“Tony… Tony, open your eyes. Tony, wake up!”
Tony opened his eyes, squinting. Everything was blindingly white, and then blindingly red, and he groaned in pain.
“Easy,” said the same voice, low and soothing and familiar. “Just take it easy.”
All at once his eyes focused and he blinked at Nat, sitting at the foot of his fluffy white bed like she belonged there.
“Nat?” he demanded, breath catching in relief as he sat up to stare at her. “What did you… How did you…” He didn’t bother trying to finish, just shoved the blankets out of the way and launched himself across the bed to pull her into a tight hug. For a moment she was stiff in his arms, and then she seemed to go boneless, breath leaving her body in a rush. Her arms wrapped around him in turn, and he could feel her hand shaking as it moved over her back, could hear the sound of a sob in her throat. “God,” he muttered, pulling back to look at her again. “I didn’t think I’d see you again.”
“And yet. Here I am,” Nat told him, and she tried to smile, but her face was crumpling, eyes welling with tears. Tony fought the urge to close his eyes as he realized that something was very wrong.
“Nat. Where is everyone? How are you here?”
She didn’t answer him, didn’t have to, and Tony nearly choked as the memories came rushing back in, so overwhelming he thought he might pass out. The stones, Thanos, the gauntlet on his hand, stones shimmering as he snapped his fingers. He felt something settle heavy in his stomach.
“ Oh. ” He nodded his head slowly, matching Natasha’s sad, broken smile. “ That’s how you’re here.”
Nat huffed out a laugh, her throat sounding thick. “Yeah, good to see you too, Stark.”
“Shut up,” Tony muttered. He stared down at the sheets as a fresh wave of pain washed over him, less than the power of the infinity stones, but also, somehow, more. It wasn’t like he’d really thought he’d make it out of there alive, but apparently he’d let himself hope anyway, and for just a moment the weight of everything he’d lost was overwhelming. He would never again see Pepper smile, watch her roll her eyes while she fought not to laugh at him. He would never see Rhodey give him that look that conveyed “I love you” and “I hate you” all at the same time, feel the warm weight of his arms when he wrapped him in a hug.
He would never get to see Morgan grow up, or all the amazing things she’d do. He would never get to hold his little girl again.
He clenched his eyes shut at the thought.
Natasha curled a small hand around his ankle. “Did we win, at least?” she asked softly, and when Tony opened his eyes again, the pain felt a little easier. “Did Iron Man save the day in a blaze of glory?”
Tony rolled his eyes at that, but his lip quirked up into a faint smile. “Yeah,” he told her softly, covering her hand with his. “Yeah, Nat. We did it. We won.”
They ended up laying side by side on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, fingers entwined for comfort, reassurance that no matter what, at least they were here together. Tony told her how it had all gone wrong, how they’d ended up fighting Thanos again , how the stones had worked, how they’d brought everybody back. And she told him how she’d never believed in an afterlife, how when she’d jumped in Vormir she’d expected that was it. But then she woke up here, in an empty tower in an empty New York, where time passed strangely, seconds and hours and weeks seeming to take the same span of time. How she’d started wandering at first, exploring, only to end up back at Avengers Tower over and over again without knowing how. Her fingers shook when she told him how she’d looked for someone, anyone , and how eventually when there was no trace of any life, she just started staying in the tower. At least it was familiar.
Tony didn’t comment at first, just squeezed her hand a little tighter. “Hey,” he said, nudging his shoulder against hers. “But I’m here now, right? Just like old times.”
“Greaaaaaat,” Natasha drawled, but there was genuine relief in her voice. She turned her head to face him, a small smile on her lips. “You and me, huh?”
Tony leaned over, kissing her forehead. “You and me,” he promised her. “Whatever this place is… I’m not going anywhere without you, Romanoff.”
They fell into silence after that, comfortable and easy, but Tony could see what Natasha meant about time passing strangely. He was vaguely aware of his mind drifting in a way that it never had when he… Well, when he was alive.
“For what it’s worth,” Natasha said suddenly, startling him out of his daze. “You’re the last person I wanted to see here.”
Tony knew what she meant, of course he did, but something in his heart clenched thinking about what was left behind. “Oh, I see how it is,” he told her, trying to shove the pain away. “Always knew you liked Rogers more than me.”
That got an actual laugh out of her, and the tightness in Tony’s chest eased a little at the sound. “Shut up,” she told him.
Tony grinned, eyes crinkling. “Wish I knew where here was,” he added in an undertone. He felt Natasha’s arm move against his as she shrugged.
“Purgatory, I guess? It has that empty, soulless feel to it.”
“Mmmm.” It had been a rhetorical question, but her answer set off a spiral of connections in his brain. “That doesn’t quite make sense though… If it’s purgatory, why are we here together.”
“I don't know, Tony. Up until very recently, I didn’t think purgatory even existed.”
“No, but…” Tony sat up, rubbing at his forehead, neurons firing faster than he could articulate. “Alone, sure, maybe. But just the two of us? Together?” He pointed at her, shaking his head. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“If you say so.” But Natasha was sitting up now too, watching him carefully, knowing him well enough to wait and see where he was going with this.
Tony hopped off the bed, pacing around the room. “There’s nobody else here. It’s just you and me. We’re stuck in the tower, our home… Holy shit.” He rubbed his hand over his mouth and met Nat’s eyes. “You said it, Nat. ‘That soulless feel.’”
Nat shook her head. “What, you think we’re not really dead?”
“Not not dead,” he admitted. “But I… I died using the stones, and you happened to die in a beautiful blaze of life-altering self sacrifice for the soul stone . What if that’s where we are?”
Natasha’s entire body was tense, but there was a look on her face that wanted to be hope. “Everyone else came back,” she told him. “Right?”
Tony nodded. “And let’s face it, we’re the two smartest members of the team. If anyone can find a way out of here, it’s us.” He grinned at her then. “You and me, honey.”
They started out exploring again, together this time, which helped to make the sight of the empty city a tiny bit less unsettling. They went through the city bit by bit, looking for anything that was different, registering and recording even the slightest change from what they knew.
Neither of the brought up the fact that while nothing seemed out of place, it was the city they knew from before the snap. The New York City of five years earlier.
They didn’t rush it, since time didn’t seem to matter anyway. They would just take their time wandering through the streets, resting when they needed to, sneaking into somehow fully-stocked shops for drinks and snacks and ice creams. They chatted while they moved, Tony telling all his favourite stories about Morgan, Natasha offering up stories about their dumbass teammates in turn. They teased each other with nicknames and insults, all seeped in the kind of affection that came from having each other’s backs for ten plus years. They kept it light and easy and familiar. They didn’t mention the way the light seemed permanently muted, like the colour had been leached out of everything except for them, didn’t talk about what would happen if they didn’t find a way out of here, what they would do with themselves for the next year, or decade, or… forever. When it got too overwhelming, they’d reach out, catch each other’s hands and squeeze, not having to speak out loud to remind themselves that at least they weren’t alone in this. And just like Natasha had said, no matter how far they managed to get, no matter how much ground they covered in a day, they’d somehow wake up back in the tower with no clear memory of how.
They’d tried, exactly once, to leave the island. They’d made it halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge before something had happened. Neither of them could say exactly what, after the fact, but it had been awful. A memory, or an image, something that had left Tony curled on the ground, just wanting it to end, barely aware of where or who or when he was. They’d woken up back at the tower, and it had spent the next few ‘days’ just curled up together, not speaking. It was awhile before they’d gone back out at all.
And, eventually, they had exhausted the extent of Manhattan, had catalogued the entire city. Tony wasn’t sure how they were still sane, honestly, if he stopped and thought about the sheer amount of time that was involved in that. Wasn’t sure how they could continue to stay sane, if they didn’t have a next step to work toward. But hell, maybe they weren’t, maybe they’d gone insane ages ago; he supposed they probably wouldn’t actually know.
In the meantime, until they could find a next step, they’d stuck around the tower for a bit, wallowing in the safe and familiar of it. Nat had dug out the board games that they’d had for team bonding nights, and they’d been playing round after round of Risk, and Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit and the Avengers board game that made no sense but they’d kept for the novelty of it. Natasha was a total cheat, but that was fine because Tony was too. Trying to outcheat each other just became part of the fun. Time continued passing strangely, but they weren’t trying to track it anymore, weren’t trying to look for patterns or explanations. They just settled in and accepted it.
Tony tried going into the lab once, thinking maybe there’d be some clue, or something . But the electricity didn’t seem to work quite right here (except, inexplicably, the elevators thank god); it was always bright enough to see, but there was no television, no computer, nothing to distract from the endless days. And without power, the lab felt wrong. It was quiet and empty, no holograms, no whirring of fans to keep everything cool. No robots coming to greet him in the most irritating way possible. That bothered him more than he’d expected. He kept having to tell himself that Dum-E and U were upstate. They weren’t gone, like everyone else, they were just upstate.
Natasha found him there, one of those indeterminate amounts of times later, staring at the empty Iron Man capsules. “Tony,” she said softly, voice understanding. She caught his arm, gently tugging him away. “There’s nothing here. Let’s go.”
He didn’t go back.
In the end, the way out found them. They’d been sitting around the common room, reading quietly — Tony had almost forgotten about the entire library he’d had added to the tower — when there was a noise. He’d looked up, and felt the blood drain from his face at the figure standing in the doorway, staring at Tony intently.
“What the fuck?” he yelped, book going flying and causing Natasha to look up too. She followed his gaze, and her eyes went wide.
“ Dad ?” Tony choked out.
Howard stepped further into the room, smiling gently. “Tony. Son.”
Tony stared at him wildly, gaze darting back and forth between him and Natasha. “I don’t… How…” Distantly he wondered if he was having a heart attack, if he even could be having a heart attack considering his possibly-already-dead status.
Howard’s smile was soft and sad, a look Tony had never seen before in his life. “I’ve waited such a long time to see you again.”
Tony swallowed hard, feeling his throat thicken. He didn’t know how, but somehow he knew inherently that this really was his father. “You have?” he asked, nearly choking on the words.
Howard nodded. “I am so, so proud of you, Tony. Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve accomplished? I’m so proud.”
Tony had waited his whole life to hear those words, and he let his eyes fall closed, blinking back the tears that threatened to fall. “Thanks,” he whispered.
And then the moment was broken.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Natasha burst out, glaring at Howard with enough anger that Tony shivered a little. Howard was probably lucky he was already dead.
“Nat?” Tony asked, feeling a little like he was in shock.
“No,” she told him shortly. “You might be able to forgive, but I’m definitely not.” She turned back to Howard, stepping closer as she pointed at him, furious. “Do you have any idea what you did to Tony? To your son?? Years of neglect, of making him feel like he wasn’t good enough, like he would never be good enough. And I guess ignoring him was still preferable to when you actively hurt him — don’t think we don’t all know exactly why he doesn’t like being handed things. Do you know how many years it took us to make Tony believe that we loved him, that he didn’t have to do anything just to make himself worthy of existing ?? That he didn’t have to buy affection with money?” Her eyes narrowed further. “You’re lucky Rhodes isn’t here, by the way. He’d punch your dead ass into the ground. And all of that, all those years where all Tony wanted was a father, and you can’t even say you’re sorry?”
“Nat!” Vaguely, Tony thought he should be at least a little upset at her just laying out all his neuroses like that — and to his father, at that — but all he felt was a sort of warm and fuzzy feeling that she was so furious on his behalf. “It’s alright.”
And it was, really. Maybe it was this place, but the hurt here seemed to hurt a little less.
But to his surprise, it was Howard who shook his head. “No, Tony. Your friend, she’s right.” He drew in a slow breath. “It’s a funny thing, when you die. You gain… Perspective. See yourself for how you really were. I didn’t do right by you, Tony. I was so scared to have a kid, and more than anything I just… I didn’t want you to be like me. But I fucked it up, kid. I was always proud of you, Tony. Always. But no one ever told me no. I thought I could do anything. And you were so much smarter than me, right from the start. So much better than me. You were so sweet, so genuinely good , but all I could see was all the ways you could turn into me. I thought I was keeping that from happening, but what I did to you? Tony, the way I treated you? It’s unforgivable.”
And Tony wasn’t ready to forgive him, yet. As much as he still sought his approval, he knew Howard hadn’t been a good father. He was self-aware enough to know that Howard had fucked him up pretty damn good. But even if he wasn’t ready to forgive him, he tired of letting it define him and was ready to let it go. “It’s… It’s okay, Dad,” he told him, and he meant it.
Howard smiled at him, and it wasn’t the hug that Tony would have killed for as a child, but that was okay too.
Natasha was still looking mutinous, glaring daggers at Howard, and Tony reached over, patting her thigh reassuringly. Her gaze softened a little, and she gave him a reluctant smile. Something Howard had said was niggling at Tony though, and he frowned as he glanced back over at him. “Wait. You said that something happens when you die, that you gain perspective. That didn’t happen.” He glanced at Natasha for confirmation and she slowly shook her head in agreement. Feeling his heart thud in his chest, he looked back up at Howard. “Does that mean… Are we not really dead?”
Howard looked pained. “No,” he admitted, after a too-long moment of quiet. “Not in the sense that anyone else is, anyway. You used the soul stone, and that… That changes things.”
Tony felt his heart speed up, felt Nat’s muscles tense under his hand. “But that means... That means we can go back. If we’re not really dead, if we’re stuck in some sort of in-between, there must be a way back.”
Howard shook his head. “No, Tony. I know what you’re thinking, and no. I’m sorry. Even if…” His face twisted like he physically couldn’t speak for a moment, and he stared at Tony, willing him to understand. “Even if there was a way out, I couldn’t tell you it. I’m sorry.”
Tony nodded, staring back at Howard. “It’s okay, Dad,” he told him again. And he did understand. Howard hadn’t said there wasn’t a way out. Whether he could help them or not, a way out meant that Tony could find it.
And then, abruptly, Howard smiled again. “Do you remember, when you were a kid — couldn’t have been more than two — you were obsessed with backhoe loaders? Told anyone who would listen that you wanted to become a tunnel engineer so you could dig out the tunnels.”
Tony frowned a little at the abrupt segue. “Shouldn’t have talked me out of it. I could have built the Chunnel.”
Howard was giving him a look again. “You would have had a heart attack at forty-one.”
“I did,” Tony pointed out flatly. “At thirty-eight, actually.”
Howard just gave him another sad smile.
He had faded out after that, almost as suddenly as he had appeared, and with the new information, Tony had thrown himself back into finding a way out, going over and over everything that he and Nat had collected, trying to find something they’d missed.
But weeks later, and he had still gotten nowhere. It didn’t help that it was hard for him to focus, his mind stuck on something Howard had said. He couldn’t seem to get past it, and he couldn’t parse out why.
Frustrated, he leaned back in his chair with a huff, tossing his pen across the room just because he could. God, he missed computers so much.
“Why did Howard tell me I would have died at forty-one?”
Natasha looked up from the map she’d been frowning over. “Because you were a workaholic, even at two?”
He rolled his eyes at her. “But why forty-one specifically? Why from being a tunnel … engineer… Oh, holy shit.”
But Tony was already gone, dashing off for the library again, since Wikipedia wasn’t a thing anymore. It took him forever to find the book he was looking for, long enough that Nat had followed him down, watching his chaotic search with an arched eyebrow.
“What are you looking for?”
“Just give me a — hah!” Tony hauled a massive tome of the shelf, dropping it on a table with a thud and thumbing through the pages. Natasha moved closer, lifting the cover of the book to take a peek.
“ A Brief History of New York City ?” she asked, looking dubious. “It doesn’t look that brief.”
Tony didn’t answer, too busy looking for whatever he was looking for, until he stopped suddenly, eyes scanning the page rapidly. “There, look!” He spun the book to face her, finger on a particular line.
“Holland died of a heart attack at the age of 41, following a nervous breakdown due to the long hours and stress of working in the compressed air of the tunnel,” Natasha read out loud. “Who…” Her eyes flicked to the top of the page. “Who’s ‘Clifford Milburn Holland?’”
“The chief engineer of the Holland Tunnel,” Tony told her, face splitting into a wide grin. “It was a clue. Nat, the way out is through the Holland Tunnel.” Then he frowned. “The way out is through the Holland Tunnel ?” He made a face. “Of course the way out is through Jersey. Fucking Jersey.”
Natasha’s lips were pursed, eyes focused on the page of the book. “You sure about this?”
“No,” he admitted helplessly. “But I’m out of other ideas. And…” He looked around the room. “Do we really have anything to lose?”
“Alright. Holland Tunnel it is.”
The thing was, Tony hadn’t really thought about how dark the tunnel would be without lights. “Whelp,” he said, as the two of them stood in the middle of the empty street, peering down into the darkness. “This should be fun.” His hand moved automatically to his chest, fingers thrumming against the spot where the arc reactor had once sat, trying to keep control of his breathing.
“Hey.” Natasha’s voice was soft, her hand reassuring on his arm. “It’ll be okay. Tony, I’m going to be right there with you, right beside you the whole way. It’s a straight route, all the way through, no side tunnels. We’ll keep our hands on the wall, and just keep walking. And it’s what, half an hour? And then we’ll be home.” She turned, pulling him into a hug, and Tony tucked his head into her neck, let himself be soothed by the steady, even rhythm of her breathing.
“Okay,” he said, taking her hand as they turned to face the tunnel again. “Okay, let’s go.”
They were stepping toward the tunnel, holding tight to each other, when there was a “Tony, wait!” from behind them. They turned back to find Howard standing there once more, hands clenched and face twisted in pain. “I’m not supposed to be here, but…” He grimaced. “Tony, it’s not what you think, you can’t just walk out.”
Tony shared a look with Nat before turning back to his father. “What are you talking about?”
“There are rules. You can’t just leave, it’s a trial.” His eyes flicked over to Nat, to their joined hands. “She’ll be behind you, but you won’t be able to see her, or hear her, or feel her.”
Tony felt panic flare through him at the thought, hand squeezing around Nat’s. “What?” he asked weakly.
“What if I don’t?” Natasha asked. “What if I walk in front of him instead?”
Howard looked more upset than Tony had ever seen him. “You can’t. You physically won’t be able to.”
“That sounds kind of sexist,” Tony pointed out. “Can’t we switch?”
Howard just shook his head, shrugging helplessly. “It’s the rules,” he said again. “She’ll be there, but you won’t be able to tell. Don’t do this, Tony, it’ll drive you crazy. You’ll be alone in the dark, wondering, doubting . And if you look back to check?” His eyes moved back over to Natasha. “She’ll be trapped here.”
Just barely he heard Nat’s breath catch, a slight gasp. This time it was her hand squeezing around his and Tony squeezed back, using his free hand to rub at his temple, willing away the headache he could feel coming on.
“Why does this all sound so familiar?”
Natasha looked thoroughly disgusted. “Because it’s a fucking Greek myth. Orpheus and Eurydice? Hades lures Eurydice into the underworld, Orpheus goes to get her back. He sings so beautifully that Hades lets them go, but he can’t see or hear Eurydice and if he looks back for her, he’ll lose her forever. Which, it’s a Greek myth, so that’s exactly what happens.”
Tony stared at her incredulously. “What the fuck even is this place?” he burst out. “What, did the soul stone just take its first classics course? What the actual fuck?”
Howard looked faintly amused at that, but still so sad. “Just stay here. You’re safe here.”
Tony shook his head, feeling new resolve go through him. “I can’t,” he told him. He glanced at Natasha for confirmation, because this was her choice too, but she nodded at him, eyes determined. “We can’t stay here.” He glanced back at the tunnel. “You think I’ll go crazy in there? I’m going crazy here. We left so much behind. Dad, I’ve got a little girl. If there’s even a chance I can get back to her…” He trailed off, and for the first time since he’d woken up here, he could see Morgan as clearly as if she was in front of him, could hear her laugh when he swung her up on his shoulders, see the wide-eyed, proud look on her face when she figured out her first circuit board. Tony felt his eyes well with tears, his throat thick. “I have to take it.”
Howard looked like he wanted to argue, but he seemed to recognize Tony’s particular brand of stubbornness and nodded instead. “Of course,” he said. “Of course you do.” He forced a smile to his face, though he had to clear his throat suspiciously to speak. “Be safe, Tony. I love you.”
He was gone before Tony could say it back, and Tony blew out a heavy breath. “Well,” he said, turning to Nat with bright eyes. “That’s a hell of a send off.”
“No shit,” she replied, not babying him at all. Tony appreciated it. “Hey, if you’re not ready to do this, we can wait. It’s kind of a lot, and since I sort of have a vested interest in you being able to handle it, I’m willing to wait. What’s one more day here, right?”
For a moment Tony was tempted, he really was, but he shook his head. “If we don’t do it now, I’m afraid I’m going to chicken out entirely,” he admitted with a wry smile. “Besides, what was it you said? Half an hour and we’re home?”
Natasha nodded, drawing in a deep breath and straightening her posture. “Okay. Okay, let’s go.” Then, as Tony started to turn to back to the tunnel, she grabbed him, hugging him so tight that Tony felt his ribs groan in protest. “Don’t you fucking dare look back, Stark,” she told him, and her voice was harsh, but Tony could hear the fear creeping into it. “I’ll be right behind you. Don’t you fucking dare.”
Tony nodded, and they moved forward. Natasha was still holding his hand as they walked into the tunnel, but the second the crossed over the threshold, Tony could feel her hand slip out of his grasp. It reminded him, horribly, of Peter fading to ash in his arms, and the soft, pained noise he made was entirely involuntary.
“I know you’re there,” he told her, voice echoing against the walls, and it helped a little, even if she couldn’t answer. “I know you’re still behind me. I’ve got this, Nat. I’ve got you.”
Then he drew a deep breath, put his hand on the wall to his left, and started to walk.
Apparently, the weird flow of time extended to the tunnel as well. At first, it hadn’t been so bad. There had been enough of the grey light filtering in from the entrance to the tunnel that he could still see his feet, still see the path in front of him. Then they’d passed through the curve under Hudson Street, and he hadn’t been able to see anything at all. He’d started talking then, rambling to Natasha about everything and nothing, anything to keep his mind of the endless darkness laid out in front of him.
But gradually, as the tunnel went on, and on, and on , his voice had tapered off, the whispers in the dark drowning them out until he couldn’t speak anymore, all his focus on his hand on the wall and putting one foot in the other, over and over again. It hadn’t been half an hour, it couldn’t have been half an hour. He’d been down here for days, weeks maybe. For forever. It was never going to end.
Doubt crept into his mind, a little voice telling him that it was a trap, that he was alone here, and lost, that he’d be trapped here in the dark for all eternity. His feet stumbled then, and though he kept his hand on the wall, he couldn’t seem to make himself take another step. He choked on a sob, the sound bouncing down through the length of the tunnel and making him choke out another one.
“I can’t,” he gasped. “I can’t do it. I don’t want to be alone here.”
The only response was the echo of his own harsh breathing.
“Fuck, I can’t do this. I don’t know what to do, I don’t… I can’t…” All he wanted to do was to turn around, to check if Nat was behind him. He just needed a bit of reassurance that he wasn't alone. He knew he was about three seconds from a full-on panic attack, and stuck in the dark like this, that seemed like a very bad idea. He sucked in a noisy breath, trying to find something to focus his breathing, since it wasn’t like he could see, or hear, or smell anything. He thought of Natasha, before they left, the steady beat of her heart, the easy rise and fall of her breathing, and focused on that, forced himself to match his breathing to the memory of hers. And maybe it was just his eidetic memory, but as his breathing eased, he could hear Nat’s voice as clearly as if she was standing beside him.
“Don’t you fucking dare look back, Stark.”
He was pretty sure he’d already lost his mind, could barely remember what sunlight looked like now, or Pepper’s smile, or Rhodey’s laugh. All the memories that had kept him going all the time they’d been here were lost to him now. But he forced himself to focus on the memory of her voice, on a vague image of her red hair, repeated her words over and over in his mind until the memory grew stronger.
And somehow, it was enough. It was enough that he could almost convince himself that he was really hearing her, that he could tell himself that she was right behind him, hissing it in his ear. It was enough.
He kept going.
When he finally saw light at the end of the tunnel, his first thought was that it was another trick, that he was going to keep walking, and walking, and it was never going to get any closer or any brighter, that it would remain forever tantalizingly out of reach. He stumbled over his feet again, then snorted to himself.
“Thought you weren’t supposed to walk toward the light on the end of the tunnel,” he mumbled, letting out a hysterical giggle.
But he kept going, focusing on the memory of Nat’s voice, and the light grew brighter and closer with every step. Hope began to bloom in his chest, despite his best attempts to stay practical.
“Okay,” he said, fighting against the sudden urge to look back, to make sure Natasha was still behind him, still with him. “We’re almost there. Just a little bit further to go. We did it, Nat. We’re going home.”
Abruptly, it occurred to him that he had no idea how this would work once he passed through the other end of the tunnel. What if it only let him through, and because Nat was behind him, she was stuck? Or what if he was through, and she hadn’t quite gotten all the way across, and he made the mistake of looking back too early? How would he know when it was safe?
Fighting another urge to check back for her, to see how far behind she was, he quickened his pace. There was nothing he could do except keep going, and hope that somehow, when the time was right, he’d know.
But it got harder and harder to keep from looking back at he got closer to the exit, and when he finally stepped through the threshold and out the other side, he resorted to squeezing his eyes tightly shut, figuring if he couldn’t see, he couldn’t accidentally look.
Almost immediately he choked, fumes in the air making it hard to breathe. Then there was a loud, blaring horn, harsh on his ears after the silence of the tunnels, and someone behind him shoved him hard to the side. Tony grunted as his knees and palms scraped against concrete, but he didn’t open his eyes, couldn’t risk it. Exhausted, he just collapsed on the ground, squeezing his eyes so tightly shut that it hurt.
“Tony? Jesus, Tony, are you alright??”
Hands were turning him over onto his back, and that was Nat’s voice but he still couldn’t risk it because what if it was another trick, what if he opened his eyes just to get one last glimpse before she was whisked away forever. He shook his head frantically.
“Tony it’s me. It’s okay, we made it through. We’re home. It’s safe now, I promise. You can open your eyes.”
Nat sounded close to tears, and somewhere deep inside he knew it had to be true, but he still couldn’t make himself look, terrified that he’d lose the last thing he had, that then he’d be completely alone.
And then he felt heat on his face, the kind of heat that could only come from the sun, and he just knew . There had been no sun in the soul stone, just an endless grey, and it had been so long since he’d felt it, but he knew. He couldn’t trust his eyes or his ears, but this, somehow, he could trust.
Feeling tears spilling down his cheeks, he pried his eyes open to find Natasha kneeling over him, her face red and blotchy with her own tears. For a long moment they just stared at each other and then Tony was sitting up and wrapping his arms around her and Natasha was practically crawling in his lap as they just held each other and cried, all the fear and stress spilling over into relief, too much to be expressed in any other way.
The moment was broken by another loud car horn, and them someone hollering, “Coupla fuckin’ freaks!” in a thick Jersey accent as they drove by. They stared at each other a moment longer and then burst into slightly hysterical giggling.
“Home sweet home, huh?” Nat asked dryly.
Tony just shook his head. “I can’t believe the way out was through fucking Jersey,” Tony grumbled, even as he used his thumbs to brush Nat’s tears away from her cheeks. “Shit, we’re gonna have to try and find a ride upstate,” he told her. “I don’t even have any ID.”
“Well.” She looked over his head, arching an eyebrow. “Maybe these nice people can help us out.”
Tony tipped his head back to see a whole bunch of transit authority officers making their way toward them and groaned.
“What the fuck are you doing?” one of them hollered. “The tunnel is off limit to pedestrians! You can’t just walk through, you got any idea the kind of damage you could’ve caused? You could’ve killed someone! You could’ve…” He trailed off as he moved closer and got a better look at them. “Hey, wait. Aren’t you… Holy shit. Holy fucking shit.”
Tony shared a look with Nat before they moved apart and got slowly to their feet. “Afternoon, folks,” Tony said, putting on his best press smile. It felt strange on his face, after going so long without having to bother. “Don’t suppose you could help a couple wayward superheroes out?”
As the officers tried to figure out what the fuck was going on, Natasha pressed a little closer to his side, her fingers tangling with his. For all his futurism, Tony had no idea what was going to happen next. He didn’t even know how long they’d been gone, let alone how to begin to come back from the dead. Had no idea what they’d find when they made it back to the compound, if there would still be an Avengers team, if there would even still be a compound. But when he glanced over at Nat, he found her grinning right back at him and he knew they’d be okay. Whatever happened, they would be facing it together.