Steve had always thought his reunion with Tony would be ugly, there'd be yelling, fighting, bitter mouths and eyes. He of course didn't want that but he knew Tony was within his right. As much as Steve regrets it he did wrong by him on more than one count.
Friday had notified the Avengers, if you can even call them that, that Mr Stark had crash landed from space not too far out of the location of the compound.
He of course rounded up the members of the team that weren't… dust and they went straight to the sight. Steve doesn't think he'd ever travelled so quickly and when they got there, out of a cloud of smoke and damaged metal came Tony, hanging on the arm of a blue robot.
Steve had met a tree and a Racoon, she didn't surprise him.
Seeing Tony is the clearing of this fog that's been consuming him since the accords.
“Tony thank God” Rhodey breathes, stepping forward to hug Tony in what's left of an iron man suit. He winces but makes no complaint.
When Rhodey backs away Tony's arm slips from around the robot woman and he just collapses.
The fog might be gone but the impossible choking feeling had begun.
“What happened up there?” Nat asks, finally breaking the silence surrounding Tony's hospital bed.
“Thanos came for the time stone. We fought him. He put up a valiant fight, made Thanos bleed,” the robot, Nebula, tells them, taking moments to seemingly drift into those memories.
“Thanos stabbed him with his own blade. He would have died if the keeper of the time stone hadn't saved him” she explains with some resent in her mechanical features.
“who?” Steve inquires, itching to know which angel saved Tony Stark.
“I forget his name, some sorcerer. Idiot” she spits.
“did you call him an idiot for saving Tony?” Nat raises a blonde brow.
“Yes. He gave up the time stone for his life” her metal finger points to Tony, “an infinity stone is not worth a man's life”
“Tony isn't just a man. He's earth's greatest protector” Steve interjects. He gets a few looks.
All this time Tony was preparing the Earth for exactly this. For Thanos. He is more equipped than the majority of the Avengers and they say hero's are the best of humanity. Tony is quite honestly, the best of the best, not just some man.
“Well I haven't been doing the best job” Tony croaks. They all startle and watch Tony’s face as he blinks into awareness.
“I also agree that Stange is a fucking fool” his face contorts in sad, disgusted anger.
As soon as Tony attempts to sit up Rhodey is by his side, supporting his friend.
Tony looks at his hands, at the back and at the front, turning them over several times and staring holes through them.
“They cleaned my hands” he observes
“of course they did. They were filthy” Rhodey responds.
“that was all I had left” he says to his hands more than anyone else. As they all frown Nebulas expression seems to clear with sad understanding.
“What?” Bruce asks.
“Peters gone!” he suddenly yells, the broken tone of his voice cutting straight through Steve's chest.
“that was all I had left” he repeats in a sound so sad and alone it cuts a deeper slice in Steve's chest.
As Tony closes his clean fists his left hand trembles. He puts his hands over the white sheets, on his lap.
He doesn't speak or move for hours.
Steve had expected, dreaded, yelling and arguing, bitter mouths and eyes.
The silence was worse.
Tony was nothing but empty. Two days back on earth, two days surrounded by people he’s known for years have done nothing to help. He doesn't care about them, he doesn't care the way they’ve never truly cared about him.
Peter cared about him. Peter asked him how he was whenever he’d been up for 72 hours, Peter always wanted to do things with him, show him class projects, ask to be taught about science only few understand.
He cares about Peter. Peter made him feel human.
Now, without him, he’s empty.
Tony slumps further into the cold black marble kitchen bar. All he can think of is that time he grudgingly agreed to make cookies with Pete so he could perfect his aunt's recipe and supposedly surpass her.
May… He had to see May. The news that he is no longer missing came out this morning and he couldn't live with himself if he never showed his face.
“Friday? Is May alive?” He doesn't quite believe the question he’s asking. He doesn't quite believe that half the world are just gone, taken by the wind.
“She is Sir” Fridays voice reverbs in the dark room.
Tony groans, hiding his face in his hands.
His heart aches the most it ever has. It’s a miracle it still functions.
The silence stretches for the hours Tony just sits, his hands over his sagging face, the left one trembling slightly. It happens more often than not now.
Out of nowhere there’s the sound of a wind chime in the room and if Tony weren’t tortured inside he’d find it peaceful.
“I never pictured you as a quiet type”
Tony jumps at the echoing voice that consumed the room. He recognises it immediately of course, he couldn't ever forget.
Tony looks up and there he really is, Stephen Strange, smirking as he sits atop the bar.
The man of course isn't really there. He’s dead. He appears in front of Tony translucent, like a spectre with this ever shifting illusion of fractured glass behind him.
“Strange” Tony breathes, his jaw inevitably unlocking.
“Stark” Strange smiles kindly, it reaches his eyes.
“It's about time” Tony mutters to himself.
“You were expecting me?” He frowns.
“It’s about time I went insane. I commend myself for holding on this long” Tony wonders why it's Strange of all people that his broken mind illustrates. Maybe because that's who his subconscious mourns while the forefront of his brain fills with the memory of Peters last words.
He knew Strange for so few hours yet the man did something to him, dug a hole in his weak heart and made himself a permanent fixture. His heart seemed to favour this new and unexpected inhabitant, until the inhabitant saved his life. Now he isn't so sure.
“Sir. The doctor is actually present. I can see him too” Friday voices.
Tony frowns at the ceiling, then at Strange. There’s no way. Strange is dead.
“This is my astral projection Tony. I am here. Just not in body” He explains in that booming echoing voice.
“Are… are you dead?”
“Well… we have been trapped in the soul stone”
“We?” Tony hopes to god we includes Pete.
“Yes. The guardians and your ward are there too”
“Shit” He breathes, looking away from the spectre to digest this new information. Peter isn't completely gone.
“I bear the good news that Peter is fine. So fine he annoys us with his inability to stop talking” Tony and the doctor both smile. Tony struggles a little more because he cant hear that incessant voice for himself.
“Can I see him?”
“I am the only one who can enter this dimension. I’m sorry. I can pass on a message though”
“When you return tell him he didn't need to apologise. He did good”
“I will” He nods. Tony expects him to disappear then, but the sorcerer stays sat on the counter. A few silent moments pass.
“I have to see his aunt. What do I tell her?”
“That Peter isn't dead. That he will be back”
Tony cant even begin to theorise how that would work. The universe is in chaos and Thanos disappeared with the stones.
In another period of silence the two men sit. Tony wants to ask how they’ll return but a different thing escapes him;
“You know, I really fucking hate you Strange”
He actually looks offended for a moment. That gives way to a rueful expression.
“Is this because of the time stone?”
“Yes it's because of the time stone. How dare you do that? You had no right” Tony snaps, practically snarling at Strange.
“The time stone was mine to control” He says in that annoyingly calm voice of his.
“You killed half the universe for me! What were you thinking!? You said you'd let me die for that stone. Why didn't you?” Tony moves to stand in front of the doctor, putting his hands on his hips and waiting for the mans brilliant reason.
No one person deserves to live over trillions. Least of all Tony Stark, a man that’s done so much wrong.
“Because the universe needs you” He tells him softly, looking him dead in the eye.
“What?” Tony had not expected an answer like that.
“Thanos would have gotten the stone anyway. I can't tell you the future I saw but you have to be alive. You've always been the key” He leans forward, resting his astral elbows on his astral thighs.
“Keep up sugar. You're going to save us”
“How?” Tony's brows knit together in utter confusion.
“There are things I cannot tell you” He looks down apologetically, clasping his scarred hands together.
“What if I make a mistake? Then it'll all be for nothing” He gradually feels gravity increase on his body. If Tony is the key he cant make a mistake. But he always makes mistakes. Always.
“It was the only way”
Strange disappeared soon after, swallowed by the wind chime glass. Tony stayed in the same spot until the morning came.
Steve was the first to enter the kitchen. Of course he was. The man rises earlier than most, maybe all. He tried to start a conversation with Tony several times; asking him if he slept, commenting on the failing state of their planet, asking Tony if he wanted omelette.
Tony uttered not a single word. He had no time for conversation as he allowed himself to be consumed by the prospect of going to speak to May. He expects to be yelled at, he’s used to that from people. But he doesn't know if he can handle it, regardless of whether Pete isn't really dead or not. The fact that he’s gone stands.
Steve left a quarter omelette next to Tony as he exited the room. He took one look at it and knew he'd throw up if he ate it.
Tony decided he couldn't wait any longer for an inevitable fate and left the kitchen behind.
When Tony gets to her door it takes him more courage to knock than it did to face Thanos. A lot of things take more courage. He assumes its because Thanos’ evil isn't a product of his mistakes, the way everything else is.
She opens the door and it's immediately clear that she knows Peter is gone along with half the universe, gone in the wind with them. She looks hollow, Tony connects with that.
Tony follows and the first thing he notices is Peters closed bedroom door. He wonders if May avoids it at all costs or if she goes in there at times just to breathe the boys air. Tony’s desires at the moment are torn between those two things.
“No thank you” Tony sits on the couch, removing his sunglasses and dragging a hand down his anguished face.
“I guess you must know by now” Tony looks to the kitchen to see May nodding toward the ground silently. Her aura mourns.
“I’m sorry” Tony whispers. He cracks a little more when it makes him remember Peters last words.
“Was he happy before he died?” She asks, looking up at Tony with hope in her eyes. He struggles to find an answer. Who would be happy fighting a titan on a foreign planet?
“Well… When I told him to go home he said… he said he couldn't be a friendly neighbourhood spiderman if there was no neighbourhood” The cracks come through in his voice as he explains. He quickly swears to himself that he won't cry, May needs support, not the task of supporting him.
“He didn't deserve to go. He was more of a hero than any of us are”
“Tony I hope you know I don't blame you. The victims were picked at random, he would have… anyway. I just wish… I wish I could have said goodbye”
“God I didn't tell you. There might be a way for him to come back”
May looks at him like he’s crazy, “From the dead?”
“I have another… friend who died the same way Peter did. Due to his power he managed to visit me and he said they’re trapped in the soul stone”
“The what?” She looks no closer to the powerful gaze of hope she had moments ago.
“It's an alternate plane of existence” He assumes.
“Did this friend of yours tell you Pete is okay?”
“He is” The amplified voice startles both May and Tony to the point he accidentally kicks the coffee table
“Jesus! Could you not tune that down just a little bit?” He turns to Strange, pointedly watching the sorcerer where he floats behind the couch.
“No can do” He shrugs, gliding through the furniture and sitting next to Tony. His density makes no sense to him at this point.
“What the fuck?” May screeches, backing up into the kitchen counter.
“Dr Stephen Strange” He introduces, waving at her with a small smile.
“Peter has a message for you both,” He continues, “To his aunt he says take care of Tony and to Tony he says take care of aunt May. Until he’s back of course”
Thanos said he respected Tony. If he had known Peter that thought wouldn't have even crossed his mind. Pete might be the person Tony has the most respect for and he knows a lot of good people.
“So Pete really isn't dead?” May asks again. Its then that the hope starts to come alive again.
“Is he a ghost like you?” Strange suffers a subtle twitch when she says that and Tony recognises it immediately. He feels it when people say Rhodey is iron man's sidekick, because the man is so much more. Or when people tell him to suck it up and talk to Steve, because he can’t just patch things up after what he did to him.
“No. In the soul stone we are not bone and flesh but we somehow interact an exist like bodies. Even I can’t understand it yet”
“God.. can you tell Peter to hurry up and get out?”
For a few more minutes they all talk about Peter, Strange expertly skirting the topic of how they get him out, then he and Tony say their goodbyes and leave, promising to return soon.
As he and the doctor make their way down the stairs Tony feels like he’s accomplished something, he feels like May’s life will have just a bit of light in it now that she knows it's not the end. Tony thinks he feels that too.
They get in the car and Tony doesn't start it. He simply sits for a while, listening to the wind chime and just thinking.
Peter may come back but he still had to experience, he had to go through death. That’s already too much for Tony’s conscience.
Peter was so scared.
“I sense deep sadness in you” Strange’s voice fills the inside of the car with its resonance.
“Do your powers have any limits at all?” Tony rolls his eyes in automatic defence, gripping the steering wheel.
“You have a very expressive face Tony” the tone of voice Strange uses causes Tony to look at him, look at the way his eyes soften and his lips tug up at one end.
Tony's name belongs in that man's mouth, he pronounces is like it's important, intimate, like it's more than just the common name that it is. It feels so personal and so right.
“haven't heard that one before” he mumbles, turning away to avoid further deduction. He doesn't want to reveal these thoughts.
“at a time like this you need friends” he continues in a voice so caring it ignites warmth in Tony.
“I have friends” he retaliates immediately.
“tell me about them” Strange sits back and signals for him to talk.
“Well Rhodey is my best friend, we've known each other for years, he means a lot to me. I've also got Bruce… it's been a while though, and…” Tony realises he's ran out of people already.
Does he really need more than two friends anyway?
“Do you ever talk about how you feel with them?”
Tony scoffs a laugh at that. If only the man knew him, he's never talked about feelings, he likes the bottle shut nice and tight, till it's so full it explodes into shards.
“I tried with Bruce once. He fell asleep”
Strange quite visibly reacts to that, making a pained and somewhat disgusted face to Tony's words. He wonders if that incident is worse than he thinks.
“Can I touch you?” he asks after a pause. Tony blinks in confusion, looking though this ghost of a man.
“watch” Strange smiles as he reaches over slowly, still giving Tony time to pull back. He admires that more deeply that most things he's ever admired.
Stranges astral fingertips phase into the rough skin of Tony's hand and he watches it's muscles light up vivid oranges. But the most incredible thing has to be the feeling. Looking at Stephens face he'd say the man's expression would feel like care, warmth, calm. Those exact emotions seep into his blood and swamp all the monsters in his head.
It's so blissful. The most blissful he's ever been.
Tony exhales for what feels like the first time in weeks.
Sadly Stranges hand falls away. It doesn't take everything with it though, remnants of peace still wrap Tony in their blanket as he starts the car and heads back to the compound.
“there's a meeting tomorrow. I think we should crash it, they need to know what you've told me”
“how do you crash a meeting you're supposed to be at anyway?”
“you'll be crashing it. Plus, I make a point of being late to these things” Strange nods with an amused smirk.
Tony half expects him to disappear soon after silence falls upon the car but he stays quietly sat during the whole, extensive drive to the Avengers facility. Tony’s grateful for that, for a comforting presence to just exist with him.
The next morning, as Tony heads to the meeting room ten minutes late jacked with no sleep and three coffees, he finds that organising things with an astral being is not straightforward. Tony has no way to contact Strange and the wizard is probably on a bent out of shape time zone. He adjusts his black blazer and decides he doesn't really need Strange. He can simply relay the information. Whether they believe him or not is a different matter.
He barely has to wait before the elevator opens on his floor, revealing Nebulas stoic expression.
“Coming to the meeting?” He asks, peering at her over his shades as he steps in. He had ensured she’d get the message to come, she's part of this now whether she likes it or not.
“I’m not a fan of your friends ” She grunts annoyedly. Tony chuckles at the familiarity of that feeling.
“Honestly neither am I” He admits, slipping his hands into his pockets as they wait for the floor to the conference room.
“You're limping” Nebula observes as they walk out of the elevator and through the corridor that ends with the glass doors of the meeting room.
“Well, I’m only human” Tony shrugs. It’s hard concealing the pain Thanos caused him, the cut is still fairly new among all the shit Tony’s body has had to endure.
“Shame isn't it” She deadpans. Tony smirks at that.
He and Nebula are an odd pair. They bonded on Titan over their mutual hate for Strange’s decision and although she can be difficult and tactless he feels connection to her and he admires her bluntness. He’s had enough of lies, Nebula is a refreshment he desperately needed.
“Hi” The aspirational American accent of Strange next to him startles Tony yet again. Nebula barely reacts.
“What the hell is that?” She asks very calmly for someone seeing a floating, see-through man.
“Dr Strange, astral projection. Nice to see you again” They resume walking as he speaks, Nebula scowls harder.
Strange looks to Tony questioningly as he holds the door open for her.
“She doesn't appreciate you giving up the stone to save me” He explains. To that he gets an eye roll from Strange. He feels a little bad that he also holds resentment for that. Regardless of knowing the reason a part of him will always think there could have been a way to stop Thanos, and yes maybe Tony wouldn't live to see that but at least Strange, Peter and all of the galaxy would have.
As Tony enters the room Strange floats through the door, the sound of windchimes softly following him.
Everyone in the room is frozen at the sight of him.
“Strange?” Bruce gasps where he stands.
“Banner” He nods to him in greeting.
“Tony you've got to… explain. What is this?” He asks, still looking like he’s having an outer body experience.
Tony realises he’s getting very tired of explaining all this mess.
“Guys, this is Harry Potter. He is an astral being. Harry, these are real humans” He introduces curtly to all the heros. They of course sit in shock.
Strange cuts his eyes at him, “My name is Stephen Strange”
Strange goes on to explain why he is in fact astral, he explains the world inside the soul stone, passes on a few messages, tells them this isn't the end.
A lot of the people visibly relax, Steve included. Tony scans the room and concludes Bucky and Sam must be gone.
He scans the room again. He scans it because he realises things aren't the same. Steve has longer hair and an entire beard Tony somehow hadn’t acknowledged, Thor has a haircut and a new hammer, or axe, Nat’s hair is a really light blonde and there's an actual raccoon sitting in one of the gray chairs. Tony chooses not to think too much about it.
He also registers who’s gone, Wanda isn't around and Vision…
“Vision… did he… was it painless?” Tony knows he’s dead, without a doubt. The android had an infinity stone in his head and Thanos would not have been nice about its extraction. For a painfully extended moment nobody so much as makes eye contact with him. It wasn't painless.
“Wanda had to kill him,” Bruce starts, staring down at the glass table he leans on, “Thanos reversed time and killed him again”
Tony feels a sharp stab in his chest at that. It's so much worse than just a painful death. He had to watch himself die twice. Tony can't help it when he glares horribly at Strange.
“Tony you know I…” Strange frowns sadly, coming closer to him and rubbing his back in a devastatingly intangible way. He feels him though, he feels the remose, the want to make things better.
Tony sighs and rubs his temples, “I know I just… It’s hard to get past it”
“What's our next move?” Steve asks. Tony had forgotten how annoying he found the captains authoritative voice is.
“Wait? All my friends are dead and you want me to wait?” The racoon exclaims in outrage, thumping his small fist on the table.
Tony remembers a time when the weirdest thing to exist was Captain America. Now he stands surrounded by talking animals, half android aliens, gods and wizards.
“Trust the man. Now if you excuse me I need to fix my suit, you won't see me for at least three days” With a wave Tony turns on his heel and heads out, followed by Strange.
He stops cold at that voice. He was hoping to god he wouldn't have to speak to Steve. Steve is the last thing he needs.
“Rogers?” he addresses as the man approaches them, looking a little out of his depth already.
“I um, how are you?” he shifts his weight from foot to foot, awaiting Tony's answer.
He always says he's fine. He says he's fine even though he doesn't remember a time he said that and honestly meant it.
He's lost Peter. He's lost the war. He's lost.
Fine is so far away he doesn't even feel like he can say it.
“I've been better” he settles, adjusting his shades for better cover and turning away from Steve.
Tony mourns the loss of many things. Steve isn't one of them.
When Steve holds his elbow Tony unconsciously jerks out of his grip, stumbling through Strange’s astral form as his heart rate spikes. He can feel it trying to beat through his chest, trying to scream for help.
He's scared. Tony realises he's scared.
Steve looks just as horrified. The last time they were together he had Tony on the cliff of death. He knows well why this has happened.
Tony's chest aches where scars from that day still remain.
“I have to go” Tony chokes, spinning on his heel and leaving that corridor as quickly as he can with no face left to save.
As soon as the elevator doors close Tony leans heavily on one wall and presses his hand to his chest to ease the ache, to silence the heart.
He glances Strange, the way he watches the hand on Tony's chest. He quickly realises it's violently shaking so his stuffs it in his pocket.
“I'm fine,” he insists before the doctor can ask, “just… flashbacks”
In reality Tony can't breathe. He feels like his chest is bleeding like it was that day, that it hurts like it did that day.
As soon as the elevator opens on his floor he stumbles out and straight to his quarters, throwing off his blazer and t shirt to make sure his chest isn't gushing with blood like it did when he got back from Siberia and stepped out of the suit. He blinks and there's blood everywhere, on his torso, his hands. He blinks again and his hands are bare and shaking, his chest is clean and scarred.
“Rogers… did that to you?”
Tony looks up to see Strange hovering in the corner with a haunted expression on his face.
“you're still here?” He asks a little snappily.
Nobody has seen his injury, Strange is the first. Tony isn't sure how he feels about that.
It's ugly, the scar. His marks look like an illustration, the arc reactor drew a sun on the centre of his chest and Cap's shield painted a diagonal, jagged line straight through it.
“no one has ever seen me like this” Tony utters, wanting to turn away but knowing that won't preserve anything. Strange has seen him. There’s nothing left to hide, to unwrap.
“like your true self?”
“I was gonna say weak”
“the fact that you still stand here is a testament of you not being weak Tony” Strange floats toward him, stopping at barely a distance, intimately close. With his feet off the ground he's even taller, Tony’s neck strains a little to look up at him.
He sighs, deciding to just talk about it, “I held back when I fought Steve, I could have bombed him to high hell. He didn't do such thing, unless you count this” He taps his chest.
“ that was holding back?” Stranges brows shoot up.
“he was going for my neck, changed his mind at the last second” Tony explains, trying desperately to push away the sight of cap’s rage, the sight of the shield coming down on him. Tony thought that day that he would be killed by a man he called a friend. There's little more terrifying than that.
Strange reaches out to Tony’s chest slowly, sadness etched in his brows. And his fingers go straight through the scar, light it up. Tony laments he can’t feel the physical warmth of touch.
He’s apparently lamenting too, he pulls his hand back and stares at the transparent shape of it with frustration.
“I wish there had been another way. I want to really be here”
“Hey, Stephen, it’s alright. I’m the key to the universe remember? I’ll get you back” Tony smiles up at the man and finds himself wishing he could brush those high cheekbones with his undeserving thumbs.
“I never expected less” Stephen smirks with a purity unseen to Tony.
“you got any plans or do you wanna see my evil lair?” Tony asks the man, straining to pick a neglected black tank top up from the floor and pulling it on.
“you have one of those?” Stephens signature amused smirk shows itself as they head out and toward the elevator. While he floats Tony steps heavily and unevenly due to the wound of Thanos’ making.
“yes it's where I create” Tony explains, pushing the button for the lift.
“then it's an art studio” Stephen notes as he floats into the lift next to Tony.
“to the shop FRIDAY. Art studio?”
“your inventions are art in their own abstract modern way. Especially the nanotech armour. It's frankly beautiful” Tony finds himself blushing at the compliment. His heart fills at the wizards interpretation. Somebody sees his inventions as more than a lethal weapon and that almost makes him want to cry in relief.
“yes well… if the armour were it's own person I'd definitely hit on it” he quips, shoving and stamping on his emotions before Stephen can see another weak point.
“interesting” he makes a funny face as he contemplates Tony's words.
“it wouldn't break my heart. I ask for little more than that” Tony sighs, leading the way out of the elevator. An image of Steve flashed across his mind, his blue green eyes raging as the shield descended. He sees it so often, so vividly.
There was a time Tony loved that man.
“you're within your right to ask for worlds more than that” Stephen tells him. Tony glances over to see the sad way the sorcerer watches him.
“gave up on that years ago. I won't find it.” people say there's someone out there for everyone. Tony thought that about Pepper and they fell away. Tony thought that about Steve and he grabbed his heart and tore it apart in his fists.
“Tony I wish…”
“you wish?” he asks, tapping the code in to open up the workshop. Stephen shakes his head, an indication he lost his trail of thought.
Tony goes straight for his office chair and dumps his body in it, turning to face the reactor where it lies on the table.
“Friday play some MJ" Tony calls, reaching for his tools. The AI starts playing Michael Jackson's You Rock My World. Tony can't handle silence. It fills the air with all his dreads and fears. Music relieves one of the many knots in his chest.
“good choice. King of pop, 2001, the sixth track of the studio album. I liked listening to music while I worked too" Stephen does a little twirl to the music when he thinks Tony isn't looking and it's the cutest thing he's ever seen.
“should a Neurosurgeon be listening to music during surgery?” Tony raises a brow, turning back to the reactor and working on opening it up.
“you knew of me?” Stephen floats up to him and observes as Tony works. He guesses this is a little like surgery. He's using precise, thin tools and one wrong poke won't be ideal considering how strong of a power source the reactor energy is.
“of course, I've read all your papers. They're really interesting. I used some of the insights to sync my thoughts with my tech” Tony mentions, grabbing his magnifying glasses to really get in on the detail.
“wow that's incredible. I couldn't dream to think how you do that”
Tony pauses for a moment before facing Stephen. He finds that the lenses are causing him to look too closely at Stephens left eye so he flips them up.
“you're awful nice to me Stephen. Any reason why?” Tony reclines in his chair to ease the strain on his neck from looking up at him. Stephen stares straight ahead for what feels like a long time before ducking his head and murmuring;
“what I was saying earlier… I wish you could smile”
Tony's eyeballs hurt at the strain of shock he feels hearing that.
Stephen wants him to smile.
He can't help it. He smiles. He feels like he's sunk into a warm bath where everything is ok and his life hasn't crashed and burned. That's worth smiling for.
“you… you're something else Strange” Tony bites his lip in an attempt to restrict just how much he's smiling.
“oh come on you can't go back to Strange after having me hear Stephen from your lips” he teases, looking down at Tony with those drowningly mesmerising crystalline eyes of his.
“wow Stephen it almost sounds like you're flirting with me” Tony chuckles, turning back to the reactor and flipping down his magnifying lenses. He resumes work with that smile still on his face.
“Maybe I am” Stephen adds after a moment. Tony's hands freeze where they work.
“Stephen are you-" Tony stops cold when Stephens astral form suddenly cracks like glass. Like the wind chime glass that follows him everywhere he goes.
Stephen looks at his fragmented hands and curses under his breath.
“what's happening?” Tony asks, getting to his feet.
“I've been out of my body for too long. It's shutting down. I have to go” Just like that Strange falls back into the pool of glass that seems to be his portal of worlds.
The silence that follows pains Tony’s ears. It's not absolute, Music still plays and machines still softly run in the background but the echoing voice is gone, the melodic wind chimes no longer utter a word.
Tony was happy for all of two minutes. Now he feels like he's collapsing in on himself all over again.
Stephen distracted him from everything with his kind words, soft looks, snappy quips, endearing quirks.
Now all he can think of is the reality that Stephen isn't alive in his world. Peter isn't alive in his world.
He has little left.
In the next 48 hours Tony doesn't leave the workshop. Regardless of how much Friday, Rhodes and Nat urged him to. He puts all his mental output on repairing the suit so he doesn't have to think about Stephen, worry about his wellbeing.
It barely works. His hands itch to claw into the soul world and make sure he's okay.
He gets to a stage where the suit has enough nanoparticles to cover him fully but not enough for his cannons, swords, shields and all that other important stuff when Nebula somehow bypasses the system and strides into the shop.
Wordlessly, she comes up to him grabs him by the arm, pulls him out of his chair and drags him out. Tony can barely resist. She's strong and his body is too tired to do more than mindlessly walk.
“what are you doing?”
Nebula doesn't dignify him with an answer, taking him into the lift and to his quarters with her usual stoic mask on.
“sleep” she orders before shoving him into his room and walking off. Luckily she doesn't see his exhausted body fall onto the cold floor. He stays there for a bit, knowing he hasn't slept since he got back from Titan and that isn't going to change.
When it gets too cold Tony drags himself onto his bed and lies, shoes still on and all.
Titan’s orange tones surround them as they sit. Each and every one of them defeated. Tony still can't believe what Strange did, giving up the time stone.
“Tony, it was the only way” Stephen says before disappearing.
It hurts. It hurts so much more than he remembers it.
It's then he realises he's dreaming.
Tony screams in an attempt to wake himself but nothing changes. Peter still stumbles into his arms. He cries that he doesn't want to go.
Tony wishes it was him instead. Why did he have to live?
Peter disappears and that's when he wakes with a yell. Frantically, He looks around the moonlit darkness in his room.
He realises he's looking for Stephen for comfort, to ground him in reality.
But Stephen was dying the last time he saw him.
“you could have saved us” Steve's voice echoes in his head.
He could have. But he didn't. And the universe rewards him with life.
Often he sees it as a punishment.
He hears wind chimes. Stephen rises from the ground in front of his bed.
“Stephen thank God” Tony sighs, pulling his knees up to his chest and resting his forehead on them.
“sorry I came as soon as I could gather enough power” Stephen floats up to the side of the bed and sits on the edge.
“it's alright. I'm just glad to see you're ok” Tony tries a smile. It's not the same as last time.
“you don't look so ok Tony” Stephen leans close, scanning Tony's face.
“bad dream” he waves it off, pulling off his shoes and sitting cross legged.
“you look so tired” Stephens whisper still echoes softly around the room.
“haven't slept since you all... died”
“let me help you” before Tony can ask how Stephen reaches for his face and seemingly embeds the tips of his fingers into his temples.
Slowly but surely all his senses start to fade and the last thing he feels is his body falling back onto the mattress.
Until Titan forms around him once more.
This time, Tony stumbles onto the ground, his wound bringing blood to his throat.
Thanos tells Tony he hopes humanity will remember him.
He knows the drill. Thanos starts to close his fist to finish Tony off and Strange interrupts him with his idiotic bargain.
Only this time Stephen doesn't speak at all. This time Thanos lifts him from the ground, cradles his head with the glove, and after a flash of sunset yellow it's all over. A painless death.
When Tony wakes daylight shines on his face. He gets out of bed feeling renewed. He doesn't remember ever sleeping that well.
Stretching, he walks up to his wall to wall window and stares into the green distance for a moment, remembering there is peace in nature. Quickly something catches his eye a lot nearer to the compound.
On the front lawn floats Stephen, his legs crossed and hands poised in meditation. Tony doesn't think twice, quickly changing into a black polo, black trousers and slipping on red tinted glasses before he heads outside.
“hey. You battery saving?” Tony teases, standing next to Stephen. The man opens his eyes but he makes no move to interact with Tony, just staring into the distance with a hint of negative emotion in the set of his brows.
Tony is sure five minutes pass without him saying a thing so he decides to lay on the grass and wait him out. Eventually he'll speak.
The sky is clouded, sucking colour away from the world around them. The temperature drops a little in the half hour they're out there and Tony decides to give up on Stephen for the moment, getting up and brushing any grass that might be on his butt.
“you know if you want to ignore me you could just stay in the soul world” Tony grumbles.
“it's not your fault, if that's what you think. You didn't do anything… not really” Tony thanks the stars that this idiot finally decided to speak.
“so what is it?”
“when I put you to sleep I commanded your brain to give you a dream that would have you at peace” he murmurs.
“yes. It worked” Tony never thought dreaming about his own death would bring him calm but these times are very different.
“Tony you didn't have a dream you had a nightmare. How could that make you feel at peace?” he looks up at Tony with pained outrage in his expression.
“Did you see my dream?” Tony frowns. There's no limit to what Stephen can do apparently and when he looks into his eyes he sees it, he sees Stephen painfully reliving the dream Tony had.
“yes… I wasn't going to watch it but it was Titan and, well, I watched.” He looks away.
“understand that my biggest fear is losing everyone I care about. In my mind, if things had ended like in the dream you gave me then you'd all be alright”
Tony watches the wind blow through the trees and imagines life without him there. Only Rhodes and Peter would really miss him. Maybe Nat. They'd all be alive, the world wouldn't be collapsing. Peter would go on school trips and come back to his aunt. Stephen could return to Wong at the sanctum. Rocket could have his family back, Nebula her sister.
Maybe Peter would feel lonely without a male figure in his life. Tony would trust Stephen to watch over him.
“But how could you want to die?” Strange stands, becoming taller than Tony as he is. His face is a cross of sadness and anger on a platter of pain. It's the most emotion he's seen from the Doctor.
“because I don't deserve to live in a world where I'm responsible for half the universe disappearing” Tony supplies.
“that was my fault! Tony you did everything right” he stresses.
“I've never done anything right” Tony sighs, rubbing his eyes under his glasses.
Tony supplied weapons of war and even when he changed his intentions Ultron still came as a product of it. He’s a destructive force and always will be.
“ugh I want to… I want to strangle you” Stephen growls, holding his trembling hands and tensed fingers. He radiates heavy waves of frustration.
“But you can't because you decided my life was more important than yours” Tony jabs. Hating that that's the reality they live in.
“it is!” Stephen yells. His voice so loud the echoes probably reach the entire compound.
“Tony,” Stephen starts after taking a deep breath, “remember the only way we win is the way I made it. If you had died we would have died too"
Tony recalls the conversation they had in the kitchen and suddenly feels really stupid.
“you're right. I'm sorry” he caves.
“no I am. Can I ask one thing from you?”
“can you find something to live for?” Stephen brings his hands to Tony's cheeks. He feels love seeping into his bones.
“I live to bring you and Pete back. I live for that” Tony smiles and it's completely from the heart.
“by the way Peter said you owe him a hug when he comes back” Stephen tells him, a pretty sparkle in his eyes. Tony laughs at that, thinking of the boys love of hugs. Tony never hugged him enough. He plans to hug him every day when he comes back.
“oh course he did” Tony shakes his head.
Stephen just stares at Tony for some moments with a profound smile on his face.
“you're so beautiful when you're happy” Stephen tells him softly.
Tony is at a loss for what to say and soon he doesn't even think about speaking as he gets lost in those deep eyes full of so many emotions and so many stunning hues.
This. This makes him feel at peace.
Tony blinks and realises he's inched closer. He and Stephen are so close and the intentions are clear but Stephen is so far.
Stephen groans holding his head in his hands while still seamlessly against Tony's chest.
“I'm dying to kiss you right now” He whispers, cracking a smile and peering up at Tony who is probably blushing quite overtly.
“I was looking forward to it truth be told” Tony teases, smirking at the sadly transparent wizard.
“Can I confess something?” Stephen straightens to level his eyes with Tony's.
“apart from the crush you have on me? Because the cat was out of the bag as soon as you said you were dying to kiss me” Tony teases, barely believing that someone like Stephen, the beautiful sorcerer supreme, could actually like him.
“not that, you know subplots?”
“well this one future had a romantic subplot between… me and you”
“oh it did?” Tony's brow raises in intrigue, hopeful intrigue.
“a lot of the futures did. But the only way you and I ended up together is if I came to you in my astral form"
“so what are you saying?”
“that I chose to come to you in my astral form because I wanted to be with you, to love you, to make you laugh” he smiles excitedly.
Tony gets soccer punched by a heavy bag of emotions and in seconds a tear rolls down his cheek.
“Stephen…” he says weakly, smiling as he wipes his tear.
“baby don't cry” he says tenderly. Tony wishes he could run his long fingers through his hair, wipe his tears for him, cuddle him, kiss his cheek.
“I didn't think I wanted to ever love anyone again and look what you've done, you've made me fall for you in less than a week” Tony chuckles at how crazy his all is. And it's real .
Tony really does feel the same love he feels from Stephen he touches him.
“soon I'll be back and I hope you'll have me as more than a friend” Stephens words make Tony's heart leap. He isn't playing around, Stephen really does want him.
“I'll have you as more than a friend right now, facial hair boyfriend” Tony winks.
Stephen pretends to be unimpressed. It doesn't last, a smile wrestles it's way onto his lips.
“I hate you”
A month passes and Tony finds himself at a table with Thor, Bruce, and his ghost boyfriend.
Yes Peter isn't with him, yes things still crush him from time to time, but he's happy. He listens to Thor and Bruce tell stories about their adventure on the planet Hulk ended up on. When Bruce asks him why he wears his pants so tight he laughs. When Tony returned to earth he didn't think he'd ever laugh.
“they're tailored. It's likely they just don't fit right” he explains.
“tight pants don't sound so bad” Stephen winks and Tony has to laugh behind his palm.
“loose pants are unbecoming Bruce” Thor adds, seemingly just to wind the man up.
“tell us about you and Stephen meeting” Tony eagerly asks, wanting to soak in anything new about Stephen.
“oh Stephen was quite annoying, other than limitless beer of course” He smirks. Tony doesn't appreciate the cliffhanger.
“I was trying to boot you back to space as soon as I could. Nothing personal” Stephen shrugs.
“well I broke everything in your sacred library so we are even” Thor says, drinking his huge mug of hot chocolate.
“you slap me for leaning on your soup bowl and he gets nothing for breaking all your shit?” Tony argues.
“the cloak was just really set on slapping your ass. It wasn't me” he smiles amusedly, glancing at his red friend where it sits in the chair next to him.
“But you wanted to didn't you?” Bruce interjects smugly.
Stephen hides behind his hands. They all laugh at this revelation. If Tony could he's pull him against his chest and ruffle his perfect hair.
It's hard, loving someone you can't touch, that can't touch you. He wishes he could kiss Stephen, hold his scarred hands, sweep strands of grey hair behind his ear.
But they give what they can, kind words, meaningful stares and smiles. And Tony doesn't mind that, it's more than he could ever deserve.
“it appears you have been exposed” Thor says. The way he says it has Tony in stitches.
He struggles to stop laughing but once he dies down he notices Stephen staring at him with an intimate smile. His lips naturally match that and before Bruce can tease them about how ‘in love’ they are Friday interrupts.
“Mr Stark someone has arrived and is demanding to see you. She reads levels of energy I've never seen before”
As they frown Stephens face lights up. He claps his hands together and stands;
“About time Carol”
They manipulate time, they go to Wakanda, Carol bests Thanos, Thor hacks his head off, Tony uses the gauntlet to wish the stones out of existence and wish half the universe back into it.
In the common area of T’challas royal building Tony watches Steve animatedly talk with Bucky and Sam, He watches Rocket and a sad looking Thor talk to a slim tree, T'challa hugs his sister and friends.
Tony is alone, sat at a table with Nebula as they both wallow in unspoken sadness.
Nebulas arm beeps and she opens a holographic panel with writing in a strange language.
“Quills on his way”
Five hours later a spaceship roughly lands in T’challas back garden.
Tony rises from that same table, ready to activate the suit and blast through a window but a portal opens before he can do that.
The guardian's step out, reuniting with Rocket and the tree, greeting Thor.
Then his precious Peter stumbles out. Tony bolts for the boy, throwing his arms around him and squeezing the soul right out of his body.
“I missed you so much” Tony whispers into Peters hair, planting a kiss on it.
“I missed you too Mr Stark” He smiles up at him. Tony knows he's crying and there's nothing he wants to do about it.
“you're like a son to me, You know that?” He cradles Peters face carefully, so happy to let those barriers go and love Peter like he deserves. No more being emotionally constipated.
“and you're the best dad I could ever ask for”
Tony audibly chokes up, tears streaming down his cheeks. He never thought he could be a good dad and he certainly never expected a gem like Peter in his life.
He brings Peter back in for a hug and closes his eyes so he can just savour that his boy really is back and alive and in one piece.
“you're grounded. No more leaving earth” Tony jokes.
Peter laughs, wiping a tear from his face as he looks up at Tony like he's his whole world.
“now ask Karen to call Aunt May for you ok?” Peter nods, pulling on his mask as he moves off to the side.
Then Tony looks up and there he is, Stephen.
His cloak floats as he walks up to Tony, his smile small but his eyes bursting in joy.
Tony doesn't hold back, throwing his arms around Stephen and pulling him down in an effort to hug him. Stephen chuckles and it's refreshing to not hear it echo around the room for once.
The sorcerer wraps his arms around Tony's waist and holds him impossibly close, leaning back to look him in the eyes. Tony reaches up and cradles his face, sighing at the feel of skin and warmth and rough hair.
He's really back.
“you're so much more beautiful when you're opaque” Tony whispers, grinning up at his boyfriend.
“and you're just as stunning as always love” Stephen takes a moment to just watch Tony's face, “now please can I kiss you? I'm in need"
Tony nods and leans in, still grinning as he plays with the hairs at Stephens nape. The kiss doesn't work at first, since Tony can't stop smiling and Stephen can't stop laughing about it but eventually they melt together. It brings more tears to Tony's eyes as he finally feels Stephen, finally tastes him and savours him and has him close.
His whole life he's needed Stephen, needed Peter.
Now he has them and he has happiness.