It says something about Fury’s complete faith in Coulson when he assigns him as ‘handler’ of the newly formed Avengers team. That, or he secretly despises Coulson and wants him to retire early because this was not in his job description. Dealing with Tony Stark alone shouldn’t have been one of his duties. But somehow, someway, Coulson finds himself dragged into the Avengers Tower two weeks after his release from medical, given his own floor, and then told promptly that he is never to ask for a reassignment because, according to Fury, ‘I’m not dealing with this shit.’
The team comes together like jigsaw pieces from six different puzzles, superglue waiting in the wings and frustrated hands mashing them together. Clint has commandeered the kitchen as his own personal domain, and if it wasn’t for Stark constantly upgrading his tech and giving random appliances sentience, Clint would be a happy Hawkeye. As it is, Coulson has to file a report as to why a blender was thrown out the top floor window and managed to rip half of Clint’s hair out before its subsequent demise.
Natasha and Bruce get along surprisingly well, but not as well as Tony and Bruce. That mixture goes the opposite of what Coulson initially thought, Stark’s personality actually overpowering and calming the usually nervous Banner. But it’s the relationship between Stark and the Hulk that surprises most of the team. The first time Banner loses it, Tony just walks right up to him, pats him on the arm and says, “The sunset is awesome tonight, big guy, you’ll love it,” and leads the Hulk out onto the terrace. The team watches as Tony sits on the edge, the Hulk hunkering down behind him and the two actually watch the sun set. There was no rampage. There was no breaking of space. It was the calmest the Hulk has ever been.
Natasha’s relationship with the team varies depending on the Avenger. With Clint, it usually devolves into him whining and trying to convince her that exploding cookie arrows are a good idea, Nat, don’t you see the possibilities? while she yanks him out of his nest in the kitchen. With Bruce, they can be found on the couch every Tuesday night, his head in her lap and her fingers on his temples, Natasha telling him stories in soft Russian. With Steve, they spar every Monday and Thursday, and Steve actually has to fight to get her down, is laughing by the end of it, brightness in his eyes and tremors along his arms. With Tony, though, Tony reacts to her like she’s about to steal his kidney at any second, and damned if she doesn’t try to steal both. He has a grudging respect for her and she him, but it’s shown through how many times he can cannibalize her straightener and how often she replaces his caffeine with decaf.
And then there is Thor. He is everyone’s favourite. And it’s not just because the man can drink Tony Stark under the table, it’s because he actually is that alarmingly good. He is constantly baffled by Midgardian notions, believes the toasters inability to toast Poptarts with maximum efficiency a fault of his own, and calls everyone by their full first names no matter how many times Clint has to remind him that Clinton is not an acceptable spy name. He is Thor Odinson and really, no one should be surprised.
There is a special file for Steve Rogers that Coulson refuses to talk about because no, he still hasn’t quite gotten over the fact that Nick Fury smeared his blood all over his prized collection of vintage trading cards. But in the other file, it states simply this: Steve Rogers is surprisingly normal for a supersoldier. He falls asleep on the couch and sometimes changes the channel on Thor when he’s playing Mario Kart, he argues with Tony whenever a new appliance defects to the side of the sentient toaster, he steals cookies when Clint makes them, and he swears like a sailor when he stubs his toe against the coffee table for the fifteenth time. He’s still Captain America when they go out on a mission, but he’s Steve when he returns, hiding Tony’s boozes and tucking Bruce into bed when he ends up falling asleep in his lab.
Tony Stark? Well. He’s Tony Stark.
The one thing Coulson has never quite understood is where he gained the title of Supernanny. The senior agents whisper it whenever the team is sent out, Coulson barking out orders into the headset and yanking away the new prototype arrows Tony slips Clint just before they board the Quinjet. The younger agents start muttering it when he watches Tony fall from the sky and yells for someone, anyone, to catch him, and Hulk grabs him light around the waist and Coulson breathes out a prayer because that had been far too close. Fury calls him it when Steve walks up to him and asks him why Tony’s ringtone is now ‘Call Me Maybe’ and he can’t change it back to ‘Back in Black’ because Tony put some stupid code around it that Steve hasn’t figured out how to hack yet.
It doesn’t hit him until after they fight a villain by the incredibly cliché name of Chemistro, who douses the team in a strange blue powder that does nothing but make Clint incredibly itchy for five seconds. Iron Man blasts him into a wall to knock him out, Cap watches the SHIELD agents contain him and lock him up in the back of a van, and Clint rants about how he already had to veto the purple costume and now he’s goddamn blue. Natasha scrubs at her hair and a thin layer of blue dusts out onto her shoulders. She blinks down at it.
And then Thor sneezes.
It’s so startling that the entire team jumps, including Thor, who presses a large hand against his nose in surprise. He sneezes again, the booming of it shaking the foundations, and Coulson takes a step back. He lifts his radio and asks for quarantine, all the while keeping safely away from the strange blue substance that still circles the Avengers. “We’ll head back and get you looked at by SHIELD medical, Thor.”
“Thank you, Son of Coul,” Thor says, bright smile quickly hidden as he sneezes again. He stares down at the ground in shock before clapping his hands over his nose as he sneezes, three more times in quick succession. Tony flexes his hands.
“I’m seeing strange radiation signatures here, Phil. Whatever Chemistro doused us with is probably going to contaminate whatever it touches,” Tony says. His voice is blandly mechanic but Coulson narrows his eyes anyway.
Natasha curls her arms around her stomach in surprise, her face leeching colour. “When is the contamination unit getting here?”
“Hold on, five minutes tops,” Coulson says, turning away to bark into his radio. He wanted that medical contamination team five minutes ago where are they he will file paperwork that will have them digging up files that don’t exist for the rest of their lives, do they understand? The unit arrives two minutes later and sets up a perimeter. Captain America has thrown back his cowl, blinking at the blue shimmers along his costume. There’s a high flush on his cheeks, but it keeps dissipating as fast as it arrives. Hulk has reverted to Bruce who is shivering in the corner, and Clint can’t seem to find his balance whatsoever, crashing into Natasha with every step.
The medical team bundles the Avengers up in a clear plastic contamination area, solidifying the ground beneath before attaching it to a Quinjet to return them to the Helicarrier. Coulson demands he pilot the plane and the agent doesn’t argue, just hands over the reins. He can hear Natasha curled over coughing and Bruce softly complaining that he feels like he’s on fire and Clint can’t stand straight let alone walk and Steve is breathing hard and Thor sneezes like its being punched out of him and Tony doesn’t make a sound.
That should worry him but he focuses on the getting them back to the Helicarrier before Natasha starts coughing up blood or Bruce turns delirious.
The medbay tells Couslon that Chemistro somehow created a mutated virus baby of the rhinovirus and influenza, which is able to bypass the immune system of people such as Steve Rogers and Thor. It would activate once inhaled, creating parallels of the common cold and the flu, and could only be cured like all colds and flus: with sleep, soup, and plenty of cold drugs. Oh, and no Avenging. When Coulson is told that the contamination factor of the new strain is contained, that he will no longer be susceptible to possible infection, he enters the Avengers room.
Clint is curled against Natasha, suffering from an inner ear infection and holding a bucket close to his face. Natasha has her arms tucked around her stomach, her lips firmly closed as a cough builds and builds in her throat until she’s bent over, coughing like she’s trying to turn herself inside out. Thor’s nose is rubbed raw and running and his sneezes shake the curtains every time he lets one loose. Steve’s body can’t decide on a symptom, cracking through them faster than his immune system can keep up. Bruce is shivering under five piles of blankets and then he’s fighting them all off as his skin adapts an unhealthy sheen of sweat.
Tony is in the corner, still in his Iron Man armour and watching his fellow teammates behind an impassive mask of metal. There are thick streams of blue marring the red armour, but Coulson knows that the contamination factor from the blue dust has been neutralized. He frowns at Tony and grabs the clipboard in front of Steve, who is rubbing aggravated hands over his face.
“We’re all fucking sick,” Clint grits out. Natasha pats him on the head and he groans against his bin. Coulson flips through the report, noting the symptoms that each Avenger is showing and the subsequent time of recovery. Stark isn’t on the list.
“Filtration system,” Tony says, tapping the side of his helmet. “The blue glitterdust infected all of them because they aren’t wearing tech. Me on the other hand? Awesome as always.”
Coulson eyes him. “And you’re not taking off the suit now because?”
Tony gestures to the swirls of blue still clinging to the suit like a second skin. It still sets Coulson on edge. “I can’t take off the suit until I’m in a contained area. I want to wash this all off before I even try to get out of it.”
“You’re excused,” Coulson says. Tony nods at him and clunks by, skirting around Coulson and flicking a hand in farewell to the other Avengers. Steve raises his in return before clapping a hand over his nose, hiccupping as he sneezes into his palm. When he peers up at Coulson, he looks so desperately unhappy that Coulson has to pinch the bridge of his nose.
“Okay, well, the notes state that the worst effects of this virus have been contained, so it’s just bed rest and bed rest only. We’ll head back to the Tower as soon as we sedate Clint and all of you are able to walk without falling over.”
“That might take a while,” Bruce says, his voice scratchy. He’s back to being buried under his blankets. “For the record, the other guy is not enjoying this. So, if suddenly there’s a fevered Hulk wandering around? Might be best to have Tony on hand.”
“Understood. Do you want to be sedated?” Coulson asks. Bruce gives him a weary nod and Coulson calls for the doctor.
Between four agents, they are able to get the Avengers on board a Quinjet and flying back to the Tower. Clint is out cold on Natasha’s lap and Steve has shamelessly curled up beside her, a fever overtaking him this time. Bruce is a bundled mass in the center of the plane with Thor flopped out beside him, a box of tissue clutched in his left hand and a bin full of used tissue beside him. Coulson tries his best to keep the plane level, but the sound of Natasha retching makes him grit his teeth.
“Goddamn supervillians,” Coulson mutters, lowering the plane. Clint jerks awake when they touch down, his body curling momentarily before he’s scrambling for Thor’s bin and dry heaving into it. His co-pilot winces as Natasha coughs until she’s wheezing and Steve has somehow managed to gain his footing long enough to pick up Clint and carry him out of the Quinjet. Bruce doesn’t move as Thor shakily picks him up and Natasha leans heavily against the Asgardian as she leads them both into the inner sanctum of the Tower. Coulson breathes out and puts down his headset, following at a clipped pace. The other agents follow him out, carrying bags upon bags of medical supplies and chicken noodle soup packets.
The Avengers collapse in the living room, Clint having dumped all of Thor’s tissues on the floor so he can heave in peace, thank you, and Natasha has settled on the couch with Steve up against her again, shivering as though he’s back in the ice. Natasha blinks blearily up at Coulson as he comes to stand behind the couch and Thor has made Bruce a nice nest in the middle of the floor. Bruce mutters and rolls around a bit before comfortably settling with a sigh. Thor unhooks Mjölnir from his belt and flops on the ground, groaning as his nose immediately plugs. Coulson sighs.
“I know you want nothing more than to collapse where you are right now, but each of you should be sleeping in your own rooms. Can you make it that far?” Coulson asks. Agents come out of the kitchen carrying glasses of water and bright neon pills, handing each Avenger a glass and their dose of medicine. Steve swallows them down and grimaces.
“If it’s all the same to you, Phil, we’d much rather just stay here,” Steve says, tucking his face into Natasha’s neck. She pats his hair and touches his forehead, pursing her lips in displeasure.
“Clint can’t move,” Natasha says, and her voice is so raspy that Coulson doesn’t recognize her for a moment. She tries to clear her throat. “Bruce is sedated for another four hours, Thor has already passed out, and all I need is a blanket and maybe a pillow and we can all settle here. Call Tony. He should be back and out of the lab by now.”
“Jarvis,” Coulson says. The AI whirs online and makes a curious noise. “Is Stark back in the building?”
“Sir is currently decontaminating his armour,” Jarvis says slowly and that makes the hairs on the back of Coulson’s neck stand up. Jarvis seems distracted. Jarvis is never distracted. “I will inform him that you require his presence.”
He looks back down and Steve has fallen from Natasha’s shoulder to her left thigh, shivering in displeasure and wrinkling his brow every time Natasha curls over him to cough. Clint has commandeered her other thigh, glaring up at the ceiling as though it has personally wronged him. Coulson reaches down and cards his fingers through Clint’s hair momentarily before straightening. “I’ll find some blankets. Everyone get some rest.”
“Shouldn’t be difficult,” Natasha grits out and curls her fingers against Steve and Clint’s hair. Clint pushes up against her and Steve moves closer. She smiles wearily. “We won’t be going anywhere. Just get those blankets, please.”
By the time Coulson locates enough blankets and pillows to tide over the Avengers, Tony has rejoined the group. He has a towel wrapped around his neck and his cheeks are high in colour. He’s always been pale, his eyes have always been sunken just that tad too much, but something seems off in his stance. It could just be from the armour use but Coulson has his suspicions. He’s distracted when Natasha starts coughing again, disturbing both Steve and Clint.
“Blankets,” Coulson says and Tony looks over at him. He helps Coulson spread them out over the Avengers, tucking blankets under chins and settling heads on pillows. Thor rolls onto his side and cuddles Mjölnir. Steve smiles up at Tony when he tucks him in, pressing a light kiss to his forehead. Steve’s eyes close, his fever still burning bright through him. Natasha waves off Coulson’s attempt to get her to lie down, tightening her hold on the two men sprawled against her lap.
“Jarvis, lights to twelve percent,” Tony calls. Immediately, darkness descends and Clint lets out a groan of relief.
“Stark, I love you.”
“Not in front of the others, Barton.”
Coulson tucks the last of the blankets around Bruce, who shifts and tries to kick them off again. Sighing, he fights for a few moments until Bruce is safely trapped inside a cocoon of warmth, sweat slick on his brow. Coulson stands.
“We’ll need cool cloths and another dose of medicine in four hours,” Coulson says. The other agents nod and move to do just that. Coulson stands and brushes off his pants. “Stark, since you’re the only Avenger not affected, you’ll be on call for disaster watch. You can handle that?”
Coulson watches as Tony swallows hard, before giving Coulson a winning smile. “Don’t I always?”
Definitely off. “Tell me if you start feeling any symptoms. Chemistro may have created a strain that can bypass even your technological filtration.”
“Doubt it, but all hail the Supernanny,” Tony says, giving a short salute. Coulson opens his mouth to retort but Jarvis clicks online.
“Sir, your presence in the lab is required. Your progn –”
Tony cuts him off. “Yeah, yeah, coming back don’t worry. Call me if the villains decide to be dicks tonight and wreck the city.”
And with that he heads back to the lab. Coulson watches him leave, noting the slight wobbling of his steps and the tired sag of his shoulders. Again, it could be the armours’ effects, but there’s something wrong with the way Tony has to push off the wall to get back on track. Coulson mulls over calling him back, demanding he sit down and sleep with the other Avengers. The agents return with wet cloths and Coulson directs them to each Avenger, taking his own and kneeling down beside Clint.
“He’s lying, you know,” Clint says.
The cloth is shockingly cold in Coulson’s hand as he arranges it over Clint’s eyes. “Who?”
“Tony. He’s just too stubborn to admit it,” Clint explains. He catches Coulson’s wrist and holds on while the cold leeches the warmth from his skin. “Keep an eye on him. He’ll dodge.”
“I’m sure he’ll be just as whiny as the rest of you if he gets sick. Right now, I’ll have to take him at his word.” Coulson leans forward and passes his lips over Clint’s forehead. “Get some rest. I’ll check on you in an hour.”
The other agents have taken over the kitchen. Different cold drugs clutter the island in the middle, packages of chicken noodle soup and crackers are slowly encroaching upon Toaster Territory, and one agent is in a serious argument with the coffee machine that refuses to allow Folgers anywhere near its filters. Coulson rubs at his temples before taking over, sorting out the medicines for each Avenger and writing up a schedule that will allow each agent to help him with maximum efficiency. He also jots down a note saying that when Bruce Hulks out, Tony is to be called immediately. He then shoos them out, sending them down a level to the personal R&D quarters to find rooms to crash in. It’s going to be a long night.
Four hours pass without incident, each Avenger curled up in their own pocket of warmth, racking coughs and thunderous sneezes aside. Coulson asks for regular updates from Jarvis, both on the Avengers in the living room and the elusive one hiding in his lab. Jarvis is unusually hesitant which just increases Coulson’s worry, but it just hit the four hour mark and he needs to figure out how best to medicate his team. Holding a tray of medicine as he reenters the living room, Coulson wonders if the charts were telling the truth and that this will only last a week. If not, he’s going to be far too busy.
Clint’s eyes snap open the minute Coulson sets the tray down, groaning at the damp cloth settled under his cheek. He scrubs at his eyes and then squeezes them shut tight. “I hate this.”
“I know. Here.” Coulson reaches out and pops three pills into Clint’s mouth, feeding him water from a straw to stop the vertigo from inciting nausea. Natasha rouses as Clint readjusts on her thigh, wincing from more than coughing.
“My legs are asleep. It’s an unpleasant experience,” she whispers. Clint backs up until his head thumps against the couch cushions, allowing her to stretch her leg out. Coulson hands her the pill cup and she downs the two bright pills before drinking the entire cup. Steve blinks awake at the movement and sits up.
“I actually feel better,” he starts, before grabbing for Thor’s bin and retching. Coulson removes Steve’s pill cup and thinks of which ones to grab now that the symptoms have migrated again.
Thor is difficult to rouse, but once he’s up, the sneezing begins in earnest. It takes careful timing on Coulson’s part to get the pills and water down at the same time, and Thor looks miserable afterwards, his hair a mess around his head and his eyes watering from the force of his sneezing. He clutches Mjölnir to his chest and looks at Coulson imploringly.
“Midgardian sicknesses are a terrible thing,” he says. “How you humans withstand such assaults on the body are beyond me.”
“Well, now you can say you’ve officially experienced everything,” Clint offers.
“Nay! I have not experienced the wonder of the hotdog stand on Fifth Avenue that Anthony enthuses about! Nor the waterpark that Steven laments over,” Thor says in earnest, sneezing heavily as he finishes. “I wish this sickness begone! How do you fight such a microscopic foe?”
“With little pills, rest, and soup,” Coulson answers. Bruce is twitching under his blankets and Coulson speaks up. “Jarvis. We could use Tony up here as fast as possible. Bruce might be at the end of his rope.”
“Understood, Agent Coulson,” Jarvis replies. Sure enough the blankets shift and grow, a distressed growl thundering out from beneath. A green arm shoots out and slams against the ground and Coulson scrambles backwards as the Hulk sits up, the blankets falling off of him. His green skin is paler than normal, deeper shades biting at his cheeks. The Hulk throws back his head and bellows.
Footsteps catch in the hallway and Tony appears, leaning heavy against the far wall as he catches his breath. His shirt is dark with sweat and his skin is definitely more pallid than it was when Coulson saw him four hours ago. He straightens and walks into the room, calling out, “Hey, big guy, come here.”
The Hulk beats his palms against his face, snarling in fury at whatever ailment assaults him. He beats at his throat, at his ears, at his forehead, chest and stomach. He stands up and slaps his arms against the floor again and Clint curls into a ball, hands pressed over his eyes. Tony calls for him again, grabbing Hulk’s attention for a moment before the Hulk gets distracted. The Hulk sways back and forth, eyes going bleary and out of focus before sharpening in anger and unfamiliarity. He raises an arm to slam down and Tony calls for him one last time. The Hulk seems to register, blinking over at Tony’s smaller form, and he shuffles over to Tony, a strangely vulnerable hiss escaping him as he crouches down beside him.
“Yeah, I know it sucks, doesn’t it? Did Bruce explain? Well, regardless, you’re sick, buddy. It’s gonna suck for a little while, but Phil is keeping an eye on you, okay?” Tony explains, patting Hulk’s arm. The Hulk reaches out and pokes a large finger against Tony’s chest, eyes narrowed.
Tony laughs, tight and shrill. “I won’t, buddy, promise. You okay now? You settling?”
Hulk bares his teeth. “Stay.”
“All right, okay, I can do that,” Tony says, making his way over to the couch. Hulk follows, grabbing up the blankets and settling behind the couch. Steve blinks miserably at Tony as he hugs the metal bin to his chest and Tony takes the space beside him, passing a hand over his forehead. “How you feeling, Cap?”
“I’ve never hated the serum more,” Steve groans, ducking his head to throw up again. Tony winces. Coulson passes a small cup of pills to Tony.
“I know it will do little to assuage the pain, but see if you can get him to take these,” Coulson explains. Tony nods, his eyes wide and glassy. Coulson wants to ask. Instead, he says, “I’ll put something on to distract him.”
Tony turns, settling on his knees as he reaches up. “All right, you need to take these, big guy. I know they seem tiny and useless and look, you don’t even need water to swallow them.” Tony gestures and the Hulk glares down at him, reaching out to drape his arms over the couch until his fingers touch the ground opposite. He settles his chin on the top of the couch and blows air at Tony. Tony bats at him. “We’ll put on your favourite movie if you eat them. Don’t chew, just swallow.”
The Hulk grumbles at him but does as Tony asks, opening his mouth so Tony can place the pills inside. He swallows without argument and when Tony sits back down again, the Hulk shifts into a more comfortable position, Tony’s hair brushing against his face. Tony grins and shakes his head, patting Hulk’s arm. Steve leans against the Hulk’s other arm, the bin still clutched in his grasp.
Coulson comes back after picking a movie and the screen flickers to life in front of them. Clint rolls over until his face is pressed against the back of the couch and Natasha reaches down, dragging him onto her lap again, his face buried against her stomach. She strokes along his neck and down over his shoulders, coughs shaking her own shoulders with each pass. Coulson settles back against the side of the couch, his hand catching on Clint’s calf and Thor crawls until he’s pressed against the couch, Natasha’s legs on either side of his shoulders. Overall, they look a miserable bunch and Coulson rubs a hand along Clint’s leg in sympathy as an explosion lights the room from the television.
Halfway through the movie, Hulk has fallen asleep again, one big hand wrapped lazily around Tony’s chest, keeping him pinned. Steve is tucked in the cradle of Hulk’s other arm, fast asleep with his metal bin still in his grasp. Clint and Thor have both clocked out and Natasha as well, her head arched back against the couch at an awkward angle but her eyes closed and her breathing even. Coulson contemplates putting his own head down for a nap himself, weary from too much adrenaline and taking care of five sick Avengers. It’s then that Coulson’s phone beeps, clattering erratically against his hip. Tony blinks at him from behind the cage of Hulk’s grasp as Coulson flips it open.
“Are the Avengers still out of commission?” Hill asks, her voice sharp. Coulson rubs the bridge of his nose.
“If I say yes, will you tell me that it’s not a supervillain trying to take over New York but a simple band of bank robbers that SHIELD has no issue taking care of and that the NYPD should actually be taking care of?” Coulson asks. Hill huffs a laugh.
“Sorry, Coulson, not your night. None of them are ready?” She sounds desperate. Coulson shoots a look at Tony, gauging his health. Tony carefully eases out of the Hulk’s grip, putting a pillow in his place. The Hulk grumbles and tucks the pillow close, but stays asleep.
“Give me five,” Tony says, and his voice has a crack in it, just barely audible, but it makes Coulson want to bench him. Hill says, “Is that Stark? If it is, I’ll take him. We can’t handle this on our own.”
Coulson swears under his breath and nods at Tony, who takes off for his lab. Coulson stands, shaky for a moment before gaining momentum, striding into the kitchen to grab his tie and his jacket. “Give me a status report.”
“We have three unidentified men trying to take over a local Power Plant in the eastern block. When our agents approached, they were beaten back by an invisible force and were unable to make any progress after. We can’t get close enough to ascertain what they’re hoping to accomplish, but we need someone a lot more powerful than us to gauge it,” Hill explains. “I realize that Chemistro did a number on your team, but we need you. The coordinates have been sent to your phone and to Stark. Hill out.”
Coulson clicks off the phone and says, “Jarvis, wake up agents Lee and Dunham. Tell them that under no circumstances are they to wake up the Hulk, and if the Hulk does awaken, please patch through a distress call to Stark. I’m sure he’ll be fine after Stark calmed him down the first time, but I don’t want a repeat with the Avengers as ill as they are.” Coulson grabs his watch and his keys, taking the steps down to the Quinjet. “Can you give me an update on Stark’s vitals?”
“Agents Lee and Dunham have been notified of the change in plans, sir. I will be monitoring the Hulk’s wave frequencies and will inform the agents before he becomes volatile.” Jarvis hesitates. “Sir will be able to withstand the effects of the individuals you are being sent to dispatch. I will monitor for health concerns and inform you should they become critical.”
“That wasn’t what I asked for, Jarvis,” Coulson says, hooking on his comm link and boarding the Quinjet. “Have Stark meet me at the location designated. Take over if you have to, understood?”
Coulson starts up the jet, worry gnawing a hole in the back of his mind. He lifts off and follows Hill’s directions, the Power Plant coming into view. Tony levels out beside him, a streak of gold and red in the darkness, and lands beside the jet when Coulson grounds her. Three agents greet Coulson as he takes in the scene. Tony lands beside him, his arms crossing as he faces the plant.
“Report,” Coulson says.
One agent salutes and responds, “Three unknown powered individuals entered the plant approximately an hour ago, sir. They dispatched the guards and triggered the SHIELD alarm when they tried to hack the mainframe. SHIELD officials dropped in and were pushed away by an unknown force, and have been kept at bay ever since. We cannot discern who the individuals are or what they’re intentions may be but they’re extremely hostile.”
Nodding, Coulson turns to Tony. “Report.”
“Strange field of energy around the perimeter,” Tony says. “There are discrepancies in the wave patterns of the shield, and if I time it right I can easily bypass whatever barrier they’ve created. It’s not biological, by the way. It’s technological.”
“Can we scramble it?”
Tony says nothing for a long moment and Coulson frowns at him. Tony says, “If you want me out of commission too, go for it. Otherwise, I’m going in alone.”
“That solution isn’t satisfactory.”
“That solution is your only ticket in and out, Phil,” Tony says. There’s a wet note to Tony’s voice, something discernibly off. Tony uncurls his arms and nods. “All right, heading in. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the comm link open.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s just some overpowered idiots getting ideas. I’ll disarm the force field they have set up and then you can come right in after me. All right?” Tony says. He flies off before Coulson can tell him off, can get him to shut down the armour and let medical take a look at him. He flicks on his comm link and watches as Tony approaches the force field.
He hovers just above the ground for a moment, and he isn’t still, isn’t his normal battle wary. The repulsors flicker out and Tony readjusts himself, and Coulson wants to yank him away, pull him back, but then he darts inside the invisible barrier. Nothing stops him and he crackles in Coulson’s ear. “All good on my side. Heading inside.”
“Tell me if you start feeling off,” Coulson says. Tony huffs in his ear but the Iron Man armour nods before flying into the darkened Power Plant. Coulson brings up surveillance off the side, edging as close as he can before he feels the effects of the force field. Lights flicker up and on in the plant, screams pierce the silence like thumbtacks, and Coulson sucks in a breath and waits for a report. He steps forward and there’s no resistance and lights flicker in the plant, flick-flick-flickflickflick and there’s the distinct sound of metal slamming against metal and Coulson runs. Agents fan out behind him as he goes, as he ducks to the side of the door before peering around the side. The lights have stopped flickering and an eerie silence permeates the air.
There’s a flash of movement from within and Coulson raises a hand, jabs out two fingers and drives back his thumb. The agents disperse and he moves through the shadows like mist, catching them as they run and keeping them under his own. His gun is steady and his comm link is silent. His eyes are sharp, tension coiling in his fingers and waiting eagerly to release that bullet, to have a reason to take someone down tonight. There’s another flash of movement but Coulson barely notices it, lets the shadows curl over his shoes and pour over his legs.
Voices vibrate along the air and he moves toward them, steps muffled by darkness. There are three doors ahead of him, one that leads to another and a third one off to the side, the door partially blown away by what looks like a repulsor blast. He edges toward it, keeps his gun cocked, and when nothing pops out, he lets the silence envelope it, moving away.
There’s a sudden crackle, angry as hornets in his ear, and he has to push further into the shadows to answer it. “Agent Coulson,” Jarvis says, and his voice is static overlaid with panic. “Agent Coulson, please, sir is down.”
“Report,” Coulson whispers, letting his words disappear into the air, disturbing nothing.
“Sir has been injecting himself with antibiotics since returning to the Tower,” Jarvis explains. “The suit nullified the worst of the symptoms, but sir has never been known to allow others to witness his weakness. Sir asked me to monitor his vitals, and were they to go critical, I was asked to shut down everything except the air filtration device in the suit, to retain his vitals to a point where he would survive until medical attention could be acquired. His fever reached a point where that became a priority. However –” The static gets so bad here that Coulson can’t hear a thing but doesn’t move from his hiding place, the voices still bright enough in the air to caution him. “ – underground and I fear that the filtration systems were damaged.”
There’s a cold certainty in Coulson’s mind, a strange disconnect that makes him recheck the clip in his gun. Someone may die tonight, and it will not be Tony Stark. “Pinpoint me a location.”
“A distress beacon has been deployed.”
Coulson moves, the shadows eager hellhounds on his heels. He steals through the first door and slips easy into the second one, and there, before him, are three individuals, hovering around a massive hole in the floor. Their voices are shrill, shaking apart the air and giving Coulson the cover he needs to shoot the first one down.
He doesn’t bother voicing his intentions and doesn’t watch the first one fall. He’s onto the second, a bullet in the shoulder and another in the hip, the third gets a nicked side and a knee wound that won’t heal. He steps forward, footsteps bleeding black, and when the trio rolls over in pain, it’s Coulson that is their Angel of Death.
“What did you do to him,” Coulson says. One of the hostiles is just a young teenager, bright streaks of purple in his hair and a line of electricity digging in his eyes. Coulson levels the gun at his forehead and the static burns away into dull brown. “I don’t repeat. Report.”
“We didn’ do anything,” the teen gasps, hands digging blood into his shoulder. “We didn’, we swear, I swear, don’ please please don’.”
Coulson fires and the bullet lands an inch from the kids ear. The kid squeaks out a scream, tears bubbling down his cheeks and into the dirt under him. “You came here with a purpose. There will be agents filing into this room shortly to inquire as to the why. However, my information is of a more sensitive nature. Where is Iron Man.”
“He fell,” the kid manages. “He fell when Shrub hit him with a part of the wall. He didn’ – he wobbled in the air and he said something and he went down, we didn’ think Iron Man would be that easy – but then he hit the floor and it crumbled under him and he went down and we didn’ know what to do, it wasn’ us I swear, please.”
“Thank you for your cooperation,” Coulson says and steps around him, crouching down beside the edge of the hole. It descends into nothingness below but there’s a short burst of light every three seconds that Coulson recognizes as Jarvis’ distress beacon. He looks back at the individuals, at the way the one teen cowers away from him, ignoring the shattered knee to crawl toward the door. His agents burst into the room, the shadows scattering amongst their feet, and the kid wails for mercy. Coulson stands.
“Agent,” he barks, grabbing the first agent he can. “Get me a stable line of rope and a medical team, now, and have them prepared to receive a man that might be suffering from oxygen deprivation and severe cold or flu symptoms. I needed these things five minutes ago. Go!”
The agent scrambles to obey and Coulson watches them work, the efficiency catching under his skin. There is anger in the crease of his thumb and he’s a hair trigger waiting to happen. He looks back down at the hole, at the beacon that flashes like a heartbeat and wonders if he can get a hold of Jarvis again. Instead, he counts out the beats against his own. The agent is back in record time, a length of rope caught in one hand and a harness in his other, and Coulson shrugs it on without a word. The agent attaches him and he leaps into the pit.
The darkness stretches for leagues. He doesn’t know how much give he has before his feet disturb the ground beneath him, casting dust into the air and catching bright on the circle of light that hangs like the moon above him. His eyes take a moment too long to adjust and then he’s running toward the beacon, catching it like water between his hands as Tony comes into view.
The side of his helmet is caved in partially, damaged in the fall or against the wall that hit him and Coulson fights to remember the mechanism that clicks it off. His fingers dig into the metal plates behind Tony’s head, down his neck, and his thumb catches over the release. He punches it hard and the faceplate releases with a soft click. Coulson wrenches it off, but he can’t see anything, can’t see Tony’s face except for the shadowy creases that mark where the light is being driven away by the still flickering arc reactor. He reaches out, fingers touching light along Tony’s face, along the tears that wet his cheeks and stick in his beard, over the burning, burning, burning skin of his forehead and suddenly Tony inhales, sucks in breath so fast that he starts coughing. But he can’t move, the armour still trapping him still and he starts hyperventilating, and Coulson can see how wide his eyes are, the fear pouring out into the darkness between them. He leans in close, until he can feel Tony’s breath scattering across the bridge of his nose.
“Tony, Tony, calm. I need you to be calm. Can you hear me? It’s Phil. It’s Agent. Focus on me, focus on my breathing. I know you can’t quite see me, it’s going to be hard, but I’m here, okay. Do you hear me? Can you hear me? Follow this, follow what I’m doing.” And Coulson breathes in and out, in and out, and feels Tony struggle to follow him. He feels around for the metal encasing Tony’s hand, catches it between his fingers and can barely lift it up to lock them together. Tony starts panicking again. “No, no, come on now. I’ve PVR’d a whole season of Supernanny that I know you can’t wait to indulge in, right? My favourite is the one with the bratty genius who refuses to tell his nanny that he’s far too sick to go to the park but goes anyway. Breathe in and out. In and out. Just like me, see? Come on, Tony, for me.”
There’s a tug on him and he realizes the agents are trying to reel him back in. He yanks on his rope hard, three sharp jerks, and there’s shouting above him. He looks back at Tony, his face eerie blue, and Coulson reaches out again, for a connection beyond that of the iron that is clasped coldly against his palm. Tony’s skin is like a match already lit, burning fast and hard. A thin sheen of sweat mixes with the tears streaming thick from his eyes. Coulson breathes in and out and Tony follows, stuttering out but better, and Coulson pushes the damp hair back.
“There, see, this isn’t so hard. Much better than creating elaborate robots to terrify Clint in the kitchen with.” There are thumps behind him, agents landing and running toward them. “And much easier than taking Natasha’s straightener every day to see if you can incite loyalty in it.” He doesn’t let Tony go when lights flood the area, chasing away the darkness and weeding out the shadows. “And it has to be simpler than going round for round with Steve without the suit.” Tony’s face is a mess of tears and blood, sweat and a paleness that glows eerie in the new light. His eyes are wild and ringed with red. His lips are shredded and his tongue licks blood against them. Coulson smiles down at him. “There you are.”
Tony starts laughing and it’s grueling, painful and maddening all at once and he’s sobbing before he can stop himself. His head thrashes once in the confines of the suit and he sucks in a breath before fixing Coulson with a piercing look, matching the way he’s breathing again. Coulson nods at him and looks down at the suit, at the way the plates stick together unnaturally and the twisted chest plate. He flicks through the files in his mind, tries to remember the handles that litter Tony’s suit. He taps on the comm link and says, “Jarvis, little guidance here.”
“Is sir…?” Jarvis whispers.
“He’s here. He’s fine. He’s a little shaken up, the paperwork is going to be astronomical, but we need to get him out of the suit.” Coulson flicks a smile Tony’s way and he smiles back. A medic crouches down beside him, an oxygen mask in her hand. She doesn’t make a move toward Tony, looking to Coulson, and Coulson catches Tony’s eye again.
“Tony, pay attention to me for a second, all right? All of your focus, right here. Okay?” Tony blinks at him, slow and definitely not all there and Coulson pats him on the cheek. “We have some oxygen for you, okay? It’s going to feel weird at first, you might panic but remember this, all right? Remember in and out, in and out.”
Tony nods, slow, and the medic moves to place the mask over his nose. Tony fights momentarily, eyes bright with terror and his throat working its way up to a scream. Coulson taps his cheek again, holding Tony’s gaze, and breathes in and out. Tony fights to follow him, fights the panic back, and his body relaxes.
“Agent Coulson?” Jarvis calls, and Coulson tunes back in. Jarvis details the extraction process and each release that Coulson triggers causes Tony to thrash, to move against the confines of his suit and claw toward freedom. Coulson moves to his arm, releases his shoulder and his bicep, down to his wrist and his fingers, and then Tony is clutching his hand, groaning in pain and delirium. The medics cluster around his freed arm, getting Coulson to still him long enough that they can get an IV into him, and Tony shakes his head at that.
“I know,” Coulson says, soft, and begins working on getting Tony out of the rest of it. By the time the armour has fallen away, littering the floor around him like gold and red shrapnel, Tony is shaking from fever and pain and is muttering long strings of nonsense numbers under his breath. Coulson works the comm link off his ear and fits it over Tony’s, and Jarvis begins speaking in earnest. Tony laughs, and this time it’s less harsh, less terrified, and the medics lift him at once onto a gurney.
When they reach ground level, Tony weakly holds out his hand, and Coulson takes it without qualm. The medics explain that Tony’s symptoms are similar to the other Avengers, and aside from mild oxygen deprivation, he will be fine within a week. Coulson signs off on the papers, winces as he does a count of just how much paperwork will be awaiting him when he returns to work after the Avengers have cleared up, and directs the agents to board Tony, his dismantled armour, and Coulson onto a Quinjet and get them home.
Tony falls asleep before they’re even in the air.
The Avengers are all crowded in the flight chamber when the Quinjet lands. Hulk has Clint slung in one arm like a toddler, Natasha is leaning heavy against Thor and Steve has a Kleenex box in his hand. What is truly alarming, however, is that they are all wearing their costumes. Steve’s shield is dragging along the ground and Thor can’t seem to decide where exactly Mjölnir is supposed to hook onto his belt. But the determination on their faces coupled with the tension along their shoulders, the fear in their eyes, is enough to cause Coulson to smile.
The jet powers down and the bridge lowers and the Avengers shuffle forward to greet him. Coulson passes a hand over Tony’s forehead, sighing at the heat that is coming off him in waves. The backdoor lowers and Coulson peers out at the eager faces, each one warring between hope and despair.
“He’s fine,” Coulson says. They all sag, and then Steve straightens.
Coulson chuckles. “Stark was being stubborn and refused to allow the rest of the team to endanger themselves while they were out for the count. Sadly, this meant that he endangered himself which we will be having a seminar on, I will prepare PowerPoints, Clint you cannot file a report stating that you cannot attend seminars due to allergies as Fury has banned that particular rule. Stark is fine, a little shaken, but overall he’s all right. I’m curious, however.” Coulson leans against the side of the plane, taking in each Avenger, each of their outfits. Thor even managed to get his cape on backwards. “Who informed you?”
“Jarvis woke us,” Steve says. “He lost communication with Tony and it freaked him out. I’ve never experienced him go off like that. Dummy came crashing into the living room and woke up the Hulk and Jarvis informed us of the situation and the news stations informed us of the rest.”
“And you thought it a good idea to suit up and come charging after us?” Coulson asks, incredulous. He can hear Tony waking up behind him. There’s the soft hiss of pain as the IV is removed and Coulson refrains from rolling his eyes.
Steve’s eyes harden. “Tony’s one of us. He goes out, we go out. That’s just how it’s done.”
“Besides,” Clint says, throwing up a hand. His face is tucked in the shadow of Hulk’s arm, “that bastard owes me a working blender, dammit, I can’t make smoothies if the blender has issues with ice. No way is Stark getting out of that.”
Hulk bares his teeth, lets a snarl rumble past his lips. “Tony don’t.”
Tony’s voice rattles out from inside the Quinjet. “I won’t.”
The Avengers surge forward as one, almost tripping over each other, and Tony staggers his way out. Coulson presses a hand to the small of his back, steadying him, and Tony blinks at them beatifically. “They gave me the good stuff.”
“You’re an idiot,” Natasha says, but she’s already moving forward, ducking under Coulson’s arm to drape herself over Tony. He blinks in surprise, before his features soften and he tucks his face against her hair, his shoulders shaking. The other Avengers catch up, until they’re all crowded around Tony and then they’re walking back down, making their way toward the living room with Tony in tow. Coulson breathes out a long sigh and looks down at his hands, can trace the line of the gun in his hand and the anger coiled in his grip. He closes his fingers and looks up again. He has Avengers to take care of.
“And I think this is a horrible use of the technological advances in CGI. I mean, look at that dinosaur. You can see where the computer code separates,” Tony says, waving his arm at the television. Steve grabs him and tucks him back against his side and Tony grumbles as the velociraptors purr. “Oh, comeon!”
Clint is perched just above them, swaying slightly but having mostly recovered his balance. Tony lifts a hand and pushes at his foot, sending Clint tumbling off the back, yelping as he falls. Tony laughs so hard he starts coughing, burrowing deeper against Steve’s side as Clint jumps back up on the couch.
“I’ll get you for that, Stark. Don’t think I won’t.”
“And don’t think I won’t change your KitchenAid into an enemy the toaster will actually have to take serious,” Tony says. Clint swats at Tony and Steve grabs his arm, yanking him down onto the couch and jostling Bruce out of his cocoon of blankets.
“I have soup,” Bruce says, scandalized, and rolls his eyes when Clint scrambles up and over Steve to get away from him. “I’m not going to dump it on you, Clint, it’s mine.”
Thor unscrews the top of a large tub of vapour rub, slathering it just under his red nose. He breathes deep and says, “Humans and their inventions to combat these foes will never cease to create wonder. Such a simple formula to allow for breathing anew!”
Coulson sighs from his corner of the couch, saving the latest update to Fury and unseating Clint as he stands. “I need status reports so I can send them off to the medical department.”
Tony peers out from behind Steve’s chest. “Scale report or symptom report?”
“I’m not allowing for return to active duty yet, so don’t get your hopes up,” Coulson says, pointing at Natasha as she wanders back into the living room with a cup of tea. She raises an eyebrow at him. It would be more threatening if she wasn’t wearing Steve’s sweats and Thor’s t-shirt. “But the medical department has been pestering the Director about the progression of the virus hybrid, if it has mutated or allowed for strange abilities to spark up, so I’m to give hourly reports.”
“Tell them I can see the internet inside my head,” Tony says, grinning at Coulson’s eyebrow raise. “Or, oh, you could tell them that the fever allowed me to have psychic connections to robots. I always know what Jarvis is going to say anyway.”
“That is highly suspect, sir,” Jarvis drawls. “Agent Coulson, the required four hours has expired.”
Tony makes a noise and sits up, rearranging the blankets around himself and stealing one of Bruce’s. “You’re having Jarvis give you updates now?”
“The last time I asked, you were keeping your sickness from me,” Coulson points out. A shadow passes over Tony’s face before it’s plucked free. Coulson shakes his head. “If you take your medicine, rest, and eat, then you’ll return to smacking villains in the face within the next two days. Jarvis is helping to make that dream a reality.”
“A pleasure to help,” Jarvis says, and there is a definite grin in his tone.
Coulson makes his way to the kitchen, grabs each medicine that the Avengers require, and glasses of water. As he balances them on the tray, he sways slightly, his hip clipping against the side of the island. The vertigo doesn’t abate and he has to grab at the edge of the counter, closing his eyes as nausea clutches at his stomach. The world stops spinning, jerking to a halt under his feet, and Coulson feels a telltale tickle in the back of his throat.
Sighing, he grabs a glass of water and digs around for the Echinacea, downing two pills. Last time he believes medical that the strings aren’t infectious anymore. There’s a crash from the living room, Bruce shouting something obscene, and Clint yelping as he’s obviously thrown over something. He pinches the bridge of his nose and tries not to think of the paperwork. Oh, the paperwork.
And if in a week he’s down for the count? Well, at least he’ll be able to stay at home while some unfortunate agent takes over his duties as Supernanny.