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In the End, It Matters

Chapter Text

As Stephen’s had the opportunity to observe these past few weeks, Tony has only two moods now. Both reflective of how good or bad the meetings with the Rogues go.

He either storms into the lab with an angry pout and dives into his ongoing engineering projects, alternatively storming into the Sanctum and glaring his way through a five hundred pages long ancient text about the mystic arts; not saying much while at it.

Or he storms the lab slash Sanctum, mumbling a hundred curses before being half-way through the door and spending the next few hours loudly complaining.

It’s quite the rollercoaster – especially since last week, he managed to do both in the same day. Morning meeting with the Rogues? Queue silent brooding. Afternoon meeting with the UN? Queue loud complaining.

While Peter already made a meme out of it, Stephen is only now catching up with it, realizing that this mood cycle is unlikely to break anytime soon. Not with the way this whole Rogues vs. the UN is going.

He sometimes wishes the Rogues tried testing their luck with running away from the Compound. This whole situation might have been avoided.

Alas, as the doors to the Sanctum fly open, letting the chilly autumn air inside, Tony storms in with murder written all over his face and the way he slams the doors behind him only means the two moods are only about to escalate.

“Unbelievable,” he utters and plops down on the other end of the sofa with enough force to make Stephen jump in the seat a little. “Unfuckingbelievable. Shit, is Peter here? Crap!”

“He’s not. With the way you’re talking lately though, perhaps we should extend the swear jar rules on anyone. You would be bankrupt in a week.”

“Fuck you and fuck the swear jar!”

“My point exactly,” Stephen smirks, settling back into the cushions and resuming his reading. 

“And fuck this book, too!” he snatches it from his hands, glaring daggers at it. “I read that shit two days ago, it’s full of medieval witchcraft bullshit!”

He sighs, watching the fuming man. “That bad, huh?”

“Worse!” he flails his hands around, the book flying across the floor. “You know how I said this emergency plan is fucking fool proof and shit?! Back when we were setting it up in case the Rogues come back into town?! Well hoooooooooly shit was I wrong as fuck!”

“I told you, one wave of my hand and they are gone without a trace. Offer still stands.”

Tony closes his eyes, trying to compose himself with a long inhale and exhale. “Tempting. Very fucking tempting. But you see? It’s not like all of them are being difficult about this.”

“Ohhhh let me guess. It’s just Rogers and his tilted face.”

Tony nods. “Mmmhmm. No,” he keeps on nodding nonetheless. “Blair Bitch is… wait…his tilted face? What does that even mean?!”

He frowns, but keeps the smirk on. “Isn’t it obvious? He does the thing.”

“The thing? What thing?”

“Whenever his brain sounds the bitches are pulling my arm alarm, he tilts his head just a tiny bit to the side.”

“You mean pulling his leg?” he pouts and folds his arms.

“Doesn’t rhyme then.”

“Right. Sounds legit.”

“And the tilt intensifies when someone tries pulling Barnes’s arm, so there’s that. Seeing that his brain seems to make that conclusion twice every minute, his head is basically in perma-tilt.”

“Didn’t realize you paid so much attention to his tilting head?” Tony squints at him.

“There wasn’t much else to pay attention to. Not if you didn’t want me to send anyone to the Dark Dimension,” he shrugs. “Had to distract myself with psychoanalyzing Rogers’s face.”

“That’s why I’m not inviting you on any more of these. Even Fury could tell you were channeling your inner Voldemort after just five minutes.”

“Speaking of Fury, how’s he enjoying his new not-so-secret post?”

“Definitely a lot more than Ross is enjoying the Raft. Actually,” he cringes, “Fury might be enjoying this a little too much. He’s buying nobody’s bullshit – not the Rogues’, not the UN’s…he’s perfect for the job, but I swear he’s getting off on all the drama. The never-ending drama!”

“Then why don’t you let him handle it? You don’t have to be there.”

“Ohhhh but I do. It’s either me or Vision and I’m not throwing Viz into that melting pot of crap!”

“Bruce and Thor are back on the official roster, they could go.”

Tony shifts in the seat, turning entirely to face him, one leg folded up on the cushion. “You are still high-key set on getting the Rogues killed, aren’t you? Bruce would have let the Hulk trash the place by now and while Thor is more intelligent than anyone gives him credit for, his conflict resolving skills only include trial by combat! We’re not trying to start another war in here.”

“I understand.”

“But?”

“But I still think dropping Rogers into a portal and forgetting all about him will save everyone lots of grey hairs and years otherwise lost due to stress.”

“Is that your vengeful Lord of the Dark Arts speaking or is it the doctor? I can’t tell anymore.”

“I only have everyone’s best interest in mind.”

Tony nods, squinting at him again. “Everyone’s but Rogers’s.”

“Naturally.”

“What about the Wicked Witch of the West?”

He’s been thinking about that a lot. Not that he really wanted to spend his time and brain cells on Wanda, but as the Sorcerer Supreme he had little choice. At the end of the day, he is the one responsible for all practitioners of the mystic arts on Earth. Calling her a practitioner of anything at this point is quite a stretch though. She can barely control her emotions let alone her powers.

With a lot of practice and a good teacher, she could however reach her potential. Stephen is yet to decide if she deserves that chance.

It’s one thing being brainwashed by HYDRA and forced to work for them for decades and a completely another thing to willingly join them to become their tools of war. Everyone – Tony included – tries to downplay it all by saying she was young and troubled and had no other options. Stephen doesn’t buy that for a second.

Being a young, troubled teen is not an excuse to join an openly evil organization of murderers. Something him and Bruce both agree on.

Giving second chances is nice and all, the question is how many second chances does it take before it’s too many? And as far as he’s concerned, she had her second and third chance already.

“The option to take her to Kamar-Taj for training is open I suppose. I know she’s the UN’s biggest concern because of her volatile powers…she’s my biggest concern because of her mindset. We can tackle her powers, but Kamar-Taj is not kindergarten. If she won’t learn to respect rules and authority by herself and fast, then she’ll find herself on the streets of Kathmandu in seconds.”

“Hm. They say miracles do happen, so maybe she’ll make it.”

“You’re very optimistic, you know that?”

“That a bad thing?” Tony sighs, resting his head against the back of the sofa.

“No. Only when you expect an outcome…that objectively has a smaller chance of happening than winning a lottery. Twice. In one week.”

Tony shrugs, his strained features relaxing into a smile. “Guy can only hope. Anyway. Where’s Wong?”

“Upstairs, identifying a mysterious and undoubtedly dangerous relic someone brought in this morning,” Stephen whispers, a smirk tugging at his lips.

“Ahhhhh. Is it just as mysterious and dangerous as the hexed brown box from last week…that turned out to be just a Mc’Donald’s burger thermo-box painted brown?”

“It is quite possible, yes,” he smirks this time.

“Okay. Whatever. I don’t wanna be a part of your mystical prank wars. Does that mean you’re free this afternoon?”

“Afternoon, night and considering the complexity of that particular relic, I’m thinking morning as well. Why?”

Tony mirrors the smirk and suddenly hauls himself up from the sofa. “Peter has plans.”

“When doesn’t he have plans?” he rolls his eyes.

“Exactly, so you’re in or what?”

“Wha…I’m…I’m in I suppose, but what are the plans?”

“No idea. It involves dressing casual and warm, that’s all I know. Meet us at his place in an hour?”

That doesn’t sound suspicious at all. “Uhhh…sure.”

“Awesome! Later, Beer witch!” Tony beams and all but dances out of the Sanctum, his previously shit mood completely forgotten.

“Huh,” Stephen muses, an estranged feeling of nervousness taking root in his guts.

 

 

Little over an hour later, he’s standing on the crowded parking lot near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, staring at the giant space ahead that transformed itself from nothing to a hot-air balloon airport.

“Can’t say I’ve ever been to Albuquerque before,” he utters, looking around with a note of confusion. “Or seen this many hot-air balloons in one place.”

“Isn’t it awesome?!” Peter exclaims, grabbing onto Ned. “DUDE! We’re taking that one!” he points to the Star Wars themed balloon.

“Cool,” Ned nods and the two of them get a head start, speed-walking towards their chosen vessel.

“Guess we’re flying hot-air balloons,” Tony shrugs and sounds almost too innocent about it.

“Haven’t done that before either. Looks…fun?”

“That’s the spirit!” Tony clasps his shoulder and leads them after the teens. “Let’s avoid the Avenger-themed ones,” he cringes, nodding to the side.

“Hm? Oh. Oh. Those look…”

“Disgusting.”

“Funky.”

“Kinda creepy, too,” Tony shudders, his gaze lingering on the truly creepy, cartoon version of Thor. “Good thing I’ve got my eyes on that one,” he smirks, pointing at another balloon.

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” Stephen rolls his eyes, stifling the rippling chuckle. Standing there might and proud is a Stark Industries balloon…only the ‘r’ in Stark is crossed out and replaced by an ‘n’ and the boring gray background is splashed with red and gold.

Clearly a work of an unknown prankster.

“I thought these were Peter’s plans,” he squints at Tony.

“They are,” he replies without a pause and sets off toward the Stank balloon. “Have fun, kids!” he calls after Peter, who waves at them and either Stephen needs glasses or that there was a wink as well.

“Right,” Stephen nods, walking alongside Tony, not believing him for a second.

Half an hour later, they’re up in the air and it’s just as he thought – fun. A bit cold and windy, but with the Cloak on he barely feels it. And Tony is definitely in the clear with the leather jacket, a fancy scarf and aviator glasses. Like ten out of ten in the clear. How is he supposed to focus on the view?! Of the landscape?!

“Peter’s doing some radical flying over there,” Tony chuckles, pointing at the Death Star balloon.

The kid apparently persuaded the operator to let him do the steering for a bit and now the balloon is gliding over the horizon in crazy circles.

He echoes the chuckle and joins Tony in observing the out of control vessel. Unlike Peter, Tony is keeping their flight rather calm and smooth. He took over the whole operation, all but kicking the guy that was supposed to pilot them out with a teasing “I’m Stank, I don’t need a pilot”. And he sure doesn’t.

Stephen finds his eyes flicking over to him without really meaning to. There’s no helping it. The serene expression that has made its way onto Tony’s face is such a huge contrast to his lately perma-stressed one, that Stephen dares not look away. He looks so…happy.

The thought alone brings a giant smile to his lips, one he cannot get rid of even as they make a final round in the flight area and land back on the plateau.

“Well, that was fun,” Tony grins as they’re joined by the two ecstatic teens.

“This was the BEST idea, ever!” Peter agrees, eyes wildly looking between Tony and Stephen as if watching a tennis match.

“Yeah! Too bad that old guy didn’t let us land the balloon, too,” Ned pouts.

“Uhhh…if you would have landed the thing the same way you were piloting it, I don’t think you can blame him for that. I could almost hear him praying when he let you take over,” Tony teases them.

“NAH-UH!” Peter argues of course. “It would have been fine!”

“Sure,” Tony placates them, pursing his lips to hide the grin.

“It would!”

“We believe you. Right?”

“Why of course. It would have made for a spectacular landing. Nothing short of the Hindenburg kind,” Stephen joins in the teasing match, making Peter groan.

“Hindenburg wasn’t a hot-air balloon,” Peter pouts.

“Which is a shame, really,” Tony comments, leading the group over to the souvenir stands. “It wouldn’t have burnt down if it had been just an air-filled balloon.”

“It wouldn’t have burnt down if it hadn’t ran into bad weather,” Stephen points out.

“And if the hydrogen hadn’t leaked out.”

“Or if they hadn’t grounded the whole thing with those wet ropes.”

“Someone knows their Hindenburg,” Tony smirks. “Shouldn’t expect any less from a fellow Pi-remembering geek. But seriously, building an aluminum construct and then filling it with hydrogen of all things, that’s just asking for trouble.”

“History is filled with cases of human stupidity, which is what makes it so fascinating.”

“Fascinating in not the word,” Peter mumbles.

“Don’t mind him, he’s got a History exam incoming and he hates it,” Tony explains. “But I agree, fascinating is really not the word. More like annoying.”

“I suppose…then again, if our annoyingly stupid ancestors weren’t prone to make such obvious mistakes, human society would be developing at a snail’s pace. Learning from mistakes and adapting is what has gotten us this far. When you think about it, you only know aluminum construct plus hydrogen plus bad weather is a bad idea because of Hindenburg.”

“Uh, no. I know that because I have a brain, thank you very much.”

“If you think so,” Stephen shrugs, smirking.

“Are you doubting my genius?”

“And if I am?”

“Pffft. Then you’re not getting this sick souvenir for a gift,” Tony sticks out his tongue at him and picks up the cute-sized hot-air balloon off the souvenir shop table.

“Oh no…what am I going to do without it?” Stephen overplays the horror, earning a round of giggles.

Needless to say, they all get a souvenir in the end and move onto snacks.

They grab a hot dog and watch the still ascending and flying balloons until the sun begins to set. Stephen portals Peter and Ned home and joins Tony by the snack shop.

“Seriously? A milkshake?” he cringes at the gigantic cup Tony picks up.

“Don’t worry, got you an herbal lemonade,” Tony smiles, offering him a smaller cup with his other hand. “Didn’t ask what the herbs were so…yolo it.”

He takes it with a scoff. “You’re spending too much time with Peter…starting to talk in memes instead of full sentences. Old memes, at that.”

“Oldies but goodies.”

“Are you saying memes are like music?” he squints at him, taking a test sip of the lemonade. Not bad…for an herbal beverage bought at a questionable fizzy drinks stand.

“Ohhh yes they are. Even better, they’re like whiskey. The older they get, the better they are.”

“That’s so not how it works.”

“Are you going to listen to your meme heretic of a brain or me, the meme genius?”

“Is that another one of your self-proclaimed titles? Hm. You trying to top Daenerys?”

“I would most definitely top Daenerys, there’s no question about it. Better question is, who wouldn’t I top in Westeros,” Tony gives him a wicked smile and Stephen does not almost choke on the lemonade. Nope.

“Somehow I don’t think we’re both talking about the same thing here.”

“And you’d be right. The ancient and ever elusive question of toppings is as old as human kind and pizza.”

“Oh we are so not talking about the same thing.”

“Mmmmhmm,” Tony nods, sipping the milkshake with the grin turning even wider.

That spiraled into a completely different dimension of a talk real quick. And made his heart beat a whole lot faster, too. If Tony wants to play the flirty game, he can definitely indulge him. “Well, it’s not such an elusive question when it comes to me, Doctor Stark,” he wiggles his eyebrows and snatches the milkshake out of Tony’s hands, stealing a sip.

“Reaaaaally, Doctor Strange,” Tony replies with a pout after giving himself a couple seconds to reboot.

“Always. On. Top,” he spells out and hands him the shake back, his own grin growing.

Tony takes a long sip, his sparkly eyes never leaving his. “Noted. Now, let’s look for something that will pass for a dangerous magical relic!”

Stephen laughs and follows him. “Here I thought you wanted to stay out of our magical prank war.”

“I’m staying out of it, alright. Doesn’t mean I can’t contribute with…research. I do happen to know a couple of Wong’s weaknesses not to mention I posses a particular set of skills that makes me a nightmare for Beyonce loving wizards such as him,” he mimics Liam Neeson’s voice and that’s where Stephen knows Wong’s going down. “Besides…Peter might have plans next week…again…so we have to keep Wong busy.”

“And when you say Peter…”

“…I really mean I have plans, yes. You’ve got me, Sherlock. This has been my scheme all along! Next week, I’m thinking Oktoberfest.”

“Oktoberfest. I have never imagined you to be a beer drinker,” Stephen squints at Tony.

“I’m not. But when in Oktoberfest, do as the Oktoberfest does…or something,” he grins. “It’ll be fun…overpriced beers, dreadful German folk music, oh and we can mingle in with the locals, wearing those Bavarian folk costume thingies…since you’re obviously into dressing up, I’ll join in.”

He chuckles, imagining just how ridiculous the two of them would look in that get-up. “Oktoberfest…very well. It’s a d - ”

A date. It’s a date. A date. This is a date, too. They’ve been on a date this whole time and he’s just now figuring it out?!

“Got me again,” Tony stifles a laugh when he spots his stunned expression. “You’re really channeling your inner Sherlock today, I’m impressed. Was actually worried I’d have to do something radically obnoxious like…spray-paint all the balloons with ‘IT’S A DATE’…in capital letters. Or have the announcer guy shout it across the field. Or use fireworks to write it all over the skies but nope. You’re as perceptive as ever, Doc,” he smiles at him and it might just be the last straw for Stephen’s brain.

“I’m an idiot,” he blurts out, making Tony laugh.

“Nah. Theset-up was too good for our own good. Pretending it was all Peter’s idea – which it kinda was by the way, the kid is an absolute google machine and somehow managed to give me like ten different October events we could go to before FRIDAY even fired up her search engines. Then the whole theatre about the UN this morning – that meeting got cancelled by the way…but I enjoyed cursing all about it anyway. Bringing Peter and Ned along…it wasn’t all that easy to catch onto.”

“So…it’s a date,” he repeats, trying to wrap his misfiring mind around the concept still.

“Yep. If…you want it to be?” Tony frowns a little, the uncertain expression immediately finding its place among those Stephen has sworn to never ever have to see on Tony’s face twice.

“If I…if I want it to be?! Yes. That’s a yes. Yes I do. If I knew that’s what it was this whole time, I would be doing so much better than this PG rated crap,” he chuckles, echoing Tony’s words from way back when.

“Right,” Tony nods, the beaming smile still on. “Well, we discussed topping, so not all was lost.”

“Oh we would not have been only discussing it.”

“I bet…so uh…this is usually the part where aliens from outer space or dimensions come crashing down on our heads.”

They look up as if expecting the next big crises to literally fall on their heads – then again, Bruce kinda did that so nobody can blame them.

“Huh. Nothing?”

“Suspicious. Ask FRIDAY to be sure.”

“Fri?”

I am not aware of any disturbances in the Force, Master,” comes her reply, making them both cringe.

“Don’t…just don’t.”

“Peter’s science club again?”

“Yep.”

“Hm. We can always extend the magical prank wars onto the kids,” he suggests.

“That’s…not an entirely bad idea. We can go over that later. Now…,” Tony’s smile shrinks into a simple, content upward tug of lips as he steps towards Stephen, “…are we gonna tempt fates and assume there’s no imminent villain incoming?”

Stephen looks down into Tony’s hesitant eyes and for once, his brain finally decides to shut up and stop spinning. “Let them come, I will throw them into the Dark Dimension faster than they can say Dormam - ”

The sentence melts away into Tony’s lips as they meet half-way and the world might as well be ending around them and Stephen wouldn’t care one bit.

Aliens, inter-dimensional invaders, gnomes, HYDRA…nothing matters. Nothing but the man he wraps his hands around into a warm embrace and continues exchanging chaste – and not so chaste – kisses in the middle of the crowded shopping area.

Everything is just…right. After all this time, everything feels right.

The stupid smiles they keep sending each other as they embark on to find the next dangerous magical relic. The lingering taste of the banana milkshake on his tongue and lips. The happily fluttering Cloak around his shoulders and the gentle hand wrapped in his the entire time until they part back in New York in front of the Compound with a kiss good-night.

When he returns to the Sanctum that night, Wong takes just one look at Stephen’s gob smacked, still stupidly smiling expression and doesn’t even find it in him to give him crap about the bogus relic.

“Ah hell,” Wong curses and whips up his phone. “Happy? We totally lost all the bets. Yes. Uhuh. Just now. No way, I’m not betting on that! There are some things I really don’t need to know! And I’m kinda broke now…damn you Rhodey,” he finishes the call with a content smile anyway and wraps a hand around Stephen, steering him up the stairs. “Come on you crazy wizard, it’s nap time. I’ll give you the scorching glare and lesson when your brain is actually functioning.”

“Hm,” is all Stephen manages and lets Wong guide him to his room.

Chapter Text

“I’m pretty sure somebody has already debunked this,” Tony sits down on the makeshift bench next to him, squinting at the fireball rising from the lake and disappearing in the air above to the mad cheering of the hundreds of onlookers around them. “Here,” he hands him a paper cup of tea.

“It’s supposedly got something to do with gas,” Stephen shrugs and takes the warm offering. He didn’t really bother investigating the phenomenon. It just looked pretty so here they are by the Mekong River to investigate.

Their third cover name for dating. Wong gives him a stink eye anyway, no matter how professional their excuse sounds these days.

Supposedly is the right word. The person behind that theory has probably never seen gas in his entire life,” he scoffs.

“Well, it’s not like you can actually see gas.”

“Smartass.”

“So…what’s your explanation, Sherlock?” Stephen shoots back, gaze following another fireball rise and disappear.

Tony smirks, his sparkling eyes turning to him. “Magic.”

“Uhhhhh, no. I don’t think so. You don’t think so either, Mr. Scienceman.”

“Why not? I’ve seen you do some pretty funky stuff before.”

“So, naturally, your conclusion is that a sorcerer dived to the bottom of the lake and is now shooting up magical fireballs…just for fun.”

“Yep.”

“And he does it every day.”

“Sure. Probably got nothing better to do.”

“All year long.”

“If Wong can spend most of the day practicing the ‘Single ladies’ dance in the library then this would not surprise me in the least.”

That’s….actually a disturbing idea. He’s going to have to line up all the sorcerers and subtly investigate this not-so-unlikely possibility now. He can’t have sorcerers diving into lakes and creating fake natural phenomena in their free time to confuse the muggles.

“Wait…don’t tell me you’ve smuggled FRIDAY into Kamar-Taj. Again,” he narrows his eyes at Tony.

“Didn’t have to. Turns out Karen is just as capable in capturing compromising material in the supersecret corners of Hogwarts.”

“Karen. Hm. So in other words, we’ve got a spider security problem is what you’re saying?”

“Don’t we all? You think Peter is respecting ‘restricted areas’ in the Compound?”

“Of course he’s not. You label them ‘Restricted area – stay out…especially you, Peter!’. That’s like an open invitation.”

Tony rolls his eyes and chuckles. “Yeah. Sometimes I forget what being a teenager is like…it has been a long, loooong time ago, after all.”

“Indeed,” he smirks, trying not to laugh at Tony’s obnoxiously offended expression.

“You better shut it, Sir Grayhairs…or that’s going to be your new superhero name.”

“Pfft. Those are badass silver locks of beauty and you love them so please. I’m already Doctor Wizard and Beerwitch, one more ridiculous nickname is not going to make a difference.”

“Hm,” Tony smiles and runs his nimble fingers through the strain of his gray hair. “They’re not ridiculous, they’re true. You are a wizard and a doctor and your beer trick was a hit at Oktoberfest.”

“I could tell by the murderous glares the shopkeepers were sending my way. Seriously though, ten euros for half a pint? That’s absurd.”

“It’s a cashgrab fest. Like any other commercial event. Speaking of which…we are totally having a Halloween party in the Sanctum.”

“Not a chance.”

“Spooky décor, costumes and everything. The house is already haunted so it’s perfect.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Good. It’s a date then.”

Stephen sighs, surrendering to the soothing fingers combing through his hair. “Wong is going to throw a fit.”

“He’s the one who suggested it,” Tony grins.

“Well, so much for the pranking ceasefire.”

“Please don’t. Vision got stuck in the mirror dimension three times when you turned the Sanctum into a pranking battlefield. Let there be peace.”

“Fine. But just because you’re asking so nicely,” he hums.

“Oh I can be very nice, alright? But first, I’m investigating this nonsense,” Tony exclaims in a determined voice and gets up, making Stephen whine just a tiny bit at the sudden loss of warmth.

“If you find a sorcerer down there, I’m so done,” he puts his hands up and watches Tony suit up.

“If I find a gas leak down there, I’m done. But what wouldn’t I do for science?”

“I have a few things in mind you might want to do for science later tonight,” he grins, wiggling his eyebrows.

Tony laughs, the suit taking over. “Sounds like a plan, Doctor Wizard,” he gives him a thumbs up and flies up, bolting towards the lake to do some debunking.

 


 

With Tony’s October plans all done, Stephen actually finds himself busy training in Kamar-Taj for a while. It’s the first time since they got together that they go a whole week without so much as a phone call. Or it feels like it anyway.

After two days spent meditating, he nearly looses all his acquired Zen by being worried about how Tony’s going to react…and a little bit by the simple fact that he misses the man. But of course when he makes the call it turns out Tony still thinks it’s Monday morning because he’s in the middle of his usual inventing frenzy.

Washing all his worries away and smiling like a mad teenager throughout the banter-y call, he can’t help but realize they are stupidly compatible in this regard. They make plans for lunch tomorrow after yet another UN meeting which Tony plans on playing minesweeper through and Stephen finally gets some rest after the crazy week.

In hindsight, he really didn’t know what he expected to walk into after portalling to the Compound at noon the next day; the atmosphere in there is quite chilly these days and it has nothing to do with winter slowly but surely creeping in – more so with the Rogues creeping around.

Clint decided not to re-apply for the team and retired completely – good for him – and the Insect Man that Stephen still doesn’t care to remember the name of did sign the new Accords but doesn’t want to be part of the main team roster, preferring to be an emergency contact only.

So both are out of the picture and out of the Compound.

Wilson started spending more time with Barnes than Rogers, which surprisingly resulted in both of them chilling the fuck out about the whole Accords deal – present and past. Hell, Barnes even thoroughly apologized to Tony so the man might or might not have gone to the bottom of Stephen’s “Dark Dimension tourist volunteers” list after that. All in all, the two mostly keep to themselves – although Peter had taken it upon himself to engage them in the team activities and training, because in his own words – “they’re cool”. 

And whoever gets Peter’s seal of approval clearly cannot be a lost cause.

But naturally, the remaining Rogues are quite enough to compensate for all of them in terms of drama.

Maximoff agreed to take the lessons in Kamar-Taj, but didn’t look at all hyped about it…so Stephen is not at all “hyped” about her chances of actually making it through. If she survives the next week with Wong, then maybe there’s a chance for her.

If she continues to throw offended tantrums like she does in the Compound on daily basis, Wong has a fifty percent chance of dropping her on Mount Everest and going back to his Beyoncé dance practice within ten minutes of the training. And fifty percent chance to burn her to dust with his glare alone.

Stephen likes those chances.

And then there’s Rogers and Romanoff. That’s where Stephen gets lost when it comes to dynamics. Wanda at least has a major motivation in Vision to stop being a bitchy teenager and grow up. Their motivation though is a mystery, if not a complete myth.

Romanoff appears to do whatever the hell she wants. Why she’s doing what she’s doing is anybody’s guess at this point. First supporting the Accords, then not supporting the Accords…first warming up to one side of the room, then slithering to the other. Her allegiance is changing more often than the sides the wind is blowing to.

He doesn’t trust the nose between her eyes let alone anything that spills out of her mouth. For all Stephen knows, she is a bodysnatcher mingling with humanity and waiting for an opportune moment to eat everyone’s brains…or whatever bodysnatchers do. How anyone managed to be part of a team with her without nervously looking over their shoulder, watching out for her backstabbing knives is beyond Stephen’s comprehension.

So if she’s all about apologizing and accepting whatever fate the UN has in store for these days, Stephen doesn’t believe it for a second. Clearly, that attitude can change within hours and he’s more than ready to accommodate the change with first class tickets to the Dark Dimension.

Oh and Rogers? He might be using those tickets any second now, because the scene Stephen walked into looks more like a prelude to a fight than a talk.

He stops a few feet into the common room, eyes flicking between the fuming supersoldier and Tony, neither alerting to his presence. Unlike Peter, who’s fidgeting in the corner behind Tony and sends him a look of concern the second Stephen walks through the doors.

“What don’t you understand? It’s unacceptable,” Rogers spits out, trying really hard to sound composed.

Tony rolls his eyes and the hands he has folded across his chest tighten closer to his body. His face might be the epitome of nonchalance – or annoyance if one looks closely enough – but his body language speaks loud and clear of the defense mode he’s channeling.

“You know what’s unacceptable? Smashing a mahogany table with your fist and sending the splinters flying into everyone’s faces. The poor table was young and innocent and most definitely didn’t deserve it,” Tony quips because of course he doesn’t tune down on the sass even when facing a volatile mass of muscles.

“Can you take this seriously for one second?” he hisses, taking a menacing step forward.

While Stephen narrows his eyes at the man and Peter slips ever so closer to Tony, the engineer only straightens, not even flinching away from the advancing supersoldier. Sure, after fighting Thanos it’s hard to find someone as tiny as Rogers threatening, but if the movement and overall mood stirs an all too vivid memory of Siberia for Stephen, he can only wonder what sort of vibranium resolve makes Tony calmly stand his ground like this.

Somehow, it’s Romanoff – the only other person present – that steps in first. “Steve,” she warns, because she is one of the few people Stephen knows, that can say just one word but mean an entire sentence by it. Or in this case – a threat. “He is being serious. You didn’t have to smash that table,” she adds.

He has no idea what happened in the meeting that made Rogers finish off a table, but he one hundred percent approves of what Romanoff just said. And the way she made it sound - like she’s scolding a naughty kid. Stephen approves…but the spy is not moving anywhere down his list just because of one enjoyable comeback.

Rogers takes a breath – or five – to calm down a bit and looks behind him at Romanoff. “You’re right. I didn’t have to do that. But I was running out of ways to make them listen to what I had to say.”

“Well, I can confirm that violence is definitely one way to make people listen. Funny how that’s also a reason you were part of the meeting in the first place, so you can rest assured that everyone listened to that message very clearly. And if you thought their proposal today was somehow unacceptable, I can’t imagine what or who you’re going to smash tomorrow when they’re done making a decision that’s totally going to be made based on your today’s performance,” Tony sighs and though the words have some bite to them, it seems like he dreads the results more than anyone.

Definitely more than the unconvinced looking Rogers.

“They cannot take anybody’s freedom away from them, no matter how many countries they represent. Unless you’re telling me this is the kind of world we are living in right now?”

“Nobody’s taking away your or anybody’s fr…did you go to the same meeting as me? I’m confused now.”

“You can’t expect me to idly stand here while - ”

“Oh but I can!” Tony glares at him and he makes a step forward now. “I can and I do expect you to for once in your life behave in a way that doesn’t defy every bit of common sense in the room! You think that you’re right about everything, well you can go on thinking that after you let 117 countries decide if you’re gonna do it in a jail cell for the rest of your life or not! You broke the law and you need to suck it up and accept responsibility for it. Because nobody wants to live in a world where you can break the laws left and right and always get away with it! Especially if you’re supposed to be part of a team that’s protecting this planet! Protecting the planet and serving as a role model for kids around said planet while being an outlaw doesn’t go very well together…unless you’re Deadpool, which you’re not.”

“I also haven’t broken any laws! And if freedom of speech is against the law then the law is wr - ”

Stephen’s heard enough…enough to almost fall asleep against the doorframe.

“Sorry. My hand just…slipped.”

Tony and Romanoff just stare at the closing portal on the floor that Rogers disappeared into seconds ago, while Peter flails in the background with whispered cheers of “Yisss, magic! Yeeeeet him away!”

He has no doubt that Tony would have beaten the man into the ground with solid arguments…in an hour or two…but Stephen has plans tonight that don’t involve a brainless muscle man stuck in the past…and whatever distorted form of reality he thinks he’s living in. So yes. His hand just…slipped.

His gaze averts to Romanoff, expecting her to bolt toward him any moment to try 360 spin him into the ground while choking him with her thighs. Her skillset in this regard is no joke. And neither is his skillset when it comes to more portals just slipping out of his hands.

It’s surprising enough then, when she just gives him a quizzical look, shrugs and walks away to sit on the sofa nearby.

Still not moving down his list though.

“Please tell me that was not a one-way portal to the Dark Dimension,” Tony blurts out, looking up at him.

“Please tell me that is was,” Peter jumps in next to Tony with a beaming grin.

“It was a one-way portal…”

“Yes!” Peter cheers.

“…but! Not to the Dark Dimension.”

“Good,” Tony sighs and sends the now thoroughly disappointed Peter a tiny glare. “I would really hate to explain that to the UN. Not to mention Fury.”

“Fury. Fury would have a problem with that?” he asks, fully doubting the scenario. He might not know the man well enough to judge just yet, but when Stephen suggested accidentally sinking the Raft with Ross still in it that one time, all Fury argued with was: “Naaah. Too much paperwork around all that. I’m thinkin’ sharks.”

“He sure would. You know how much paperwork would that be?!” Welp. “And after he had to explain why the Compound was riddled with Hulk-fist shaped holes in the floor, the walls and the courtyard, he was very clear about no more paperwork until after Christmas.”

“Hm. You can always tell him that I can send him to the Dark Dimension too. Wonder how much paperwork would that be.”

Tony chuckles and in a few lazy strides he walks up to him and Stephen lets him snuggle in for a hug. “Where did you send him?”

“Nowhere. Yet.”

“Uuuuuuuugh,” Tony groans into his shoulder. “’S one of those ‘falling forever until you open the exit’ kinda portals?! I hate those. I really hate those even exist!”

“Sorry.”

“No you’re not.”

“I’m really not, no.”

“Thanks for the save,” he breaths out and pulls back with a grin. “Although I could have gone a few more rounds with him still.”

“Oh I was saving our lunch date, not you, douchebag.”

“Oh were you now, asshole? Because I think you really just wanted to drop him into a portal so bad for months that you’ll make any excuse now.”

“You know me well,” he smiles mischievously.

“Great minds think alike,” Tony shrugs and plants a simple, gentle kiss to the side of his mouth.

“Right. Aaaaand that would be my queue to go to the lab,” Peter backtracks into the corner to pick up his schoolbag and slips out of the room like the nimble spider he is.

“Which leaves us with just one more spider in the room,” Stephen muses out loud…loud enough for said spider to hear.

Romanoff looks up from her phone, one eyebrow raised in challenge – which Stephen meets with one of his own. Few seconds into it, she appears to give up and focuses back down on the phone.

He’s almost disappointed.

“Good…whatever that was about…anyway!” Tony jumps back and clasps his hands. “Are we going or what? I’m starving here!”

“Onwards then,” he grins. “Where do you want me to drop Rogers off to? Before I accidentally forget about him.”

“Um…”

“Give him a couple more hours…to clear his head,” Romanoff chips in without looking up.

“I’m afraid a few more hours falling in-between dimensions is not going to help him find his lost brain.”

Romanoff gives him one of those deadly serious stares and without missing a beat deadpans with: “It’s worth a try.”

Okay. Moving the black spider just a liiiiittle down the list then. For now.

He exchanges an understanding nod with her and lets Tony drag him out of the room and off to their rescued lunch date.

Chapter Text

“No. Absofuckinglutely no. Hell no,” Tony glares at him, vehemently shaking his head.

“It’s an annual thing.”

“I don’t care. Nope.”

“It has to be done,” Stephen continues patiently.

“Make someone else do it then! We dealt with this shit last year!”

“We sure did. And we have to do it again.”

“Why?”

“It’s our responsibility as protectors of this dimension, douchebag.”

“Then delegate it to someone, you’re the Supreme Asshole after all!”

“This is golden,” Wong mumbles from the sofa, watching their exchange with an all too content expression.

“But…it’s so much fun!” Peter protests, taking the opportunity to pitch in but it’s all he manages to say before Tony shuts him up with a single look.

“Those fucking gnomes can prank the entire northern hemisphere for all I care, we are not dealing with their shenanigans again! There are only so many buildings crumbling on top of our heads that I am comfortable with in one lifetime! Fun is most definitely not the word, Peter.”

“There’ll be no more crumbling buildings, love. I promise. We are extremely ready this time around, I mean I had an entire year worth of training so there is no way the gnomes are catching me by surprise this time. Even if, you perfected your armor to a point it can withstand an entire moon crumbling down on you so I am not worried,” Stephen adds with a tiny smirk, but frowns at Tony’s stunned expression.

For a second there he’s afraid his little quip brought back some extremely unwanted memories of Titan – but they’ve been positively battling those memories exactly with this kind of banter these past few months, so it can’t be it.

“Uhhh…Tony?”

“Hm? What? Oh…right. Of course…training, experience, bestest armor ever, I’m not doubting we can take the traps on, alright?” he obviously restarts his brain and dives back into rambling. “I’m just not too keen on spending another Christmas on the battlefield.”

“Did you just quote Home Alone?” Peter widens his eyes at Tony.

“Nope,” Tony frowns, avoiding Peter’s stare. “T’was Home Alone 2,” he mumbles, earning a choked laugh from the teen.

“I can’t delegate it to anyone else,” Stephen gets back to the point. “It’s too difficult and requires very particular set of skills.”

“An that’s Taken!” Peter points an accusative finger at him.

“Someone ban the TV from the kid,” Stephen sighs, smiling though. “Anyway, it has to be me and Wong. You don’t have to come with me, Tony.”

As he expected, that gets an insta-180 reaction from the engineer. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, Beerwitch! If you’re going then I’m going, end of story. I’d just…preferred for nobody to go. Goddamn gnomes,” he ends in a mere whisper and has clearly surrendered to their newest mission.

“It’s settled then. Tomorrow bright and early. Now where’s that pizza?!” Wong gets up and stomps out of the Sanctum’s library and down the stairs, followed by an excited spider yelling “Yisss! Pizza!”.

“I’m sorry,” Stephen exhales, voice turning soft. “I know you’re not at all sold on this…especially after what happened last year, but - ”

“But you gotta do it. I know,” Tony crosses his arms and pouts. “Was worth a try anyway,” he shrugs.

“You secretly love arguing with me, don’t you?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Tony holds back the smile and looks away. “Besides, we don’t argue. We banter.”

“Same thing.”

“No it’s not.”

“Might as well be.”

“No, it might as well not. You need brains and wits to banter. And one thousand percent more brains and wits to banter with me,” he grins, pointing at himself like the diva he is.

“You truly know how to flatter a man,” Stephen chuckles and makes the final step toward Tony, falling into a gentle embrace.

It’s their thing now, apparently. They just…gravitate to each other, sometimes without even realizing it, until they find themselves in each other’s arms like this. Years of touch-starvation on both their sides can do that…according to Bruce I’m the wrong doctor for this Banner.

Not that Stephen’s complaining. In fact, nothing soothes his nerves more than this simple contact. Everything’s just right in the world when they’re like this. There’s the kissing - gentle and wild and there’s the sex – gentle and wild, but somehow it all pales in comparison to a mere hug.

Stephen’s a sappy cuddler and now he knows it.

“It’s not flattery, it’s the truth,” Tony huffs against his neck.

“I knew it! You were after my sexy brain since the beginning.”

“I sure as hell was! I told you I was! Everything else is…just a big bonus,” Stephen can feel Tony’s smirk widening just then. And it’s not the only thing he feels.

“And why, pray tell did you squeeze my ass at the word big?”

Tony leans away just enough to let Stephen in on the shit-eating grin he’s sporting. “Because I like big butts and I cannot lie?” he chants, swaying his hips teasingly with the rhythm.

“Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-Lot, 1992 album Mack Daddy. You will have to try harder if you want to catch me off guard.”

“I’m not trying to do that. I very much enjoy your inner music wiki.”

“FRIDAY enjoys it the most, because you’re not bothering her with google-searching albums anymore.”

“See? Told you we’re an absolute power couple,” Tony smiles and falls back into the hug with a content sigh.

“Hmmm. And I meant it, I really am sorry. Bringing up the gnomes and Titan in one conversation was bad manners,” Stephen cringes, recalling the suspicious expression he still can’t quite place when it comes to Tony.

“S’kay. I didn’t mind.”

“You don’t have to lie to…make me feel better or whatever, you know? The face you made was screaming anything but ‘I don’t mind’.”

Tony stiffens at that, the silence that suddenly settles between them feeling heavy and Stephen’s brain goes into overdrive within seconds as a result.

They both suck at communicating – something they agreed on very early into their relationship – so they promised each other to always try and talk about everything they would usually keep bottled up for whatever reason. Not just in regards to them, just everything in general. No matter how serious or ridiculous it would be. And so far it worked.

Maybe this time Stephen’s shitty brain to mouth filter stumbled into something more serious than their simple rule of talk could take.

“It’s…not what you think,” Tony blurts out with enough hesitance to make Stephen’s brain double the whirring speed. Probably sensing his inner freaking out, he pulls away a little, keeping a hold of his shoulders, waiting until Stephen opens his eyes and holds his...nervous gaze. "It's reaaaally not what you think.”

“What is it then?” he asks, the worry melting into confusion. Not that it matters, because all his coherent thoughts are erased by the radiant blush that creeps up Tony’s face just then.

“It’s…stupid. Seriously stupid,” Tony looks down, inspecting his shoes with great interest. He fidgets for a minute and after he realizes that Stephen isn’t going to speak up, waiting for him to continue, he sighs and blinks back up at him. “You uhhh…you just…you called me love and my brain decided to short-circuit at that so I might or might not have completely tuned out the rest of what you were saying so I could promptly have an inner freak-out about it. Whatever expression you saw just then had very little to do with Titan or the gnomes and a lot more to do with the blue screen of death I was experiencing.”

Oh.

Did he call him that? Yes…yes he did. It just…slipped. Stephen’s been doing a lot of slipping lately, mainly in regards to Rogers and he has absolutely no regrets. Especially not in this case. He can’t blame Tony for being surprised by the endearment, since their “endearments” are usually anything but endearing.

They really do love to banter so in that spirit, they call each other all sorts of things. Ranging from their now trademark douchebag/asshole to ridiculous nicknames like Bitchwitch or Mr. Raving Hazelballs…Stephen’s very proud of that one. No dears, no honeys, no sugerplums – that’s just not their thing.

Love on the other hand…

Stephen stares at the flustered man, lips slowly curving into a smile. “Are you saying your genius brain is running on Windows? You might want to think about upgrading to something less blue screen of death prone then, love,” he says while stopping his own brain from doing the same kind of reboot.

And there’s that momentarily stunned expression again, one that really has nothing whatsoever to do with Titan or the gnomes or other traumatic events…such as witnessing Wong dancing in the library in his pajamas.

“There! You did it again!” Tony blurts out, hands flailing.

“I suppose I did, love,” he grins.

“And now you’re just making fun of me,” Tony pouts, narrowing his eyes at Stephen.

“I’m not. I’m just really, really beginning to enjoy calling you that. Love,” he slowly spells it out. “Yes…might be my new favorite. Right after douchebag, of course.”

“Asshole,” Tony sticks his tongue out at him and spins around on his heels, stomping a few feet toward the exit.

Hearing no animosity in the word – as always – Stephen’s grin softens and since he’d already admitted to being a hopeless sap, he just goes along with it. “I love you…so it’s rather fitting to call you that. My brain seems to think so and you do love my brain after all. That and my big butt…which is debatable.”

Tony comes to a halt, taking a moment to process what Stephen’s just said. When he turns around, he’s mirroring Stephen’s fond smile and his eyes are positively sparkling now. “What exactly is debatable about it? That I love it? I do. That it’s big? Well, amore mio, I hate to break it to you but your ass is all kinds of big and I love it,” he beams, walking back to him with renewed purpose. “And your hands, I definitely love those,” he takes them into his own, looking at them with enough love he almost didn’t even have to say it out loud. “Not to mention your stupidly lovable hair,” he slips one hand into Stephen’s hair just behind his ears, smoothing them over and then sliding his hand to his cheek, thumb running across Stephen’s now closed eyelid. “And equally lovable eyes…that you keep on changing colors of with magic.”

Stephen sighs, clearing the ever-growing lump in his throat. “As I said, it’s a condition called - ”

“Yeah yeah yeah, medical condition, got it. Whatever. It’s magic. You’re never making me believe otherwise.”

“Fine,” Stephen opens his eyes and all but melts into Tony’s oh so gentle touch. “So what you’re saying is…”

“Well…if my highly scientific calculations are correct – which shouldn’t even be a question, ever – all the numbers and figures…pulling the puzzles apart…”

“Hmm, Scientist by Coldplay, 2002 A Rush of Blood to the Head.”

“…yes, thank you my lovely music wiki, but I was aiming for more of a warmplay if you know what I mean,” Tony rolls his eyes, shaking his head. “All the figures in Pi multiplied and divided, added, subtracted then multiplied again…it would appear that the entirety of my being is in love with the entirety of yours.”

Stephen raises his eyebrows, the smile now feeling like something so permanent nothing will ever be able to erase it off his face. “That…sounds like quite the scientific breakthrough there, Doctor Stark. Are you sure your brain is qualified enough to make such a daring thesis?”

Tony shrugs, fingers now tracing Stephen’s lips. “I wouldn’t worry too much, Doctor Strange. I’m sure what my brain misses out on, your overqualified hands can amend.”

He could argue that his hands hadn’t been overqualified for anything in years now, but that’s very difficult to do when one Tony Stark is holding onto them like they had molded the universe itself.

Besides, they don’t argue. They banter. And when they’re done bantering…

Before Stephen can follow through with his thought process and kiss Tony senseless, preferably for the rest of the night – or forever, Tony’s phone goes off. Loudly. With the Imperial march theme of all things.

“Ughhh, I’m gonna kill the man,” Tony groans, bouncing his head against Stephen’s chest a few times before taking the phone out of his pocket and putting the call on speakers. “I swear to God, Fury, if you’re not dying right now or the Earth isn’t about to be wiped out in the next ten minutes, I wil - ”

Stark?! Would you mind explainin’ to me why Rogers dropped his ass down in my office out of fucking nowhere an hour ago saying he’s been falling in space for days?!

“Nope!” Tony clicks the end call and throws the phone on the armchair nearby as if it’s on fire. “You know anything about that, Doctor Wizard?”

“No idea whatsoever, Doctor Stank,” Stephen smirks.

“Good. Means we can get back to the making out, then the pizza and then go destroy some magical traps! And then…then we’re staying in bed until New Year’s Eve, hiding from Fury’s fury.”

“I’m amenable to that plan,” he nods and for once in their life, everything goes according to the plan.