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Amaurosis; Chapter 3: Burn / Crash

[INFO] Title: Amaurosis
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers & Iron Man (MCU)
Genre: Action, drama, sci-fi
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), J.A.R.V.I.S., James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor, Sam Wilson (Falcon), Tony’s bots (DUM-E & U). Appearances and mentions: Nick Fury, Pepper Potts.
Pairing: Pepper/Tony (past, referenced)
Summary: The Avengers are about to swap defense for offense in the Alien-Human War, but will that be enough to win the day – and most of all, the entire war? While Tony still struggles to overcome his blindness and come up with a permanent solution, he and the team realize that one courageous act may well backfire as their enemy is more than capable of rising to the challenge.
Complete. Sequel to “Typhlosis”.
Warnings: Apocalyptic scenery (general destruction and death), referenced (past) character death, language, violence.

~ ~ ~

Chapter 3: Burn / Crash

Day 183 of the Alien-Human War

It was like staring at fire: the flickering wisps, restless shapes and multiple hues of red, orange, gold and paling yellow breaching the darkness around the flame.

The hues morphed into shapes, over and over, focusing and distorting in waves that became more regular by the second. The pattern seemed unexpected at first, but it was a rhythm, and finally Tony drew a comparison to the beating of his heart, finding a common factor.

He stared, unbelieving, fairly certain that something was going very wrong in his body. The shapes, when he could make sense of them, were regular, and he adapted to them with more ease than when he first put on the light helmet and activated the implants. These distorted shapes had many similar qualities to them, and for an instant he wondered whether Extremis was tapping into the implants, sensing his desperation.

His body was still overheated, and Tony felt like his eyeballs were burning. He blinked instinctively to ease the dry sensation – only to have his world turn black as his eyelids closed. He started, alarmed, and swiftly re-opened his eyes; the red-and-orange world returned in front of him as soon as he did.

The implants had not needed his eyes, bypassing them entirely. His chest tightened at the realization, the heat trapped within him surging, and somehow the shapes sharpened, easier to track and decipher.

He wasn’t looking into the flames: he was the flame.

Empowered by this knowledge, he turned his head towards where he had last heard Rhodey’s voice. The colors flickered, but every pulse of his heart – every squeeze of blood through the veins – brought him a new, refreshed image, and he could see the alien battle armor now, and his friend’s body on the ground.

He could see Rhodey’s body heat and the electrical bursts across his nervous system. He could see his heart beat…

And then, as he shifted his gaze, he could see the alien within the exo-suit, more clearly than with his suit’s scanners or the military’s equipment. The implants had given him similar information, but there was something organic about how he was seeing things now, whereas the implants had relied on fine-tuned technology.

Moving slowly, Tony got his feet under him again, afraid that if he moved too fast he would lose his grasp on whatever was happening. If his fear and distress had triggered Extremis – there was no other explanation for what was happening, no other source for the heat that still coursed through him – then gaining his confidence might make it vanish as fast as it had appeared.

To improve his chances of maintaining this newly discovered power, he decided to focus on rage. The alien in front of him could just as well have been one of the three that had attacked his home and poured poison into his eyes. It could have been this very same alien that blew up the wall and killed Pepper – and was preparing to fire at Rhodey and take him from Tony, too.

He had been aiming for rage, but the tidal wave that rose within him, which felt like it was about to literally set him on fire, was not something he had expected. It was primal and pure, and it narrowed his mind down to a handful of necessary thoughts and instincts: he was going to destroy his enemy, even if he had to rip the battle armor apart piece by piece and sink his bare fingers into the alien flesh within.

In fact, he would prefer doing it all himself; to feel the alien alloy give beneath the raw strength of his fury and to hear the last scream of the creature that had come to invade his home.

A yell escaped his throat, months of frustration pouring out of him as he rushed his target. The exo-suit turned to meet him, the weapon that had just been aimed at Rhodey rising towards him instead, but Tony dodged it with speed Steve would have envied, sprang up, and landed with one foot on the raised arm, left hand bracing against the exo-suit’s shoulder while be raised the other to strike.

Punching the battle armor should have hurt. It should have split his skin, fractured bone and halted his attack on the spot.

Instead, he felt a deep satisfaction as his fist sank into the metal, his body singing, fire burning steady within him. He felt no pain as he pulled his fist back out and used both his hands to tear at the hole, to widen it, to dig out the alien inside like a snail withdrawn into its shell.

Briefly, the suit’s arm managed to dislodge him and throw him to the ground, but he rolled to his feet and charged again. He heard a weapon go off, saw the heat just before the blast singed his shoulder. A brief flare of pain registered this time, but it only served to fuel his determination and he jumped at the suit again, tearing, punching and clawing until the battle armor crashed to the ground, its front torn open, smoke from burning flesh assaulting his senses and prompting Tony to back off before he inhaled more of the repugnant smell.

His heartbeat eased a little, the world pulsing more calmly with it, giving him a sense of ease. With that threat neutralized, he turned around to look for another, but all he could see was Rhodey, still on the ground, several feet from him and the fallen exo-suit.

Tony faced him and slowly walked over to his side, his eyes scanning his body. It was hard to tell how badly he was hurt; with his vision filled with shades of red, he could not tell skin and clothes from blood. He could see his heartbeat, though, steadily transporting blood through his body, and he tried to trace the flow for a moment, mesmerized by it.

Kneeling on the ground, Tony reached out to touch Rhodey’s shoulder, to see whether he could make him stir. He made sure not to squeeze too hard, aware that he had just made an alien armor look like it had been put through a shredder whereas his suit was barely able to make a dent without excessive force.

He barely managed to shake Rhodey before the other let out a strangled sound of distress and Tony smelled something burning. This time the smell was familiar, unlike the alien, and he withdrew his hand in horror, watching as colors danced on Rhodey’s shoulder, almost beautiful if he hadn’t known what they were from, the sickening stench of burnt flesh stuck in his nose.

“I’m sorry!” he cried, his heartbeat jumping up in response to his distress. It forced him to clamp down on his anxiety and move further away, because he could not lose control while sitting so close to Rhodey. “Fuck,” he breathed, pressing his hands into his chest as he rocked on his knees. So far, he had only tried to stoke the fire and make it burn brighter, but he had hurt Rhodey just by touching him and he needed to get it under control before he did something worse.

Slowly, as if he were being lowered into icy water with agonizing patience, the heat dissipated, sinking beneath his skin and back to his very core where it cooled down the rest of the way, forming a solid weight that compressed his lungs and made it hard to breathe out the distressed sounds he wasn’t fully aware he was making.

And, just as the heat receded, so did the colors from his vision; the last, sad little flicker of red pulsed twice along with his heart before going out, leaving him in the darkness once more, shivering and defenseless.

The drop from feeling all-powerful was hard. His thoughts were no longer blocked and censored by his primal instincts, and it felt like someone had turned off the dampeners, leaving him vulnerable to a sensory overload of doubts, fears and conflict.

He wanted to move back towards Rhodey, but in his blind state he could not see him, and might even hurt him more. And if he started burning up again without warning…

Tony sat still, trying to empty his mind in order not to accidently provoke himself. He could feel wind brushing against his skin and slowly grew aware that his skin was exposed for the most part, his clothing torn. His ears kept picking up noises that were hard to decipher, and he tried not to imagine their origin; if it was a threat, he would have to defend them somehow, but until then he needed to stay calm in order not to do any more damage.

He was not sure how much time had passed before he heard feet stomping against the ground and a familiar huff from the Hulk. A sneer followed, and something heavy being kicked, the metallic weight tossed across the ground a few times.

“Don’t,” someone warned, authoritative and firm. Tense, too, which made Tony’s body go rigid. He knew that voice, though – just as he recognized the stride, tired but still purposeful, and the firm grip of his fingers against his shoulder. Normally the touch would have inspired confidence and a sense of security, but this time it prompted Tony to barely abort a cry of warning as he moved away from it. “It’s okay, Tony,” Steve told him. “It’s me.”

“Don’t touch me,” Tony managed.

“Okay,” Steve said, releasing him. It sounded like he backed off a little for good measure. “Are you okay?” he asked next.

“I think Rhodey’s hurt,” Tony responded. “Help him.”

Steve moved past him and his shield was laid out on the ground. Tony listened intently, focusing on the sounds Steve was making. There was no indication Rhodey was stirring, and a part of Tony wished he could go hot, just a little, to see his heartbeat again – to make sure he was okay.

“Hulk, signal for Thor to come down,” Steve called out. “We need to get Rhodes to a medic.”

“Gray tin man got crushed,” the Hulk commented.

“His suit did, but he’s in one piece,” Steve stated, possibly more for Tony’s benefit. “He’s got some wounds and bruising, and a nasty burn on his shoulder, but he’s alive.”

Tony flinched at the mention of the burn and slowly pulled his right hand out of sight, hiding the weapon that had inflicted the damage on his friend.

Steve let out a faint hiss at something, but did not explain. It distantly reminded Tony of his team’s first reactions to his own injuries, which didn’t inspire confidence.

“Rhodey will be fine,” Steve stated at length, turning back to face Tony. “Are you sure you’re all alright?”

“Don’t I look alright?” Tony challenged. He had no idea of the condition he was in, but he didn’t feel any pain.

“You don’t have a scratch on you even though your clothes look like they’ve seen better days,” Steve replied. Tony could feel the piercing blue eyes on him, taking in every little clue. Judging him. “What happened?” the super-soldier asked finally, shifting a bit closer – making enough noise to not startle Tony, and refraining from touching him.

“My suit got bust. The helmet, too,” Tony replied slowly. “Rhodey flew in to rescue me, but…”

“Looks like he did a number on the alien armor,” Steve noted, his voice tinged with hesitation. “I’ve never seen marks like that before. Did he get a new weapon or something?”

Tony swallowed. He didn’t want to admit to hurting Rhodey, but he could not lie. The fact that he was even alive – that either of them were – was all thanks to the unexpected miracle of Extremis acting up under duress. “Rhodey didn’t do that,” Tony began, but could not bring himself to finish it. He could barely remember it, through a haze of red that resembled blood more than flames now that he could actually think again.

He had never felt so angry in his life; so close to losing control and not caring enough to stop it. Was that how Bruce felt? Was that how Extremis behaved before it went volatile?

The thought made him shudder. How close had he come to simply disintegrating himself and incinerating everything around him?

“Then what did this?” Steve asked, clearly deciding Tony needed to be prompted for a reply.

The frozen, heavy lump in his chest cracked, just a little. Tony expected flames to start licking up from his core, but that didn’t happen. As the wind blew by them again, he shivered at the cold, almost glad that no heat rose to battle it from within him.

“I did,” he finally said. Admitting it didn’t bring him any relief – mostly because he hadn’t actually admitted anything yet. “I went hot. There’s no other explanation for it. One moment I’m on the ground, and the next Extremis is burning me up from the inside – burning so bright it actually let me see, for a moment,” Tony described and frowned, then lifted his face, momentarily caught in the memory of seeing with his own two eyes, but there was nothing but darkness left in the aftermath and he could not see Steve.

“You were able to see?” Steve repeated. “How?” He took a sharp breath. “Can you… now?”

“No,” Tony shook his head. “It’s gone. But I could see Rhodey on the ground and the exo-suit above him, and I… did that,” he tilted his head to the side pointedly, trying to motion towards the dead husk of the alien battle armor. “I just kept going at it like a rabid animal, and once it was dead, I tried to make Rhodey wake up.” His brain decided to replay Rhodey’s sound of distress that would surely haunt his dreams for years to come. “I took him by the shoulder and burned him,” he said, words cracking, sliding into a whisper. “I didn’t mean to, didn’t realize I was literally burning up…”

“You’re not burning anymore,” Steve observed unnecessarily, perhaps thinking that would help Tony to feel less bad about it.

“I made it go away,” Tony shrugged, then huffed. “That sounds ridiculous, like it was some kind of bogeyman hiding in my closet…” He lifted his hand to clutch at the side of his head, which was starting to ache. “I could have literally exploded, and didn’t even realize it. All I could think of was that I had the ability to see again, and the power to kill the alien and tear apart the exo-suit. That I could have my vengeance and save Rhodey.”

Steve pulled him into an embrace so fast that Tony could not prevent it, and after the initial fear that he might hurt him – though nothing happened – he slowly relaxed in the firm hold.

“You didn’t blow up, and Rhodey will be fine,” Steve told him, determination laid thick on his words. “Whatever triggered Extremis… You’ll figure it out, soon, and maybe then you’ll be able to see again.”

Tony hadn’t thought about that – hadn’t dared to, when all he’d been trying to do was to sit still and not burn a hole through his best friend.

If he found the trigger and controlled the chain reaction, he might finally be able to see the world around him without depending on the implants and could exist outside the time limit that might fry his brain.

Day 176 of the Alien-Human War

“Guys,” Clint called out. “I hope you’re not done being all mighty and shit: there are several Category 3’s coming after us for seconds.”

Tony froze, cradling the light helmet which he had just taken off his head.

As if seeing his hesitation, Rhodey’s hands firmly gripped his, holding them down. “You’re at your limit,” he said quickly. “You can’t push it now, or there might be no coming back from it.”

Tony knew that, of course; he felt better the instant the implants went offline, his brain was still smarting, and his nerves were misfiring all over his body from the prolonged use of the helmet.

“We’re not going to out-fly multiple Strike Teams,” Tony protested nonetheless. “We need all the firepower we can get.”

“I’m not going to let you fry your brain,” Rhodey added mulishly.

“Sir, I can fly Mark 52 to battle,” J.A.R.V.I.S. offered before Tony could come up with an argument.

He could, Tony knew that. It hurt, to be so easily discarded, but he needed a break and he wasn’t going to get inside the armor without the implants activated. “Fine,” he groused, “but you better pull out all the stops.”

“Naturally, sir,” the AI agreed, although Tony knew J.A.R.V.I.S. would never do battle like an organic mind. Whether that was actually an advantage or a hindrance, it was hard to say.

“They’re gaining on us, fast!” Clint warned from the cockpit.

“Rhodes, Thor, J.A.R.V.I.S.: get out there,” Steve ordered “Buy us time.”

“Aye,” Thor replied, not sounding like he was eager to battle again but he knew it had to be done.

The Hulk let out a grunt, like he was taking offense at having been forgotten.

“We’re airborne,” Steve said. “You can’t fly.” Clearly he was trying to reason with the big guy.

“Don’t need to fly to smash,” the Hulk muttered.

“If they get too close, you jump and go smash,” Tony suggested as he reached out with his hands in order to find a place to sit; if he couldn’t fight, he might as well stay out of everyone’s way. A hand caught his left forearm, its size indicating it was Natasha, and she wordlessly guided him to the bench by the wall.

The Hulk cracked his knuckles but clearly stayed inside the Quinjet while the others took off.

It did not take long before Tony could hear the two sides engaging in battle, explosions rattling the aircraft. There was not as much debris as in a grounded battle, but an aerial battlefield was harder to control. Tony excelled in aerial combat, but he tended to choose ways to evade the enemy and keep from getting hit until he had room to strike. In the open sky, there was nowhere to hide – especially for a Quinjet – and he wished someone would at least tell him how they were faring against the aliens.

The bots rolled over to him, offering mild comfort and a distraction: something to hold onto – and lean on, when the explosions got a bit too close for comfort and it felt like the Quinjet was going to fall out of the sky.

The Hulk seemed to have similar issues, his weight crashing against the walls of the Quinjet. Tony hoped the big guy wouldn’t get pissed off at the enclosed space and try to punch his way out.

In hindsight, he needn’t have worried about the Hulk: not five minutes into their escape, something hit the Quinjet, giving the rotor closest to Tony a very unhealthy background noise. As the aircraft gradually tilted as a result, he knew it wasn’t going to be long before someone announced they were being forced to land.

The bots let out concerned bleeps, and Tony leaned into them rather than the wall at his back, maintaining some semblance of ‘upright’ before the plane tilted too much for that simple trick to work.

“No good,” Natasha’s voice reached his ears; she was talking to someone else, but the noises from the broken engine and the whirling of wind from the partially open hatch forced her to raise her voice. “Clint says he won’t be able to take us down safely.”

“We can’t spare any of our flying members to assist us,” Steve replied.

“He’s trying to take us lower, but it’s likely we’ll have to jump,” Natasha finished, trying not to be overheard, but both Tony and the Hulk were within earshot.

The Hulk let out a grunt and turned, by the sound of it, most likely ensuring he was the first in line.

Tony was in no hurry to make such a decision. His body was telling him that putting on the light helmet was still a bad idea – and the bots were shivering and shifting around restlessly, signaling that they understood what was happening.

The engine behind him was sputtering, whining and clunking in turns, most likely depending on what tricks Clint was deploying to keep them in the air. Tony could tell something would fall apart soon, though, and he was prepared for it when Steve’s voice came from somewhere a lot closer to him: “We’re abandoning ship,” he told Tony.

Tony’s fingers tightened around the arm of one of the bots. “If we’re going to crash, the bots will have to jump with us.” He didn’t know how, exactly, but he was not going to leave the bots behind.

He fully expected Steve to argue – or just huff in frustration and drag him out by force. There was nothing Tony could have done to stop it, save for calling Mark 52 back to the Quinjet, and in this situation he knew it would compromise the lives of the whole team.

“Natasha, count the chutes,” Steve ordered.

“Six,” she answered promptly. “Clint and I can share one, but even then…”

“Hulk needs no parachute,” the Hulk proclaimed.

“We can spare two on each bot,” Steve said, surprising Tony. He had expected anything but compliance, whether it was a token argument or a plea for Tony to come to his senses. Instead, Steve lay a careful hand on his where it was holding onto one of the bots. “Can you instruct them to open the chute mid-air?” he asked Tony.

“No time!” Clint shouted. “We need to do this now.” His voice was coming from much closer than the cockpit.

Steve’s hand withdrew, and Tony sat, trying to tell indicative sounds apart from the noises of battle and the broken engine. The bots shifted, moving away from him, leaving Tony clutching onto the bench for support.

On his right, the hatch opened the rest of the way, and with a grunt of effort, the Hulk moved. He must have braced himself and jumped before the entire aircraft tipped, and for a moment Tony feared the engine would give out and plunge them into an uncontrolled spiral towards the earth.

One of the bots screeched in protest, further away from Tony than he had expected.

“We’re running out of time,” Natasha said loudly over the whipping of the wind trapped inside the Quinjet. “Tony, you have to tell your bots to cooperate.”

“With what?” Tony yelled back.

“Moving to the edge of the hatch so that we can open the chutes,” she replied.

Tony swallowed. It wasn’t as if the bots could really operate the chutes in the air – they most certainly weren’t built for sky-diving – and it was possible the bots themselves knew that. Whether they could experience vertigo just by acknowledging they were far above the ground was questionable, but Tony had programmed them to comprehend dangers that would be damaging to the bots, and understanding said dangers didn’t do much without an instinct to avoid them.

Like falling out of a plane strapped into two parachutes that might not even hold their weight…

Determinedly, Tony moved his hands to undo the belt he had fastened earlier to keep him in his seat. He didn’t think too hard about what he was about to do, and once the security of the belt fell away from his waist, he slowly moved to stand up. As if to mock him and remind him of his place in the world, the Quinjet tilted just then, almost sending him crashing back into the wall above the bench, but a hand shot out to steady him, an arm wrapping half-way around his middle, and Tony used that as a new safety line as he blindly moved towards the hatch.

“You guys need to be brave,” he said over the wind. “I’ll be right behind you, but I can’t jump with you.”

The bots whined, trying to appeal to him. One of them reached out for him, claw closing around his bicep as if they would rather drag Tony down with them than let go.

The Quinjet kept tilting to the side, and Tony braced himself against the pull of gravity. They couldn’t have gained much altitude after he and the Hulk entered the Quinjet, and if they wanted to jump, they had to do it before there would be no time for the chutes to open.

“Go!” he ordered the bots, trying to block out the fact that they might not survive the fall, ending up in a hundred little pieces on the ground, and he could not put them back together in his current state.

The claw let go of him.

“Pull,” Steve said to someone, and Tony heard a questioning beep from one of the bots, then a flap of a fabric as it trapped air inside it and snapped out to its intended shape. There was an audible screech from both bots, and Tony felt a sudden urge to dive after them, as insane as that was. The arm around his waist stiffened and pulled him back against another body, as if reading his mind. “You two go ahead; I’ll take Tony with me,” Steve ordered, words spoken so close to Tony’s ear the certainty in them made him relax a bit despite everything: Steve had a plan, and if they followed it, they might just make it through.

Tony didn’t hear Clint and Natasha jump out. There were no prolonged farewells and hand-holding – not with the aircraft at an almost uncomfortable angle. Outside, the battle could still be heard, but they must have arched away from it because it didn’t seem to be taking place in their immediate vicinity anymore.

Not wasting time, Steve briskly set to work: “Can you hold onto the strap above you?” he asked Tony, then guided Tony’s right hand above his head where a strap hung from the ceiling, to be used for support when standing in a moving plane or preparing for a jump.

Tony curled his fingers around the strap, then brought his other arm up as well for added stability. Steve let go of him almost immediately, moving away. The Quinjet’s hull creaked and the aircraft tilted even further, forcing Tony to tighten his grip and instinctively close his eyes, pretending that he was safe. Items clattered across the floor, rolling towards the wall at his back.

Steve returned then, his weight briefly bumping against Tony. His fingers gripped the strap more tightly, to hold still; if Steve lost his footing, it was unlikely Tony could support them both for long.

Fortunately Steve found his balance and leaned away from Tony, arms and hands brushing against him as Steve worked something around his hips and thighs – straps or rope – then tightened the material until it felt like Tony might lose circulation. Steve tugged at it, as if making sure it was secure, then pushed close to Tony’s front and tightened another few straps.

Experimentally, Tony tried to shift his weight backwards, but found himself fastened against Steve’s body.

“I need you to trust me,” Steve said over the wind, lips almost brushing Tony’s ear as he leaned close.

Tony nodded sharply.

“Let go of the strap and hold onto me,” Steve instructed.

Tony had never blindly trusted another person in his life. When he lost his sight, he had to make compromises with his team, but it was still one thing to trust them and to blindly have faith. The Quinjet began to vibrate while he still clung onto the strap, though, and he knew that if he didn’t do as he was told, they would both end up crashing and burning with the Quinjet.

With a shaky breath, Tony let go of the strap, one hand at the time, and wrapped his arms around Steve’s shoulders. He felt something fastened on Steve’s back – the last parachute – but did not encounter the familiar curve of his shield.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Tony asked.

“Nope,” Steve replied and reached around him. There it was, on his arm: the legendary weapon of Captain America.

Steve took a step to the side, the straps forcibly pulling Tony along. He shuffled his feet awkwardly, feeling the wind increase as they neared the hatch. For the first time, it dawned on him that soon they would be falling, and he could not tell up from down. He could not see when they would approach the ground – or if something had gone wrong and they were going to end up as a pile of mush on the forest floor below.

Anticipation made his stomach clench – and then the realization that he himself had forgotten something.

His nails pressed at the exposed skin at Steve’s neck. “The helmet!” he shouted in warning. “I don’t have it.”

“I do,” Steve replied – then used the arm around Tony’s waist to lift him up, just a bit, so that he could take the last few strides towards the hatch.

Tony grunted, never having liked it when people lifted him off the ground. His arms tightened around Steve’s body, predicting the fall that was waiting for them.

He wondered whether Steve’s makeshift harness tying them together would hold.

“I won’t let go!” Steve shouted over the wind, his arm pressing them together.

Tony was about to yell back that he wasn’t about to let go either, God help him, but that was when the Quinjet made its final lurch, tipping sideways so hard it felt like they were falling already, and Tony felt Steve jump away from the hatch, sending them falling through the air.

Tony could hear nothing except the roar of the wind. His arms shook, fingers clamping, trying to hold on; the force of the air almost pried his hands loose, and he kind of wished he would have had the forethought to use his legs to further his hold on Steve’s body. As it was, it felt like Steve was properly braced against the fall whereas Tony’s legs flapped around, the cool air biting against his scalp.

A few seconds into the fall the panic started to hit him: he could tell they were falling fast, but he was trapped in the darkness and could not see the sky, the falling Quinjet, or Steve’s face. He could not see the ground which they were rushing towards, and as each second ticked by, he began to worry Steve had forgotten he was supposed to open the chute and would instead let them fall to their deaths. The arm around his waist did little to comfort him, and he felt like screaming his lungs out or losing his breakfast – not to mention just passing out as his body failed to adjust to the fall.

He did not feel Steve move before the sound of the opening parachute briefly reached his ears.

Tony most certainly felt the violent pull as the chute fully extended and began to halt their fall. That was swiftly followed by the sensation of continued fall. His arms were numb, all of his weight pressing against Steve’s arm and the straps between them that were pulled tight as gravity kept tugging him down against the restraints.

Steve didn’t let go, though, and Tony pressed his face against his shoulder, trying to breathe and envision their controlled landing that would occur at any second.

As their free fall gradually eased into a more controlled upright floating, Tony felt some of the fear ooze out of his system. He still felt sick and the pull on his arms seemed to increase tenfold, but the chute was open and they were not wildly crashing to their deaths anymore.

The fall was still rapid enough to tell Tony that Steve wasn’t taking the scenic route to the ground. With the wind blocking his ears, Tony couldn’t be sure, but he occasionally felt like he could hear the battle still going on. It felt like he had been stuck in a huge stack of cotton wool and crammed into a drum dryer, the rest of the world blocked away while he rolled around inside until he was so dizzy in the head he couldn’t make heads and tails of anything.

Without any warning, Steve angled his body against Tony’s. It made him start and wonder what was wrong, his mind swiftly coming up with a number of things, spanning from a parachute malfunction to a nearing enemy aircraft ready to fire upon them.

As the chute flapped above them, his mind chose the first option. He prayed J.A.R.V.I.S. had seen them jump out of the Quinjet and would fly over to help them safely to the ground, but the AI had been silent all through the preparations to jump. Either the communications were down or J.A.R.V.I.S. was extremely busy, but in either case, their jump might go unnoticed by everyone in the heat of the battle.

The time he spent rifling through those thoughts distracted him from what was really going on, and thus it made him let out a yell of surprise when their fall came to a sudden stop, Steve’s legs forcing them to a jarring halt for a fraction of a second before their momentum forced them forward and they fell down hard in a tangle of limbs, with enough force to punch the air out of them both.

Steve grunted and Tony did not wonder why, his arm crushed between his shield and Tony’s body. While his mind told him they were finally safely on the ground and he could release his cramped hold on the other man – a hold that had been close to falling apart as they fell – he found himself unable to let go of Steve. In his defense, he still felt a bit like he was falling, his inner ear not yet fully caught up.

“We’re okay,” Steve said, voice wheezing, and Tony could, to his utter shame, admit he whimpered with relief.

to be continued…

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