Tony should have known something was up when Strange started taking an interest. Well, an interest beyond the initial physical and intellectual attraction. But by the time they got to that point, Tony was most of the way to being in love, and actually trusted the sorcerer to do right by him. Upon meeting Strange formally, the man had squinted at Tony, assessing him. Tony wasn’t put off by it. He’d been on the receiving end of those looks his entire life.
Stephen Strange’s gaze though, ended differently than most. He favoured Tony with the barest of smiles. Once upon a time, Tony would have clung to that crumb of approval, craved it, and gone to extraordinary lengths to keep it.
But ever since Siberia, his Give-A-Damn was broken, with rare exceptions (Peter. Rhodey, oh god, Rhodey). So he returned the small smile to Strange, and let it be genuine. Past Tony would have leered and given Stephen a flirtatious wink, or given out a yacht or something to maintain that approval. Current Tony would roll with the punches, no matter if Strange ended up liking him or not.
Tony had spent hours talking about boundaries and healthy relationships with his therapist. Which was fine. Constructive, even. The Accords had rightfully demanded he deal with his PTSD, but he’d been allowed to choose his own shrink, and that was fine with him. It seemed to be working this time too, as things were getting through his thick skull here and there. He didn’t have to offer sex or extravagant gifts in order to maintain a friendship. He simply had to be a friend. Of course these were simple things that Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy had been trying to tell him for years. But he was finally ready to do some heavy thinking on the nature of friends and relationships, all thanks to Cap's masterclass of how to take advantage of someone's good faith.
So he let himself casually offer to buy Strange a drink after their meeting regarding auxiliary membership to the Avengers on an on-call basis. Because he needed allies, and on the remote chance that the sorcerer might be intrigued with Tony as well. To Tony's surprise, Stephen had given him that curious, subtle smile again, and accepted. Which was ridiculous, because Tony was pretty sure that neither of them had the time to be doing something so frivolous, but he could hardly retract the offer.
Then they immediately hit the first snag on the road to being friends. Typical of Tony, if he was being honest with himself about it.
In a way it was a benefit that issues arose so quickly around the idea of going out. Because it confronted taboos they both held due to truama. Cars were a touchy subject with Strange, especially the sleek sports car that Tony had no right to be driving around with winter about to set in at any moment. Tony then had to explain he had the same touchiness when it came to portals, thanks to the Chitauri Invasion. They were at an impasse when Wong rolled his eyes, and told them in an annoyed tone that there were several bars within walking distance of the Sanctum Sanctorum. He then also barked at them to get out into the sunshine for a minute or two for a change.
“It’s a bad idea to argue with him,” Stephen said sheepishly.
“Noted,” Tony replied and gave Wong a quick salute. “FRIDAY, find us a purveyor of adult beverages that isn’t entirely a dive.”
“On it, boss,” she said merrily, and set up a map of the neighbourhood on the display of Tony’s glasses.
The sun was indeed nice, but the cold sucked, and Stephen agreed with Tony on both points.
Once settled, and with the barmaid's full attention thanks to Tony's black AmEx, they quickly faded from small talk. The weather didn't interest either of them. Neither of them gave a fuck about sports. They instinctively avoided politics and the headlines. The cold weather had permitted Stephen to leave his gloves on, and not look terribly out of place in the pub. So Tony was surprised when his companion leaned forward, eyes on Tony's chest, and said, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," in a conspiratorial voice.
Surprised laughter bubbled up from Tony, and in the shared grin that followed, taboo vanished. It was okay to talk about the elephants stomping around the room, whichever one happened to be trumpeting the loudest at that moment. And it was mutually decided by both of them, and not Tony forcing his problems on unwilling ears. His therapist would be so proud.
"Okay, but not here. I don't need that showing up on fucking Tumblr," Tony said.
"I'm sure the slashfic plot bunnies are breeding as we speak," Stephen said, and took a sip of his drink.
"How the hell does a Sorcerer Supreme know about Tumblr?" Tony asked.
"Kamar-Taj has Wifi, Tony. We're not savages," Stephen said, parroting his early days there. Tony smiled wide at him, amused. Stephen thought he looked better and much younger when he smiled, but he kept that to himself for now. "All right, but I'm holding you to that," Stephen warned. "Tell me of the advantages of the Accords again."
"Do I have to?" Tony didn't whine, but he did display his want to avoid business for the moment.
"Well then, I admit I am at a loss. I don't do small talk very well. I was once a very smart doctor type. Bedside manner of a brick though," Stephen said.
"You seem personable enough," Tony said.
"I've changed a lot since seeking out Kamar-Taj."
"Potts' dad went on a Buddhist kick once," Tony said.
"I'm no Buddhist," Stephen replied.
"Gotta admit it looks similar on the surface."
"Given that Kamar-Taj isn't a feudal system where a very few live off of the efforts of the many, in exchange for the those few dictating the spiritual worth of the rest, I'd say the surface is where the similarities end," Strange said.
"Tell me about Kamar-Taj then, if Wong won't get you in trouble for it."
"You'd love the library," Stephen said after a moment's contemplation.
"Magic gives me the creeps," Tony replied.
"What you don't yet understand gives you the creeps," Stephen said.
"There's a difference?" Tony asked. He was looking over his glasses at Stephen with a speculative look on his face.
"I suppose not... Would you understand though, if you could?" Stephen brushed his gloved fingers over Tony's. His lack of range of motion wasn't clumsy... Just limited. Tony was intrigued by that, and by Stephen himself. His steady manner, combined with his piercing gaze reminded him a little of Edwin Jarvis, but in ways he definitely didn't want to be thinking about Edwin Jarvis.
"I see guys like you the same way guys like you see nuclear physicists... It's dangerous stuff, but it's better if someone understands how the hell it works," Tony replied eventually. "Even if I never could, I understand the importance of knowing. Someone should be able to harness it safely."
"I think you could get over the being creeped out stage, Tony... With what you've suggested might happen in the future, you may have to," Stephen replied.
"But you can see why I'd rather just stick my head in the sand, right?"
"Of course. This used to scare the shit out of me when I knew enough to know it was real and powerful, but not how to wield it."
"Finally, a person who is sensible about magic, and he has the be the Sorcerer Supreme," Tony muttered.
"I'm not..." Stephen paused and let out a quiet sigh. "How about you just call me Stephen. I get the feeling that honourifics don't sit well with you," Stephen said with a small smile.
"Magic and observant to the point of psychic ability... Good thing you're sexy and smart, or I might have run for the hills," Tony said. It was Stephen's turn to let out a surprised laugh.
"I assure you, I do have a few other redeeming qualities." Stephen's voice was calm and assured.
"So teach me," Tony said.
That was the start of a weekly rendezvous for a drink, that for the first three months was just a meeting between friends. They had effectively bought the barmaid's silence, and their location remained a secret to the general public.
Tony wondered if perhaps he was getting in too deep, too quickly with Stephen, but they had explored their vast expanse of common ground together. Once Tony saw how many parallels they had, it was much easier to look past the pants-shitting scary magic side of Stephen Strange. Their meeting had expanded to texts and a few calls, and it was clear something was sparking between them, though neither said anything about it at the start.
Three and a half months in, they talked about physical pain... for hours. Stephen, first from the clinical perspective as a physician, and then the view from the patient's side of it. Tony spoke of an even darker perspective of the acute pain a torture victim suffers, and then the chronic pain that came after. The palladium poisoning, the ache of the arc reactor, the wear and tear from the armour. It was brief, but they even touched on the depression and anxiety that came with chronic pain, and while neither had much to say about it, it was relief to know someone got it.
It was then that Stephen realized that he could relate to Tony in a way he couldn't connect with Christine. She hadn't lived it. She had still tried to walk with him through those desperate times though. So while he had been the superior surgeon, her compassion made her the better doctor.
But Tony was intimately familiar with the drudgery of pain. He knew what it was to not be able to escape it, no matter the method tried. He'd learned to accept it, because it was always there and still didn't seem to be going anywhere.
It was after that conversation, and back in the privacy of the Sanctum Sanctorum, that Tony showed Stephen what remained of his chest. The four inch wide, months long lasting, angry contusion that went across the width of it, left by Captain America's shield as it came down on the armour, gouging pieces of it into his chest, along with the mess of scars from the surgeries to try and reconstruct his sternum yet one more time. Stephen wanted to reach out and touch it, and try to take any part of that pain. Somewhere in him, was still the kid who'd gone to medical school to fucking help people.
It left Stephen with a silent, seething, rage against Steve Rogers... Tony had tried to relay the story of their conflict with the lightness of an old style raconteur. But not even a super powered baby of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse could bring any frivolity to the grim details of the situation. It had clearly broken Tony in so many ways other than the physical... How dare that star-spangled, emotionally stunted man-child hurt his... friend? Yes, his friend, in this way.
"I've been spending time in Helen Cho's cradle, but I only have so much of that, so progress is slow," Tony admitted.
"Frankly, I don't even know how you're still standing, Tony," Stephen said softly.
"That makes two of us," Tony replied, still trying for lightness. "My dad always said I was willful to a fault."
"Willful doesn't even begin to cover this, Tony. Your level of functionality is pretty much superhuman at this point," Stephen explained.
"I've had tweaks here and there. The cradle, Extremis in a controlled dose. That keeps me together day to day, but I can't go 'splody, which is a good thing. I like being unexploded. With the exception of Pepper, I think I've been as close as someone can get to exploded. Not a good scene," Tony rambled, desperately trying to get away from the heaviness of the conversation.
"You know I'm expressing concern because I care, right?" Stephen asked.
"Yeah... So, do you want a medal or something?" Tony asked.
"I'll take or something," Stephen said, and kissed Tony very softly at the corner of his mouth. As he tried to pull away, Tony caught him for a peck on his lips.
"I can't lie, I think I like how you play doctor, doctor," Tony murmured. Stephen chuckled.
"This could require a much more thorough exam," Stephen said.
"Do you have a gown here for me to change into?" Tony asked.
"I don't think a gown will be necessary. I hope you're not uncomfortable with that."
"With you? Not hardly. Full faith and credit, doc," Tony said and smiled.
"Before we go any further, I do have to ask you one thing, and I know how terrible and awkward it will be," Stephen said. "I feel I should inquire after Ms. Potts."
"Fizzled. Again... I love that woman deeply, but I can't be what she needs. She deserves someone who treats her like the goddess queen she is, and I... can't. Right now. Maybe never. I just can't," Tony replied.
"So hence the fascination with me?" Stephen asked.
"Yes and no... I just think that you understand me in a way she can't, and frankly, shouldn't have to. My man-pain save-the-world angst can really only be understood by someone in the same boat," Tony said. "And I really do like you... You're probably the first person I've found in this boat other than Banner that I've wanted spend time around, and Banner is a) missing, and b) tragically straight most of the time."
"Well I can see that... And I assure you, the feeling is mutual, Tony." Stephen ran his bare fingers along Tony's jaw. Tony didn't flinch at them ever, and was careful not to lean into the touch too hard. He had proven extremely careful of Stephen's hands, knowing what it was to have a sore spot. Stephen felt his hands were always cold, thanks to the surgical steel in them, but Tony ran warm, so he was never bothered by it. He moved his head gently and pressed a soft kiss to the side of Stephen's thumb.
"I like what's happening here," Tony said. "It feels different, better than I've had. I think I know how to be better now."
"You don't need to be better for me, Tony. You're remarkable as you are," Stephen replied.
"But I want to be," Tony said, meeting his eye. Stephen leaned down, putting his forehead against Tony's.
"Then I want to be here to help you with that, so long as you try to do the same for me," Stephen said.
"I'll try," Tony promised.
"Well then, you'd best kiss me again now that I am free from worry about the wrath of your ex," Stephen said.
"She is indeed mighty," Tony replied, and did as Stephen asked.
After that, their weekly meetings usually ended up back at the Sanctum. Stephen did want to keep a very close eye on how Tony was healing, and Tony had zero problems with that.
to be continued...