The pain hits him suddenly, unexpectedly.
He knew it was going to be painful, wielding the stones. If the Hulk could hardly manage it, then Tony knew that he probably wasn’t going to come out of this alive. But seeing the stones in Thanos’ gauntlet, again, sent him projecting back to five years prior, and all what he could think of was not again. He couldn’t let Thanos win again.
He didn’t think about it, not for a split second. He saw the opportunity and pulled the stones into his own gauntlet, the adrenaline from the battle and fighting Thanos washing away rational thinking. Taking the infinity stones was an instinct, something his muscles and body did on their own, that required no thinking. Even still, through all of the fear, adrenaline, hope, somewhere in the back of his mind, a distant thought occurred, and he knew that wielding the stones was going to hurt.
But he didn’t anticipate anything this bad.
Tony holds his hand up in front of him, and that’s the last thing he does before he loses control over his own body. His muscles, his skin, his body tenses up, clenches, and he’s unable to move. It’s akin to an electric shock: his body is frozen, he can’t move. He’s stuck there, kneeling down, his hand up in front of him, the light of the infinity stones so blinding, but he does all that he can to continue staring up at Thanos with a fire blazing in his eyes.
The pain itself is unspeakable. His body feels like it’s on fire – hot, burning, pain ran through his veins and exploded into his body in a split second; his skin, his insides, his entire body stings with a pain so sharp, so unbearable. It feels like he’s burning from the inside out. If his jaw wasn’t stuck clenched shut, he would be screaming from the white-hot agony plaguing his body.
He knows, he knows he has to snap his fingers, take away all of Thanos’ army and Thanos himself. All his remaining energy and control is concentrated on pulling his two fingers together to just snap, the last project he will ever pour his heart into, he knows. All of his pain, all of his trying, all of his concentration, almost made Tony unable to hear someone yelling his name.
It’s so distant, so far away, that he almost can’t hear it. But as his fingers are drawing close to each other, he hears a man yell his name, so faint that the one part of his mind that is still working thinks maybe it’s Howard, calling to him in the afterlife. Or maybe it’s a memory, or a flashback, or just wishful thinking, wanting someone to be with him as he goes. But then Tony realizes that he actually can hear his name being yelled. It’s not in his head. He takes his chance and spares a glance to his left, away from Thanos and towards the sound. His vision is blinded by the white light exploding from his gauntlet, but he can just make out a hand.
Reaching out to him.
“Tony!” the person yells, and Tony, somehow, squints. He realizes that it’s Peter Quill reaching out with his hand towards him, and the one coherent part of his mind has no idea what Quill could possibly be doing.
“Grab my hand!” he hears Quill yell, and Tony finds himself actually wanting to. Instincts make him try to move his hand – the one free from the Infinity stones, the one Quill is reaching out for - to take Starlord’s hand, because suddenly he wants. He wants to feel affection one last time, he wants to die knowing he wasn’t alone, that someone cared enough to do this with him.
His hand doesn’t move. Tony realizes, distantly, that if it did, he would have been killing Quill too.
He looks at Quill, he sees his face – Quill’s eyes pierce his soul, but not with the sadness it holds, nor the sorrow, but with the determination in them. Tony can’t move, but Quill can. He does.
Quill’s hand is suddenly wrapped around his gauntlet. The pain is so terrible that he can feel it lessen when he comes in contact with Quill, even if it’s just minutely.
Quill keeps yelling, yelling something, but Tony can’t make it out any more. The small, fading, but functioning part of his mind is reeling in the shock that Starlord is taking on the pain so unspeakable, and for what?
The pain lessens again. Tony can’t see far beyond Quill’s shoulder.
And it lessens again.
Suddenly, Tony’s muscles are working. It hurts, still – shit, it is agonizing – but he can move his head and his fingers. His brain is regaining some sense of coherency. Enough that he isn’t moving on primal instinct alone. He looks at Quill through the eye-burning illumination of the infinity stones, and feels a sentiment of terror at the way the man’s skin is glowing - not a bright, golden glow, but a hollow, grey glow that looks like it’s coming from inside of him.
Tony tilts his head, just so slightly, to see past Quill.
He freezes up all over again, just from shock.
Steve Rogers is grasping Quill’s other hand, head bent low, and in Steve’s other hand is Sam’s hand. On Sam’s other side is Thor, who is in hand with Rhodey, who is in hand with Peter, who is in hand with Wanda, who is in hand with Clint –
Though there is more, that’s as far as Tony can see, but he doesn’t need to see any more for his scrambling brain to piece together what is happening.
The more people in contact with the infinity stones, the more space the energy from the stones has to go, the less pain is shared in each person.
In all of his pain, in all of his raw shock, Tony feels pure love.
Five years ago – hell, two weeks ago, there was no such thing as the Avengers. Tony thought that the team was broken, unrepairable, the hatred building walls that could never be undone. Tony thought that what the Avengers had was lost. When they reunited, mere weeks ago, to try and save the world one last time, Tony thought that maybe they were getting what they had back.
But now, hand in literal hand with his team, Tony realizes that what they had was never actually gone.
He stares back up at Thanos, newfound defiance in his eyes. Thanos looks back with nothing but faint shock and fear. It’s such a stark contrast from his words of finality that could only be a minute ago, that one thing to say springs itself in Tony’s mind.
Tony tilts his head up, never breaking Thanos’ gaze as the words come out of his mouth with nothing but conviction.
“And I, am Iron Man.”
With all of his strength, his brings his fingers together and snaps. Bright, blinding light fills his vision, and he careens back, feeling the hand in his slip away.
Tony blinks his eyes open to a world of darkness and dust, and Steve Rogers’ concerned face staring down at him.
“Oh, thank God.”
Tony blinks a few times, clearing his vision before sitting up, propping himself on his elbows. Steve visibly slouches, panting.
“Tony, you… you – “
“What happened? Did we win?” Tony asks him, and then a flash of nostalgia hits him as he stares at Steve, who’s looking down on him.
“Please tell me you didn’t kiss me.”
Steve is startled out of a quiet, shocked laugh. “We won,” he says, and smiles at Tony.
They sit in silence for a while. Maybe a minute, maybe ten minutes, maybe an hour. Tony isn’t sure, he’s not paying attention to the time. He’s only focusing on the world around him, still aflame, choked with dust, filled with debris, but alive. Everyone is alive. Even if he can hear flames crackling and things falling and smell the smog, he knows that they won, and everyone is okay.
Tony and Steve stare at each other, drinking in their brave new world.