Some say it happens quickly. They say your life flashes before your eyes and it’s over.
Tony disagrees. Each time, it’s been agonizingly slow. He’s not surprised this time is the same.
Tony’s back hits the water with a sound louder than a gunshot. It sends him immediately into shock, long enough for the icy-cold tendrils to latch onto him. The current drags him down, and he knows better than to breathe, than to open his mouth, but he does. He’s screaming, bubbles escaping to take his useless voice up towards the surface.
Above him, the water is churning, turning the distant image of his Tower into a surreal painting. The ‘S’ in his name is like a beacon. A beacon that’s fading the further Tony sinks. He struggles against the water, trying to swim up against the eddying waves. The more he struggles, the faster he drowns.
He sinks and his fingers scrabble at his chest, pulling at his shirt. His hands aren’t cooperating. They’re getting too stiff, seizing up, to get his clothes open to see his chest. The water is getting darker and his chest is aching. He’s afraid to look down and see nothing but the all-consuming darkness. A darkness that reminds him of the vastness of space, and he’s ready to admit he’s terrified. His heart is pounding and it’s all he can hear, no longer filled with just the rush of the water around him.
The water ripples and whirls around him in shockwaves and Tony’s head whips around in aggravated slow motion. He suddenly realizes he’s not alone and, for the moment, forgets his panic. Desperation fills him and he kicks out again. He cuts through the water this time like he was born for it, like it parts for him.
Natasha is right there, red hair brighter than the sun in the dark water as it swirls around her face. Her eyes are closed and, around her, there’s a plume of blood.
I’ve got red in my ledger…
It’s too much to dissipate right away and Tony’ s past worrying about himself as he gets an arm around her waist. She doesn’t stir, features pale and lashes dark against her cheeks. Tony doesn’t waste time once he has her; he turns and immediately starts to kick his legs to propel them both upwards. His movements start out determined, purposeful, and Natasha’s weight is light and easy.
But as soon as he feels like they’re gaining the surface, like they’re making progress, his legs cramp and his trousers get heavy. His mouth opens in a startled shout and only his bubbles are present to witness his dismay.
They start to sink and Tony doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive himself for failing. The salt water washes away the tears he knows he’s shedding and he grits his teeth and he pushes. He pushes Natasha upwards despite himself and there’s a hand breaking through the water, attached to nothing but the darkness, but Tony knows that hand. He knows the band on the wrist and forearm that guides the shaft of an arrow.
Clint’s hand grasps Natasha’s and she’s awake and the water parts easier for them. Tony watches as he sinks and she turns her head. There’s guilt in her gaze, but a smile on her face and her hand is just out of reach as Clint pulls her out of the water.
Tony’s left behind.
He’s okay with that. He’s found a sliver of peace that Natasha is taken care of. He can let the water take him, let the darkness close his eyes. It’s almost peaceful now. An eddy crashes into him, catching his arms and a leg and he’s torn through the water and he can’t even scream now as his mind flashes to Pepper and Rhodey and how he’s been unable to see them lately. They’ve all been too busy.
He wants to rip his skin off with the lies. The agony their absence causes him. He wants to show his pain and know they’re there to help him. He’s been all smiles while inside he’s been tearing himself apart. He doesn’t know how to do it. He doesn’t know how to function without lying his way into being okay.
The fake smile and the forced laughter swallow him as he buries himself further and further. And he’s aching again as he’s bashed into a solid shadow in the water.
That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.
Except Bruce isn’t angry now, he’s silent and still where he floats. Tony’s beginning to question his sanity, but he’s pulling at Bruce’s tattered clothes and already turning for the surface. He’s so tired, but he’s realizing now that it isn’t about him anymore. Not only.
Tony watches Bruce’s eyes flutter open and there’s green, so much green, but Bruce only nods and laces their fingers together as Tony lifts them. It’s only when they’re nearer to the surface when Bruce’s hand in his starts to change. It’s rippling faster than the water, but Tony sees red and there’s Natasha again.
Her hand spears the water and latches onto Bruce’s shirt. Tony’s laughing. He thinks he’s genuinely laughing. He has to give whatever God is out there two thumbs up. This is the weirdest dying experience he’s ever experienced, but he’s definitely feeling calmer now. He can do this. He’s helped them both.
They’re calling for him. His name is muffled, dim above the water.
He’s distracted as something flashes in the distance far below and he’s diving before he thinks more of it. He’s driven towards the bottom and, for once, he’s working with the water. It helps him, propels him downward until he reaches what’s shining so brightly. It’s brighter than his Tower. It’s the beacon of his ‘S’. It’s what he’s been searching for his whole life.
And Tony can’t. He can’t leave Steve down here when he’d finally found his place. He feels himself shatter as he slams into the ice. His fists are dragging through the water, pounding against the frozen cage holding Steve. He doesn’t have his suit. He can’t break the ice. He’s too far from the surface and he doesn’t think he’ll be getting anymore help. The water’s pulling at him now and Tony pushes an arm against the force, wrapping it around the ice.
He’s yanked sideways, clinging to Steve, because he wants to make him the last thing he sees and he can’t fathom the meaning of this death. He can’t see a way through it. But he clings. He can’t let Steve go. Not like this. Out of all them, Steve doesn’t deserve to be failed this way.
Tony’s weight makes the ice shift where it’s embedded in the sand and Tony notices that Steve’s frozen in a reach. He’s reaching outward and Tony’s gaze follows the stretch of those gloved fingers as ice begins to creep up Tony’s arms.
Steve is reaching for more ice. Another frozen cage and there are fingers reaching back and Tony’s heart seizes and he knows who it is without looking closer.
Steve was never truly Tony’s. It’s his darkest realization come to haunt him as his desperate hope for Steve tears him down, freezes him in turn. He becomes heavier. His body hits the sandy bottom, legs locking as they freeze together. The extra weight tips Steve forward and his cage is slamming through the water towards the other. Ice shatters and it’s like the eye of a storm. The water tunnels and deafens Tony as his own freezing limbs bear him down. The ice that’s thrown into him joins him, solidifying him.
Take that away and what are you?
He watches as Steve bursts into motion. He’s pulling at the other figure and their legs start kicking powerfully, propelling them upwards. A silver arm flashes through the water, cutting it perfectly as Bucky swims beside Steve. Two perfect soldiers making their bid for freedom and air.
He’s finally alone. He’s finally out of breath. He stops struggling. He tips his head back before the ice freezes his neck and shoulders and he looks through the water where the darkness only stares back.
Tony closes his eyes and, finally, he lets go.
Then there’s motion as arms slide around him. The limbs burn fire-bright against his frozen body, but that warmth is pressing against his mouth and he opens up to it. Breath fills his lungs and he wants more, craves it with intensity, and there’s laughter sliding along the giving of life, the sign of desperation finally relieved.
Electricity arcs through the water in a way that shouldn’t be possible and the water domes outward. Tony can feel the ice melting away as red hands brush burning tingles through his arms and legs and Tony’s opens his eyes. He no longer sees only darkness.
He sees blue. Blue that’s spilling over with tears and Tony’s crushed to Steve’s chest and beyond Steve’s shoulder, Tony sees the others. They surround him, all of them with their hands up against the water. Thor stands just off center with Mjolnir lifted. And Tony supposes that in death, he can make up whatever the fuck he wants.
But suddenly, he doesn’t feel like dying so much. He feels supported. He feels loved. Even though there’s a crushing pressure all around them, Tony isn’t drowning anymore. He’s held up; they’re all held up, by each other. The weight of regrets and guilty pasts and unsure futures, it’s all distributed between them, balancing on their shoulders in love and support. And he blinks against the threat of his own tears again and he smiles, bright and happy at the sight of everyone he helped.
When he blinks again, it’s slow and sluggish. The water is gone and the room is too bright, but it’s dry and familiar in a way that you can always tell when a hospital room greets you. He’s numb to any pain he might have, a drip to his left leaving him medicated. He lifts his head and takes in the sight of his team scattered around the hospital room. They’re all asleep in varying positions.
Bruce is slumped in a chair in the corner, his glasses slipping down his nose. Clint is braced against the wall beside him, head tucked down against his knees. In another chair, Natasha reclines with her feet propped up on the window ledge. Bucky’s head is tipped against her thigh where sleeps sitting on the floor. Thor is sitting on the window ledge, gazing out.
Tony wonders what he sees, but his attention is stolen by a soft sigh to his right. He tilts his head to look and meets Steve’s gaze. A single blue eye is visible where Steve has his face pressed against his folded arms. His position bent over Tony’s bed should be uncomfortable.
But the half of Steve’s face Tony can see morphs into relief and happiness and Tony’s fingers land in Steve’s hair and Tony doesn’t think he’d change any of it.
A hero. Like you.