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we'll happen again and again

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The invitation card is smooth, the kind of smooth that numbs your fingertips when you touch it.

Celebrating the life and accomplishments of Anthony Edward Stark November 3rd 3:00pm to 5:30pm

The font is tiny and unobtrusive, pretty but not tasteless—like a well-designed business card, Stephen thinks. He has taken to using it as a bookmark and touches it absently when he reads. The library is totally silent since The Snap. It always is, being a library, but lately it seems especially so.

He gets calls sometimes, from Captain America Rogers of all people, with his chronic inability to just text.

“How’re you holding up, Doctor?”

“Fine. As well as I can.”

“Good to hear.”

They'll meander around actual conversation like that for a few minutes, then he’ll try to invite him to some group thing, some lunch that’s secretly a ploy for everyone to unpack their traumas together. Stephen will act gracious and say thank you but I don’t feel up to it today, very sorry Steve, yes I'm sure, okay, thanks, bye, and when lunch rolls around he’ll eat alone.

There is no good way to deal with grief. This is something Stephen has learned a few times—when his childhood cat got cancer, when his grandfather passed away in a coma, when he crashed his car and was never able to work again—work a normal job, that is. It’s especially true in Stark’s case.

When Pepper texts him the details of the funeral, Stephen finds himself with one foot in several different emotional states—there's surprise at being thought important enough to contact personally, and tangled in there somewhere is satisfaction for the same reason. 

Dress as formally or informally as you like, but try to wear black, she writes. It’s going to be at the lakehouse. Do you need the address?

No, thanks. I know where it is.

Oh, I didn’t know you’d ever been. That makes things easier.

He doesn't know what to tell her. He's not sure how he'd begin.

You're probably tired of hearing stuff like this, but please feel free to talk to me if you ever need to.

He wipes his eyes and tells her he’ll be there by three.

Stephen can’t quite describe how it feels to remember Tony-from-the-multiverse. They're not memories, not really. The chronology is there, and all the events and feelings he associated with them, but they’re distant in the way dreams are. It’s the sensation of knowing how they happened, but also knowing they didn’t happen—not to him, not really—which made this whole crying thing even less warranted.

But yes, in a very flexible sense of the word, he was once at the lakehouse. It’s warm and earthy and right by the woods. In winter you can find a small tree somewhere in the thinner part of the forest. You could cut it down and bring it home for Christmas. Tony loves—loved—the kitchen. Bought one of those high-tech fridges and a carton of eggnog to keep it full. Froze the leftovers into ice cream when summer came early and they still hadn’t finished it all.

***

Stephen has nightmares. Just your typical apocalyptic battle type fodder—explosions, flashes of light, a loud metallic snap. Then falling, always the breakneck fall and the thud awake. 

It doesn’t take him long to connect the visions to Stark, but the realization feels like a systemic shock every single time. A pang in his chest as he gets up from bed, a dull pain in his head, his hands clamming up, his throat winding in on itself. He takes painkillers. They don't make his head stop hurting, but they soften the ache some.

In the morning, Stephen’s whole body feels tense. Some leftover migraine lingers in the back of his cranium.

Pepper’s offer to talk worms its way to the forefront, and for a moment, he considers accepting it. But how do you say, Hey I knew your husband in an alternate reality and it’s really fucking up my grieving process. How do you say, I’m dreaming about him nightly, watching us scavenge for food as I try to gather the strength to portal us back to Earth. I’m watching us rule out the portal idea and using the remains of the Guardians’ ship as a one-in-a-million shot at getting home. I’m watching us struggle on the last of our oxygen supply. I'm watching us kiss in the cockpit. And I’m seeing him in our reality too, dying over and over, every night, right at the end. 

How do you even begin to explain that? 

Stephen decides what he really needs is coffee. A mocha latte with an extra shot of espresso. He heads to a place that’s decently out-of-the-way, near some park that provides the illusion of not being in the city. The cafe is too crowded, so he ends up sitting on a bench outside, and stirs his drink to busy his hands, and gets lost in vacantly watching passers by. 

***

sent from Stephen’s iPhone at 10:47 pm

Stephen: Hi.

Stephen: How’s work been lately?

Pepper: Hey

Pepper: I’m actually on temporary leave. Morgan's staying home too.

Pepper: How are you?

Stephen: Things are different.

Stephen: Ever since what happened happened.

Pepper: You mean since Tony died?

Stephen: Yeah

Pepper: Sorry. I’m trying to get used to saying it.

Stephen: No it's okay, I didn’t mean to phrase it so weirdly.

Stephen: I just wanted to talk to you.

Stephen: About Stark. Tony

Stephen: All of it

Stephen: I don't know how this works. I don't know where to begin

Pepper: Do you miss him?

Stephen: Yes

Pepper: Me too.

Pepper: In my experience, that’s a good place to start.

***

It takes Stephen a week to pick out a suit. It's been so long since he’s used a fitting room he’s become unaccustomed to them all over again. Giving up the bulk of your earthly possessions will do that to you. He runs his hand over the black blazer he has on, which he's chosen at random. It’s not quite right. Too dressy, almost to the point of being celebratory.

Maybe a tux isn’t the right choice. But on the other hand, he can’t fathom going to something this important and not dressing formally. 

He tries another shirt—black this time. Maybe if he removes the tie. 

Briefly, he wonders if Tony would've liked it. He remembers flashes of some fancy white-collar event, laughing crowds and champagne glasses, rows of friends and family, white corsage and a white lapel, Tony at the end of the aisle in black.

Something tells him he wouldn’t have cared much about what he wore, that he'd be happy to have him there at all.

He waves the thought away. He can do better.

***

Applause is a weird thing to hear at a funeral. Even the muted, uncoordinated kind. All of it is weird really—the formality, the proclamations of things you could’ve said earlier, the whole idea of this ceremony for someone who isn’t even there. Stephen walks back into the safety of the crowd, a sheet of bullet points clutched tightly in his hand. Generous, funny, friend, husband, father. As much as he meant everything in the speech, they'd feel like empty platitudes. But now that it's been given, now some of it has been been said aloud, a little bit of something in his chest is released.

Pepper finds him much later, after everything is done, looking composed but for the slightly damp napkin in her hand.

“Thanks," she says. “For being here. Really.”

“I would say ‘any time’, but y’know.” 

They laugh, which is both a surprise and a relief.

“Listen, so, I just wanted to ask, and tell me if this is invasive,” Pepper says, “but...what was he like? In the other realities, I mean.”

Pepper's eyes are big and earnest, thin brows knitted through her forehead.

Stephen feels himself smile, just a little. And then he sighs.

“He was the same as always.”

He tells her about the nights on Titan lightened only by Tony’s idyllic banter, of the morning after Tony had recuperated on Earth and immediately taken him to the most expensive restaurant he knew (“Oh yeah,” Pepper smiles. “I know the one.”), and she recounts the story of how Tony proposed, how he’d ignore work calls just to go on dates, how he’d stay up late with Morgan eating ice pops.

The drear of the funeral fades a little after that, and conversation flows almost like normal. Pepper and Stephen take refuge in the kitchen, and every now and then someone pops in to say goodbye, and she gives them a hug and a heartfelt farewell from atop the counter. Stephen leans against the fridge and sips coffee and thinks that in a weird way, it feels like the end of a Thanksgiving dinner. He stays late to help wash dishes, and after everything is clean and put away, he and Pepper spend the rest of the night eating ice pops.

***

Somewhere else, very far away, Stephen and Tony are sitting together in the lakehouse. It’s dark and quiet enough that you can see the stars and hear cicadas, which means we’re in the thick of summer. Stephen has a cheap iced mocha in hand, glass bottle dewy from condensation, and Tony is spooning frozen eggnog into his mouth straight from the carton.

“Do you have to leave?”

“The Sanctum needs watching.” 

Tonight is date night. They’re watching Brokeback Mountain, because they’re new to gay cinema and they heard it was good. Stephen's cried twice already, but to the best of his knowledge, Tony didn’t see. Anyway, he's pretty sure the angle—Tony's head leaning sideways on his shoulder, both of them facing the tv—makes it impossible. So perhaps he had nothing to worry about in the first place.

“Can’t you get someone else to take care of it for you? There’s what, like a hundred other monks?”

Tony’s stubble tickles Stephen's shoulder as he talks.

“It’s my responsibility.”

“And I’m not?”

“You can take care of yourself. At least I think so.”

Tony chuckles a little. Makes Stephen’s neck hair stand on end. He's very easy, especially this summer. Lately he doesn’t seem to care too much, he’ll just laugh at jokes and let himself be tugged along, banter back in kind. Seems like it's doing him well.

"I can stay until the movie ends," Stephen says, even though he probably shouldn't.

"Okay."

By the time the finish, Tony has given up his whining act. Stephen can tell he doesn’t want to, but he sucks it up, helps him into his coat anyway.

They’re in that early nebulous phase, where both parties know they like each other, but spending the night together still feels too exciting, or terrifying. Or maybe that's just him being new to this whole relationship thing. He doesn’t know, but he'll have all the time in the world to figure it out. They have days, months, years ahead. A lifetime.

“This was... nice."

Tony lights up. 

“Good! Good, I'm glad."

“I’ll see you again soon, I guess.”

"I'd genuinely love that.”

“Alright."

“Alright!”

They stand face-to-face in the doorway, just waiting. It’s Tony who steps forward, leans up, gives Stephen a tentative farewell peck. He leans back on his heel and hovers there, just under him.

“Bye,” he mutters.

Stephen takes Tony’s face in his hands, and kisses him again, slower, savoring it this time. They break apart smiling.

“Goodnight!” 

Tony smiles as he ushers Stephen out the door by crook of his arm, slowly loosening his grip.

Stephen laughs. "I'll see you, Tony."