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sweeter than heaven

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“Back again so soon?” The question startles Tony, makes him jump.

He thought he slipped in unnoticed, because while the bell above the door had chimed quietly, no one was behind the counter and hadn’t come in the last fifteen minutes that he was there.

He smiles, a little sheepish, and closes the book he was skimming through. “I – uh, yeah,” he admits, and holds up the book.

Tony looks up, catches the sway of Steve’s hips (and really, how tight the jeans are that he’s wearing doesn’t really hide anything) and the distracting stretch of his t-shirt and has to look down again, before he does something stupid. Like climb Steve like a tree.

Steve walks around from behind the counter and throws the rag he was using to wipe off the counter with in the general direction of what Tony assumed was probably a waste bin. “Do you need any help finding anything?” he asks, even though he knows that Tony never really does.

Tony’s been coming to this bookshop for the last semester, and has found it oddly comforting in it’s cluttered shelves and cozy, worn-in couches, the misplaced coffee machine in the corner and the never ending supply of packaged sweets–cheap and just there, so Tony’s roped into buying them every single time. It also might be because of Steve, the polite and ever present undergrad who is just as brilliant, if not more so, just from the smile and the way he always greets Tony with a kind word. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t have to, because Tony is used to ignoring the possibilities that brings up.

“Sure,” he says, because while they both know he doesn’t need help, Tony likes entertaining them both. Tony’s never been one to back out of casual conversation, especially when the other party happens to look like Steve.

Steve smiles at him, polite and open in the small space between the shelves. It makes Tony's blood thrum in his veins, his heart beat a little faster in his chest.

"I'm looking for a book," Tony pauses, and then holds up the one in his hand, "kind of like this one, but I want it to focus more on child development. This one's mostly about development and learning in general but my senior thesis is on children's development and how their critical period effe–" Tony cuts himself off, and if he believed that he actually blushed, he would say that he probably would have done it then. "Wow, er, I highly doubt you want to hear about that." He stops himself from running a hand through his hair, but it's a close call.

Steve's eyes snap to his. "No," he says. "My minor's in Psychology," he explains, after seeing Tony's raised eyebrow.

"Why do you wear bow-ties?" Tony blurts, and then immediately regrets it because the open expression is gone from Steve's face. He's looking at him in obvious confusion now, and tugs nervously on his bow-tie.

"Pardon?"

If you were to go off of Steve's phrases you would think that he was older than he was, or at least Tony thinks so. He speaks differently than Tony, his words are more carefully chosen, and he doesn't say a lot, but when he does it's almost too nice, that sickly sweet way with words that the elderly seem to grasp but that is too far out of Tony’s reach. Steve comes across as thoughtful and respectful and that's probably why he was hired, because he's efficient, he knows where the books are–Tony’s pretty sure Steve has this entire bookshop memorized from book cover to book cover, he can find absolutely anything; sometimes he’s tempted to ask for obscene books just to see that flash of red across his cheeks.

And even though Tony is sure Steve would be appalled, possibly offended, and would snap back at him, he’s also quite sure Steve can’t actually be rude to anyone if he tried.

"It's just–bow-ties, they're not cool," Tony sputters, fingers tightening their grip on the book. God, he always sounds like such a wreck around Steve. "You're the only person I know that wears them, besides Jarvis, but–"

Steve shrugs. "I like them," he says, nonplussed. "I think they're nice."

"You remind me of the Doctor," says Tony, absently.

Steve's eyebrows pinch together adorably. "You know my doctor?"

Tony chuckles, high and shrill and it sounds too loud in the otherwise silent bookshop. "No," he says. "No, it's a British television show."

"Oh," Steve says.

Tony knows an awkward silence from anywhere, can feel the tension seeping into the room. It reminds him of his father’s study, standing there as Howard shouts and gestures with his whiskey, bright eyes feverish with disappointment and anger. He knows that Steve isn’t Howard, knows that the situation is different–he’s pretty sure Steve has never touched alcohol in his life, nor can he see Steve getting as furious as Howard–but the tension still feels the same, and he doesn’t want that, especially not with Steve. He reaches out a hand and hesitates for a moment, doesn’t know whether he should touch Steve in reassurance or should just let it slide and divert attention elsewhere. His hand falls back to his side, almost pathetically, and he looks up and tries to smile, but he’s pretty sure he fails, if the flicker of concern in Steve’s eye is anything to go by.

"So, about that book."

-

Tony's liked Steve for a while now, even before he saw him working at the local bookshop.

It was hard for Tony not to notice Steve, who was muscular and strong, but so very shy and reserved, who liked books more than people and would hang out in the student center whenever he wasn't working. Tony appreciated him from a distance then, hadn't wanted to scare Steve away–he always had this look in his eye, like every moment was something of a battle and a bomb could go off, reducing the field to rubble. He looked like he wanted to run, flee for safety, and Tony didn’t want to be that reason for Steve to react like that. It wasn’t like he was the most comforting person to be around anyway.

Tony has always been somewhat fascinated by people that were different than he was, because Tony’s just Tony: sort of a genius, oblivious to everything that wasn’t directly related to him, and even then, he missed a ridiculous amount. Tony's charm more than makes up for the fact that he doesn't exactly have a winning personality, or at least this is what Pepper tells him, but Pepper tells him a lot that can be arguably strictly subjective.

Tony has figured out Steve’s work schedule, which might be considered romantic and acceptable if this was a romantic comedy, those shitty ones that he always somehow finds enjoying, but really just ends up being kind of creepy. If asked, Tony would swear that it had happened accidentally at first, that eventually he just learned Steve’s schedule after lurking behind the shelves, flipping through psychology books and trying to ignore the coincidence of Steve always being there when he was, but that wouldn’t be the truth.

Tony’s sexual history is long and sordid; most of them being one night stands–and by most, Tony most definitely means all in this case. So when he sees Steve, thinks about his strange fixation to bow-ties and everything plaid, he wonders if maybe Steve could turn him onto the straight and narrow. However, he might have to deal with a possible snag, something he’s never been good at figuring out, and that’s whether Steve would even be willing to partake in such a relationship.

He makes excuses to go the bookshop after that decision, even though he knows he shouldn't, because Steve is always so affable, if not a little awkward and he makes conversation with Tony when most people are afraid to even approach him. Tony’s popularity in school is as much of a blessing as it is a curse, but with each passing day he’s pretty sure he ends up despising it more. People hate him for his brilliance and love him for his words; people hate him for his way with women and men, and love him for his ability to turn a stifling room into a debate. They hate him and they love him and Tony can’t stop thinking about how much he hates himself and really, why do so many people even care?

But then, then there’s Steve, and Tony kind of wants him to fall into the love-him category because really, that would make his life so much easier. Instead, Tony is stuck hiding behind shelves staring at Steve like he wants to be normal, and hates that he can’t. Steve makes him feel like he’s not able to do an insane amount of things, but then again Tony might just be placing the blame on the wrong person.

Tony walks into the bookshop for the second time in just as many weeks, and this time Steve's at the counter, reading what looks like is a comic book. A comic book that just so happens to look like Batman, and Tony's heart swells in his chest–it’s not exactly a voluntary response; favorite comic book and all–but he tries to ignore it.

"Hey," he greets, as nonchalantly as he can while watching Steve carefully turn a page, and feels that annoying pang in his chest. He quickly shushes it.

Steve looks up, and smiles at him, bright and brilliant and so open and if Tony could spend the rest of his life trying to bring that smile out it still wouldn't be enough.

"Again?" he asks, mouth twitching.

Tony honest-to-god flushes as his fingers tap randomly on the counter-top. "Yeah," he says. "I was recommended a book by a friend."

"I'll try to find it for you," Steve says, which means that he's definitely going to find it for him, because Steve is ridiculously good at his job, and if Tony asked for a book on defenestration, Steve would probably know. Tony can’t even figure out how that happens. a fucking genius when it comes to the English alphabet.

"Alright, um I need to find ‘A Whole Lot of Cats."

“How did you even come across that book?” Steve raises an eyebrow. "And better question: you have a cat?"

Tony nods, jerkily. "Yeah–"

"Cats aren't allowed in dorms," Steve points out, and his mouth is definitely quirked now, which means he knows Tony is lying, and that means that he's definitely figured out how horrible of a person Tony is for lying to him about all the books he's wanted since the beginning of the semester. Well, no, wait, maybe Steve hasn’t realized that Tony really didn’t need that book on how to be ejected effectively from a window, but still. There is now a very good chance.

"Oh–well, yeah," Tony says intelligently, and then resists the urge to bite at his bottom lip. It's astounding how fast this man has turned Tony into a stuttering virgin–he definitely thought he'd be over this part by now, but apparently Steve just brings it out of him. "I have one back home, or I'm going to get one back home, you know, to keep me company, and–"

Steve takes mercy on him and cuts him off with a, "yeah, well, that book is over in the animal section," and leads them on over.

The part that Tony hates about seeing Steve like this is watching him concentrate when he's trying to find a book Tony's requested. His eyebrows curl together, his eyelashes surprisingly dark and lush over the span of his cheeks, and his tongue pokes out between his teeth. He looks like the source of every single jerk-off fantasy that Tony’s ever had since he realized that hey, he liked boys too and really, that's not exactly appropriate to think about when he's standing next to Steve, who he's had a crush on for the better half of a year, who Tony is also pretty sure is straight.

"Tony, are you okay?" Steve asks, and Tony's eyes snap up to Steve's. They truly are a ridiculous shade of blue.

"Yeah – yeah," he says, and notices the book in Steve’s hand, his book, the book he wanted but really didn’t need. Shit. He takes it from him. "Sorry,"

Steve waves a dismissive hand. "Don't be," he starts, looks up at Tony through his too-long eyelashes, and fuck if that's not a picture. "Is there anything else you wanted?"

Tony refrains from making a horrible joke that would most definitely end in a black eye and shakes his head. "No," he says, "I think this is good."

This makes Tony stop, because, what? He’s never held back when he wants to make a joke, never censored his mouth because no one really cares. And if they do, if their offense is so great, Tony just flips them off, tucks away the hurt and the insecurities like he’s gotten used to it, and makes another joke. It’s what he defaults to, what his panic button always leads him to, and the fact that he didn’t just now is somehow incredibly jarring and panic inducing in and of itself. It’s like his mind actually thought ahead for once, saw himself making the joke, saw Steve react badly, and saw Tony fleeing the bookshop with a black eye, dignity barely held intact and hopes shattered like shrapnel around his feet.

And oh, when has he gotten so poetic?

And then, of course, there is the fact that he’s met other people like Steve - okay, no, that is a lie, a bold-faced lie that he’s hiding away as fast as possible - but these people were just as good, just as kind, and Tony’s slammed them down for worse. He’s told a rude joke or made a comment that wasn’t exactly appreciated, and it had felt good.

The idea of saying something like that to Steve makes him actually pause and he doesn’t really know how to handle that. When did Steve make him think? Oh, God, is it somehow going to become a regular occurrence?

The entire Steve situation is uncharted territory and it makes him wonder why it’s not as exhilarating as everyone made it out to be.

“Never again,” Tony thinks, or at least he thought he did, until he looks up and sees Steve staring at him with a startled expression. “Ignore that, please, if you would be so kind,” he says.

Steve looks at him a while longer, before nodding. "Alright, well, let's ring you up then."

-

Tony can't have Steve, will probably never be able to have Steve because Steve is perfect, he literally is perfection personified and even if he doesn't know how horrible of a person Tony is underneath all of the intelligence and deflective charm, Tony's not exactly a front-runner for anyone's heart anyway.

So, he settles. Tony's used to settling, has settled for most of his life; between a dad that never really cared and a mother who tried but tried in all of the wrong places, he didn’t really have a choice. It’s not a huge deal to Tony, he’s long past since caring about what exactly he’s good enough for, or what he exactly deserves–he’s under no impression that he deserves someone as impossible as Steve.

Though he’s never been good at being alone, either, has always had to have someone there with him at all times because when left to his own devices something usually goes wrong, or ends disastrous–usually it’s both. Once, Pepper had left him for the Christmas break and when she had returned, he had created three remote controlled Christmas trees, a mechanical dog, and a new PDA for her to test out. Pepper made him destroy the trees after they began flinging bulbs like bullets, but Tony still gets a kick thinking about it because he had based the original design off of that Doctor Who Christmas Special.

But when he’s not being brilliant alone in his lab, he has a string of people that he goes through that he can count on for anything, whether that be a standard one night stand, or a night out on the town, or even the rare occasion that Tony just wants the company and they’re willing to oblige him. However, he doesn’t really trust these people, just like he doesn’t fully trust Pepper, because there’s always that niggling doubt in the back of his mind, of how much these people will take from him before they flee, leaving him alone and just a bit more heartbroken.

And it’s not like Tony thinks too hard on that. Because if he did, too many nonsense thoughts would crowd his head and when does he even need to think that much? Especially about human contact. So, when that bunch of people come to him, when they give him everything and more, he takes it. And why not? Why else would they offer it anyway? And he understands why he takes from them, why he pulls in all their attention and love because really? Giving away a piece of himself is something he can’t even comprehend. It scares him, makes him think of the past and the pain and no, he isn’t ready to face that. It’s not something he’s sure he wants to experience. It was easier to forget about Steve, too, when he had someone else to fill the void that was there from not having him at all.

He’s out with Brian, a blond that has the same build as Steve, but is much more dull and who’s smile isn’t as bright or brilliant, but is nice all of the same. He laughs at Tony’s jokes even when he doesn’t understand them and has always been more than happy to do whatever Tony desires.

“Another,” he says, waving over the bartender.

Brian raises a dubious eyebrow. “I’m not even old enough to drink,” he points out, sitting next to Tony on one of the raised bar stools.

“They’re not for you,” he says, short and curt, and he’s about to elaborate but that’s when he sees Steve and what, when did Steve get here? How much had Tony drank; was Steve just a hallucination brought on by the utter lack of attraction Tony was feeling toward Brian? He glances between the two, takes in Brian’s dull gleam and Steve’s unreadable eyes (Steve’s eyes are never unreadable) and it makes Tony’s stomach drop horribly. He doesn’t understand why.

He realizes his hand is on Brian’s thigh and, what, how had that happened, and Brian’s arm is curled oddly possessive around Tony’s waist, and fuck, Steve’s looking at him with a pinched expression, like he’s tasted something vile.

“Tony?” Brian asks, and motions to the shot right in front of him, the shot that Tony has yet to acknowledge.

Tony looks back at Steve, pushing a dismissive hand in the general direction of Brian’s face, telling him to hold the fuck on, because he’s pretty sure Steve just figured it out. That Steve, brilliant, quiet, reserved Steve, finally learned that yes, Tony swings both ways, and yes, Tony is that much of a screw up. And it hurts, seeing that betrayal in Steve’s bright blue gaze, seeing the complete disgust, and Tony had thought they were on the fast track to becoming friends. Thought, perhaps, that they could even become best friends, something Tony has never experienced.

But he’s blown it now, watches in utter despair as Steve turns on his heel and leaves the bar with barely a whisper, nothing but his suffocating silence left behind. Tony wants to curl up and cry, wants to drown in his shot glass, but his gut is swimming, queasy, and he can’t do it.

“I–” Tony cuts himself off, hates how shaky his voice sounds and then pushes the drink towards the bartender. “Give this to someone of age, not to him though, he’s not even twenty yet, and just, fuck – I’ve got to go.”

Brian doesn’t stop him, and for once Tony’s actually glad.

-

He avoids the bookshop for a while because he’s a coward when it comes to confrontation, and he’d rather wallow in his own deluded thoughts than face Steve again. That Steve still wanted to talk to him and didn’t think he was a another ‘stupid queer’; that he would want to still spend time with Tony and put up with his ridiculous book requests. It’s hard, especially because visiting Steve when he doesn’t necessarily have to has become something of a habit for Tony, maybe has even become routine.

Eventually Tony has to go back, and he’ll convince himself it’s because of the feel of the place; it really is a nice bookshop, arguably one of the best he’s ever been in–and maybe he’s only been into three other ones, but he knows it would still be considered one of the best; it totally has nothing to do with Steve, either.

He goes on a Thursday as he’s noticed it’s usually the day that it has the least amount of traffic and if there’s going to be a conflict then Tony wants to have it as privately as he possibly can.

The bookshop is just as Tony remembers , not that he thought it would have changed but it’s nice to have some continuity, something that he’s able to go back to and count on. The door still chimes the same and it still smells like new books and ground Colombian coffee beans, the couches still are inviting and as huge as ever. Steve’s not behind the counter, but he knows that he’s here somewhere, probably reorganizing books that have been pulled out by various patrons; lord knows how incredibly stiff Steve is about that.

“Can I help you?” Steve asks from behind him, and Tony’s heart nearly gives out.

“Fucking Christ,” Tony kind-of-but-not-really snaps, “could you possibly give a warning next time?” he asks, breathing sporadic.

Steve shrugs, smiles politely but the light that was there previously is gone and it makes Tony’s stomach sink, like it did at restaurant weeks previous. “I’m sorry,” Steve says, though he doesn’t sound very sorry at all. “May I help you find something, sir?”

“Steve?” he asks, because what. “What’s going on?”

“If you need help finding a book then I’ll be glad to help you,” he starts, refusing to meet Tony’s eye, “but if you’re fine then I’ll leave you to find what you need.” He sounds rehearsed, like he stood in front of his dorm room mirror and practiced for when he saw Tony again, and the image of Steve practicing this shatters Tony’s heart.

Tony tries a different tactic, because maybe Steve doesn’t know that it’s okay, that Tony doesn’t feel put out about Steve seeing him with someone–another man, rather–that things don’t have to be awkward. “Your bow tie is less outrageous then it usually is,” Tony comments, trying to meet Steve’s eyes for more than the split second that happens.

Steve doesn’t say anything, just gives the side of his face an ice-cold glare and turns on his heel to walk away.

-

Tony is a masochist and because of this, he returns back to the bookshop, if not only to ask Steve what the hell crawled up his ass and died and how Tony could possibly fix it.

He spent one-too-many nights in the University’s workshop, working with scraps of metal that meant nothing to anyone else but meant everything to him–he could make something out of these scraps, could possibly create change–with nerves squeezed to tight and a mind that never seemed to sleep. He wasn’t able to focus, though, he would stare at the pile of scraps and wouldn’t know what to do and somehow the little piece of metal that had yellow streaks in it would remind him of Steve’s hair color, especially in the sunlight–and well, then he was thinking about Steve in general, which wasn’t exactly sought-after; that’s who he was trying to avoid.

All Tony could think about was how devastated Steve looked when he saw Brian and Tony and saw the connection between them, how he looked like he would rather be anywhere else than watch the two of them touch each other. It wasn’t Tony’s fault that Steve was homophobic, but he can’t help but feel like maybe it is, because if he hadn’t been out with Brian that night (his own selfish desires are going to be what kills him, he’s decided) then Steve wouldn’t have seen them, and they would be fine.

Eventually, he decides that being depressive about something like this isn’t exactly worth it, especially when he could just go down to the bookshop and confront Steve about everything–put all of the cards on the table. It’s not exactly easier, but it’s definitely more inviting than sitting around missing Steve.

He misses Steve more than he thought he would, had always told himself that if something happened that jeopardized their friendship that he would be able to jump right back from it–this was just the kind of person Tony was, friendships in the past were easily replaced (aside from Pepper, possibly, but not really, if Tony’s honest with himself).

Steve’s at the counter this time, reading a book as he chews on a pencil absentmindedly. He looks relaxed, and with the way that the light is hitting his pale skin Tony can’t help but notice just how very beautiful he is–not that he’s never noticed before, but it was easier to ignore it when he had something else to focus his attention on.

Steve looks up, with an open and honest expression but once he realizes that it’s Tony, his expression closes off.

That’s something Tony’s starting to really hate.

“How may I he–”

Tony cuts him off. “We need to talk,”

Steve’s eyebrows twitch, like they wanted to climb up into his hairline, but they stay mostly steady. “I don’t think you’re in any position to–”

“What exactly did I do?” Tony asks, incredulous.

“You’re actually playing stupid with me?” And there’s that angry, betrayed look again and Tony hates that expression, almost as much as the closed off one.

“I’m not playing stupid,” Tony corrects, “oh, oh god. I thought that it might be it, you know, because that would explain everything, but I hoped - fuck, it’s actually that thing, isn’t it?”

“What are you even talking about?” Steve asks, and instead of looking as angry as he looked before, he looks more confused than anything.

Tony sighs, puts his hands on the counter, a little more forceful then what is probably necessary, but he’s never been very good at controlling his temper. “You’re actually homophobic?”

Steve looks, well, taken aback, is looking at Tony like he’s been punched in the face with the force of an angry god, and his mouth, which was open in a retort before, slams shut. His eyes darken in color as his mouth twitches, and his fingers, which are closed around the book he was reading are white with tension. The book creaks in distress and Tony’s almost positive that it’s going to break when his hold lets up a bit and he flushes, like he realized that, yeah, he really was about to smash a fucking book.

“You think–” Steve cuts himself off with a laugh that’s colored with disbelief. “You think that I’m homophobic?”

Tony raises an eyebrow and holds out his arms as if to say ‘if that’s how the cookie crumbles’. “Aren’t you?”

“No,” Steve snaps, short and curt; voice like ice. “No, that’s – that’s rich coming from you Tony, really.”

“Excuse me?” He asks, because really? Steve’s honestly going to try to pin this one on him, when everything, as far as Tony’s concerned, routes back to Steve.

“We went out, all those times, outside the bookshop, and you always commented on my bow tie. You said you - I mean, you compared me to the Doctor, and when I looked that up, he’s a very - well, I guess what I thought was going on wasn’t, because then you were at the bar with that other gentleman, and really, I don’t understand how you could do that to me. I mean, yes, I didn’t really expect - but then you were always here, always around me. What did you expect me to think?”

Tony had gathered about half of that and the rest didn’t even make sense. “Yeah, no, again. Didn’t catch that at all.”

“I thought we were dating, you idiot!”

Tony kind of laughs, that kind of self-depreciating giggle that encompasses both insanity and hope, a kind of last-ditch attempt to grab hold of the sanity that seems to be slipping away at lightning speed. He’s not sure what to say, because everything in his head sounds so jumbled and wrong; offensive in a way that could only be offensive to Steve, and that’s the last thing that Tony wants to do right now.

“You thought we were dating?” He asks, when he finally works past the lump in his throat. At Steve’s nod, he continues, “but we haven’t – we didn’t hold hands, or kiss, or do anything physical, that kind of signifies a relationship.”

Steve flushes, runs a hand through his hair self-deprecatingly, like it’s a childhood nervous tick that he’s never really overcame. “Er, well, I thought you were shy.”

And that’s when it hits him, hard and not entirely welcome with Steve staring at him with probing eyes and eyebrows drawn in a very uncomfortable way, like he wants this conversation to end as fast as it possible so he can go back to reading whatever novel he was reading.

Steve Rogers is in love with him.

It hits him like being slugged in the face with a fist does (unfortunately he knows this from experience) and it’s kind of blinding, blocks all of his senses and makes his face tingle. Steve Rogers, the incredible, self-critical, kind of exceptionally clever, Steve Rogers, is in love with him. which is hard to believe because how could anyone really love someone like Tony? That would be suggesting that maybe Tony has something in him to love, beneath the broken off father issues and the incapacity to hold a relationship, something caught Steve’s eye. Something caught Steve’s eye, and made him hold on.

Tony had been blind to it all along–well, actually, if Tony’s honest with himself, somewhere in the back of his mind he’s always known, because he’s Tony, and he knows everything–and it stings in the best possible way, the way that it does when you realize that what you’ve been looking for was in front of you the entire time.

“Jesus Christ,” Tony murmurs, disbelieving and loud in the silence that has taken over. “We’re idiots,” he says, and looks up at Steve, who is watching Tony with dark eyes, not unreadable, but definitely close.

“What–” Tony cuts him off, reaching out with a steady, sure hand and grasping the ridiculous bow-tie and pulls Steve in close. He presses their lips together, chaste and hesitant because he doesn’t want to make Steve uncomfortable. Steve makes this noise like he’s dying and suddenly one of his hand is cradling the back of Tony’s head and the other is tapping a rhythm that’s unfamiliar on the counter top, and it takes Tony longer than it should to realize that Steve’s actually kissing him back.

Tony’s tongue starts to dart out on it’s own accord, but before it can reach Steve’s lips the door chimes above them, suddenly not quite so soft, but loud and annoying and they pull apart with a sweet noise.

Steve looks at him for three seconds before turning to the costumer that just walked in, touching his lips almost unconsciously, like he was trying to memorize the feel of Tony’s lip on his.

Tony smiles and taps out a familiar beat, one-two-three-four, the same one Steve was, and can't help but feel hope again.