It was rare that Tony met his equal in any capacity thanks to his extreme intelligence and general success. Pepper and Rhodey were both equals to him in their own ways- both of them were intelligent and both of their personalities balanced his own some. Stephen Strange, though, was Tony’s equal on a whole new level. Like Tony he was the top of his field, an expert beyond experts with abilities that were almost superhuman they were so advanced and he also happened to have a personality similar to Tony’s. They were both impulsive and liked living in the fast lane and neither of them had much patience for uselessness. And they both had cool facial hair, always a plus.
It hadn’t taken them long to hit it off and Rhodey, who happened to be in town when they met, looked on in horror as they bonded. Tony was pretty sure he wasn’t prepared to deal with someone who indulged Tony’s impulsiveness the way Strange did. Rhodey came along because someone had to make sure Tony didn’t die, and of course because he actually enjoyed Tony’s shenanigans even if he acted put upon when Tony came up with some ridiculous idea. Strange, though, indulged Tony on Tony’s level and it resulted in a lot of potential trouble and the two of them doing a lot of fast talking to get out of whatever they got themselves into.
Tony might have his problems with commitment, at least when in a relationship, but Stephen was strangely nonthreatening to his delicate sensibilities. So they decided to do a test run of living together to see how it went. They quickly learned that with their schedules they didn’t actually have to change much, if anything, from their previous dynamic. Strange was in surgeries at least twice a week and they took anywhere from a couple of hours to nearly two days and Tony was always in the lab or on business trips. In short, to everyone’s (meaning mostly Pepper and Christine’s) surprise they worked.
When Stephen gets home from his latest surgery Tony has coffee ready and he looks grateful, “you’re the best. Have I told you that lately? Well you are,” he tells Tony, gently kissing him before heading to the couch to deposit himself on it.
“I know,” Tony chirps, grinning at him as he goes. “How’d it go?” he asks. Well if he only looked like death warmed over. Of all the things they understood about each other fear of failure despite a scarce record for it was one of those things.
He remembered the first time Stephen had lost a patient when he was around to see it. Stephen Strange is a rock star at surgery, failure isn’t in his cards but everyone has their moments and that was one of them. For three days he barely slept and he kept going over and over the details of the case, trying to find where he went wrong in an almost obsessive way. Tony knew the behavior well because he did the same, except unlike Stephen he had the benefit of being able to test his ideas before he put them out there. With Stephen he got one shot to get it right and sometimes he cracked under the pressure. The disadvantages of being a perfectionist, Tony guessed.
But he had come home looking desolate and distant, like he was barely even in his own head. It was almost funny once Tony got him talking because he understood Stephen’s feelings perfectly. He never understood anyone’s feelings perfectly. “You probably think it’s stupid,” Stephen had said, “I’m more than a genius at this. I’ve mastered techniques most people wouldn’t even touch they’re so risky and here I am complaining about one case. I know it happens but it doesn’t happen to me. I’m too good for this.”
Tony got it though because he’s grown up as the pinnacle of what it meant to be advanced, he knew what it was like to have the pressure of the world looking at you as you did something new. “I’m not so sure you’re right about that. You forget that I’m in your position, just in technology instead of medicine. People tell me I shouldn’t be afraid of failure too, not when I’ve got such a good track record. Doesn’t mean I focus on my successes the way they do, it’s always the failure that I spend more time on.” It didn’t happen often but, like Stephen, he was too good to mess up so when he did it was devastating.
This clearly surprised him and he looks up, shocked. “Everyone told me that it happens to everyone, but they don’t get it,” he says. He frowns, like he’s having trouble finding the words and Tony got that too.
“People don’t really know what it’s like to be as good as we are. When you’re the top of your field failure… it’s… debilitating. It makes you freeze and doubt yourself because if you were really the expert you’re supposed to be you wouldn’t have failed.” You learned from failure, Pepper once told him. He rejected that even if he knew she wasn’t wrong. You learned from success too, you knew to repeat what you did the last time and things would work as planned so when they didn’t, well. It wasn’t pleasant.
“Yes, exactly! And what if you do it again? What if… what if you lose that talent? What then?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Tony had said softly, “but I doubt that’ll happen to you.”
“Things went well,” Stephen says, drawing him out of the memory and into the present. “Well, they got a bit touch and go and I had to do some creative work but it all worked out in the end.” He says this with a cocky tone, grinning like he knew that would happen the whole time even though he was probably panicking internally the whole time.
“Of course it did,” Tony says, smiling back at him.
“How did that… of what was it you were supposed to do yesterday? Some business thing, how’d that go?” he asks.
“Made another couple million with that deal,” Tony tells him and Stephen laughs.
“Of course you did. It’s you, what else could have happened?” he asks. Lots, Tony thinks, but he knows what Stephen means. He felt the same was about Stephen’s ability to operate on people. Once, when Tony had asked how he could even begin to take someone’s life into his hands like that, Stephen told him bodies were like squishy machines. Everything had a purpose and it all worked together to create a properly working body that wasn’t unlike Tony’s machines. The way to avoid overthinking things was to treat the body as a machine and worry about the person later. Tony didn’t think he could make that distinction but then he wasn’t a surgeon. He was, however, enthused by the way Stephen explained his work and the passion that was behind it.
Tony never really considered the body a machine but Stephen wasn’t wrong in comparing them. Watching him examine the human body and list solutions on how to fix it was fascinating to say the least.
He was over seas trying to deal with some problems in one of his European offices when he gets the call. “Tony you need to come home,” is what Christine opens with and in his frustration with the office spaces he doesn’t notice the urgent tone of her voice and snorts.
“The hell I do,” he says. He’s ready to strangle the damn blueprints at this point but Christine’s next sentence has him dropping them.
“Tony Stephen has been in an accident,” she says.
For a moment the world stops as the blueprints fall and he stares straight ahead as some horrible thought occurs to him. Stephen Strange is the best there is to offer, if he’s in some kind of medical trouble who else could possibly operate on him with the same level of success? “Is he alive?” he asks, just barely hearable to Christine.
“Yes, he’s in surgery right now but god Tony he went over a cliff. He must have been driving too fast as usual and-” her voice breaks and Tony faints. The last thought that flickers through his mind is that the last time he got this call both people in the car were dead.
The flight back home was long and bordering on painful given all the unknowns. His body was battered, Christine had said, but his hands were shattered. He had hit the ground with the nose of his car first and it crunched right into his hands, which were still on the steering wheel. According to Christine he’d likely never be able to do surgery again, not with all the nerve damage to his hands. Tony couldn’t even imagine being in his position. Surgery was Stephen’s whole world, what was he going to do?
While the plane carries him back to America he looks up the buzzwords Christine had thrown at him, for some reason thinking he’d understand what she was talking about. Maybe it was because he’s a genius or maybe it’s because he’s lived with Stephen for almost two years. Either way half the language was lost on him so he looks it all up to get a better idea of what happened to Stephen’s hands. By the time he lands he feels worse than when he took off though if it was from the lack of sleep or the knowledge that Stephen’s life as he knew it was ruined he had no idea.
Christine meets him at the hospital, hugging him fiercely ass he steps in the door. “I thought you’d be in surgery with him,” Tony says mostly on autopilot.
She shakes her head, “they wouldn’t let me. Conflict of interest, but I did watch. Tony… I know you and Stephen have some sort of… understanding with each other but I don’t know if that’ll be enough. You know how he is, how the hell are we going to deal with this?” she asks. She neglects to mention that she had a pretty good connection to Stephen too but he agrees nonetheless. His entire job was fixing things, making them more efficient, but he had no idea how to fix this.
When Stephen woke up the first thing he noticed was Tony looking down at him. With the white in the background and the white of Tony’s suit jacked Stephen was shocked that he managed to get into heaven. “They made an angel to look like Tony,” he says aloud without thinking.
Tony smiles and his eyes light up a little. That was one realistic Tony-angel given that that was exactly how the actual Tony would react. “I’m not an angel and this isn’t heaven, thanks for the compliment though,” Tony says, smiling softly at him. There’s something else there too, some kind of sadness that taints the smile and Stephen doesn’t like it. That’s when he chooses to look around, noting how sore his body is and how he couldn’t seem to move his hands. His hands. His gaze falls on what’s right in front of him. Both of his hands raised up on cushions and even with one eye swollen almost shut he can tell that they have several pins in them.
Looks like he didn’t go to heaven after all. Surely this must be hell? Only hell would be so cruel to put Tony right in front of him when he woke up only to have taken his hands away from him. Surely he was dead. He hoped so.
“No, no, no, no,” he says slowly, trying to sit up some but pain shoots through his ribs and down his back. Dimly he categorizes what the wounds likely were and how they would have been received. Blunt force trauma, likely at high speeds. Like a car accident. He remembers then what happened and he can feel a tear fall down his cheek. He had been looking at a case while driving when he went over the edge of that road…
“Stephen,” Tony says slowly and he looks over to him. “I… I’m glad you’re not dead,” he says finally.
“Well I’m not,” he all but yells, giving his hands a betrayed look. “Who did this to me?”
Christine seems to materialize out of nowhere and Tony steps back, “Stephen, no one else could have done a better job,” she says.
“I could have done better,” he says but he’s unsure if he means that he could have fixed his hands or if he meant that he shouldn’t have been trying to read an x-ray while driving.
Stephen’s hands were absolutely ruined, there was no way he could even do basic paperwork with hands that shook as much as his did. He couldn’t even write his name anymore. Tony had no idea how he’d handle that but after three months of Stephen’s clinging to some kind of magical cure for his hands he had enough. He doesn’t know what causes him to snap but he finally gets annoyed- no, that isn’t the right word, exhausted maybe- of Stephen’s attitude.
“Stop,” Tony tells him as he pours over some medical text trying to find answers that weren’t there. Tony knew because he did his own research long ago and came up empty.
Stephen looks up from the book, still holding the page he was about to flip. It shakes violently and Tony feels for him, he does, but this had to stop. “Stop what?” Stephen asks.
“Stop trying to find some kind of medical solution, there is none. I’ve looked Stephen, and I looked again and again because you aren’t letting this go. There is nothing out there to fix your hands short of some magical serum or something,” Tony says. It’s harsh he knows, but Stephen needed a damn dose of reality here.
He’s surprised when Stephen doesn’t immediately start yelling at him. Instead he gives Tony a withering glare so harsh that Tony actually takes a step back in shock. “My life is ruined,” he hisses in a low, angry tone, “and you want me to give up on a solution?”
Tony chooses his next words carefully because this was about to go from bad to worse. “No. I want you to give up on the solution you think will help and find something new. There is no medical intervention to help you, find something else,” he almost pleads.
“Get out,” Stephen snarls.
“Stephen-” Tony starts put Stephen points at the door, hand shaking violently.
“Get out!” he yells.
Tony has never taken rejection well when it came from someone who cares about him. Strangers? That sucked. But people he actually cared about? He reacted more like Howard than he cared to think about. “You’re running your entire life over hands, Strange. You’re going to regret this because you acting like a fucking idiot,” he snaps.
“As if you’d act any different! Get off your high horse, Stark. If you lost everything than you’d do anything you could to get it back,” he tells him.
Yes, Tony realizes in that moment, he would. But not like this. “I specialize in problem solving Stephen, it’s what I’m an expert in and it’s why I’m so good at my job. What you’re doing isn’t everything you can to get your hands back; you’re fixating on an impossible solution instead of finding one that works. I would never do that, could never do that. It’s not in my nature,” he tells him, shaking his head. With that he listens to Stephen’s previous advice and leaves him there, shaking his head as he goes.
There were many things Stephen never intended on losing but Tony was probably in his top three. They understood each other; they were able to keep up with each other, that isn’t something that happens to either one of them ever. But then he lost his damn hands and everything else seemed to follow.
He wasn’t sure he’d ever forget the look on Tony’s face when he said that Tony would do everything in his power to get his old life back. He could see Tony come to the conclusion that he was right and for a brief moment he felt vindicated. Then Tony told him that he’d never chase a solution that wasn’t viable, that he was a problem solver, not a moron that hung onto false hopes. He hadn’t phrased it quite like that but the meaning was the same. Stephen didn’t expect it to hurt so much, especially when Tony left.
It took him almost three weeks to accept that maybe Tony wasn’t coming back and by the time that happened Christine had come by. Her advice had been similar to Tony’s but he just… he couldn’t let go. He needed his hands back, they were all he had. Everything that was important about him was in those broken appendages, he couldn’t just let them go. He had nothing else if he didn’t have his hands. Christine had shaken her head, telling him that he was throwing everything away over one thing going wrong and he knows she’s right, he does, but he just can’t stop spiraling.
He didn’t fail. He never failed. He couldn’t fail at this too, even if he watched everything else go down the drain. Failure just wasn’t in his nature.
It takes more time than usual in part because Tony is livid at Stephen for being so fucking stupid but also because the problem was a difficult one to solve. If Stephen was going to be an idiot and chase impossible solutions than Tony would find a real one. He did consultations all the time and he hardly lost his mental faculties in the crash though Christine had wondered. Tony too but he had to believe that when Stephen wasn’t being a stubborn asshole he was still intelligent.
So he could do consultations still but because this is Stephen that would never be enough. He needed some way to do surgery and when he told Christine he’d find a way he was positive that she thought he was as nuts as Stephen. The man would never operate on a human body ever again and Tony wasn’t foolish enough to think he would, but he could try and find a go-between. Something that was similar maybe, something that allowed him to do what he loved even if he couldn’t do it in the same way as he could before.
Eventually he comes up with something of a solution but it’s one he has to test. He used three-dimensional representations of his designs all the time to examine his designs, to take them apart and put them back together again, it made sense that Stephen could do something similar. The problem was figuring out how to connect this solution to surgery itself and, of course, Stephen’s shaky hands.
In the end Tony voluntells Christine to be his test subject as he tests some gloves that would mimic the shaking in Stephen’s hands as he works. Christine probably only agreed because all she had to do was get scanned several times while he toyed with her organs on a screen. He ruptures her spleen like five hundred times but he does eventually manage to calibrate the holograms to compensate for the shakes. It took far too long and Stephen’s hands shook more or less depending on the time of day so he works on solving that problem while he punctures Christine’s hologram lung a few times. He eventually manages to build the holograms around their ability to automatically calibrate themselves to the shaking Stephen’s hands would do. He also breaks Christine’s back and she finally tells him to stop poking her organs because he kept fake killing her.
He frees her from her duty and then they start working on how to get surgery from the confines of the hospital to Stephen. It’s Christine who suggests a camera of some kind that would update the scans in front of Stephen in real time as things went right or wrong. That, Tony learns, is a right pain in the ass when so many hands and people were in the way. There would be a lot of partial images where the operation was taking place in particular, which was no good. Christine’s idea had merit though so he starts working on a solution to get around the partial imaging problem and eventually decides that the electrodes that tended to be stuck to patients could compensate with their own imaging system. So he starts working on those and Christine ends up being his guinea pig again. Eventually he manages to perfect them but they took a month alone.
By the time his system is complete he had no idea if Stephen would even be interested. “If he isn’t, and I doubt that, you’ve done amazing work here Tony. Do you know what this means for medicine? Do you know how may doctors end up in situations like Stephen’s? We aren’t infallible to sickness and disease and this can help people practice longer. Surgeons who get Parkinson’s can assist in surgery now,” she says. She sounds genuinely impressed but this had one hell of a price tag, he wasn’t even sure there’d be a market for it. “The imaging systems are also incredible. Those are just useful in general,” she adds.
He still has his doubts but he guessed they could see how it worked in real time.
Stephen thought he lost Tony forever, and Christine too. The last thing he expects to happen is for the two of them to show up at his door, telling him he best be prepared to do surgery on someone. At first the thought the two of them were insane, expecting him to operate with hands like his but they both looked determined enough that he went to shower and put on clothes. He half expects them to be gone when he comes back but they aren’t, they’re by his mess of a couch looking as determined as ever even if he can see them both visibly restraining themselves from cleaning.
“What do you mean surgery?” he asks. He hasn’t found a way to fix his hands; it was becoming increasingly clear that he was never going to find a way to fix his hands, so he had no idea what they were talking about.
Tony and Christine exchange a look, “we think we found a solution to your problem,” Tony says.
“Tony did, I was just around for the medical knowledge,” Christine says.
“She helped,” Tony says, finding something between what both of them had initially said. “Now lets go, we need to test how well it works when a real doctor uses it. I keep fake killing Christine.” Tony winces and Christine looks as pained as any doctor would having to deal with someone who had no real medical knowledge.
He dares to hope as he follows Tony and Christine back to Tony’s local lab. He had no idea Tony was still in town. He thought he left when he told Tony to go. Still he follows them along, heart beat picking up as they head down to Tony’s lab. They come up to a large table and Tony waves his hand over it, apparently activating it or something because it lights up and scans of someone pop up above the sleek white surface.
“The table will compensate for your shaking hands, just do what you normally would. The case details are,” tony leans over and hits a button, “there.” He reads over the notes and frowns.
“This was a surgery I did a year ago,” he says. One of his last.
“We know,” Christine says, “we figured the familiarity would help you. We’ll be here if you need help.” He wants to tell them he didn’t need their help but he had no idea how this thing even worked so he would quite likely need Tony’s help at least. Tony gives him a brief lesson on how to use the holograms and a general synapsis on how they worked and then steps back.
Tentatively he reaches forward, hands shaking more than they usually did thanks to a combination of their injury and nervousness. At first the holograms refuse to cooperate with him and it irritates him but Tony steps in to try and correct his use of the machine. The holograms refuse to work for him though and finally he gets annoyed enough to step back with no intent on trying this again. “I don’t think it’s working right with my hands,” he says eventually. He wasn’t working right but it terrified him to admit defeat when he was already so close to admitting that maybe a medical solution wasn’t going to happen for his hands. Tony was right, short of magical intervention there was nothing that was going to fix his hands.
Tony sighs and grabs a pair of gloves, slipping them on. To Stephen’s surprise Tony’s hands start to shake like his own did and he wondered of Tony was really that nervous about this thing working. It takes a moment for him to realize the gloves are forcibly shaking his hands.
He and Christine step up to the table and Christine starts instructing Tony on what to do except he’s downright horrible at it. He accidentally kills the patient five times and paralyzes him another seven times before Stephen has had enough. “Oh for the love of god get out of the way, you are killing this patient!” he says and he steps in, quickly correcting the mistakes Tony made to this poor patient’s spine. For a moment he pauses, wondering what he was supposed to do with no instruments but Tony tells him to just call out what he needed done like he would in a regular surgery. He does, mimicking what he would have done to the patient previous to having his hands ruined and to his surprise the holograms respond to his actions and commands.
When he steps back he isn’t sure how long he’s been bent over the holograms but the patient was declared healthy enough to leave the operating table. “Alright,” he says, “I suppose your more complicated game of operation was a success.”
“The good news is that this isn’t all this table does. I can connect it to real patients thanks to a bunch of complicated stuff you probably don’t care about. Point it real time vitals will appear in front of you when you need them, meaning that you can participate in actual surgeries. Christine will be your hands, but you’ll still be there,” Tony says.
Stephen’s heart almost stops, “is this true?” he asks Christine, eyes wide.
She nods, “if it works in real time, yes. We have a minor surgery scheduled for later in the week for you to assist in. It’s not something you’d consider worth your time usually,” she says, smiling just a little, “but we all wanted to start small.”
“The patient agreed to this?” he asks, surprised.
“After she heard you were on the other end of the screens, yes,” Tony says. He smiles a little too, like he’s not entirely sure how to feel. Stephen doesn’t blame him.
“Is that true?” he asks Christine.
She nods, “I was there myself. You have surgery at ten on Wednesday morning, Dr. Strange.”
Tony was nervous as hell. Testing things out in real time like this with real lives in the balance wasn’t how he did things. The only time anyone was every in any real danger when he tested his products was when he accidentally hurt himself and he was fine with that. But some random woman who took a leap of faith? He’s never been in a situation like this before.
It doesn’t help that what should have been a routine surgery starts to stretch out for longer than it should have. When more then four hours past the scheduled time passes Tony finally asks JARVIS to give him an update. The AI was watching over things as always but he had very strict instructions not to bother Stephen at all. He had spent the last few days toying with the holograms with Christine, perfecting his ability to use them in preparation for his surgery. Tony knew it wouldn’t take long- the holograms weren’t as complicated as a human body and Stephen still had all the expertise that he had on that before. It was just a matter of learning how to use the holograms in real time. The patient they chose was also gracious enough to spend an hour before they were to be taken into surgery moving around as best as she could so Stephen could experiment with how the holograms worked when a real patient was on the other end.
He had half wanted to sit in but he knew his presence would make Stephen lose focus and they couldn’t have that so he sits upstairs and waits. “There has been a complication with the surgery,” JARVIS says, confirming Tony’s worst fears. He swears and runs his hands through his hair, shaking his head. “If I may, sir, Stephen is handling it very well. He noticed an abnormality in the thoracic region of the spine and they have been working to resolve the issue. He has taken the lead in the surgery despite his somewhat hands off involvement.”
That at least makes Tony feel better so for the time being he relaxes and hopes that whatever was happening with this surgery it was going well. He had no clue how Stephen could do something like this all the time, he wasn’t even the one doing the surgery or the one in surgery and he was a nervous wreck. He preferred tech that he could test multiple times before real people tried it and they potentially got hurt.
It takes another few hours for Stephen to finish and by then Tony is practically climbing the walls both because of the nervousness and because he had drank an inhuman amount of caffeine but when Stephen finally walks out he looks pleased. “It went well?” Tony asks even though he knew it did thanks to Stephen’s smirk.
“It went better than expected. I found, and fixed, an abnormality in the thoracic region that wouldn’t have been fun for her had we missed it. Actually I only noticed the abnormality thanks to your technology. You should be proud of yourself,” he says softly, walking up to Tony and kissing him the way he usually did when he got out of surgery. He doesn’t even think Stephen thinks anything of it until he’s already got his hands on Tony’s waist. He can feel their shaking against his skin though it was less to with them pressed flat to his body. “Sorry,” Stephen says, pulling back, “I didn’t mean-” Tony shuts him up by pulling him back, happy that his Stephen was back.
Christine was going to kick Stephen’s ass for all the trouble he put her through only to end up the same asshole in surgery that he usually was. It was all Christine this and Christine that as he yelled at everyone remotely but they all had to admit that he hadn’t lost his touch medically. That first surgery of his had been more than a smashing success and he’s only gotten better with the holograms since then, often putting suggestions on how to make it more efficient in to Tony. They weren’t really suggestions but Tony didn’t seem to mind Stephen’s demanding nature and most of the time he indulged Stephen in his fixes.
She wouldn’t have been so polite given his attitude but Tony, she learned, had his own way of dealing with things. Sometimes Stephen liked to play with the holograms when he was off duty and if Tony was feeling petty or annoyed he’d deny Stephen access so he was forced to do something else. That had been Tony’s deal with him- he’d get full access to his ability to participate in surgeries but he had to find something else to do with himself. Tony argued that Stephen needed some other way to fulfill his life outside of medicine and Christine agreed, worried for her friend.
That is until he picked up magic of all things. He nicknamed himself the Sorcerer Supreme even though he was mostly mediocre and wore a tacky cloak that only he thought was cool. But it was something and Stephen liked the challenge of the slight of hand tricks when his hands shook like they did. They had grudgingly had to admit that his magical skills were getting better even if they also had to deal with his explorations of actual magic. Tony’s home was now littered with a mix of Stephen’s crystals and herbs, his medical texts, and suggestions on how to alter the holograms to work better for him.
Still, she had to admit that Tony’s weird ability to understand Stephen paid off in the end even if she also had to deal with him yelling at her during surgery.
“Christine!” he yells and she resists the urge to throw up her hands. They just closed the patient up and he was on his way back to his hospital room.
“What?” she asks, glaring the camera Stephen was watching the room from. It was second nature to her to talk to the camera as if it was Stephen now.
“Good job,” he says in a cheery voice and she flips him off, earning a laugh thorough the speakers installed in the room. She was going to have a talk with Tony about getting rid of surround sound Stephen.