Images swirl around Tony, going faster and faster until he can’t see anything but taunting smiles and terrified eyes and someone is crying but he can’t tell who and he thinks it might be him.
The chest of the Iron Man armor fractures, red and gold splintering under an invisible force. Ink-like liquid flows through the cracks, crawling towards Tony even as he backs away until he’s cornered and has nowhere else to turn. The reactor in the center flickers once, twice, and then the pale light fails and plunges the world into darkness.
A shield painted like the American flag falls to the ground with an earsplitting clang and a flash of white that leaves Tony blinded. He blinks the spots out of his eyes only to find the shield torn in half, jagged edges leaking something that looks like poison, like darkness.
Peter is standing before him, staring in horror at his hands as they disappear into the blackness that surrounds them. Tears are streaming down his face, thick and heavy and black. His mouth forms silent words that Tony can’t understand and then he’s gone and Tony is alone in an abyss that never seems to end.
Then Strange appears, legs crossed and eyes shut as he hovers serenely in the air. Words rumble in the air around them and Strange’s mouth is moving, but blood is rushing in Tony’s head and his sobs are getting louder and he can’t make out what he’s being told. Strange’s eyes shoot abruptly open and they’re a startling electric blue that stares unseeingly through Tony, and then he’s gone and smoky butterflies are churning in the air where the sorcerer had been.
Tony blinks once, and the smoke is gone and he’s left feeling alone and small in the darkness. He blinks again, and suddenly there’s a single shining butterfly the color of the summer sky and Tony stares at it, entranced. For what feels like hours, days, weeks , it seems like it’s only him, the dark, and the butterfly that glows a comforting blue.
But the butterfly starts to flicker and Tony’s entire body goes cold and he desperately reaches for it and begs its light to not go out. He feels helpless, like he’s floating and can’t stop, and he knows that if this tiny comfort is extinguished he’ll break.
Seconds later, the butterfly disappears and tendrils of shining blackness begin to creep down the walls and along the floor to Tony’s corner. He curls in on himself, closing his eyes against the poison. Tears stream in rivers down his face, each drop stinging his cheeks and he grits his teeth against the pain.
It isn’t real , he tells himself. Repeats it like a mantra.
It isn’t real. It isn’t real. It isn’t real.
He flinches away as the first tendril brushes silkily against his leg.
It isn’t real. This is a nightmare. It isn’t real. You have to wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up!
And suddenly the darkness is gone and Tony’s back in his workshop, holograms floating around his head. Their familiar blue glow reminds him of the butterfly and he just stares at them for a bit, waiting as the last of the terror fades from his bones, replaced with exhaustion.
But he can’t rest. Not yet. Not when poisonous darkness waits in his dreams, not when Peter and Pepper and Strange and half of the universe is gone. Not when Tony still has so much to do.
The sun rises on a new day, chasing away the shadows in the corner of his workshop. The still silence is comforting as he shifts through layers of holograms, eyes flicking rapidly between each one as he absorbs every scrap of information that could be even the tiniest bit helpful.
The sun rises on a broken man doing his best to fix the world, even while the cracks in his own deepen and widen until even the strongest bandages couldn’t fix the damage.