Tony used to think that the most extreme physical things are happening in his bedroom, but that was a lifetime ago.
Ever since his journey to Afghanistan, ever since his life was changed forever, he went through a lot of things, both emotionally and physically. Most billionaires aren’t tortured, don’t get shot at, aren’t beaten by alien races and don’t break most of the bones in their body. All of it in a matter of a couple of years.
Yet, nothing can prepare you for a slow death in space, even lifting a nuke through an alien portal.
There are moments when he believes he’s going to die before oxygen ends –when the pain in his chest gets almost unbearable. Every time it happens Tony thinks that this might be it – a heart attack ending his weird life. He has always suspected that might be the cause of his death, but the imagined scenery was quite different. Starting with some hot blonde model, riding him in nothing but stilettos in his younger years, ending with grey-haired Pepper and possibly some grandkids, in the last couple of years. Even the wildest dreams didn’t include space and a blue-skinned alien as the only companion in of the final moments of his death.
If his heart doesn’t give up first, he will suffocate slowly in a couple of days. The oxygen level is steadily dropping, exactly as Nebula has predicted.
They don’t discuss it anymore, not when the final day is so close. Even if the distress signal reached anyone, they are either too far, or not interested in helping some strangers strained in space.
Nebula rarely leaves the pilot seat, constantly checking, searching, calculating. Tony doesn’t understand why she cares so much but she doesn’t show any signs of fatigue, all emotions closed off her face. Tony isn’t sure if she’s sleeping at all – if she does, she is up again before Tony is able to notice it. She’s devoted to one goal and one goal only: surviving, so she can kill Thanos.
Tony, himself, isn’t sure why he keeps on being alive.
Pepper is alive, he has to believe it, but he won’t see her again anyway. He doubts she ever has a chance to listen to his farewell, no matter how hard he’d want that to happen.
The space around them is empty, cold and dark. Unforgiving and hostile, and Tony cannot stop staring in its emptiness. If he looks long enough, he sees images and movement.
Warm red of Pepper’s hair.
Flash of light on Rhodey’s suit.
Peter’s warm smile…
In the rare moments when his brain lets him fall asleep, all he dreams about are human ashes. Whole mountains created out of it. He knows that somewhere, hidden in the massive pile in front of him, there’s Peter Parker, the kid he made himself responsible for. In his dream he tries to find the kid’s ashes, to bury him, show the world where the resting place of Peter Parker is, but he always gets lost and confused.
He should be able to say the difference between Peter’s ashes and the ashes of the rest of the galaxy, but he can’t.
This time, when he wakes up, Nebula is not sitting in the pilot’s seat. Instead, she is standing right next to him, her emotionless eyes fixed on him, observing, analyzing.
“You are dreaming a lot for a man who barely sleeps at all”, she says once she notices he’s awake. Tony suspects she might be right – every single nap ends with him waking up, with the same image on the back of his lids. He’d be sweating if he had enough water in his body to do that.
He nods his head, but Nebula doesn’t seem to be satisfied with such a no-answer.
“Are you dreaming about your son?”, she continuous and Tony feels his heart’s rate dropping suddenly. It feels as if the oxygen had ended already, he tries to take a breath but it’s not enough, cannot be, because there’s no air at all…
His hand is curled into a fist and some part of his brain registers that it’s painful, his too long nails cutting the dry skin. A weird wheezing sound starts suddenly – is someone dying? – and Tony wants, needs his lungs to work, to fill with air, because there’s black creeping into the corner of his vision… He needs Pepper to put his hand on her chest and breathe with him, to hear her voice counting, giving him the pace he could follow.
It’s not Pepper’s voice. It’s hard, demanding, and Tony was never good with orders, ever since his childhood. He forces his constricted chest to relax and opens his eyes.
Nebula is kneeling in front of him, staring at him with a mix of various emotions, fear and confusion– the most emotional he’d seen her. More than when almost everyone turned into dust, proving that Thanos had won. More than when she realized what the levels of oxygen are and what it means for their survival.
She is terrified, Tony realizes, but of what? The imminent and lonely death in a floating spaceship cannot be the reason, they both know that Nebula will live longer than him and ultimately die alone.
Her emotions are what allows Tony to calm down.
He takes a deep breath, the stale, low-oxygen level air tasting better than it possibly could, focusing at her face as his anchor.
“Are the oxygen level making you sick?” Nebula relaxes minutely, when he scrambles to change his position, his left leg going numb.
“Uhh,” Tony’s heart is still beating too fast, his skin feeling sticky and damp.
How you can explain a panic attack to an alien?
“No, it’s not that.” He clears his throat, unsure of what to say. “I… He wasn’t…”
Or was he? Tony tried to stay professional and keep himself distanced but every time the kid flashed one of his contagious smile Tony just couldn’t help himself but become more and more emotionally invested in kid’s wellbeing. He wanted to keep him safe, to help him be the best possible version of himself…
He fucked this up. Royally.
It’s hard to speak, his throat feeling too tight.
“I do dream about this kid,” he says finally. If that might give Nebula a wrong impression, well, Peter could be his son for all the pain Tony’s feeling right now. “He wasn’t supposed to be there. Not that it’d matter.”
His laughter is hollow. Ever since Afghanistan he was trying so damn hard to protect people. The whole humanity in fact, and every step was a mistake.
First, he almost lost Happy. Then Pepper, in result. A never ending story of failures, all leading to ashes of the half of the galaxy being scattered by the wind.
“I don’t do well with losing people, you know.” Tony shrugs “Most of the humanity has the same defect, though.”
Nebula’s face turns into a stone mask again. Seems that they not-touchy and but feely moment is over, when she breaks the silence.
“Thanos killed my sister,” her voice is almost emotionless and very, very quiet. Tony has used this voice himself to talk about most traumatic events of his life. Pepper was always listening to him, running her hand through his hair and making those acknowledging noises.
“It was before the snap. He chose to kill her. It wasn’t an accident. He chose her as the best, most important.”
Words are spilling from her mouth now, unstoppable. Tony knows this feeling as well.
“I tried to hate her for that for so long. Tried to kill her, but she never stopped treating me as a sister.” She snorts, but it sounds more like a sob. “Convinced me that there’s a different path I can take in my life.”
She’s looking at him now, her eyes wide.
“My sister was murdered by Thanos deliberately. He has to die. The wizard, he gave away the Time Stone to save your life. I don’t know how, I don’t why but you need to be alive so my sister could be avenged.”
Amongst the chaos of the battle and what happened afterwards Tony didn’t have time to think about Strange’s decision.
Nebula is standing up now.
“We will survive and Thanos will be killed.”
Right now, this very moment Tony cannot help but believe it is the truth.