“Are you ready, Tony?” He turned to find Pepper standing in the doorway, mask glittering in the lighting. He adjusted his blazer and glanced over at the mask sitting on the table. Like Pepper's, it would only cover his eyes and nose, and he was pretty sure everyone would recognize him regardless, but he liked the anonymity of having something physical to hide behind. He cleared his throat and offered Pepper a smile.
“When am I ever ready on time, Ms. Potts?” He didn't even have to see her eyes to know she was rolling them at him.
“We're already twenty minutes late, Tony. Rhodes has texted and called twice, and Peter is waiting for you in the living room.” Right. Okay. Enough time was wasted then. He slipped the mask on and Pepper helped him tie it, dropping a kiss on his cheek before checking her watch and pulling him away from the mirror. It wasn't that he didn't want to go to the Autumn Masquerade Charity Gala, but he was in the middle of some pretty spectacular advancements on his latest project. Parties and socializing only served to distract him.
At least all proceeds were going to charity. One he actually he believed in.
Peter jumped up from the couch, mask in his hands and smile bright when he saw Tony. The kid's admiration for him hasn't waned in the three years they worked together, despite the countless failures Tony endured. The kid was relentless and never ceased to amaze Tony with how strong he really was. The teen lost most of his family so young and clung to heroes like Captain America and Iron Man to get through such a difficult time.
And now, he was doing the same for kids all over; only he was a far better person than Tony was. And in many ways, Steve as well. Peter was different, someone worth protecting but who didn't demand or need it. Tony made many mistakes in his life, many horrible decisions that left him second-guessing anything and everything he did.
But the kid? That was something he never would regret. Sure, he would hate himself any time the kid was hurt because of an Avengers mission (mostly because he still blamed himself for dragging a fourteen-year-old into a spat between him and Steve Rogers), but at the end of the day, Peter wanted to be a hero and make the world a better place for kids growing up in Queens, and it was what convinced Tony to finally initiate Peter into the Avengers.
“You nervous, Pete? There are going to be a lot of important people at this gala.” Pepper whacked his arm, but Peter only shrugged.
“Nah. I'm only going as an intern of Tony Stark's, remember? People won't be looking too closely at me.” Pepper ruffled his hair on her way to the door, but Tony needed to let Peter it wasn't going to be that easy. Sure, the main focus would be on the Avengers and their support of a foundation looking to help autistic children, but journalists were always looking to dig up dirt on Tony. It was the price of his level of fame; the amount of exposure he's had on him since he was seventeen.
Peter was a potential target for those looking to get the scoop on Tony Stark, and he needed Peter to be prepared.
“I don't want to scare you, kid, but it isn't going to be blue skies just because you aren't Spider-Man tonight. Being close to me makes people a target for anyone wanting the exclusives. Any dirt there might be on me. You have to be vigilant. Wary of anyone who seems really friendly. People who ask questions that sound innocent but can be used to dig further or can be twisted around into something ugly.” Peter's eyes widened, and Tony realized belatedly he was putting pressure on Peter. That wasn't his intention at all. He didn't care what the press wrote about him. Not anymore. “I've had my fair share of bad press, so I'm not worried about that. I just want you to know what's coming.”
“No. I get it, Mister Stark. I just never realized it was like that.” Tony shrugged.
“That's been my life for a long time, kid. I'm used to it. You don't have to go, you know. If you think this is too much for you.” Peter put his mask on and grinned.
“Nah. I'm excited to see what a real charity gala looks like. Aunt May wants me to take pictures.” Tony thought back to a conversation he had with Happy and chuckled.
“She could be going with us if Happy didn't chicken out.” Peter wrinkled his nose and batted him away as if he smelled bad.
“Don't bring that up, please. I'm still traumatized.” Tony adjusted Peter's mask and swallowed a lump in his throat. The boy was growing up so much right before his eyes, nearly taller than Tony now and quite the handsome young man. Tony never thought about having children of his own, never really considered getting married when he took the mantle of Iron Man, but being around Peter made him really want to be a father. He didn't think he was fit for the job, but if his own father could do it (with the help of Maria, of course), then maybe Tony would be okay.
He pushed the thoughts away and then they were speeding along the streets of New York, Peter whooping the whole way. Peter didn't know, but Tony was fixing up one of his vintage sports cars for the teen. His eighteenth birthday seemed the most appropriate time to give it to him.
”Sir, a call from Ms. Potts.” Tony rolled his eyes and accepted the call.
”Tony, where are you? Ms. Cavallier just asked about you for the third time.” Pepper was not only the CEO of his company, she was the manager of his public relations. And this could make for some bad press. Not that Tony minded, but he didn't like to stress her out unnecessarily.
“I was having a talk with Peter about journalists looking to get the scoop on my dirt. We're less than a minute away.” She sighed and spoke away from the phone.
“Well hurry. All the Avengers are here already and they are waiting on you to make a speech. You did practice your speech, right?” Peter snickered because he knew Tony shredded that rehearsed crap months ago. Judging by the way Pepper was talking to him, it was no secret.
“Of course, Pep. Everything is going to be fine!”
The gala was going well. Peter was sticking close to Pepper, that fiery redhead temper enough to protect the boy from nosy journalists in plain black masks. Tony bowed to his latest dance partner, already forgetting her name as she stumbled away with a giggle. He was making small talk, shaking hands with the important people, ribbing those he considered acquaintances, and dancing with anyone who seemed interesting. He avoided the alcohol, signed a check for the donation lady with sparkling blue eyes, and made fun of Steve's tie (bald eagles? Really?)
It was a lot of fun, and he wasn't doing anything that could possibly reflect badly on anyone around him. They needed to make the Avengers look good after the mess that was Civil War and Sokovia. Speaking of, he found Vision and Wanda sitting at a table, her head down on her arms, and Vision speaking to her. Vision's new human form was taking some getting used to, but he couldn't mistake Wanda's fiery red hair and smaller stature.
“Is she okay?” Vis glanced up and sighed.
“This is all quite overwhelming for her. She needed to get away for a minute.” Tony rested a hand on her shoulder. She was around the same age as Peter, as Tony often had to remind himself, and still so new to the whole powers and superhero world. She carried that thick Sokovian accent still and had a hard time with the press, who wanted to know everything from where her powers came from to what inspired her to become a hero.
It could be exhausting for Tony, and he's been doing it far longer.
“If you need to go home, Wanda, we can cover for you. Say you became ill.” Vision patted her hand, but Wanda raised her head.
“No. No. I'm okay. I can do this. I've already made so many missteps with them. I can't let them think the Avengers have a weak one.” Tony was interrupted by Rhodey, looking rather dashing in his midnight blue suit. Gosh, Tony was surrounded by a different brand of beautiful people. Steve, Nat, Thor...it was sickening sometimes.
“Tony, I'm going to take Peter home. His aunt called about his curfew. Please behave.” Tony crossed his arms but followed Rhodey over to where Peter was speaking to Pepper. Steve and Wilson were nearby talking to a snappy journalist, Tony making a note to slide over and see what they were talking about. He knew Steve and Wilson could handle themselves, especially since Wilson was dealing with the new mantle of Captain America. Steve still came along on missions, but he was looking to take a back seat and run things behind the scenes.
But as the saying went: once a soldier, always a soldier.
“Call me as soon as you get home.” With cameras and eyes around, Tony merely clapped Peter on the shoulder and nodded to Rhodey and Pepper. No sense making Peter more of a target for harassment by showing any favoritism.
When they were gone, Tony took a moment to scan the room. The gala was in full swing, set to taper off in an hour or so (the acceptable time for people to start leaving; a second earlier would cause whispers and bad press), but Tony was already bored. Gosh, he felt like a dinosaur.
He eyed the bar, the laughing high profiles with their martinis, but a throat clearing next to him broke his mourning and snatched his attention. Next to him, nearly out of the shadows, was a tall slender man with thick black hair. He was silver at the temples, but he didn't seem old enough to have gray hairs yet. Tony blinked and offered a hand.
“Hello.” The man smirked down at him. Ugh, tall people.
“Salutations. I noticed you were looking over at the bar, but I've been watching the floor all night. You don't drink.” Tony couldn't place the man's voice, so he's never met him before, but he figured anyone who watched the news would recognize his. He wished he could truly be anonymous for once. Just a rich guy talking to another rich guy.
“Not anymore. It's been more trouble than it's really worth. Besides, I think my friends would kill me if I ended up getting drunk.” The man laughed, his emerald green mask glittering under the twinkling chandeliers.
“I can relate. My date for the evening threatened to strangle me if I so much as sniff a glass of alcohol.” He pointed over to a woman in a pink dress and silver mask who was dancing with Barnes. “She finally decided I can be trusted and wandered off to dance with someone. I think she has some kind of sensor on me or something that tells her when I'm within a certain distance of a bar.”
“A bad drinking problem?” The stranger shook his head.
“Car accident. I lost my job as a surgeon along with my steady hands. I had a minor drinking stint, spent all my money on treatments and experimental procedures, and kind of spiraled into depression. She was there through it all and is really protective of me. She seems to think alcohol is a demon for me and won't let me even look at it.” Tony nodded. He actually had a major drinking problem, Rhodey, Fury, and Pepper stepping in to save him. But that wasn't his demon. Nope, that was brushing close to death, low self-esteem, and major depression.
Not to mention his issues with his father.
“Join the club. I have a redhead who, after watching me vomit into the toilet at four in the morning – for the third day in a row – poured all my booze down the drain while I threatened her in every way I could think of. I hated her for so long, but she's become my life support. I don't know what I would do without her.” They both stared at the bar for a few minutes before the stranger turned to him and smiled.
“Care to dance?” Tony wasn't often asked by men to dance. Maybe due to his reputation; maybe because he intimidated them. It was hard to judge if the man next to him recognized him or not, but Tony was itching to have a drink. So, he accepted the invitation with a shrug and a patented Tony Stark smile.
There went not making headlines. Again, not that he cared about that. But he knew Pepper would give him that look she often had when he was giving her a headache tomorrow morning. Rather than move towards the other dancing pairs, the man's date chatting with Steve - who was beet red under his mask – they stayed towards the side of the room, the stranger taking the lead and moving them easily through a simply dance.
They ended up dancing for most of the night, engaged in conversation about everything from nosy friends to technology in medicine. The man was cagey about his time as a surgeon, and Tony wouldn't elaborate on his job since it would definitely give him away (if he wasn't already found out). They had plenty to say, being intelligent men, but eventually, they ended up picking out couples on the floor and discussing what they could be talking about. It left them both in giggles, only for them to be interrupted by Steve and Sam.
They glanced between the two of them for a few seconds before Steve cleared his throat. It wasn't exactly a secret Tony was bisexual, but it wasn't like he brought many dudes home or anything. Steve fidgeted with his tie as he glanced over at the handsome stranger Tony was having the best time with.
“We need to speak with you, To-” Tony glared up at Steve (another tall person...) before offering the stranger a brief smile.
“I'm probably going to head out. Thanks for making this less of a nightmare.” The man stepped back and bowed forward, lips tilted in a smile that pricked Tony's curiosity and made his stomach queasy.
“Charmed to meet you.” And he was gone in the crowd.
“Tony, who was that?” He stared after the slender body, trying to pick him out among the sea of bodies and frowning when the pink dress was missing too.
“I don't know. Now, what did you want?”
Tony jerked out of the way, breath stuck in his throat as his life flashed before his eyes. Why was it he nearly died on every mission they went on. Hulk threw Thor towards the cackling witch, lightning making the hair on his arms stand up even under the armor. The witch dodged, kicking Thor away like he was nothing more than a small child.
Steve's breathless voice sounded in the comms, Nat answering back with a grunt, gunfire ringing out from where she must have been hiding. They were horribly being overpowered, even with Wanda and Sam there, and if they didn't do something, this witch was going to swallow up New York without blinking her eyes.
Tony's helmet retracted and he wracked his brain for something. They already tried powering his suit with Thor's lightning, and Wanda tossed everything she could get her weird powers on at the woman. According to Thor, she was in possession of Asgardian magic and therefore would be extremely difficult to defeat. Which was just wonderful to hear.
The witch dropped to the ground, wrapped in red...rope things. Thor landed near her and then glanced over at something behind Tony.
“Wizard!” All eyes followed his gaze to a man stepping out of some sort of...portal...a freaking cape fluttering behind him and looking like he was coming from some kind of cosplaying convention. Thor sounded excited to see him, so he must not be a threat; though he had the same enthusiasm for his brother. Loki, and that guy was nothing but trouble.
When the man neared, Tony's breath caught in his throat again, this time for a different reason. He flashed back to a little over a year ago, masks and suits and dancing, the silver hair unmistakable as the strange man joined them. His eyes, no longer obscured by a mask, were blueish-green and sharp as he glanced around at the gathered supers. Steve held out a hand, but the guy only glanced down at it and nodded to Steve, who dropped his hand after an awkward few seconds.
“This is an Earth wizard. I met him a little while ago while looking for my father. He too protects the Earth from threats, though he leans more towards the magic side. Right, wizard.” The apparent 'wizard' sighed and glared at Thor.
“I told you before, Thor. We prefer 'Master of the Mystic Arts.' Or, you know, Doctor Strange is fine too. We are not wizards, but sorcerers. And yes, we help protect the Earth. Same as you Avengers. We tend to magic beings and threats, such as our Asgardian friend here, and we do a fine job of keeping our scenes clean of fingerprints..” Tony couldn't believe the same intelligent former surgeon he danced with not so long ago was this...this...wizard man in funky clothes and an actual cape.
The supers world was apparently pretty small.
“Right. Wizard.” Now Doctor Strange rolled his eyes and returned his attention to Steve, who was studying him with a quirked brow. He seemed to be trying to figure out something, and Tony guessed it was where he recognized this guy from.
“My name is Doctor Stephen Strange. Master of the Mystic and Martial Arts. Protector of the New York Sanctum. I have stayed out of your business for many years, and I would like if you would do the same for us.” He folded his hands behind him, watching Steve for what he would say in return, but Steve snapped his fingers and turned to Tony.
“This is him, isn't it?” Now was not the time. Nat seemed to catch on too and covered her mouth with her arm. Stephen Strange looked surprised by Steve's response, though when he turned to where Steve was pointing (that being at Tony), he too furrowed his brows and scanned Tony head to toe. This honestly was not important. They had a witch tied up and apparently a wizard who lived in New York.
“Can we focus here? Look, Gandalf, don't you think rather than pretending each other doesn't exist, we could work with your secret magic club?” Steve nodded and seemed to find himself.
“Right. Look, Doctor Strange. I understand your concerns and wanting to keep your people safe and out of the public eye, but a union of Avengers and Sorcerers could really benefit the world.” Strange shook his head.
“It's not actually up to me. We are looking for a Sorcerer Supreme at the moment. Once one is appointed, you can speak with him or her about it.” That put an end to the conversation, Steve nodding to Stephen and flicking a questioning look to Tony, who waved him off. Thor picked up the witch while the others nodded to Strange in turn and climbing into the Quinjet. Then it was just Tony and Strange.
“So, you're a wizard.” Strange narrowed his eyes and frowned.
“Sorcerer.” Then he tilted his head and studied Tony, who retracted his suit and put his hands on his hips. “You're Tony Stark.”
“In the flesh. Did you not recognize me at the gala?” Strange chuckled and toyed with his cape.
“I showed up late with Christine through a portal, and I don't keep up with the news. So, no. I had no idea.” They shared a moment of silence. Well, he got what he wished for, right? Just being anonymous. But, it still stung a little that this doctor wizard dude didn't recognize him. Call him what you want, Tony Stark was used to a certain level of celebrity and attention.
It was just so weird that someone at that gala didn't recognize him. But, it also meant Strange wasn't trying to buddy up to him because he knew it was Tony Stark he was talking to. And that was rather refreshing. Like working with Pepper and Rhodey was. Like his Avengers. He loved knowing people who didn't care who he was or how much money he had.
He was surrounded by enough fake people as it was. People who wanted him for sex, money, or influence. So, he was both pleased and a bit deflated at the fact Strange didn't know he was Tony Stark a.k.a Iron Man.
But, it wasn't like he shared his secret life as a wizard either. So, well, Tony was okay with it.
“Well, it's nice to officially meet. Doctor Stephen Strange.” The wizard watched him for a minute, then glanced around them. The wind ruffled his still styled but not combed back hair, and Tony wondered if it was as soft and thick as it looked.
He would bet a lot of money on the fact that it was.
“Want to go get something to eat? I have to take something back to my friend Wong, anyway.” He did not expect that. The mysterious doctor asking him on a non-date. Huh.
“Sure. What does he like? Ooh! I've been dying to try this new place that opened up a few months ago. I think it was in the big city, but I have the suit and-” A portal opened next to them, Strange all smug and not handsome. Not at all.
“After you, Stark.”