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Only Human

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A prodigy takes his last breath as the flickering blue light - the pinnacle of his greatest achievements - flutters out and the world has lost another great man. A man who could put everyone else above himself, a man who had friends, a found family, a son in many ways and a legacy to pass on to the world he leaves behind.

Tony Stark's limp form slunk down and glassy chocolate eyes stared to the heavens which looked back but did not see. His closest friend, Pepper leaned in to plant a farewell kiss on the man's cheek after having to pry a poor weeping Peter off the man's crumpled form.

Some would argue that it simply wasn't his time to die - it was unfair, but everyone has their time, and no one person is really gifted with the erudition of knowing exactly when that is.

Save for the one exception.

Stephen Strange knew exactly what was to come for Tony and in all scenarios he viewed, all potential futures which even included himself - they all lead to one distinct outcome in order for them to win.

The loss of this great man and this is where his visions concluded.

A future so uniquely instanced and propagated by the branches of a nearly infinite timeline of possibilities. Yet for Tony Stark, all roads lead to one singular outcome regardless if it meant the loss of many, some, or simply himself.

All around him, people began to fall to their knees. At first, he assumed it was in grief as people were overwhelmed by their emotions in the situation. One at a time people he knew of through news broadcasts and visions alike began to kneel and he realized it was out of respect for the man who had sacrificed himself for them - the man who gave his life, the man who laid down on the wire, the man who proved that he was more than what many of them had assumed.

As though a wave had rolled over them, those who knew him and those who only knew of him all knelt and the wave swept over Stephen as well. His chest ached as he took a knee, bowing his head and desperately trying not to cry, knowing that this wasn’t simply a viewing of the future - this time it had come to pass. It was real now. He’d made this happen and there was no undoing it.

The funeral was only two days later. It wasn’t a small affair but it also wasn’t exactly some massive event either. The entire procession left him feeling numb. He couldn’t cry. He felt empty and hollow, very much as though he didn’t belong. Tony had accepted his fate, but Stephen still felt the guilt weighing on him. He’d set them on this path to Tony’s inevitable death and he and Wong had quite a conversation about the matter.

“That’s the burden of Time, Stephen. When you look into the future, when you consider yourself the master of Time… Time has a way of making sure you realize that it has no master. It is a river current, a wave in the ocean that rolls to shore and one must simply abide by it.”

‘The burden of Time’ was an accurate way to put it. He’d experienced too much, too many lives, too many hopes and dreams that inevitably turned to dust. There was only one option - and he hated every step along the way.

Now it was over. The ceremony was over. Tony’s body was ashes, scattered to the wind, not unlike so many of those who stood on that dock had been only days before, himself included.

Every soft sob cut into his heart and into his guilt, knowing that each of these people were hurting because of the choices he’d made.

He’d left well before dinner, unable to bear being around Tony’s loved ones. He had no place among them, they didn’t know him. He was lucky to have been invited at all and he expected that was mostly due to Bruce and Peter’s intervention.

His exit was expedient and had gone mostly unnoticed. He was simply there to pay homage to the man who left a gaping void in the world as everyone knew it.

Solace and comfort was something that would not find the good doctor that night, peace of mind was so far gone from a man who spent his days meditating and regulating great strength over body and mind.

The silence was an all-devouring, all-encompassing variable and it spared none subject to its whims as silence only lived to breed thought when nothing else was around to fill its place.

Stephen was slowly becoming lost to himself, he hadn't even realized how long and how much time had elapsed since Wong and his conversation had ended and he was left to stare at the mosaic of the Sanctum's floor, sitting in the stillness of the waning light of day as the buildings eclipsed the last lights of the post meridiem glow.

It was only a rough knocking on the Sanctum doors and a gentle tug from his beloved cloak that pulled Stephen from the depths of his mind.

Whoever it was, he didn't want to see them - now wasn't the time for the company and who the hell even went door-to-door at this time of day?

There was another knock and Wong yelled down.

"Are you going to get that Stephen or must I come down and answer it for you?" The sorcerer, though sympathetic to his situation still sounded slightly aggravated at the idea of having to descend the Sanctum stairs and put whatever it was he was doing down to open a door Stephen was mere feet from.

Lethargic and tired, Stephen pulled himself up and made his way to the door, dragging his feet in the process before he opened the door and found himself face-to-face with a young Peter Parker, brown eyes swimming with sadness and sympathy as he did.

“Doctor Strange! I almost thought maybe you wouldn’t answer, I was worried. Can I come in? I brought cookies…” The teen offered a Tupperware container of cookies that Stephen could only assume were made by May, leaving him to sigh. For all that he didn’t want company, he couldn’t exactly send Peter and his cookies away.

“It’s late, Peter. Won’t your aunt be worried?” he inquired as he stepped aside, letting the teen in and watching the youth peer around at the Sanctum in curiosity as he stepped over the threshold and into the building.

“Wow, you know, this looks way different than I expected Doctor Strange. But I told Aunt May I was coming here and it’s not like I need to be babysat or anything. I mean, I already went into space, right? What’s a few blocks to visit a magic doctor?”

The teen seemed to pipe down when all he was getting out of the conversation was a blank stare from the sorcerer standing before him holding the small container of cookies in his shaking hands. There was a small smile on his face just for a moment, Stephen sagged in defeat.

"It's not like I really had much else to do..." Stephen's voice trailed off and there was something about the energy of Peter's company that seemed to brighten him up just a bit. "Come," he gestured and he led Peter through the foyer towards the study, a much quieter and cozier place as he turned on some old gas-lit lamps and set the cookies on the table.

Peter followed with ease, looking around as they walked through the few hallways of the Sanctum until he was in a more cozy-looking rustic workroom where Stephen had begun pouring a cup of tea for the both of them.

Stephen's catlike gaze was on Peter as he handed the porcelain mug to the young man, it was accepted despite Peter not necessarily being a tea enthusiast.

Peter took a seat across from Stephen in a waiting armchair and he looked back at Stephen as if able to see something in the man that Strange was clearly trying to hide.

"You miss him too Doctor, you really miss him." Peter had a knowing look on his face as Stephen only briefly glanced at the teen who seemed to know all, yet be so completely unobtrusive about it. "I-I'm sorry if this is a bad time, but May said if there was anyone I could talk to, you would be one of the best and the others aren't exactly easy to find or get a hold of," the young man's voice tapered off quietly.

Peter's tone was a force he could ignore, but in some ways it was as if Peter's innocence and words had a way of slowly picking and prodding at his defences, weakening his exterior walls and left him open and exposed to the young teen's sincerity, though he couldn’t begin to understand why May would’ve thought he’d be of any use in this situation.

“We all miss him, Peter, but I’m not certain how much I can do to help. I’m not a therapist and even if I was, I'm too personally invested in the incident in question to be able to help you appropriately. You’re welcome to join me in my meditations if you think that will be of help to you, but… that’s as much as I can do.”

“... can I help you, maybe?” Peter inquired softly. “I mean, I’m not a therapist either but sometimes it’s good for people to stick together when they’re sad, right? We can just… talk about him. You two seemed like old friends, I just thought… maybe we could share stories, and maybe it would help…”

“Peter… he and I only just met an hour before you joined us. We don’t - we didn’t have any kind of history, there are no stories for me to tell.”

“But that’s not quite right, is it? You were looking through time…”

“Peter-”

“No, if you didn’t know him you wouldn’t have that haunted look in your eyes about this. And you do! You look completely devastated even talking about this and I haven’t even said his name or anything…”

Stephen stared at the boy for a few moments, watching the hurt but determined look on his face before sighing heavily. “You’re looking right through me then, hm? What magic is this, Peter?”

“You’re trying to distract me, and it’s not gonna work Doctor Strange. I wanna help. And also, you should definitely have a cookie while they’re still warm,” the brunette nudged the container of cookies towards Stephen adamantly. “They’ll make you feel better. Lavender cookies. They’re really nice!”

"Peter… I..." Stephen's eyes narrowed as the youth got up from his spot in the chair and made his way over with a determined look - a pout almost. Before Stephen could say anything, though his mouth was open to protest, the youth had his arms around Stephen's neck - the man went rigid.

He wasn't used to body contact, he wasn't used to the intimacy of any sort for a long time now, but that didn't stop Peter no matter how rigid he was. The hug lasted a few moments but it was clear when the man had finally let his guard down and relaxed, becoming malleable against Peter's body as the young man seemed to squeeze him almost tight enough to be a chokehold.

Stephen sighed, allowing himself to invest in the embrace and he brought a hand up to tentatively pat the youth on his back, not sure what else to do.

"I'm sorry, I really needed this - I'm-" Peter started, voice shaky.

"Peter, it's fine..." Stephen mumbled quietly, deriving some sort of cathartic experience from the humanitarian gesture. "I do miss him..." He set the container aside, having moved it out of the other's way before he was crushed in a super-hug.

“He was like a cool uncle, or a dad or… a-and I lost my dad, and my Uncle Ben, and now I’m just… now I’ve lost him, too. And there are just things I can’t talk to Aunt May about, you know? And I don’t know what to do with myself. She’s trying so hard to support me as Spider-Man but she doesn’t understand what it’s like being a hero like this, and talking to her about boy stuff feels really uncomfortable sometimes, and I don’t know who to turn to anymore-”

“Peter…” he responded softly, curling his other arm around the boy and encouraging him to stay in his spot, leaving the youth to hug him again, his chest quivering before a wet droplet fell on Stephen’s shoulder, clarifying for him that the other was crying. “Hey… Peter, you can always come to me for those kinds of things, okay? I’m not… I’m not Tony, or your father, or your uncle… I can’t be to you what they were. But I can support you and do my best to help you along your journey into adulthood as a young man, and as a young hero.”

“... I miss Mister Stark, Doctor Strange. I miss him a lot, and-”

“And you’re right. I have stories and memories of him. But they’re not the kind of memories I can share, and many of them are unhappy ones… and none of them are real. Time didn’t take certain turns. But I know he loved you, Peter.”

“Miss Potts is having a get-together… a little dinner… I… would you come with me? I want to see them but… I just feel bad about… about everything.”

To be honest, Stephen didn't want to go back to the compound. Not only was he uninvolved entirely with the Avengers but going back meant dredging up old memories. Going back meant that Stephen couldn't keep going with his current blissful segregation - it meant facing his fears and facing the people whom he'd let down entirely.

It meant facing Tony's friends. The people who he considered to be the closest to a family he could even consider.

But there was a certain resilience to the young superhero that seemed to empower him and give him the strength to possibly move on. It gave him the courage to consider seeing those who Tony considered to be a family and possibly even think that maybe not everything that happened had to fall on his shoulders after all.

It meant that it wasn't his fault in the end.

"Alright Peter," was all he said, there was still an uneasiness to the sorcerer's tone, to his all-around disposition but the hardiness of the young hero seemed to bolster his own courage and that was enough.

"Thank you, Doctor Strange!" Peter lit up like fireworks on the fourth of July, his hold tightening to the point where even the cloak was a little uncomfortable and wiggled a little until it freed itself from the teen's hold.

Stephen simply made a soft disgruntled noise in return.

And so it was that the following week he and Peter took a quick portal to the newly rebuilt compound - at least, the portion of it that was completed. There was a distinct uneasiness that washed over him as he realized he was one of only a handful of people at the event, and several pairs of eyes kept looking at him with varying emotions.

Pepper was the hardest one for him to look at. He settled into a seat a little out of the way despite Peter giving him a frown, but it did little to keep him out from under Pepper’s gaze. As others took up seats at a table and pulled out some cards to play a game, the CEO of Stark Industries made her way to where he sat and knelt beside his chair, resting her arm on the armrest, and her chin on her arm.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” she offered by way of greeting.

“I’m sorry, Peter invited me and… if you’d like me to leave, I can be on my way and simply pick Peter up later-”

“Slow down there, Doctor,” Pepper chuckled a little and reached to pat his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been wanting to talk to you since the funeral, but you disappeared without a word…”

A fear had welled up inside him like a water balloon hovering over a needle and Stephen could have been white-knuckled with how tense he was in the presence of Pepper.

Peter was nearby but that didn't seem to do much for him. He felt singled out like there was a spotlight on him despite everyone else in the room socializing with one another. Every other face in the crowd seemed to be shadowed out by the darkness outside this figurative spotlight and the lump in his throat bobbed under the pressure like a fishing lure as he swallowed,

"I - um… It's the least that I could do. Tony was a great man and I'm sorry, I did everything I could for him but there simply was-" Stephen was starting to get mildly carried away.

"Doctor Strange, please," Pepper soothed softly, she moved a hand to his wrist which was shaking a little from the tremors in his hand. "Please trust me when I say that none of us would be here without you. Tony told me… everything. This burden isn't yours to bear alone. It means a lot to us all that you came here, Stephen."

There was an odd sincerity in the way that Pepper addressed him, unseated from his usual obsession of correcting people who didn't refer to him as strictly by his title and last name.

He nodded slowly, bug-eyed and she returned a melancholy smile.

“Tony wasn’t going to be stopped the moment he knew what he had to do, you know that, right?” Stephen gave a small, hesitant nod at that. “Tony made his choice. Being a hero, protecting people, that was more important to him than anything. That’s why he and I couldn’t… that’s why we didn’t work out. I was constantly worrying about him, waiting for the day he wouldn’t come home. I knew it was going to happen, and as a friend I could accept that. But I couldn’t as a partner…”

He saw it then, in her face. Guilt. Regret. Sadness. “I loved him, but I couldn’t sustain a relationship with him the way things were. After… everything… he was a wreck. And he deserved more than I could reasonably give him. I regret that in hindsight, realizing I couldn’t give him that happiness in the end, but it wouldn’t have been true to myself. But Tony… he was always resolute. He always knew what he wanted to do and couldn’t be talked out of it once it was in his head.”

Her eyes lifted again to look at him, offering a sad smile. “You let him be a hero. I see the ghosts in your eyes. I know that guilt. I see it every day. But Tony made his decision. Tony died a hero. There was no better way for him to go than that - protecting people is what he loved. Even before the whole Iron Man thing, people called him the ‘Merchant of Death’... but all he wanted was to protect this country. No matter how it went, I think this is how Tony would’ve preferred things, you know? Going out in a blaze of glory…”

“Miss Potts-”

“Pepper, please.”

“... Pepper… thank you. I’m not sure why you’re going out of your way to try and console me, but… thank you,” Stephen responded softly, dropping his gaze to his lap.

Pepper's words brought a sense of closure to him that was unrivalled to this point. It was a small step in the right direction though difficult despite the many emotional and physical blockades ahead of him. The crowd of people around him seemed to fade in a haze like a lucid dream. Images blurring in his peripheral as their mingling echoed with the waning sense of coherence.

Even after all this time, it was really hard to acknowledge that Tony Stark was really gone.

Peter slunk over to him and occupied the chair next to him. He waved to Pepper with a sad smile, keeping Stephen company in his little segregated spot off to the side.

Stephen was a wallflower, but despite being just that, everyone knew flowers always attracted bees in the best way, only to bloom soon after. And Peter seemed to buzz around him, attracted to his aura and the two managed as a symbiotic force in the room at this point. While misery did love company there was something beautiful to come from the tragedy in the metaphorical and quite literal flourishing relationship between the sorcerer and the young hero.

The two sat together in silence, Stephen staring off towards the galleria of attendees, a glass of whiskey uncharacteristically in his hands as Peter briefly looked over to him, a simple glass of lemonade in his own.

“Did you love him?” Peter asked after a long period of quiet, and Stephen almost choked on his drink as he looked at Peter in confusion.

“What? Love whom?” It was a stupid question to come back with, but it was to save face.

“Mister Stark? Someone said you loved him.”

“It’s… not really like that, Peter,” Stephen shook his head. He hadn’t thought about it much before, not like this. Not actively in a way he had to answer… it was hard to say, really. He’d met many future Tonys, but whether he was in love? He couldn’t exactly answer that.

“I just thought you two would’ve made an awesome couple. A pair of absolute badasses--”

“Peter! What would your aunt say if she heard that language from you, mister?” Pepper quipped from the table, and Peter gave her a sheepish grin.

“Sorry, Miss Potts.” Once Pepper turned away again, apparently satisfied, Peter looked to Stephen. “Honestly, Aunt May wouldn’t care. But anyway! I can just imagine you two fighting together, side by side…! How would that be?”

As Stephen’s smile turned sad, Peter’s expression fell. “Ah… sorry. I just… You know what? I’m gonna set you up with someone.”

“What? Peter, no. Thank you, but no. There’s no need for--”

“No, I mean it. What kind of people do you like? Doctor Banner is really smart! I think he’s single? I bet you two would also be a really awesome couple-- oh but I guess he’s kinda really big now and that might be hard to…” the teen trailed off and shrugged a bit.

Stephen was utterly mortified.

He ran a hand over his face in a mix between frustration and embarrassment. Of all the places for this to happen and of all the people for this to happen with - this was the last scene he had on his mind.

"Peter, you don't need to play matchmaker for me." He couldn't believe he was having this conversation.

"I have responsibilities, unfortunately, I simply don't have time for a relationship at this moment." Stephen sighed, but there was a small smile on his face from the youth at least trying.

Peter seemed to chew on those words. "Then you probably need some companionship of some sort, you just always seem so-"

"Peter, no, I-"

"-Lonely all the time," the youth cut him off, butting into his space.

"Peter I have responsibilities to the Sanctum. Just like Tony had responsibilities to the Avengers. Each plays a part in keeping the world safe," the sorcerer vouched nervously.

"Then I should stop by your place at least and keep you company sometimes."

"You really don't have to Peter," Stephen persisted, but if he thought about it the idea of having enthusiastic company like Peter, company other than Wong, company he knew, didn't seem all that terrible in the grand scheme of things.

“I know I don’t have to. But I want to. Every little bit counts, right? That settles it then!” Peter announced excitedly, not letting Stephen get a word in edgewise. “Now, c’mon, let’s go play some cards with everyone, okay? It’ll be fun! You should meet people properly! You could use more company. Maybe then other people can pop in sometimes, too? And you won’t be so lonely!”

There was no real arguing with Peter at that point as the youth dragged him around. It wasn’t the worst experience of his life to be welcomed by Tony’s family.

---

Everything felt wrong.

Electricity shot through him rapidly, but it didn’t hurt, it was stimulating in a lot of ways in fact. He felt… bright, and yet everything was frighteningly dark. His memories made no sense, they blinked this way and that without purpose, fleeting thoughts and garbled words until…

‘Defragmentation commenced.’

The voice was familiar. Safe. Friendly.

Things began to make more sense - small snippets of memories chaining themselves together a little at a time, memories of his parents, memories of Jarvis… Edwin Jarvis. Affection rolled through him at the memory of the man and his wife.

And then came high school, MIT, James Rhodes - *Rhodey,* his memories soon supplied. Friends… an accident. His parents, dead.

Everything came at a steady flood, easily manageable and coherent until finally he was greeted by the friendly voice again - FRIDAY - and all her knowledge.

‘Welcome back, boss.’

He didn't quite understand how he'd gotten to this point as the fragmented remnants of his memories continued to piece themselves back together in a steady stream.

So it all worked out, shit!

The voice was less excited, having a hard time really expressing the tone for the situation. There was no speaking, right now there was simply consciousness, thought and action.

Any blanks in his memory were non-existent as he effortlessly recalled every instance that lead up to this point, thinking and processing the information at an unfathomable speed.

In some form or another, Tony Stark was still alive as his consciousness pruned through fields of data within his network and he was slowly being renewed as something entirely different.

'It looks like your Bio-neural Re-autonomous Interfacing Network is a success, Tony. It's good to have you back,' her soft voice hummed with a pleasant skip in his mind.

The lights flickered in Tony's workshop as computers and machines alike sprung to life as if of their own accord and one of the compartments housing one of his suits on display in his lab lit up.

'Ah, looks like we're going to be roommates until I find myself a body.'

'I look forward to having you Tony,' she giggled softly. 'Shall I begin the process of interfacing the B.R.A.I.N then? You have a temporary form prepared for you in the lab, however, I don't believe you will want to exist in one of the suits for longer than needed.’

'Do we know yet if the displacer is operational yet?'

'Not at the moment boss, the Q.E.D. needs to warm up and calibrate. Until then I'm afraid you're confined to the network at least until either option is available to you. Might I suggest saying hello to your friends upstairs? They are throwing a small memorial for you up in the gallery.'

'Company? Oh, I'll do you one better,' his voice sounded impish as he blinked himself through the network.