It was just another routine mission. Supervillains, aliens, dictators, natural disasters, cats stuck in trees. Trying to contain a fantasy monster with a Norse name only Thor could pronounce that had emerged through a dimension portal somewhere in the Dinaric Alps. Yup, completely routine, and not outlandish at all.
From an uncomfortably intimate distance, the monster's breath smelled so vile that it made Tony feel like throwing up despite the suit's air scrubbers. Instead, the creature ended up throwing him into the air. Maybe it thought he stank, too.
As soon as he realized he was hurtling through the air at such a speed and angle that he wouldn't be able to stop his fall, he concentrated on trying to remain as relaxed as possible with the ground rushing to meet him. It wasn't a thing that came naturally to anyone with a sense of self-preservation, but Tony was almost preternaturally talented at it by now. He'd been tossed around enough to learn how to minimize the damage. Relax and let the suit take the hit. He'd be fine.
He smashed into the grassy mountainside, the sound of protesting metal ringing in his ears – but the impact wasn't quite as hard as he would've expected, because something gave way – and he was still falling.
“What the hell?!” he cried out loud.
Steve did not cast a second glance after the plummeting Iron Man. He'd seen Tony survive worse falls with minimal consequences. He ignored that soft note of concern always playing somewhere at the back of his mind, and concentrated on tactics. Tony had distracted the monster enough to give Thor the perfect opening.
“Hulk, hold that creature right there”, Steve shouted. “Thor, now's your moment!”
When he heard Tony curse over the comms, Steve afforded another look at where he'd crashed. Instead of a red and gold form on the ground, or better yet taking off to rejoin the fight, all he could see was a gaping hole.
After a seemingly endless panicked tumble Tony finally came to a standstill. He found himself in a narrow, roughly circular pit, surrounded by rocks of various sizes. The occasional pebble or grain of sand was still raining down every now and then. Looking up, he could just see an enticing sliver of blue sky, some hundred feet above him.
Many of the larger boulders around him barely seemed supported by anything at all. If he stared at them for too long and thought about it too hard, they might actually remember they weren't supposed to be levitating like that and they'd fall down and squish him into an Iron Pancake.
He really, really did not like it down here. He had to get out. Fast. Before he panicked completely, because that would be embarrassing.
Without thinking, he fired the thrusters to fly to freedom.
“Sir –“ Jarvis started in a warning tone.
A fraction of a second too late, Tony realized his mistake: his right boot wasn't exactly upright but caught under a rock, not pointing down but sideways – towards the center of the heap of unstable rubble.
Accompanied by a terrible grinding rumble of shifting masses of rock, he was sinking again.
Thor landed next to Steve, a victorious smile on his face. “That monstrosity shall bother us no longer! What a battle – it reminded me of the carefree days of my youth! But why the long faces, friends?”
Steve looked from Thor to Natasha. Her expression was as controlled as ever, but he'd learned to know her well enough to see the tense undercurrent in her eyes. Bruce was already back in human form and was standing on the other side of the sinkhole with a blanket on his shoulders, supported by Clint. The worry on their faces was more open.
The hole wasn't all that big, maybe 25 feet in diameter, but it was impossible to say how deep it was due to the rubble that filled it. Steve could have sworn that for a while there, he'd heard the familiar high-pitched sound of Iron Man's repulsors, faint beneath the rumble of falling rocks, but it was gone in an instant. Now that the dust had settled down again, there was no sign of anyone or anything moving in the depths.
“Tony is still down there,” Steve said.
For the first half a minute or so, Tony tried to fight it. He wouldn't go like this, not like this, buried alive under metric tons and cubic meters of rocks, that was just, no, that wasn't right at all! He lived a dangerous life and had a vivid imagination, and he’d come up with thousands of ways to die, but this had not been on the list. He would’ve picked anything else before this. Not dying at all would also have been good, but he was starting to think that wasn't on the cards today.
Struggling only made things worse – shooting at rocks caused them to break apart and collide with other rocks, and he dislodged additional debris from the walls of the pit, and anyway there was no clear path to that beautiful blue sky above him anymore.
He must have blacked out for a second or two, because the next thing he knew, Jarvis was shouting in his ear loud enough to rattle his most likely concussed skull.
“Sir! Mr. Stark! SIR! Wake up!”
“Yes, yes, stop shouting!” he grumbled, forcing his eyes open. “What's the damage?”
The readout on the HUD wasn't nearly as bad as he would have expected. Must be his lucky day, in some very strange and twisted definition of lucky. Maybe having a demigod as a friend helped. In any case, the suit had taken countless blows, but all repulsors were still more or less functional, and even more surprisingly, the weakest component of all, his fragile flesh and blood body, had come through without any critical injuries. He did have injuries, though. He could tell that without even looking. Ouch.
“Your right tibia appears to be fractured,” Jarvis stated, in a low, wary voice, much softer than when he'd woken Tony up. “However, the most pressing concern is that your current location is extremely unsafe. Predicting 75% possibility that the boulders above you will collapse within the next 5 minutes.”
Suddenly wide awake and quite clear-headed, Tony quickly took in his surroundings. In front of him, there was a gap between rocks that didn't quite seem big enough for him, but looked like it could lead to a larger space. The boulders above him, the ones Jarvis deemed unstable, were so close that his helmet would bump against them if he raised his upper body from where he lay, his chest against a stony surface. And his right leg, the one that was seriously starting to ache now, was pinned under yet another rock.
That explained why Jarvis hadn't just autopiloted him out of here straight away. Trying to move his injured leg carefully enough to keep the rocks from collapsing, while also avoiding further damage to it, would require finer control of the suit than even Jarvis possessed. If it was possible at all.
“Sir, may I suggest the 'getting the hell out of here' -maneuver?”
Tony was sure there was a pop culture reference there but he couldn't quite place it.
“Working on it, J.”
Bracing himself against the pain that was sure to follow, he pressed his helmeted forehead against the ground, and began by attempting to very, very gingerly move his right foot.
Even at the slightest of movements, the effect was instantaneous: the all too familiar sound of something very heavy shifting above him, dust was starting to fall – and no matter how lucky he might be, suit or no suit, he didn't need advanced physics to figure out that he would not survive if those boulders landed directly on top of him.
Slow and careful was not going to cut it.
This time, when he fired the repulsors, he knew it was a horrible move, but it was also the only one he could think of.
The pain in his leg – oh God, he'd experienced his fair share of pain, but this was right there in the major league – he had a horrendous mental image of his leg getting torn apart below the knee, leaving just a ragged stump, blood spraying on the falling rocks from severed arteries – and then, finally, mercifully, he blacked out again.