Tony opens his eyes to stare at blue pools gazing down at him. The disorientation is complete. “What’s going–”
“You’re ill, Tony,” Steve explains gently. “We really need to get you checked out.”
Tony tries to turn his head, but it feels heavy, like he’s strapped down. “Not ill. ‘S nothing. Sniffles, that’s all.”
“Tony, it would be best to go to the hospital and have them–”
“Nuh.” It comes out like a croak, like there’s something lodged in his throat. He clears some phlegm away and tries again. “No hospital. I’m not sick, just tired.”
“Your fever is 103.2. Your respiration is–”
“Thank you, JARVIS,” Tony barks, rolling over to cough. It sounds rusty and damp, and Tony’s chest aches like it’s on fire. He collapses back against Steve and calculates how much strength it’s going to take to make it to the couch. Crawling is the only realistic option, and he bends his knees and gathers the strength to roll back over. Steve’s hand is on his shoulder, and he’s not pushing or guiding, he’s just there, like he’s waiting to see what Tony’s next move is going to be. Tony cants his head to the left, eying the sofa that might as well be on the moon for all the closer it is. “Couch.”
Steve looks at the shabby couch and frowns. “I’m not going to leave you on the couch, Tony.”
“’S a nice couch.”
“I’m sure it is,” Steve agrees as he slides his hands under Tony’s armpits. He hasn’t showered in a couple of days, and he’s about to suggest that Steve put his hands somewhere else. Before he can get the words out, he’s moving, being pulled from the floor by power that doesn’t belong to him, and he struggles to get his legs underneath him. Steve slides one arm over his chest, just below the arc reactor, and his other hand moves to Tony’s hip, holding him close when he starts coughing again. “Easy. Just take a minute. You’re all right.”
Tony thinks he should push him away; he should stand on his own two feet. If he does that and then promptly face plants on the floor, that’s not going to do anything for his antihospital stance. He can feel Steve’s breath against his ear, and it feels like a cool summer breeze over his fever-warm skin.
“Don’t fight me, okay?” Steve says quietly. “Not now, and not about this.”
Whatever struggle Tony was gearing up for dies completely, and he sags in Steve’s arms. Steve shifts to take his weight, arms flexing with strength Tony can’t imagine possessing outside of his armor. Steve’s forearm is pressed against the jagged, bandaged cut in Tony’s side, and on some plane Tony registers the pain, but it feels distant, foggy, as if his mind registers it’s there, but he’s far too preoccupied with other things. He’s always been good at compartmentalizing.
“Couch?” Tony says because as fantastic it is to be ensconced in Captain America’s arms, two floors is a long way and his fever-addled brain is already running the numbers and the cost benefit analysis is clearing showing that he doesn’t have the strength to the spare.
“Bed or hospital,” Steve returns. “You’re call, Tony.”
“Option three?” There’s always a third option, a plan that no one else thought of, and Tony’s built an impressive career on thinking outside of the box.
Steve, however, is more of a black-or-white type of guy, and he’s relentless and clearly unimpressed by Tony’s freethinking. “Bed or hospital.”
“Bed,” Tony says, trying not to cough as he squeezes the word out.
“Sure, Tony,” Steve replies softly, as if this whole stupid thing is Tony’s idea in the first place. “We can do that.” After two wobbly steps toward the door, Steve hooks his chin over Tony’s shoulder, eyes mapping the glass doorway and the stairs beyond. Tony wants to laugh and say it’s a long ass way, isn’t it? How does the couch look now? “I could carry–”
Tony shakes his head because on no planet is that ever going to be a reality. He cracks his temple against Steve’s cheekbone. “I would die on my workshop floor first. I swear to God, Steve.” He is no one’s damsel in distress, and if his useless legs would get it together, he’d stomp right out that door.
“We’ll just take it slow, then.”
When Steve said slow, he meant glacial speed. The continental drift is occurring faster than Steve’s walking. Tony can’t find the energy to complain because he’s focusing on moving every time Steve nudges him forward, and Steve’s pleasantly cool skin plastered to his back is enough to keep his synapses firing when all he wants to do is fall asleep in Steve’s arms and forget this ever happened.
“Keep going,” Steve encourages. “We’re almost there.”
By the time they reach Tony’s penthouse, Steve is basically carrying him, and Tony’s feet are barely touching the floor. Tony never opens his eyes when Steve lowers him to the bed. Soft footfalls pad away, and a hand is shaking him awake moments later.
“Here,” Steve says as he pulls Tony up until he’s leaning against the pile of pillows. “Take these.” Tony eyes the two pills in his hand. “JARVIS said it’s–” Tony swallows the pills before Steve finishes whatever he’s saying. Tony might not like to be handed things, but this is Captain America, and if he’s going to kill Tony, he’s a decent enough guy to do it when they’re face-to-face and Tony’s mostly lucid. With Steve’s hand at the base of his neck, a cup of water is guided to his lips. Tony takes two swallows, water dribbling down his throat when Steve pulls the cup away. “More?”
Tony’s already sliding down the bed now that his neck’s been released. He tugs infectively at the blanket, and he feels his body being shifted, the cover smoothed out underneath his chin. He’s asleep before he can say thank you.
His body battles the fever, immune system trying to rally after being beaten down for days. Exhaustion is a formidable enemy which makes the recovery process that much harder. Finally, his fever crests and breaks, and he’s shaking underneath the covers.
Tony scrapes together the wherewithal, somewhere in that hazy space between being asleep and fully awake, to try to pull his tee shirt off without lifting his body from the bed. Hands are there again, and Tony’s pretty sure they’re not his, but the shirt’s gone now, and that’s all he cares about.
“Tony! Your side! What happened?”
“Nuh?” Tony mumbles, pressing his face against his sweat-drenched pillow.
Steve’s hand is spanning his ribcage, fingers bracketing the healing cut. “When did this happen?”
“Oh, that,” Tony says around a yawn. “Arkansas.”
“You did this in Arkansas? Why didn’t you say something? You should have reported this immediately.”
Tony’s still exhausted, body fighting the whatever virus he’s caught, and he doesn’t have the energy for another lecture about standard operating procedures and injury protocols. Doesn’t have the energy to tell Captain Super Solider that he’s fine, he’s had way worse, and frankly, being worried about him is a waste of good neural passageways. He should be spending that cranial energy on something usual like being a national hero, and how to keep the Avengers in the public’s good graces.
Steve’s hand ghosts over his side and fingers are grasping at his chin. “Would you look at me?” Tony’s eyes remained closed, and Steve sighs, not quite defeated, more quiet frustration. “You need to rest anyway. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Tony says, refusing to lift his face from the pillow. He should have kept his mouth shut, because opening the door to this conversation has the potential to spectacularly blow up in his face.
“Yes, tomorrow,” Steve says, voice unsure, like he doesn’t know why Tony asked or he even knows what day it is. He probably doesn’t – Tony has people who keep up with that sort of thing for him. “Try to get some rest. I’ll wake you for dinner later.” Steve quietly leaves the room, deceptively inaudible for a man his size. It’s all Tony can do not to call him back and ask him what the hell he’s playing at because this whole killing him with kindness shtick is... well, it’s putting him off.
Tony’s been handled by the best, by people who had raised manipulation to a form of art. Where Thor was trained since birth to be a fierce warrior, Tony was trained to run with the most powerful people in the world, and it’s a kill-or-be-killed scenario. He’s spent time with the sharpest minds in the world, with top scientists and engineers, and with politicians who could wage world wars, sending thousands to their deaths, with only the push of a button. Tony has seen the best and very worst of mankind, and he’s learned how to read people, how to interpret their tells, because everyone is playing some type of angle; everyone has an agenda. Everyone apparently except for Steve Rogers because Tony’s been laying here for the last ten minutes trying to piece together where Steve’s coming from, what exactly he’s trying to gain from all this, and all he’s got for his efforts is a massive headache and a crick in his neck. He’ll have to extrapolate more data before he can formulate a working hypothesis.
After he wakes up, that’s the first thing he’s going to do.
When Tony peels his eyes open, the faint hues of an orange-tinged sunset cast the room in warm shadows. Just like a machine running a diagnostic test, he takes a moment to stretch his legs and his arms, waiting to see what the fallout will be. His headache has receded to a dull hum, more annoying than acutely painful. Tony decides he feels human, marginally so at least. He can quit making a mental list of his funeral music. Pepper isn’t a fan of Black Sabbath, but if he puts the odd indie rock song interspersed with industrial metal, there’s a chance she’ll at least stay until people have finished paying their respects. He imagines it will be grand total of three minutes until they run out of nice things to say about him, and then they’ll either make it up or do the classic ‘I’d like to think…’
Tony flops over onto his back, coughs a few times from the change in position, and stares at the ceiling. A chair creaks, and Tony turns his head and sees Bruce leaning forward, watching him. “Funeral music. Do you think Black Sabbath would be too much? What about Led Zeppelin? Everyone likes Led Zeppelin.”
Bruce, bless him, doesn’t miss a beat. “‘Stairway to Heaven’? That’s a little cliché, isn’t it?”
“‘Highway to Hell?’ Although I don’t think Pepper would appreciate that.”
“What about the classics? A little Eric Clapton and Frank Sinatra.”
Tony mock gags which launches another coughing fit. It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Never. I’d come back, and I would be livid. Ever seen ‘The Haunting?’ Think that, only way worse, like Regan MacNeil worse.”
“Demonic possession?” Bruce leans back, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “An interesting proposition. Anyone particular you’re looking to possess?”
“Not Fury. I have no desire to see what the inside of that man’s head looks like. I already know Pepper’s routine so I’d be bored and wreaking havoc inside of twenty minutes. Maybe the Hulk? The rage monster and I could have some fun. Or, I could hop a ride with the Earth’s Mightiest Hero. I bet I could get him to unclench a bit and live a little.” Tony smiles at the image of Steve in Vegas, partying like it’s 1999, and then he remembers who Steve was close to before he took a nosedive into the ocean, and it’s like throwing a bucket of ice water on his mental party. “Do you think possession comes with a side helping of the person’s memories because if so, Cap is out. As much fun as it would be to go day tripping through my father’s younger exploits, I’d rather not.”
Bruce takes Tony’s long-winded rambling speech in stride. “Since demonic possession is, at least at this point, not a viable option, let’s focus on something more important. How are you feeling, Tony?”
“How is that more important than the possibility of demonic possession? Bruce, I thought you were a scientist,” Tony says, tsk more than implied.
“I am a scientist and most definitely not a psychic medium. We’re both scientists. You just happen to be a sick one who apparently isn’t very good at taking care of himself. You should know better, Tony.”
Tony clears his throat, gaze falling from Bruce to his feet. He does know better. He’s pushing forty, not four. Tony’s not idiot – he knows how the human body works and has a firm grasp of human anatomy and physiology. He just doesn’t care that much.
Bruce doesn’t harp on it, though, because he either knows better and figures Tony has heard it all before (he has) or he has people to do that sort of thing for him (he doesn’t). “Do you think you can handle some soup?”
Since Bruce is giving up his precious time sitting here and keeping Tony company, the least he can do is try to suck down some broth. “I can try. I think I have some takeout menus. JARVIS, where did I put–”
“No, it’s okay,” Bruce interjects. “Clint is downstairs making some.”
Tony blinks at him, words processing slowly through his sluggish mind. “Clint, trained assassin sharp-shooter Clint, is in my kitchen. Making soup.”
Bruce nods. “Yes, that’s what I said.”
“Which begs a second question: why is Clint, the highly trained assassin sharp-shooter, making soup in my kitchen?”
“Because human biology dictates that we require food to sustain ourselves.”
“Mortal,” Tony mutters.
Bruce chuckles. “Being human is never going to be an insult to me.”
“Point,” Tony concedes even if Bruce’s biology-driven response did not answer Tony’s question namely: why the hell is Clint in his kitchen making dinner and, furthermore, when did Bruce get here? This is probably a question he should have asked sooner, but he was distracted by selecting appropriate funeral music. It happens.
“Steve and Natasha had to do some recon work,” Bruce explains, even though Tony never asks. “SHIELD sent them somewhere, but Steve expects to be back by the morning, midafternoon at the latest. He asked me if I’d drop by and check on you. Clint said he had nothing better to do and came along.”
The fact that everyone suddenly thinks Tony needs a keeper is disturbing and completely untrue.
“Imagine my surprise when Steve told me you were sick,” Bruce says, fixing Tony with a pointed look. Tony doesn’t have a lot of experience with the whole superhero team thing, but he has a feeling they don’t have a sick leave policy.
“Next time I’ll call in,” Tony says, shrugging it off. “Sorry, boys and girls, but Iron Man can’t come out and fight evil with you today.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Bruce doesn’t glare, he just looks disappointed and somehow that’s worse. “I thought we were friends.”
And, ouch, that does sting because he and Bruce hit it off immediately. Tony had found someone who speaks his language, who can keep up with his techno babble rants and appreciates him for more than just the fancy suit and weapons he’s engineered. Tony doesn’t know when his health status became the hot conversation topic for the Avengers, and he damn sure doesn’t like it. Note to self: don’t ever get sick again. There’s got to be a health virus he can engineer. Maybe he can buy off those virologists at the CDC and see if they can come up with something.
Bruce is still in the room, watching Tony through inquisitive eyes, and he expects an answer. An acknowledgement at least that Tony understands the message he’s trying to get across. “We are friends,” Tony says, even though being friends with Tony comes with the paparazzi and death threats. Tony knows this because he only has two, and depending on the day and what dumbass thing Tony’s done, they usually don’t like him very much.
“Are we?” Bruce presses, unaware that Tony’s comparing friendship with himself to contracting a venereal disease before the advent of antibiotics.
Tony’s never asked for anything in his life, so when he says, “I’d like to be,” he hopes Bruce understands the weight of what he’s saying.
Bruce smiles and unfolds himself from the chair to stand. “I’d like that, too.” It’s like being in kindergarten and passing notes to little Susie Meyer. Do you like me? Circle yes or no. That was before the second grade when Clark Dyson stole his science project idea, and Tony realized friends were bullshit anyway.
“I like you more than Susie Meyer,” Tony blurts out. He immediately slaps his hand to his forehead, checking to see if the fever’s come back because Tony does not go around divulging emotional sentiment. He’s warm, but not feverish, although checking his skin temperature using his own hand is about as useful as trying to solve a calculus equation by chewing bubblegum.
“Uh… okay?” He brushes Tony’s hand away and presses the flat of his palm over Tony’s forehead.
Tony pulls his head to the side. “You really don’t want to touch me right now. I haven’t showered in days.”
“Why don’t do you that? It will make you feel better, and then we’ll see what Clint’s been up to in the kitchen.”
“Shower. I can do that,” Tony agrees. He pushes his feet off the side of the bed and on shaky legs, he makes his way to the bathroom. Bruce’s eyes track him the whole way, and Tony figures he’s waiting around to see if he’s going to collapse in a heap on the floor. “JARVIS will tell you if I bust my ass.”
“Indeed, sir,” JARVIS promises.
After he closes the door on Bruce’s stare, his side twinges painfully and he realizes he just gave Bruce an eyeful of mottled bruises and an impressive gash. Whoops.
Tony is rapidly firing off every cooking related joke he knows, until he slides a spoonful of warm tomato bisque into his mouth. “Marry me. Seriously, it’s legal now, and I know this fabulous little chapel on the lower eastside.”
Clint laughs while he pulls apart a roll. “You couldn’t afford me.”
Tony takes another sip, groaning as the tasty liquid slides down his throat. “I’ll take such good care of you. I promise, you’ll want for nothing.”
“You’ll take care of me, huh? When you’ve done such a bang-up job taking care of yourself.”
Tony waves his spoon dismissively. “I’m way better at taking care of other people. Trust me on this.”
Clint nods, eyeing Bruce across the table. “I believe you.”
“What about Natasha?” Bruce asks. “She might have something to say about your union.”
“She can come, too.”
Clint barks out a laugh. “Tasha doesn’t cook, Tony. She eats raw sprouts and whatever I cook for her. That’s about it.”
“She can be our bodyguard, then,” Tony surmises. “No one ever expects the beautiful woman.” Most people look at Natasha and see never ending legs, a flat, perfect stomach, and–
“Finish that thought and you’ll be dead before sunrise. You won’t even see it coming,” Clint says in response to Tony’s faraway expression.
“It’s not a real friendship until you get a death threat,” Tony says.
“You need new friends,” Bruce mutters.
“I have new friends,” Tony replies. “I have you guys.” He lifts his bowl to slurp down the rest of his meal. He refuses Clint’s offer for more, even though he feels like he could easily take down the whole pot. His stomach wouldn’t appreciate it even though his taste buds are eager for more. “So, level with me, Clint. What’s it going to take to get you to cook the occasional meal around here? I have cars and money. I have–”
“A new comm device.”
“A communication device?” Tony says as if repeating the words will make them make sense. “I thought SHIELD outfitted all their agents with the most up to date, advanced– wait, what am I saying? This is SHIELD I’m talking about here. Of course your comm device is shit.”
“It cuts out, and half the time the response feature sticks. Trust me, when you’re waiting for your extraction coordinates with half the Colombian army on your heels, the last thing you want is a comm unit that doesn’t work.”
“I can fix that,” Tony promises while silently hating SHIELD for sending their agents into the field with shoddy equipment. He’d fix it even if Clint hadn’t offered an exchange for his culinary skills.
Clint inclines his head, a silent thank you offered, and the actual words will come upon device delivery.
Bruce nudges Tony’s foot under the table, grinning. “Anything in that black bag for me?”
“You would make a terrible Dorothy,” Tony replies, shivering at the thought of the Hulk in ruby red slippers. Even though Bruce is only joking, Tony says, “Anyway, I got you a lab. What more do you want?”
Bruce’s spoon clatters to the table. “You got me a what?”
“Floor ninety-three. It’s all yours, buddy. Go wild.” Tony stands up to take his bowl to the sink, and Bruce stops him with a hand on his arm.
“You got me a lab.”
“That’s what I said, yes.” Tony points his spoon at Clint. “And before you get all jealous, there’s a range on ninety-two. I wasn’t sure what distance you prefer so JARVIS will help you set the targets.”
Tony sets his bowl in the sink and presses his hands to his lower back, wincing as he tries to stretch. Definitely too soon for yoga. When he turns around, Clint and Bruce are staring at him, mouths agape. There’s a reason why Tony’s donations are made through a third party or through the nonprofit organization step up by Stark Industries. It’s because Tony sucks at thank yous.
“I’m tired. Is anyone else tired? What time is it?”
“6:23, sir,” JARVIS supplies.
“Right, that’s a perfectly reasonable bedtime, isn’t it? Yes, I think it is. Good night, gentlemen.” Tony leaves quickly, hoping his blatant running away looks more like an exhaustion-induced exit.
Tony tries to sleep. He really does. He counts little flying Iron Men. He beats his pillow into submission. He recounts pi to over one thousand decimal places until his headache decides to make a reappearance, and then he thinks of Steve and Natasha in the middle of a warzone with substandard communication equipment. What he’s envisioning is probably way worse than where they actually are, but Tony’s always had a fantastic imagination. In the end, he gives up and meanders down to his lab, all pretense of sleep forgotten.
The schematics of SHIELD’s communication devices are easy to pull up (see also: hack). Tony hadn’t been assigned one of the units because he had JARVIS and could easily link to the communication network. He works with the schematics, pulling the small holographic image and making it larger, studying the intricate design, and deems it worthy of a junior high school student’s engineering project. If this is the kind of equipment SHIELD puts in the field, Tony’s going to have to take apart every piece of tech the Avengers regularly use.
He makes his own device from scratch, carefully modeling the tiny ear piece off the technology he used in the Iron Man helmet. It’s complicated work, carefully detailed, and his hands are aching after the first hour. He’s sweating again, palms slick as he tries to hold on to the small pin vise. He blinks several times, consciously refocusing his gaze.
JARVIS records his progress, making notes when Tony requests it. It takes nearly eight hours, but in the end, Tony has a working prototype. He connects it to a decibel testing device and waits while it runs through the tests.
“Trial testing will take nearly two hours, sir,” JARVIS points out.
Tony nods, eyeing the coffee pot across the room and silently calculates the distance from his current spot. His head is pounding again, and it’s enough to make him ask JARVIS to lower the music. AC/DC hums through the speakers, and Tony sways to the beat, his head throbbing in time with the music. He’ll put his head down for a minute. Just a quick rest for his eyes, to get his headache under control, then he’ll pull up the details of Steve’s uniform and see if he can reconfigure the Kevlar ratio.
A hand is on his shoulder, shaking him awake what feels like seconds later. “Tony, wake up. You didn’t even make it to the couch this time. Come on, wake up.”
Tony opens his eyes slowly and immediately winces when he lifts his head. His neck aches, his back is killing him, and his cold is rallying for a second attack. Steve’s still in his uniform, and Tony doesn’t notice any obvious injuries. He says the obvious because his brain is still trying to wake up. “You’re back.”
“I got back about an hour ago. Silly me went to your bedroom first.”
“Aw, that’s sweet. You went to my bedroom to check on me.”
“Bruce said you were sleeping, and JARVIS confirmed it so naturally I assumed you, still recovering from illness and all, would be in bed. My mistake.”
Tony scratches the skin next to his arc reactor through his shirt and nods in the direction of the sofa. “There’s a perfectly good couch right over there.”
Steve glances at the couch and back to Tony. “And you didn’t use it either.”
Tony cocks his head to the side, trying to think of a suitable insult that’s not thank you, Captain Obvious, because that would be too easy. He’s still tired, so fucking tired that his entire body aches with it. If Steve wasn’t here, he’d drop his chin to his chest again and sleep for another five hours.
“Is that a communication device?” Steve asks out of nowhere.
“Huh?” Tony follows his line of sight. “Oh, yeah. It’s a prototype I was working on last night.”
“Clint just told you about that yesterday, didn’t he?”
Tony yawns, white teeth flashing, and he knows he needs to brush his teeth because even he can’t make morning breath smell good. “Yeah, he mentioned it.” He shrugs noncommittally, unsure of where Steve’s going with this.
Steve nods then shakes his head, like he can’t decide which one he wants to do. Tony’s headache is forming again in the recesses of his mind, and he rests his head on Steve’s hip. It’s slightly more comfortable than his work table.
“So, your couch is pretty amazing?” Steve asks.
“’Course it is,” Tony mumbles. “It’s mine, isn’t it?” He’s moving again, body being lifted, and his feet take a few clumsy strides before he’s collapsing onto the frayed cushions. Tony ends up leaning against Steve’s chest, eyes drifting closed as he yawns. “You don’t have to stay.”
Steve hums an acknowledgement or a disagreement, Tony’s not sure, but he doesn’t move away. His fingers start carding through Tony’s hair, and Tony doesn’t ask him to leave again. “How’d debriefing go?” Tony asks without opening his eyes. It’s not so much that he cares, because he really doesn’t, but Steve has a nice voice and it’s the first sound that hasn’t amplified his headache since it started.
“Haven’t done it yet,” Steve replies. “Natasha and I are going to do a video conference this evening.”
Tony wonders if Steve knows how to do that. “Natasha not back yet?”
Steve’s hand hesitates for a second before his fingers start massaging at Tony’s neck. “She’s here. I think she’s upstairs eating the rest of Clint’s leftovers.”
“Clint is amazing,” Tony mumbles, pressing his nose against Steve’s collarbone.
“So I’m told,” Steve says, chuckling. “I have it on good authority he’s not the only one who’s pretty amazing.”
“Bruce,” Tony agrees, missing Steve’s intent completely. “He’s better than Susie Meyer.”
“Is he now? That’s pretty special,” Steve says, his voice gentling as his fingers briefly slide across Tony’s forehead.
“Thor, too,” Tony rambles on. “He’s got a magical hammer. That’s amazing by default.”
“Thor is very special,” Steve replies.
“So is Natasha. She’d make a great bodyguard. I have a plan, you know.”
Steve chuckles. “You always have a plan, Tony.” He smoothes his hand down Tony’s side. “I have a plan, too. It involves you sleeping.”
“Wanna know a secret?” Tony asks, whispering softly against Steve’s neck.
“Captain America is pretty special, too. Just don’t tell him I said that because we have this thing, and, well… It’s kind of weird.”
“It’s okay, Tony. I won’t tell Captain America you think he’s amazing.”
“I said he was special, not amazing. He’s kind of both, though.” Tony sighs, slumping into a boneless sprawl. “You’d just have to meet him.”
Steve wraps his arms around Tony’s body, content to hold him while he rides out the rest of his fever. “You’re amazing, too.”