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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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Tony wakes with tingling fingers and a knot on the back of his head, and thinks, Oh, I’m alive.

How nice.

It takes a lot of energy, that thought. His head is aching, and there’s this muted, persistent ringing in his ears, and he can’t focus long enough to string ideas together for more than a few seconds at a time. He feels consciousness start to dribble away. He drifts. And then the thought comes back.

I’m alive.

Only, that doesn’t make sense, now does it.

The longer he’s awake (is he awake? Is that what this drifting is?) the more he remembers. Also, the less he understands.

1. Thanos was back.

2. Thanos had the infinity stones once more.

3. He transferred the stones to his own arm.

4. He was raising his fingers, about to snap.

The memories have all the clarity of a dull oozing sludge, but he knows they’re real, and each one sends a little tendril of ice shooting down his aching, tingling spine.

There’s a new thought festering now, and it’s not as nice. In fact, it leaves his stomach churning—he can’t remember the last time he ate, but if it was recently, he might be about to puke everything right back up.

It didn’t work.

He’s been getting pretty well acquainted with failure these past few years, but repeated exposure doesn’t make this particular realization any easier to swallow. And he’d been convinced by the end that, win or lose, he wouldn’t have to see the aftermath of this one either way.

He snaps, he dies. Thanos snaps, he dies. At any rate, that’s certainly what he would have preferred.

But when does he ever get what he wants?

He drifts again. This time, he lets all the thoughts go.

 


 

Tony stirs once more, and this time, he thinks of Pepper.

He thinks of drifting through space, rescue uncertain, survival uncertain, everything uncertain but her. Her face as she watched him stumble off that ship. The smell of her hair after days and days gulping only stale, dwindling recycled oxygen. Pepper, coming into her own as CEO. Pepper, dancing with him on a rooftop. Reaching out across the pillow to run her fingers through his hair. Learning to operate the suit, to fly, to fire, like it’s an extension of her own body. Waking with the baby. Shooting flames out of her hands. Standing across the kitchen, watching him dry the dishes, with that little smile quirking the corners of her mouth as he thinks what he knows she’s thinking too: after everything, they deserve this. Just this.

God, they’ve been through so much together. What a goddamn shame—the tragedy of the age—to lose it all now.

There’s a moment—just a fraction of a second—where he lets himself think of Morgan, too. But that leaves his chest tight and his head screaming, and so he stops that right away.

What has he done?

“We got lucky.” That’s Pepper’s voice, distant as a dream, ringing in his ears. He can see her face, eyes calculating, optimistic, afraid. She’d wanted him to try—but only because he had wanted it, too? Or because she had faith that he would succeed?

We got lucky.

Another thought, one that was already frothing through his veins when his consciousness started to return: There’s no way he’ll have been so lucky this time.

He’s aware enough to run a quick assessment: fingers wiggle, toes twitch, and the pounding in his head is more localized, manageable now. If he wanted to, he could open his eyes, probably take a stroll around … wherever he is. A soot-scarred, blood-soaked field.

But he’s tired of tear-streaked faces. He’s tired of letting people down. And he’s so goddamn tired of that ugly-ass grape giant, with his huge fists and cold eyes and that eerie, unwavering conviction that his way of utter devastation is right and just. Tony doesn’t want to wake up to that.

No, he just wants to lie here and think of Pepper, and live in the liminal dream world where he is alive and she is alive and they have a beautiful, joyful, perfect daughter. Where his reckless, stupid plan didn’t give the universe all the ammunition it needed to whisk it all away.

And then he hears it: “Tony. Open your eyes.”

That’s Pepper’s voice again. It’s not a dream, though.

It’s real.

So he opens his eyes.