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The Child's Faith is New

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Someone is crying.

Steve crouches down so that he can breathe and listen. There. A kid, he thinks. Off to the right, in the heart of the debris. Steve can’t imagine what a child might have been doing on that plane. He doesn’t let himself think about it, just starts shoving his way through.

“There’s a survivor,” he says over the comm.

A crackle, and then Natasha’s brisk voice: “Hang on, Cap. Containment will be there in five--”

“No,” says Steve. He’s closer now; he can see a little hunched-over shape through the smoke. “No, I think it’s - it’s a kid.”

A brief silence follows. “Say again?” says Natasha, sounding thrown off (for Natasha).

“I’m going in,” Steve says.

“What?” That’s Tony, loud and incredulous. Steve winces and rubs at his ear.

“Stand by,” he says firmly into the comm.

It is a kid, covered in soot and coughing. Steve doesn’t wait; reaches out, scoops the kid up, and gets the heck out of there.

***

“Is he hallucinating? Is it smoke inhalation?” Tony is already yelling as he touches down, the repulsors cutting out as he thuds to the ground and raises his faceplate. Tony wonders if Steve can even really succumb to smoke inhalation. Probably eventually, but it’s only been a few minutes. “He’s the one always lecturing about teamwork and ‘not going off like a loose cannon,’” - and okay, that last part is mostly Tony - “and I’m no expert but probably diving into the burning wreckage of a plane full of supervillains qualifies as reckless, right?”

“He’s fine,” Natasha sounds calm, but she’s got her arms crossed and is standing in the very-relaxed way that Tony has started to suspect is a clever smokescreen for the times when she is not relaxed at all. He’s not sure that Natasha ever relaxes.

“Fine?” Tony says dubiously. “He said there was a kid. How could there be a kid? Unless the... what the fuck were they called again?”

“The Sinister Syndicate,” supplies Natasha, in a tone that shows just how unimpressed she is with the name.

“Yeah. Them. Whatever. Unless they’re recruiting preschoolers, I’d say smoke inhalation is more likely, or maybe he hit his head really hard and--”

“Stark, he’s fine. Give him a few minutes.”

Tony looks towards the debris field, which is still largely engulfed in smoke and flames. He can’t see much with the faceplate up, since Steve ordered them all back to a safe distance before he went back in to rescue imaginary orphans.

“Where are--”

“Thor was following the chutes from the two unfriendlies who bailed out, and Clint went to pick up Bruce,” she says. “They should be here in--” The sound of the Quinjet coming in to land drowns out the rest of the sentence, and she just smiles serenely.

The bay door hisses open and Clint and Bruce tumble out. Clint is strapping his quiver back on and Bruce is zipping up the one-piece flightsuit they keep in the jet for when he doesn’t want to wander around half-naked post-battle

“What’s happening?” Clint asks. “We got more trouble?”

Natasha shakes her head, but she doesn’t look as sure as she did five minutes ago. Probably because Steve’s been in there five minutes, which is way too long in Tony’s opinion.

There’s the usual disciplined bickering while Clint and Natasha argue over whether they should charge off to the rescue or follow orders and stay back, while Bruce squints towards the smoke and Tony fidgets as much as he can in a highly-articulated metal suit.

And then Steve emerges from the smoke, shield on one arm and in the other he’s...

...carrying a kid.

“Well, fuck,” says Tony.

***

Once they’ve all finished gaping (Natasha recovers first), the obvious questions arise, like “what was he doing in there?” and “how did he survive?” (Bruce) and “it’s a trap!” (Tony) which isn’t technically a question but comes up as a general rule. Steve patiently waits them out, and finally holds up a hand.

“Guys, that’s enough. Whatever he was doing there, we can figure it out after he’s had some medical attention.”

Which is apparently the cue for SHIELD helicopters to start circling the crash site for a landing.

Maria Hill listens to a brief report from Steve, and then shoots an unreadable look at the kid.  “You’ve got this for now, Captain?”

“It’s under control, Agent Hill,” says Steve.

Since there’s not much the Avengers can do until the fire is out and the hazmat/bomb/who-the-hell-even-knows-when-you’re-dealing-with-meta-humans team (Fury’s name) is done, they’re left basically standing around while Hill prioritizes and directs disaster cleanup. Clint and Bruce perch on the edge of the Quinjet’s ramp. Natasha sits next to them, wrapping her elbow, which she wrenched during the initial fight with the crazy people before they took to the air and the Avengers had to chase after them.

Tony looks at the kid, who has apparently fallen asleep on Steve’s shoulder.

“You’re sure he’s not just a cunningly-concealed explosive device? Because that would not even be the weirdest thing that’s happened to us this month.”

“He’s not a bomb, Tony,” Steve says, “not according to the cleanup guys.” He sounds amused, his voice a little rough from the smoke. Tony resolutely ignores inadvertently-sexy-Captain-America-voice and studies the kid instead.

The little boy looks maybe three? Tony has no idea how to judge ages in adults, let alone kids. Wavy dark hair. It’s hard to tell much more under all the dirt on his face, but he’s got one thumb in his mouth and sweet round cheeks and looks practically doll-sized in Steve’s arms.

There’s also something… oddly familiar about him, but Tony can’t pin it down.

What’s not familiar is the look on Steve’s face. Tony’s seen Steve with kids before - frequently, even. Not just rescuing them from collapsing buildings and supervillain crossfire but during PR stuff where there are hundreds of sprogs crowding up close to Steve and asking for his autograph, and reporters watching. Cap likes kids. He genuinely believes in all that “children are our future” stuff. He smiles and shakes hands and listens attentively to every six-year-old who tells him he/she wants to grow up to be Captain America some day.

But whenever they’re in public, Tony thinks, Steve is Captain America, wearing the American smile, mask firmly in place. A couple of times Tony’s seen him approached by random people on the street, usually parents using their kids as an excuse, and it occurs to Tony now Steve probably hates all that shit.

Steve looks... worried, maybe. The weight of a three-year-old can’t possibly be a strain on super-muscles, but he looks a little tight around the eyes, like he wishes someone would come and take the kid off his hands but doesn’t want to say anything.

“Are you--” Tony starts to ask, and stops.

Steve looks at him, taking in Tony’s expression, and then looking down at the top of the kid’s head.

“Oh,” he says, “no, I’m fine.” Apparently he’s mistaken Tony’s concerned face with an offer to relieve him of his burden, which, uh, no.

“I think someone should take a look at him. He was coughing a lot,” Steve says for the second time. Steve’s pushed his cowl back, and Tony can see the line where the edge of the mask was, the bottom half of his face darkened with soot. Steve looks over at the little knot of SHIELD agents clustered around Hill and tries to catch their attention. Hill waves at him in a “just a minute” sort of way. Steve makes a face and leans against the side of the jet.

Tony sighs. “Okay, here,” he says, holding out his arms. Steve looks at him in confusion.

“I can scan him,” says Tony. “Or, JARVIS can.”

Steve seems dubious. “The suit has medical scanners?”

“Are you kidding? JARVIS has it built into his basic software. It’s not an MRI, but it’ll be able to tell if there’s anything seriously wrong.”

Steve looks at Tony, and then back down at the kid. And then back at Tony.

“Or I can do it from here. Fine.” Tony tries not to feel hurt that stupid Captain America doesn’t trust him with a stupid kid. To be fair, he wouldn’t trust himself with a kid either.

“Just hold still.”

“Tony, I didn’t--”

“Hold. Still.”

Steve holds still.

“Awesome,” says Tony. “JARVIS?”

“Scanning, Sir,” says JARVIS, and Tony watches the medical scan in progress pop up on his HUD. While he’s gained some uncomfortable familiarity with the subtleties of various medical scans, he usually leaves the interpretation to JARVIS.

He’s curious, though, because the kid basically appeared from nowhere, and he’s cute and innocent-looking and they all know better by now than to trust things that are cute and innocent-looking.

As always, JARVIS knows exactly what he wants before he even asks for it. “He appears to be an ordinary human child, approximately three years of age, Sir,” he says for Tony’s ears alone.

“Great, good, carry on,” Tony tells him, tapping his fingers impatiently against his armoured ribs. Obviously they’ll have to do a more detailed scan. Later.

“There appears to be some minor irritation of the throat and lungs, but no serious damage, Sir,” JARVIS says over both comms, and Steve relaxes slightly.

“Thanks, JARVIS.”

Not “Thanks, Tony, for designing a super-smart AI with a medical degree.”

Thanks JARVIS.

Tony isn’t bitter.

“There, see? In one piece.”

“Yeah.” Steve shifts the kid in his arms. “I just...”

There’s a gust of wind as Thor returns, hitting the ground with a minor tremor. Tony just barely gets the faceplate down in time to avoid a mouthful of dust. Steve turns away, sheltering the kid’s head with one hand. Tony raises the faceplate again as Thor approaches.

“My friends!” he booms. “I have dispatched our enemies. One died in the fall, and the other,” he pats the unconscious bad guy slung over one shoulder, “I brought back as a captive. What shall I do with him?”

A trio of SHIELD agents helpfully appears to relieve Thor of his burden. Thor dumps the bad guy into their waiting arms. The agents check him over for major injuries, and then he’s handcuffed and carried off to be locked up in the transport.

Thor turns back to the team, beaming. “I see we have all survived! And did I hear that the good Captain has rescued a child?”

“As far as we can tell, anyway,” Tony mutters, and Steve glares at him.

“I found him in the wreckage. He seems okay, though.”

Thor leans in to peer at the kid. The kid finally stirs, and opens his eyes, blinking up at him.

Two very strange things happen.

First, the kid’s face goes funny: wide-eyed and scared. And then his little mouth screws up and he bursts into tears. It’s the tragic, awful kind of little-kid crying, too - all wrenching sobs and half-completed words.

The second thing is that Thor takes a step back - and this is the first time Tony has ever seen him retreat from anything, including the building-sized, slime-dripping mutant spiders they fought upstate last month.

“Brother?” he asks, in the smallest, most absolutely gutted voice Tony has ever heard.

And then Hill finally shows up and everything goes nuts.

***

“No,” says Steve, when Tony gets to the briefing room back at SHIELD after shucking the suit. “No, absolutely not.”

Tony skids into the room to see the entire team, minus Thor and plus Hill, Fury, Coulson (who still looks kind of shitty from his recent near-death/fake-death experience) and a pair of strangers dressed in the blue smocks of SHIELD medical staff. Against the wall behind Fury’s chair are half a dozen SHIELD commando-types decked out in body armour and carrying huge guns. Everyone except for Natasha is in varying stages of confusion.

The kid is still in Steve’s arms, face buried in the front of his uniform.

“Captain,” Fury says, in the voice that means he’s just barely holding onto his patience (Tony has heard it a lot), “we need to consider containment.”

“Of a three-year-old?” Tony doesn’t think he’s ever heard Steve use scathing sarcasm before. It’s kind of awesome.

“Of an enemy alien who has killed a couple of hundred people that we know of and recently caused 60 billion dollars in property damage to the city of New York!” Fury is merely speaking loudly, but since it’s Fury, the volume makes Tony’s ears ring.

The kid starts crying. Again.

“Sir,” says Steve, raising his voice to be heard over the sobbing, “he doesn’t seem very dangerous to me. Even if he is Loki--”

“Thor seemed sure,” says Natasha, who has her arms crossed and looks bored. Tony wonders what “bored” actually means in Natasha-ese.

“In this instance I am willing to take his word for it!” Fury tells Steve. “And the last time Loki was on a SHIELD base, he was a source of extreme and lethal chaos.”

“Appropriately,” mutters Clint, and then looks innocently up at the ceiling when Fury shoots him a Look.

“I’ll... be in my lab,” Bruce says, and runs away. Tony watches him go, and then turns back to where Steve Rogers is disobeying his commanding officer. It’s a good show, but it can’t last forever.

“Sir,” Steve says, “with all due respect, look at him. Nobody else here thinks he’s a clear and present danger--”

“Um, actually,” Tony pipes up, raising his hand. Steve gives him such a disappointed look that he immediately drops it again.

“Okay, that’s enough,” says someone. To everyone’s astonishment, it’s Coulson, who has stood up from his chair, and who is now striding over to where Steve is clutching an increasingly inconsolable toddler.

“Here,” he says, holding out his arms.

“Agent,” Fury begins, but Coulson just looks at him over his shoulder.

“I’ll accompany him down to the infirmary. We’ll be right back. You’ll be fine.” He says this last directly to the kid, who has stopped crying and is staring up at Coulson. He sniffs, and then reluctantly allows his arms to be unwound from around Steve’s neck so that he can be passed over to Coulson with one last anxious look over his shoulder at Cap. Coulson turns back to Fury, kid propped on his hip.

It is possibly the single most terrifying thing Tony has ever seen.

Fury sighs and waves a hand, tacit acknowledgment that if anyone is up to protecting the base from a murderous demigod of chaos and lies, it’s the guy who recently survived getting stabbed through the chest by the same demigod.

Especially since said demigod is currently pint-sized and sucking his thumb, tear tracks standing out on his grubby face.

Coulson goes, jerking his head at the guys with guns, who follow him out in tidy formation.

Fury stares at everyone as if daring them to say something.