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It wasn’t like the old cliché. Tony didn’t see his life flash before his eyes like a movie reel on fast-forward. At first, all he saw was a retina-searing white. 


And that was a blessing, really. He didn’t need to be reminded of all his faults - all his sins and reckless decisions. In fact, he often wished that he could forget, for example, that time Ty and his cronies ambushed him in the boys' dormitory and dunked his head in a toilet because, by ten, Tony was a mouthy smart-aleck with no common sense. Or that time he passed out in his own puke at a frat party because, at fifteen, ditto. Or that time he got caught in flagrante in the men’s room of the Chinese Theater. Or that time he pissed his armor in front of Pepper, Rhodey, and the entire planet (oh yes, there was a viral YouTube video) because what? Because he was dying?


What was he so afraid of? 


So far, dying wasn’t so bad. Which was strange. Tony was being burned from the inside out. He should feel that, shouldn’t he? He should feel his organs blistering - his skin charring and cracking open. But it was like he was suspended in the space between breaths - a place where, for him and him alone, time was frozen and the pain was held at bay. An effect of the stones? Maybe. Whatever this was, it allowed him to watch from a remove as the battle reversed in colossal swirls of dust. 


Christ, what a trip! 


Before Afghanistan and the day everything changed, he never imagined he would die here, laying everything down in a field of rubble to stop an insane California raisin’s stellar genocide. Before, he definitely would've laughed in your face at the very suggestion. And after? Even when, by some inexplicable miracle, he was actually pulling off the whole hero thing, this future was still distant and hard to scry.  


And let’s be honest: he never got a perfect handle on this job. There were too many mistakes. Too many falls. Too much time wasted on ego and resentment and stupid fucking stubborness . He might’ve been a genius - might've even acted the part, all cool and cocksure  - but he never really knew what he was doing. He was just making it up as he went along - just doing what felt right from moment to moment and crossing his fingers that it would all work out as he intended it. Half the time, he would succeed. Half the time, he would fail - and fail spectacularly.


And whenever he blew it, for some twisted reason, the universe would give him second, third, fourth chances to make things right. Why? There were other people - better people - who deserved that mercy more than he did. So why him?  Why was he so damn lucky? Why did he have the family that others had been denied? Why did he live while countless others had died?


Tony didn’t want to go. Tony did want to go. 


He meant it when he told Steve he had to keep what he’d found, and a part of him - the selfish part - railed at the loss of all of it. Helping Morgan with her calculus homework? Sex and hot chocolate with Pep on her birthday? Geezing in style, maybe as the Obi Wan to the next generation of superheroes? Like the armies of Thanos, the retirement he’d planned was gone, and damn it all to hell.  


And yet - and yet - it fit. Something loose finally clicked into place, and this entire fucked-up odyssey made sense for the first time. He’d been blessed. Ridiculously, unbelievably, unjustly blessed. And now? Now he’d found a way - at last - to give it all back in one decisive snap.


Now, Peter and Morgan would have the chance to grow up. Now, Barton would have his family back. Now, Bruce could continue to enjoy the happiness he’d finally discovered after years of inner torment. And sure: maybe some other great evil would come one day to threaten this new, hard-won peace. But before the next war, there would be a reprieve - at least for a while. 


Tony was crying. Still, like always, he was fine. Totally fine.


No, check that: better than fine.


Steve - that amazing, self-righteous bastard - was right all those years ago: sometimes there was no way to cut the wire. Sometimes, there was no way out. He only hoped Pepper and Morgan - oh, Morguna, I’m so sorry - would forgive him for leaving. Would understand the why . Would see that the choice he made was simple - a choice he would make a thousand times. For them. For everyone.


Several yards away, Steve locked eyes with Tony, and Tony nodded, preternaturally calm despite the tears, as realization dawned on the other man’s face. It’s okay, Cap, Tony thought. You and I both know it’s better this way. Though if they’d had time to discuss the matter, Tony was sure Steve would’ve remonstrated with him over the patently obvious. That’s how it was with them: Steve was the no to Tony’s yes. 


But in the end - even with all the shit that flowed under their bridge - Tony knew he actually loved Steve for that. For constantly pissing him off and bruising his pride. Because in truth, where the hell would he have ended up if a certain bullheaded mother-fucker of a star-spangled supersoldier hadn’t challenged him at every turn? Maybe, if things had worked out differently, Tony would’ve dropped the facade for once and admitted that out loud, but: Guess we won’t be working on our relationship after all.


As soon as that regret coalesced in Tony’s mind, the pause ended. The dam crumbled, and reality rushed forth in a wave of overwhelming agony.


-- * --


The rest of the world arrived at the ruins of the Avengers compound not long after the battle’s sudden end. CNN. MSNBC. Fox. Every local news outlet in the state of New York. Medical crews. And Damage Control, of course, to pick through whatever was left.


Some perfunctory interviews were conducted. Basic facts were laid out in clipped, hurried syllables for the curious, frightened reporters who gathered at the scene. Some of those reporters were left at a loss for words.


Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk to Captain America. But the leader of the Avengers was no longer there. He had already left on a Quinjet with Pepper Potts-Stark and seven others. Seven volunteers for another mission.


Word rippled out into the ether: Iron Man had fallen. Tony Stark had died to save us all. 


And eight witnesses wanted to help his wife bring him home.

Chapter Text

Time was not a plaything. On the contrary, guarding it was a grave responsibility.


If Tony Stark grasped the full import of Stephen’s position as Sorcerer Supreme, he certainly didn’t evince that comprehension in their first conversation. Or their second. Or their third. So when Stark - Tony - once again dismissed Stephen’s supposed “mystic mumbo jumbo” while peering at the guts of the Maw’s ship, Stephen decided one well-placed magical zap was just what the doctor ordered.


“Ow!” Rubbing his head where he’d bumped it against an instrument panel, Tony turned and fixed Stephen with a glare. “What the hell?”


“What’s that you were saying about my ‘mumbo jumbo’?” Stephen asked coolly, privately relishing the chance to put the irritating popinjay in his place.


(Irritating popinjay. Irreverent prick. Those were his perceptions of Tony - then. )


Tony, however, refused to be cowed. Instead, he folded his arms and lifted his chin, defiant. “If you keep spanking my ass, Merlin, I’m going to start taking your propositions seriously.”


“If only.” Stephen recognized Tony’s joke for what it was but elected not to rise to the bait. Even though the autopilot was engaged, understanding the vessel that was, at the time, flying them to Thanos' home planet was far more important than winning a verbal fencing match - no matter how satisfying such a victory would be. “Just figure out how to steer, Stark, and keep your wisecracks to yourself.” 


“You’re not the boss of me.” But Tony did in fact return to the task at hand, slithering back into the ship’s drive. “I hate magic,” he grumbled sotto voce.


No: Tony didn’t understand. But as it turned out, neither did Stephen. Not fully - until now.


Time was not a plaything; the lure of its deepest secrets was a dangerous snare. 


Tony was a volatile element; the media coverage of his exploits over the years had made that abundantly clear. As towering as his intellect was reputed to be, the evidence - for instance, the fact that his Malibu mansion now lay in ruins on the coastal shelf - suggested he was driven more by gusts of passion than by his smarts. 


Peter, meanwhile, was gifted enough - and exquisitely polite and well-meaning - for an apprentice. (Yes, Stephen eventually learned the official nature of the boy’s connection to Tony - though it still seemed, to him, that his original judgment that there was a familial tie was correct.)  But Peter was also callow - and perhaps a little too desperate to prove himself. Would that lead him to be careless? That he’d boarded the ship at all - and had apparently done so against Tony’s expressed wishes based on the two quiet but fierce and rapid-fire arguments Stephen had overheard when the pair thought they weren’t being observed - left that question disconcertingly open.


As for Quill and his companions? Also hopelessly - and maybe perilously - unpredictable.


As he listened to Quill and Tony bicker, Stephen grew more and more uncertain about their chances. He’d allowed Tony to take the lead because - in momentary flashes, when the persona dropped - he’d seen something sincere in the other man’s eyes - a clarity of purpose and an undercurrent of fear - that deserved to be taken seriously. But Tony’s temperament appeared unequal to the task of wrangling their ersatz team into some semblance of unity. Indeed, it wasn’t long before the engineer let his impatience take control. And Quill's own insecurities were only making things worse.


Stephen succumbed to temptation to assuage his doubts. He needed to know if Tony was right to allow the ship to bring them to Titan instead of turning back. He needed confirmation that they were on the proper course. So he did what he'd been admonished never to attempt: he looked forward into the time stream. 


And looked. 


And looked. 


Fourteen million, six hundred and five different branches - and he found only one in which Thanos was beaten.


They had one chance. But at what cost? 


Time was not a plaything; having wielded its power, Stephen was forced to condemn a man to die through his own deliberate inaction. And now he had to look into the eyes of Tony’s comrades-in-arms - into the eyes of Tony’s wife - and come to terms with that terrible truth.


Tony would say that his life for billions was a fair deal. That was something Stephen learned in his travels through the stream. Millions of failed tributaries began with Tony successfully convincing Stephen not to give up the time stone. Millions more began with Tony sacrificing himself in other ways.


True: there were alternative paths that began with Tony choosing to abandon the fight permanently after Thanos’ victory - but these were far fewer in number. Because Tony Stark, evidently, was man unlikely to just let things go. Whether that was an artifact of his pride, his stubbornness, or his guilt - or some combination of the three - was hard to say.


And there were other things Stephen learned about Tony. In every branch in which Tony survived both the battle on Titan and the long trip back to Earth - including the one future that was now their reality - he came home a broken man. Many times, Stephen watched Tony cry for Peter - and for others he barely knew. Many times, Stephen watched Tony curse the “Bleecker Street magician” who’d surrendered to make sure he lived.


Stephen even saw Tony’s daughter - and how tenderly Tony held her in his arms. That shattered his first impressions completely and replaced them with something new. That was the revelation that made “Stark” Tony


Stephen’s power had given him an awesome privilege - and an awesome burden. It had also taught him something profound and absolutely essential. And looking around the Quinjet at the others - taking in their various expressions of grief - only confirmed the lesson.


Thanos was wrong not simply because he murdered on a planetary scale and not simply because he’d stolen his victims’ right to choose. He was wrong because he saw each person as a means to an end. As a number on a ledger. As dispensable.


And Tony was wrong too: One for billions was an awful - if necessary - trade.  

Chapter Text

Stark never addressed Nebula by her true name - not even after they’d been formally introduced. That had agitated her at first. But then she started listening to the stories Stark would tell about his home planet to fill the silence - stories populated by a host of bizarre and improbable characters - and she realized he coined new monikers for everyone he met. And if he liked you? You’d get more than one.


To Stark, Nebula was “Blue Meanie,” “Scary,” or “Space Lady” - among other sobriquets. That meant he approved of her. Why? By the time she’d been given all of these names, they’d known each other for mere days. Stark’s trust should not have come so quickly. 


He was obviously delirious, Nebula concluded then - an assessment that was initially confirmed when, on the fourth Terran cycle after leaving Titan, Stark finally collapsed from his wounds.


This was something Nebula had anticipated. Indeed, she was surprised Stark had lasted as long as he did. He stopped eating and drinking during the second cycle and was shaking with chills and vomiting bile by the third. But he was focused, single-mindedly, on his attempts to repair the ship and repeatedly waved off Nebula’s offers of medical aid.


Stiff-necked to the core. That was Stark. 


But there was a kindness in him as well. Once the worst of his illness had passed and his eyes had cleared, Stark persisted in showering Nebula with endearments. Thus, his easy affability couldn’t be dismissed as a consequence of his injuries. Evidently, he was disconcertingly naive even when his mind was perfectly sound.  


“You think you’re the only one with a past, Blue?” Stark asked when Nebula confronted him, scolding him for his foolishness. “Got my billions blowing stuff up. Been trying to make up for that for years.” Shivering, he tightened the blanket that was draped around his shoulders and leaned his head back against the bulkhead. “Hell, half the people I know in this superhero business are running away from something they regret. ‘S probably a job requirement.”


After that conversation, Stark proceeded as if absolutely nothing had changed. He continued to include Nebula in all the alien and seemingly pointless things he did to pass the time. Nebula drew the line at dancing to Quill’s music, but when Stark came across a deck of playing cards, she agreed to learn the rules of “gin,” “blackjack,” “poker,” and several other games just to keep her strange shipmate’s busy mind distracted.


Eventually, Nebula was forced to accept the truth: Stark didn’t care who she was or where she came from or what she'd done. To him, she was simply a friend.


And eventually, Nebula found that she enjoyed making Stark happy.


It was a peculiar sensation. Thanos had trained Nebula to fight and to kill without remorse. He had never taught her how to care. Yet it hurt, somehow, to listen to Stark record halting messages to people he'd left behind on Terra. It hurt to hear the choked sobs Stark tried but failed to hide each time he was jolted awake by his own nightmares.


And it angered her when, on cycle sixteen, Stark proposed she smother him in his sleep.


He’d done the math, he said. “If no one answers our distress beacon, we have a week at most. But you - you’d last longer.”


It was a plan Nebula normally would’ve executed without hesitation. Stark’s fever had broken cycles before, but he was still frail, and he struggled to finish his meager rations at every meal. He was, as he put it, “dead weight.” It would be simple enough to put the Terran out of his misery and continue on alone.


But something stayed her hand.


“If any of the Avengers are left,” Stark continued, “ you have information they can use.”


“And you,” Nebula replied, “have people who would miss you.” For some reason she couldn’t identify, that mattered a great deal. “No. We survive or die together.”


But Stark, deaf to the word “no,” refused to yield. He continued to quarrel with her for several minutes - until Nebula at last lost her patience and slapped him hard across the mouth. Stark stared at her in offended shock for a long moment - but seeing that she was quite decided, he sighed and slunk off to bed. 


Wisely, Stark never asked to die again. But on cycle eighteen, as their chances for rescue grew increasingly slim, he pled for something else: “If I don’t make it, just make sure I’m sitting up. Make sure I go with some dignity. Please?”


That, at least, was a request Nebula could fulfill.


But miraculously, they both escaped what seemed to be their certain demise. Though he was disheveled and skeletally thin, Stark was returned safely to his home and his beloved. And Nebula? After the Asgardian beheaded her father in one fruitless stroke, Nebula suddenly found herself without a family and without a purpose to drive her.


It was Stark who ultimately filled that void. 


“You’ll always have a place here,” he told her, wrapping his hands around hers. They were alone in the Avengers' primitive medical bay at the time, Stark propped up in his bed with pillows and attached to several monitors and intravenous lines. “Pep and I are leaving soon, but with the whole universe going to shit, I’m sure the others will need an extra hand.”


“Will they want my help?”


Stark chuckled weakly. “You’re a little intense, Meanie, I gotta say. But they’ll get used to it. I did.” With that, he brooked no further argument. In his eyes, Nebula was a full-fledged Avenger. And true to his word, he always welcomed her into his cabin each time she visited in the long Terran years that followed.


That was why, though her sister had been returned to her, she felt obligated to honor Stark in his death. But for Stark, she would be rootless. But for Stark, she would never have known how it felt to be loved without conditions.


Just let me die sitting up.


Nebula broke the heavy silence with one simple declaration: “Stark died as he wished.” 

Chapter Text

“Stark died as he wished.”


Peter leaned forward and pressed his hands against his eyes. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. Just a few hours ago - no, Dr. Strange said it was five years, but it didn’t feel like years - Mr. Stark was arguing with that Star-Lord guy about their plan of engagement, and he was fine


Well, okay, he was annoyed, but that wasn’t so unusual. Mr. Stark got annoyed all the time  - especially when he was stressed out about Avengers stuff. 


Like that one Friday afternoon early on: Peter had shown up for one of their semi-regular weekend appointments - this time for a few suit repairs - but almost as soon as he walked through the door, out of nowhere, Mr. Stark snapped at him to “go the hell home.” That hurt. That hurt a lot - until Rhodey explained what was up.


“He didn’t really mean that,” he said. “He always gets like this after he meets with Secretary Ross. We just need to wait him out.” A beat. “You got your homework with you?”


Peter adjusted the backpack that was slung over his shoulder. “No. There’s a teacher workday Monday, so I was gonna do it then.”


“Then why don’t you grab something to eat out of the fridge, and I’ll go tell Tony to pull his head out of his ass and mind his manners.”


Then Rhodey wheeled out of the room and, Peter guessed, did exactly that - because twenty minutes later, as Peter was inhaling a bag of chips and his second ham-and-cheese sandwich, Mr. Stark slunk into the kitchen and, leaning against the island, cleared his throat. “Kid, I’m sorry,” he sighed, scratching the back of his neck and then folding his arms. “I shouldn’t have yelled. That wasn’t fair to you.”


“It’s okay, Mr. Stark. I get it. You’ve got a lot on your mind.”


Mr. Stark smiled sadly and shook his head. “Nope. I’m the adult. Taking my crap out on you is the sort of BS my dad would pull. I don’t want to do that. Don’t ever let me do that. Capiche?”


Back then, there were a lot of apologies like this - and a lot of awkwardness. Mr. Stark didn’t seem to know what to do with Peter - or what to say. In fact, half of his advice didn’t even make sense. And for each time Mr. Stark reached out to Peter with an encouraging word, there was another time he held Peter at arm’s length. It was like he was fighting some internal war.


“He’s afraid he’s gonna screw you up.” That’s what everyone said during the rough patches when Mr. Stark was especially gruff and distant. And honestly? Peter didn’t quite understand how that was possible. Mr. Stark always tried so hard to do the right thing. 


But they worked things out eventually, didn’t they? Sure: Peter always sensed there were certain boundaries that were Never To Be Crossed when it came to Mr. Stark. And sure: there were still bad days. Days when Mr. Stark was in a Mood with a capital M. Or days when he was down from lack of sleep or a throbbing tension headache. 


But - things did get more comfortable with time. And often? They even had fun. The regional robotics competition? The Stark International Science Fair? The many, many afternoons spent in Mr. Stark’s lab? Peter wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world. 


How - how - could Mr. Stark be gone? Somehow, it didn’t feel real. None of the past day felt real. One second, he was looking up into Mr. Stark’s horrified eyes - and the next, he was being hustled into hell. One second, he was lying on the sands of Titan - and the next, he was back on Earth fighting an alien army with people he’d never met. One second, Mr. Stark was alive (if not exactly whole) - and the next? Everyone else on the Quinjet seemed to know exactly what was happening, but Peter? Peter was utterly lost.


His mind, for the moment, was refusing to process the truth - even though he’d witnessed it with his own two eyes. For some reason, all he could think about was the past. For some reason, all he could think about were the plans he and Mr. Stark had made days before they ended up in space. 


“We were going to visit MIT.” The words left Peter’s mouth before he could stop them, and he immediately hated how stupid they sounded.


But before Peter could apologize, Ms. Potts cupped his face with her two hands and pulled him close until their foreheads touched. “He really adored you. Did you know that?” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “For the past few years, when we thought you were - he never stopped missing you. He always said he regretted never telling you how he really felt.”


Peter’s thoughts then turned to the very last time he spoke to Mr. Stark before the end, and his eyes filled with new tears - because he suddenly remembered. He remembered that Mr. Stark said nothing at all - that he simply stared, his eyes telling a story of their own. 


Peter had seen it. The sorrow. The hopelessness. The years of grief and guilt. Every new wrinkle and gray hair had made those plain. And Peter remembered too the emotions that passed over Mr. Stark’s face in that moment. He remembered the affection, the relief, and the overwhelming joy - like Mr. Stark had found something precious he’d thought permanently lost.


Peter remembered all of that and more - and he realized that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if Mr. Stark never expressed his love in words. It was there in the way he watched over Peter and fixed his suits and tried to protect him. It was there every time Mr. Stark scolded him for doing something reckless. It was there in the tight and desperate hug they shared in the midst of the chaos of Mr. Stark’s last battle.


Mr. Stark never needed to say it. Peter already knew. He knew .

Chapter Text

It was a brave death - a death worthy of Valhalla. In other times, he would’ve celebrated Stark’s victory with feasting and song. In other times. 


Now? Now, as he listened to young Peter’s quiet weeping, Thor desperately wanted a drink. Or several. Whatever was needed to become blissfully numb. Whatever was needed to forget that he had lost yet another valued friend - a friend who truly understood .


Just before sunrise on the morning before his mission to retrieve the aether, Thor had been having a nightmare - one of several that plagued him each time the pleasing effects of his steady alcohol consumption began to wane - when he was startled awake by a gentle shake of his shoulder. Bolting upright, his heart racing, Thor raised his fists to challenge the unknown intruder - only to find Stark watching him with distinct concern.


“You okay, buddy?”


Thor was most assuredly not “okay”. On the contrary, he felt like his chest was caving in. Snatches of his dream still lingered at the edges of his vision, and the sight of them was stealing the air from his lungs.


“Easy, easy.” Stark took hold of Thor’s arms and squeezed them tightly. “You’re alright. Just take deep breaths and count backwards from fifty.” Thor tried to comply, but he could only wheeze, moisture prickling at the corners of his eyes. “Come on, I’ll count with you. Just focus on my voice.”


When, after several minutes of listening to Stark’s steady drone, Thor finally felt his panic recede, he lay back on his pillow and massaged his temples to cease their sudden pounding. “Where did you learn to do that, Stark?” he slurred.


The smaller man shrugged. “It’s what Pepper has to do for me. Sit tight a sec. I’ll be right back.”


When Stark returned, he handed Thor two high-dose painkillers and a bottle of Gatorade. “Don’t know if Asgardians get hung over, but hopefully these will help.” He sat on the end of Thor’s bed, and, for a while, silence reigned. Then: “Wanna talk about it?”


Thor swallowed the pills with a large draft of Gatorade and shook his head. Each time he spoke of what had happened - each time he was reminded of his own failure - he felt nothing but pain. No: it was best to avoid - to distract himself with liquor and petty Midgardian entertainments.  


“Yeah, I get it. I never wanted to share either. But it does help, believe it or not.”


Thor couldn’t bring himself to respond.


“It’s okay. No pressure. How ‘bout I talk instead? I basically spilled my guts to Cap a few hours ago, so it’s not like I have anything left to lose.” 


As the sky outside brightened, Stark told Thor everything. He admitted that he’d been “a mess” for years - since the Battle of New York, in fact. “Panic attacks, nightmares - the whole nine yards.” He admitted that Thanos had haunted him even before he knew the monster’s name. That he’d feared Thor and Rogers and all the rest would die and he’d be left alone. That he’d feared all of Midgard would perish and it would be his fault and his fault alone - that all his genius would falter before the coming challenge and that all his preparations would be for naught. He admitted that this fear had made him desperate - had led him to make decisions he would always regret. And he admitted that after Titan, he’d fallen into a depression so deep he didn’t think he’d ever be able to climb back out - until his wife told him she was pregnant and he realized he had to “see someone” or he would never be the father his child needed. “I guess what I’m trying to say,” he finished, “is that I’ve been there. So if you ever decide you do want a shoulder to cry on - well, I’ll be around.”


Thor stared at Stark blearily, uncertain how to process what he’d just heard. “You have grown in compassion and wisdom since last we spoke, friend Stark,” was his eventual simple reply.


Stark laughed. “I’m not so sure about that. If I were wise, I’d still be at home with my kid.” He slapped his knees and stood, groaning a bit as he stretched and popped the joints in his back. “Cap’s probably up by now. Why don’t we go see what he’s whipping up for breakfast?”


I’ll be around. For the brief span he had left to live, Stark kept that promise. Whenever the misery became unbearable - whenever Thor would lose his composure - Stark would always be there. 


When they’d all learned of Romanoff’s death, Stark sat with Thor, a loyal and patient companion, while Thor drowned his sorrows in Asgardian ale. 


When, the following morning, Thor awoke from yet another nightmare, Stark was right there with his pills, his Gatorade and, as he said, his “open ears.” 


And, of course, it was Stark who stopped Thor from wielding the gauntlet. Thor hated him a little for that at first - even though he recognized, deep down, that the Midgardian was only trying to protect him. “You’re in no condition,” Stark had said, and the part of Thor that was honest and self-aware had to concede that he was right.


Thor had had his disagreements with Stark - disagreements that sometimes got physical. They had also had times of laughter and amity. The latter, Thor knew, more than outweighed the former, for Stark - whatever his flaws - was as great a warrior as any Thor had ever fought with - and as great a soul.


What Thor would do with this second chance they’d all been given was a dilemma he would, in time, have to solve. But there was one thing he knew for sure: Stark would always have a place of honor in Thor’s heart - if only for the kindness he’d offered in these last days.


Thor now lived and breathed because Stark had stood as his guard. He would remember that always - and would remember him .

Chapter Text

“Oh God, Clint, are you okay?”


In the cockpit, Clint switched on the autopilot and leaned forward, resting his forehead on one hand and white-knuckling his cell with the other. Was he okay? That depended on certain definitions. He was filthy and smarting from contusions and muscle strains he had yet to examine, but he’d live. Was that “okay”? Could he be “okay” after the past five years? Could he be “okay” with Nat and Stark gone?


“I’m safe, babe,” was his eventual reply.


Clint heard Laura sob over the line. “When I heard that explosion, I thought -”


“I made it out. I promise.” But others didn’t. God, what am I going to say to Nathaniel? There was so much more Clint wanted to add, but now? Now, what his wife needed most was his reassurance. “I’ve got something I need to do, but after that, I’m coming right home. Are the kids -?”


“They’re confused and scared, but I don’t think they’re hurt. Clint, what’s happening? They’re saying it’s been years, and the farm’s overgrown, but I -”


A lump rose in Clint’s throat, and he swallowed it down. “It’s hard to explain over the phone,” he said, his voice rough with unshed tears. “Just - just stay where you are, and I’ll come as soon as I can.”


After a final “I love you,” Clint closed the connection and rubbed his burning eyes. Then he swiveled in his chair to face the others - and the shrouded body in the hold.


You didn’t have to do that, Stark. Hell, Stark didn’t have to be on the battlefield at all. He was a civilian - and richer than God, probably. He could’ve kept Iron Man to himself - could’ve stayed in his mansion knocking back shots, banging chicks, and pissing through his inheritance like any other trust-fund jerk off. But he didn’t. For reasons Stark never really explained - at least not to Clint - he decided to be a hero. Decided to take responsibility. Decided to confront a world of shit his privileged, silver-spoon life had never prepared him for using just his armor and his wits. No military or law-enforcement training. No street-smarts. No nothing.




“Got a death wish, Stark?” Clint once asked the engineer point-blank. 


On that particular afternoon, Stark - bruised, battered, and missing a spleen - was laid up in a hospital bed - but making it crystal clear, loudly and often, that he wanted out . As rumor had it, Stark was being so difficult and demanding that several nurses were threatening to quit just to escape his pique.


“It was my armor or your handsome face, Cupid,” Stark slurred wryly through a half-swollen jaw. “The choice was pretty straightforward.”


They’d been out in the Nevada desert following a lead on Hydra when Stark, out of the blue, pushed Clint out of the way of a speeding truck and took the hit himself - head on. Stark was dragged for almost a mile before his suit finally detached from the truck’s undercarriage.


“Well, I think it freaked Steve out when they had to use the buzz saw to get you out of there. He’s probably saving up a very special ass-kicking.”


“Gosh, I didn’t know Cap cared.”


“Of course he does, you dick. Now quit your complaining and focus on healing.”


No: Clint never got a real answer to his question. Stark would always deflect - like he never wanted the team to see him sweat. Like he never wanted the team to see who he really was. 


But Clint was a spy - and therefore had keen powers of observation as well as near-inerrant aim. When the others fought amongst themselves, Clint usually perched some place inconspicuous to listen - and in doing so, he noticed a few key things about Stark. For one thing, he had a complex a mile wide where Steve was concerned. For another, he was shit at communicating. And for a third, he was scared - all the time - of failure.


Maybe Stark did have a death wish. Or maybe he was tired - tired of holding on so tightly just to stay in control. Was that why he sold out and became Ross’s pet superhero? Was that why he lost in order to win? Sheer exhaustion?


Whatever the man’s motivations, Stark left his retirement and his quiet family life so that other families - including Clint’s - could be restored. Clint knew, intimately, how agonizing a decision that must’ve been - yet Stark still made the sacrifice. He still stepped up. He still reported for duty.   


Then, in the critical moment, Stark gave up everything . Just like Nat. 


Now, Clint could look forward to going home, kissing his wife, and hugging his three children until they screamed for mercy - all because Nat and Stark had jumped on the grenade.


Nat he would always miss with all his heart. She was his best friend, his comrade-in-arms, and the godmother of his youngest son. He and Nat had been through hell together and had forged a bond that nothing - not even death - could sever. 


And Stark?

Stark had acted like a bossy, know-it-all asshole much of the time - had made choices Clint hated and only barely understood. But in the end, Clint had to respect him. There weren’t many multi-billionaires who’d leave everything behind the way Stark just did - the way Stark was always willing to do when push came to shove.

Chapter Text

Bruce was not looking forward to the next part.


The infinity stones needed to be retrieved so Bruce’s promise to the Ancient One could be fulfilled. But said stones had so thoroughly incorporated themselves into Tony’s nanotech that removing them meant installing a replacement power core for the housing unit so Friday could access and retract the suit. Who had the knowledge to accomplish this procedure? Bruce - who was, at this moment, cursing Tony for his confidence.


Bruce remembered the day Tony showed him the relevant schematics. It was Morgan’s second birthday, in fact. Once the party had died down and the kid had conked out in her crib - stuffed full of junk because, Bruce noticed with amusement, Tony kept slipping her extra treats while Pepper wasn’t looking - they’d retreated to Tony’s garage for “a little grown-up shop talk.”


“Integration, huh? You really think it’ll work?”


Bruce had just told Tony what he’d been planning. “There are risks, to be honest. But I seem to recall someone telling me many, many times that there’s no reward without risk.” Tony shot Bruce a wide, genuine grin. “Besides, I’m tired of fighting him. Maybe you were right all along. Maybe the other guy and I are meant to be together.”


“There’s the mad scientist I know and love,” Tony replied, clapping Bruce on the shoulder. “Now, how ‘bout I show you something really cool?”


Bruce turned and looked at the one open holographic display that twinkled in the air behind him.


“Uh, not that one.” Tony quickly waved that display closed with his hand. “That’s just a brainstorm. We’re gonna be potty training soon, and I was just playing with some ideas.”


Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Have you considered doing it the old-fashioned way?”


“Brucie, I’m shocked!” Tony cried in mock offense. “Shocked and appalled!”


But then Tony pulled up the correct file and walked Bruce through the basics - just as he had with every other piece of technology he’d designed. An outside observer might’ve concluded that Tony simply liked to brag, but Bruce knew better. Sure: there was some ego involved. When it came to his engineering prowess, Tony was hardly known for his humility. Yet there was also something more. In Tony, Bruce could see a loneliness of sorts - a desperate, clawing need for a conversation partner who could keep up with his fantastic leaps of insight. “ Finally , someone who speaks English!” That’s what Tony said when he and Bruce first met, and Bruce knew exactly what he meant. Perhaps that’s why Bruce found it so easy to adapt to the guy - why he could accept certain idiosyncrasies that annoyed the others.


Once Clint had set the Quinjet down on the shore of Tony’s lake, Bruce ducked out of the hold and trudged to the garage, his heavy feet sinking a little into the loam. Apparently, it had just rained; indeed, Bruce probably didn’t even need the Hulk’s enhanced senses to smell the remnants of the shower in the air.


Friday greeted Bruce as soon as he keyed in his password and opened the garage door. “Welcome, Strongest Avenger.” 


Bruce’s breath hitched. It was just like Tony to program his AI to say something like that. Odds were good Friday had a special salutation for everyone - including team members Tony had fought with over the years. (Even, Bruce suspected, Steve Rogers.) “Hey, sweetheart,” he managed to choke after a long pause. “Can you tell me where Tony keeps - kept - his spare power cores?”


“Rear wall, second cupboard from the left.”


Bruce had just opened the cupboard in question when he was stopped by a whir at his right. He looked down at its source.


If it was actually possible for a robot to look quizzical, DUM-E was certainly accomplishing it. “Hey there,” Bruce murmured. “You’re probably wondering where Tony is, huh?” DUM-E rotated its claw in affirmation. “I’m sorry, boy. I wish I had better news for you, but - he’s not coming home.” DUM-E sadly lowered its arm - and Bruce’s vision suddenly blurred.


That was another astonishing thing about Tony - the fact that he could imbue even his simplest creations with a kind of life.


Presently, Bruce headed back to the waiting jet, the needed core clutched in his uninjured fist. Fat, Hulk-sized tears rolled down his cheeks. Thank God it wasn’t his job to dismantle Tony’s reactor; even if his right arm weren’t out of commission, he doubted he’d be able to hold it steady.


No: it was Steve who had volunteered for the heartbreaking honor. Bruce was to give the captain the correct instructions and otherwise let Steve be his hands.


The man in question met Bruce in front of the ramp. In the intervening time, Steve had peeled off his cowl, and his blond hair was now standing in wild, sweat-slicked spikes. “The others are waiting in the house. Are you sure you’re okay with this?”


Bruce’s response was honest. “No. But it has to be me. Tony wouldn’t trust anyone else.” And Bruce was determined to honor that - even if Tony was no longer here to make a fuss.


Steve nodded, his mouth a firm line. He’d cried too, earlier, on the battlefield, as he gently closed Tony’s eyes; the white tracks on his mud-caked face made that plain. But now he was the captain again - a man prepared to do his duty no matter how unpleasant it was because, as Bruce had just observed, there was nobody else.


Bruce and Steve climbed into the Quinjet together. When they removed the sheet covering Tony’s body, Bruce cupped Tony’s head with his giant left hand.


“Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him.”


Bruce looked up at Steve in surprise. “Where did that come from?”


“It just felt like the right thing to say.”


“Tony didn’t believe in God.”


“I know. I guess I just have a hard time believing this is all there is.”


Bruce could see, in Steve’s blue eyes, a reflection of his own thoughts. In this world, they were both outsiders - but Tony Stark had given them home.


Bruce took a deep breath to steel himself for the task ahead. “Well - I guess we should begin.”

Chapter Text

This is Tony’s heart.


As he followed Bruce’s directions and carefully opened Tony’s reactor, Steve was conscious of nothing else but this - and he couldn’t help but feel he was intruding. It didn’t matter that those closest to Tony had begged off, uncertain that they could keep their composure. When all was said and done, he was still a stranger on sacred ground.


A flash: A snow-covered Siberian bunker. Tony’s face - bloodied and terrified. Another reactor - cracked down the middle. Tony’s heart - broken.


Steve never regretted the stand he took on the Accords - and certainly never regretted protecting Bucky. But he regretted what happened with Tony. With Tony, there were so many things he could’ve done differently - from the very beginning.


A flash: The gym in Avengers Tower - before it all went to hell. Tony in the boxing ring - panting, dripping, unsteady on his feet. Tony - refusing to stop. Tony - demanding that Steve increase the challenge.


“Are you sure, Tony?”


Tony growled in frustration, then spat his mouth guard into his gloved hand. “ Yes , damn it. Stop treating me like a china doll.”


Steve sighed. He didn’t mean to suggest Tony was weak. After a few missions together, he knew his second could hold his own even without his armor. But there were certain realities - realities that asserted themselves when, several minutes later, Steve finally dropped Tony onto the canvas with a (pulled) right hook. When Tony took a little too long to push himself back up, Steve moved to help - but Tony immediately smacked his hand away. 


“I’m fine ,” he ground out. “Just leave me alone.”


Maybe Steve shouldn’t have let Tony be - on that or any other day. After all, he never believed Tony was “fine” no matter how many times Tony said it. He’d once seen Tony claim he was “fine” despite an obviously dislocated shoulder and three broken fingers. But each time Steve considered probing further, he always hesitated. Why? It’s not like he couldn’t match Tony in mulish determination. In that, they were exactly alike.


Maybe Steve held back because he and Tony mirrored each other in this fundamental way.


Steve inserted the new power core - and held his breath as it connected and flashed blue. A part of him hoped that Tony would revive, miraculously, as he had in New York - that he would gasp, open his eyes, and immediately suggest they go out to lunch. But as Tony’s nanotech flowed back into its casing, Tony himself remained tragically still.


Bruce packed up the infinity stones and stepped outside, rubbing his face with the palm of his hand. And Steve? Steve swallowed down his desperate fantasies and detached the armor from Tony’s chest.


A flash: The conference room at the compound. Tony - sick, angry, at the end of his tether. Tony - laying everything bare because he no longer had the strength to pretend. Tony - slapping his armor into Steve’s hand and collapsing, physically and emotionally spent.


“I needed you.” And all Steve could do was stare, unprepared. He knew he’d hurt Tony - but until that outburst, Steve didn’t comprehend exactly how deeply Tony relied on him and on their tenuous bond. What had happened between them, it seemed, was even more profound than Steve had ever guessed.


Maybe Steve should’ve wrapped his arms around Tony - just held him and told him he was sorry without equivocation. Would Tony have accepted the contact? Steve didn’t know, but surely he could’ve done something other than watch in silence as Tony fell apart.


It took far too long for the two of them to simply talk as they had the other night. It took far too long for Steve to ask one of the many questions that needed to be asked. “I saw all of you die.” That was Tony’s answer, and Steve recognized at once the fragile promise of the admission. He’d thought perhaps, in time, he might’ve come to understand Tony - really understand him - as some of the others did.  He’d thought perhaps, in time, they would be able to rebuild their partnership on a stronger foundation - a foundation of trust instead of wariness.


But now? Now it was too late. 


It was too late to tell Tony he was right - not in all of his methods, but in his assessment of the threats they faced. They did lose, and Tony was the one who saw it coming - the one who’d flown into that wormhole and returned with a warning that should have been heeded.


It was too late to assure Tony that he also had fears - that being scared was human and not an unforgivable sin.


It was too late to tell Tony what he would change if he had to do it all again. It was too late to tell Tony that there would be no more secrets. 


“He was pissed at you - for a long time.” Steve turned and found Rhodey, sans armor, standing at the top of the ramp, his eyes bloodshot. “But he always respected you. After his shoulder surgery, he said he heard all his self-doubt in your voice. He was drugged off his ass at the time, but I believe it.”


A flash: Outside the compound. Tony - opening his trunk and pulling out the shield, fully restored.


Tony didn’t need to do that. He didn’t need to spend time in his garage buffing out the scuff marks. He could’ve sold the shield off at auction and been done with it - or even pitched it in the garbage. But instead, he kept it and made it shine again. Why? Could it be that even with all the resentment and betrayal Tony felt, he still had faith that Steve would one day return?


And if Tony had that faith, was that something Steve had earned? Steve wasn't sure - which is why he felt uncomfortable accepting Tony’s incredible gift.


And why he felt uncomfortable now.


Steve walked up to Rhodey and placed the armor in the other man’s hands. “I shouldn’t have this,” he said simply. “I think it belongs to you.”


Then he walked out of the Quinjet into the gathering night.

Chapter Text

Rhodey watched Steve’s retreating back for a long moment. Then he turned and slumped onto one of the Quinjet’s benches, his thumbs running over the cool metal of Tony’s reactor casing.


“Hey, you idiot,” he murmured, his gaze fixed to the deck. He couldn’t look at Tony himself. It was hard enough to see him the moment he died, half his face a ruin. Rhodey didn’t want to know how far the damage extended - though it wasn’t hard to guess. “Guess you finally beat me to the finish line.”


Rhodey remembered how surprised he was when, one chilly October morning, his freshman roommate showed up at the track in the middle of his daily workout. He didn’t think Tony Stark was the health conscious kind; the kid drank coffee like it was water, ate absolute junk, and never seemed to sleep. Yet there he was, bundled up in a too-large sweatshirt, his dark hair flopping into his eyes.


“I’m sorry, what?” Rhodey blinked, trying to process what Tony had just said.


“I asked you if you wanted to race,” Tony repeated with a smirk. “Or are you chicken?”


Rhodey straightened from his stretch and graced Tony with a wolfish smile of his own. Back then, he loved a dare as much as the next teenaged boy. “No, I’m not chicken. I’m just worried. You’re not gonna cry once I beat your white ass all over this track, are you?”


Tony’s fiercely proud response was immediate and, upon reflection, a little concerning: “Starks don’t cry.”


Tony didn’t have a prayer of overtaking Rhodey in that race - or in any of the other races they ran in the months that followed. Rhodey was older - and, until Tony hit his growth spurt, much taller - and the Air Force ROTC had kept him in top physical condition. Yet Tony pushed as hard as he could every time, arms pumping, expensive sneakers slapping against the pavement.


Was it during one of those runs that Rhodey realized he loved the little shit?


Or was it at that Christmas party? God, Tony was a mess that night. How the hell he managed to get his underaged hands on the booze he’d been drinking - how the hell he always managed to find the alcohol - was, to Rhodey, an eternal mystery. But whatever the charms Tony employed to worm his way around the rules, the result was inevitable: a total fiasco.


Rhodey knew there was going to be trouble the second he heard Tony’s inebriated shout: “Better take that back, Huntington!” 


Rhodey, who had been chatting up some ladies on the other side of the ballroom, moved as quickly as he could through the crush of bodies on the dance floor - but by the time he’d pushed himself to the center of the ruckus, Tony was already splayed out on the floor, bleeding profusely from a busted lip. Rhodey sighed and hauled him to his feet.


“Come on, buddy. Time to go.”


“Not 'til I fix this mother-fucker’s face!” Tony continued to holler, struggling mightily against Rhodey’s hold, his face a hot crimson. Rhodey glanced at the immaculately-dressed target of Tony’s rage, who was watching his young friend’s tantrum with smug amusement. Definitely a rich asshole. Jeez, Tony, why were you even talking to him? Quickly assessing the guy’s size, Rhodey made an executive decision: get Tony the hell out of there before he did something really stupid. 


“Wanna tell me what that was about?” Rhodey asked Tony later. And Tony, who was draped over their toilet at the time and looking far from dignified, hiccuped wetly and replied that “Huntington” had called Rhodey a filthy name.


Maybe he fell in love with Tony then.


Or maybe it was the day Tony unveiled DUM-E. The way he smiled - the way his eyes twinkled with genuine excitement - was so different from the practiced nonchalance he usually affected while under public scrutiny that Rhodey was instantly enchanted despite himself.


Or maybe it was the night he found Tony in the lab - passed out cold and drooling on a pile of onion-skin schematics.


Or maybe it wasn’t a single magic moment. Maybe it was a collection of moments, building like a snowball rolling down a slope. 


The fact remained that by the time Rhodey was deployed to Operation Desert Storm, he cared - and cared deeply - for Tony Stark. Smartass punk and human disaster that he was, Tony was still something special - something Howard Stark’s legacy couldn’t possibly contain.


Then Tony’s parents died - and Tony allowed himself to be small. The bursts of inventive spirit and youthful energy Rhodey first saw at MIT became rarer as Public Tony took complete control. 


Public Tony - the guy who could read a room in an instant and give the crowd exactly what it wanted - was Tony’s first suit of armor. Once he put that on, everything that made him truly unique disappeared behind the mask - and it always hurt to see the change. 


Rhodey knew Tony was meant for something more - knew Tony was bored as hell serving as caretaker for something that wasn’t his . The drinking, the gambling, the sleeping around - they were all Tony’s attempts to escape the cage he was locked in.


Then came Afghanistan, and Tony - the real Tony - took flight, a streak of red and gold careening towards - a gloomy Quinjet and a hero’s wake. 


Tony had just taken Rhodey on the most incredible journey imaginable - a journey filled with exhilarating highs and melancholy lows. It was long, it was challenging - and, let’s face it, sometimes it was downright shitty. But in the end, Tony exceeded even Rhodey’s most optimistic predictions - and in the process accomplished something beautiful and truly unexpected. 


You were the armor around the world, Tony. I just wish you didn’t have to go so soon.




Rhodey shook himself out of his reflection and looked up, meeting Pepper’s shining eyes.


“The people from the mortuary are here,” she said.


At that, Rhodey rose and wrapped his arms around Tony’s widow. No matter what came next, he was certain of one thing: he would do anything to protect Tony’s family in Tony’s stead.

Chapter Text

The nights were always the hardest.


During the day, Pepper always had a million things to do: discussions with the attorney to start the process of probating Tony’s estate; meetings to placate the stakeholders at Stark International; still more meetings at the September Foundation to coordinate relief for those displaced by what the news was now calling the Blip; and, of course, countless public memorials to attend. Every major city on Earth, it seemed, wanted one of those.


There was also the steady stream of visitors who came to keep her company. Happy and Rhodey in particular were absolute godsends. The two men were Morgan’s constant companions - and if they were, perhaps, a little too indulgent, Pepper certainly wasn’t prepared to gainsay them. I couldn’t bring her daddy back , she thought. Might as well let Morgan have all the ice cream and juice pops she wants.


Yes: the days were easy somehow; at the very least, they kept her distracted. But the nights?


One evening, Pepper opened the medicine cabinet to grab her toothpaste - and noticed for the first time that Tony’s daily medications were still lined up on the second shelf. That night, she cried for ten minutes over Tony’s stupid Vytorin.


Another evening, Pepper suddenly realized she no longer had to nag her husband to pick his underwear and socks up off the bathroom floor - and she broke down again. Tony’s absentmindedness - that, for example, he could rattle off a hundred digits of Euler’s number one minute and forget his own phone number in the next - had always been a source of mild irritation. But God, she missed it now!


Then there were the many, many nights she would wake up from a nightmare, roll over, feel the cold and empty bed beside her - and remember in a flash that Tony wasn’t simply holed up in his garage pursuing a stray brain wave or fussing with an engine. And every time, a deep loneliness would set in.


Sometimes, to alleviate this gnawing ache, Pepper would climb into Morgan’s bed just to hold her sleeping daughter. And sometimes, she would put on her shoes, wrap herself in a blanket, and walk out to the garage to surround herself with things Tony had made - to surround herself with the physical manifestation of Tony’s soul. In that garage, at least, something of Tony still lived and breathed.


It was during one of these midnight visits that Pepper found a box underneath Tony’s ratty old couch.


When her heel accidentally clunked against it, Pepper initially assumed it was another tool box. Tony had several of those to hold his soldering irons, his wrenches, his drill bits - everything he needed for all the side hobbies he’d picked up in his retirement. Resting her hand atop the box’s slate gray lid, Pepper smiled sadly, recalling how enthusiastically Tony threw himself into his role as the village chicken coop builder and lawn mower mechanic. 


Then she popped the latch - and her heart skipped a beat.  Are those Morgan’s old baby booties? Is this where they disappeared to?


Years ago - shortly after this all began - Tony once adamantly denied that he was sentimental. But looking through the contents of that box, Pepper was forcefully reminded that Tony’s pose of indifference was - like so much of his posturing - an outrageous lie. 


The baby booties were there. 


So too was Morgan’s old receiving blanket. 


So too were several of Morgan’s drawings, finger paintings, and other nursery crafts. “Now that right there is true art!” Tony would declare each time Morgan brought home something new from her afternoon preschool. “An original Morgan Stark. Definitely deserves to be on the fridge, right Mommy?” And Pepper would never deny him.


“Oh, Tony,” Pepper breathed as she fingered a snowman Morgan and her PK3 teacher’s aide had made with felt and cotton balls. “You tried to keep everything , didn’t you?” And then he’d hidden it all away - like he did with so much of his heart.


When the time came to get Morgan up for breakfast, Pepper carried Tony’s box into the house and set it on the kitchen table. A little later, once Morgan was finished gobbling up her Frosted Flakes, Pepper opened it again so her daughter could see what was inside.


“Daddy loved you so much, sweetheart,” she said. “And he wanted to remember it all. Your whole life.”


Morgan considered this for a moment. Then, with earnest solemnity, she replied, “I want to remember everything too. Can I make a box for Daddy?”


So Pepper bought Morgan an unfinished chest - which Morgan spent several days painting red and gold. And when the chest was dry, Morgan started collecting things around the house that reminded her of her father: an old Christmas tree ornament they’d made together; a sea shell they’d found on Rockaway Beach; a few popsicle sticks; her Iron Man action figure; and several other mementos that Morgan was all too happy to patiently explain.


On the night the project was finally finished, Pepper set the chest on the mantle, started a fire, and curled up with Morgan on the sofa. After an hour of contemplative silence, Morgan - who was starting to drift off to sleep - finally spoke: “Daddy was the best daddy in the world.”


Pepper hugged Morgan close and buried her face in her daughter’s hair. “He sure was,” she murmured. And the amazing thing? Tony figured out how to be a dad without any good role models to follow - figured out how to be a dad despite his stone-cold terror of his own fallibility. Tony spent all of Pepper’s pregnancy in a state of perpetual panic, in fact - but he needn’t have sold himself so short.


“And he said you were the world’s best Mommy,” Morgan added, interrupting Pepper’s thoughts.


Pepper felt a sob rise up - but she stifled it with great effort. 


Tony had always looked at Pepper as if she’d hung the moon. Where that level of devotion had come from was one of the several great enigmas of Tony Stark. But whatever its provenance, it always made her want to be better.


“I hope I am, honey. I hope I always will be.” 


“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” - Jamie Anderson