn’t wait any longer than he had to. Before Tony knew it, he was being settled into the chair in the corner of his bathroom, next to the closet door. His head was swimming, and he knew it wasn’t from the portal. But before he could say anything, Stephen was kneeling in front of him, his scarred hands gripping Tony’s thighs comfortingly.
“You’re going to be fine,” he repeated. “But I need to give you something that’s going to make you even sicker. Your body needs to purge the spores, so you’re going to get sick to your stomach. A lot. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but I swear to you, it’s going to get better. Do you understand?”
All Tony really understood was he was sick, and Stephen was going to help him.
He didn’t really need to know anything else.
“I trust you,” Tony replied.
The next few minutes were mostly a blur to Tony. He didn’t really hear Stephen telling FRIDAY to update Rhodey. He missed him speaking to Wong. He was unaware of the other man’s preparations for the next several hours, which would be just as hard for Stephen as they would be for Tony.
It goes without saying that everything was different after Thanos. The world, the multiverse really, was attempting to put itself back together again piece by piece. The Avengers were in shambles, putting it mildly, and the challenges they were facing seemed insurmountable.
But it wasn’t all bad.
Thanks to their plight on Titan, Stephen and Tony formed an instant bond that did a very good job withstanding the test of pretty much everything it came up against. Which ended up including them sleeping together after an overly stressful week, and the resulting panic on both parts that it was going to ruin their friendship.
After a few days of awkwardly tip toeing around one another, they started to realize that maybe ruining their friendship was a good thing, because it meant that it could be replaced by a relationship.
Things were going well. Really well. In large part because no one knew about it. They both knew that once it started to become public knowledge, they would have to deal with interference from pretty much everywhere. They just wanted to enjoy some peace and quiet together for as long as they could.
When Stephen knelt back in front of Tony, he was ripped from his thoughts. He stared down at his boyfriend, who smiling back at him in a way that Stephen hoped was convincing.
“I need you to drink this,” Stephen said softly. He gently took Tony’s hand, putting a juice glass into it. “This is going to make you get sick. After your body expels everything it needs to, I’ll have to get your fever to break. Then you’ll be able to rest.”
Tony nodded, or at least he thought he did. He slowly raised the glass to his lips. The awful taste he had been expecting didn’t come.
“Simple spell to make it taste just like water,” Stephen said by way of an answer to the look on Tony’s face. “The other way wouldn’t be easy to get down.”
It wasn’t until Stephen took the glass away that Tony realized he had finished all of the liquid.
“How long until...”
“Only a few minutes,” Stephen replied with a sad smile.
Tony nodded. “You don’t have to stay. I know you were a doctor, but-”
Lips pressing against his cut him off effectively. “I’m not going anywhere, Tony,” Stephen said resolutely. He pulled back enough to see Tony’s eyes, which were wide in alarm. “Don’t worry. It can’t get passed person to person. Only directly from the plant.”
“Thank you,” Tony all but whispered. “For helping me, for staying with me.”
Stephen dropped his eyes and swallowed. “It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have let you wander away like that.”
“Stephen, honey, you of all people should know you can’t keep a handle on me at all times.” Tony had to take a deep breath after speaking just one sentence. “Short of putting me on a leash, which we both agreed we’re not into...”
He trailed off after earning a soft laugh from Stephen. Tony would have reciprocated, but a cramp tore its way through his stomach instead.
For the next half hour, Tony remained hunched over the toilet, losing everything from his stomach that he possibly could. Despite all his practice with drinking over the years, this was unlike anything Tony had ever experienced. He felt like every muscle in his body was shredding itself and every nerve was on fire. When he finally collapsed back against Stephen, he was soaked in sweat and shaking violently.
“That sucked,” he wheezed. His throat felt like it had been slashed with glass.
Stephen wrapped his arms around Tony carefully and pressed a kiss to his damp hair. “I’m sorry,” he choked out around the lump in his throat. “I’m so sorry, Tony, but you’re not done yet."
He could feel the man in his arms deflate at that.
“How much longer?”
“Three more times,” Stephen answered.
Each time, less came up, but that made the pain worse for Tony. His stomach was clenching in a vice, shooting pain throughout the rest of his body. He wouldn’t be surprised if he had cracked a few, or all, of his ribs. He did his best to focus on the feel of Stephen’s hands on his back, the sound of his deep voice, but the pressure in his head was too much. He was too weak, in too much pain to focus on anything else.
It was between the third and the last time that Rhodey came in.
For the few minutes of rest Tony would have, he collapsed to the cool floor, wishing he could just melt through it and hide there. He didn’t fall asleep, but he was definitely out of it and unaware of anything other than his traitorous body. The shaking fingers carding through his sweaty hair was the only thing he was aware of, so it was lost to him when his friend came into the bathroom to check on him.
Rhodey froze in the doorway. Tony was sprawled on the floor, his head in Stephen’s lap while the sorcerer ran his hand through the dark hair. The sorcerer looked up, eyes filled with unshed tears.
It was obvious without any words being exchanged.
This wasn’t a fellow superhero helping out a friend. This wasn’t a doctor doing his duty, taking care of a sick patient. This was so much more than that.
But Rhodey was more taken aback by how awful Tony looked than he was by the sight of Stephen’s fingers only momentarily stilling before continuing their path back and forth. Tony had groaned softly, almost whimpered, when Stephen’s hand had stopped even briefly.
“How’s he doing?” Rhodey asked, his voice barely loud enough to hear.
Stephen didn’t trust his voice, but knew he needed to respond. “He’s hanging in there. Almost done. But he’s in a lot of pain. I gave him a lot of the potion. There’s no way to tell how much he ingested, and I needed to be sure he would be okay.”
“What can I do?”
“He’ll need an IV,” Stephen replied, keeping his eyes up on Rhodey. “After he gets sick again, I’ll have to get his fever down. And then he can sleep. He’ll pass out, really. But he has lost a lot of fluids and an IV is the only way to get them back. I don’t think he’s going to want to eat or drink anything for a while.”
Rhodey nodded. “Bruce will know what he needs, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Stephen agreed.
“What do you need?”
The question took Stephen by surprise. “I’m fine,” he answered by reflex. “I just...all I need is to get him stable.”
For about thirty seconds, it looked like Rhodey wanted to say something. He appeared to be debating with himself before finally deciding against it.
“I’ll go get the stuff you’ll need for the IV,” he finally said instead. “He can stay up here, right? He doesn’t need to go downstairs?”
“No, he can stay here. I’ll be able to get him set up in his own bed.”
“Okay. Great. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Have FRIDAY let me know if there’s anything else.”
Their eyes met, and another unspoken communication passed between them. When Stephen dropped his eyes to look down at Tony, who was starting to breathe in pants thanks to the stomach cramps, Rhodey vacated his post, knowing that his friend was in more than capable hands.
On his way out Rhodey asked FRIDAY to let him know when Tony was ready for the IV so that Stephen would have whatever time he needed before then.
The last round was only about five minutes, but to Tony it felt like five days before he was being held up by Stephen’s strong arms, struggling to catch his breath.
“You’re doing so great, Tony,” Stephen praised. “It’s almost over. We just need to get your fever down, and then you can sleep.”
“Please stay,” Tony almost begged. He didn’t care how desperate he sounded. He had never felt this awful, this vulnerable, and he needed Stephen. “Don’t go.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Stephen swore. “I’m staying right here with you. But you’ve gotta get into the tub and cool down. You’ll feel better, honey, I promise.”
Tony tried to nod, but his neck was too stiff. Everything was too stiff for him to do much of anything other than try to stay out of Stephen’s way as the taller man peeled his clothes from his body and helped him over to the bathtub. It was already filled with lukewarm water, waiting patiently.
Per usual, Stephen was right. The heat slowly leaving his body felt wonderful. He tried to relax, but the cramps hadn’t gone away yet, and his head was pounding. His breathing was shallow, but getting better as Stephen used the clean water to rinse Tony’s messy hair and the sweat clinging to his neck and chest.
“Stay awake for a few more minutes,” Stephen said when Tony’s eyes started to flutter closed. “Then you can sleep for as long as you want.”
Stifling a groan, Tony complied. “Did anyone else get sick?”
“No,” Stephen said, shaking his head. “Everyone else is fine. Don’t worry. Just try to take deep breaths, okay? It’s almost over.”
Almost twenty minutes of silence followed. Tony kept his eyes opened, focused on Stephen, who never let his hand stray from Tony’s skin. He methodically rinsed the exposed skin he could reach over and over again, the pain in his own hands be damned.
“I...” Tony began, but stopped himself. He wasn’t feeling well, but was aware of what was going on now that the poison was out of his system. But that didn’t mean he wanted this to be the moment he told Stephen the full extent of his feelings. “I’m really glad you’re here,” he said instead. Not a lie, just not the whole truth.
Stephen offered a small smile. “I wish it was under better circumstances.” He watched as the flush on Tony’s cheeks started to fade, leaving only the paleness of his dehydrated skin. “Feeling any better?”
“Yeah,” Tony sighed more than said. “Really tired. Still kind of dizzy.”
Before Stephen could reply, he was interrupted by FRIDAY’s gentle voice from the ceiling.
“Boss’s temperature has returned to normal,” she reported. “It should stay under control with some medicine.”
“Thank you,” Stephen replied, but kept his eyes on Tony. “Let’s get you into bed.”
The simple act of standing and getting out of the tub took the last of the energy from Tony. Stephen had to all but carry him back over to the chair after wrapping him in towels. After drying him the best that he could, he helped dress Tony in boxers and a t shirt to keep the chill of the air conditioning off him. Half a bottle of mouthwash later, and Tony was sitting on the edge of his bed, struggling to stay upright and keep his eyes open.
As if on cue, Rhodey knocked softly on the bedroom door despite it standing open.
“Hey, Tones,” he greeted softly before coming into the room. “You doing alright?”
“I don’t know,” Tony answered honestly. He looked and sounded absolutely miserable.
Stephen returned from the bathroom after gathering a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin should Tony’s fever return. He set the items on the bedside table before turning to Rhodey.
“Thank you,” he said, nodding to the IV and line in the colonel’s hands. “Are you, um, would you be comfortable with the needle?” He looked down at his own trembling hands. “I don’t trust myself not to hurt him.”
Without even giving it a conscious thought, Tony reached out and gently took Stephen’s hand. He leaned forward until his forehead was resting against Stephen’s arm.
“I know how to do it,” Rhodey answered before Tony said anything. “No problem at all.”
Stephen nodded his thanks before helping Tony get settled into bed. The brunet let his eyes close as soon as he was laying against the soft pillows. Stephen was impressed at how efficiently Rhodey administered the IV before securing it with tape to Tony’s arm to keep the line from pulling and hanging the bag high up on the wall to the side of the bed.
He looked down at his best friend for a few moments before turning to Stephen. “Let me know if either of you need anything, okay?”
“I will,” Stephen promised.
“Thank you for taking such good care of him,” Rhodey said with a small smile. “I left some tea and other stuff in the kitchen for later, if either of you are up for it.”
Stephen felt a wave of emotion pass over him. “Thank you,” he said simply, unsure of what else he was supposed to say.
It was clear Rhodey knew. But it also didn’t feel like his place to start talking about his relationship with Tony to his best friend of over thirty years.
“He’s going to be fine,” Stephen added after a moment. “He’ll be in bed for longer than he’ll want, but will be good as new soon enough.”
“Too bad it took a interdimensional flu to make him get some rest,” Rhodey said fondly with a small laugh.
The door had just closed behind Rhodey when Stephen heard Tony groan from the bed behind him.
Even though it was only a single word, Stephen could hear the exhaustion dripping from the other man’s voice. He was at Tony’s side in an instant, sitting on the edge of the bed next to him. Tony kept his eyes squeezed shut against the pain that was, well, everywhere at this point.
“It’s not going away,” Tony gasped through a cramp jolting his stomach.
Stephen raised a shaking hand to brush the still wet hair off Tony’s forehead. “I know, honey. But it’s going to real soon, I promise. Once the medicine has a chance to work its way through your system and you get some sleep, you’re going to feel so much better.”
The doctor in him knew Tony’s body felt like it was shutting down on him. He was likely tired enough as it was after the battle, and the added stress of having to get rid of a deadly virus completely drained him. It was all catching up with him now that it had all stopped and his brain had a chance to connect with his body.
Tony opened his eyes and looked up at Stephen pleadingly. “I don’t want to fall asleep. I’m scared I won’t wake up. I don’t feel well, Stephen, and I think I’m freaking out.”
“It’s okay,” Stephen said, his voice deep and soothing. He let his hand frame the side of Tony’s pale face. “You’re not freaking out. You’re exhausted and sick, but you’re going to get better. I won’t let you get any worse. I swear to you, you’re going to feel better when you wake up.”
Without realizing it, Tony nuzzled into Stephen’s touch. “You’re staying, right? I know I’m asking a lot of you here but this really sucks and I-”
“Of course I’m staying,” Stephen interrupted him softly.
“Then what the hell are you doing sitting on the bed instead of being in it?”
No matter how terrible he may feel, Tony is always Tony and that brought a smile to Stephen’s face. Without any further delay, he vacated his position on the edge of the bed and went around to his side. Well, the side he always slept on when he spent the night, anyway. The weren’t living together, but Stephen stayed at the penthouse with increasing frequency as their relationship developed. He forced himself not to think about all of that too much, given the current circumstances, as he pulled off his robes, leaving only his boxers before climbing under the covers and shuffling against Tony.
Immediately, Tony turned toward him and buried his face against Stephen’s chest. His left arm carefully wrapped around Stephen’s waist, mindful of the IV line, but not letting it deter him. Stephen looped his own arms around Tony securely before pressing a kiss to the top of his head.
“Close your eyes,” he instructed gently. “The medicine will help you sleep. I’ll be right here when you wake up. I promise.”
Tony felt a sudden urge to say what he had almost said earlier, but the last remaining working brain cell he had that wasn’t focused on the pain in his body stopped him. He didn’t want the first time he said it to be when he was hooked up to an IV after having been sick to his stomach for the better part of the day. Besides, he really wanted to be able to see Stephen’s face when he did say it, and there was absolutely no way he had the energy to lift his head at the moment.
So instead, he used the last of his strength to pull himself impossibly closer to Stephen’s firm, warm body before closing his eyes and letting himself fall into a deep sleep.
There was no way for Tony to know for sure when Stephen had taken the IV out of his arm. He vaguely remembered movement above him when a new bag had been hung, but when that had been, he had no idea. When he opened his eyes, he did feel much better, but was overly groggy and felt weighted down. All he could really be sure of was that Stephen was still next to him and the bed was perfectly soft and warm, giving him zero intentions of wanting to get out of it any time soon.
Gray eyes were looking back at him, searching for any signs of distress. Tony forced a tired smile which was mirrored by the man across from him.
“Hi,” Tony rasped, his throat objecting to being used to speak.
“Hi,” Stephen replied, his own voice heavy with sleep. “How are you feeling?”
Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Tired. But better. How long has it been?”
“It’s four in the morning,” Stephen reported. “So it’s been about twenty hours since we got back. Give or take. You’ve been asleep for most of it.”
“So we can go back to sleep?” Tony asked with a sigh.
Stephen nodded, shifting closer so he could place a kiss on Tony’s forehead. “Yes, we can. For as long as you need.”
Tony slotted his left leg between Stephen’s and let his head rest on the taller man’s shoulder. He sighed heavily, happily, and let his eyes fall closed again.
At a more acceptable hour, he opened them again to the feeling of Stephen’s fingers sifting through his hair slowly. He wished they could stay like this forever, but his bladder was beginning to protest.
“I hate to ruin this,” he whined into Stephen’s skin, “but I really, really need to pee.”
“Thank god,” was Stephen’s reply. “I thought I was going to have to invent a new spell or something.”
Tony started to laugh, but had to stop when sharp pain shot from his ribs. He felt back to normal, minus the soreness throughout his entire body. It took some effort, but he managed to remove himself from his position clinging to Stephen and sat up slowly, allowing the other man to do the same.
“Are you alright?” Stephen asked in response to the grimace on Tony’s face.
“Just sore,” Tony replied, running a hand over his side. “I feel like I tried to keep up with Cap doing sit ups.”
After assuring Stephen that he really did feel okay, Tony opted for a shower. The hot water did wonders for his sore muscles as he stretched his arms over his head repeatedly to try and work out the knots that had formed. About fifteen minutes in, he started to feel the affects of his legs supporting him after being dormant for so many hours.
He smiled as he got out and saw the clean clothes Stephen had left for him on the counter. His favorite pair of sweatpants and a plain gray t shirt he had stolen from Stephen at one point or another. It was too big for him, but it was so soft and comforting that even just the sight of it made his heart swell.
When he exited the bathroom, he found Stephen sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting as patiently as he possibly could. He didn’t want to hover around Tony, but he was still worried about him. The soft smile on Tony’s face quelled much of his anxiety.
Instead of asking how Tony felt again, Stephen stood. “Do you feel like eating?” he asked.
Tony nodded. “Actually, yeah. My stomach feels fine. I still feel kind of weak, though. But I guess that’s to be expected.”
Stephen stepped forward to stand in front of Tony. He reached down and took his wrist, holding his fingers over his pulse while he brushed his other hand across Tony’s cheek. His skin was warm from the shower, but there were no other signs of fever or any remnants of the poison he had inhaled just over a day ago.
The brunet took the opportunity of their proximity to wrap his arms around Stephen’s waist and pull their bodies together in a tight hug. Stephen laughed slightly into the embrace as he returned it eagerly.
“How’s your head?” he inquired.
“Not bad,” Tony reported. “Doesn’t even compare to the weakest hangover I’ve ever had.”
Stephen huffed at that, but felt Tony chuckle against him. “Scrambled eggs and toast?”
“I can make it,” Tony said, stepping back from Stephen reluctantly. “You’ve done enough, you don’t have to-”
“You could have died.”
The statement took all of the air out of the room. Tony watched as Stephen’s eyes glazed over and swallowed hard. Physically, the ordeal had been worse for Tony, but psychologically, Stephen had been tormented with the thought that he could have lost Tony very easily. Tony could now see those hours of anguish reflected in Stephen’s sharp eyes.
“If I hadn’t still been sitting there with you and Rhodey, you guys would have just thought you were over tired. Had the flu, maybe. You would have just gone to lie down or something and...” Stephen shook his head as if the motion would get rid of the thoughts. “Another hour, and there would have been nothing that could have been done to save you.”
“You did save me,” Tony said, raising his hand to cup the back of Stephen’s neck. “You saved me, again. I’m still here because of you.”
The sorcerer knew Tony was also referring to the time immediately following Thanos and Titan and all the turmoil that had come with the entire ordeal. He was of the opinion that Tony had been the one to save him, but having that argument again didn’t seem productive at the moment.
“But if you insist, I’m definitely not going to stop you from making me breakfast.”
Stephen breathed a laugh before pulling Tony forward and pressing their lips together. “Of course I insist. I always do, don’t I?”
Tony smiled. “Yeah, you really are quite the pain in the ass.”
They had breakfast together before climbing onto the couch in the living room, wrapped up in blankets and each other for the rest of the morning. Tony dozed in and out of sleep while Stephen pretended to watch a movie, but really spent most of the time watching Tony. His breathing was deep and even as he slept peacefully.
In the quiet, Stephen’s mind began to wander. He knew that when Tony woke up, he would have to tell him that Rhodey had almost definitely figured out they are in a relationship. He wasn’t bothered by the fact that his boyfriend’s best friend knew. It was the fact that this was going to mark the end of the beginning and start them off towards what they both had been dreading.
There was no doubt that both sides, the Avengers and Stephen’s order, would be skeptical at best, opposed at worst. For that reason, they both wanted to keep this a secret for as long as possible. But the more time they spent together, the more obvious it was becoming that it was serious between them. It had never been a casual fling or something just for fun.
Even though they hadn’t voiced it yet, they had both fallen for each other.
Tony stirring against him forced him to put all of that on the back burner for the time being. He loosened his grip on the shorter man so that he could stretch his shoulders as he woke up, stifling his yawn against Stephen’s chest before opening his eyes.
“We can just stay here forever, right?” he mumbled sleepily.
It was as if he had been able to read Stephen’s mind. “God, that would be perfect,” Stephen sighed.
“Might have to hide somewhere less obvious,” Tony mused, snuggling back up against Stephen. “I’m sure we can find an island somewhere. Or a mountain. Maybe a mountain on an island.”
Stephen laughed. “Anywhere with you.”
“Right here is really doing the trick, though.”
After another hour or so of cuddling on the couch, they reluctantly got up for a light lunch. Stephen made soup and salad with the provisions Rhodey had brought with him to the penthouse yesterday. He waited for Tony to eat as much as he was up for and cleared the island of their dishes before returning to his seat next to his boyfriend to have the conversation he had been dreading.
Tony noted the change in his demeanor immediately. “What’s up?” he asked hesitantly.
Stephen managed to withhold a sigh. “I think Rhodey knows. About us.”
Getting right out with it was the only way to do it. Otherwise, Stephen would have beat around the bush for too long and ended up driving both of them nuts.
“Do you remember anything about yesterday?” Stephen asked when Tony just looked back at him blankly.
“Not really,” Tony admitted after considering for a second. “I remember I was with you and Rhodey when I started to feel weird. I drank that stuff that made me sick. You stayed with me, the whole time, because I was scared and in a lot of pain. I remember taking a bath, and I guess that’s really it.”
Stephen nodded slightly. “In between bouts of you being sick, Rhodey came up to check in. You were laying on the floor, with your head in my lap, and I was running my hand through your hair to keep you calm. I didn’t see him until he had already noticed, and it wasn’t like I was going to just throw you off me. And then he came back, with an IV, and you grabbed my hand and put your head against me. He didn’t say anything, but I’m willing to bet he put it all together.”
Tony closed his eyes for a bit longer than a standard blink. He scrubbed his hands over his face and let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.
“I’m sorry,” Stephen said once the silence started to be too much. “I was just trying to help you, to comfort you. I didn’t mean-”
“No, no,” Tony interjected. “Don’t be sorry. I’m not mad Stephen, not at you. I’m mad at myself. This is my fault. I should have told him long before this. I just...” he trailed off, shaking his head slowly.
“I know this isn’t what you wanted,” Stephen said quietly.
Tony looked up at him quickly. “That’s not what I mean. I don’t care that he knows. I just wish I had told him about it the right way. I kept putting it off because I...I like having something that’s just ours. And even though Rhodey is the most loyal person on the face of the Earth, it’s just a matter of time before there’s a throng of people telling us we can’t be together.”
It was Stephen’s turn to drop his eyes. He lifted them back to look at Tony, however, when the other man gently took his scarred hand into his own.
“But that doesn’t mean I don’t want my best friend to know how I feel about you,” he added with a shy smile.
“I just wish you got to handle it the way you wanted to,” Stephen sighed.
“That’s my fault. Not yours.”
“Let’s blame the death plant and call it even?”
Tony’s smile grew. “Deal.”
“Boss,” FRIDAY chimed from the ceiling. “Speaking of Colonel Rhodes, he’s actually downstairs in the lounge and was requesting an update on your condition. I thought perhaps you would like to fill him in for yourself.”
“Clever girl,” Tony teased, eyes flicking up to the ceiling briefly.
Stephen squeezed Tony’s hand reassuringly. “She takes after her creator, I think.”
Despite having slept for the better part of the last day, Tony still felt like he was walking with cement bricks around his feet as he made his way out of the elevator towards the kitchen where he knew Rhodey to be having a cup of coffee and going over the reports from yesterday’s mission. He looked up from the tablet when he heard the door open, and smiled instantly upon seeing Tony.
“There he is,” Rhodey greeted as he stood from his stool and gave Tony a firm hug. “How are you feeling, Tones?”
“Better than yesterday,” Tony replied, taking the seat across from Rhodey’s. “A little rundown from the whole thing, but nothing I can’t handle.”
Rhodey nodded slightly. “You had me worried there for a minute.”
“You and me both. But no one else got sick, right?”
“Just you. Per usual.”
Tony breathed a laugh. “Well, at least I’m consistent.”
Rhodey hummed. “Thank god Strange was there.”
It was said with an even voice, without any hint of teasing. Rhodey lifted his mug and drank some more of his coffee, keeping his eyes casually on his friend. But Tony picked up on the glint in the other man’s eyes, and knew a smirk would have been there if not for the cup blocking his mouth.
“You have no idea,” Tony muttered, mostly to himself. He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “That’s actually what I came to talk to you about.”
For a second or two, Rhodey considered telling Tony that he had figured it out, so there was no need for an explanation. But he could read the engineer like a book, and knew that this was important for him to do.
So Rhodey leaned forward against the counter in front of him, giving his friend his full attention. “What about it?”
“About him, really,” Tony clarified. “Stephen. Him and I...we’ve been dating, been together for a few months now. Pretty much since right after Thanos.” He wished he had his own mug to give his hands something to do. “With everything going on, we’ve been keeping it a secret because we know that no one is going to be okay with it. And we wanted to just let it be between us for as long as we could. But I didn’t want to keep it from you for this long. It just got harder the longer I let it go, I guess.”
“Did you think I wasn’t going to be okay with it?” Rhodey prompted.
“No,” Tony said before he had even fully finished. “That’s not it. I’m just an idiot. This is the last way I wanted you to find out. Well, maybe not the last way. Walking in on us fooling around or something would be the very last way I would-”
Tony choked out a laugh. “I am sorry, Rhodey. I think I just got it in my head that if I kept putting it off, we would never have to face what the future is going to bring against us.”
Rhodey wished he could tell his friend that he was over thinking it and that everything was going to be fine. But he knew that wasn’t true. He could see Ross’s face turning beat red, and the Secretary demanding they never speak to one another again like a disgruntled father of an unruly teenager.
“I get it,” Rhodey said. “I’m not mad at you, man. I wasn’t really all that surprised. It seemed like there might be something up, with how you acted around him, but I didn’t realize it was this serious.”
Tony swallowed. “It’s as serious as I’ve ever been. I just wish it was as obvious to everyone else as it is to me how he really is.”
“Well, I know all I need to know about the guy.”
“You do?” Tony asked hesitantly, an uneasy feeling settling in his stomach.
Rhodey smiled, diminishing Tony’s anxiety instantly. “When you started to feel sick, he was next to you right away. He kept you calm and knew exactly what to do. And when I saw you guys later, it was obvious that he was only concerned about taking care of you. I put the IV in because he didn’t want to chance hurting you anymore. He was so worried. You can’t fake that. Anything else, it doesn’t really matter. He was there when you needed him. That’s all I need to know.”
Tony swallowed the lump that had built in his throat. “He’s definitely on the side of being pretty fucking great.”
Rhodey couldn’t help but keep smiling. “I just hope you know that whatever happens, I’m on your side Tones. I’ve always got your back.”
“I know,” Tony replied. “I don’t really understand why, but I know I can always count on you.”
The pair stayed talking for close to an hour. It had been a while since they had had a chance to catch up. But with Tony’s condition finally stable, Rhodey eventually had to take his leave to go finish up the mission reports. Tony made his way back upstairs, where he found Stephen on the couch, reading one of his ancient texts intensely until he heard Tony return.
“How did it go?”
Tony smiled as he sat down next to his boyfriend. “All good. He claims he had an idea about us anyway, but he tends to exaggerate.”
Stephen returned Tony’s smile. “And here I thought we were being so discreet.”
“I guess thirty years of friendship allowed for him to get to know me a little bit.”
Before the line of conversation could continue, or another one be brought up, Tony took the opportunity that he had been waiting too long for. He wasn’t going to keep making the same mistakes.
“So I know we don’t want anyone to find out about this, because it’s going to be an absolute shit show. And when it happens, things are going to move really fast. We have no idea when it can happen, when someone will find out, and I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.”
Stephen shook his head slowly. “What do you mean? What mistake?”
“Not saying what I want to say when I want to say it. When I should say it.”
“Okay...” Stephen said uncertainly.
Tony shifted in his seat on the couch so he was fully facing Stephen. “I want you to know how I feel. About us, about you. I don’t want a whirlwind to explode around us and have anything left unsaid. And I know it hasn’t been that long, necessarily, but...” He took a breath to calm himself slightly. “I just want you to know how much I care about you. I love you, Stephen.”
It took a second for the words to sink in over the slight nervousness Stephen had felt at Tony’s demeanor. But once it had, his lips curled into a bright smile and he was leaning in to kiss Tony before he even realized he was going to.
“I love you, too,” Stephen finally said after a firm kiss. “So much, Tony, you have no idea.”
“I think I’ve got some idea,” Tony mumbled happily before kissing Stephen again. “I know this isn’t the most romantic way to do this. Sorry about that. I just didn’t want to wait anymore. I don’t care how much longer we have with this being just our secret. I love you, and the number of people who know about us won’t change that.”
Stephen was beaming. “I would have told you after our third date if I hadn’t thought it would send you running for the hills.”
“You’ve got no shot at getting rid of me that easily, wizard.”
For the rest of the day, they had the rare occasion to just be with each other. No meetings, missions, assignments, deadlines. Just the two of them, pretending this was how it was always going to be.
They knew it wouldn’t last this way, but they were okay with that, as long as they had each other.