It wasn’t like the old cliché. Tony didn’t see his life flash before his eyes like a movie reel on fast-forward. At first, all he saw was a retina-searing white.
And that was a blessing, really. He didn’t need to be reminded of all his faults - all his sins and reckless decisions. In fact, he often wished that he could forget, for example, that time Ty and his cronies ambushed him in the boys' dormitory and dunked his head in a toilet because, by ten, Tony was a mouthy smart-aleck with no common sense. Or that time he passed out in his own puke at a frat party because, at fifteen, ditto. Or that time he got caught in flagrante in the men’s room of the Chinese Theater. Or that time he pissed his armor in front of Pepper, Rhodey, and the entire planet (oh yes, there was a viral YouTube video) because what? Because he was dying?
What was he so afraid of?
So far, dying wasn’t so bad. Which was strange. Tony was being burned from the inside out. He should feel that, shouldn’t he? He should feel his organs blistering - his skin charring and cracking open. But it was like he was suspended in the space between breaths - a place where, for him and him alone, time was frozen and the pain was held at bay. An effect of the stones? Maybe. Whatever this was, it allowed him to watch from a remove as the battle reversed in colossal swirls of dust.
Christ, what a trip!
Before Afghanistan and the day everything changed, he never imagined he would die here, laying everything down in a field of rubble to stop an insane California raisin’s stellar genocide. Before, he definitely would've laughed in your face at the very suggestion. And after? Even when, by some inexplicable miracle, he was actually pulling off the whole hero thing, this future was still distant and hard to scry.
And let’s be honest: he never got a perfect handle on this job. There were too many mistakes. Too many falls. Too much time wasted on ego and resentment and stupid fucking stubborness . He might’ve been a genius - might've even acted the part, all cool and cocksure - but he never really knew what he was doing. He was just making it up as he went along - just doing what felt right from moment to moment and crossing his fingers that it would all work out as he intended it. Half the time, he would succeed. Half the time, he would fail - and fail spectacularly.
And whenever he blew it, for some twisted reason, the universe would give him second, third, fourth chances to make things right. Why? There were other people - better people - who deserved that mercy more than he did. So why him? Why was he so damn lucky? Why did he have the family that others had been denied? Why did he live while countless others had died?
Tony didn’t want to go. Tony did want to go.
He meant it when he told Steve he had to keep what he’d found, and a part of him - the selfish part - railed at the loss of all of it. Helping Morgan with her calculus homework? Sex and hot chocolate with Pep on her birthday? Geezing in style, maybe as the Obi Wan to the next generation of superheroes? Like the armies of Thanos, the retirement he’d planned was gone, and damn it all to hell.
And yet - and yet - it fit. Something loose finally clicked into place, and this entire fucked-up odyssey made sense for the first time. He’d been blessed. Ridiculously, unbelievably, unjustly blessed. And now? Now he’d found a way - at last - to give it all back in one decisive snap.
Now, Peter and Morgan would have the chance to grow up. Now, Barton would have his family back. Now, Bruce could continue to enjoy the happiness he’d finally discovered after years of inner torment. And sure: maybe some other great evil would come one day to threaten this new, hard-won peace. But before the next war, there would be a reprieve - at least for a while.
Tony was crying. Still, like always, he was fine. Totally fine.
No, check that: better than fine.
Steve - that amazing, self-righteous bastard - was right all those years ago: sometimes there was no way to cut the wire. Sometimes, there was no way out. He only hoped Pepper and Morgan - oh, Morguna, I’m so sorry - would forgive him for leaving. Would understand the why . Would see that the choice he made was simple - a choice he would make a thousand times. For them. For everyone.
Several yards away, Steve locked eyes with Tony, and Tony nodded, preternaturally calm despite the tears, as realization dawned on the other man’s face. It’s okay, Cap, Tony thought. You and I both know it’s better this way. Though if they’d had time to discuss the matter, Tony was sure Steve would’ve remonstrated with him over the patently obvious. That’s how it was with them: Steve was the no to Tony’s yes.
But in the end - even with all the shit that flowed under their bridge - Tony knew he actually loved Steve for that. For constantly pissing him off and bruising his pride. Because in truth, where the hell would he have ended up if a certain bullheaded mother-fucker of a star-spangled supersoldier hadn’t challenged him at every turn? Maybe, if things had worked out differently, Tony would’ve dropped the facade for once and admitted that out loud, but: Guess we won’t be working on our relationship after all.
As soon as that regret coalesced in Tony’s mind, the pause ended. The dam crumbled, and reality rushed forth in a wave of overwhelming agony.
-- * --
The rest of the world arrived at the ruins of the Avengers compound not long after the battle’s sudden end. CNN. MSNBC. Fox. Every local news outlet in the state of New York. Medical crews. And Damage Control, of course, to pick through whatever was left.
Some perfunctory interviews were conducted. Basic facts were laid out in clipped, hurried syllables for the curious, frightened reporters who gathered at the scene. Some of those reporters were left at a loss for words.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk to Captain America. But the leader of the Avengers was no longer there. He had already left on a Quinjet with Pepper Potts-Stark and seven others. Seven volunteers for another mission.
Word rippled out into the ether: Iron Man had fallen. Tony Stark had died to save us all.
And eight witnesses wanted to help his wife bring him home.