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The Child's Faith is New

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The most notable outcome of their day at the park, as far as Steve is apparently concerned, is that Tony stops trying to duck out of his turns with Loki. More and more, his turns are shared with Steve, afternoons and evenings they spend in Tony's lab at SHIELD, playing video games, or sometimes, on outings further and further afield in the city.

It's the first time Steve's had the chance to see New York since he woke up, and it seems to Tony that they hit every awful tourist trap that Tony has spent his adulthood avoiding. What's more, they do it with a three-year-old in tow, which means that two of the three of them are seeing most of New York for the first time, or seeing it anew, anyway.

Steve says it’s good for him; that it gets Tony away from the workshop and out into the fresh air, and forces him to get some exercise. That last part definitely happens, because Steve often elects to walk everywhere. He says it’s the best way to enjoy New York, and is impervious to Tony’s protests on the subject.

For Tony, the actual upside is that Steve’s Disappointed Looks taper off, as does about 45% of the nagging, though Tony still hasn’t assembled an adequate argument for why he shouldn’t have to be playing babysitter at all, not in the face of Steve’s Plan, whatever the hell that is. Even Tony has to admit that it’s not to want to give Steve whatever he wants; he so rarely admits to wanting anything. This - dragging Tony on walking tours of the city - seems to make him... happy, in ways that, so far as Tony has seen, nothing else has done. He’s sure as hell never seen Steve smile like that over video games or the big-screen TV.

Besides, if he’s going to get roped into doing it anyway, it’s better that he doesn’t have to do it alone.

Despite himself, he’s actually started to like the kid. Tony tends to think of Loki as “the kid” more often than using his name, even in his head, for obvious reasons. Though even the name is losing its impact as time goes on and they all grow more used to his presence in their lives. And he is in their lives, because he’s part of Steve’s - somehow, inexplicably - and Steve, once he’s decided to share what matters to him, expects to share everything, whether you want to be included or not.

But it’s better this way, because it means Tony rarely has to spend the day with Loki without Steve there as a comfortable buffer.

It’s not that he dislikes kids; kids are the best of all audiences, and Tony loves an audience. Kids are credulous, and interested, and easily distracted by shiny and colourful things - all traits close to Tony’s own heart. Loki is still kind of shy, and still not given to overly-long sentences, but he’s also smart and interested in everything and Tony won’t lie and say getting to show off to someone for whom every awesome thing is 250% more awesome than it is to grown adults isn’t kind of great.

And then come the days when he turns around and it looks like Loki might burst into tears at any second, and Tony has to frantically backtrack over whatever he’s said in the last five minutes to see what he might have done wrong this time, and Jesus, he never signed up for this.

He’s already worked out that his primary methods of interacting with other humans - including but not limited to: sarcasm, arrogance, general conceit and occasional mania - are not really compatible with small, vulnerable people who might actually take anything he says to heart. Especially small, vulnerable people who in previous incarnations decided to exorcise their truly staggering daddy issues by recruiting an an alien army and taking it out on the population of New York City.

There’s a reason why Tony’s only friends are superheroes and crazy people.

Not that any of this is relevant, because Tony is not a parent, and neither is Steve, no matter how devotedly he ignores the reality of this increasingly bizarre situation. Loki is at worst a war criminal in highly unorthodox custodial circumstances and at best some kind of interdimensional refugee, and Tony can’t imagine that even SHIELD will allow this farce to go on forever. Either they’ll decide the kid’s evil after all and make some awkward, unspeakable decision about his future or they’ll decide once and for all that he’s harmless and place him in the care of someone actually qualified to take care of a kid.

Read: Holy Shit, Not The Avengers.

Besides, parents, or so he’s been led to believe, should be warm; should make you feel loved and welcome. Should want you around. Are supposed to be the one place where a kid feels safe and stable. And while his mom fit that bill, at least for the most part, for the last decade or so Dad has existed mainly as a shrinking list of unpleasant character flaws that Tony has thus far failed to duplicate.

Worse, though he’s tried, Tony can’t seem to come up with a single memory of Howard where he wasn’t at least a little bit scared.

It wasn’t immediate, physical fear, of course. Howard Stark wasn’t a pacifist (that would have been ridiculous) but he did have a certain distaste for physical violence. He had a hell of a temper, something Tony does remember being afraid of sparking for most of his childhood. Dad could be fun, and he even remembers a few moments of warmth, here and there - hanging out in Dad’s workshop, or sitting on the living room floor with a model kit spread out before them - but they’re few and far between, and his father’s unhappiness and bitterness were always there, beneath the surface, like a bad smell that never really went away.

Compared to his memories of his mother, remembering Dad is like remembering an angry, distant stranger.

He kind of gets it, now, and he can’t exactly throw stones when it comes to letting anger fuck up your life. While he’s a lot of things, he tries very hard to avoid being a hypocrite.

But that doesn’t make it any easier when Steve dumps Loki into his arms outside an ice cream shop and ducks inside to get them each a scoop.

Today was spent on a whirlwind tour of the Museum of Natural History, the bulk of which was spent in the Discovery Room. For once, Tony got to play the part of the mature adult, standing back while Steve and Loki totally monopolized the giant replica Baobab tree; Loki standing on Steve’s shoulders so he could reach the stuff in higher branches, Steve pointing out interesting birds and animals. “Monopolized” is actually far too mild a term, but both the museum staff and the other parents were apparently unwilling to tell Captain America that it was time to get out of the way and let the other kids have a turn now, please.

Most of the other dozen kids were probably having more fun watching Steve anyway. Tony sure as hell was, especially when they moved on to assembling the dinosaur skeleton and Tony had to take over because they were doing it wrong.

They blew right through Loki’s afternoon nap (and there’s a phrase Tony never thought he’d be personally acquainted with), and now he’s sleepy and warm and loose-limbed in Tony’s arms. Tony adjusts him a little, because he isn’t heavy but he’s just big enough to be awkward, and Loki makes a little noise and opens his eyes.

“Tired?” Tony asks, leaning against the wall next to the shop window.

“M’fine,” Loki says, voice muffled in Tony’s jacket.

“Sure, kid,” Tony says, looking out over the street. It’s Sunday evening, and this side of Central Park is quiet; not much traffic and only a few pedestrians. Tony sits down in a chair at one of the tables on the sidewalk and then waits for Loki to squirm into a more comfortable position on his lap. Tony glances over his shoulder into the shop, but Steve is still at the counter, smiling his “Aw, shucks” smile at the tiny, ancient couple behind the counter. They’ll probably progress to autographs before any actual ice cream happens, which means Tony’s got a bit of a wait.

“So, uh, you have fun today?”

“Uh huh,” says Loki, nodding against Tony’s shoulder.

“Yeah? What’d you like best?”

Loki seems to consider this, and then leans back a little so he can hold one hand high above his head. “Big one,” he says, and Tony nods, somehow knowing he means the gigantic dinosaur skeletons in the Fossil Halls. Which, yeah, were one of Tony’s favourite things as a kid, too.

That was one of the first times Loki’s ever stepped more than arm’s length away from Steve in public, too, as he circled the T-Rex with his face upturned, mouth open in amazement, before turning to Tony and Steve with one hand pointing excitedly up at the dinosaur and his face lit up with excitement.

Steve responded with an enthusiastic “I know, buddy, it’s amazing,” and grinned almost as big as the kid. It kind of made Tony want to ruffle his hair.

When Tony looks down again, Loki is staring at him, eyebrows scrunched up together like he’s thinking hard.

“What’s up?” he asks, hesitantly.

Loki bites his lip. “Sad.”

Tony frowns. “Who’s sad?”

The kid screws up his mouth, thinking, and declares: “Ev’ybody.”

Not for the first time, Tony wonders where Loki falls on the speech-development scale. He hasn’t had a lot of experience with little kids, but the long silences and general stillness seem... wrong, somehow. Maybe just because when he was a kid he was an unholy terror. Maybe that’s all.

“What everybody? I’m not sad.” Tony forces a grin. “Steve’s not sad. Steve had a good time today, right?”

Loki sighs, as though Tony is irredeemably stupid. Tony has the unpleasant feeling that the kid might have learned that from him.

Apparently they’ve encountered another communications roadblock, though, because Loki just sighs and flops forward to press his face into Tony’s shirt again. Tony pats him on the back. “Yeah, kiddo,” he says, “I know how that feels.”

By the time Steve comes back with the ice cream, Loki’s fallen asleep again. Steve consents to calling Happy for a lift and makes Tony carry him back to the car.

Tony never does get his ice cream. Steve eats his own on the way back to the car, and then Loki’s since Loki’s asleep, and then, when Tony’s starts melting down his arm, he eats that one too, despite Tony’s half-hearted protests that are about 30% about Steve eating his ice cream and 70% the positively obscene spectacle of Steve licking melted ice cream off the back of his wrist and Tony not wanting to get caught staring. He’s managed so far to avoid hitting on Captain America with genuine intent and it’s a streak he kind of wants to keep up.

Steve, as usual, doesn’t seem to notice. He wipes his fingers clean on a napkin, folds the napkin into his pocket, and then gets up to fold his long legs up into the seat next to Tony. He leans in close suddenly, and Tony panics for a second before he realizes Steve’s just looking down at Loki’s face, checking in on him the way he checks on the team when they’re in the field. He’s big and warm and close, and Tony sort of closes his eyes and waits for it to be over, and then it is, though Steve doesn’t retreat far. He slouches back in his seat, still pressed up close to Tony’s side, and nudges their shoulders together.

“Not so bad, right?”

Tony considers the sleeping kid, the solid warmth of Steve’s shoulder against his; the warm, close, companionable interior of the car, and nods. “Not bad,” he concedes.

Steve beams at him, the big, almost goofy smile that never comes out around cameras. He bumps their shoulders together again.

“Thanks,” he says quietly, a moment later.

“For what?” asks Tony.

“Tony,” Steve says, and it’s in that gently chiding, come on, now, voice he uses when he’s calling Tony out on his bullshit.

Steve shakes his head, still smiling a little. “I saw you talk to the facilitator this afternoon,” he says. Yeah, Tony might have taken the nice education facilitator lady at the museum aside to talk her out of approaching Steve to gently encourage him to stop monopolizing the exhibits today, but hey, he’s Tony Stark. People do things like that for him.


“And I know you’ve been doing other stuff - to make it easier, the last couple of weeks.”

Tony shrugs. He’s gotten used to it - somehow being the only Avenger who knows how to glad-hand with any kind of finesse. Most of them aren’t total PR disasters - Steve does it pretty naturally, but when Steve is doing PR he’s Captain America, not Steve, which was not the point. Really, they should have been getting mobbed left, right and centre, at least by the less ethical paparazzi, but their outings have gone relatively smoothly. Tony has been hoping Steve wouldn’t notice.

“Yeah, well,” he says, hoping he won’t have to say anything more.

“I just...” Steve pauses, then puts a hand on Tony’s knee, squeezing gently. “You didn’t have to do any of that. And you did. So... thanks.”

“No problem,” Tony says, and he means it, but he still holds himself very still until Steve takes his hand away.

Loki sleeps all the way back to SHIELD.

The middle of a sparring session is not, of course, the best place to have an epiphany. Steve knows this. He's known this since he first enlisted and was the smallest slowest guy on the floor. You'd think that the fact that he now spends a not-inconsiderable amount of his downtime training with some of the deadliest people he's ever met would, by now, have cut down on his tendency to daydream.

Not so much, as it turns out.

The third time he hits the mat, the breath actually knocked out of him, he doesn't get up right away. He lies there until Clint, and then Thor, lean over him.

"Are you well, my friend?" asks Thor.

Steve shuts his eyes for a count of five, and then opens them again. Thor looks concerned. Clint is wearing an expression somewhere between a smirk and a grimace, like he can't decide.

Steve takes the hand Thor is holding out and lets him pull him to his feet. He feels stupid, mostly; stupid for letting his mind wander.

"I'm fine, guys. Just a little distracted."

Thor and Clint exchange a look that Steve can't quite read, like a silent conversation to which he hasn't been invited. Then Clint glares, bares his teeth, and turns to Steve.

"Look, you know Stark's a trainwreck, right?"

Thor smacks him in the back of the head. Clint ducks away, swearing, and dances back out of range. "What? Jesus!"

Thor looks at Steve with a seriousness that has become more common in recent weeks. "We are merely concerned for you."

Steve looks between them. "Concerned about what?"

Thor... hesitates, which is so out-of-character that Steve gets nervous.

"We have noticed--"

"All of us," Clint notes, from well out of range of Thor's long arms.

"--That you have been spending a great deal of time with Tony."

Clint mutters something that might or might not be "is that what they're calling it these days?"

Steve stares at them. "Well, sure. I spend plenty of time with everybody. We're a team." He smiles, hesitantly, because he gets the feeling he's missing something here.

This is not a new feeling. Though it's maybe the first time Thor has known what was going on and he hasn't.

"Guys, you're going to have to be a little more specific," Steve says, even though he's not entirely sure he wants them to be.

"Stark's got a history," says Clint, crossing his arms. "With women." He pauses, then adds: "And men."

Steve knows this. He learned Tony's history chronologically, from wunderkind to playboy to tailspin to Iron Man, long before he ever met the man. He learned about the rest of his team in much the same way. He's always been good at sizing people up, at knitting together what's been said with what he can see; it was what made him a good leader back in the war, and it's one of the only things about the future that hasn't thrown him at all. Summary: he's not an idiot.

It still takes him a minute, though, to realize what they're implying, and he feels his face grow warm.

He levels his best disapproving look on them both. "I have to say, I'm surprised at you guys."

Clint opens his mouth to say something, but shuts it again when Steve shakes his head.

"I would think by now that we've all been through enough together to judge each other on our actions, not what the newspapers like to write about."

Thor's eyes widen, and he looks almost comically distraught. "I did not mean--"

"I know what you meant, Thor," Steve says slowly. "But I think that Ms. Potts would have a thing or two to say about it. Not to mention--" He wants to say he's getting sick and tired of everybody around him treating him at turns like he's both indestructible and hasn't got the basic common sense to know when he's being jerked around.

But Clint holds up his hands, looking horrified. "Jesus Christ, Cap, cool it. That's not what we meant, okay?"

Steve looks at them with narrowed eyes. "I'm waiting."

Thor and Clint glance at each other again, and now Steve wonders how it's these two who are having this conversation with him. He wonders if maybe there was some kind of coin-toss.

Clint casts his eyes ceilingward, before saying: "We just don't want anything..." He pauses again, looking both thoughtful and intensely uncomfortable, and then continues: "...personal to mess up the team." He gives Steve a meaningful look. "Again."

Steve winces. Tony's breakup with Pepper was far from acrimonious, but that was a miserable six weeks that Steve would not like to repeat. Especially since after the second week Steve was the only one who could stand being around Tony enough to make sure he was eating and sleeping. And that was with Tony trying not to be a jackass, not drinking every day away. Pepper called him, and they had a brief, hypothetical, highly uncomfortable conversation about the kinds of things Steve might have to watch out for. Apparently shutting himself away in the workshop and avoiding all human contact was something he did as a favour to the rest of them.

"His parting with Pepper was a dark time," agrees Thor.

Steve doesn’t really know quite what to say. There are so many things wrong with this conversation that he doesn’t even know where to start, although he’d probably start with the assumption that there’s something... going on between him and Tony aside from daytrips to city museums and playgrounds and pit stops for ice cream. Which... he blushes harder, just thinking about that.

“Look," he says, with just the barest edge of desperation, "I appreciate what you guys are trying to say. But looking out for the team? That’s my job.”

"Hey, I didn't want to be the one staging an intervention to start w--" He's interrupted by Thor, with a half-frozen smile on his face, reaching out to loop an arm around his neck and yank him close.

"Urk," says Clint, from under Thor's arm.

"And as for the rest of it..." Steve continues, ignoring the discomfort because he's more annoyed than embarrassed, "...well, that would be private. And you can tell Bruce and Natasha that, too."

"Of course, Captain," Thor says,  with forced cheerfulness. Clint flaps a hand as Steve gathers up his things and backs towards the door.

"I'll see you guys later."

It's the fastest retreat he's beat since he was running from the Nazis.

He had no idea he was being so obvious, is the thing. He thinks maybe Natasha has an idea - she certainly seemed to be making insinuations, that day in the park - but he doesn’t think she’d talk about it to the rest of the team. Tony would, but - Tony’s his friend. Maybe his best friend, these days.

It takes him a minute or two that he’s bypassed the showers altogether and is walking down some random outside corridor in his bare feet. He pauses, looks around, and takes the next corner to the elevators.

A lot of things about this century have shaken him; shocked him even when he read about them, fresh out of the ice. That the people of this time seem to have loosened up a lot when it comes to sex, to who has sex with whom... the fact that the kind of thoughts Steve long ago learned to ignore are now considered A-Okay by any number decent, forward-thinking people... it’s been a pretty big adjustment.

Some things in his re-orientation were given to him with careful context, with painstaking detail and explanation, but gay marriage laws and the bulk of the civil rights movement were presented mostly without comment, for which Steve is still grateful. He can’t even imagine nodding his way through lectures on half the things he found on Google when the civil rights portion of his required reading left him gaping in shock.

Steve spent the first part of the war as the symbol of American might and freedom, and he knows he still has to be careful. It’s just that he’s still getting used to the idea that he no longer has to be ashamed.

And Tony is... Tony. He flirts with everyone, all the time: Clint, Thor, even Bruce, and especially Steve, who he really seems to enjoy poking until he blushes. He even flirts with Natasha, who at this point just rolls her eyes and smiles her smallest smile. He still flirts with Pepper, despite the wreck he was when she left. It’s like he can’t help it; like it’s a switch stuck permanently in the On position. Steve is constantly reminding himself that Tony does it out of habit, not because he necessarily means anything by it. He likes to think he’s almost getting used to it.

Somehow he finds himself in the kitchen on the common floor, and he’s rummaging through the freezer for the pint of Half-Baked he keeps stashed at the back - ice cream in the future is amazing - when Tony appears at his shoulder.

“Bad day?” he asks, and Steve jumps, fumbling the ice cream carton. Tony catches it, holding it up. “Breaking out the Ben & Jerry’s? Was someone mean to you on FOX News again?”

Steve grabs for the ice cream, and fails; Tony takes a step back, pulling a concerned face.

“Come on, now, Steve, you said we were supposed to talk about feelings. Anyway, Fury won’t be pleased if you start shame-eating and get fat. What would Cosmo say?”

“Tony, please give me back the ice cream.”

Tony raises his eyebrows. “I’m just looking out for you, Steve. Ice cream two days in a row? I’m concerned.”

Steve remembers, belatedly, that he’s bigger, stronger, faster, and also, in charge, and changes tactics, crowding Tony up against the counter and pinning his wrists until he can free the ice cream carton and set it safely to one side.

“Why, Captain,” Tony says in a low, teasing voice, “if I didn’t know any better I’d think you were threatening my virtue.”

Steve feels goosebumps break out up and down his arms, and refrains from making the kind of statement anybody else on the team would make; that Tony hasn’t got any virtue to threaten. He knows Tony only does these things to get a reaction. He knows that.

It doesn’t stop him from leaning just a little closer, just for a second, just on instinct.

“That wasn’t very nice, Tony,” he says, seriously. “You shouldn’t call people fat.”

Tony grins up at him; he likes nothing better than for people to rise to his taunts, especially when it happens without anyone throwing a punch. It’s a strange, dangerous hobby that according to Pepper and Fury has gotten him in trouble before.

“I didn’t call you fat. I was cautioning you against getting fat.”

“And you know how I feel about those magazines.”

Tony chuckles. “Captain America: champion of truth, justice, and the self-esteem of teenage girls.”

Steve pauses to analyze that for sarcasm, but to his great surprise, Tony is being at least partially sincere. Tony, when Steve meets his eyes again, looks surprised too.

A second later, Steve realizes that he’s doing exactly what he was trying to avoid, and imagines the look on Clint’s face if he walked in right now.

He lets go of Tony’s wrists and takes a step back, trying to reach for the ice cream in a way that doesn’t look like a desperate distraction tactic, and sees, when he looks up, that it’s only been marginally successful. Tony hasn’t moved, and is staring at him with unsettling intensity.

Steve turns away to get a spoon from the drawer. When he turns back, Tony is still standing in the same place, but he’s staring thoughtfully at the coffee maker. A moment later, he walks over and punches some buttons, and the coffee maker hisses and starts dripping rich dark liquid into its pot. Tony watches it intently.

“So, no kid today?” he asks without turning around; he is very focused on the slowly-filling coffee pot, arms and shoulders tense with anticipation. Steve wonders how many cups he’s already had today.

Steve pries the lid off the ice cream carton. “It’s Natasha’s day.”

“No doubt teaching the kid how to strangle people with his legs. Important life skill.” Tony nods his head, but still doesn’t turn around. Steve lowers his spoon, noticing that the the tension in Tony’s back and shoulders isn’t anticipation; it’s nervousness.

Or as close to that as Tony ever gets.

Steve is really confused. “Tony?”

Tony doesn’t move. “Yeah?”

There’s a weird catch in Tony’s voice; one whose like Steve hasn’t heard since Pepper left. It’s not quite on the same scale, but Tony doesn’t deal well, or happily, with serious things. Steve knows that. He just doesn’t know when, or how, this became something serious.

He puts the lid back on the ice cream, stows it away in the freezer behind the bags of frozen vegetables, the bottle of vodka, and the emergency coffee canister. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Tony flicking him a brief glance over one shoulder before turning back to the coffee maker. Steve closes the freezer, which puts him within touching distance of Tony, but he doesn’t touch. Tony is fairly vibrating with tension now, and Steve is finally starting to realize that he’s the reason.

Steve leans against the counter. He could do what he’s been doing all along, and walk away. It’s worked so far. But he only did that because he wasn’t sure; because he didn’t think... he’s only ever hesitated when he didn’t know enough. He’s never been a coward. Wasn’t even that back when he was a foot shorter and never won a fight.

“Tony.” Steve dares. He puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder, watches Tony’s eyes flutter closed; feels Tony shiver, faintly, under his palm. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” Steve says, and his voice sounds strange, low, rough in a way that he doesn’t really recognize.

Tony laughs, low and sort of rueful. His body sways, just slightly, in Steve’s direction, leaning into Steve’s hand.

“That’s really,” he says, “really not the problem.”

But Steve doesn’t get to find out what the problem is, because that’s the moment the alarm goes off.

Tony’s eyes fly open and he casts a furious glare at the ceiling. He mouths the word Now?, but Steve can’t hear over the noise, and then Natasha dashes past, followed by Clint, who’s lacing up his wrist guard.

“Our favourite anarchists! Something about a freeze ray and a boat full of tourists!” he yells over the alarm, and keeps running.

Steve and Tony exchange an exasperated glance, and then they follow.

As chaotic as the advent of a miniaturized Loki has been, it can’t hold off the world at large, especially not a world with superheroes and supervillains in it.

“Like it’s not bad enough that their name is stupid - I mean, the Sinister Syndicate? Really?” he complains about this while he’s flying Clint to a good vantage point above the battle. “But I still don’t understand their manifesto. I don’t know if it’s just me or because it makes no actual sense.”

Clint just grunts and cocks an arrow, sighting along his arm. For him, that’s pretty eloquent.

It turns out that Clint was not kidding. The Syndicate do, in fact have a freeze-ray. This is just about the stupidest thing Tony’s ever heard, and he’s met Justin Hammer.

They have it mounted on an Apache helicopter, which is bobbing up and down and across the river, terrorizing the two frozen-in-place dinner-cruise ships full of tourists. It’s a display of shitty flying that would have Rhodey in absolute conniptions.

Natasha is currently on-board the jet, which is hovering above the chopper trying to get a clear shot that won’t take out the hostages.

Despite their ridiculous and probably stolen tech, it’s clear from the start that the bad guys are badly out-matched, stolen chopper or no stolen chopper. Especially when three of the dozen not airborne actually turn tail and run after seeing the Hulk bearing down on them. But they are, unfortunately, not completely incompetent.

One of them is getting a lot of joy out of taking potshots from the air, trying to hit Steve running across the frozen surface to reach the boats, and while so far Cap’s shield has proved impervious, Tony’s not liking the odds if this goes on much longer.

He likes them even less when the chopper comes in low, the guy on the freeze-ray leaning over to sight on Cap, and Tony swoops in and grabs Steve with one arm, firing his repulsors up at the chopper with the other. Steve makes a breathless noise of surprise, and doesn’t fight when Tony deposits him on the deck of the nearest boat, just starts hacking at the ice with his shield.

It turns out Tony’s talent for irritating people to the point of violent outburst is universal, because Freeze-Ray Guy finally breaks out the Hellfires (Rhodey is absolutely going to flip his shit when he finds out about this) and JARVIS warns him just in time that he banks sharply, turning what would have been a direct hit into a glancing blow on his left side.

The explosion blinds him for a second. He hears Steve yell “Tony!”and Natasha yell “Stark!” but he’s already spinning off-course, trying to stabilize but failing, and then it’s a blur of fire, dark water, and betrayal of gravity and the jarring impact as he slams into the side of a brick warehouse on the far shore. He’s got enough momentum going to blast right through the wall and smash into the concrete floor at a seriously unsafe speed. It’s enough to dent even Tony’s engineering. Parts of the suit make sickening crunching noises, and he fades out for a while.

He comes to, some time later, with the sound of Steve yelling into his ear over the comm.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he says, smacking at the side of the helmet as if he can stop the noise that way. This is a very bad idea, because it jars his aching head badly enough that his vision swims a little. Since his helmet is still on and the exterior cams are apparently down, this just makes everything a swirling, darkened nightmare of misery and pain for the thirty seconds it takes for his inner ears to calm the fuck down. He stops trying to sit up after that, and after he realizes that he is apparently buried under a wall. Or most of one.

“Guys--” he says, and no, his voice doesn’t sound panicky or dazed, that’s just his imagination. He just hit a wall going at something like a hundred miles an hour; that would mess up anybody’s sense of perspective.

He fades out again.  

He surfaces again with a sudden, intense desire to get the helmet off, because he’s too hot and he can’t see, but even with his head spinning he’s aware that’s probably not a good idea. His extremities start twitching with the inability to move, and he forces himself to stay still, because right, wall. On him.

He tells himself that his breathing is perfectly normal, that he’s not panting shallow, terrified breaths. That his team will be here any minute now.

It works. Mostly. Sort of.

“Tony, where are you?” says Steve’s voice again, and Tony lets out an incredulous laugh.

“How should I know? The cams - I can’t see anything. JARVIS is down.” Okay, no, there’s definitely a note of urgency in his voice now, and he tries to tone it down. It’s not the close quarters, or even the pressure, he thinks. It might be the inability to move. Or the inability to see. Mostly he keeps having to remind himself that the others can hear him, that they’re not even that far away, that they’re coming.

Time passes. He’s not sure how much; he fades out a few times.

Muffled, without the external mics, he hears an explosion close by. And then voices.

“Just hang on a minute, Stark - you’re a couple of layers down, but we can see your light.”

His light? That’s Natasha’s voice. Oh - the arc reactor. Still saving his ass in new and exciting ways even after all this time.

The rumbling grows nearer, and louder, and then suddenly most of the weight is lifted off of him.

It’s a few more minutes before something knocks him, and he doesn’t scream, doesn’t, just because he’s been trapped and immobile for either an hour or an eternity and can’t see or hear anything outside the helmet and has no idea whether it’s friend or foe.

“Tony?” says Steve’s voice, both over the comm and above him.

“Steve,” Tony says on an exhale, and he would go limp if the suit weren’t locked up from the impact and holding him immobile.

The faceplate - goes, and he’s going to have to show the team how to open it with the catch because seriously, Thor, this is the second time, and Tony would be kind of pissed if the suit weren’t probably a loss anyway - and then he’s looking up at Steve, and Thor, and Natasha, and behind them is the Hulk, hovering and looking almost hilariously worried for a big green rage-monster.

Steve’s face is the worst, even though he’s trying to hide it. He looks awful, his face pale and drawn, and tired in a way Steve never looks - Super Soldier Serum and everything.

“Don’t worry, Tony,” Steve says, as the rescue crew finally arrives, crowding around Tony and pushing the Avengers back. “We’ve got you.”