"Come on, Nick, that's bullshit and you know it." Tony Stark leaned forward and fixed the Director with an intense glare. He recognized that he might be overreacting, but he was running on fumes at this point. It had been a week since Loki's failed invasion and the industrialist was still trying to prioritize the chaos into something resembling order. First, he'd managed to get power back to most of the affected areas of the city by coercing the mayor to link the Stark Tower arc reactor into the local grid. Next, he had arranged for temporary housing for the volunteer emergency crews that had poured into the city over the following days. Then he'd convinced the Stark Industries board of directors that the free publicity and positive public image more than offset the costs incurred, but this had taken considerable time and all his personal skills of persuasion to accomplish. Add those items to the ongoing repairs to Stark Tower, repairs to his armor, press conferences, current research and development projects, not to mention the daily tasks associated with running a Fortune 500 company, and he was working thirty hours out of every twenty-four. Eating and sleeping were distant memories by the time he finally made it to the helicarrier he'd designed in order to personally assess the damage, figure out what weaknesses had been exploited, and plug the holes in SHIELD's security. He'd specifically requested Barton as his guide for the walk-through, as the archer had been the one to actually do the exploiting in the first place, but got distracted from the actual damage assessment by the tour itself. While Stark was brilliant and often brash, he couldn't have made his money without being able to read people and give them what they wanted, or possibly even convince them that they wanted it. What he saw on Fury's flying fortress set his mental alarms blaring, so he'd gone straight to the man himself.
The Director seemed unconcerned, and steepled his fingers impassively as he leaned back in his chair. "Agents Barton and Romanov are active SHIELD assets, while Dr. Banner and Captain Rogers are both under SHIELD protection. Living arrangements offsite are untenable at the present time due to security issues."
Despite his exhaustion, the billionaire carefully schooled the anger out of his voice; he didn't have time to waste on stupidity or pointless fighting. "Have you noticed the interpersonal dynamics on this tub recently?" He snorted self-deprecatingly. "I'm not famous for my sensitivity, but I've only been onboard an hour and can already see that housing the Avengers here is going to end in bloodshed if something isn't done soon."
"And what, exactly, led you to that conclusion?" The Director's voice was dry as desert sand as he idly played with a pen on his desk.
Stark rolled his eyes. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was the way every agent we passed in the hall shot Barton the stink-eye. Or maybe it was the way Romanov, who followed us everywhere by the way, kept tossing her knife from hand to hand as we walked, then conspicuously cleaned her fingernails with it whenever we stopped."
A small smile quirked the corner of the older man's mouth as he glanced up. "Personal hygiene is very important, Mr. Stark."
The industrialist's own mouth thinned angrily and his eyes narrowed. He knew when he was being messed with, and didn't appreciate the misuse of his valuable time. On less hectic days he'd enjoy maneuvering around the spy, but right now he was busy, goddammit! His voice lowered to a growl as he continued, "And the looks Barton got were nothing compared to Banner; hell, people turned and headed the opposite direction whenever they saw him coming. He pretended not to notice, but I could see him looking a little green around the gills. And Rogers? He's either pounding the shit out of another punching bag, or moping alone in that closet you laughingly call his quarters! How the heck is he supposed to acclimate to his new time period if he can't even get out in it? And is it really a good idea to lock up a giant green rage monster on the very vessel he trashed last week?"
"So what would you suggest? The World Security Council is adamant that the Avengers stay on the helicarrier for their own protection." Fury's eyelid fell to half-mast as he studied the engineer.
"Let me take them. They can all live in Stark Tower. Hell, I've got more space than I know what to do with, not even counting the floors currently under repair!"
Fury leaned forward, fixing his one eye intently on the industrialist. "And why should the World Security Council accept that offer?"
Stark threw his arms out in exasperation. "Oh, I don't know. The money they'll save on replacement heavyweight bags? The cost of feeding both a Hulk and a Super soldier?" His mouth turned down disdainfully, "Or the money they'll save on medical and legal bills when the Widow doesn't finally gut some insensitive asshole and introduce him to his own intestines?"
Fury snorted a laugh, then clasped his hands together on his desk. "What makes you think she won't do that even sooner if they move in with you?"
"Fine. Let her." Stark shrugged fatalistically. "But if it's in my tower, the WSC isn't out a dime, and since I'm only a consultant, they aren't even liable for damages. Just get the Avengers out of this toxic environment." He shoved his hands into his pockets and sighed. "It doesn't even have to be to my Tower, although the security there is probably better than yours at the moment. Just… from what I saw this morning, this isn't going to end well… for anyone."
The Director looked like he'd swallowed something bitter and grimaced. "I agree," he gritted out. "But the WSC insists that they stay here."
The engineer stared back silently for a beat, then narrowed his eyes. "Where they're containable," he finally concluded, feeling as if his brain was running on only three cylinders. "Or possibly controllable."
Fury kept his expression carefully neutral. "All you have are suspicions."
Stark sighed deeply, closing his eyes and resting his head against the back of his chair as he tilted it onto two legs. God, he was tired. Why did everything have to be such a struggle? He thought furiously; there had to be a way around the impasse, a way to sell this. The WSC clearly wanted the superheroes where they could keep an eye on them, or maybe even disband the group when one of them lost their cool. At this point Stark couldn't even guess which one of the four would go postal first, just that someone would, and soon. If the hypothetical monetary savings could be waved aside 'for their own good', maybe the Council would have a tougher time refusing more obvious tangible benefits? Something they'd be stupid, or have obvious hidden agendas, to turn down. His eyes flew open as a wicked smile touched the corners of his mouth. He was pretty sure that Fury was with him on this, so he let it grow to a grin as he suggested, "Then let's make them an offer they can't refuse."
The genius spread his arms expansively, encompassing the room. "My consulting fee for this project. For the helicarrier repairs and upgrades. Waived, if they let the team move out now."
Fury blinked once in surprise, then silently waited for the billionaire to continue.
He obliged with a self-satisfied smirk. "Don't get me wrong. They'll still have to pay for implementation; supplies, contractors, workers, etc. But the designs from me? Gratis."
Fury's eyebrow arched. They both knew what a single hour of Tony Stark's consulting time was worth, never mind the hours upon hours it would take to design the upgrades for his flying fortress. He had to admit that he was impressed at the offer, and suspected that the WSC would be as well. If they turned it down, their flimsy excuses would be revealed for what they were; an unabashed attempt to keep the superhero team under their thumbs. "That might work, Stark. You sure you want to do this?"
Tony waved a hand dismissively. "If it saves me wasting my time on even more repairs when Banner finally Hulks out from sheer frustration, it'll be worth it."
Three months later, Tony was still glad that he'd made the bargain, although sometimes he wondered if he'd been played. The flying battleship had required an enormous amount of work, and he still wasn't finished tweaking the fine details to his satisfaction. The inventor slumped on a stool in his lab and blinked blearily at the holographic schematic of the helicarrier which swam in the space before his eyes, mocking him. The WSC had grudgingly agreed to the new living arrangement after Tony's carrot had been proffered, and the team had moved into the unfinished tower the same week. He and Pepper already had preliminary plans drawn up for each individualized floor as well as a gym, common area, and training room; it was just a matter of putting on the final touches and then throwing enough money at the contractors to get it done. He'd had to spend some of his increasingly-scarce time reinforcing both Roger's punching bag and the ventilation shafts that Barton was prone to explore, but otherwise there had been surprisingly few hiccups after the first few days.
With a groan, he closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest, pinching the bridge of his nose viciously to try and fend off the migraine lurking there. He was working on his third day without sleep, and even he had to admit he was just barely functional at this point. The annual Maria Stark Foundation Gala had been tonight though, and it was his responsibility to both introduce the keynote speaker and say a few words about his mother and the origins of the Foundation. He kept his comments brief but warm, and stuck to sparkling cider all night knowing that he had several more hours of work ahead of him after the party. He excused himself a little earlier than was strictly proper, but with Pepper away in Japan on business there was no one to call him on it. Besides, he really needed to get back to those schematics, even if he was doing them pro bono. A deal was a deal, after all.
Days like this, when exhaustion lapped at his heels like the incoming tide, he wondered if it was all worth it. Then he'd remember the team breakfasts on the weekends, the impromptu sparring matches in the gym, and the spontaneous gatherings in the common room to ridicule bad movies and unwind. (To his delight, MST3K had nothing on Agent Barton.) He wasn't surprised to discover that yes, a few sleepless nights to spring Barton from the SHIELD dorms and Banner from his gilded cage, not to mention giving the rest of the team a place to call home, were still totally worth it.
Still, the helicarrier blueprints were just one more responsibility added to his already-overfull plate. Just that morning he'd had a 'behind-closed-doors' shouting match with the Director regarding his purported lack of progress, despite the fact that repairs were already way ahead of schedule and only a few small details still needed to be ironed out. Even so, the exhausted engineer had caved and promised to work harder…
Although how he was going to manage that, he had no idea.
Keeping his eyes closed, he moved his fingertips to his temples, where he began rubbing small circles to try to ease his migraine enough to eke out a few more hours of productive work. He noted absently that his throat was scratchy as well, but wrote that off to an evening of schmoozing. God, he was tired. It hadn't helped that over the last three months every supervillain wannabe in North America had seemingly come out of the woodwork to test their mettle against the newly-formed boy-band. Not a week went by without some nut job or other trying to trash Manhattan, and for every hour spent battling superpowered megalomaniacs, there were two more spent hammering his suit back into some semblance of acceptable fighting readiness. To top it off, SI stock tended to slip with each Avenger skirmish, shareholders worried that disgruntled New Yorkers would sue Stark Industries for the damage done to their city. That always meant that Tony had to personally appear at Board meetings, make-up covering his bruises, and flash his most convincing 'What, me worry?' smile, reassuring the nervous investors that all was well. After all, he was Tony Stark, the driving force behind SI. Everything would be fine; it had to be.
He cracked open his eyes and sighed at the unrelenting pounding in his skull; obviously he was getting nothing more done tonight. He just needed a quick nap to clear the cobwebs, mainline some coffee, then he could start in again. He staggered to his feet and aimed towards the cot he kept in the corner of the lab for just these situations, only to groan when he found it covered with the mechanical debris from the latest Starkpad upgrade he'd been working on. If he disturbed it, he'd lose his place and have to start all over again, and he just didn't have the time or energy for that. He made an executive decision and swerved towards the lab's main door and the elevator beyond. He'd just sleep in his own bed for a change, if he didn't curl up in the elevator first. He stumbled into the car as the doors swooshed open automatically and slumped bonelessly against the wall. "J'rvs?", he mumbled, barely coherent.
"Right away, Sir," the AI replied, seemingly psychic, and the elevator rose to the penthouse uninterrupted.
A coughing fit jerked Tony awake from the first solid sleep he'd had in a week. Of course it did.
It wasn't the awkward, inconvenient, middle-of-the-silent-theater type, either. It was the breath-stealing crescendo of true illness; the kind that built and built until his entire existence was focused on pausing it just for a moment, just long enough to gasp enough air to keep from passing out. He rolled over onto his elbows and knees, face buried in his pillow in a vain attempt to stifle the hacking, as each jolt drove a railroad spike through his throbbing skull. Even so, every whistling inhalation he dragged into his starving lungs irritated his raw throat even further, setting off the next bout with a vengeance.
When it finally stilled after an eye-watering eternity, he collapsed wrung out and sweating against his pillow, eyes closed in exhaustion, head still pounding mercilessly from where the migraine had taken up permanent residence and apparently spawned a family. Still, he took a moment to revel in his newfound ability to breathe as he slowly became aware of other sensations: the raw sandpaper lining his throat, the sharp throb of his ribs where they joined the arc reactor, the congestion in his chest, the stuffiness of his nose. The room was simultaneously too hot and too cold, and he found himself shivering despite the climate control. With a groan the industrialist rolled himself carefully onto his back and blinked up at the ceiling. It was going to be one of those days, wasn't it?
Immediately following the initial placement of the electromagnet, Tony had noticed subtle changes in his breathing. How could he not? The device was huge, but it was better than having his heart torn to ribbons. In the desert, exposed to a limited group of people and therefore relatively few new viruses, there had only been an occasional problem catching his breath with strenuous exercise. Once back in the US however, the problems became more obvious. The electromagnet plus its self-contained power source combined to take up a truly shocking amount of space in his chest cavity, decreasing his total lung capacity by somewhere between ten and fifteen percent. That much had been obvious from the outset. More subtly, the chronic scarring and inflammation caused by the edges of the resected rib cage rubbing against the reactor housing with each breath restricted his costal expansion and therefore decreased his actual chest excursion. Therefore he didn't clear his lungs as well and became much more susceptible to bacterial respiratory infections, as evidenced by the first cold and flu season after his return from the desert. What had begun as a niggling little cold progressed to full-blown pneumonia practically overnight. If Pepper hadn't forced him to see his private physician and get antibiotics, he could have died. He winced at the irony. If Obie had just coughed on him a couple of times right after his escape from the desert, while he was still adamantly, and irrationally, refusing any type of medical intervention, a bug would have done the man's dirty work for him at no personal risk.
All his life Tony had been healthy as a horse, despite his history of working hard and playing harder, so serious illness was a new experience. While he'd pretty much given up the partying lifestyle, he never stopped pushing when caught up in a project, often forgetting to eat or sleep for days at a time. By his third near-hospitalization he began to recognize the early warning signs and headed for the bottle of antibiotics and various supporting medications stashed in his bathroom cabinet, which JARVIS religiously refilled after each use. That usually mitigated the worst of the symptoms and kept the engineer on his feet and working, even if not at maximum efficiency.
This one had sneaked up on him. Distracted by the argument with Fury, a meeting with the SI Board of Directors, the various R and D projects currently in development in his lab, the helicarrier plans, the Gala, and the subsequent blinding migraine, he'd not noticed the low-grade fever nor the associated scratchy throat and muscle aches. His chronic, bone-weary exhaustion hadn't helped matters either, lowering his observational skills right along with his immune system. Now he closed dry, bloodshot eyes resignedly and mentally catalogued his current symptoms.
First he had a fever, by the flush he felt in his cheeks and the shivers wracking his body. His sinuses were completely clogged, forcing him to breathe through his mouth. This in turn irritated his already-raw throat, and he could feel the cough building in his chest once more. His ribs were on fire, burning with every shallow breath, and the tissue surrounding the arc reactor felt swollen and tender, irritated by the coughing as well.
'What a time for Pepper to be in Japan!', he groaned mentally. 'Looks like I'm on my own for this one.'
He squinted one eye open against the glare of the morning sun as it knifed his throbbing brain. "JARVIS? Protocol O2, 'kay?" he craoked, then winced, noting that his voice sounded almost as bad as his throat felt.
"Certainly, Sir," replied the AI softly. The windows immediately tinted to manageable light levels and the room warmed perceptibly. "Shall I notify Miss Potts?"
Tony actually had to pause and think about that. On the one hand, it was miserable being this sick without anyone to baby him. On the other, the conference she was attending was vital to the expansion of their production line in the Far East, and she didn't need to come home just to wipe his fevered brow, no matter how nice it might feel. On the third hand, she'd kill him if she returned home to find him sick without telling her. On the fourth hand…wait, how many hands did he have?
As if understanding his dilemma, JARVIS volunteered, "I could text her an FYI, sir, but indicate that her immediate return is not mandatory. Otherwise she might be displeased that she was not made aware of your status."
Tony's eyes slid shut in relief as he nodded once and whispered, "Sounds good, J. You do that." Savagely suppressing his urge to cough, he steeled his will and forced screaming muscles to lever up to a sitting position on the side of the bed. He paused to catch his breath, then proceeded to rise on wobbly legs. It took three tries, but he finally managed to stand and, bracing one hand against the wall, shuffle unsteadily to the bathroom for his meds.
"Hey, Cap, whatcha makin'?" asked Barton, strolling into the kitchen on the common floor. "Smells incredible!" He sauntered over to the coffee maker and poured a cup before turning to the super soldier standing by the stove.
"Omelets, bacon, hash browns, and toast," Steve replied, never taking his eyes off the skillet in front of him. He was dressed casually for a Saturday morning in comfortable jeans, a button-down shirt open at the collar, and running shoes. Clint's attention was drawn to the chef's apron the larger man was sporting, however.
"Uh, Cap? Does that say…"
Rogers closed his eyes and bit back a sigh as a blush crept up his face. "Yes, I am a Superhero… and I'm fully aware that my cape is on backwards…" he finished for him.
The archer snorted in amusement. "I think Stark is messing with you," he chuckled as he set down his coffee and snagged the milk and orange juice from the refrigerator and set them on the table, along with five glasses.
"More likely Pepper is messing with him," commented Natasha as she slinked into the room and chose a seat, setting her half-finished cup of tea down before retrieving a plate stacked high with toast and placing it on the table.
Steve carefully slipped the omelet onto a nearby platter before glancing over at the Widow, who was getting the butter and jam out of the fridge. "You're probably right. This was the least offensive one in the drawer."
Barton's eyes lit up in delight. "Oh, really? This I gotta see!"
Steve pointed towards the cabinet with his chin as Bruce wandered into the kitchen and began setting the table with plates and silverware. Somehow Saturday morning breakfast had become a communal meal, with any team member in town tending to show up to share food and stories. They took turns cooking, although there was no set roster; usually whoever was up first made whatever they felt like eating, in large enough quantities to share. Thor was particularly fond of the story-telling part of the morning, but this Saturday found him back in Asgard dealing with family matters.
"Oh, these are classic," crowed Clint as he dug through a drawer full of aprons. He held a red one up so Natasha could read it.
"'I wear this because frying bacon naked is a… bad idea'," she read aloud. A small smile played at her lips. "That was definitely from Potts. I suspect that there is a story to accompany it."
"We'll have to ask Tony about it sometime," chuckled Bruce. While a brilliant scientist, Tony tended to skip steps between ideas and implementation. That led to some astounding advances in both robotics and tech development, but it didn't bode well for food preparation.
"Let's see what else we have here," chortled the archer. "'Trust me, I'm an engineer'," Clint recited as he rummaged through the drawer. "'It was on fire when I got here', 'Bad decisions make great stories', and 'It's all fun and games until someone burns their wiener'!"
Steve actually snorted at the last one. "OK, I'll lay money that Stark won't tell us the story behind that one. We'll just have to ask Miss Potts the next time she's down here for breakfast."
"Where are Pepper and Tony, anyway?" interrupted Bruce as he steeped himself a cup of Jasmine tea.
"Miss Potts is still in Japan," replied Rogers as he carried the platter of omelets over to the table. "I'm not sure where Mr. Stark is." Setting it down in front of the group, he grinned and chuckled, "Dig in."
"He's probably sleeping late this morning. He had that Gala to attend last night," commented Natasha mildly as she snagged a piece of toast and the jam.
"Oh, right," Bruce nodded, sitting and sipping his tea. "For the Foundation, I think."
Clint shoved the aprons haphazardly back into the drawer and began enthusiastically loading his plate with food. "He's probably too hung over to even think about breakfast this morning."
"Hung over?" Steve asked conversationally as he waited for the archer to finish with the platter.
"Sure. It was Friday night and Stark went to a party. I mean, I know I showed you some of the YouTube videos he's starred in." Barton shoved a rasher of bacon in his mouth and spoke around it. "And with Ms. Potts out of town…"
Steve frowned at the unspoken 'when the cat's away' implied by the comment. So did Bruce, who visibly stiffened. "It's more likely he's in his lab," snapped the physicist defensively . "He loses all track of time when he's down there."
"Well, there's one way to find out," Natasha calmly noted as she nibbled at her toast. "JARVIS? Where is Mr. Stark?"
"He is currently in his bedroom, Miss Romanov," answered the AI politely.
Bruce shrugged, smiling faintly, and helped himself to an omelet and a piece of toast as well. "Guess I was wrong then."
"Would you mind telling him that breakfast is ready, if he'd like some?" Steve asked the AI earnestly, It didn't matter where the billionaire had been the previous night; he still needed to eat.
The computer actually seemed hesitant. "Mr. Stark is currently… indisposed."
Barton grinned and spread his arms apart as if to say 'I told you so' before rising to get some more coffee.
Steve stared at his own untouched breakfast in vague disappointment; Tony really liked omelets, and he'd actually made them today with the engineer in mind. "Could you clarify, please, JARVIS?"
"Sir is ill, and is unable to attend the meal." This answer was immediate, almost rushed, as if the computer was sharing information it shouldn't and was afraid of getting caught.
Steve, understandably concerned, was about to ask if the billionaire needed medical help when Clint sniggered in amusement. Glancing over, he lifted an eyebrow. "What's so funny about a man being too sick to come to breakfast?" he asked archly.
Barton shook his head despairingly and tutted. "Come on, Cap. That's gotta be a euphemism for 'he drank so much last night that he's still worshiping the porcelain god'."
"Hung over," Steve repeated Clint's earlier conclusion. He scowled; Mr. Stark seemed like a good enough Joe, but to drink so much that he was ill the next day showed an appalling lack of maturity.
"Hey, you gotta give Stark credit; the man knows how to party!" Clint chugged his glass of juice in two swallows.
Steve squinted doubtfully, confused at the archer's apparent admiration. "But we've been living here for three months and I've never seen him drink enough to get sick," he objected.
Bruce shrugged noncommittally as he unexpectedly rejoined the conversation. "When has he had a chance? He's been too busy to really drink, if you think about it. There's the team moving in, the missions, his corporation, the press conferences, his research, our equipment, the SHIELD consulting job, the repairs to the tower, and previously arranged social events such as last night's to attend. He's overdue to let his hair down a little. He is known for his parties after all." While not displaying Clint's open appreciation, Bruce was obviously sympathetic. Perhaps this behavior was more acceptable in the present day, with all its excesses, than it had been during the War.
Still, part of the phrasing was odd. "His parties?" Steve repeated.
"The annual Maria Stark Foundation Gala was last night, Captain," clarified Widow, as if that were an answer.
Bruce took pity on the Captain's obvious bewilderment. "It's an organization Tony established in memory of his mother, following her… untimely death. She was always involved in fundraising for worthy causes, and he wanted to continue that in her honor. Each year the Foundation Board decides on a new charity to which to devote most of its efforts, and announces their decision at this fundraiser." Bruce smiled softly. "Since Tony established the association, they expect him to not only attend but to foot the bill for the Gala." His smile slipped as he stared down at his empty cup. "I think…he loved his mother very much. If he wanted to drink to her memory after everything that happened this year… well, far be it from me to condemn the man."
There were murmurs of agreement all around, and the conversation drifted to safer channels. Steve stared thoughtfully at his plate before moving on as well.
The next time Tony woke, it was with a scream.
At least, that's what is was originally. In actuality, it came out more of a hoarse gasp.
He had dreamt of the desert… again. It had been a while since he'd had one of those; nowadays his 'bad dreams' usually involved holes in space and oppressive silence and alien soldiers.
'Not going there, not going there, not going there,' he chanted mentally as he tried to control his breathing and racing heart at the mere thought of the Chitauri. Hyperventilation was the last thing he needed to add to his pounding head. If anything, an imaginary radiator clamp had tightened around his skull while he slept. One of the things that truly sucked about his illness this time was the migraine that had decided to molest him simultaneously, made exponentially worse by the cough and fever. It wasn't fair; huge quantities of alcohol should definitely precede any attempt by Mother Nature to drive an icepick through his brain. As his heart rate slowly subsided, he became aware of a low, insistent murmur. He focused on the cultured British voice, letting it pull him out of the dark corners of memory and back to the present day.
"…65 degrees and sunny skies. You are in the penthouse suite of Stark Tower in New York City. It is Saturday, September 21, and…"
"Thanks, J," he finally rasped as his breathing came under control.
As he gradually began to readjust to his surroundings, his brows wrinkled as he noted a low, rhythmic 'whooshing' that seemed simultaneously vaguely familiar but also wrong. He concentrated on the sound, eyes flying open automatically when recognition dawned. He was grateful that his AI had taken pity on his migraine-induced photophobia and kept the lighting to a bare minimum.
"JARVIS? Are those… ocean waves I hear?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes, sir. You appeared to be having a nightmare," the British voice paused uncharacteristically, "…about the desert. It seemed reasonable to provide as much contradictory input as possible."
The billionaire's mouth quirked. "Good thinking," he whispered. "Thanks, J." Upon reflection, it was obvious why Afghanistan had permeated his dreamscape. He was unbearably hot, sweat pouring from his chest and face despite the fact that he was clad only in pajama bottoms. His covers had been thrown off during his restless sleep and now lay in a rumpled wad at his side. Stonemasons were actively hammering away inside his skull, and his chest ached almost as badly as when the electromagnet had first been inserted. He could practically feel the tools moving in his flesh, clamps and retractors relentlessly seeking shrapnel, blood welling up from myriad punctures that stung when the cheap alcohol they used for antiseptic hit them….
He gulped audibly and savagely suppressed his rising gorge; the last thing his weakened immune system needed right now was for his subconscious to start replaying his prior ordeals in high definition surround sound. He had enough recent traumas to cope with, thanks, and he preferred not to dwell on them, either. Groaning, he gingerly rolled to his side as he steeled himself to go back to the bathroom, ignoring the almost-real sensation of knives slicing through the flesh near his sternum. It was probably time for another dose of antibiotics, and some naprosyn wouldn't go amiss right now, either.
"Sir, I relayed your previous text to Miss Potts." JARVIS' factual tone broke his concentration, causing him to collapse back onto his pillows with a pained grunt. "She called to inform you that she still has several critical meetings pending, but would return nonetheless if you need her. Flight time is twelve hours. Meanwhile, given the severity of your symptoms this episode, she took it upon herself to contact your personal physician. Unfortunately Dr. Johnson is presently unavailable, but his partner, Dr. Smith, is arriving as we speak." That explained why JARVIS had decided to relay that information now rather than later. The room lighting began to grow brighter in anticipation of the physician's arrival.
"But I don't know Dr. Smith," whined the ill man in petulant tones as he squinted accusingly at the ceiling.
"Miss Potts anticipated your objection, sir, and said to inform you that she herself sees Dr. Smith and has the utmost faith in her abilities." JARVIS' electronic voice managed to sound dryly sarcastic yet simultaneously reassuring. "Further references are available by request."
Tony nodded once in grudging acceptance, then his fever-fogged brain caught up with the end of the statement. "Wait. Did you say her abilities?" he croaked in alarm.
Just then the door to his room opened and a sweats-clad woman with an incongruous air of authority strode in. "He did indeed," she replied. "Hello, Mr. Stark, I'm Dr. Smith. I'd apologize for my appearance, but I don't usually make house calls and was at the gym when Miss Potts phoned."
Tony winced in pain as he tried to unsuccessfully lever himself up in bed, finally settling for inching up a little higher on his pillows. "Where's Dr. Johnson?" he demanded. His imperious tone was blunted by the rasp in his voice, voice kept low for his migraine.
"On a well-deserved vacation with his family at Disney World," the physician replied imperturbably as she set an unfashionably large canvas bag on the floor by the bed and began rooting through it. Without glancing up she continued, "With all that happened here a few months ago, a lot of people have been reassessing their priorities." She produced a digital thermometer, blood pressure cuff, and stethoscope and some other equipment from its depths and stood. Giving him a polite half-smile, she finished, "You probably know that better than anyone."
He nodded, remembering the invasion. Dr. Johnson had two pre-teens, if he remembered correctly, a boy and a girl. It was probably high time that the physician took them someplace fun, even if it meant that one of his private patients was left with a substitute. Still…
"You sure you're a doctor? Where's your black bag?" he croaked suspiciously.
"The New York State Medical Board keeps renewing my license, so yes, I am. And a traditional 'black bag' is like an open invitation to every mugger in town who thinks doctors still carry narcotics around instead of prescription pads." She raised an eyebrow. "Now if you don't mind, I'd like you to describe your symptoms."
After a thorough history and physical, during which she also reviewed Dr. Johnson's electronic medical records on the billionaire, Dr. Smith began putting away her equipment. "Mr. Stark, as I understand it, these sporadic viral episodes usually progress to actual bacterial infections due to a combination of immunodeficiency and decreased pulmonary volume. This time your reserves were so depleted that your body skipped your usual preliminary bronchitis and jumped straight to pneumonia." She frowned. "While I would normally suggest hospitalization…" The doctor just shook her head as the inventor assumed an expression of stubborn defiance. "I know from both from Dr. Johnson's records and from Miss Potts that you will not permit that unless you are actively dying, and probably not even then. " She raised an eyebrow that indicated her opinion of that behavior, then continued, "Therefore, if you promise to get plenty of bedrest and drink lots of fluids, I'll have your pharmacy rush over a course of a much stronger antibiotic than you usually use. You'll take one pill immediately, then one every twenty-four hours for two weeks, all right?"
At Tony's grunt of agreement, she smiled slightly, then asked, "Is there anything I can get for you before I go?"
"No. Thanks for coming, doc," he answered grudgingly.
The physician ignored the petulance and reiterated, "Don't forget: you need to rest, in bed. Otherwise, despite the best antibiotics in the world, this is going to go downhill fast." She studied his face intently for a moment, then, satisfied that he understood, nodded and headed for the elevator. "Have JARVIS or Miss Potts give me a call if any other problems develop," she called over her shoulder.
He watched her go with a weary glare, then let his eyes slide shut in exhaustion. "JARVIS? Lemme know when the new script comes, 'kay? And don' tell any o' the 'vengers 'm sick. Don' wan' 'em to think I'm weak," he mumbled drowsily. He knew better than anyone how needy he became when ill and didn't want these people, these maybe-someday friends, to see him at his worst. They were mostly superhuman, after all; how would they feel about trusting their lives in battle to a teammate that couldn't hold his own against the common cold?
"Of course not, sir," was the gentle reply despite the AI's misgivings at the mumbled order. Resuming the soothing sounds of the ocean, he dimmed the lights once more.
Steve and Clint had gone to the nearby grocery store to pick up some supplies for the dinner Bruce wanted to cook and were in animated discussion of the recent Dodgers' game when they returned to the main lobby of Stark Tower. Clint pushed the button for the elevator as Steve objected, "What sort of name is 'Diamondbacks' for a baseball team anyway?"
"A damn clever one," retorted the archer. "See, it's a double entendre. First, you have baseball diamonds, then you have the deadly snake that's native to Arizona, so…" He trailed off, staring across the otherwise empty lobby as Stark's private penthouse elevator slid open and a comely woman with neat brown hair and casual exercise clothing emerged.
Steve turned to see what Clint was gazing at so intently, then frowned at the self-assured young woman as she shifted her rather large bag on her shoulder and spoke in low, clipped tones into her phone. She strode off, too preoccupied with her conversation to be aware of the men's scrutiny, and exited the building.
"Wasn't that…?" Rogers began, then trailed off uncomfortably. He didn't want to jump to conclusions.
"Stark's private elevator? The one that only he and Pepper use? Yes it was," Barton replied darkly.
Steve was concerned. "Should we go check to see if he's all right?" he asked. "I mean, he could have been robbed or injured…"
Clint gave him an incredulous stare. "Really, Rogers? A pretty woman comes out of Stark's private elevator while Pepper is away on business, and your first thought is criminal intent?"
"Well, a billionaire is a target…" Steve countered weakly, embarrassed. Surely Clint wasn't implying that Stark was cheating on Miss Potts, was he?
Barton just snorted in disbelief as their elevator arrived. "Come on, Cap. He's just up to his old tricks. Let's go play some Mario Kart and forget about it, OK?"
The Captain glanced hesitantly back at the other elevator before nodding his agreement and following Clint, but he kept thinking about the implications. Why would someone risk losing a partner as unique as Pepper Potts for a one night stand? Was this what passed for normal in this 'future' he woke up in? The more he pondered, the more distracted he became.
His concern was clearly painted on his face, because when the pair entered the common level kitchen Bruce took one look at Cap and leapt to his feet in alarm. "What is it? What happened?"
Clint looked up in surprise, then glanced over at Rogers and rolled his eyes. "Oh, nothing," he groaned. "Steve's sense of morality just took a hit."
Bruce sat back down, but didn't pick up his tablet. "Why? What's going on?" he asked more calmly.
Steve shrugged self-consciously. "Nothing, I guess. It's just that we saw a woman leaving Mr. Stark's private elevator, and Clint said…" he trailed off uncomfortably, then described the incident to the scientist, finishing with, "I just… I don't understand. Why would Mr. Stark do that? Pepper's a good woman."
Bruce just raised an eyebrow, narrowing his eyes at Barton. The other man ignored him and started putting away the groceries. "I can think of a half-dozen innocent explanations for what you saw, the most likely of which was that the woman was a courier actually sent by Pepper with papers for Tony to sign. You have to admit, your description doesn't really match someone he would have hooked up with at the Gala last night."
Steve nodded; that actually made sense.
Then Clint snorted. "Right. As if that big canvas bag couldn't have held a change of clothes for the morning after." He scowled at the physicist. "Come on, you know Stark's reputation."
Bruce wasn't perturbed in the slightest. "I also know how much he loves Pepper."
"Hey, Nat. I need you to tell Bruce about the facts of life." The archer appealed to his partner who had just entered the kitchen for a fresh cup of tea.
She calmly headed for the kettle and began filling it. "If he doesn't know about the birds and bees by now, I doubt I will be of much help," she replied dryly without even glancing in their direction.
"Barton and I saw a woman in exercise clothes leaving Stark's private elevator," Steve summarized. "He thinks Tony was cheating on Pepper, while Bruce says the woman was probably a messenger sent by Pepper."
"Ah." Natasha was less than forthcoming.
After a moment of silence where it became obvious that she wasn't going to add anything, Rogers pressed, "What do you think?"
The Widow turned to fix them with a disbelieving stare. "Two things, since you ask. One: it's none of my business. Two: when did a group of male superheroes become a gaggle of gossiping secretaries?" Picking up her teacup, she sauntered from the room, the picture of nonchalance.
Steve flushed to the roots of his hair in embarrassment as Banner smirked in agreement and left as well. Clint just clapped him on the shoulder and grumbled, "Never mind them, Cap. What about that Mario Kart?"
The call to Assemble came two hours later. Now late afternoon, Tony had still not appeared in the common area, and Steve was nursing a slowly darkening mood. The more he learned of this so-called 'future', the less impressed he was by its denizens. Still, enough was enough; it was time to get to work, no matter how much 'partying' the man had done the night before.
"JARVIS, please make sure Tony is responding," the Captain barked as he hurriedly pulled on his uniform. "There are Doombots downtown, and with Thor on Asgard we need Iron Man's flight capabilities." He snagged his shield and hit the corridor at a run. "Have him meet us at the Quinjet."
"I am afraid that Mr. Stark will be unable to assist in this instance," replied the AI with what sounded like genuine regret.
That caught Steve's attention. He actually skidded to a halt and addressed the ceiling. "What do you mean 'unable to assist'? This isn't a social gathering. Civilian lives are in danger!"
"Sir is currently indisposed," the AI replied sharply, now limited by Stark's demand that JARVIS not inform the Avengers of his illness and the doctor's orders to stay in bed.
"INDISPOSED?! Look, I don't care if he's got the hangover from hell and a harem up there; he needs to get in the suit and report!" Rogers set off at a run again while grinding his teeth in frustration. He was willing to forgive the occasional episode of private debauchery, since Natasha was right. It really was none of his business, as long as it didn't affect the man's performance in the field. But they needed that air support and he'd seen the billionaire half-dead and still report to battle. A sudden thought occurred, and he narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "You haven't sounded the alarm, have you JARVIS? Does Mr. Stark even know about the Doombots?"
The computer voice assumed what, in a human, Steve would call a desperate tone. "Sir is not at present capable…" it pleaded, only to be interrupted once more by the Captain.
"Override Cap 17," he snarled as he entered the back of the jet where the rest of the team was waiting, knowing that the computer was monitoring his comm unit. "I don't know what's going on, JARVIS, but we'll discuss this later. Right now, you will inform Mr. Stark about the attack and tell him to suit up. We'll meet him there." Without giving the computer a chance to reply, he jerked his chin towards Barton and the ship lifted smoothly off the pad.
"What's going on?" asked Bruce curiously as Cap dropped into a seat and buckled in.
"It seems Stark has silenced all alerts to his personal quarters, even calls to Assemble."
Banner's eyes widened in surprise, and even Natasha glanced sharply back from the copilot's chair. "What?" she snapped, only her slightly raised voice betraying her. "That's pretty unusual Cap. Do we know why?"
Rogers shook his head emphatically. "Honestly, it doesn't matter. There's no personal agenda that supercedes saving lives; I'll deal with Stark after we handle the Doombots." He knew he'd been a bit sharper than necessary to JARVIS, but admittedly was already angry at the billionaire. For Stark to get so drunk at an event honoring his mother that he was sick the next morning was appalling, but then to go and fool around the minute Pepper's back was turned? The more he'd ruminated about that woman, the more certain he was that Barton was right. Who was to say she was the only one up there, either? Now he wished he'd followed up on his impulse to 'check up' on the man; he might have shamed him into behaving. Instead, Steve was now snapping at a computer that was no doubt only following orders, maintaining Stark's quarters strictly incommunicado so he could continue his current … activities uninterrupted. Steve didn't think his opinion of Howard's son could get any lower than it was right that minute.
"Captain, with all due respect," Bruce began, but snapped his jaws shut audibly at the glare Rogers shot him. Instead he exchanged a worried look with Natasha, who shrugged as if to say 'what can you do' and returned to her instruments.
After a few more seconds of glowering, Steve silently daring anyone else to attempt to defend the billionaire, the jet's occupants settled into an uncomfortable silence. Glancing at the pilot's seat, he was gratified by Barton's silent agreement as the archer stared stonily ahead to their target zone.
They parked the Quinjet at the designated location, then piled out to meet Coulson who was patiently waiting for them. Steve had surprised himself at how quickly he forgave Fury's exaggeration concerning the agent's death and accepted the man as the Avengers' handler. Of course, there was still Phil's 'inner fanboy' that urged the SHIELD agent to defer to the super soldier's judgment, but Cap saw that more as a benefit than a problem.
The aforementioned agent glanced around at the gathered group and furrowed his brows. "Where's Stark?" he demanded peremptorily.
"On his way," snapped Rogers, unwilling reveal the fact that he was down a vital team member due to a night's carousing. Fine, the man wasn't a soldier, but he still had duties and obligations! When this was over, they were going to have a long chat about dodging responsibility, and the inadvisability of programming your personal computer to make up excuses on your behalf. Still, there was no need to involve SHIELD, at least not yet. He'd try to keep this among the team if he could.
Coulson gave him a narrow-eyed appraisal, then nodded once in acceptance. He plainly knew something was up, but was willing to give Rogers the benefit of the doubt for the time being. "All right, we'll catch him up when he arrives. Meanwhile, we have approximately forty robots similar to those deployed by this 'Doctor Doom' character last month; humanoid in appearance, they're armed with force lightning, jet packs, electroshock, the works. Unlike last month, however, their ultimate objective is unknown. Our agents and the police are actively clearing the currently-involved buildings and surrounding streets, but be aware that there may be civilians in the combat zone, and we're not certain where the they'll strike next."
Barton nodded sagely. "You never know where those damn civilians will strike next, do you?"
Natasha's mouth quirked in amusement. Coulson just rolled his eyes, but Cap glared and snapped, "The ROBOTS, Hawkeye."
Everyone resumed a businesslike air at the chastisement; clearly Cap was in no mood for joking around, even at something as innocuous as grammar. Satisfied with their response, Rogers nodded once and turned a full circle to assess the battleground. He addressed the others in his 'Captain America' voice as he pointed towards the chaos. "All right. Here's the plan…"
Tony tossed and turned uncomfortably in his overlarge bed, drifting in a fugue state between dreaming and waking. His fever would spike causing him to kick off his covers, only to be followed by shaking chills wracking his frame during which he would bundle up once more. Just as he would start to doze, his cough would return with a vengeance, disrupting any REM sleep he might have gotten. His head now pulsed with every beat of his overtaxed heart, and his throat had been scoured with a brillo pad. Even swallowing his own saliva had become excruciating, so he just let it drool out the side of his mouth. There was no one to see him here, anyway.
In his miserable half-conscious state it was impossible to distinguish dream from memory, and suddenly he was foggily reliving the only time Howard had ever caught him home sick from school. Before second grade, whenever he had gotten sick, his mother or Jarvis had gravely taken his temperature, checked his pulse, and pronounced him either well enough to attend class or too sick to go to school. He'd always loved classes so actually preferred to attend, but bowed to the adult's judgment and stayed in bed when told to, receiving small bowls of warm, creamy soup or soft ice cream, depending on the state of his throat. His mother and the butler had been doting, stroking his hair or reading him stories until he nodded off. On this occasion, however, Howard had come looking for Maria, only to find her sitting beside her son's sickbed.
He frowned angrily, scowling at the boy who tried to bury his fever-flushed face in his pillow. "It's a school day, isn't it? What's he doing home?" Even as young as he was, Tony could hear the slurring in his father's speech that bespoke a 'hair of the dog' attempt at treating a hangover.
Maria stood regally, insinuating herself between Howard and her fevered child. "He's sick. He's staying home today."
A thunderstorm gathered behind the older man's eyes. Lurching forward with surprising speed, he seized Tony by the upper arm and yanked him out of bed so forcefully that the youngster had to hide the handprint for days. "Quit babying him. No son of mine is going to be some namby-pamby Mama's boy!" his father shouted. Grasping Tony's chin, Howard forced the child to meet his furious gaze. "You. Get dressed. Stark men are made of iron, and it's high time you started acting like it. No ridiculous case of the sniffles is going to give you an excuse to laze about when you have work to do." He shoved the child away and snarled, "In this world you can't allow others to see you as weak; they'll either disregard you or trample you beneath their heels from then on." Glaring at his wife, he yelled, "It's high time this little sissy learned that fact and pulled himself up by his bootstraps!"
Maria placed a hand on her husband's arm, trying to get him to calm down as Tony woozily made for his underwear and sock drawer. "He's just a child, Howard!" she cried.
"He's a Stark. We are never just children." He grabbed the feverish boy and propelled him towards his closet. "Now get dressed. I'll take you to school myself. You'd better be downstairs in fifteen minutes!" He whirled and stalked from the room. Maria, after a silent moment, followed demurely behind.
Tony made it to school but fell asleep in class that afternoon, and the next day Jarvis took him to the Stark family physician who diagnosed pneumonia and started him on antibiotics. His teachers were surprisingly tolerant of his inadvertently falling asleep in class after that, and either left him snoring softly at his desk or sent him to the nurse's office to lie down until the bell rang.
No one ever tried to send him home.
The bell was ringing now. Tony could hear it. Jarvis would be waiting to pick him up… but, no? That wasn't right. Howard and Maria were… What?
"Huh? Whazzat?" Tony's bloodshot eyes blinked blearily into the dim light of his bedroom as he came awake with a start. "JARVIS?"
"I am sorry to awaken you, sir, but there has been a call to Assemble."
"What?!" The engineer jerked upright so quickly that his chest spasmed, the resultant white-hot fire racing through his lungs making his head swim. Forcing back the encroaching darkness, he growled, "What? Where? Never mind - just get me my suit." He took a shaky breath, then laboriously swung his legs to the ground. He snagged a dirty t-shirt and sweatpants crumpled on the nearby floor and shrugged them on. Then, planting his feet with determination, he took as deep a breath as he could manage without passing out and muscled his way upright where he swayed unsteadily on his feet. He was still sweating like a prizefighter and his head pounded with each heartbeat, but he refused to acknowledge it in the face of an emergency. "What's the situation?" he demanded as he tried a few tentative steps towards the balcony. The darkened glass gradually lightened as he approached, revealing his latest suit, still in its compact form, hovering outside.
"Apparently 'Doctor Doom' has taken it upon himself to once again attack New York while the Fantastic Four are on extended sabbatical." JARVIS answered as impassively as he could. "The team has just reached the area of most concentrated enemy deployment."
Tony blinked to clear his vision as the window opened and the suit began to interlock around him. "Damn. Why didn't they call me? Without Thor they need me for close air support, and the Quinjet just isn't maneuverable enough." The suiting up process was taking far too long for his impatient thoughts, but any faster and the pain from his chest would make him pass out and both he and JARVIS knew it.
"Actually, Sir, they did. I informed them that you were unavailable." The AI sounded defensive. "Dr. Smith expressly instructed you to stay in bed."
"I'm sure she didn't mean 'through the destruction of Manhattan'." Stark closed his eyes and groaned as an idea crossed his mind. "You didn't tell the team that I was too sick to fight, did you J?"
"No, sir," the computer sniffed disapprovingly. "You expressly forbade it."
"Thank. Fuck." At least he didn't have that to deal with. His faceplate slammed into place, changing his voice to the bland mechanical monotone that disguised the wet, hoarse note that was reality. "Shoot me the coordinates. We'll discuss your overprotective streak later." He forced his spine straight as he moved towards the balcony, refusing to admit that his stride was more reliant on the suit hydraulics than his own musculature.
He made it to the battle just in time to snatch a plummeting Hawkeye from the air and settle him back onto a safe perch. However, instead of a 'thank you' or even a snarky quip, the archer shot him a glare and snapped, "About time you got here, Stark," before returning to calling out enemy movements to the team.
Tony blinked in surprise, but then mentally shrugged and put it down to adrenaline. He had been late, after all, and Hawkeye had no way of knowing he was going to catch him. There was always a chance that the grappling arrowhead would fail. The genius frowned; he was going to have to tweak JARVIS' coding later to make certain that this never happened again. Right now though, he had bigger fish (or robots, heh) to fry and he only had the strength to concentrate on one thing at a time.
Spotting Steve a few blocks away, he jetted over and asked, "Where do you want me?" He was immensely grateful for the suit's voice filter because otherwise there was no way Rogers would miss his raspy tones and he just didn't have the energy to deal with that right now. He could barely see through his blinding migraine and his breath was coming in short pants since deep inhalation caused hundreds of daggers to stab into his chest.
He still couldn't miss the fury in Cap's glower. "Well, if you could pencil us into your hectic social schedule," the super soldier snarled, "we could use some air cover over on Fourth; there are civilians trapped in the Starbucks there. Also, see if you can get a bead on where all these bots are coming from so we can shut them down."
Tony was taken aback, but couldn't muster the breath to verbally defend himself. Besides, he had a job to do. "Right. On it," he muttered, and sped off.
Hulk shot Iron Man a grin as he rocketed past, then went back to cheerfully bashing his opponents. 'Well, at least he's not mad at me,' thought Tony with surprised relief. Of course, that might not carry over to Bruce, but the two typically reacted to each other's emotional state. A happy Hulk was a good sign of a forgiving Banner. He hated to admit it, but he really liked these people and it hurt, just a little, when they didn't like him back. Right now Barton and Rogers both acted like they'd just as soon spit on him as say hello, so it was nice that at least one of his teammates wasn't completely condemning.
Natasha was also in a reasonably good mood, as much as he could tell from her poker face. If anything, she looked a little worried when he reached the coffeehouse she was defending. Still, she was all business as she gestured to the Doombots pinning her down and blocking the civilians' exit. It was a matter of moments for him to take them out, and she gave a pleasant nod of acknowledgement as she began evacuating the shop.
By now the sweat was running in his eyes, blurring vision already impaired by his throbbing migraine and associated photophobia. "Hey, J? Could you cool it down in here a bit? I'm burning up!"
"Sir, I must advise that you follow the doctor's instructions and return to the Tower. Your core temperature is now 103.2 degrees Fahrenheit." JARVIS reproved.
Tony grit his teeth and narrowed his eyes; he was still annoyed at his AI for blocking his Avenger alert, and had a couple of justifiably irritated teammates to deal with later. Hell, he was going to have to apologize. "Which is why I want the suit climate controls turned down three degrees," he ground out. "I'm here for the duration, so let's keep me in the best fighting shape possible, hmmm?"
"As you say, sir." JARVIS offered no further commentary, but blissfully cool air began filtering through almost immediately. Tony all but sighed in relief.
"Thank you," he groaned with real gratitude. "Can we dim the lights on the HUD a little bit as well?" This response was faster, and without reproach, so Tony turned his flagging concentration back to the battle.
He'd taken out five more robots before his cotton-covered brain suddenly pinged a pattern; they had all been coming from the same direction. He hovered in mid-air as he considered the ramifications. It couldn't be that easy, could it?
"Iron Man, on your left!" Hawkeye's warning was almost too late. Tony swung on instinct and blasted the bot that had been clanking up behind him as he'd been lost in thought.
"Get your head in the game, Iron Man," barked Cap angrily. "You're going to get someone killed!" Steve had witnessed Tony's distraction and had seen red. After this was over, he might have to bench the man.
"Hold on. I've got an idea." Stark either didn't notice or actively ignored the rebuke, opting for a slow, searching drift instead. The Iron Man armor seemed to be looking for something. Steve narrowed his eyes in suspicion but realized that two more Doombots were trying to flank him and turned his attention back to his own opponents.
He was so engrossed in the hand-to-hand combat that he almost startled and dropped his shield when the cry of "Aha! There you are!" exploded through the comms.
Smashing the edge of his shield across the Doombot's neck, he decapitated it as he demanded, "What's going on, Iron Man?"
The red-and-gold armor came swooshing around the corner of a nearby building, gauntlets tucked under the armpits of a fiercely struggling man in an unusual yellow outfit. "I thought those robots were behaving oddly; turns out they're just cheap copies of Doom's creations. I traced them to the building they were coming from and found this fine fellow at their controls." He deposited the man on the ground directly in front of Coulson, gratified to note the weapons of at least five top SHIELD agents trained on him before he even managed to climb to his feet.
"Good job," grunted Cap as if the admission pained him.
Iron Man soared aloft, ignoring the tone. "With their central control gone, these things should be a lot easier to defeat!" he called out.
"Then let's clean their clocks," suggested Hawkeye, hitting one dead center and watching it explode with gratifying noise.
"You got it," agreed Tony. Now that the baddie had been eliminated, all they had to do was take care of the robots already up and moving. A wave of dizziness swept over him, but he pushed it viciously aside. He was stronger than that, goddamit! Pneumonia or no, he wasn't about to let his teammates down again now.
However, by the time all the bots had been dealt with, the billionaire was exhausted and, he suspected, badly dehydrated. He landed without his usual grace next to a rapidly de-hulking Bruce and waited for the remainder of the team to gather. The only thing keeping him on his feet was the stiffness of his armor; without it, he was certain he would have melted into a puddle on the pavement. His knees had turned to jelly and, despite cranking up the cooling in the suit, the sweat rolling down his forehead kept running into his eyes, making him blink furiously to clear them. Through the haze and the flashing lights (added courtesy of his migraine) he noted Captain America approaching, and the super soldier did not look happy. 'Time to face the music,' the mechanic sighed in resignation, recalling his unplanned delay. He carefully kept his visor down though; otherwise, it would be obvious to a blind man just how truly ill he was, and he really didn't want to deal with SHIELD medical right now. Better to just let Cap have his say, and then fly back to the Tower to crawl into his own cozy bed. As much as he hated to admit it, JARVIS might have had a point about sitting this one out.
Cap waited for the entire group and Coulson to arrive before stating, "All right, nice job, everyone. Debrief in 30 minutes on the helicarrier."
Tony shook his head a little to clear it; if the black spots were any indication, he was moments away from passing out completely. "Uh, no can do Cap. I have to get back to the Tower." He desperately wanted to huddle under his down comforter and shiver for a while, then drink a pitcher or two of water if his raw throat would allow it.
"Look, I don't care if you have the world's worst hangover and an entire whorehouse in your bedroom, Stark; Avenger business comes first if you want to stay on this team!" Rogers snapped, keeping his voice low so that no one outside their little group could hear him.
Tony just stared in silent befuddlement for a long moment. He finally marshaled enough brain cells to form a coherent response and managed, "What in the world are you talking about, Cap?"
"I wanted to discuss this privately, but since you can't be bothered to attend the debriefing..." Steve was fuming and not pulling his verbal punches. The rest of the team shifted uneasily, uncertain as to whether to intervene, while Coulson was visibly nonplussed. The super soldier growled, "You need to understand that, even overlooking the moral implications of your late-night drinking and debauchery, it is unacceptable to just choose to ignore a call to Assemble because you are hung over or… otherwise occupied. And then to have your computer lie for you! If you are going to be that unreliable, you could at least be honest about it." Rogers' stiff posture practically radiated moral superiority.
Tony was flabbergasted, and even Coulson looked taken aback by this point. The SHIELD agent jumped between the two men and put up calming hands as Iron Man took a menacing step forward. "You know what?" he asked blandly. "I think the Captain was right the first time. Let's cover this in the debrief."
Rage gave Stark an unexpected surge of energy. "No, let's do this now," he snarled. "What the hell, Rogers? Where'd you get the idea that I'd been drinking? And what the fuck did you mean about having a whorehouse in my suite?"
Bruce struggled to his feet and tried to intervene, using his most calm and placating tone, "When you didn't come to breakfast, we assumed that you'd had a few too many at the Gala last night, that's all. You deserve to let loose every once in a while."
"How magnanimous of you all!" snapped the industrialist as his outrage grew. What gave these people the right to approve or disapprove of his social life?
"Hey, don't go getting all high and mighty, Stark. Steve and I saw that brown-haired bimbo leave your private elevator this morning," threw in Clint snidely. "I guess since Miss Potts is out of town…" he let the statement hang in the air suggestively.
Cap barreled through to his main point. "Then when the distress call came in, JARVIS informed us that you were 'indisposed' and refused to alert you until I used my emergency override."
Stark's fury became a tight, icy ball in his stomach that he refused to let reach his voice. Early childhood training followed by years of experience in the corporate dog-eat-dog world made certain that any weakness stayed hidden. He assumed the cool demeanor he normally reserved for the SI Board at their most objectionable, narrowed his eyes and gritted, "So… the whole team believes that I was too messed up from being drunk and unfaithful last night to respond to an Avengers call, and instructed JARVIS to cover for me?"
Coulson vainly kept trying to play peacekeeper. "Now, I'm sure this has been blown completely out of…" he began, only to be cut off by Barton.
"Hurts when the shoe fits, doesn't it?" the archer snarked.
Coulson clapped one hand over his eyes, dropped his head, and sighed in despair.
There was a moment of pointed silence, then…
"Fuck you all," came the monotone reply from the helmet before Iron Man blasted off and was gone.
The flight home was essentially on autopilot, with JARVIS maneuvering the suit around obstacles while his designer seethed. "Hung over my ass! Why that sanctimonious prick! And accusing me of cheating on Pepper? Hello, genius here! That woman is the best thing that ever happened to me; I'd have to be an idiot to cheat on her! Who does he think he is, making assumptions like that? Mr. Perfect?"
He laughed at that, but it rang hollow. "I guess by definition he is, huh J? 'The peak of human perfection'. Guess that gives him the right to stand in judgment of the little people like me."
"Sir, if I may…your core temperature has risen to 103.8 degrees…"
"So? Cool the suit another two degrees. That'll keep me going until I get home." He refused to be distracted, but did calm a bit in consideration. "Of course, while I can condemn him for jumping to conclusions, even I have to admit that it isn't much of a jump, given my history." He snorted. "More like a tiny little hop, huh? I guess I really shouldn't be that offended."
Tony's righteous indignation slowly gave way to self-recrimination as his adrenaline waned. "After all, why shouldn't they think that I was out drinking and fooling around?" he mused despondently. "Just because I've been trying to change for the last couple of years doesn't wipe clean a lifetime's reputation." His thoughts grew darker and more irrational as his fever spiked. "Maybe the personality profiler that blacklisted me was right. Maybe Tony Stark shouldn't be a member of the Avengers." He found his eyes watering at the idea, but refused to sob aloud. It was a luxury he didn't deserve. It was just… he'd tried so hard, yet still been found wanting.
"Sir! Your oxygen saturation is down to 89 despite increasing your fractional inspired oxygen to 30 percent. Shall I alert…?" JARVIS sounded truly alarmed.
"Don't you DARE alert anybody!," Tony snarled. "Nobody gets to see me this weak and pitiful; nobody! I can take care of myself; I've been doing it all my life. I don't need anyone. Just turn up the O2 delivery to 50 percent. That should take care of it." A bout of hacking knocked the wind out of him, but he could tell when the AI increased the oxygen as his breathing eased. And, if the vague medicinal smell made him suspect the addition of albuterol to the mix, well, he wasn't about to complain.
By the time Tony reached the tower, he was so distracted that, out of habit, he landed on the walkway that automatically disassembled his armor. Unfortunately he'd forgotten that even before the battle he'd needed the added support that the suit gave him just to stand. As the last piece of metal was removed, he stumbled and almost sank to the ground as his knees gave out completely. Flailing, he grasped the railing and leaned onto it, planning to catch his breath and gather enough strength to stagger to his bedroom.
That proved a tactical error as the metal railing pressed into his oversensitive ribcage, driving the air from his body in a startled exhale that almost became a scream. His mouth opened and closed wordlessly for a moment until he could draw in a shuddering gasp of air. He desperately tried to will away the dark spots obscuring his vision as he became aware of his panicked AI calling out, but he couldn't seem to scrounge up enough energy to reply. Instead, he jerkily levered himself down onto the inner edge of the platform, grunting in pain as he reached a sitting position. Once there, his eyes slid closed involuntarily as the wave of darkness finally overwhelmed him, and he collapsed into a motionless heap.
"All right, Ladies," barked Fury, striding into the conference room with Coulson hot on his heels. "Let's take this from the top, shall we?"
Cap stood, hands behind his back at parade rest, and began his standard report. "We received the call to Assemble at…"
"No, Captain. For once, the fight is actually of secondary concern. Our villain du jour is in a holding cell being interrogated as we speak. I want to know what the hell just happened with Stark?" Fury was clearly keeping a tight rein on his temper, but his voice rose imperiously at his question.
"As I was saying, we received the…."
"NO." The muscular older man slammed his palms on the table, causing everyone in the room to jump except Coulson, who stood behind him as an impassive shadow. "From. The very. Beginning. I want to know what happened from the time you got out of bed to the moment Stark flew off in a huff."
So Steve complied. He hated to gossip about the man behind his back, but Stark had been asked to attend this meeting and had refused, so he felt justified. Barton inserted snide commentary throughout the account, with occasional more factual clarifications contributed by Bruce and Natasha. At the report's conclusion, Fury narrowed his eye, leaned forward on stiffened arms, and glared. "Have a seat, Captain, and let's sort this out shall we?"
Steve gulped and sat, confused at Fury's anger. Coulson took a chair as well and the Director began to pace. "Let me be certain I have this straight," he began with deceptive calm, but something about his tone caused Clint to actually blanch.
"First, the actual facts." Nick began counting the points off on his fingers, glaring at each of the Avengers in turn. "One: Stark did not appear for your teambuilding brunch this morning. Two: when his AI was interrogated, it stated that Mr. Stark was in his bedroom and was 'indisposed'. Three: he hosted and attended The Maria Stark Foundation Gala last evening." He fixed them all with an incredulous stare. "And from those three items you concluded that he'd been drinking to the point of nursing a severe hangover?"
The team shifted in their seats uncomfortably but no one replied, so he continued, "For the group's edification, I attended the Foundation Gala last night as well. Not only did Stark drink nothing but sparkling cider all evening, but he even left early, alone, in order to work on the helicarrier blueprints. We even discussed a few remaining minor details as his driver brought his car around."
Steve shot Clint a startled glance, which was reflected in turn.
Nick assumed a more conversational tone. "Now, I suppose it's possible that he lied and instead went bar hopping and picked up some 'floozy' along the way. However, it took me all of five minutes prior to this conference to phone his driver and check. Mr. Stark went straight home." He raised an eyebrow and clasped his hands behind his back. "Any questions so far?"
Everyone remained silent, so he resumed pacing. "Now, the brunette leaving his elevator is a bit of a mystery," he began, only to be interrupted by Coulson's raised index finger.
"If I may, sir?" At Fury's nod, Phil turned and addressed Steve and Clint. "This woman you saw. Mid-thirties, neatly (if casually) dressed, with dark brown hair pulled back in either a ponytail or a bun, carrying an enormous ratty canvas satchel?"
Steve's eyes widened in surprise. "Why, yes. Do you know her?"
Coulson gave him a small, unflappable, 'boy have you screwed up' smile that made his stomach drop. "I believe so. The bag was cream-colored but stained, with worn leather handles, and she probably walked like she was in a rush."
"Yeah," Barton confirmed. "She was speaking really emphatically on her cell phone at same time, but I couldn't hear the conversation." His voice trailed off as he noticed Natasha's eyes widen; apparently she knew the woman as well from her time undercover at SI. He groaned, "She really was a messenger, wasn't she?"
"I don't think so." Coulson turned to the Director, who was waiting with surprising patience. "The description matches that of Dr. Elizabeth Smith, Pepper Potts' personal physician. Her partner is Mr. Stark's doctor, and they cover for each other on weekends or when one of them is out of town. It's probable that she was making a house call and was speaking to a pharmacy upon her departure."
Knowing Stark's reticence towards seeking medical care, the Director grew visibly concerned at this information. "A house call?" He stared unseeingly at the far wall as he reflected on the prior evening. "Now that I think about it, Stark did look a little pale at the Gala, and he didn't eat much either; just kept sipping that cider."
Steve was mortified that he'd mistaken a doctor for a loose woman, but pushed past his embarrassment to try and understand what was happening. He was missing something if Fury's face was any indication. "Why is a doctor making a house call so alarming?" he asked.
Coulson replied in his best no-nonsense tone, "Physicians don't typically make house calls anymore, so that in itself is pretty unusual. And in case you haven't noticed, Mr. Stark never admits to being in anything but perfect physical shape. He equates sickness to weakness, and on no account lets anyone know when he is ill or injured." He nodded across the conference table at the Widow, who was sitting bolt upright with all her attention on the Agent. "Miss Romanov was actually undercover at SI when the man was actively in the process of dying, and he never even mentioned it to Miss Potts. That could have been a one-off, except I've seen security footage of him resetting his own dislocated shoulder and never seeking medical follow-up. For him to allow a physician to come to his home, even if, as I suspect, she was called by Miss Potts, is… concerning."
"Captain, what exactly did JARVIS say when you ordered Stark to report for duty?" demanded Fury sharply.
"He… used the word 'indisposed' again," Steve began, only to be interrupted by Natasha.
"He then said, 'Sir is not at present capable' just before you made him call Stark anyway."
Phil frowned. "JARVIS was blocking an alert?" he clarified.
"That's right. I thought Stark had ordered him not to bother him…" Steve was cut short this time by Fury and Coulson suddenly devolving into a private conversation held at a machine-gun pace.
"For JARVIS to not transmit a call…" Phil began in alarm.
"Stark was too incapacitated to operate his suit safely." Fury finished. "And with a physician being allowed to examine him…"
"He must be too ill to hide it from Potts, even if she is out of the country."
"He seemed relatively healthy last night …" Fury mused.
"One of those days, sir?"
The Director nodded grimly. "One of those days, Agent. And a bad one, too." Before anyone could blink, he was barking into his comm. "Hill! I want an emergency medical response team in a Quinjet immediately, wheels up in five. Destination, Stark Tower." He turned to glare at the Avengers seated at the table. "I suggest you lot load up as well. That's your ride home. Dismissed."
Rogers managed to snag Coulson's shoulder before the agent disappeared out the door, the remainder of the team having sprung to their feet and heading down the corridor at a run. "Phil?" he asked plaintively.
Coulson looked bleak but preoccupied as he snapped, "Stark's sick. Probably really, really sick. If you want to find out for certain, be on that Quinjet."
God, his chest ached, every breath was torture. He was burning up, yet freezing cold at the same time. His muscles refused to more than twitch when he tried to rise, and his reptilian brain panicked. 'Oh God, I can't move! My chest! Obie must have taken it again. I can't breathe… Pepper! Where's Pepper? Did he kill her already? No! Gotta…gotta….'
Despite being semi-comatose, the inventor's mind thrashed in desperation, flipping back to when his surrogate father had ripped his very heart out of his chest and left him to die. "No….Obie…" he mumbled. "Nooooo…" The last was a low wail, heartrending and lost, and tears tracked unheeded down his cheeks. Tony rarely trusted anyone; to have the man he'd loved since childhood betray him and leave him dying in agony had torn a piece of his soul out as well. His feverish brain misinterpreted the pain in his chest from the pneumonia, and suddenly he was reliving one of the worst nights of his life.
"Sir! Sir, please! Allow me to notify someone, anyone. Your vital signs are becoming unstable." JARVIS sounded truly frightened at this point, but was constrained by Mr. Stark's command to not notify anyone. With the suit disassembled, there was no way for him to actively help his creator.
"Obie….please…" Tony whimpered disconsolately, begging mercy of a man long dead. JARVIS could do nothing more than murmur reassurances through the nightmares as he continued to plead for permission to summon help.
Arriving at the Tower, Agent Coulson and the medical team rushed off the Quinjet, followed by the Avengers. As soon as they hit the building's interior, Phil stopped dead in his tracks and called out, "JARVIS? Where can we find Mr. Stark?"
The near-panic that permeated the computerized voice was not reassuring. "Sir is unconscious beside the disassembly platform in the penthouse," the AI provided in a rush. "He collapsed upon initial removal of the suit."
Roger's eyes flew wide at that information, but Coulson, Bruce, and the emergency medical team just shouldered past him to the elevator. There wasn't enough room for everyone, so Clint and Steve ran up the stairs to the penthouse, reaching it just as the last person exited the elevator and continued to Iron Man's rooftop landing zone.
As the last rays of the setting sun stained the Tower blood-red, Coulson spotted an irregular, darkish heap huddled beside the ramp and jogged over. He gently grasped the billionaire's limp shoulder and murmured, "Mr. Stark? Tony? Can you hear me?", and carefully shook him. A stretcher was wheeled up as the agent cautiously rolled the inventor onto his back, then stood aside for the paramedics to get to work.
Steve peered over the suited man's shoulder at the teammate he had berated less than an hour previously. Stark looked nearly dead. His brown hair was so wet with perspiration that it plastered black against his forehead, and his sweat-soaked AC/DC shirt clung to his shivering frame like a second skin. The inventor's face was flushed and sweating, and his bloodshot eyes were glassy and unfocussed. The delirious man appeared almost panicked as his breaths came in short, gasping pants that sounded like each might be his last. In fact, the billionaire's harsh, rasping breathing was the only sound that could be heard above the low murmurings of the medics as they placed a cuff around his arm and a stethoscope beside the arc reactor to listen to his heart. The Avengers huddled together in stunned silence, watching as one of their own fought for his life against a foe they could not touch.
The next few hours were a blur to Rogers when he tried to remember them later. It had taken an unbearably long time to get an IV started due to the genius' severe dehydration and resulting hypotension, but the fluids were just beginning to run in when the labored breathing finally stopped altogether. Steve's own breath caught in his throat as he anxiously watched the flurry of activity as his teammate was intubated and manually bagged. Medical equipment and terminology began flying fast and furious at that point, and before he knew it, Steve and the rest of the Avengers, all of whom refused to be left behind, were crowding back into the Quinjet behind Stark and the med team.
Throughout the entire rescue, Coulson remained an island of calm, directing traffic and providing information or equipment when needed, standing aside when he wasn't. He alone remembered to reassure Stark's anxious AI, and instruct JARVIS to notify Pepper as to the current situation so that she could wrap up her business in Japan and fly home urgently. The Avengers gravitated towards him instinctively, clustering on nearby benches once they were airborne, making certain to stay out of the way of the medical personnel who still fluttered around the stricken genius. Natasha watched the proceedings impassively, eyes darting to take in the rest of the group before returning to the collection of people around Stark. Bruce focused on every nuance of his friend's treatment with laser-sharp intensity, barely taking time to blink, much less glance at any of the others. Barton sat silently, half curled into himself, elbows on knees and eyes fixed on his clasped hands before him, clearly deep into self-recrimination. He knew that most of the Captain's misapprehensions about the engineer had come from his own assumptions and commentary. Meanwhile Steve just felt lost and confused. How had he missed this? How had Fury picked up on Stark's illness without even speaking to the man? He needed to correct this; he could never again misread Stark so badly. He glanced over at the frantic med team and swallowed. 'Of course, that assumes that I didn't kill him this time…'
With that thought in mind, he leaned towards their SHIELD liaison. "Phil, if you don't mind my asking…" he began, but was unsure how to verbalize his concerns.
"How did Fury and I know what was actually going on?" Coulson seemed darkly amused, but kept his voice low so that only the Avengers could hear it. "We didn't. Not for certain. But we both know the stubborn idiot's medical file, especially the part where that arc reactor, the one that keeps the shrapnel from shredding his heart, seriously diminishes his lung capacity and causes him considerable pain on a daily basis. Just like everyone, he has good days and…not so good days. He's immunocompromised at the best of times, and horribly susceptible to viruses. Three or so times a year he gets so run down that the viruses get a foothold and the subsequent coughing inflames the area where the ribs rub on the housing case for the electromagnet. If he doesn't recognize the early symptoms, bacterial superinfection in the form of bronchitis or pneumonia quickly follows; his lungs simply don't have the excursion necessary to clear themselves properly. He becomes febrile and has difficulty eating or drinking due to the chest pain and sore throat. This leads to delirium and complete physical collapse; it's a miracle that he's managed to never be hospitalized before now." Phil shook his head in resignation. "He refers to these attacks as 'one of those days' and is unwilling to acknowledge them otherwise." He fixed a stern eye on the Captain. "The short answer? We knew something about your teammate that you didn't. But JARVIS did, even though he was probably forbidden to discuss it, and if you'd thought about what the AI wasn't saying instead of reacting to what he was, this situation might have been avoided."
Steve had no answer to that, so stared at his critically ill teammate unhappily.
The Quinjet arrived on the helicarrier and the stretcher was met with even more medical personnel who quickly whisked the billionaire off into the bowels of the very flying battleship he'd designed and had been improving the night before. Fury stood impassively just inside the hatch, tails of his leather coat whipping unnoticed at his calves. He took in the waxy face of the inventor with the endotracheal tube hanging out of the corner of his mouth as he was rolled past, then met the eyes of the group of heroes that trailed disconsolately behind. His own features softened as he recognized the anguish in Rogers' face, obvious self-flagellation at his misinterpretation of events. As the Avengers hurried past, the Director barely murmured, "Captain, a word?" If Steve hadn't been listening for it, he never would have heard the quiet request.
He dropped back. "Yes, sir?" he responded after they were alone.
Fury actually smiled, or at least quirked his lip in the semblance of one. "I'm guessing that you're pretty angry at yourself for the conclusions you jumped to earlier?"
The Captain met his gaze steadily. "Yes, sir, I am."
"And am I right to assume that Agent Coulson has discussed the situation?"
Steve's eyes flicked down, then back up to meet Fury's. "Yes, sir, he did."
Fury studied him for a long, pregnant moment, during which his gaze never wavered, before nodding. "All right, then. Dismissed."
Steve resisted the urge to salute, just jerked his head once in reply and strode off towards the med bay.
It seemed like hours waiting for news as the night drew on, the team spread out on the utilitarian plastic chairs scattered throughout the visitor's lounge. They exchanged meaningless small talk that Steve would have been hard pressed to recall, sipped innumerable cups of truly execrable coffee, and cleaned up from the battle as best they could in the adjacent restroom sink. At long last a doctor in a SHIELD uniform stepped into the waiting area, clipboard in hand and businesslike expression on his face.
"Are you all here for Mr. Stark?" he asked, glancing around the room.
They stood and crowded around as Steve answered, "Yes, sir, we are. Any news?"
The doctor smiled slightly. "He's in stable condition. We have him sedated and on a ventilator for now and plan to rest his lungs overnight. Why don't you all come with me?" He led the way through the emergency treatment area and into the corridor, entering a large, private room that contained a single bed with a ventilator next to it, a host of monitors, and an amazing number of IV bags running into the motionless form on the bed. Despite the paraphernalia, it was still recognizably Tony Stark.
Unconscious, the billionaire looked small and frail. His pale, almost-translucent skin accentuated the raccoon-like rings of exhaustion beneath his eyes, and a bruise on his left shoulder stood out in stark relief. His chest rose and fell in time with the machine, but otherwise he lay in unnatural stillness. He was quite a bit shorter than Steve, but it went unnoticed because his larger-than-life personality overflowed any room he entered, drawing others to him like a porch light drew June bugs. But asleep he seemed to fold in on himself, becoming smaller, somehow less…
The physician continued conversationally, "He's very lucky you found him when you did; I'm surprised he was even able to stand unassisted, much less don his armor and fight Doombots." The man snorted. "Of course, Mr. Stark is notorious for doing things he shouldn't."
Steve dropped his eyes in shame and blushed. "I'm afraid that was my fault, doctor. I ordered him there."
The physician surprised the group when he chuckled. "Captain, nobody 'orders' that man to do anything he doesn't want to. I wouldn't worry about it too much. I'll bet you didn't have any idea he was even sick, much less that he had pneumonia."
"He has pneumonia?" Roger's head jerked up in alarm, eyes wide, and he took an involuntary step backwards. His own mother had died from pneumonia while he'd sat helplessly at her bedside and held her hand, watching her fight for each breath until all her strength was gone and she just… stopped. He suddenly flashed to the memory of Stark's own labored breathing earlier, and his heart stuttered in his chest. God, what if Fury and Coulson had missed the signs, too? His mother's doctor had tried everything, but there was nothing to be done back then, unlike now when they had machines and tubes to help. His family's story hadn't been uncommon at the time. Only a few years earlier the1918 flu pandemic had ravaged the United States and Europe, killing almost 100 million people by some estimates. That was one reason his own asthma had been so terrifying as a child. To discover that he'd forced Stark from his sickbed when he had pneumonia….
Bruce immediately recognized the cause of his consternation and rushed to reassure him. "No, Cap, it's not like that. People don't usually die of pneumonia these days; we have medicines to treat almost all bacterial infections. Heck, we've even got a handle on most forms of TB."
Steve shot him an incredulous glare. "That's not funny, Bruce," he ground out. Their teammate could be lying before them on his deathbed, and the physicist was making jokes.
"I'm not kidding." Banner's smile was gentle. "It's a new world, Cap."
"It's true, Captain Rogers. Except for some drug-resistant forms that are beginning to turn up, 'consumption' is pretty much a thing for the history books," the SHIELD doctor confirmed.
The super soldier glanced from one to the other skeptically. They both looked sincere, but… "What about the sanatoriums?" he demanded, certain that they were still in active use.
Clint, beside Bruce, looked confused. "What's a sanatorium?" he asked Natasha sotto voce.
The world slipped sideways momentarily, and Steve shook his head to right it. "What… how can you…" The Captain couldn't quite wrap his mind around the question. Barton was alarmed, but clueless to what caused Steve's reaction.
"Cap, just breathe," instructed Bruce kindly, hand coming to rest on his shoulder, grounding him before replying. "Some were turned into normal hospitals, or sometimes hotels - many had been pretty nice. More were torn down or are standing abandoned. There is one still operational in the United States, I think, in Florida? They became superfluous after the discovery of streptomycin in 1945, and stronger antibiotics later. While not completely eradicated, it's a near thing. "
The SHIELD doctor smiled a bit. "I guess no one's caught you up on medical advances since the forties. Smallpox, polio, and whooping cough are all pretty much of historical interest at this point. I'll see if I can put together a list of highlights and forward it to Agent Coulson."
Turning back to the rest of the team, the doctor resumed, "At any rate, Mr. Stark is going to be on the ventilator at least overnight, and possibly for a few days while the antibiotics kick in. I'm inclined to keep him intubated and sedated a little longer than absolutely necessary due to his tendency to leave AMA, but that's a decision I'll discuss with Miss Potts when she arrives."
"She'll be here sometime tomorrow afternoon," joined Coulson as he entered the room. Jerking his chin towards the bed, he asked quietly, "How's the patient?"
"As I was telling his team, he's stable and on the appropriate antibiotics. We'll decide about extubation tomorrow after we repeat the chest x-ray and check his blood gasses and weaning parameters." Setting down the chart, he gestured towards the door. "If you will excuse me? I have a few other patients to check on tonight. The nurses know how to reach me if anything happens." He closed the door softly behind himself as he exited.
Phil nodded and said, "Now that all the excitement is over, why doesn't everyone go home, clean up, and get some sleep?"
The gathered Avengers shifted uncomfortably, but no one replied until Steve cleared his throat. "Umm, I think we'd rather stay here, if it's all the same to you. Just, you know…" At a loss for words, he gestured helplessly at the bed. "Just in case."
Coulson glanced around at their stubborn expressions and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Fine, but I want you all to get cleaned up and in fresh clothes; Barton and Romanov know where the loaner jumpsuits are."
"Perhaps you could send in some folding cots or something?" asked Steve, glancing around at his exhausted team. He doubted that he could sleep himself, but his team needed the rest.
A secret smile graced Phil's face at that. "That won't be necessary, although I will send down extra blankets if you need them. We made sure Mr. Stark was assigned to an 'Avengers' room."
Even Natasha looked confused, which told Steve just how tired she was, letting that show on her face. "Avengers room?" he finally asked, since no one else did.
Phil's face broke into an actual grin as he hit a small button on the wall near the ventilator, and a utilitarian one-person bed slid out, far enough away from the equipment not to impede the nurses. A second button revealed a second bed, sliding into place above the first bunk-bed style. "Mr. Stark incorporated these into his upgraded designs for the helicarrier, figuring that sooner or later one of you would require at least overnight medical care and that the rest might be unwilling to leave." As he spoke he deployed two more. "There are two of these rooms in Medical, each designed especially to accommodate your team. Since he assumed he would be one of the visitors, they're as comfortable as it was in his power to make them."
Clint cautiously tried to shake the foot of pallet nearest him and, finding it sturdy, threw himself onto the mattress with gusto. "Sir, this is better than the bed in my quarters!"
Natasha sat delicately on the adjacent cot. "I'm surprised the WSC sprung for this."
Phil chuckled. "How could they refuse? After all, they're getting the initial refit designs at no monetary cost; if they want the plans altered, they would actually have to pay Stark cash to draw up the modifications." He swept an arm to encompass the 'guest beds'. "Just going along in this case was significantly cheaper."
"What?" Banner exclaimed. "Tony's working for free? He's not getting paid for redesigning the helicarrier? He's spent hundreds of hours over the last three months on those plans!"
Coulson's smile faded. "Not completely free. Didn't he tell you?" At the group's perplexed expressions, he continued, "Well, you might as well know now. He offered his services gratis to the WSC on the condition that the Avengers be quartered somewhere other than the helicarrier, and then suggested his own home as a possible alternative so that security couldn't be used as an excuse to say 'no'."
Steve winced internally. While a room was a room to him, he'd noticed the increasingly pinched expressions on both Banner and Barton during that first week they'd been forced to live here, and the increasingly angry protective-mama-bear look on Natasha's. The orders to relocate to Stark Tower had come as a welcome surprise to them all, and had been couched in terms of keeping them together as a group for rapid deployment.
Barton was just as surprised. "That was Stark's idea? I just thought Fury ordered him to do it."
Before Phil could answer, Rogers shook his head in mock despair. "Don't they teach the Constitution in schools today?"
At Clint's continued confusion, Phil said wryly, "Not so much, Captain Rogers." Then, turning to the archer, "The third amendment, Barton, ratified in 1791. 'No soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner.' If Stark didn't agree to you living in his Tower of his own free will, you wouldn't be there."
Clint turned a suddenly-thoughtful gaze on the unconscious billionaire. "We were ordered to move two days after he inspected the helicarrier…"
"I don't think he liked what he saw," suggested Natasha softly. "I need to thank him for that."
"I think we all do," added Bruce. "Designing the helicarrier retrofit has taken a huge amount of his time over the last three months, and he's doing it for nothing more than our… independence from the Council."
"Why wouldn't he say something?" Steve was bewildered. The billionaire would happily brag for hours about calling a special Senate committee 'assclowns' but never even mention weeks of work donated to doing a favor for a group of people he'd just met?
"Because he has a reputation to maintain," replied Natasha. "Just like his reputation for 'boozing and womanizing'." She leveled her best 'Black Widow' stare at Clint and Steve and, in a deceptively even voice, "Had you two fooled, didn't he?"
Cap gulped audibly and nodded, not trusting his voice. He peeked surreptitiously at the critically ill older man on the ventilator as his own face flared in shame, remembering his assumptions and unkind words screamed in anger.
Coulson took pity on them all, clapping Steve on the shoulder. "Anyway, you four need to get cleaned up, then you can come back here and catch some shuteye. I'll see you in the morning." With that he exited the room, hand to his ear as he began listening to his comm.
The Avengers traded guilty looks before leaving the room as well.
Steve's guest room had long ago been reassigned, but Clint and Natasha still had quarters in the helicarrier that they were willing to share, so at least the team didn't have to wash up in the communal showers in the gym. Rogers had to admit that he felt a little better after getting out of his sweaty, filthy uniform and taking a quick but scalding shower to get the grime out of his hair. By the time the group met back in the medical wing, there was a pile of extra pillows and blankets on a chair near the door of Stark's room.
No one really felt like sleeping, but it was quite late so they all settled in to at least make an attempt. Steve grabbed the bunk nearest to Tony's bed so he'd be available if the man woke unexpectedly. Bruce moved to the one on Tony's other side, as the patient bed was central to the room. There he angled himself so he could keep an eye on both Stark and the monitors. Clint and Natasha curled up on the cots they'd staked out earlier, both facing the doorway to guard against potential unwelcome guests. It was a given that there would be medical personnel in and out all night, so no one expected to get much sleep, if any at all. However, it had been a long, exhausting day, so Steve soon found himself watching over his teammates as they slumbered fitfully.
His gaze focused on the unconscious industrialist that he had so badly misjudged. The man's cheeks were still flushed with fever and sweat stood on his brow, gathering until a little rivulet ran down into his damp hair. The neck of his gown was absolutely soaked. His chronic exhaustion showed in cavernous shadows below his closed eyelids. Bruises, both old and new, mottled his visible skin, testament to blows taken in recent battles defending New York, and reflecting the fact that the Iron Man armor was not always as protective as observers thought. The engineer's face hung unnaturally slack in a drug-induced coma as the machine at the head of his bed breathed for him, but his lungs still wheezed audibly as they exhaled into the tube. A nurse came in periodically to check the monitors and aspirate the endotracheal tube with a thin suction cannula, pulling thick, green mucous from the depths of his lungs and causing reflexive coughing that forcibly expelled more. Then she would hook up a canister of clear liquid in-line with the ventilator which aerosolized and misted into the system, loosening up the thicker, more persistent phlegm for later removal. Steve, watching this procedure, couldn't help but be impressed, and wished medical care like that had been available for his own mother back in the forties.
"Hard to believe it's Tony, isn't it?"
Steve's head jerked up at the unexpected commentary. Bruce was lying on his side, head leaning on his elbow as he stared back with an amused quirk to his lip, watching both the Captain and the sleeping billionaire.
"How long have you been awake?" the super soldier blurted, managing to lower his voice at the last minute so as not to disturb the others.
"Oh, just a few minutes. That last nurse accidentally bumped my bed on her way out." The scientist jerked his chin towards the unconscious inventor. "I just saw him the day before yesterday; he stopped by my lab to help with a problem I texted him. He seemed his normal self then; a little tired, but otherwise fine."
"He looks so frail like this," Steve murmured. "And he became sick so fast! I don't know how he got into his armor in that condition, much less fought Doombots. Why didn't he say something?"
"Steve… I know you worked with and respected Howard Stark, and he was a brilliant scientist and a brave man… but I don't think he was very good in the parenting department. Tony has this saying: "Stark men are made of iron." The way he says it, it's clearly something he learned by rote as a child. I don't think his father allowed him to show any weakness… at all. And illness or injury? Was weakness. There was at least one instance recently where he was actually dying and refused to tell anyone, even Pepper. Because being sick enough to die? Definitely weak. I think… he learned as a child that the sicker you were, the more you were pitied or ridiculed, because you couldn't fight back. I don't know if you've noticed, but he despises pity."
Steve frowned. "But that's just… who would condemn someone for being sick?"
Bruce's mouth twisted. "Apparently Howard Stark."
Steve had no answer to that. Instead, he concentrated on analyzing the day's events in the hopes of preventing such tragic misunderstandings in the future.
He knew that if he had actually laid eyes on the man at any point during the day, he would have benched him, needing air support or not. But Stark kept his visor down for the entire battle and their subsequent shouting match, and prior to that had hidden alone in his penthouse with only his disembodied servant to care for him. Of course JARVIS knew he was sick, but at some point had been forbidden to share that information. Steve reviewed his conversations with the AI throughout the day, looking for clues. The computer had stated at breakfast that "Sir is ill, and is unable to attend" when asked about Stark, and they had erroneously assumed that the man had a hangover. Oh how Steve regretted that assumption! It wasn't fair since the man hadn't even been drinking. They had just assumed. Later, JARVIS kept saying that Stark was 'indisposed'; he never used the word 'ill' or any synonym after that first answer. The billionaire must have forbidden it sometime after Steve first asked. Cap narrowed his eyes consideringly as he stared at the motionless figure on the bed. When they got home, he was going to have a long talk with the AI and set up code words to use for these episodes that avoided the industrialist's prohibitions against sharing medical information. He groaned internally as he recalled once more his initial urge check on the billionaire; if he had followed his instincts and visited him after breakfast, or later when he witnessed the woman leaving Stark's personal elevator, the mechanic wouldn't be so ill now that he required a machine to breathe for him!
Instead, Steve had thought the worst of a man who had done nothing but give the team a home, room and board, and technical and combat support at no cost to them but at considerable to himself. Why hadn't he given the engineer the benefit of the doubt? Why did he assume that Tony had become seriously drunk and cheated on Pepper, when he'd never seen even a hint of this type of behavior since he'd met the man?
Recognizing that he was once again wallowing in guilt, Steve forced himself to return to planning for the future. Both Coulson and Fury indicated that these spells happened two or three times a year, and Captain America was a tactician, right? Plainly there was no way he was going to get Stark to voluntarily admit to being ill, so ordering him would only make Tony angry and Steve frustrated. Presumably when Pepper was in town she would make certain Stark was cared for, even if she didn't tell Steve why he couldn't have Iron Man for a mission. He would talk to her to be certain, though. And if he and JARVIS could come to an understanding when the CEO was out of town, they ought to have it covered.
That settled, at least in his head, he allowed himself to drift off to sleep, lulled by the steady whooshing of the ventilator bellows.
There was a persistent beeping on the edges of Tony's dreamscape that was seriously annoying. He drifted for a bit, letting its familiarity wash over his consciousness as he languidly tried to place the sound. As he listened, he noticed some low murmurs nearby, pleasant if unrecognizable conversations floating in the ether, punctuated by occasional soft laughter. The voices were familiar and safe, and he let them waft him back to the limbo between sleeping and waking, even though he was unclear as to why the limbo existed to begin with.
Some indeterminate time later he hovered again towards consciousness, vaguely aware that he could actually breathe without knives stabbing his chest. He felt blessedly cool, and was lying on a small, firm mattress with crisp, clean sheets that smelled vaguely of bleach and antiseptic. The beeping was present again, but this time his foggy brain identified the sound as a cardiac monitor. So, a hospital. He groaned mentally. Pepper was going to kill him. Still, the pleasant, reassuring voices that he'd heard before were back and, comforted by their normalcy, he drifted away again into the fog.
The third time there were no voices and no fog, so Tony's innate curiosity decided that it was time to rejoin the world. He cracked open one eye, grateful to note that his persistent stabbing migraine had finally decided to take a hike. Even if it hadn't, the subdued nighttime floor lighting in his room wouldn't have hurt his head. He closed his eyes once more as he lay still and ran a checklist of his prior symptoms.
Most importantly, he could breathe again. There was an oxygen mask over his face, but he slowly drew in a series of increasingly large breaths without so much as a twinge in his ribcage, so it was probably superfluous. He almost slumped in relief. Additionally, his fever seemed a thing of the past, as did his congestion and sore throat. Huh. He must have been out for a while, since his respiratory infections usually took several days to clear to this degree.
Checklist accomplished, he tuned into his surroundings. He could still hear the steady, rhythmic, now-familiar beeping of the cardiac monitor. Beyond that, though, was the gentle snoring of what sounded like several people. His eyes flew open. 'No, it can't be…'
He carefully turned his head as much as stiff muscles would allow to look to his left and right, then closed his eyes once more and groaned softly. It was. He was apparently the first patient in one of the new 'Avengers' rooms in the medical wing of the helicarrier, and what appeared to be his entire team and Pepper were sound asleep on the pull-out cots that he'd so carefully designed. The wave of mortification that washed over him at the realization almost masked the small blossom of warmth he felt at the proof his team cared, at least a little bit, about his well-being.
'God, they're gonna bench me every time I have the sniffles, now that they know how weak I am,' he mentally groaned. 'Rogers may sideline me indefinitely.'
His thoughts were interrupted by a quiet murmur. "Tony?"
Speak of the devil.
Stark's eyes flew open and he carefully rolled his head to stare at the bed on his right, where Steve Rogers was now propped up on his elbow, staring back. Upon seeing Tony's surprise, the corner of his lips quirked and he sat up in one fluid movement, swinging his long legs to the floor and leaning forward. "How are you feeling? Would you like some water?"
Tony gave a small nod, suddenly aware of the dryness of his throat. Steve stood, reaching for a pitcher on Tony's bedside and filling a small cup with ice water. Placing a bent straw in it, he gingerly slipped an arm behind the other man's shoulders, lifting him up enough to swallow without choking. The inventor sucked gratefully, practically finishing the entire cup in one go before pulling away. Steve eased him carefully back onto his pillows, then sat down on the adjacent bunk. Tony sighed internally, but decided not to postpone his inevitable well-deserved reprimand. He pressed the control that electrically raised the head of his bed so that at least Rogers wasn't literally looking down at him, then resignedly waved a hand vaguely in his leader's direction and muttered, "Go ahead and say it. I know you're dying to."
His stomach plummeted with dread when Rogers wouldn't even meet his gaze. 'Oh my God,' he panicked, 'it's worse than I thought. He's going to throw me off the team entirely!' He held his breath, waiting for the axe to fall, but refused to close his eyes in the face of impending disaster. He would meet this like a man and, if worst came to worst, he could always return to his 'lone wolf' gig. His heart ached at the idea of losing his team, but he could do it if there was no other choice.
Steve, unaware of Tony's concerns, grimaced as his eyes darted around the darkened room, then he ran a hand through his hair in frustration. Finally he clasped his hands tightly in front of himself, took a deep breath, and raised his head to gaze directly at the anxious billionaire. Tony stiffened his resolve not to postpone this conversation, but he was in no hurry for it, either, so he stayed silent and waited for Cap to speak.
"Look, Stark…" Steve began hesitantly. "I'd like to apologize."
The inventor's jaw dropped as his train of thought literally jumped the track. Of everything he dreaded the Captain would say, 'I'm sorry' wasn't even on the list. Finally reconnecting his tongue to his brain, he stammered in confusion, "Wait…what? You apologize? Why? I was the one who was late responding to the battle. If I had been any later, we might be out one archer. Then I flew off while you were trying to call me on my behavior! You have every right to be mad at me Cap, but no reason I can see to apologize." The mechanic winced. He'd been so flabbergasted that he'd just managed to remind Steve why he should kick him off the team.
"No, Tony!" Steve kept his voice down, but sprang to his feet to pace agitatedly between their beds. "In your condition, you shouldn't have been there at all! The fact that I forced JARVIS to notify you of the alert against his own better judgment…"
Tony's face clouded. "Yes, JARVIS and I are going to have a little discussion about that when I get back to the Tower. Don't worry; it won't happen again."
Steve stopped pacing and swung around, fixing his gaze on the sick man once more. "No, he was right not to tell you. He knew that you were in no shape to be fighting, but would suit up anyway if you knew you'd been called, which is exactly what happened. You have pneumonia, Stark! You almost died!"
Tony narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Time to nip this in the bud. He was not an invalid, God damn it! "Rogers, are you saying that I can't pull my weight just because I have a little cold?" he snarled, ignoring the fact that the only thing keeping him sitting upright was the back of the hospital bed. If Rogers was going to boot him off the Avengers, it would damn sure be for the right reasons. Insubordinate, yes. Sickly? No way in hell.
Rogers gaped, speechless, for an endless minute before something softer, almost despondent, filled his expression and he sat heavily on the edge of the genius' bed. Avoiding the billionaire's eyes once more, he stared again at his clasped hands and murmured, almost too low to hear, "My mother died of pneumonia. I don't want to lose a friend to it as well."
The inventor shifted uncomfortably at the heartfelt nature of the sentiment, then his eyes widened slightly as his brain finally caught up to the conversation. "Wait…so…," he stammered, then blurted, "You're not kicking me off the team?"
Steve's head shot up in shock. "What?!" he hissed, despite trying to stay quiet and not to disturb their sleeping comrades. "Of course not! Why would you even think that?"
It was Tony's turn to look away in embarrassment. "Well, I was late to the battle without explanation, I flew off before you finished your rebuke, and now you've decided that I'm so feeble that I can be hospitalized by a cold."
"Tony, no." Rogers put on his best reassuring tone as he shifted close enough to Stark to catch his eyes. "That's what I was trying to tell you!" His lip quirked a bit as he continued, "I'll repeat for the slower members of the class."
The engineer crossed his arms over his chest and muttered, "Nuh-uh. Genius here".
The super soldier smiled wider in response, then sobered before continuing, "Tony, you shouldn't have been there at all; you were in no shape for it. I'll admit that without you the battle would have been infinitely more difficult, but you sure didn't merit the dressing down I gave you for being late." He snorted and grimaced. "Heck, if the tables had been turned, I would have done a lot more than just turn my back and leave." He blushed again in shame, but kept his fixed on Tony's, willing the older man to understand. "Not only didn't you deserve my harsh words, you did nothing to earn the assumptions that led to them. I took a few random facts and twisted them in the light of old rumors, never once giving you the benefit of the doubt."
The billionaire was acutely uncomfortable with this discussion (ugh, feelings), so he tried to dismiss it with a wave of his hand. "No, no. Given my history, you jumped to perfectly reasonable conclusions."
"No!" Steve interrupted vehemently. "No, they weren't. The only thing I can even begin to admonish you for is keeping your illness from us. Come on, we're a team. We take care of each other!"
Stark grimaced at that. "Riiiight. Like I was going to voluntarily admit to being incapacitated from an illness that didn't even keep me home from school as a child. I can take care of myself, Rogers."
Cap chuckled in disbelief. "Come on, I doubt Howard sent you to school with pneumonia, Stark."
Instead of an eye roll and the disbelieving 'of course not' Steve expected, Tony just shrugged noncommittally. "Well, not before second grade, admittedly."
Rogers was aghast. "What do you mean, 'not before second grade'?" he blurted.
The genius looked confused. "Well, second grade was when Dad told me that I was too old to stay home sick anymore. Basically, it was time I toughened up and started acting like a Stark. When Starks are ill, we can't let it show or others will see our weakness and exploit it."
"That's screwed up," came a voice behind him, startling the billionaire so badly that his head swam when he swiveled it around. Barton looked apologetic from where he sat in an uncomfortable plastic chair between Tony's bed and the cot Pepper was fast asleep on. Neither Stark nor Rogers had even heard him get up, much less pull over a seat and settle in.
The industrialist clapped a palm over his chest and hissed, "God, give a guy a heart attack! How long have you been sitting there?"
The archer shrugged. "A little while, I guess." He caught Tony's eyes with his own. "I know Steve apologized, but I'd like to offer my own. See, I was the reason he thought those bad things about you to begin with."
When Rogers began to object, Clint held up a hand for silence. "Come on Cap, you know it's true. Remember when we saw that woman doctor leave Stark's elevator and your first thought was a thief or an assassination attempt? I was the one insisting on the more..." he glanced at the slumbering Pepper, and lowered his voice, "tawdry explanation."
"Well yes, but," Steve began.
"Turns out Bruce was the closest - she had been sent by Miss Potts, but she was a doctor, not a PA."
Tony watched the interplay with confusion before interjecting, "Well, the 'tawdry' explanation would have been reasonable once upon a time, when I was another man. Before this happened." He tapped his arc reactor meaningfully. "These days, I'm trying to be better."
"You are better, Tony." Pepper, clearly not as asleep as they believed, sat up and smiled fondly, reaching for Tony's hand.
Rogers blushed. "Oh, uh, sorry to wake you, ma'am," he stuttered.
She flashed him a smile that the industrialist felt was much too bright for the middle of the night. "Oh, no problem. I want to be up anyway now that Tony's awake."
She stood and leaned over to give the industrialist a chaste kiss, then run her fingers soothingly through his hair. He closed his eyes in bliss, folding happily towards the offered comfort for a moment before remembering himself and the room full of comparative strangers he was surrounded by. Upon sliding his eyes open once more, he was somehow unsurprised to see both Natasha and Bruce standing at the foot of his bed, completing the set. He raised his eyebrow in a silent question, to which Romanov just shrugged and Banner grinned.
"Hey, we're not going to miss this," Bruce smirked. "You've been unconscious for nearly four days."
The inventor tried to lurch to his feet in alarm, only to be pushed back into his pillows by the firm hand of his CEO. He struggled futilely against her surprisingly strong grip for a moment, finally giving up when it became obvious that she wasn't about to let him leave the bed. He actually appeared anxious as he whined, "But Pepper….the helicarrier plans. Fury needs them finished ASAP; he told me so at the Gala."
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Well, he'll just have to wait. Besides, I thought you were ahead of schedule on that."
"I am," he admitted with a shrug. "Honestly, just a few small details to iron out; the big stuff's done and in the hands of the construction team. I guess the Council's just getting antsy and pressuring him."
"Well, they'll just have to hold their horses," stated Steve, using his full 'Captain America' voice now that he didn't have to worry about waking anyone.
The inventor became even more distraught. "No, you don't understand…" he began.
"That you traded hours of your time for our freedom?" Steve finished for him. At the billionaire's obvious surprise, he elaborated, "Phil told us."
Tony glanced around the group of solemn, nodding heads, then spread his arms as wide as sore muscles would allow. "Then you know why I have to finish as soon as possible."
"Stark, you almost died. A little delay is acceptable in this instance," Natasha raised an eyebrow, daring him to question her pronouncement. "And if anyone says otherwise…" her eyes glinted in unspoken threat, this time protecting Tony just like she had protected Clint right after Loki's attack. A quick glance around at the remainder of the team revealed identical stubborn, protective expressions on all their faces. To his astonishment, not a single person looked either pitying or derisive. Huh. How about that? Maybe a team really did take care of each other, like Rogers claimed. Maybe they didn't see him as weak after all.
The discomfited engineer looked away and began fiddling with the IV on the back of his hand. "I guess," he mumbled shamefaced. He didn't deserve this…loyalty.
As if reading his mind, Pepper placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Tony…" she murmured fondly, all the reassurance in the universe in that single word. He gazed up at her and managed a small smile, reaching up to place his hand over hers.
And was almost startled out of his skin when a heavier, larger hand landed on his other shoulder. Wide eyed, he whirled around to stare at Steve, who just smiled hesitantly. "Again, I'm sorry for what I said before. No one thinks any less of you because you're ill; everyone gets sick or hurt from time to time. We'd all like to be there for you, just like you are for us. We're a team, after all."
Steve practically radiated sincerity. A wave of relief washed over Tony, and he was suddenly exhausted. He'd apparently been running on the adrenaline of discovering that his entire team knew he was sick. Now that they'd made it clear that not only did they not scorn him for his weakness, but planned on protecting him until he could once again protect himself, he could barely keep his eyes open. He surreptitiously pinched himself; if this wasn't a dream, he wanted to enjoy the camaraderie for as long as he could.
Now Bruce was the mind reader. "Go to sleep, Tony," he chuckled. "We'll still be here when you wake up again."
The genius silently took in all the nodding heads, then nodded once himself. "OK," he agreed as he leaned back on his pillow and let his eyes slide shut. He could do this. For once he would try and trust others to have his back and not stab it. Maybe this team thing would work after all, even on 'one of those days'.