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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.

Chapter Text

The lights flickered once and the phone in Pepper's pocket seemed to buzz softly.

Peter narrowed his eyes, squinting. Something wasn't quite right here and he watched as Pepper broke away from the table to discreetly go and speak with someone on the phone in the corner.

Stephen also seemed to notice this and glanced at Peter, not appearing as invested but giving the youth a curious look.

"From Tony's bank account? That doesn't make any sense, it wasn't pre-authorized?"  Pepper inquired.

"The invoice was just paid to a company in Japan, we tried to get through to them to ask about it but there was no answer." 

"What do you mean there's no answer? Not to pull rank, but it's not normal for Stark Industries to be hacked, Hap," Pepper sounded concerned.

"I don't know, I'll call the banks and again try to get in touch with the company the money was transferred to."

"Thanks, Hap, I've got a group of sad faces here that could really use some cheering up. Don't overwork yourself, get back here when you can, you shouldn't even be working right now," Pepper sounded more confused than angry about all of this.

The lights flickered once again and the television turned on to static.

Everyone in the room looked towards the mounted LED screen on the wall and then soon enough to Stephen who looked just as confused as they were.

"Hey Strange, is this you?" Rhodey didn't seem to be enjoying the prank if it was one.

"This definitely isn't me," Stephen frowned at the idea and Peter couldn’t imagine he'd joke around at a time like this. He didn’t know Stephen to be a prankster of any sort.

Pepper still looked equally confused as she put her phone away in her pocket and came back to the table putting a smile back on.

"Guys - guys. I think the facility is haunted," Peter looked around, a surprised look on his face and Sam chuckled at that.

Stephen frowned and the rest smirked.

“Did you see something, Peter?” Stephen asked lowly, but before Peter could get a word in Rhodey shook his head.

“We all saw something, Strange. The lights fucking around, the TV going haywire…”

“Peter?” Stephen insisted, ignoring the other man and watching Peter intently.

“There’s something that just… feels weird,” he mumbled in response, lowering his head for a moment in uncertainty at the way the others responded at first. “I don’t know how to explain it I just…”

“Strange--”

“Take your time, Peter,” Stephen soothed quietly, ignoring Sam’s eye-rolling

“Um… it’s just… Miss Pepper? I’m sorry for eavesdropping but I know from experience that Stark Industries isn’t really… hackable. And before you get upset!” he continued loudly as both Stephen and Pepper opened their mouths to speak, “I was trying to look things up for my suit! But Friday shut everything down really fast. She kinda keeps things out. So…”

Pepper was confused as anyone as they looked between one another.

"It feels like there's something here, but I can't see it, I know it's here though," Peter seemed flustered but if anyone was to have a rampant imagination it would be the kid.

"You don't think it's unreasonable to consider Tony may have had some last-minute projects Friday was ordered to fulfill after his passing?" Stephen's stony expression didn't seem to change at all as he regarded Pepper.

"If anyone would know about that, it would be me or Happy," she seemed unsure of her own answer.

All of the people there had been through armageddon and a half and the literal end of the universe as they knew it, but spirits or ghosts seemed to be the one idea that everyone seemed to dismiss without another thought.

"So, are you trying to say that there are ghosts?" Sam blurted out with a boisterous laugh. Rhodey rolled his eyes. "Yo Stark, is that you up there?" Sam smirked. 

"Flicker once for yes, twice for no," Rhodey started to jump in on the fun. The lights flickered multiple times before one of the light sockets blew out and the power to the room was cut.

Stephen narrowed his eyes but sat still in his chair while there seemed to be unrest in the room, specifically as Peter moved in closer to Stephen's side.

"Now I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation for all of this," Pepper started, she seemed a little unsure with her answer as she called up Happy again.

“Are ghosts really so unreasonable, Doctor Strange?” Peter asked quietly, his voice betraying some of his anxiousness at the subject. Magic was real, after all - why shouldn’t souls be? Or ghosts?

“It’s not that ghosts are unreasonable, Peter,” Stephen began to explain quietly. “They can be very real. But during times of grief, it’s easy to want to hope that a recently passed loved one might be around in spirit. I’m not discounting the possibility that you’re right,” he added, “I just don’t think the others are ready to listen to or consider that possibility right now. It may or may not be what you think it is, that’s all.”

Peter had been certain. Very certain to begin with. Now he was questioning that certainty. 

Beside him, the doctor made a couple of hand gestures to create a bit of light to illuminate the darkness and Peter shuffled closer in uncertainty. Maybe it wasn’t Tony, but he was sure there was something in the room with them… and that was nerve-wracking to consider.

Pepper was on edge and Peter finally spoke up.

"Miss Potts, you said that there had been shipments sent out by Friday? Is there a chance that we might be able to go down and take a look at Tony's workshop, maybe there are some answers there." Peter piped up enthusiastically, it felt like there was some sort of mystery to be solved here, and even though Peter couldn't put a finger on that sense he had - he knew it was unique to the building itself and his gut was telling him that it was coming from the old workshop.

"Hey Friday, is there anything wrong with the systems right now? Maybe some glitches?"

"I can confirm that I am one-hundred percent operational."

"Great, well, are there any functions you were left to carry out after Tony's passing?"

"I'm afraid that information is classified." Pepper frowned and Peter looked to both her and Stephen.

"I'm not going down there, not with the compound in this state but if you would like to take Doctor Strange with you, Friday can give you clearance into Tony's workspace." Peter nodded with a determined look.

The wizard looked like he might protest, but after looking Peter over he sighed. “Very well. Lead the way then.”

Peter gave a nod and started to make his way towards the old, familiar workshop, Stephen padding along behind him. “If it is a ghost, what would we be looking for, Doctor Strange?” He inquired as they walked, leaving Stephen to chuckle softly behind him.

“I’ll keep an eye out. If it’s a ghost, I’ll let you know,” he responded, and when Peter peeked over his shoulder he tripped on his own feet at the sight.

“... whoa! Do you always have three eyes?! That’s so freaky! I always thought you were human! Are you from another dimension? How’d you get here? How did you manage-”

“Peter, slow down,” Stephen laughed a little more in response. “It’s a third eye - it’s magical. I’m definitely human.”

“That’s so cool ...!”

 


 

If Tony had a corporeal form at the moment he would be grinning like a madman. Those little pranks he played on his buddies upstairs - harmless in kind but immensely amusing for a 'spectre'. 

Now he really understood why ghosts liked to haunt people. Especially when he had the chance to freak Peter out of all people and make a skeptic of the good doctor.

As hypocritical as it was, Tony didn't believe in ghosts, not for a second. 

He was technically not dead - or was he? As the B.R.A.I.N. protocol dictated the project was fundamentally founded on the idea that the human body relied on electricity and energy. And in layman's terms that electricity and energy could be moved and magnetized to other objects once a strong enough magnetic pull had been applied to it.

Given that his body was dying, his form was weakened and the consciousness within him couldn't cling to his body anymore as the energy within him waned. At the last spark, his consciousness was sapped from his corpse and uploaded and interfaced immediately into his personal network. Tony was currently a consciousness, existing within a synthetic host at the moment, but one which was within his network. 

There were complications with the project, many in fact. By chance as it was, it worked out for him. Any dying soul could have been collected over his own and the man would have permanently ceased to exist given the casualties on the battlefield.

By luck and ingenuity, that wasn't the case.

'That stunt you pulled at the gathering was very amusing. Would you like me to give clearance to Peter and Strange to enter your lab?'

'Sure, why not. Just don't give them access to any of the consoles, think of it as sort of a tour I guess?'

'Of course.'

Without any prompting the doors up ahead opened, granting access to the duo without them even being in range. Peter immediately yelped and Tony snickered to himself. Stephen seemed more startled by Peter’s reaction than anything, though he cast a quick look around the room as he reached to steady Peter. 

“There’s nothing here, Peter, not that I can see anyway. Aside from a miracle… I’m not sure how this place managed to survive the bombardment…” the doctor sighed a little as he looked around. A few things were out of place and had fallen to the ground, each of which Stephen took the time to pick up and set on nearby surfaces at least.

“Mister Stark usually keeps this place pretty well locked up. I’m pretty sure it could survive a nuclear bomb down here,” Peter piped up, running his hands over a couple of things before looking at the consoles curiously, beginning to type a few things to get it running.

It wasn’t something Tony would’ve expected from Stephen, who still seemed to be tidying up the place, but from Peter the nosiness was predictable. The kid knew a thing or two about programming, and he was tempted to see what Peter thought he could accomplish… Only tempted, of course.

There was nothing that could stroke Tony's big fat ego more than the admiration of a fifteen-year-old, or however old the kid was now after the 'blip.' The man's figurative dick was hard every time the youth gushed over his inventions and technology, and so the reason why a lot would have been left for Peter - if he really did pass away.

As the two 'men' tentatively approached the workshop, they halted as a voice on the intercom spoke up. 

It was Tony's.

"You've reached the lab - but oh no, there's a trap waiting for you on the other side! It’ll go off unless you can answer this skill-testing question."  It held the cadence of a dungeon master describing the next puzzle in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

The room flashed red as Tony initiated some emergency lights and behind them, a metal panel closed off their exit and that immediately spooked poor Peter.

"You must answer correctly: my favourite brand of ice cream," the voice on the intercom sounded like a rehearsed recording, jovial in its tone through the consequences appeared to be real.

Peter looked to the open door and then to their closed off exit. "I mean, maybe I could get that door open, or the both of us if we tried-"

"You have thirty seconds to answer this skill-testing question," Tony added with amusement as he watched the teen panic. Panels unfolded from the wall, their targets aimed at the duo in case the answer was given incorrectly.

“Peter-”

“I’ve got this!” the teen piped up clearly enough, “I’m sure I’ve got this…”

“Peter, those are guns,” Stephen insisted as Peter continued to type.

“Yeah, I have guns pointed at me all the time, this is no sweat. I’ve got this…!”

“What do you mean you have guns pointed at you all the time?” the doctor inquired incredulously.

“What, don’t you have guns pointed at you, Doctor Strange?” Peter asked as he hit enter on the keyboard.

The lights flashed and Peter’s proud expression became one of nervousness.

“Uh oh! Looks like you guessed wrong!”

A familiar circular shield enveloped the duo before the guns fired off a geyser and water dripped harmlessly down the shield as Stephen continued to hold the barrier with a perplexed expression.

"Oh, c'mon doc, you didn't really think I'd blast your asses into oblivion, did you?" The voice teased as the guns folded into the wall and all semblance of a threat seemed to dissipate. The voice on the intercom concerningly specific.

"See, I told you! It is Mr. Stark's ghost, he's… here but not really?" Peter, hopeful, pulled on one of Stephen's arms to get him to lower the barrier as he tugged him in the direction of the open doorway.

"It should be safe to go inspect the lab, shouldn't it?" Poor Peter's heart was racing as he looked up hopefully at the sorcerer.

Stephen seemed more than a little wary as he looked around the room, one eye on his forehead scanning the room and glowing brightly, the other two focusing on various different points in the room as he frowned deeply. “There’s no ghost here, Peter. There’s no magic or anything spiritual at play… what game is this, Stark? Friday? I had no way of knowing that was a threat directly geared at us - this isn’t… some…”

“... can we just go inside and look, Doctor Strange? Maybe there are answers inside…” Peter watched him in confusion. “I mean, maybe it’s just an AI? Mister Stark was really good with AIs… or…”

Peter took a few steps before crossing the threshold into the workshop proper and whether to protect Peter or not, Stephen followed after him shortly.

All around them machines were busy at work crafting, painting, printing, programs running and computers rendering diagrams as if the place had been left only momentarily for a coffee break. On one end of the room, it almost appeared as if a 3D printer was manufacturing parts while others ran diagnostics.

Peter was captivated by the sight of all these moving parts and machines, an almost incomprehensible sight when considering one man made all of this. He approached what looked like a cryo-chamber. There were glass panels on the top but there was a smoke gauzing up the windows that allowed one to peer within.

'Mr. Parker, please avoid touching the arc or you will have to be ejected from the workshop,' Friday instructed softly.

“What’s going on here?” Stephen asked rather pointedly. “The rebuilt section of the compound just lost power. Things are going awry. What is this, Friday? An AI? Those people up there aren’t ready for whatever this game is…” There was something about the man’s voice that rang unsteady despite his clear statements. According to the various sensors placed around the room that had in the past been used to monitor Tony’s well-being, Stephen’s heart rate was elevated - he was breathing harder than he should have been.

“What, did you miss me? You’re getting all emotional for lil’ ol’ me, doc?”

There was a long silence at that, as Peter and Stephen looked at one another before Stephen lifted his gaze to look at the ceiling as though that would make it any easier to direct his queries. “... Tony…?”

Despite there being no further answers that followed, the machinery in the workshop continued to truck onwards with its unknown tasks.

Peter's lip began to quiver. "Mister Stark if you are there this isn't funny, this isn't a joke!" 

Stephen reached for the youth's hand but the teen's fists balled and he stepped forward.

"We really miss you, we really need you. Doctor and I both need you, the world needs you!" He crumpled to his knees on the floor of the lab and Stephen slowly walked over to him and placed a hand on Peter's shoulder.

"Let's go, Peter, I don't think this is anything more than pre-programmed AI. Tony has his odd sense of humour..." Stephen almost sounded reluctant to go, but at the same time, he sounded unnerved and uncomfortable.

Tears stung at the young man’s eyes, cheeks red in frustration as he felt the doctor's shaky hands coax him up. He took in a deep breath and rose to his feet. Stephen's arm around his shoulder as the sorcerer cast a portal to extract both of them from the lab.

'I think you might have scared poor Peter to tears boss.'

'Not the intention Fri, what's the status on the arc?'

'Another day, but the Q.E.D. is up and running if you want to take it for a test and get some fresh air. Maybe you can pay the doctor a visit?'

'Sounds like a plan.'

 


 

“What do we even tell the others?” Peter inquired of the sorcerer as they walked away, and Stephen wrapped an arm around his shoulders tightly.

“Nothing. We went. We investigated. There was nothing to find,” Stephen responded lowly, holding the teen close against his side. “I’m sorry, Peter. I know you were hoping for more… But there are no ghosts here. Just shadows.”

“I really thought…”

“I know.”

Chapter Text

With Peter dropped off at home and Stephen coming back with a handful of cookies once again, Stephen found himself slumped in the armchair of his study with a drained expression as he tried to fathom what exactly happened.

He brewed himself a pot of tea and stared at the mosaic of the ceiling, perched with the teacup and its saucer on his lap while he waited for the piping hot liquid to cool. The Cloak of Levitation soon floated over to the sorcerer, giving it's companion a gentle and reassuring pat on the shoulders to greet him.

"I'm fine," he stated coolly, as though the red cloak was wordlessly inquiring about his mood. There was a moment where it almost looked to be distracted by something as if it had caught a glimpse from the corner of its figurative eye, distracted until it looked back at Stephen concerned for his well-being.

Resting his head back and allowing the cloak to cradle it, Stephen closed his eyes for a long moment before inhaling the steam off of the tea, sighing deeply. 

“Today was a mess. Remind me to never go to public gatherings with Peter again?” he requested softly, sitting up to blow on his tea as he sighed.

“I don’t know why I agreed. Talking to Pepper and clearing the air some was nice but… I’m fairly certain everyone now thinks I’m some asshole playing pranks on them regarding their dead friend. So that’s… less than ideal.” Stephen ran a shaking hand over his face before finally sipping at his tea slowly.

 


 

'Hey, Friday?'

'Yes, boss?'

'How do I get this asshole's attention? How much can I affect inanimate objects?'

'Not by very much sir, but some of the objects or relics in the Sanctum could be possibly more charged than those of a common household. You can still influence electronic devices, not so much inanimate items.'

Tony 'floated' over to the lamp next to Stephen, attempting to jostle it with whatever incorporeal force he harnessed, the stand only shook a centimetre - not enough to grab the doctor's attention who was currently not even looking that way. The cloak, however, had seen that and perked in the direction of the lamp.

Of course Tony wasn't paying attention to it either. The lamplight flickered as he passed through it and he went to a few books and papers, affecting them no more than the breeze from a ceiling fan. 

He turned a desk chair, moved a curtain and by the time he finished, he didn't realize the cloak was staring right at him, ‘face’ to face.

If Tony could narrow his eyes, he would. He moved to one side and the cloak turned a collar, and then to the other and it followed again. The corner of the cloak lifted to wave at Tony.

'Uhh, red, can you see me?' The cloak nodded and then enveloped the incorporeal form with its own fabric with a hug-like gesture. 

Tony thought it was cute until he wasn't able to think at all from a sudden realization. 

He hadn't expected to feel the unexplainable and all-encompassing warmth when the cloak had curled around him. It whisked him up and he wasn't able to move away as the relic interacted with him, he was interacting with a solid force.

The antics of the cloak had eventually caught Stephen's attention and the sorcerer looked perplexed by the display. "Levi, what on earth are you doing over there?"

The cloak gestured wildly as if trying to beckon it's companion over. 

Tony was greatly amused by this.

Stephen sighed heavily at that. “I swear if you’ve caught another bird… Levi, we’ve talked about this.” The sorcerer dragged himself to his feet to make his way over, his eyes focused on the cloak as he looked right through Tony.

“Well? What is it?”

The cloak gestured to Tony where there was a clear impression of something inside the folds of the cloak.

Tony cackled. 'Don't think he can see me, red, good effort.' He moved around the folds of the cloak, and Levi looked back at him, following after him as he walked around the room. There was another attempt to scoop him up in the folds of the fabric which once again showed the impression of something but Tony pushed past the cloak once again.

He walked by a light which flickered. 'Do you have anything I might be able to use to talk to him?' Tony stopped, and the cloak did so as well.

Stephen’s expression had gone from perplexed to downright curious. 

“Ghosts again?” he inquired exhaustedly, running a hand into his hair like he was stressed out by the concept before he closed his eyes again and a light shone on his forehead. After a moment the light became brighter and formed into a green eye which fixed on Tony and the cloak rather pointedly before a soft noise left Stephen, his other eyes opened again, following the third eye’s gaze.

“... And where did this one come from, I wonder...” the sorcerer hummed softly to himself. “You don’t look like a typical ghost. What brings you to the Sanctum? Are you lost?” Stephen didn’t seem to recognize him.

Tony seemed to shuffle back a bit when there was a freakish glowing eye fixated on him. It looked like something out of a horror movie and he, to this point, wasn't aware that Stephen had such abilities.

Note to self: Ghost pranks probably won't work as well on the wizard.

'He can't hear me, can he?' The tone sounded amused and the cloak shook it's collar again. It then tried to gesture to Stephen but honestly not even Tony would have been able to make out the wild movements the cloak was pantomiming.

Stephen was quiet as he watched the cloak, though the third eye remained fixed on Tony. The sorcerer raised an eyebrow after a moment and shook his head. 

“Can they hear me?” he inquired, as though an echo of Tony’s own question of the cloak. “Do they need help? I’m sure there’s something around here that can fix up this barrier, maybe make them clearer to see?” And that sounded like thinking aloud if he’d ever heard it.

The cloak gave a little bob of its collar at that notion before unfixing itself from Tony to guide them up the stairs and towards the relic room. “Come,” Stephen gestured to him as though he was anticipating Tony was somehow unable to hear him.

'Curious! Never seen the witch doctor in his natural habitat!' He followed the cloak into the relic room and stopped beside the cloak.

There were a lot of weird objects here - swords, jars, vases, Tony felt like he was standing in the middle of a museum.

'Dear lord, if this man gives me a history lesson I think I might actually die...' That earned Tony a whip from the corner of the cloak from the response.

“Let’s see what do we have…” Stephen pondered to himself as he made his way around the room. “This would be so much easier if I knew what the issue was that was muddying the connection. Do you figure the Vase of Voices might help?” he inquired of the cloak, “it might help us to hear them.”

The cloak gave another nod of its collar and Stephen sighed heavily. “I was hoping you’d say no, this thing gives me the heebie-jeebies…”

Regardless of his misgivings, the sorcerer opened the case the vase in question was in and held the vase carefully below his chin and spoke into it, demonstrating his instructions clearly enough. “Speak into the vase, it will help you find a voice. This is a temporary measure until we can find something that will allow us to communicate more easily with one another…”

His voice distorted and the words that came out sent a chill through him as it was spoken in many voices and languages at once, as though the souls of the damned themselves were whispering in  Tony’s ears. Stephen didn’t seem too keen on the effect either, as he swiftly held it out to the cloak.

“If you want to hold this for our friend so I’m not too in their space, I’m sure they’d appreciate it.” His two less glowy eyes fixed on the spot where Tony stood as the cloak took the vase to hold under his chin.

There was a small period of silence where Tony didn't say anything, the cloak gave him another swat on the back before he grunted. 

“Alright, jeez no need to be so pushy - sorry, I just can't deal with the freaky third eye staring at me. It's like talking to a person with a massive zit on their face. It's hard to ignore!” He spoke into the jar in front of him still slightly creeped out by the eye.

The cloak shook it's collar as if sighing.

“... well, without it I can’t see you and would have assumed the cloak was playing with birds again,” Stephen stated matter-of-factly, seeming unfazed by Tony’s words. “In any case, welcome to the Sanctum Sanctorum, is there something I can help you with? What brings you?”

"I need some help with that weird magic stuff you do doc, I didn't think I'd ever be asking you of all people for help . Either of you know how to bind a consciousness or a soul to a body, I mean if you could call it that?" Tony wondered if Stephen understood who he was talking to, he didn't seem to let on that he did, and his voice came out entirely different.

He certainly looked confused, to say the least. “I can’t… resurrect you, I’m afraid. I’m not practised in necromantic or demonic arts. And if it was so simple as that, every ghost in New York City would be having me resurrect them.”

"Jeez doc, you really think I'm the type to believe in ghosts? I'm not really dead, very much alive - hello, it's me Tony? Or is the line broken on this thing? I don't remember sounding so freakishly ghastly..." If Tony could frown, he would. "We'd be using the mind stone for this - no creepy, crazy voodoo magic, not really my thing, but if anyone knew about this kind of stuff I figured it would be you."

The sorcerer’s expression changed in an instant, his expression blank and then uncertain. “... Tony…? Listen… the mind stone is set to return to where it belongs at the end of next week. Doctor Banner has been working on recreating the device you used to acquire them in the first place… I don’t know how you expect that we’ll get access to it. But you… you died. We all watched you die. We had a funeral - you were cremated. Even if we proceed with the assumption that you’re not a ghost, you have no body to return to.”

"Oh c'mon doc, no one reuses a condom after it's broken," this earned him a frown from Stephen for his horrifically awful use of metaphors.

"I know I don't have that body anymore, its destroyed, caput - nada! But until my new body is finished, I'm basically confined to the network of the compound and… however far my energy can travel from it. Well, that, and the suit. But I doubt you'd want me showing up in one of those."

If Tony had a body, his arms would be crossed.

"If getting a hold of the mind stone is really the pinnacle of problems you foresee us running into then it really shouldn't be a big deal. I still have control over network and security, and you know where that mind stone is being kept?" There was a moment's silence, "locked in the compound. I could have you walk right in there past security like you owned the place."

“You want to explain to me what all of this is, then? So that maybe you don’t need to use the Vase of Voices to talk to me? That would be ideal. If you’re not a ghost, it explains why your form is so unlike ghosts I’ve encountered in the past. Then, perhaps, we can start working on figuring out this situation of yours? I need more information than just a potential dead man telling me he’s not dead, you have to understand…”

"It's just quantum physics doc - no biggie! I put this little number together when you were busy taking your big fat five-year nap as a giant dust bunny on planet who-cares." Tony could have rolled his eyes. "Back when I thought your plan was all just a bunch of hocus-pocus I was trying to come up with a way to bring back those that had passed away, or at least come up with a way of preserving them if it happened again.

"Right now, I'm here - but I'm not as well. I'm not going to bore you with the details but it's something to do with quantum displacement. I'm actually back at the facility right now, and I'm only projecting my consciousness here at the moment. You probably wouldn't understand what that's like." He snorted with amusement.

“No, of course, I have no concept of what it means to be in more than one place at a time,” Stephen didn’t sound amused. “If this is about quantum physics, and nothing I would understand, perhaps I can redirect you to Doctor Banner, or Doctor Pym for assistance.” The sorcerer’s third eye finally closed and disappeared as he shook his head some.

“So earlier, that was you then? You were just fine making Peter cry like that? Have you considered how everyone else might react to your sudden return?”

"It was a harmless joke, seriously meant no harm by it… Maybe I took things too far, but what the hell do you expect a disembodied consciousness to do? I don't have a body, doc," he started.

"I don't know anything about the mind stone. If I try to do this and I fuck up? That's it doc, I'm really dead, I'm gone. Not all of this is science and Bruce doesn't specialize in quantum physics either - which this isn't. I have as many resources as I can offer, but until then I'm confined to a metal suit or a mainframe, and I don't plan on living out the rest of my existence as some voice in a computer."

Stephen rubbed at his face at that, sinking into a chair. “So what do you want me to do, exactly? Magic you up a body? Magically put your disembodied consciousness into it? You do understand that this isn’t exactly how magic works, either, right? And if it doesn’t work and you wind up dead dead, all over again… I was just barely starting to come to terms with my guilt in this situation…” His face sunk into his hands as the man shuddered in his seat.

“So you’re going to have to be a lot more precise about what it is you want me to do here. My knowledge of the stones beyond the time stone are limited. I’ve never used any of the other stones.”

"Doc, this isn't your fault. You said it yourself, this is how things were meant to be, there really was no other way," Tony followed Stephen over to his seat.

With Stephen's third eye put away the only indication, the other's presence was there was the movement of the cloak and the jar until Levi had followed Tony right up to Stephen. Tony's energy was floating in front of the sorcerer as if trying to reach out and console him.

If he had arms, he'd put a hand on the sorcerer's shoulder and gently squeeze it.

"I have a body. I grew new organs, stem cell research - you should know that it's possible. Half of it is robotics but I'm confident I can get to the point where my body would be completely organic." He paused briefly. "I need help transferring my mind and consciousness to the body with the stone, without proper help there could be so many complications, one of which results in my soul being lost to the aether or wherever people go when they die. Was never much of a religious man there."

“Tony, this isn’t as simple as just… plucking a consciousness from one place and putting it into another. Even with the mind stone it would take me a lot of research to make sure this is done right and that the process wouldn’t make things worse for you. I don’t even know if it’s fully feasible. Your consciousness is stored in… what? Data? A network? I have a rough time with technology interfering with my magic…”

Stephen continued to rub at his face, shaking his head some before summoning his long-forgotten cup of tea to himself and cradling it in his hands. “The mind stone might be able to correct that but… still, I can’t make any promises. I can’t guarantee that.”

"I don't need a guarantee doc, I just need to know it's possible. I can't say I'd strive to live the life I currently do. I don't have a body, I can't touch anything, I still have feelings but everything seems numb. As much as I can play god as an AI I really would rather not, there's no fun in that," Tony responded softly.

"But you? You're all I've got and I couldn't put my faith in you as completely the first time, but I can put my faith in you now," his voice softened dramatically. "I'll take the risk, at this point I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain." Tony went quiet after that, not sure what else to say.

“... I killed you,” Stephen responded quietly, staring at his tea. “I let you die. I put us all on a path that ended your life. Why would you trust me now if you didn’t before?”

"Stephen, buddy, one life over billions," Tony tried to reason softly, "or even trillions - god I don't know, but it was me versus the universe. You had a choice to make, to choose the many over the one, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially considering how rocky our interaction was." Tony laughed and it was clearly indicated by the soft jovial echo through the relic's reverberation.

"And by the way, I'm still not dead, so it's not like you did anything wrong - but you kind of did make this a huge inconvenience so if you feel guilty about it? Then help me restore myself."

“Thanks for that,” the sorcerer responded flatly, shaking his head. “It’s not impossible, Tony, but I don’t know if I’m capable of doing what you’re asking... I won’t know until I can take a proper look at the mind stone myself… I need a better idea of what I’m working with before I can even hazard a guess as to whether or not I’m capable of doing this.”

"Work with me then, doc. I can give you all the resources you need, and time is no object either," Tony responded softly. "I need your help, and there really isn't anyone better qualified for this."

“Time is an object. The stones have to go back soon. They need to return to their timelines before anything is drawn to them,” Stephen responded with a shake of his head. “Having all of them together like they are is dangerous…”

The man was lost in thought for a few minutes. “Will you be able to speak on your own while we’re in your lab? The Vase of Voices can’t be taken out of the Sanctum, it’s here for protection and I won’t bring it with me but we’ll need to be able to communicate.”

"Of course, I have an intercom system but if you'd prefer to have me personified then I could inhabit one of the suits."

“Having an extra set of hands wouldn’t be the worst thing…” Stephen finished off his tea, set the cup aside and took the vase. “I’ll meet you back in your workshop.”

Tony watched as the man put away the vase again, collected his teacup and made his way downstairs once more, washing his teacup and putting it away as the cloak draped itself over his shoulders. When the portal began to open, Tony took that as his sign and made his way back to the lab.

 


 

Stephen was at a loss. He didn’t know if he was happy that Tony wasn’t dead, sad that he’d been placed in this position again, scared that he was going to fuck this up, or angry with Tony for asking something like this of him and having scared Peter in the process…

What he did know was that he owed this to Tony after what he’d put him through and his guilt was a powerful motivator. If not for Tony himself then for Peter and the others who had loved Tony and lost him. And for himself… selfishly for himself out of a desperate desire to get to know the man whose futures he’d watched play out millions of times. For himself, out of a desire to make amends and give Tony a better future.

Stepping into the lab, Stephen promptly looking around as though he was going to see Tony specifically, before shaking his head. That was a habit he’d need to break out of. “Alright, first the mind stone - where is it?”

When the interface finished on his suit Tony materialized in the lab as his nano-particle suit. The particles spilled out of one of the containment cells and his body began to build itself up. It started at the feet and worked itself up, forming the shape of a human figure until the nanites locked into place and formed an Iron Man suit.

The eyes lit up and it stepped forward, inhabited by the voice of Tony Stark.

"What, already to the formalities?" The suit walked over and pulled Stephen into an awkward hug, almost bone-crushing with the gesture. "It's nice to see you again, doc, thanks for coming."

Surprised, Stephen hesitated briefly before wrapping his arms around the machine loosely, patting his back. “I figured you’d want a body back as soon as possible. What with all the sensations that go along with it - though, I can imagine being a suit of nanite armour is quite versatile,” he chuckled softly to himself.

“Talking to you this way is definitely preferred over the Vase of Voices, though…”

"I mean - yeah, it would be nice to actually be able to feel something or someone if I touched them," Tony joked, though the humour was lost due to the irony of it all. "I wasn't all too keen about sounding like the spirit of a haunted sex dungeon, either," he added and finally let go of Stephen, gesturing for him to come over to the mind stone.

"The idea is that we'd use the mind stone as a tether to hold my consciousness, kind of like an intermediary to transfer over to this." Tony gestured for Stephen to follow and the sorcerer did. He led them over to the same arc they'd seen before, although this time the smoke had cleared to show a nearly perfectly recreated and manufactured body of Tony Stark.

"My consciousness is currently in the network, Stark database," he explained, "but like how we created Vision, I figured I could use the mind stone to tether my consciousness and interface with the body. My troubles lie in the fact that I will be crossing over from synthetic to organic. The mind stone will act as a bridge, but how? I'm not sure myself entirely."

“With Vision the mind stone became a part of him,” Stephen reminded him. He wasn’t around when it happened, but there was no denying that Vision had worn the mind stone literally on his face - that much he knew well enough. It was the reason Vision was no longer with them, after all, and the reason Wanda and Shuri seemed to keep talking in hushed voices that they for some reason thought he couldn’t hear.

“In your case, the mind stone can’t be allowed to fuse with your body to make that happen… thus magic,” he added as realization dawned on him. The reason Tony hadn’t simply brought in the team that helped create Vision to assist with the project was that they couldn’t accomplish what Tony was asking without literally fusing the stone to him - but the stones had to go back.

Carefully plucking the mind stone from its spot with magic, Stephen allowed it to hover in its place. “It’s going to take me some time to study this and it’s already getting late. I don’t suppose I could trouble you for a cup of tea?”

"For you, doc, anything ," Tony's voice was amused. As mundane as the task was to make tea, it was an odd sensation inhabiting an artificial form and trying to brew a pot of hot leaf water.

All he had on hand was a green tea and that's what he settled for making as he pulled the kettle off and infused the pot with the tea leaves.

Tony brought the mug over and set it down beside Stephen on the nearest table. An ironically metal tea kettle and simple porcelain mug. He added a touch of honey and extended the mug over to Stephen in a very robotic gesture, imitating Jarvis' voice for good measure. " Your tea, sir. "

Stephen couldn’t help but chuckle at that, accepting the tea with a warm smile. “Why thank you. I don’t recall you being so accommodating before - are you sure you’re Tony Stark?” he inquired with mock suspicion.

"Who knows, maybe I finally had that slice of humble pie, or maybe I'm simply just a robot," Tony chuckled. 

The stone remained suspended in a field of light as Stephen curled his hands around the mug and watched it thoughtfully. “This thing… no wonder it caused so many problems. I feel like I can hear it in my head even from here…” he sighed, frowning as he concentrated on sorting it out, sinking into one of the rolling chairs near him to ponder it. “The time stone didn’t speak the way this does - the mind stone has thoughts, feelings, ideas…”

"I was hoping that you'd be able to tell me I wasn't totally out of my mind, that what I'm reaching for was real." His visor turned to the arc though not necessarily because he was looking that direction.

"I want to be human again doc. I'll do whatever you need me to do to make that happen."

“You wanna be a real boy, Pinnochio?” Stephen chuckled a bit, shaking his head and blowing at the tea. 

“I can’t say for certain right now whether it’s possible or not. I need to know more about the tools at my disposal before I can give you any kind of accurate assessment. That’s going to take me a couple of days at the very least,” he added, glancing at the suit that housed Tony. “But I’ll do everything I can to see about making you real again.”

"I'll get you everything you need, anything you want - you just say the word," Tony promised, standing there, not knowing what else to do with his body. 

"If I don't have it, then I'll get it, simple as that. The world is at your fingertips doc, what's mine is yours - and I mean that if it gets my body back. You can take all the time you need, and if you need more time I can prolong it."

“At the moment I just need time to study this and see what I can learn…” Stephen sighed a bit. “In the end, all I can promise is to do my best. I hope you know I have a vested interest in you being human again, though. That vested interest being Peter’s happiness.”

"Oh honey I'm touched, you're always so thoughtless," Tony teased softly. With nothing better to do he simply let the armour stand there, though the eyes of the robot seemed to power down as if Tony had jumped from the body itself, leaving Stephen to do his work in peace.

Chapter Text

The artificial morning light had filtered into the imitation windows of the workshop to illuminate the slumbering form of the sorcerer. Tony had laid a blanket over the man's resting form, retrieved the mind stone in the night and set a pot of tea next to Stephen for when he woke.

At some point, he deduced the man was not actually asleep, but simply projecting himself out of his form so his mind could continue to engage in his research without fatiguing his form.

Tony idled around Stephen in the meantime. Unlike their first encounter, Tony wasn't able to follow Stephen to whatever plane of existence he retreated to when he was working through the night. Despite understanding that he could project his own form, his essence was technically not spiritual or astral in part.

Instead, he idled around in the nano suit, perfecting the body that was still processing in the arc. All the vital organs had been grown to maturity and implanted, the only step left was to code the biosynthetic brain and test out the body's response system before it would be ready for the final interface.

As it stood, the body within the arc was alive and breathing, but it was an empty shell currently. It slept, breathed and looked like a living Tony Stark, but there was no soul or mind in the body so it was just an empty husk lying there.

When Stephen returned to his body he wasted little time in pouring himself the still hot tea, yawning and looking over his messily scrawled notes (the man truly was a doctor if his handwriting was anything to go by) before adding a few things and getting himself something to eat.

For several days it continued quietly like that, with Stephen asking a question or two here or there about the materials Tony’s new body was comprised of, testing out a couple of short spells that made no sense to Tony, and studying and taking notes like he was in university. They didn’t talk much aside from during food breaks and it was both nerve-wracking to wait for word from Stephen, and sweet to see how dedicated he was to the task.

It had been four days of this by the time Stephen finally looked at him with some degree of certainty and nodded. “I think I can do this,” he stated softly but sounded fairly assured. “It’ll be a slow process, but I think I can do this. I’ll need a large open space to start creating a ritual circle though…”

"I'm sure we can move some of these tables out of the way to clear some space. How close, all things considered, does the body need to be to the ritual circle. Because if this isn't enough space, we can move to the combat facility and I can just bar all access until then for setup." Tony peered at Stephen, paying attention to make sure the man was ready for this.

“It’ll probably take me the better part of a day just to draw out the circle. We’d need to move most of the desks in here, and the body, the mind stone and I will be positioned in the centre of it…” Stephen sighed, curling his hands around his cup of tea after placing the mind stone back in it’s containment device.

"You've been at this nonstop doc, are you sure you're ready for it? If you need to take a night to rest, you are more than welcome, as excited as I am to be back in a human body."

“I could use the break. Check in on the Sanctum and make sure everything’s going okay. A shower would be nice…” he added as he ran his fingers through his hair.

"Please, I don't want you doing this in any state of fatigue. Why don't you go take care of yourself and I will prepare the lab to your specifications." Tony nodded already starting to move the first table, rearranging computer parts and unplugging pieces that were connected to floor panels. "Do I have an estimate to when you'll be ready?"

“I doubt I’ll be long… Two hours at most, but more likely only about an hour. Then I can prep the ritual circle. We can save the ritual itself for tomorrow so I can get a full night’s rest and we have lots of time to take the ritual slowly.” Stephen glanced at the suit of armour with a smile, “If you think you can wait one more day?”

"I mean, I've waited this long," the voice in the suit sounded amused as he turned to look at Stephen. There was no way for it to portray a smile but the sound of Tony's voice could have been as much. "Get your rest, the stones aren't slated to be returned for a few more days, we have time," he soothed.

“Alright. I’ll be back soon to prepare the circle, and then we can begin the ceremony itself tomorrow then,” Stephen sighed and rubbed at his face, before lifting his hands to open a portal to the Sanctum. “If you need me for whatever reason in the time that I’m gone, you know where to find me.”

The suit nodded. "Of course," and the portal closed.

Tony wasted no time moving tables and pieces of his lab. Where it came to desks and things that really couldn't be uprooted - he detached them and moved them aside without a moment's hesitation.

All of these things could be replaced, they were mere objects, computers which were backed up, wires which could be switched and interchanged and machines which could be repaired. Nothing could amount to Tony's potential rebirth, and hey - if it didn't work out, then what would it matter in the end?

He chuckled to himself at that thought. Mere pennies in the grand scheme.

It was a little over an hour before Stephen returned, his robes changed into something that seemed less flowing. The cloak draped itself over a chair as Stephen set things aside to look at the opened up space, giving it a satisfied nod as he did. He didn’t so much as greet Tony before grabbing what looked like the fanciest piece of chalk Tony had ever seen and extending the chalk out on a long stick as though it was some massive compass, pivoting the chalk around in a huge circle, before adjusting the compass to make it slightly smaller and repeating the process.

Tony had a joke on the tip of his tongue, though that would be lost as he gave the doctor space to start scaping out the circle he needed. Tony knew there wasn't much he could do so all he really could do at this moment was prepare a pot of tea and layout a small plate of sweets for the man who'd spent tireless hours trying to fix the mess that was Tony Stark.

"I can appreciate the dedication doc. It means a lot to me," Tony added softly, wanting to compliment the man.

The sorcerer looked up briefly and offered a smile as he made a much smaller circle following that. “It’s the least I can do. Though I have to admit this is… still a big ask. A lot of work, you know.”

By the time Stephen finished with the compass, there were four perfect circles drawn on the floor. Two were nearly the same size, only inches separating them, while the two smaller ones were much more dramatically separate, with the smallest being only about the size of a dinner plate. Stephen unfastened the chalk from the compass and set it aside before carefully stepping over to gather the cup of tea.

“With that said I appreciate your assistance in all of this as well. You’ve provided a lot of things to allow this to go smoothly that otherwise would have been a nuisance to deal with, and haven’t complained for a second. Wong is always griping about something any time I ask him to help,” the doctor sighed.

Tony could have shrugged, but he didn't. That would have been a crude gesture to a man who'd spent tireless moments perfecting everything for him.

"I mean, I think I owe you more than you know, with the help you've given me. None of this would really be possible without you, and I mean that Stephen. I wouldn't have had any other options," Tony stood idly by as he watched the sorcerer.

"If there's anything I can do after all of this, or even if for some reason I don't manage to make it through... please, let me know, I'm honestly eternally indebted to you."

When Stephen paused for a moment, Tony walked over to rest a hand over the man's shoulder, squeezing it.

“You don’t owe me anything,” Stephen shook his head. “If this works we can call it even?” he added with a chuckle, sipping at the tea and looking at the beginnings of the ritual circle with a sigh. “A hot pack might be good by the time this is done, though. My hands are going to be aching pretty badly, which is why I think tomorrow will be a better time to start the ritual itself…”

"I can do you one better than a hot-pack," Tony mentioned softly, standing back up again from his knelt over the position. " A small request compared to what you're going to be turning over, doc. But I'll make sure you're well taken care of, pampered even. Is there anything else I can do at the moment?"

“The tea is good, thanks,” the sorcerer chuckled softly in return, setting the cup aside again to start getting into the more detailed work of the ritual circle. A few more small circles he uses a smaller compass for, cleaning up the lines along the way before symbols begin to slowly fill the outer circle as Stephen clearly takes his time and effort to painstakingly draw each one.

“A hot-pack should be sufficient, but if you have something better in mind I’m always on the lookout for something better.”

It was hours of repetitive work as he watched Stephen create what was akin to a work of art on the floor. Each rune was drawn with such precision and care on the floor of his lab as he watched and observed the intimate process.

The doctor's hands were shaking, and near the end of the process, he could tell Stephen was in a lot of pain as the sorcerer struggled to lay down the final lines for the ritual circle.

Tony had retrieved a small glowing object that looked very similar to his own arc reactor, as Stephen sat back on his knees with the work complete he handed the doctor the glowing object.

“What’s this…?” the wincing man inquired as he gently flexed his fingers before reaching out to take the offered object with a look of utmost confusion.

"Just a step up from a heating pad." The small glowing item was a nano-bot housing unit, and the small nanobots streamed out of the glowing unit and encompassed Stephen's hand forming a small glove around it.

The glove applied some pressure to hold his fingers still while the inside warmed up and softly soothed the man's strained digits.

"It can do a lot of other stuff, but it's yours to keep," Tony brought up an interface for the glove so Stephen could see the options and customizable features on it. "It's set to synchronize but you can completely customize its capabilities if you don't like the presets."

“That’s…” Stephen started, looking somewhat taken aback as he looked between Tony and the device wrapped around his hands, steadily soothing them. He still winced now and then but there was something in his face that was unexpectedly soft as the sorcerer struggled for words. “... thank you… for this. This is… I never would’ve expected… I’m…”

"It's nothing special doc, just a bunch of nanobots programmed to execute a program I already wrote. You won't have to charge it, that reactor should power that gauntlet for life. It won't fix your problem, take it from me, people have been trying to fix me for ages. It will, however, make the pain more manageable, and probably help you write a little better without as much stress on your fingers." If Tony could smile, he would.

"Go home, get some rest - everything will be as it was when you left it tomorrow morning, if I need to prepare anything else, let me know.”

“Tony… it may not be anything special to you, but this means a lot to me,” he stated softly in response, cradling his arms against his chest with emotion hanging heavy on his tone. If Tony didn’t know better he’d think the man was on the brink of tears. “It really… means a lot to me… just… thank you.”

With his hands otherwise occupied, however, the man didn’t open a portal, nor even pick up the cup of tea or a snack, instead simply making his way to where the couch had been shoved out of the way and depositing himself there as the cloak flitted over to cover him. “... if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll just stay here for the evening…?”

"I'm glad, honestly - you've done a lot for me doc. This is the best I can do to start returning the favour. The company would be nice, I've gotten used to you sleeping at the desk. I'll be back with a blanket." There was a gentleness to Tony's voice as he fetched the folded faux-fur blanket and a pillow for the man.

"I feel bad, I'm sorry I don't have an actual bed but I think people would find it weird to have me accompany you to my bedroom… you know, cause I'm not really all there right now?" He felt the need to elaborate as he walked over and gestured for Stephen to lean up while he tucked the pillow under him and cast the blanket over his lap.

“I haven’t done that much, not really,” Stephen responded when Tony returned, curling up in the blanket and cloak with his hands still tucked against him. “I killed you. I sacrificed you. I know in the end the choice was yours but… it’s a trolley problem. Half the universe on the track, but by pulling the lever I can minimize that. Only about fifty deaths, including you and Natasha…

“What right did I have to intervene? And in doing so, no matter how many lives I saved, did I not still cause deaths? Am I not somehow at fault?” He sighed heavily as he curled into himself a little more. “I know I put us on the path that saved the most lives in the end… but I had no way of knowing you would find a way to get yourself through it. That you would somehow survive. I expected your death, among many others. I feel… responsible…”

"Would there be any difference if you hadn't killed me? If I'd perished by someone else's hands, and you were uninvolved in the entire process - would you not put in just as much effort if I reached to you?" Tony sat on the armrest of the couch and put his hands on his lap, leaning over towards Stephen.

"Does it matter in the end? It doesn't to me, what was done had to be done, without exception. It's the many versus the few, doc. No one else could have made any different or better decision. You viewed your options and maximized the probability, that's all there is to it."

“You didn’t sit with them while they were crying over you, Tony. You didn’t… you didn’t have to watch them mourn you, and see them grieve and wonder if you’d done the right thing.” Stephen looked up at the suit for a moment and flinched slightly. “Your lifetime, millions of times… I watched over and over and over as you lived or died. I watched you have a family - a child. I watched you retire and relax. I watched you grow old surrounded by friends and loved ones… I sacrificed not just your life, but your futures, and hopes, and happiness…

“And yes, of course I would have helped you regardless but that’s just it. I couldn’t find a way to keep everyone alive. I couldn’t give all the soldiers of that battle a happy ending. I couldn’t do the one thing I wanted…”

"Stephen, it's because of you that we are both still sitting here now. It was a minor bump in the road. I forgive you, I already have, even if you weren't helping me. At least I know my friends are safe, and the ones who aren't around made an active choice to give their life to save our world. None of them ever regretted it, and neither have I. I don't understand what you are going through, I never will because every human experience is different and unique. But I can help you work through it and get over it."

Stephen watched him silently for a long moment before tugging the blanket up further and nodding. He didn’t look reassured by Tony’s words or at all as though the pep talk had pepped him, but he at least stopped arguing the point, simply closing his eyes as the cloak squeezed in around him. “If you have candles around… ideally beeswax candles… they’ll be helpful for tomorrow. If not I’ll go fetch some from the Sanctum in the morning. Good night, Tony.”

Reserve didn't seem to be much of a thing as the suit leaned forward and dipped its hands into the blanket, fishing out Stephen’s form. He carefully scooped Stephen up into his arms and embraced him, tucking its visor over the sorcerer's shoulder and putting that inquiry on hold for that brief moment.

"Thank you for everything, Stephen."

Stephen’s eyes opened at that and for a moment he seemed frozen in his spot before he pressed his face into the armour’s shoulder in return, though he kept his hands tucked against himself, not reciprocating the hug entirely. “Don’t thank me before this is all done,” he stated softly. “Regardless, you deserve this, and much more besides.”

Tony didn't linger, he held the sorcerer for a healthy dose of time before setting him back down delicately in his make-shift bed.

"I'll go procure those candles for you, tea and breakfast will be ready for you in the morning. Tomorrow is going to be a very big day, for both of us," Tony let out what sounded like an amused breath of air.

"Rest up for me doc, okay?"

“Yeah. Sure thing. Good night, Tony,” Stephen responded softly, rolling over on the couch to press his face into the back cushions as he carefully removed the device surrounding his hands. “See you in the morning.”

"Mmmhmm," came the soft compliant hum as the suit powered down and Tony left the vessel to retreat back into the network of the lab.

Stephen was up bright and early the next day.

He took his tea quietly, looking rather zoned out and made sure he ate so that his hands wouldn’t shake any more than usual before he set to work laying out the candles and the mind stone.

“I’m going to need access to your body,” Stephen stated, his tone professional and sure as he stood before the chamber that held Tony’s new body.

"For you doc, the VIP treatment," he chuckled softly, walking over to the chamber and pressing some inputs on the touch screen before unlocking the hatch on the lid and sliding it open.

Tony turned the lid and any vapour cleared out of the air as the engineer's prone and fully nude form lay there before the both of them.

"If you two need some time alone - just let me know," he jested playfully.

Stephen didn’t even pretend not to be flustered, as he carefully lifted Tony’s soon-to-be body and settled it in the center of the circle, laying him out and not bothering to cover him. “I tend to prefer my partners to play a more active role in my engagements. I’ll keep the offer in mind though,” he responded as he laid the body out carefully and rested the back of Tony’s head into his lap.

Once he settled into his place, he made a quick gesture and the lights went out in the room, the candles lighting up almost instantaneously, before he looked at the armour. “Leave that. I need you in the middle of the circle near your body.”

Tony walked over to a compartment in the wall of the lab. He punched in an access code, then a small door opened up and he pulled out a small box no bigger than his chest.

He carried it over to Stephen, taking a moment to eye the man holding his head in his lap. The scene struck him fondly as he set the small box next to him and opened it.

Inside, a glass case which housed something that resembled a greyish coloured brain.

"This is where I've kept myself, it's a synthetic brain." The organ hummed and whirred, a soft blue glow surrounding it with fingers of electricity grabbing and poking at the inner glass walls much akin to a plasma globe.

"Once I kill the power to it, any magnetic force it has on my consciousness will be null and can be redistributed. But if there's no acting force on it, there will be only moments until I'm lost to the aether and really dead." Tony's voice was so casual as his visor looked to Stephen.

“This is beautiful,” Stephen stated quietly as he admired the brain. “You would be the kind of man with a beautiful brain, wouldn’t you? This is quite a work of art, Tony. You’ve outdone yourself…” He looked up at the suit of armour with a smile. “I suppose I better get to work so that there’s no concerns, hm? Lucky for you I’m used to these kinds of procedures…”

"You're really missing out on this one doc, you might even turn my cheeks red with those compliments. Though let's not try to blow my head up to the size of a balloon before I'm back and alive again, alright?"

His fingers ran through Tony’s hair thoughtfully, for a moment before he rested a hand over the mind stone, and another over Tony’s synthetic brain. “Please don’t let anything come into the ritual circle while I’m working. I can talk, but there could be complications if anything enters the circle.”

Tony was about to lock down the lab when just by chance, he heard the door behind him open and froze.

Stephen looked up at Tony, not sure why the android stopped, as if the body had frozen up - the lights were still on in the visor. Tony realized the problem a little too late, he was afraid to turn around when he heard the mousey voice of Peter Parker chime in softly.

"Doctor Strange...?" Another pause as he could only assume the boy was confused and trying to process the situation, a shaky voice. "Mister Stark...?" Tony's visor turned to see Peter frozen in his tracks in a stance that was undetermined whether the boy wanted to leave or stay.

Chapter Text

“Peter, this isn’t what it looks like.” Stephen had no idea what to say as he realized from an outsider’s perspective what this must look like.

“... it looks kind of like you’re going all Full Metal Alchemist trying to bring Mister Stark back.”

“Okay, it might be a little bit what it looks like?” The sorcerer glanced at the Iron Man suit for a moment, but Tony hadn’t moved in the slightest.

“Your transmutation circle is wrong…” Peter piped up as he slowly seemed to process what he was looking at, but cleverly stayed outside of the circle even without prompting.

“It’s not a transmutation circle,” Stephen retorted with a shake of his head, trying not to laugh a little.

“That makes sense. If it was, there should be more triangles.”

Peter, ” Stephen chuckled. “Just… stay out of the circle while I’m working, okay? Or something could go really wrong.”

His hands had begun to light up as he began his work, carefully and delicately sewing strands of Tony’s consciousness into his new body, with Tony’s synthetic brain on one side of him in one small circle and the mind stone beside him in another, with Stephen’s lap and Tony’s head resting in the dead centre of the circle.

“That makes sense. You know this worked out really bad for the Elrics when they tried to bring their mom back? Maybe you shouldn’t- I-I don’t want something to happen to you, Doctor Strange…”

“Luckily this isn’t some show you watched,” Stephen gave an exasperated sigh as the circle lit up around him, casting a warm golden light around them and making it very clear where the boundaries of the circle were. “And you really shouldn’t base principles of magic on what you’ve seen on the television.”

“It’s an anime-”

“Even worse, ” the sorcerer rolled his eyes.

"Kid, keep a safe distance back, I don't want you getting involved with this." The suit moved and an arm was around Peter's midsection as he ushered him back away from Stephen.

Peter immediately jumped backwards, turning pale. His mouth opened and there was a look of panic in the boy's eyes as he gawked at the metal suit.

"M-m-mister Stark - what?!?" The boy's eyes darted from the suit to the body. "B-but-you’re-" his gaze continued to jump between the two. "But that's-" his mouth quivered with a look of distress.

"I'm still here," Tony's voice was gentle. The boy immediately launched himself at the suit, sending it stumbling back a few steps before Tony placed his arms around him to return the embrace.

"So you're not dead?" The boy's voice was shaky and Tony shook his head. 

"Not quite, but I'm also not really alive either," he looked up to where Stephen was peering over at them, a little distracted but Tony nodded at him to continue. "Stephen's helping get me back into a body again. Just give him space, everything will be over soon." 

The youth was sobbing against him, squeezing tighter and clawing at the shoulders of the suit. "Why didn't you tell us?!" Peter wailed into the metal, cheek resting on its breastplate.

"I tried, I couldn't. That night in the conference room I was trying to reach out, but I couldn't yet." The boy squeezed harder if it was even possible. "I'm here, and I'm going to be back in a body again soon enough. Just relax kid." He gently smoothed his hand over Peter's back.

The candles flickered a little as the light around Stephen intensified. The cloak removed itself from Stephen’s shoulders to drape over Tony’s exposed body, shielding him from Peter’s view as Stephen began to concentrate further. 

The mind stone was rather overwhelming to work with. Unlike the pure energy and distortion that came of using the time stone, the mind stone felt as though it used him as much as he was using it, prying through his thoughts and memories, voicelessly communicating with him despite his inability to understand it in the slightest. It made it challenging to focus on the words Peter and Tony were exchanging, though he could see that they were still speaking…

Instead, he closed his eyes and focused in on the process, knitting the electrical impulses of Tony’s synthetic brain into his body, ignoring the bite and sting of them as they would occasionally flick over his hands.

Something peripherally hurt, and he assumed it was the direct use of the mind stone in this manner causing the pain. His hands always hurt anyway, but unlike with the time stone whose power was filtered through the Eye of Agamotto, the mind stone was very much free of any such housing - he needed it to be to do this.

 


 

Tony turned his visor towards the sorcerer and it almost appeared as if the engineer was stumbling a bit. He felt his entire being funnelled towards something more organic and less robotic as a sensation he hadn't experienced in a long time - emotion, feelings - visceral reactions of the body began to seep into him and his consciousness waned.

"Mister Stark is unable to speak at the moment Peter, please remain calm. The transfer is underway and boss will not be able to interact while it happens," Friday chimed in as Tony ceased responding to Peter’s words.

The suit began to deteriorate in Peter's grasp, nanites fell to the lab floor in a slow process. The youth seemed to panic and pull back as he looked up at the visor, the faceplate melting down into nanobots that fell to the floor. Peter backed up as the suit crashed into the workshop's tiles, shattering and he stumbled backwards.

"Doctor Strange what-"

"Peter, please save your questions, the doctor is trying to concentrate," Friday added in again.

The youth looked terrified as the only semblance of his father figure disintegrated in front of his eyes.

Tony was currently lost in a world of his own, bright lights and colours that almost resembled the Bifrost passed by him at lightspeed. There was a warmth, a pull like the current of the ocean directing him into the new vessel, a light as he moved towards it.

Behind him, darkness the was encroaching just as fast and peace turned to panic as he moved to escape the jaws of this quickly encroaching void.

“I have you,” a voice called, but it wasn’t Stephen’s. It was different, unknown, but it felt safe and warm, beckoning to him from the light. “Come to me and I will show you the way.”

As Tony drew nearer he felt a more familiar warmth - something that felt uniquely like Stephen in a way he struggled to understand. He didn’t know how or why it felt like Stephen, or what it even really meant for it to feel like Stephen, but it did. His magic seemed to curl around Tony like a warm blanket on his consciousness, pulling and weaving him gently into those sensations.

It was odd to feel again, especially when he was still only partially connected to them. He felt a heartbeat, his lungs inhaling and exhaling slowly, but not the floor or the air around him - until he suddenly did. He felt his fingers twitch, the feeling of his exhalations tickling through his mustache and over his lip, and the soft lap his head was pillowed atop. He felt the cloak curl around him and hold him close, and the slight chill on his bare toes before the cloak covered those as well.

His heart was racing - pumping quickly as though he'd just returned to the surface for air, gasping in every breath he could take and eyes shooting wide open. Though the figures were blurry he could see, and his vision slowly came back to him as his neck craned painful to look around.

 

No longer did he feel the numbness of occupying the space around him, it was much different. He was no longer omnipotent in the system of the compound but whole as in one person, mind and body.

It was something he had missed, the simplicity of humankind and the sincerity of having the experience of feelings.

He was human, and despite fear being the first symptom of his existence, it was welcome. Feeling something was far better than feeling nothing at all and it was a welcome change despite the somewhat brief time he spent jumping from system to system in the compound.

Tony's muscles twitched and he weakly curled his fingers, clawing at whatever he could feel. This wasn't his body - nowhere near it - but it was a body, and it was human enough, more human than what he had after his supposed death.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Stephen greeted quietly, his robes still gently shifting with the movement of ambient magic, a small smirk on his features as his eyes caught the golden light still surrounding them. “Try not to move too much right away, we’re almost done here… Peter is very patiently awaiting a hug.”

Tony’s head shifted only slightly, his eyes moving to find Peter crouched by the nanobots, watching them in the center of the room intently and very much looking like he was waiting for the moment he was allowed to pounce into the circle. He could still hear that other voice in his periphery, something unfamiliar and unknown that kept soothing him, but the words themselves were no longer clear, only the energy, the feeling of support and encouragement.

He rested his head back properly in Stephen’s lap to watch the sorcerer, whose eyes had closed again to focus, and before long the lights around them went out and all he could smell was the smoke of the formerly lit candles as it hung in the air. Stephen’s hands resting on either side of Tony’s head, on his knees, and he gave a deep sigh. “There. How are you feeling?”

There was no time at all before he felt Peter rush over to the both of them and throw himself on Tony's chest which in turn made the man gasp for air and open his eyes fully, still trying to focus.

"Agh - alive, for now. Squeeze any tighter and I think the kid's going to asphyxiate me," Tony groaned with a hoarse voice.

Peter sheepishly loosened his hold and Tony breathed in and out. 

"Mr. Stark, you're back, you're really back!" The youth chirped happily. He wanted to go back in for another hug but Stephen put a hand on Peter's shoulder to stop him.

"Easy Peter, I think he needs a moment." The sorcerer's soft voice flooded his ears and Tony didn't want to move, curling his arms around the cloak as if trying to cover himself up any more than he already was.

He felt a little embarrassed, something he didn't experience before but now that he was in the flesh, he felt the compulsion to cover up. There were things he wanted to say to Stephen, but not in the presence of Peter. He had things to get off of his chest, and those feelings hadn't changed since their time working together.

"Where's my morning coffee, eh doc?" The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile, eyes weakly squinting up, still sensitive from the light.

“You’re a big boy. You should’ve made it yourself beforehand,” Stephen responded with a wry smile of his own. “What do you think, Peter? Would you be willing to make Tony his first cup of coffee in a few weeks? He’s still in my way and I have a lot of things I need to clean up before I can get to his coffee.”

Peter hesitated briefly before nodding and turning on a heel to head off to the cafeteria. “Coffee it is! I’ll be right back, Mister Stark!”

Stephen waited until the youth had disappeared before he turned a serious expression on Tony. “Are you sure you’re alright? You should test your body some, make sure everything is functioning as it should be… I may be able to make minor adjustments with the mind stone, but it should be put away soon.”

Tony slowly rolled over onto his side, bracing himself with both hands on the cold tiled floor as the cloak stayed fixed around his waist. His palms were weak, and it was a struggle to lift himself up but he'd designed the body to grow and change so it was something only time, practice and exercise would help with.

Carefully he pushed himself up, trying to sit up, he lost his balance a little and swooned to the side with a dizzying feeling. His vision hadn't quite cleared, but he could make out Stephen's features and anything within his close range.

"Even big kids need help," he said hoarsely with a strained laugh, climbing to his knees and staring back at Stephen with a weak smile.

He extended his hands in front of him, squeezing his palms and flexing his muscles, seeing that his body responded in kind before directing his attention to Stephen and slowly reaching outwards to place a hand on the sorcerer's face.

"I don't think you realize how much this means to me, but thank you so much doc." He looked down at the old braincase which no longer sparked and hummed with life.

He wasn't the same as he used to be, he never would be, but it was miles better than being a disembodied, feelingless voice.

“It’ll take some time to adjust, I’m sure,” Stephen smiled gently as he hooked an arm around Tony’s waist to support him in getting used to his new body. “I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if you experienced some dysphoria or otherwise dissociated your body from yourself for a while, but I’ll do what I can to help you in the meantime while you acclimatize again.”

Slowly the sorcerer got to his feet and helped Tony in standing as well, giving a little hum as the cloak curled around Tony’s waist tighter to help him with his modesty. “I suppose we ought to have asked him to fetch you something to wear as well…”

"Hey," Tony looked around, "I..." he started, it felt weird for his voice to come out of his throat again but so natural.

"Do you think we could hang around the Sanctum, or anywhere else but here. Peter can come too, or whatever, I just… kind of want to get out of here, I've had a bit too much technology and I'm also not really sure I’m ready to break the news to everyone yet. Everything's a little overwhelming and I just want some time to myself to adjust." 

Tony stood up with Stephen, he put a hand on the man and let himself fall against the sorcerer's chest to balance himself as his knees felt weak. Stephen immediately caught him, holding up his weight and Tony smiled apologetically.

Peter came speeding back with the coffee and stopped once again when he saw the two of them. "Is there something going on with you two that I don't know about?" Peter held out the cup and Tony eyed it like an addict.

“No, Tony’s just getting used to having legs again and we’re having a Little Mermaid moment, apparently,” Stephen looked at Peter with a smile. “Did you want to come back to New York with us? Tony’s going to spend a little time at the Sanctum with me while he adjusts to having muscles and tendons again.”

“Sure looks like something’s going on,” Peter murmured lowly to himself as he shuffled forward to give Tony his coffee. 

“Thanks, but I’ll stay here and clean up. Happy’s going to give me a ride back home and if I suddenly disappeared he might get suspicious,” he added a bit louder, looking around the room. “Um. Though someone might wanna put the glowy stone of death and the brain away somewhere, if anyone else comes down here they might be confused about what’s going on.”

Stephen offered a shrug as Tony gathered up the coffee and cradled it, leaning against Stephen still. “If you’re sure. You’re right though. Will you sit for a second while I deal with the mind stone and your former housing?” he looked to Tony with a smile.

Stephen guided Tony over to a chair and he sat down, sipping his cup of joe and smirked.

"Thanks, kid, I'll give you a proper hug when you won't snap me in half, and I'm also not in just my birthday suit." Peter smiled, picking up the brain off the floor and inspecting it.

"It's good to have you back Mr. Stark, I missed you, everyone misses you - don't take too long in letting them know, I don't know how long I can keep it a secret from them." There was some excitement as the puffy-eyed youth looked at him.

Stephen had nabbed the stone and disappeared to put it away again properly.

"Yeah, I just want to be physically and emotionally ready - I've had a pretty extreme out-of-body experience," he chuckled sipping the coffee like it was the most delicious thing he'd had in a long time.

Stephen returned shortly, opening a portal to a bedroom in the Sanctum before offering Tony a hand. “Shall we get you somewhere a bit more relaxed?” he offered with a smile. “I’m not sure how relaxing you’ll find being surrounded by magic, but hopefully it’ll be something at least. I’ll see about finding you something to wear while you’re there as well, we do tend to have robes and the like at least…”

Tony put an arm over Stephen's shoulder and walked slowly through the portal with him. He hobbled over to sit down on the bed, waving to Peter as the breach closed behind them

He had to admit he felt a little odd sitting there in just the cloak. Like he'd just gone for a walk outside in the rain and his clothes were wet, and his knees were also weak.

"Robe is fine, anything - I'm not particularly picky." He smiled sheepishly at Stephen, torn between trying to stand up again and staying where he was. His hands curling into the fabric of the cloak.

Slipping over to the dresser in the room, Stephen pulled out a pair of pants and something Tony could drape over his shoulders and tie up if needed, laying them out on the bed and smiling. “Do you figure you’ll need a hand getting dressed, or have you got this? The cloak can always help, too, if you need it. I expect your body could use something to eat as well,” he hummed softly.

“I’m not much of a cook though, so… is there something I can order for you, or grab you from the store?”

"I'm not going to protest to having your hands all over me when I can actually feel it," Tony smiled, he went to stand up, reaching out to grab Stephen's arm and the sorcerer helped him up. "And I'll order us something once I'm dressed."

It was at this moment that the cloak decided it wasn't necessary to stay around Tony's waist and he looked down, and then up again trying to shrug it off.

"Nothing you haven't seen already," his mouth quirked up in a smile as he tried to steady himself.

“Well, I am a doctor,” Stephen added absently as he braced Tony briefly. “Though I don’t know how much help you should need for something like this… you have two arms to pull on your pants… and your shirt doesn’t even need buttoning up. I expect you may have some trouble with tasks involving precise movements for a little bit but…” he sighed a little.

“It’s good to see you again properly, douchebag,” the sorcerer smirked slightly.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you, asshole." 

Stephen playfully nudged the engineer's chest and Tony grinned even wider as he took the pants and steadied them as he tried to slide them on. 

It was a bit of a mess as he tried to raise and lower his foot to slide into the pant legs, and thankfully the robe that followed was much easier to slide on afterwards. He crossed the front of his robes loosely and tied the sash leaving a low hanging vee in the front of his garb to expose some of his chest.

He stood back, finally getting his bearings and looking at Stephen before leaning forwards and stealing a hug from the man, placing his cheek on Stephen's shoulders. "This feels a lot nicer now that I can actually feel it, hmm so warm," he hummed softly.

“Feeling affectionate, are we? Or is this my ‘thank you’ hug?” Stephen inquired, taking a moment before slowly wrapping his arms around Tony in return, bowing his head to rest his chin on Tony’s shoulder. “Welcome back to being humanoid. Try and rest a bit today, okay? We’ll get you working on movement and such once you’ve had some time to get used to being human again.”

"Both, a little more of the first option though." He gave him a light squeeze before pulling back and looking at Stephen a moment, leaning up to kiss the sorcerer on the lips.

He didn't know what he was doing, all he knew is he started to move up on his tippy-toes, and before he could stop himself he'd already made contact with the man and it felt so natural. He threaded a hand into Stephen's hair and dragged his nails along the man's scalp, softly massaging and probing the man with the tips of his fingers.

Stephen made a noise of surprise at that, starting to shift as though he might move away, before curling his free arm around Tony’s waist and pulling him in closer. His eyes fell closed and he steadily relaxed into the kiss, hugging Tony’s waist firmly. He seemed taken by the actions, reciprocating easily enough as his hand gently trailed over Tony’s back.

Tony was hyper-aware of each of the sensations from the act. From the gentle warmth of their tongues sliding along the surfaces and underside of one another, to their pursed lips as he tilted his head and his eyes likewise fell shut to appreciate the moment.

There was the soft scratching of their salt and pepper beards, and then the weight and warmth of Stephen's arms pulling him into his chest. He hadn't known what to expect, but acted on a hunch or a feeling that maybe this is what they both desired - he knew he did at least.

Human instinct, human feelings, all things Tony was very in tune with as he was rediscovering himself. He loved every moment of it and struggled to get enough of the sorcerer as he let out a soft groan into the kiss, readjusting the tilt of his head to deepen the liplock.

It was a good minute and a half before Stephen finally pulled away at all, watching Tony carefully for a moment as though contemplating something he was seeing there. He looked cautious, even worried, as his hand moved from Tony’s back to stroke his cheek gently.

“I’m… going to need you to clarify what that’s all about… before I get the wrong idea. If you just want to test out the limitations of your new body at the moment I’m not opposed, though you should know that I… care a great deal about you, so… pesky feelings might get in the way.” His tone, anxious though it was, was low and soft, not accusatory in the slightest. Stephen simply smiled gently as he traced Tony’s cheekbone with a thumb thoughtfully.

Tony let out a soft disgruntled noise as Stephen pulled back. For a moment there was anxiety as he sensed the man wasn't quite as receptive to the liplock, but the apologetic smile on the other's face was reassurance enough.

His fingers tightened subconsciously in the coarse indigo fabric of Stephen's tunic, keeping the man in arm's length. Tony smiled, smoothing a hand down the doctor's collar as he felt the weighted gaze on him that begged for an explanation, he could see it in Stephen's eyes even if he hadn't said anything.

"I had this feeling when we spent time together, working and trying to find a way to get me back, something that I couldn't explain when I wasn't corporeal but I couldn't really feel it much either," his hands idled on the front of Stephen's tunic.

"The idea that a person as selfless as you would go out of their way to get me back, I guess it may have been cheating being able to read your heart rate and psycho-analyze a human being with multi-million dollar tech, but it got me thinking, really..." Stephen seemed confused by the explanation.

"... What it would be like to touch you again, with my own hands. And when I was returned the feelings hit me in a rush, you - your smile being the first thing I saw, aside from Peter - there for me, just like you were always there for me." The corner of Tony's mouth quirked up with a small smile.

"I want that, as a regular thing in my life."

"I thought you couldn't get any sweeter, and I've been proven wrong. The most wrong," Stephen smiled warmly at that. "I think I can arrange that being a regular thing. It’s something I want, too..."

He wasted no more time than that in curling his arms tighter around Tony again, bowing his head to kiss Tony once more.

Tony fell back into Stephen as he pulled him in for another kiss. He smiled against the sorcerer, his lips persistently curling upwards. He enjoyed another innocently playful lip-lock with the doctor before opening his eyes again to look up at him.

"So, Stephen." Tony began playfully. "Would you do me the honours, of taking this robot-human amalgamation on a date, and potentially more ?"

"It wouldn't be the strangest thing I've done," the sorcerer chuckled. "But not until you're well again and your friends know and the like... it could be a bit overwhelming and complicated if we went out somewhere and, say, the paparazzi saw you, or some kids took pictures or anything like that. It would likely end up with your friends at my doorstep, and I was of the impression that you wanted to take some time to get used to being human again before you dealt with that..."

"Well, technically we are out. Honest to god I just want to spend time with you, call you mine..." He pulled away with the soft sound of the kiss breaking as he smiled up at Stephen with a loving look, completely infatuated with the man in his arms.

"We can stay in, do whatever..." he used his weight to tug Stephen down onto the bed behind them, pulling him down so he could try and pin the man underneath him and perch pleased-as-pie like a kitten on his chest.

“Am I ‘whatever’? Is that the joke?” the sorcerer teased in response, before allowing Tony to silence his sass with a series of kisses.

There were a lot of kisses that day and the next, and the week following. 

There were soft touches and cuddles even when Tony finally revealed himself to his friends - his boyfriend’s love and support ever-present, despite some of the looks he received in the process. There was enough of such love and affection on display that even Peter finally threw a pillow at them during movie night, exclaiming that they were ruining the atmosphere of the movie - which was valid, given they were watching a horror movie.

It was the perfect second life.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

“Of course I am,” Tony responded, straightening himself out and looking in the mirror once more just to make sure.

“I just want to make sure you’re not going to panic or-”

“Don’t say that you’ll jinx me,” the brunette huffed, looking over at his taller companion with a wry smile. “Come on, I’m just seeing some old friends, right?” Old friends who think you’re dead, his mind supplied unhelpfully.

Peter had arranged a lunch with Rhodey, Pepper, Happy and his aunt, inviting Stephen along and Tony, of course, was the surprise guest-of-honour. He worried about how others were going to take that. He worried about whether Happy’s heart could handle him coming back from the dead and whether Pepper was going to scream at him, and whether they were going to be angry. It was nerve-wracking anxiety that gnawed gently at him, a feeling nonetheless and helped him realize he was once again human.

He knew it was a lot to hope that everyone would be so overjoyed to see him that they’d forget everything they’d gone through already. He knew it was too much to hope that this would be an uneventful, happy gathering of friends and people would treat it like he’d simply been away on vacation for a little while. 

He knew it wasn’t going to be that easy.

“Tony?” Stephen’s voice broke through his thoughts and a hand rested on either of his shoulders for a moment before Stephen tilted Tony’s chin up with a finger and leaned to kiss him briefly. “It’s going to be okay.” He eased.

“... was I thinking out loud?”

“No, you don’t need to think out loud. Your expression spoke volumes.”

The engineer closed his eyes and he couldn't fight back the smile on his face. Even though his resolve was iron and he never once stopped pushing for the end goal, he also had to admit he never expected things to work out so perfectly after all of this.

He could deal with whatever responses his friends had to offer, but when it came to his actual well-being and his health - the vessel he was occupying was near flawless and he'd integrated into it pretty damn well during the adjustment period.

Not to mention he also had Stephen to help him out, a godsend among men and he never expected out of this entire venture, the two would end up together in any sense. He always remembered Stephen being so prickly, so hard to talk to but over the course of their collaboration period, they'd grown together and had become nearly inseparable.

Neither of these things would he give up for the world.

Tony pinched the fabric of Stephen's tunic in his hands, the coarse fabric running through his fingers as he slid them down the indigo folds.

"You know me so well..." he chortled softly under his breath and nodded towards the conference room door where the little party was being held, take out, some cake, tea, coffee, alcohol for those who wanted it. "Would you both do the honours? I can take care of the hard stuff..."

He snuck a quick kiss from Stephen before letting go and the sorcerer slipped through the heavy wooden doors. He cleared his throat and everyone in the room looked to Stephen who was the picture of nervousness under everyone's stare.

"I don't really know how to say this, or explain it, there are certain people who are better at giving introductions than me… but Peter and I-" the teen flashed Stephen a smile and a double thumbs-up, "-brought along an old friend of ours." Everyone seemed to look confused when Stephen began to fumble over what words to pick to reintroduce Tony.

"I promise this isn't a prank," Stephen seemed to be sweating and couldn’t say more before he peeked out the door and Tony could tell he was entirely stuck on what to do.

At that moment Tony pushed through the wooden doors, a smile on his face as he waved to everyone.

"Missed me? I’m back!"

The reaction was more immediate for some than others. Peter gave a little ‘ta-dah!’ gesture and Pepper pushed out of her seat in a heartbeat, her expression caught somewhere between fear and fury - May’s hand raised to rest on Pepper’s arm in reassurance, though the woman looked as though she’d seen a ghost… which was fair. Happy looked rather choked up, looking uncertain as to whether he should stand or stay seated, while Rhodey coughed on his coffee, otherwise simply staring at the man in the doorway. 

“... Tones?” The soldier was the first to speak as Stephen stepped up beside Tony, standing at his shoulder as a quiet source of support.

“Hey Rhodey-bear,” Tony smiled as reassuring as he could. “Missed you! C’mon, where’s the enthusiasm for my grand return?”

“You were dead,” Pepper stated sharply, her eyes misty but her expression hard. “You were dead, Tony. We watched you - we cremated you!” Her mixed expression flicked back and forth from Tony to Stephen.

“Worse ways to go out than a blaze of glory, right?”

“Tony!” Pepper’s hand struck the table firmly as she tried to reign him in, “this isn’t a joking matter! You were dead! We had a funeral for you! We mourned for you! Where the hell have you been all this time?”

“Recovering,” Stephen spoke up briefly and Pepper’s look of fury turned on him.

“And you knew this? You knew about all this and you didn’t think to tell anyone?” she gave a long pause before turning her slightly softened gaze on Peter. “... except for Peter. You felt the need to tell Peter, but no one else?”

“T’be fair, ma’am, I kinda found out by accident--”

“No. That’s not acceptable,” Pepper huffed though before she could do much more, May’s hand curled around hers gently and she held tight.

“Virginia, shouldn’t we be celebrating?” May offered softly.

"At what point was it appropriate, Pep?" Tony took a step forwards trying on a gentle voice for her. "When I didn't know I was going to live or make it through, when we were building my body? We needed one of the stones to do this, we didn't have a lot of time, and if it didn't work out, then you would have had to stand losing me all over again," Tony held out his hands.

"Stephen was the one who made this all possible, if you're going to be mad at anyone here, it should be me. We did everything we could with the limited time we had and before that, it just felt like anything less than appropriate." 

May simply had her hand over her mouth and Stephen continued to rest a hand gently on his shoulder, squeezing it as Pepper seemed to have the hardest time dealing with this. Tony had no idea what else to say to her.

She stood from her seat and moved over to him, arms wrapping around his shoulders and the sorcerer took a step back.

"I swear I'm really going to kill you next time you go and pull a stunt like this." Pepper started and buried her face into his shoulder and his arms came up to wrap around her, carefully holding her against his body.

Rhodey was the next to stand and join the group, walking over and putting a hand on the engineer's shoulder, nodding to Stephen before squeezing it. "You better be damn real Tones, it's nice to have you back, though I'll back up Pepper's threats on that one."

"Why do I get the distinct feeling that I did something wrong?" Tony furrowed his brow, continuing to try and soothe the redhead.

“You died!” Pepper whispered emphatically against his shoulder, sobbing softly as she did. “You finally died being all heroic! I told you I couldn’t watch you kill yourself! I told you that! And what did you do, anyway? You went and died! And I couldn’t do anything!”

Stephen backed away to give them a moment, and Peter and he exchanged looks for a moment before Peter settled himself beside his aunt. “I really wanted to tell you,” the teen explained, “but Mister Stark wasn’t ready…”

“Shh, it’s okay Peter,” May reassured him, resting an arm around him and hugging him close. “Everyone just… needs some time to adjust. I’m sure you can understand.”

“What am I supposed to do with you, Tony?” Happy sighed from his spot, finally slowly getting to his feet as well, though he didn’t crowd in. “How did you make all this happen? Magic?” the man glanced at Stephen and the sorcerer shrugged slightly.

“Not magic so much as technology. I suppose there was a little bit of cosmic space magic at work--”

“You know what? Forget I asked.”

"You really sure you don't want me to go over the intricacies of the ritualistic things we had to go through to make this all work?"

"Yes, I'm pretty damn sure about that."

Tony pulled back giving Pepper a smile, looking her over to make sure that everything was all right. He kept one arm around her shoulders and squeezed as he turned to look at Happy who was just as ecstatic as Rhodes.

The worst of it was over but it was hard to really grasp the emotional impression that he had on those around him. This wasn't something that could easily be overlooked but this, in his mind, was the best possible way that the news could have been presented to everyone.

He never felt guilty for doing what he did, for saving everyone and making sure that all of his friends had a future, and that was difficult with Pepper, mostly what they both never really worked out and constantly struggled with, ideologies clashing and butting heads all the time.

And that's where Stephen came into the picture, a man who understood the need to sacrifice something for the greater good, no-one else could empathize more with him in that respect.

It took time for those around him to relax and settle, but in the end, it was a nice brunch and a good time to catch up. There were a lot of questions about him and how he was doing and even a few uncomfortable existential questions regarding what it meant to be human and alive - questions Tony had no real answers for.

Instead, he stuffed his face full of cake and listened as Peter challenged many of those questions with his own scientifically backed questions and allowed Stephen to fill in what he, as a neurologist and neurosurgeon would consider ‘alive’.

To Tony, it didn’t need to be so complicated. Stephen’s talk about electrical impulses, Peter’s psychology-based questions, neither of them mattered - not really. The reality was that being with the people he loved and being able to exist with them, to love them and support them… that was all it meant to him to be human.