Stepping into his bathroom – the one in Stark Tower was bigger than the one in the mansion had been -- Tony stumbled and barely caught himself with a hand on the wall. He had to lean there for a moment, to catch his breath.
He’d dropped the armor in the bedroom. It hadn’t felt so heavy in years, not since he got Extremis, almost two years before.
Pain spiked in his chest and he raised a hand convulsively, rubbing at it. His heart was healed, this was just – exhaustion. Or a bruised rib or something. Nothing to be worried about, Extremis would take care of it. A few more steps brought him to the shower with the lazy seat in the back. He half fell on it, reaching out with Extremis and turning the water on. It started soft and then powered up to a fierce beating spray, hot and welcoming. Tony closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall, soaking it up. He’d feel better in a few minutes.
Extremis would fix it.
With folders spread around him and two more stacks towering on the coffee table to his left, Steve reached for his coffee cup. He grimaced, finding it empty. He moved carefully and sat up, trying not to disturb the order he’d finally managed to achieve in the time he’d been working with them, rolling his neck. He’d clearly been lying there too long.
Setting the cup down, he shifted a couple of the files, putting them in different stacks and stretched, yawning.
This was crazy! SHIELD just had so many rules and regulations. How they managed this long without a complete overhaul was beyond him. When Fury had asked him to review the training manuals and policies Steve had thought it’d just be a good exercise, a chance to stretch his brain and remember old training techniques. He’d forgotten just how much bureaucracy could muck things up. They definitely needed something more streamlined. More manageable. The way it was now a sergeant could hardly make a decision without having to consult with at least three superiors, two of whom would probably be in the field. Actually, what they really needed was to streamline all of their procedures - but there was no way Steve was volunteering for that mess. He picked up his cup again, looking into it wistfully. The kitchen seemed a long way away. He began to extricate himself from the piles of folders, moving carefully.
He suddenly remembered the many nights spent in this room on a sofa with Tony, watching a movie or a football game; sketching or doing paperwork while Tony did everything in his head. And how his cup somehow never ran empty those nights.
Thinking about it, Steve stood, at last, and headed toward the coffee pot.
Where was Tony? Steve had checked down in the lab earlier before he’d settled down to work, and assumed that his friend had stayed late at work, although he wasn’t aware of there being any real problems with Stark Industries. The company had been doing well as far as he knew with the new cell phone that had everyone excited and some new medical breakthrough Tony had been chattering about a couple of weeks ago. Steve hadn’t actually gotten the whole story on that actually, which was odd. Usually he was the first to hear about any of Tony’s breakthroughs, or his failures.
He paused, hand going still in the act of lifting the coffee pot, and realized that he hadn’t actually spent very much time with Tony since then. He’d been so busy with this assignment for Fury, Tony had been working, and the supervillain front had been quiet. They hadn’t even sparred in a couple of weeks. That wasn’t right. Steve put the coffee down. No one would touch his files, they’d stay there until he got back to them. Everyone at the tower was polite that way since you never knew what someone might be working on or how sensitive or important it might be. Even Peter was careful – but then again he was a scientist at heart, despite his quirky mannerisms. Steve knew that was just youth.
It wasn’t late yet; he could dig Tony up and drag him down to the gym for an hour, work out the kinks he’d developed lying on the carpet. It would be good for both of them. And if Tony was actively avoiding him for some reason – Steve sighed – better to find out and deal with it now.
Twenty minutes later Steve was getting frustrated. Tony wasn’t anywhere he could think of finding him at this hour. He wasn’t in his office, or in his room, or the gym, not even the lab. Finally, it was only by chance that he walked by the study door and, seeing it cracked open, decided to look in.
And there he was. Tony Stark - renowned playboy, genius, businessman, founding member of the Avengers – dozing in a leather chair with a large book open and askew on his chest.
The room was illuminated by a couple of lamps that didn’t give off much light -- not that really mattered so much to Tony anymore. Not with Extremis. He didn’t even have to be on the same continent with whatever he was reading. So maybe it was a little strange that he was reading an actual bound paper book. Maybe he’d just missed the feeling of having an actual book in his hands, Steve mused. He’d always felt that reading things on a computer screen just wasn’t the same. Steve was surprised though, when Tony didn’t wake as he walked up behind him. Gently lifting the book and setting it aside, he took note of the title: ‘Molecular Mimicry: Infection-Inducing Autoimmune Disease (Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology)’.
That was a mouthful. Must be related to the medical breakthrough SI had made. Tony wasn’t a biologist, though he could fake it pretty well if he had to, and he liked to understand everything going on around him, a trait Steve admired and shared - even if he didn’t have the brains to always follow. Steve put a hand on Tony’s shoulder, enjoying the warmth, and shook gently.
“Tony. Come on, get up and go to bed.”
His friend made a soft sound, and turned his head until his cheek rested on Steve’s hand. Steve smiled. This had happened before. Tony let his exhaustion catch up to him sometimes, and just fell asleep wherever he was. Steve always imagined that Tony was thinking of his mother, or Jarvis, or one of his female conquests, when Steve woke him gently. Though it was hard to imagine Tony being close enough to any of them that they’d need to wake him up and get him to bed since Tony seemed to think that those women were good for that just one thing. Perhaps combined with simple companionship, but he didn’t really share his life with them, the important things involved the Avengers, Pepper, and Steve.
“Your back is never going to forgive you if you spend the night here,” Steve leaned to whisper. Tony sighed, and snuggled deeper into the chair.
Steve’s smile grew. Tony must be really wiped out. “Come on, shell head, up you go.”
“Not in the suit,” Tony mumbled quietly. Steve was glad his friend couldn’t see him smile.
“I’m awake, I’m awake.” Tony belied the words with a yawn.
“But stuck in the chair?” Steve teased. He reached under Tony’s arms and pulled. Tony whined but came to his feet. He seemed wobbly, though, so while maneuvering them both around the chair he wrapped an arm around Tony’s shoulders to steady him. He had a second of worry; Tony had been like this more and often recently, almost like when he’d been drinking, but there was no sign of alcohol. No scent and Tony had promised to stop.
And Steve trusted Tony. Finally Tony opened his eyes and gave Steve a weak smile.
“Where am I?”
“In the study.” Steve chuckled. “You must be really out of it. How many days have you gone without sleep this time?”
“Mmm, just a day or so,” Tony said, slowly pulling away from Steve’s support. “I’m going to bed now, though.”
“Good,” Steve told him. “You let yourself get too run down and I’m locking you in next time.”
“Yeah, like that’d work,” Tony retorted. Slowly he straightened, and as he walked past Steve, the blond man felt a brush of heat. Steve wanted to reach out and touch his forehead, like his mother would have done, but didn’t. Tony was fine; he’d just fallen asleep in a chair. Steve stood there, looking at the book. Coffee and more work or bed? Or he could always squeeze in that workout he’d been planning to share with Tony. It wasn’t that late, he decided suddenly and he could always workout and then get some more work done. Heading towards the gym, he smiled. Tony’s work ethic was apparently contagious.
Tony made it as far as the elevator before his legs gave way. Biting back a moan of frustration, he levered himself back up, wedged into a corner and using his arms. His legs felt like noodles. He felt fresh sweat bead on his skin. Thank God Steve hadn’t noticed anything wrong. If he had come along he would’ve seen this display of weakness. That was the last thing Tony wanted.
He’d reached the breaking point. There was something seriously wrong. These bouts of weakness, dizziness, and fever had been happening now for over a month and it was a small miracle that no one had noticed.
He didn’t want to tell anyone, but it was just getting worse, and tonight he’d almost been caught out. Tomorrow he would contact Reed Richards and see if the scientist would check him over. It was probably something silly, some coding error with Extremis, something that could be fixed with some new programming but he hadn’t been able to find anything himself.
Tony made it to his room, clinging to the walls, and fell onto his bed not bothering to undress. Sleep eventually came, washed over him like a wave and he fell gratefully under it.
“Baxter Building,” Susan Richards sounded professional today.
Tony winced. He’d woken far later than was normal. He didn’t need an alarm, Extremis was programmed to wake him at 6, but today it hadn’t. He wasn’t thinking about it though. Not yet. He felt better, less shaky, but he had to admit there was a problem. So here he was on the phone trying to reach Reed Richards early in the day.
“I’m sorry - Sue? This is Tony Stark. I need to speak to Reed.” He fumbled the words out, distracted. Christ, he was usually the king of multi-tasking. What the hell was going on?
“He’s in the lab, Tony. I can take a message though.” There were sounds in the background, high-pitched squeals. Tony winced as they amplified painfully through the receiver and his head. Using Extremis, he tried to turn down the volume but it wouldn’t respond. “Franklin! Leave your sister alone!” Sue shouted. “I’m sorry, Tony, they’re full of something today. I’ll –“
“Sue, I really need to talk to him.”
“The last time you really needed to see him you both wound up lost in the bowels of the Tokyo subway system.”
Tony smirked. That had been a great weekend. When Reed let down his hair… well.
“This is important,” he tried again, lowering his voice.
“Tony-” Sue paused, voice more sincere when she spoke again. “Is something wrong?”
“I don’t- I can’t… talk about it.”
“Tony.” There was a trace of worry now. “What's wrong?”
“I just need to see Reed,” Tony mumbled. He felt tired again and it came over him like a blanket, dropping from the ceiling, draping and smothering him.
“Alright.” There was another shriek from the children and Sue sighed.
“Come on over. I’ll dig Reed out.”
“Thank you,” a long pause and then Tony heard himself say softly, “I owe you one.”
“Careful. I might ask you to babysit.”
“Aw, now that’s just not fair,” Tony protested weakly.
“And Tokyo was?” Sue teased gently.
“That was completely not my fault.”
“So you say,” she almost giggled. “I’ll make sure he’s expecting you.”
“I’ll be right over,” Tony answered, holding back a sigh.
It took a ridiculous amount of effort to get his armor to respond. He blamed it on the exhaustion, unwilling to even consider another cause. When it was on, he felt better immediately. He could walk steadily. His body no longer ached. Tony pulled the faceplate down, so no one could see the dark circles under his eyes and the stubble on his face. His hand had been shaking too badly for him to shave.
Steve was standing in the living room as he passed through, deep in his files. As he looked up, Tony gave a casual wave.
“Caught up on your sleep?” Steve called.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Tony answered, not stopping. Steve rolled to his feet.
“Something going on?” He was all ready to join in. Tony stopped and tried to sound cheerful.
“No, I just feel like flying. I’ll be back in a bit – if I’m not over at the office already.”
Steve looked disappointed and Tony had to squash the guilt he felt. “Oh, well. I’ve got plenty to do here.” He gestured at the mess on the floor.
“There weren’t this many yesterday,” Tony observed. “I think I see a couple of little ones under the couch. Have they been breeding?”
“God, I hope not,” Steve replied, words serious but eyes laughing. “I’d better separate them, just to be safe. Have a good flight.”
“I will,” Tony said, turning with a profound sense of relief. If he said anything else, Steve would know something was wrong but Tony still lingered for a moment, watching him as he squatted down to gather some files and stack them haphazardly on the armchair before sitting where they had they’d been. A bittersweet pang ran through him his chest. They were old friends, this longing and he. He savored it for a moment, then turned and left.
Out the door, on the stairs, into the air. For a second he was afraid – what if he couldn’t fly? – but he brushed the feeling off and he was on his way.
“So, how bad is it?” Tony sat on the examination table, which wasn’t like any other in the world, in the smallest of Reed’s laboratories. It was the one devoted to medical research, which Reed spent the least amount of time on.
He was wrapped in a blanket over his skivvies and still shivering. Pulling himself together, literally, Reed leaned heavily against a bank of machines behind him. Tony knew what they were, most of them anyway, but right now he couldn’t get himself all that interested in Reed’s homemade tech.
Crossing his arms over his chest without a bit of stretching, Reed stared at him. “It’s not good,” Tony muttered, clutching at the blanket with both hands.
“If you were a normal human I’d seriously consider sending you to an oncologist,” Reed said quietly.
“Onco – cancer? I can’t get cancer, Reed. I’m –“
“No.” Reed shook his head. “You can’t. I tested you for it. There are no markers, nothing in your blood work. But you do have classic symptoms.”
“Fever, night sweats, weakness, fatigue-,” Tony listed, almost whispering.
“And weight loss,” Reed added. “You’ve lost almost twelve pounds, Tony. For a man of your age and physicality, other lifestyle choices aside, this is huge.”
“I hadn’t realized.”
“I know you don’t feel the need to eat properly a lot of the time, but even you should have noticed this.” Reed came over, laying a hand on his shoulder. Tony shrugged, not wanting the contact, but the hand didn’t move. It squeezed gently. Suddenly Tony had the ridiculous urge to lay his cheek down on it and close his eyes.
“You’re sick, Tony,” Reed said, “And I don’t know what it is. My best guess is that Exremis is reacting to something wrong with your system and trying to get rid of it but -”
“I’d already come to that conclusion.” Tony pulled the blanket closer. He was so cold. Reed hovered for a minute, then more, offering silent support. Finally he moved away, arms stretching out to type on panels at opposite sides of the room. There was only the sound of his fingers hitting keys for several long minutes.
“You can’t tell anyone.”
Reed whipped his head around, but not the rest of him. Tony winced.“Tony, this is serious. You need to see a real doctor. A biotech specialist. An immunologist. Maybe even a rheumatologist. What do I know!”
“No!” Tony tried to jump down from the table and got tangled in the blanket. Reed’s arm was there, wrapping around him. “Not –“ Tony gasped, hearing how he sounded. His voice was weak and thin. He tried again, “Not until we know more. Not until I’m re-”
“I can’t treat this.” Reed said, closer now, pulling Tony to his feet and supporting him with both arms around him. A hug. “You need help.”
“I’m not so good at that part,” Tony mumbled. He swayed and Reed drew him closer, obviously worried. Tony gave a soft moan and leaned in, letting Reed take his weight and hiding his face in the shoulder of Reed’s blue sweater. “I can’t – I can’t put them through this. Not now. Not again.”
Not Steve, who had stood beside him through so much; Tony couldn’t bear to hurt him again.
“I can give you a few days,” Reed said. He hugged Tony gingerly, clearly unsure of the contact. “Start you on Prednisone, a high dose of broad-spectrum antibiotics. They might make you feel nauseous, but you have to eat. A mild painkiller, something for inflammation. A stimulant.”
“Can’t take painkillers,” Tony mumbled, still hanging on. He was so damned tired. The thought of calling the armor and flying home was overwhelming.
“Nothing narcotic,” Reed told him, patting Tony’s back. “If I give these to you, will you take them? And rest? If can you promise me you will do both I won’t tell anyone for a week. Unless you get worse.” A week wasn’t long, but it was something. And the medicine might work. Rest might even make Extremis work properly again. Plus he knew Reed wouldn’t give him longer. Tony nodded, taking a step back and getting ready to leave.
“I don’t want you flying home.” Reed said abruptly and steered him back towards the bed, lifting him carefully onto it. Stretching, he easily opened a drawer across the room and took out another blanket, tucking it around Tony like he was one of the children. Shivering, Tony didn’t protest, he actually took note of the fact that he’d been warmer when Reed was hugging him. The poor guy was probably glad to get loose though.
“Take a breather while I get things organized and I’ll call a cab to take you home.”
“The penthouse,” Tony said, voice suddenly stronger. “I’ll – I’ll rest better there. Alone.”
“Oh no you won’t,” Reed scolded, arms waving around the room as he gathered various items from scattered drawers, tabletops, and cabinets.
Tony was pretty sure he saw one arm actually leave the room completely, but he didn’t want to think about it. “I’m going to come by and check on you every other day.” He had a small tote bag and was filling it and used another for the armor, though Tony could have just told it to get in the bag.
Reed came over and Tony forced himself to sit up. “Can you get down the stairs by yourself?”
Sliding his feet to the floor, Tony wobbled and grabbed the side of the bed to keep himself upright. “I’d have to say no.”
“I can get you down, but I can’t promise no one will see you. Damn, I didn’t consider that,” Reed muttered.
“You can make it look normal,” Tony said.
Reed rolled his eyes, “I’ll try. Let me give you something first.” He left Tony standing there, still wrapped up. The shivers were starting to subside.
Reed came back, deftly turning him around and peeled down his jeans and boxers.
“Hey,” Tony protested.
“This will sting,” Reed warned. Tony sucked in a breath and curled his toes and then bit out a curse.
“Fuck, that hurts.”
“Sorry.” Reed pulled his pants back up and tapped his shoulder lightly.
“You should feel better in a few minutes. I think it’s enough to get you home in one piece.”
“Thank you,” Tony sighed. Heat ran through him as the medication hit his system. He didn’t know what Reed had given him, but knew Reed would take everything into consideration including the risks. So Tony just stood there waiting, as the flush spread through him and the pressure finally eased. He felt steadier and straightened carefully letting go of the bed.
After a few minutes he slid the blankets off, put them on the bed.
“I’m still not comfortable with you being alone between my visits,” Reed said. He had both bags and looked ready to go.
“I can order food in if I don’t feel like cooking.”
”That’s not what I’m worried and you know it.” Reed led the way to the express elevator. “You’ll call me if you need anything?”
Tony nodded. He had to steady himself a bit in the elevator; he told himself it was because it was moving.
”I’ll call a couple of places and order you some food. In case you don’t think about it.” It was clear that Reed was re-evaluating the situation and regretting his promise already.
Steve climbed from his spot on the floor for the tenth or twentieth time. He was beginning to suspect that Tony had been right; the damned things were breeding. Every time he sat back down there seemed to be more of them. If they hadn’t all contained information on SHEILD procedures he’d have suspected that Peter was slipping more into the piles when Steve wasn’t looking.
It was Friday and there was a monthly meeting scheduled that evening.
Things had been pretty quiet, the team keeping to its mandate, not heading out for normal, everyday problems except for the members that made that their bailiwick. Luke and Danny and Peter, mostly. MJ was busy with auditions and shooting a commercial.
Logan had been spending a lot of time with the X-Men, Jan was busy with her new line, and Hank was deep in his labs. Jessica Drew kept herself occupied and Jessica Jones had her hands full with little Elle, who was apparently having some bad nights. Steve was thankful the bedrooms were soundproofed. Normally, when things were calm like this and everyone was doing their own thing, Steve would spend some time with his best friend. He and Tony could have lunch, dinner, watch movies, or go to a play. Spar, fly, maybe even run together. When Tony holed up in his lab Steve would visit and hang out with his own desk in the corner packed with drawing supplies.
He’d been really involved with the job Fury had given him, though, and spent most of the last three days on the Hellicarrier talking to people and gathering information. He had an outline of the changes he was going to suggest, a plan, and was starting to organize everything on paper. Fury would have someone else put them in a computer when Steve was done, thank god.
It felt good to have direction. Steve was actually looking forward to the meeting and seeing everyone. Touching base was important. It helped him to know that everyone was taken care of.
He smiled at himself. There was a reason men in his unit used to call him a mother hen.
Suddenly he really wanted to see Tony. The other night when he’d found him sleeping in the study – Wait. He hadn’t seen Tony since the other day, when Tony had gone out for a flight, then nothing.
That couldn’t be right. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and hit the speed dial Tony had set up for him.“Potts.”
“Pepper, it’s Steve. I just realized I haven’t seen Tony in a couple of days. Do you need me to come drag him out for a bit?” It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Steve?” she sounded puzzled. “Tony’s out of town. He left on Tuesday.”
“Hm. Did he fly?”
“He took the plane,” Pepper said. “I’m not sure where he went. He didn’t say and he’s only called to check in once.”
“That’s strange.” Steve looked up as Logan entered, probably for the meeting. He looked casual and laid-back, as much as a grumpy mutant killing machine could. “He have his his cell on him?”
“I can’t say for sure. And since Extremis, who can tell?”
Dammit, Tony, Steve thought, worried. He hadn’t looked well Monday night, and if something was wrong and he’d run away, Steve didn’t know what he was going to say or do. “I’ll give him a call,” he told Pepper.
“Maybe he just needs a hand with whatever he’s up to.”
“Thank you, Steve. Tell him to call me, okay?”
Logan was hovering in the doorway, headed for the kitchen but waiting for Steve. Steve hung up the phone and joined him.“Iron Man AWOL?” he drawled, idly scratching at his chin.
“Not exactly,” Steve temporized. No sense getting Tony in hot water with the others quite yet. Tony could have could’ve just decided to get away for a bit. Gone spelunking in the Tokyo subways.
“His scent was off,” Logan said, apropos of nothing.
“His scent was off. Last week when I was here for supper.”
“What does ‘off’ mean exactly?” Steve asked sharply, but Logan ignored him, going to the giant stainless steel fridge and pulling out a carton of orange juice. Three swallows and he’d gulped it down, tossing the empty into the trash.“Two points.”
Steve stood stock still. He wanted to grab the shorter man and shake the answer out of him, but he knew better.
Logan finally looked at him, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.“It means he didn’t smell right.”
“So how did he smell then?” Steve shot back while moving toward the coffee pot. “Sick? Tired?” he poured a cup and added sugar. “Like he’d been drinking?” The last words fell from his mouth despite his effort to keep them in and he regretted them instantly.
“Nah,” Logan answered, opening cabinets and peering into them, seemingly randomly. “Not drinkin’. Sick, maybe. Not anything I’ve ever smelled before.”
Steve put the cup down, untasted.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It was only a whiff, Cap.” Logan shrugged. “I was gonna check again tonight. See if it had changed. Gotten stronger. Gone away.”
“Okay,” Steve sighed. “I- sorry.”
“Hmm.” Logan turned, crossed his arms, and stared at Steve. His eyes could be, were, penetrating, and Steve often thought he was hiding a keen intelligence under his rough exterior. Even when he’d first met him in his defrosted twenties, he’d found Logan intimidating at times.
“He smells like other things, too, you know. When he’s around you.”
“Never mind,” Logan gave a wolfish grin. “Where’s the bug hiding his cookies now?”
The phone was ringing. Tony groaned, rolled over, and looked at it in disgust. He’d told Pepper he was going to be out of reach for several days, probably a week and she was supposed to tender his apologies to the team at today’s meeting. So he could sleep. He looked at the ID and blinked. Steve was supposed to be busy restructuring SHEILD so why was his number showing up on Tony’s phone? Moving was too hard, so Tony stayed where he was. He wasn’t sure he could even reach out and pick up the phone. His arms felt so heavy. He’d hardly been out of bed the past three days and Reed’s group had been drawn into some sort of other-worldly thing so even the stretchy scientist hadn’t been around to check up on him.
Tony had half expected this and was kind of glad of it, to be honest. If Reed saw him he’d have Tony in a hospital faster than Tony could fly the Iron Man suit at the rate things were going. Which was ironic since it wouldn’t answer him now.
Extremis wasn’t completely offline, most things still kind of worked, but losing contact with the armor hurt the worst.
Tony wasn’t sure when he’d eaten last. He hadn’t showered in awhile and he’d just resorted to using the waste can beside the bed as an emesis basin.
The phone started ringing again and with enormous effort Tony rolled away from it to face the wall and closed his eyes. He’d feel better the next time he woke up.
“He’s not answering the phone,” Steve told Pepper.
Tony’s assistant had arrived just as the meeting began to tell them that Tony was out of town and wouldn’t make it.
“He might just have the phone off,” she said, but she looked worried. Steve wondered, not for the first time, if Tony could turn off the phone, since it was in his head.
The others started looking concerned. This didn’t have to be a crisis, though. Not yet.
Jarvis stepped into the room carrying a tray of snacks. He cleared his throat. Everyone look at him and Peter’s folded paper football fell forlornly to the floor as Danny ignored it.
“Excuse me,” Jarvis said. “But I took the liberty of checking Master Anthony’s wardrobe this morning. He did not pack a suitcase, nor was any significant amount of clothing missing.”
Steve and Pepper exchanged worried glances.
“Happy didn’t drive him anywhere.”
“None of the cars are out either,” Logan threw in.
Steve shot him a glance but the mutant just leaned back in his chair, idly rubbing a finger over the knuckles of the opposite hand.
“And the armor’s not here.” Steve had checked before the meeting. “We should check the airfield, see if he took the plane like he told Pepper he was going to.”
“Should I be worried?” Pepper asked suddenly.
“I think you already are,” Steve replied and in his head he added a codicil; so am I.
Thirty minutes later they had a better picture. Everyone was at the conference table, and now everyone definitely looked worried.
Jess had shown up with the baby, who was being bounced on Danny’s shoulder and MJ was home early from her photo shoot, grumbling.
“They didn’t have the permits,” she huffed, She came breezing in trailing the scent of a sunny day. “Permits! Like they’re some amateurs out of Skeeboken.”
She stopped behind Peter’s chair and waited expectantly. When no quip was forthcoming she looked around the room, one hand going to Peter’s shoulder.
“Tony’s gone off the grid,” Peter answered, covering her hand with one of his.
Sometimes Steve envied them the length and depth of their relationship. He knew their story; they’d stayed together through so much, and somehow it only seemed to make them stronger. Outsiders might see Peter as a goofy, undisciplined geek, but everyone here knew better.
“Does that mean –“ MJ hesitated. “Is he okay? I mean, do we think he’s okay?”
“We don’t know,” Cage answered. Beside him Danny shifted baby Elle to his other shoulder. She squawked in protest, but it freed his arm so he could slide it over the back of Luke’s chair. Now that was a relationship Steve would never understand.
“We should start checking other locations,” Peter blurted. “How many places could he be? It’s not like he flew commercial!”
“But he had the armor. He could be anywhere.”
“No activity on his credit cards,” Steve spoke up. “So the question is, where would he go without clothes and money?”
“Right. First we should start looking at the other houses. I’ll get Happy and we’ll drive down to the Hamptons.” Pepper, always on the ball.
“I’ll take the bug ‘n a Quintjet, head out to Seattle,” Logan offered.
Soon arrangements were made to check all of Tony’s US homes, and they decided to worry about the overseas places after that.
Steve opted for the Manhattan penthouse, the closest location, since he could go up to the Hellicarrier if that didn’t pan out and begin a more serious search.
Tony could be inconsiderate, but he didn’t just vanish, not unless something was drastically wrong. Steve respected him, and Tony loved him like a brother. He wouldn’t let him worry, not after all they’d been through together. But he did have a tendency to get caught up in tinkering or a problem to the point where he forgot to surface long enough to tell his friends. Three days wasn’t really long enough to start this kind of panic but…
The group broke up and Steve went to the garage, debating modes of transportation. His motorcycle was fast and fun, but if Tony needed to taken anywhere, it wasn’t practical. So he settled on a sedate black Audi that Jarvis often drove, the least flashy of the lot. Within minutes he was on the road headed for Manhattan traffic and trying very hard not to think about how badly he’d let Tony down. He should have seen this coming.
The warmth had left him and Tony shivered, but no matter how deeply he burrowed into the blankets, the convulsions just got worse.
His teeth chattered hard enough to make his jaw ache, and his ears pounded with the sound.
No, wait –that was actual pounding. Somewhere...? Finally he placed the noise as the front door, but it was too well secured for anyone else to ever get in.
Nothing from inside the penthouse, but that wasn’t reassuring. He did have a key – he was pretty sure he was the only one, besides Pepper – but he didn’t want to just let himself in if Tony wasn’t there. It seemed too much like an invasion of privacy. The key was for emergencies, and he didn’t know yet if this was one.
He just wanted to be sure Tony was okay.
Flipping open his phone, Steve finally caved and called Fury. Knowing the situation, the director of SHIELD answered promptly.
“Nick, it’s Steve. Can you have one of your techs look at the GPS on Tony’s phone? I hadn’t thought of it before this and it might speed things up
“That’s pretty a pretty invasive thing you want us to do, Cap,” Nick said gruffly. “You think I should invade the privacy of an American citizen without so much as a warrant?”
Tony would have called Fury something …impolite, at this point.
“Nick…” Steve sighed. “Could you just do it, please?” He didn’t have to ask if Fury had the information on file; the man had anything and everything.
“Don’t get your tights in a bunch, Solider. We’re checking it now.”
Steve waited patiently. Finally Fury spoke up.
“If you were thinking he’d about sixty feet away from you, you’d be right,
“That’s all I needed to know. Thanks, Sir.” He hung up the phone and sighed.
Okay, so he knew where Tony was. Or at least where Tony’s phone was, though it wasn’t like Tony needed one since with Extremis staying connected took on a whole new meaning .
There was a sound Tony hardly recognized over the chattering of his teeth and the pounding of his heart.
With Extremis his hearing could be as good as Logan’s but right now his – modifications – didn’t seem to be working. He curled tighter around the pillow he held, vaguely aware that it was damp with sweat, along with the bed, wet, and he didn’t have the energy to care.
It wasn’t until he felt a hand on his face, fingers like coals on his skin that he remembered that sound. A key. A key in the door.
Footsteps? Maybe he’d heard footsteps. He wasn’t sure, right now.
“Oh, Tony,” a familiar, loved voice whispered.
Then Tony couldn’t hear anything.
This was worse than Steve had imagined. He’d tried to keep calm when Tony couldn’t be found, when they began looking for him, and he hadn’t allowed himself to think of the things that could have gone wrong.
Now as he touched Tony’s face, his forehead, those worries bubbled to the surface. His skin was so cold. Steve checked his pulse. Then again, keeping his fingers pressed deeply, the faint beat anchoring him as he shakily opened his phone.
He had thought that Tony was drinking again, had gone off on a binge. He’d have been ashamed, or afraid to come home, but Steve would have forgiven him. Helped the way he hadn’t the one time it really mattered, that he would never forgive himself for. It was something he and Tony had in common, this inability to forgive themselves for major screw-ups.
Though, as always, Tony took it to new extremes.
Steve winced, knowing that what Tony had done to himself, it probably had something to do with Extremis. The ultimate example of both Tony’s genius and lack of self worth. Extremis.
“Hank,” he said, as soon as the call connected. “I found him. He’s here. He’s here and he’s very sick.”
“What kind of sick?” he asked immediately.
“I don’t know. He’s – he’s cold, but the bedding is wet. I think he’s had a fever. He’s been out since I got here.”
“I’ll get there as fast as I can.”
“What should I do right now?”
“Can you get him warm? It couldn’t hurt.”
“I can do that.”
“Won’t be long.” Hank hung up.
Steve sat on the bed beside Tony. The stillness disturbed him. His friend was wrapped so tightly in the blankets it looked like it should hurt. He had a painful moment of doubt as he began unwrapping them; Tony was limp and unresponsive. Was this really the best thing to do? Should he wait for Hank? The room stank, stale sweat and vomit, he should clean it up…
The clammy chill of Tony’s skin decided for him. Getting him warm was the important thing right now. Hank would do an examination so all Steve could do was make Tony comfortable until then. God, he hoped this would work.
Tony was nude beneath the bedding, all of him clammy and cool and limp.There was no sign of the under-armor and Steve wondered what that meant. None of this could mean anything good, because Extremis should have been keeping Tony well, making him better, he shouldn’t be in this condition at all.
Steve left Tony’s side long enough to grab clean bedding from the linen closet, sheets and blankets and a quilted green velvet comforter he remembered from last Christmas. He’d teased Tony about it and Tony had defended himself, saying it was ‘festive’.
He set Tony in a chair, wrapped in a dry blanket, while he spread the dry, warm velvet over the bed and went into the bathroom, briefly debating the merits of tub versus shower. The tub would be awkward and potentially dangerous, just because a human body was a hard thing to manage since Steve would need to hold his head above water, and there wasn’t a way to do that comfortably since there wasn’t really room for two people, not for any length of time.
The shower on the other hand was huge, with multiple showerheads and a high tech temperature system. There was also a bench in the back; Steve could adjust the water to spray directly on Tony while holding him.
Decided, he turned it all on, setting it to just above warm, and stuck a bunch of extra large towels on the heating rack. He didn’t want to shock Tony’s system and throw it any more out of whack, so they’d work their way to warmer temperature wise slowly.
Steve returned to the bedroom wearing only the tight, dark blue boxer-briefs Tony had given him for his birthday the year before. At the time it had seemed like an odd gift for a man to give his best friend, but Steve knew that Tony wasn’t like other people and so he’d just gone with it. They were surprisingly comfortable under the leather, and Tony had given him enough pairs to last a decade or so.
Steve studied Tony looking for any clues to his illness, but there wasn’t anything. Tony hadn’t moved. There weren’t any rashes or bruising or anything really except the paleness and the chill of his skin. He looked thin too, but… that wasn’t all that strange really since Tony seemed to think eating was for average normal people, not genius business playboy superheroes.
Steve picked him up and winced. Tony felt… limp and loose, cold and damp. It was almost like he was de– no, he wasn’t going to think that. It was never okay to compare his best friend’s body to a corpse. Even though he’d just done it. Biting his lip hard enough to sting, Steve carefully carried Tony into the bathroom and straight into the shower.
Cradling Tony to his body, Steve sat, sharing his own body heat and keeping a tight grip on Tony’s hips to hold on him in the water.
The tiles were slick and Tony didn’t move when Steve shifted and water splashed his face.
Steve wanted to be heard over the rushing of the water around them but didn’t want to shout. Tony got upset when he thought Steve was angry with him. And Steve wasn’t angry. He was worried. This motionless gaping silence was deeply disturbing. Even in the armor Tony was a vibrant personality. When he was working, concentrating; some part of him was just always moving. Steve had watched him dance with excitement, tools and all, unaware and unashamed.
“Tony, look at me. Please.”
He moved his hands, one around Tony’s waist, the other pulling Tony’s head to his shoulder. He wasn’t getting warmer.
“Tony, you’re scaring me.”
Steve shook him ever-so-gently. Still nothing. Balancing his friend on his lap, Steve reached over and turned the temperature up a few degrees, the difference instantly noticeable to him. He couldn’t tell if Tony felt it.
Tony was lying against him at this point, side-to-chest, one of Steve’s arms supporting his back, kind of like how kids sit on Santa’s lap in the mall. The position was awkward for someone of Tony’s size, so Steve ended up lifting him and bringing him in closer, hands moving from waist to under the arms until they were chest to chest. Tony’s forehead lolled against his shoulder and Steve scooted to the edge of the ledge, legs spread for balance. Tony’s legs ended up spread limply to either side of his upper thighs and hips. Awkward, but it would have to do.
Steve pressed his lips into sodden black hair. It curled when it was wet, something he’d noticed before. It was cute. In fact there were a lot of things about Tony that could be endearing, and Steve found it secretly amusing, because he knew how Tony would react to being called ‘cute’.
Steve leaned in, as close as he could get to Tony’s ear, and almost whispered, low and intense. “You need to wake up Tony. You’re really starting to scare me here.”
Tony moved and Steve felt a frantic wave of relief. Lifting his hand to hold Tony’s heavy head he was suddenly inches away, plenty close enough to see the bloodshot blue eyes as they opened. Slowly.
“Steve?” he mumbled.
“Tony. Thank God.” Steve wanted to hug him hard, but he didn’t. He’d been careful, he wasn’t going to hurt Tony by accident. It would just be too easy, too risky, not knowing what was wrong.
“Steve?” Such a lost sound. Steve closed his own eyes for a minute, fighting sudden tears. When he opened them again, the blue was gone, and Tony’s head sagged forward.
“Tony? Tony!” Steve almost stood, almost shook him in disbelief when he realized Tony was unconscious again. He caught himself, and caught Tony’s head, held it to his chest. Neck. Close.
Tony had woken once, he’d do it again.
Steve clung to that thought desperately as the water continued to fall around them.
"It must be Extremis. I just can't figure out what it's doing or why. I need to call Henry McCoy. Steve?"
"Do what you need to."
He was warm, finally warm. Everything hurt, but god, at least he was warm.
"Hank? Hank! I think he's waking up."
Something moved, and nausea spread. Tony choked and gagged and tried to swallow, but his body wasn't responding correctly. Was he paralyzed?
Had he been hurt in a fight?
"Tony? Tony, can you hear me? Hang on. Come on, hang on, Tony. Please-"
He didn't think he'd ever heard Steve so desperate.
And as darkness took him he wondered why.
“He started to wake up – he was choking!” Steve said urgently, sitting very still on the bed, Tony’s head was in his lap where he had lifted it. Dry and warm, Tony was still a dead weight, and barely breathing.
“I’m gonna get a mask on him,” Hank Pym said, reaching into the tackle box he’d brought with him. It contained a multitude of miniaturized medical equipment, enough to provide a small hospital. It was too bad the technology couldn’t be used by anyone else, Steve thought. Hank’s trick would allow this type of equipment to be taken anywhere, deep into third world countries. It would be a kind of miracle.
The kind he was hoping for now. Hank was fitting an oxygen mask over Tony’s face, which was drawn tight with pain even though he wasn’t aware. Feeling as if he were taking liberties, Steve slid his hands and stroked across cool cheeks. He wanted to smooth out those wrinkles, ease the pain from the pale skin.
He ran a finger from the bridge of Tony’s nose to his hairline, over and over slowly, and it calmed Steve, probably more than it did his friend.
There was something pleasant amidst in all the pain. Tony could barely register it but… was someone touching him? Touching his face? He sighed, and wished he could snuggle into it.
He scarcely remembered the last time he’d been touched like this, with simple kindness. His mother stopped cuddling him long before her death, and his father…the less said the better. He’d never hit Tony, exactly, but he’d always been rough with him. Expected too much, mentally and physically. Emotionally. Anthony Edward Stark didn’t need coddling and hugs, he needed to push himself in math and physics when, maybe… there had been times he’d actually needed a lap or a hug and a story more.
He didn’t think about it often these days, since he never lacked for physical comfort when he wanted it. Women were lovely and sometimes soft and always warm and they smelled good. Sex was as much of an athletic activity as it was a comfort, though there was seldom any kindness to it. People always expected things before during and after so, though it was nice… little actual caring was given or received.
This tender touch undid him and he just wished he could open his eyes.
“He’ll be here as soon as he can,” Hank said, leaning over the bed and checking Tony’s pulse again. He was hooked to a heart monitor, the beeping quiet and irregular. Time and again Steve found himself holding his breath for the seconds between beats, afraid the next one wouldn’t come.
“I’ve given him a stimulant and steroids to make breathing easier. I tried to call Reed, but nobody’s answering.”
Hank stepped back and laid a hand on Steve’s shoulder.
“We’ll figure this out. He’ll get better.”
He could hardly get worse, Steve thought, but he knew that wasn’t really true. He remembered Tony before the artificial heart, before the transplant. He suspected he was lucky that he hadn’t seen him right before Extremis – Tony had been dying, beaten to a pulp within the armor.
Steve had seen that often enough. He never needed to see it again.
“Tony,” he leaned close to whisper. “Tony, wake up. I need to see your eyes.”
As his friend lay there and didn't respond, Steve wondered if this wasn't worse. Not knowing what was wrong, not knowing how to fight it.
Only able to sit here and hold Tony and pray that something could be done.
There was a voice, whispering in his brain. Familiar, loved. The pain seemed to be growing; his head felt like it was going to explode. Tony clung to that voice, tried to follow it back into the light.
“Someday you’re going to have to tell me about that time in Tokyo. Reed won’t talk about it, and Richards isn’t embarrassed by anything. I mean, the man has some kind of personality disorder or something, he’s so unaware of social mores. So if Reed won’t talk about it, it must have been spectacular. I know you were wearing a dress when they picked you up and I’ve never really wanted to ask, but I hate the thought that now I might never know.”
There was a rough chuckle and Tony recognized the voice. Steve’s voice, rough, as if he’d been talking for hours. Those fingers, strong and warm, continued to pet his face, and Tony sighed. This time he felt it, almost relief, though it lasted a scant second. Steve had stopped talking.
Tony wanted to say something. He opened his mouth. His lips were cracked, so dry. Fingers touched them.
“Tony? Are you in there?”
Yes, Tony want to say desperately. His eyes burned as he slit them open.
Yes, Steve, I hear you.
“I’m here, Tony. We’re taking care of you.”
But you shouldn’t have to.
Steve had almost dozed off. Hank was in an armchair McCoy had carried in from the living room and Henry was at the desk in the corner, which was now covered in paperwork and computer equipment. It was good that it was a large desk, but Steve wasn’t sure how Tony would feel about the antique leather getting smushed. Which was silly because Tony didn’t really worry about those things, even when Steve thought he should. If it didn’t have an engine, Tony wasn’t fussed.
He hadn’t meant to rest but the days of worry, and the stress of the past hours, had added up. The bed was comfortable, now that it was remade, fresh and clean. Tony was a warm weight beside him. If the circumstances hadn’t been so dire, it could have been any night they’d fallen asleep in close proximity to one another, watching television or just talking. There had always been this comfort level between them physically.
Beast was mumbling to himself, the sound almost soothing, with the rhythm and cadence of grumbled song. Steve had one hand out, resting lightly on Tony’s chest just to assure himself that Tony was breathing, that his heart was beating.
And then it wasn’t.
For a couple of seconds Steve, almost asleep, didn’t realize. Then he jumped up, grabbing Tony’s shoulders, shaking him.
“His heart’s stopped!” he shouted, climbing onto the bed, both hands on Tony’s chest. He yanked the covers down. “He’s not breathing!”
The monitor blared a shrill alarm. Hank was on the bed, too, on the other side, his hands fumbling with an IV line and then Beast was there, hands swift and sure with a syringe as Steve tilted Tony’s head back and began CPR.
“God dammit, Tony,” he panted, “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare do this!”
Beast was watching the monitor, Tony’s wrist in one massive hand. “Thirty seconds,” he said, his voice steady and low. Steve bit back another curse and continued the breathing as Hank counted out the beats. As he compressed Tony’s chest, Steve found himself hoping that it hurt, that the pain would wake Tony from wherever he had gone.
“One, two, three, four, five, breathe.”
Steve felt Tony’s chest rise as he pushed air into his friend’s lungs, and
Hank was still counting.
“One, two, three, four, five, breathe.”
“One minute.” Beast sounded so calm, confident. How could he sound like that? “Should I get the defibrillator?”
“Not yet.” Hank gasped. This was hard work. “We don’t know how it’s going to react with Extremis.”
Hank was the closest thing they had to an Extremis expert and Beast was the medical. Together they would save Tony. Steve had to believe that.
“Tony!” Beast leaned in close to Steve and shouted. It was very loud. “Mr. Stark! Iron Man! We need you to come back now!”
“One, two, three, four – I’ve got something!” Hank shouted as the monitor beeped timidly. The sound grew stronger and he leaned back, taking deep breaths, but Steve continued breathing into Tony’s lungs, providing him with oxygen, until he felt Tony’s lips move under his own. They were softer than they had been, treated with lip balm, warm. Steve held his position seconds longer, not really aware he’d stopped the breathing and was now kissing his friend but then he pulled away, both hands going to grab one of Tony’s.
Blue eyes fluttered open, barely visible, and then closed again. But Tony was breathing, and his heart was beating, and Steve thought that maybe he could have a heart attack now.
“Well,” Beast rumbled. “That was exciting.”
“I think we need to move him.”
Steve half sat from his position on the bed. He’d hardly moved in the last twelve hours, unwilling to leave Tony. He was afraid that his friend was aware, somewhere inside his head, of the pain Hank and McCoy couldn’t seem to stop.
“We can’t treat him properly here,” McCoy said, coming closer to the bed. He looked as ragged as Steve felt. “He needs to be in a hospital.”
“No,” Hank said firmly. “He can’t. Right now we don’t know what Extremis might do – it could turn off all life support, and we’d never know it till it was too late.
“No, you’re right,” Steve agreed. He didn’t know what else could be done in a hospital that these weren’t already doing.
“He’s stable now,” McCoy added. He was sagging against the wall across from the bed, obviously as worn out as Hank. In his X-Men uniform, he’d come directly from some sort of battle, almost two days ago. It was hard to believe they’d been in this room so long. “But we can’t predict how long this will last, or what will happen next. His heart’s failed twice in the last day. He’ll need to be constantly monitored.”
“We can do that,” Hank said, “At the Tower. We can hire people to come in if we need to.”
“We have excellent facilities at the Mansion as well,” Henry offered quietly.
“No.” Steve reached automatically for Tony, hands touching his neck, checking his pulse, temperature. Tony’s chest rose and fell evenly now. “He won’t want strangers to see him this way. We can take care of him. The Avengers take care of their own.”
“As do X-Men,” added McCoy. “Will you allow me to arrange transportation? I do believe we have more experience with clandestine medical care than your organization.”
“Yes,” Steve said, almost smiling. Listening to McCoy sometimes sounded like talking to a friendly encyclopedia. “Thank you.”
“I’ll call the others and warn them,” Hank said tiredly. “Jan’s going to kick my ass for not telling her sooner.”
“I’ll protect you, my friend,” McCoy said gallantly. They left the bedroom together.
Steve lay down on the bed again, close to Tony, just touching him. He didn’t want Tony to feel alone or abandoned. He wasn’t sure why, but that felt terribly important.
“Please wake up, Tony,” he said for the thousandth time. “I need you to wake up.”