This was fine. It was fine, he told himself taking another sip of his virgin Cosmopolitan. Yes, it was cranberry juice for the vitamins, yes it was an odd choice but easily disguised to look alcoholic in appearance. No, he did not want to think about the look the bartender had given him when he'd essentially ordered an Italian Soda in a martini glass. Or the way some of the guests had given him a knowing smirk as if they knew he just couldn't stop himself from drinking.
He didn't much care what they thought though. He was Tony freaking Stark and even if he did care, even if he was so very tired of it all, it didn't matter because the press would write what they wanted about him. Of course, Pepper would issue a take down order and of course they'd print a retraction, one so small you'd have to go hunting for it with a magnifying glass, but the damage would be done and he would have gained nothing in his efforts to defend himself.
"Tony." Pepper sighed as she slid a soft hand around his waist, joining him in the private spot he'd found, away from the other guests. "Are you having a good time?"
"Of course Pep. Why wouldn't I be?" He said, flashing her his brightest smile.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because you're here alone hiding from everyone."
"Just waiting on you Pepp. You know I didn't want to come and I hardly ever see you anymore."
"So you're pouting." She sighed, drawing her hand away from him and lifting the fluted glass of champagne to her lips.
"I'm not pouting." He replied, keeping his tone even. God, was she ever not condescending to him or treating him like a spoiled child? "I'm stating a fact."
With a long suffering sigh Tony was certain she practiced in the mirror just for him, she looked at him with irritation. "I've already explained that and you know how busy I am as CEO of Stark Industries." She reminded him with the not so subtle message that it was somehow his fault. As if he hadn't done her a huge goddamn favour by putting a golden goose egg in her lap by promoting her from her position as a lowly accountant to his personal assistant to CEO in less than half the time it should have taken her, if ever, to reach that level of power.
"I'm not arguing that." He reminded her patiently. "But as CEO, you are able to delegate and take time off. It comes with the job description."
"Just because I can doesn't mean I should Tony." Pepper huffed. "I'm going for a refill. Are you coming?"
"In a minute." He sighed, wondering again just what the hell he was doing here.
"I said I'll be a minute." He repeated, keeping his tone light. "Go, talk to people. I'll join you soon."
He watches her mouth twist in an unhappy frown but then she shrugged with a loud sigh and headed back to the bar before moving off to mingle with a group who caught her attention. He thinks for a moment of just giving in when it suddenly becomes too much and he seeks the first exit he can find to get some air.
He ends up on a balcony alone, taking in the slight summer breeze and the first few stars that are beginning to light the sky. He sighs as he downs the last of his drink, the setting reminding him of all the things that brought him to this moment. Snippets of events and memories come crashing over him and for the next thirty minutes he's reliving the past in vivid colour.
"What's this?" Pepper asks, eyeing the plate with the omelette he just made her as though it's going to bite her.
"Your in-flight meal." He replied, trying to keep his tone light. Trying not to blurt out that he'd had two panic attacks and blacked out at least once in the time he's been gone. The effects of the palladium in his system having become too strong to counter with chlorophyll alone. "Honestly Pepper, where do you think I've been for the past three hours?"
"I didn't think you even knew your way around a kitchen." She smirks as if it's some big joke that Tony Stark has "people" for these things and can't do it himself. As if he hasn't heard that more than a million times already or that he somehow still thinks it's funny.
"Now that's just rude." He replied, letting a little hurt slip into his voice.
"What's going on with you Tony?"
Christ, what does she think? He knows the signs are there, knows she suspects, she hasn't been part of his life for the past decade to not notice a difference in him. Seriously, he gave her control of his company, swore off alcohol, stopped his one night stands... it's like she hasn't noticed any of it, but he knows she has and yet she's said nothing.
But he can't just blurt out now that he's actively dying. She'll freak out and cry and make it about her after she gives him shit for keeping it from her, like it's somehow his fault he'd been kidnapped and forced to live with a magnet in his chest. He can't do that, doesn't want to do that with the time he has left, of which he has no idea how long that might be. He just wants to enjoy his last days and he can admit that's what this is, what prompted him to be reckless and drive that race car which led to Vanko attacking him and... no, he can't say a word about it. His time's up and... he flicks his eyes up to her, she's still waiting.
"I don't want to go home Pepper." He says instead, his gaze drifting out the window, wishing he was in his suit listening to AC/DC and just... flying and forgetting all of this, forgetting for a few hours that his second chance at life had instead only been a cruel delay and a false promise of more. A flicker of time in which he'd been unable to do much for himself or the world at large to atone for all that he'd done before Afghanistan. "At all. Let's go to Venice, you remember Venice. It's a good place to go and just... be healthy."
"Now?" She exclaims, giving him a look as though searching to see if he's been drinking. "We're in a bit of a mess."
"It makes it the perfect time Pepper. As CEO, you're allowed a retreat. A company retreat. Time to recharge your batteries."
"Not everyone runs on batteries Tony."
Her comment hurts more than he can process in the moment but instead of showing it he returns her smile and stares out the window. It doesn't escape his notice that she ignores the omelette and yet he still lets it slide and puts it out of his mind as not important. But he remembers the hurt now and curses under his breath.
Seeing Pepper move to speak with another group, a group he has zero interest in joining, he returns to the bar for another fake Cosmo. This time the bartender makes no comment and offers no reaction and he slips back out to the balcony where he won't be disturbed, the fading light bringing another memory down on his shoulders.
Rhodey's telling him he didn't have to deal with the palladium poisoning alone. As if he hadn't written that report for the government, that he hadn't been helping the military betray him, that he wasn't just hanging around to keep an eye on him for his bosses. He has to laugh at the memory of himself telling Rhodey he can be trusted when it's Rhodes who should be apologizing and begging his forgiveness. Or how even as he knows Tony is suffering from some kind of health problem, he still doesn't trust him and returns the next night and fights him in his spare armour before stabbing him in the back and taking the extra iron man suit without a word.
The memory morphs into Pepper waking up with his Mark IV suit threatening her in their bed, his mind still drowning in fear and darkness while he struggles to shake it off and focus on waking up. He barely hears her as she flees from him, fear and revulsion in her voice while she tells him she's taking the couch.
His pleas for her to stay fall on deaf ears and he's left alone, dealing with a massive panic episode that lasts for another twenty minutes. Two hours it takes him to calm his mind enough to stop himself from leaving the mansion to get booze into his system and not once does she come to check on him. And there's no apology later, and even less concern for his emotional deterioration.
Then she's abducted and all he can think is that he can't let anyone else die because of him. It doesn't matter that he did everything he could to protect them, to protect her and that she left when he needed her the most or that she hates the half of him he created to save his own life. None of that matters as he enlists Rhodey's help and that of a snarky, sullen kid to get her back and save her.
And then, none of that matters because she left him again after Ultron. Not interested in his reasons or why he still has nightmares. She doesn't stick around when the world calls for his head or when he implements relief efforts and Foundation investments to help in Sokovia. She still leaves and doesn't call when his name is cleared over Ultron, running off to Malibu with no indication she would ever be back.
The flood of memories paused as the sounds inside the building grew louder, pulling him back to the present. A signal he'd been long familiar with that indicate the liquor is flowing well and everyone is getting a lot less inhibited and he really wants to leave now.
"So you fought Captain America. In daylight. In front of witnesses." God, Tony groaned. Would these flashbacks ever stop? It couldn't be caused from alcohol, he hasn't touched a drop in years. Okay, maybe not years, but his days of wild parties and drunken tabloid stories of his exploits were long in the past, nearly a decade now. Which didn't really help him as the memory plodded along regardless of whether he wanted it to or not.
Tony sighed. "I had to Pepper. It was part of the agreement I signed with the Accords, and you know Ross was there."
"I can't do this Tony. You promise me you're going to step back, to let other people do the hero thing. Yet you still end up right in the middle of it all, taking centre stage more often than not."
"So what? You're mad because I tried to end things peacefully and failed because Rogers wouldn't listen to reason? That it's my fault this happened, just like half the world is saying?" He can feel his anger rising at the same rate his disbelief had been minutes ago.
Pepper narrowed her eyes at him. "Of course I don't think it's your fault Tony. Rogers is the most stubborn man I've ever met and I've known you longer. It's not about that."
"Then what the hell is it about? Because I'm getting some pretty mixed signals from you."
"I can't compete with Iron Man Tony. I don't love him and I never will. I don't want to make you choose, I won't make you choose. But I can't be in this with you anymore. I'm sorry."
"Then why did you bring up Berlin?"
Pepper shrugged. "I don't know. Why didn't it end in Berlin? Why'd you have to go to Siberia?"
"Because I thought Zemo was going to release more super soldiers like Barnes. Worse than Barnes. I needed to be there to stop that from happening."
" That . That right there is what I'm getting at. You had to stop them. Because you believed Steve wouldn't be enough. So you went alone, with no way back if something happened to you. You just assumed you'd come out of that unharmed, that you're indestructible. But you were wrong and you almost died. I don't understand why you think you can't be hurt, but it's more that you don't care if you are or not."
"I didn't expect that I'd have to defend myself from an ally Pepper!" He practically shouts, exhausted by her constant nagging and her never-ending disapproval, which over the years has come to look exactly like the look he always got from Steve. And in that moment, he has to wonder why it took him so long to see it.
"That's the problem! You never think anything through! You make decisions on the fly and expect the rest of us to just deal with the fallout!"
"So you think letting a nuke fall on New York would've been a better choice? What exactly did you expect me to do in that moment Pepper? Let it happen?"
"You could've called Thor! At least he could have stood a better chance of not dying!"
" God , it's like you never heard me the first time you yelled at me about this! I told you he was too far away. He never would have made in time to stop it from detonating over the city!"
"You don't know that!"
"I do know that! And so did JARVIS! Are you telling me that you know better than JARVIS? Really?"
Tony jerked away from the balcony railing he'd been leaning against, the vividness of the memory strong enough to bring tears to his eyes. His gaze instinctively flicked up to seek Pepper out, to make sure she couldn't see him like this. If he did, he didn't think he'd be able to stop himself from losing it on her.
Downing the last of his drink, he pushed off from the railing and headed inside. The way he was feeling now, he couldn't stand to be here another minute. He had to go, Pepper's wishes be damned. If he didn't leave, he'd make a scene, one he highly doubted wouldn't once and for all destroy the amicable relationship he'd finally forged between himself and Pepper.
He slipped through the room, navigating past the various clusters of guests, smiling and shaking hands as he went. With each group he passed, he moved closer and closer to his destination - the front door and freedom. He silently prayed that Pepper wouldn't notice his absence until he was too far away for her to call him back. He knew she'd be annoyed with him for ditching this little soiree but he was beyond caring at this point.
Something had to have triggered the nightmare onslaught of their history together. In all the years Pepper had been at his side, he had never once seen the toxicity of it so clearly or so vividly.
He'd been aware on a subconscious level that his relationship with Pepper wasn't exactly healthy for some time. Unfortunately, he'd ignored it in favour of blaming the state of their relations on himself and how he always seemed to be the one at fault.
It felt as though it was; like when he'd forget important dates or drink the night before a speech or fail to keep some promise or other... it seemed justified that it was his fault. So it seemed just as justified for him to try to make up for it. Taking her out for dinner, buying her expensive trinkets, whisking her off to some far away location for a weekend of romance. Yet it still took months for him to notice that no matter what he did, everything that went wrong was somehow all his doing and that nothing he did to make up for it ever made a difference. That despite her seeming acceptance of his apologies, she still held back because she was always on alert for the other shoe to drop and he hadn't seen it. He'd been too relieved when she took him back to notice that she never really forgave him anything he did. Or that she never once took responsibility for her own part in their rough patches.
With a grunt of frustration, he shoved the front door open and breathed deeply of the cool night air. The relief he felt at being released from the confines of the party he'd just left were almost staggering. It was almost as though the air inside was somehow thicker and cloying, claustrophobic even, compared with being outside.
A valet pulled his car up to the curb while he was texting Happy to take care of Pepper's ride home. Behind the wheel, the tension that had built up inside him trickled out with each mile he drove, letting his thoughts drift while his shoulders relaxed and the stiffness in his neck lessened. He blinked and the next thing he knew he was parking his car in his garage and riding the elevator to his penthouse.
After Thanos destroyed the Compound, his first act was to ensure he had somewhere to go and had finalized his plans to reacquire the former Stark Tower. After months of intense hard work, it was back in his possession and he'd wasted no time getting his personal touch embedded on every private floor that was once more his.
Lights flickered on as he crossed the floor to his kitchen to retrieve the coffee FRIDAY had waiting for him. The silence in the room stretched, reminding him once again how despite everything he'd sacrificed to keep the world and his friends safe, nothing had changed.
He was still alone. Surrounded by silence, his creations and his wealth and nothing else.
He removed his suit jacket, tossing it to the couch, not caring where it landed as he moved to the wall of windows, loosening his tie as he went, his coffee cradled in his hands. Staring out over the sea of lights, he wondered if any of it had been worth it.
Trying to be a hero in a world of snakes and leeches, his former team no better than the hangers-on from his social circle or the sea of sharks who bided their time, waiting for an opportunity to strike and take him down. Even Pepper, who at one time he'd believed had truly loved him had never shown the kind of compassion and emotional support he'd come to realize that he more than deserved. Not just because of everything he'd accomplished or made better, but as any human deserved, regardless of their past mistakes.
He snorted at himself over his ruminations, his father's words echoing in his mind. Stark men are made of iron Tony, as though saying that somehow made all the lies, all the betrayals and all the disappointments he suffered trivial and unimportant. He was still scowling at his reflection in the window glass when FRIDAY warned him of a visitor at the same time a portal opened on the other side of the room and Stephen Strange stepped through.
Tony arched a brow in the sorcerer's direction, in no mood to deal with whatever had put that look of distress on Strange's face. "Strange. What are you doing here? I thought you didn't have time for the likes of me." He sneered, daring the other man to push him into a fight. His tension was so high he wanted to hit something and Strange made an easy target.
"I've never said anything like that to you." Stephen replied as he approached him.
"Didn't have to." Tony retorted, setting his mug down to glare at him. "Your disappearing act after Thanos spoke volumes and your inability to return a damn phone call was even louder. So if you don't mind, get the hell out of my house and leave me alone."
"I came to apologize."
"For what? Being an arrogant asshole? Why bother Strange? We both know you don't give a damn about me and if you think you're the only one who feels that way, get in line."
"I'm not leaving until we talk."
"What could we possibly have to talk about?" Tony demanded. "I've had a real shitty evening and I don't need you adding to it."
"I know." Strange countered, his voice subdued. "That's why I'm here."
"What?" Tony exclaimed, aborting his walk back to the kitchen to stare at him. "What are you talking about?"
"I know I've been inexcusably rude to you and I've given you no reason to listen to me, but this is important Tony. Could we sit so I can explain?"
Tony had felt a ripple of shock run through him at Strange's use of his first name. The same shock he'd felt when he'd done the same thing back on Titan. After the reversal and after Thanos was gone, he'd been Stark again and all he wanted was to know why. But Stephen hadn't given him a chance to ask, avoiding him and being too busy to return a phone call. He couldn't deny how badly he still wanted an answer but hesitated because it was still Strange , not Stephen and what could he possibly know about his evening?
Tony glared at him from where he still stood, arguing with himself over what to say. "Will you leave after?"
Stephen's eyes pinched with... was that... regret? But he nodded and a sigh of remorse escaped him. "Yes Tony. If that's what you want, I'll leave."
"Fine." Tony agreed and plopped himself down in the nearest armchair. "Take a load off then Doc."
Stephen nodded and sat down on the couch nearest him, his spine and shoulders straightening as though he were preparing for battle. The corners of his eyes were pinched with trepidation and his mouth settled into a grim line. "To start, I want to apologize for my behaviour following our... victory. I know I've been inexcusably rude and distant and in my defense, I can only offer that I was, and still am in some regards, recovering from my use of the Time Stone. It does not, of course, excuse my behaviour but it is a reason."
"O-kay." Tony replied, hesitant. He didn't really understand what Strange was leading up to, but this was a side of the Sorcerer he'd first seen on Titan. A side he hadn't realized until now how much he'd missed. "That's understandable at least. Apology accepted, but you could have said something sooner."
"And I would have, but my duties as Sorcerer Supreme superseded that. The mystical protection surrounding the planet was destroyed and it was imperative I visit each Sanctum to repair it. The Mad Titan's crusade left the planet completely vulnerable to inter-dimensional attacks and without me, the other masters could do very little to repair the damage."
"Huh. So you weren't just blowing me off when you said you were unavailable."
"When do you sleep?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Well," Tony drawled, "Between your hasty visits, your intermittent replies to my calls and all your dimension-hopping, world-protecting duties, when do you have time to sleep? I only ask because no offense Doc, you look like hammered crap. I'd even go so far as to say your bags have bags and you're pretty damn pale too. More than usual anyway."
"As always, your tact falls short." Stephen retorted. "But since we're on the topic, when do you sleep? You don't look much better yourself."
"No need to sling insults just cuz I hit a nerve Stephanie." Tony sighed. "But fine, I'll drop it. It's not what you came for anyways so... carry on."
"Actually, it's partly why I'm here." Stephen continued, dropping his eyes to his hands. "I needed healing after what I did on Titan with the Time Stone and later when I was in the Soul Stone. Magical individuals are not meant to be there for any length of time and then returned. Once the Sanctum's were fully restored I had to be healed in a group effort involving the remaining Masters."
"And?" Tony prompted. "It feels like you're avoiding telling me something. Call me paranoid but I know delay tactics better than anyone. You're leading up to this healing thing having some unexpected side effects aren't you?"
Stephen huffed, letting out the breath he'd been holding. "Not exactly. The healing part was fine. It's what came after that was a problem. I was attempting to separate my memory of what really happened with the parts of the timelines that were exceptionally vivid."
"And somehow, instead of separating memories, I fell into a rather powerful memory of yours. Though it turned out not to be so much of a memory as it was a specific point by point trip through them, namely bad ones."
Tony narrowed his eyes at the Sorcerer as Stephen's words sunk in enough for him to make sense of them. "You're shitting me. That oh so not lovely trip down memory lane with Pepper and Rhodey tonight was your doing?"
"Yes. How it happened I don't know, though it's understandable that my memories of alternate futures are tied to you."
"How could it possibly be understandable?" Tony demanded.
"Because your survival was imperative to our victory." Stephen frowned. "You know that."
"Yes, so you've said. Many times I might add." Tony retorted, his hand waving impatiently. "But what does any of that have to do with you being here now?"
"As I said, I'm here to apologize. I'm sorry that what I was doing tonight hurt you Tony. I never imagined something like this happening and... you were right. I have been avoiding you."
"I knew it!" Tony exclaimed, surging to his feet, his eyes narrowing in anger. "I knew I wasn't imagining that. Why'd you have to lie to me about it? Most people just tell me to my face they can't stand being around me. What makes you so special you couldn't just tell me the truth?"
"Because it would not have been the truth."
"What?" Tony sputtered, confused by Stephen's reply. "What wouldn't be the truth?"
"I enjoy being around you Tony."
Tony snorted, his eyebrow twitching. "Right. Sure you do. That's so clear to me now with how often I've seen you these past months... how many times has it been now? Eight times? Less? I'm thinking less. Try again Stephanie."
"You had a wedding announcement in circulation before Thanos came. Being around you after we won was... well... I couldn't do it. Seeing you with Pepper while pretending it didn't bother me... it was too much to handle on top of everything else. And my sour mood was not something you needed to experience. You didn't do anything wrong and you didn't deserve the burden of that. But in my defense, I didn't know the two of you had broken up. You never mentioned it."
"Why would I mention it? It's not like you're ever around and you've never shown any interest in me or my life." Tony sputtered. "And what do you mean you couldn't pretend? Pretend what? You're dancing Stephen. Just... tell me what the hell is going on with you..."
Stephen sighed, his gaze dropping to his hands. "I know you don't understand... but what do you think I experienced when I watched all those futures on Titan? Do you think it was like watching a movie? Separate and unmoved by those I watched? Or was it like I lived them? As though they were real and tangible and part of my reality?"
Tony stared at him where he still stood with his arms crossed, a wave of complicated emotions flicking over his features. "I can't say I ever thought about it, but... the way you're acting, I'm going to say it's the latter."
"In which case you'd be right." Stephen nodded, his mouth set in a thin line as he continued to stare back at him.
Tony frowned, his hands clenching even as he dropped them to his sides, the implication of what Stephen had just implied slamming into him with a huff of shock escaping him. "Holy shit Strange! How are you even walking and talking right now?"
"It's called compartmentalization douchebag." Stephen retorted though there was no heat in his words. "And it's why the other master's had to help me."
"Yeah but..." Tony paused. "You said this was about me and..." His eyes widening in shock a moment later. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"Depends what you think I'm trying to say."
"Fine. It sounds like you have feelings for me. But why? Why me?"
"Even a genius like you should know the answer to that. It's impossible to watch that many futures and not feel anything."
"But you're..." Tony shook his head, his shoulders dropping as though the weight of his thoughts were too much. "There were other people on Titan..."
Stephen shrugged. "We don't get to choose who we fall for Tony. But that's not why I came. I just wanted to apologize for what happened tonight." Stephen said, getting to his feet. "I'm sorry you had to relive those memories and I promise you it won't happen again."
"Wait!" Tony blurted as he shot to his feet, a faint blush colouring his cheeks at his outburst. "I mean... where are you going? You can't just say... what you just said and then leave."
"Why not? I certainly never intended to tell you any of this, but what happened today made it necessary. You don't need that burden on your shoulders, a burden you didn't ask for. You've already shouldered more than enough in your lifetime. I won't add myself to that list."
"That's not your decision to make." Tony retorted.
"What?" Stephen replied his sharp eyes reflecting a mix of shock and confusion.
"You don't get to tell me what I can or can't deal with Strange. Maybe I want that burden. Maybe I have feelings for you too."
Now it was Stephen's turn to look at Tony in shock. "How could you possibly have feelings for me? I set you on a path that forced you to live your worst nightmare and killed half the Universe doing it! Why would you ever forgive me for that? I certainly never expected you to."
The look in Tony's eyes grew soft but still guarded as he glanced away, one hand tapping nervously against his thigh. "I did hate you for a while afterwards Stephen. I was so angry you sacrificed yourself for me, left me alone with nothing and no one... no hope, no plans and no idea how you could possibly think what you did was the only way."
"I knew it would be awful for you and I'm sorry for that, but it really was the only way. I..."
"Stephen." Tony growled, cutting him off. "Let me finish."
Stephen nodded, a flush rising in his cheeks.
"After, when I got back to earth there wasn't much time for anything. What was left of the Avengers was scattered and the... science ones.. well, we spent all our time trying to find a way to fix everything. But through all that I couldn't stop thinking about you. I went to the Sanctum and grilled Wong about you and the Time Stone and... I'm sure he eventually wanted to smack me around and keep me away, but I needed to know who you were and why you did what you did."
"And did you find what you were looking for?"
"Not really." Tony admitted. "Wong explained what brought you to Kamar-Taj but... I wanted to know you after... well, after you came back. But then you ghosted me and I figured you didn't want anything to do with me. I mean, I get it. You were a doctor and I was a weapons dealer. Maybe I helped save the earth, but that doesn't erase what I did or who I am."
Stephen hummed under his breath as he moved closer to the other man. Hand shaking, he lifted it to Tony's bicep, resting it there in a gesture of comfort but fully prepared to back off the moment Tony grew uncomfortable. Yet the inventor only turned puzzled eyes his way, confusion and want warring for dominance in his expression.
"Your past is not who you are now Tony. I saw who you really are. I don't remember all the finer details but I saw you sacrifice yourself over and over again. For me, for Peter, for every member of the Guardians. You never gave up in all the futures I saw, you were there giving everything you had despite our odds. How could I not admire that?"
Tony blinked up at him, his eyes filled with an unnamed emotion that Stephen couldn't decipher in the moment. "I don't..."
"I believe we are at an impasse and that right now, actions will speak much louder than words."
"May I kiss you?"
Tony blinked in stunned confusion as Stephen closed the remaining distance between them, settling one hand on Tony's hip, the other coming up to gently cradle his jaw. "Tell me to stop and I will." Stephen murmured, bending close to whisper against the other man's lips.
"Do it." Tony growled, his hands suddenly in motion as he gripped Stephen's cloak and pulled their bodies flush against each other.
With a soft smile, Stephen pressed his lips to the inventor's own, a spike of desire rushing through him as Tony groaned in pleasure at the contact. It was all the incentive he needed to deepen the kiss, his tongue flicking at the seam of Tony's lips, seeking entrance. With another throaty moan, he was granted entrance, the inventor flicking his tongue over Stephen's bottom lip as they fought for dominance over the other.
Tony voiced a whine of protest when he broke the kiss, his breathing hard and harsh as he pressed their foreheads together while they both gasped for air.
"You sure about this Doc?" Tony whispered hesitantly, the need in his voice plain to Stephen's acute awareness of the other man's insecurities. That he would ask now, despite what Stephen had already told him, made him want Tony even more than he already did.
"I've never been more certain of anything Tony. I want to be in your life for as long as you want me there."
"Damn." Tony croaked. " You keep talking like that, I'm never letting you go."
"Then I'll be sure to do it as often as possible." Stephen whispered back, his chest tightening in awe as the engineer's deep brown eyes met his with open affection and shock. He never wanted Tony to be surprised by his heartfelt admiration for him, so he kissed him again, putting all the affection and regard he held for the other man into his kiss, not knowing of a better way to do so in words.
If the broken moan and trembling he felt from the man in his arms was any indication, then he knew his message had been received and appreciated. And if that wasn't enough, his heart swelled as Tony returned the kiss in kind, matching the tenderness and regard he had for Stephen with gentle pressure and the languid press of his lips against his own.
They stayed like that for a long time, revelling in each other's embrace, their kisses passionate and tender and for the first time since that fateful day in Central Park, Stephen was grateful that his path had led him to Tony Stark and this beautiful moment in time with Tony in his arms. And he vowed that from then on he would never let Tony forget how precious and perfect he was just as he is.