Another one-shot from me. :) It's sad, I'm warning you. On a brighter note, who ran out and bought Iron Man today?! I'm going to raise my hand enthusiastically, haha. Alright, read on. Again, it may be sad.
x x x
And There Is No Healing For Us
It was made of polished granite and swirls of marble, exactly three feet two inches tall, four inches thick, and one foot eight inches wide. The beautiful cursive was engraved by some laser or stamp, though Tony would have preferred to do it himself by hand. No matter how pretty her name was penned on that rock, she was infinitely prettier. Always.
Nearby, James Rhodes shook the hand of a departing guest none too firmly. He looked around the field for Tony for the umpteenth time and spotted him standing very still with his back to him. Tony's head was declined to the snow-dusted ground, the excess fabric of his suit rippling in the occasional wind. Rhodes frowned; Tony hadn't moved in over twenty minutes.
Is this because I stayed an extra day in Paris last year? Tony asked her wordlessly. Because I missed that meeting with Japan's ambassador and made you sit through it alone? Because I asked you to come to Paris with me. You didn't want to, but I had your bags packed and this would not be happening if I had just dragged you on the damn plane this might not have happened. I even had dinner reservations in the Eiffel Tower and had to share them with Happy-
Stark made no acknowledgement of Rhodes as his friend stood over his shoulder, but he did chew on the bottom of his lip to assuage the unseen swell of emotion in his chest. Rhodes carefully glanced at Tony's expressionless face and empty eyes. His shoulders, like the tombstone, were beginning to acquire a light layer of snow.
"Tony, we have to get back to the church," Rhodes's voice came distantly. Tony heard the sentence, but none of it registered for five or six seconds of gusty November winds.
This is because I didn't check my email that one day because I was really hung over.
But then again, how many days had that been?
Tony's throat was constricting, making it painful to speak.
"I'm not going back yet," he told Rhodes flatly. "I'm staying here."
Rhodes had always admired the heroism of Tony Stark, even before Iron Man had come into their lives. But Rhodey only saw Tony's desire to stay self-destructive. The renowned CEO was spiraling to the floor uncontrollably a broken wreck over this, not to mention he was drinking heavily and had developed insomnia. Tony had taken to calling him in the middle of the night, and Rhodey was sure it would not end in a foreseeable amount of time.
"Tony, I don't think that you should."
I used all ketchup on my eggs last Tuesday before you woke up. I'm sorry, I just really wanted it, but so did you…
"Hey. Tony. Come on."
Tony didn't move.
"I'm staying, Rhodey." He looked back at him solemnly, the vividness of his brown eyes dulled significantly, possibly beyond the point of recovery. It pained Rhodes deeply as Tony wet his chapped lips and lowered his head decisively.
Eventually, the lieutenant colonel softened, wondering why he was trying so hard to take Tony away from something he had already lost. A lump in his throat, Rhodes nodded silently.
"Call me later. Just so I know you're okay. Do you want me to go to hospital for you?"
"If you want."
"I'll… I'll be there then. Go there when you can."
Tony remained mute, and Rhodes took it as consent to leave, beginning his trek back across the whitening field.
Remember when I laughed at you that time you stubbed your toe on the workbench and broke it? I shouldn't have laughed. I know I've done it hundreds of times but… I shouldn't have laughed at you.
The wind was making everything cold, freeze, and die. His body was numbed, already dead for the past four days. The red rose caught between his still fingers was dying, too, its milky petals torn and penetrated with tiny shards and crystals of flying ice. A gust ripped one of them off and took it away forever, much as she had done to him.
Tony's eyes drifted to the suffering rose at his side, a thorn gently poking at the inside of finger. Looking back up at the tombstone – that cruel declaration of death he wanted to incinerate but wouldn't just because it bared her beautiful name – Tony took the most courageous step forward he ever had, allowing time to continue in doing so.
He raised the shivering rose and examined every inch of its body crying for warmth.
How cold she must be.
Why didn't I give you a heated grave? And it could have air conditioning in the summer?
His heart pinched at him, and the miniature arc reactor's glow was dim and grayed like everything else surrounding him. He looked down at it peevishly. What, are you a mood ring now? Because nothing could be gauged when it came to how many times he thought his heart might stop beating, how many times he had blamed himself, how long it had seemed, how unfair it was.
Stiff and aching, Tony leaned down and placed the rose at the base of the lovely smooth stone as water droplets ran down its face, mingling with the crevices of the fine writing. Another breath hitched in his throat seeing the name from this new perspective, and Tony fell to his knees weakly, powerless to stop the overwhelming grief that had ambushed him.
This is because I put half and half instead of two percent in your coffee two years ago, isn't it?
This is because I made you ride that rollercoaster. I made you and you ended up liking it but I still forced you.
And that day I threw toothpaste on you.
And forgot to call when I got to Montreal.
His mind shut off and ran on pure anguish, pumping tears out of him faster than any assembly line of his could ever accomplish in the same amount of time.
Tony let his head touch the frosty ground when he grew exhausted, sniffing a bit when his phone buzzed, forgotten from within his pocket. Fighting to make his arm move, Tony pulled out his phone without moving his head from the soothing cool of the wet grass.
"Tony Stark speaking," he said, voice wavering with another added sniff.
"Mr. Stark, this is Nurse Donahue. We spoke earlier."
"Yes." Tony sat up, trying to calm himself for the sake of the nurse on the other end. "Yes, I'm a little busy right now, but my friend, um… Rhodes, James Rhodes, he's… he's coming."
The palpitations of his heart picked up momentarily, and Tony asked in a gruff tone, "How is she?"
"She's doing well, Mr. Stark. We've actually cut back on her medications, and you can take her home when you're ready."
He nodded even though the nurse could not see him out alone in this desolate place, a mourning victim of grief. His head was heavy with denial still.
"Would you like to come get her sometime today?"
"Rhodes is on it," Tony said again. "He's… he's good. She's in good hands."
"Okay, well, take it easy, Mr. Stark. If you need anything, please call."
The phone was closed slowly to prevent the loud snap Tony was certain would destroy him. He looked down at the phone placidly with his bloodshot eyes and drew back his arm, heaving it out of sight with as much force as he could muster from his spent muscles. He slouched back onto his feet, tears threatening.
I'm not going to be able to do this alone. You know I can't.
He looked at the photo protected in hard plastic in the center of the wreathe next to the tombstone of him, her, and the petite newborn cradled in her arms.
I can't be a daddy, Pepper. I can't.
He thought of the small child waiting for him back in this hospital and was mercilessly stabbed again, doubling over as he succumbed to his hushed sobs. That child – their daughter – was all he had left of her now. To endure days of seeing her ghost in that girl's smile, eyes, laughter, and courage was going to kill him. Kill him, plain and simple.
I don't want to go.
I don't want to leave you.
A breeze came in response, and he sat up, eyes darting about expecting to see her appear somewhere. Tragically, he was not granted his most hopeless desire. The rose at the base of tombstone began to blow away, rolling haphazardly through the snow. Tony was horrified, diving after it in a fruitless attempt.
A second dive later he had it in his fist, pulling it to himself protectively. Out of breath, Tony rolled on his back and panted, keeping the rose on his stomach as he stared up into the white-gray snow clouds. Shutting his eyes, Tony inhaled shakily. The snow was permeating the backside of his suit, melting into his defeated skin therapeutically. His head lolled to the side, face still marred with troublesome distress and regret. So much regret.
I shouldn't have made the joke that you looked fat in that pink cocktail dress. It wasn't funny. You were beautiful.
That time I ate your last crouton at Olive Garden? Why'd I do that?
I miss your hair.
Suddenly, a huge snowball burst in Tony's face.
He sputtered and wiped away the offending snow so that he could see again as his daughter plopped down beside him in the snow, laying on her back as he did. He raised an eyebrow at the fifteen-year-old as she smiled up to the sky and made a lazy snow angel.
"You think you're funny, do you? Huh? Do you think you're funny? Well you must because you're failing miserably at hiding that goofy grin of yours," he said as she giggled.
"I've always wanted to do that to someone," she reasoned, looking over at him. "It looked like fun."
"You do it to me all the time."
"You have terrible reflexes."
Tony gave into a smile, admiring his daughter sorrowfully. Her happiness mellowed somewhat sadly as he put her under this gaze.
"God, you look just like your mother," he mused fondly, voice just above that of a whisper. His daughter smiled fractionally.
"I didn't even know her and I miss her."
Tony nodded, now near an expert at keeping the building emotion in his throat away.
"You are her. In every way."
At this, his daughter rolled onto her side to face him and took his gloved hand in hers. Tony pulled her closer to him with his strong arm around her almost frantically, kissing her head as they lay there quiet in the accumulating snow. She was his only comfort now, all he had left to protect.
Looking over her head at the aged gravestone, Tony felt tingles surge under his skin. He rested his head atop his daughter's, eyes still affixed on the granite-marble swirls.
He couldn't think of a better way to heal than with his whole family.