The problem of workers being on the job but, because of medical conditions, not fully functioning. -- In a sense, presenteeism is the opposite of absenteeism, in which the employee does not come to work.
"Hrngh, shit, JARVIS, time?"
"It is quarter to five Krasnoyarsk Time, fifteen minutes to the pre-mission briefing. I have been attempting to rouse you for half an hour," the familiar voice echoes from the tablet on the small table by Tony's narrow and way too hard bed.
"Ugh, yeah, I know, I know, I’m awake now.”
Just how much vodka did he drink last night? Half a bottle? It can't have been enough to make him feel like this, not with the tolerance he has developed over the years, even if he's been trying to cut down his intake. This has got to be the most disproportionate hangover he's had since he was underage. The headache is intense, the nausea currently tolerable, but only just, promising to get oh so much worse at the slightest aggravation.
Fucking Igor. Ivan. Ilya. Generic local name starting with an "I". Their host, an acquaintance of Natasha’s, has been nothing but competent so far, but who the hell thinks vodka shots are a good way to finish the night before storming one of the remaining Hydra strongholds?
Tony doesn’t even remember feeling drunk last night – is he having memory issues on top of everything else? What the hell was in that bottle? Has he been poisoned?
Everyone else took a sip as well, as far as he can tell. Tony considers raising his head to look around, but that feels like a terrible idea. He tries to turn it instead, but oh shit, is his neck sore, yeah, not a good idea either.
"Ow. Next time we come to Siberia, I need to bring my own pillow."
All they have are these sad excuses of mattresses on the rickety beds, and pillows that are basically two-dimensional. His back might never be the same again after the week here.
"Anyone around?" he asks the silent room.
It's JARVIS who answers again. "Available data indicates all other Avengers have left the building. Captain Rogers and Agent Romanov are currently in the Quinjet. Others' locations are unavailable. You're all alone in here, sir."
"Awesome," Tony says. That very much suggests they're not being as pathetic as him. Probably not poison, then, or no poison other than the usual. He’s glad no one is around to witness his sad state.
He wants nothing more than to pull the covers over his head and go back to sleep, but he can't sit out this mission. They've been gathering intel and getting ready for five days now, and the plan sort-of hinges on Tony. They need Iron Man, they trust him, Steve trusts him, he can't let them down, not because of a stupid error of judgment and a bottle of shitty vodka. Good thing he's a genius. He can handle this. He can pull this off.
Trying to keep the rest of his body as still as possible to hold the pain inside his skull at bay, he reaches out with one hand, fumbling for the headset that he keeps on the bedside table. He almost knocks the tablet to the floor doing that, but finally, his fingers close around the familiar shape, and he manages to lift it and place it on his head.
"Anyone near the suit at the moment?"
"Negative, sir." JARVIS's voice is a lot clearer and louder through the earbuds. A little too loud, really.
"No need to shout. Drop the volume to fifty percent."
"Very well. Sir, if you're feeling unwell..."
"It’s nothing I haven't gone through before," Tony says, and flips the HUD glasses over his eyes. Instead of the dim, ascetic room, he's now looking at a twilit spruce forest.
Good thing he left his suit in sentry mode outside the Quinjet and not inside it, that makes things a lot easier. He walks it towards the cottage where he's lying, constantly on guard to make sure no one sees him. He has to stop and hide behind a clump of trees to avoid Bruce, who's on his way to join the others in the Quinjet. Fortunately, the scientist is so deep in thought he doesn't even look up at the sounds of cracking branches and rustling bushes. Tony manages to sneak around without running into anyone else, and soon, the empty armor is standing right outside the door.
Tony considers his options. If he put the suit on, he would get full biotelemetry data, probably confirming in so many words that he's got the surprise hangover from hell. He doesn't need that. He doubts he'd be any good in the field. Just the thought of standing up almost makes him gag. Flying and fighting - yeah, he's obviously not up to that right now.
At Tony's order, Iron Man points a metallic finger at the lock and melts it and the door handle into a useless glob. Should at least slow down anyone who's trying to get in, give him time to hide if needs be.
"Sir, I strongly disagree with this course of action, I -"
"Disagree all you will, JARVIS, but if you as much as hint to the others that I'm actually not in the suit, or that I'm not fit for duty, I'll repurpose you as machine translation software."
Steve glances at the time. 0455. Everyone else is already here: Natasha studying the satellite images with Clint, Bruce sitting in his usual corner, looking thoughtful, Thor standing close to the open ramp, clearly a little impatient.
Everyone on time, except Tony. Not that Steve is all that surprised: waking up before five isn't something Tony's used to. Maybe Steve should've done something about that when he got up himself, but Tony had seemed like he needed every minute of shut-eye he could get – he'd somehow managed to look tense even asleep. Steve knows it's been a long week for Tony, living in frugal surroundings and with barely any personal space, and although Steve has quite enjoyed it himself, he’s nevertheless glad it will be over soon.
It's exactly one minute past five when Tony stomps in, already in the suit. "Morning, guys. I'm not late, am I? I mean, one minute here or there?"
"Not the end of the world," Steve says. "Though you know how much I value punctuality."
"I think Cap should make you write 'I won't be late to class' on the blackboard a couple of hundred times," Clint offers.
"Ew, blackboards are a torture method that should be banned by international treaties. That sound alone..." Tony cringes, and settles next to a wall, oddly enough not even opening his visor.
"Going to sit through the briefing in full armor?" Steve asks him curiously. "Are you sulking?"
"Yes and no," Tony replies, a little defensive. "I think Tweety Bird might be coming down with something. I heard him sneeze last night. Some weird Siberian bug. Wouldn't want to catch that."
“It was your cologne that made me sneeze,” Clint retorts.
"We all sleep in the same room. If there are airborne bugs around, you’ve probably caught them already,” Bruce comments helpfully.
"Better safe than sorry. Anyway, we should get on with it. Shouldn't take long, we went through everything yesterday. I thought we'd be heading off right away," Tony notes irritably.
Something's clearly up – even on a good day, Tony can be definitely be a little eccentric, but usually, Steve is quite good at reading his moods. Now, though, he hasn't got a clue what's going on, except that it's not normal. He doesn't like that one bit, not as a leader who needs to understand his team, nor as a concerned friend, let alone a partner.
"I just want to be sure we're all on the same page before we go. And you're right, better not waste any more time, we've got a schedule," Steve says.
They go through the plan of action as quickly as they can without omitting any important details. The Hydra base they're targeting is mostly underground, which has made getting good intel a challenge. Tony was able to access their computer systems to grab the basic floor plan of the facility, but it only shows the general layout. He couldn't spend much more time than that poking at the computers, or he might've been noticed. The base is located close to a river called Tunguska, in an area where an unusual explosion took place a hundred years ago, and which everyone has been making confusing pop culture references about. Those aside, Bruce, Tony and Natasha seem convinced that it's a likely reason for why the base is there.
It takes them around half an hour to finish, and then they're off, Tony and Thor flying outside the Quinjet as usual. It's Clint's turn to pilot today, which means Steve will be spending the hour-long journey in the pleasant company of Bruce and Natasha.
The silence feels heavy for the first few minutes, until Bruce breaks it in a slightly hesitant voice, with the question Steve has been expecting all along. "Um, you don't have to answer if this is too prying, but, is everything all right between the two of you?"
"As far as I know, yeah," Steve answers truthfully.
They haven't really spent that much time together during this mission, just the occasional stolen kiss, and that quickie in the storage room – which he instantly pushes away from his mind because he really, really shouldn't be thinking about that right now. Yesterday, they didn't have any time for themselves, since Tony flew to meet Thor in Krasnoyarsk to guide him to the cottage they've been using as their base of operations, while the rest of the team did another recon flight over the target area. Once everyone had returned to base, it was time for last minute planning, and the amicable evening with their host.
"He seemed a little subdued last night, if you ask me," Natasha says. "I was expecting him to drink Ilya under the table, but he actually went to bed earlier than I did."
"I think I'd better give him a call," Steve says, and retreats to the other end of the aircraft for privacy.
Tony greets him with a decidedly grumpy, "Yeah, what?"
"I just, I wanted to ask if everything’s okay."
"Fine and dandy. Not a huge fan of waking up before my usual bedtime.”
"Look, if you're not sure about this, we can still reschedule, do it tomorrow instead."
"Seriously, Steve, no need for that. I'm just a little tired. It's not a problem. I'll do my part."
"I know you will. Just, Tony, if everything's not okay, any step of the way, please let me know, okay?"
"Sure," Tony says, in the least convincing tone imaginable. "It's going to be fine, sweet cheeks. Stark out."
Steve sighs. He knows without a doubt that if Tony says he can do it, he's not going to fail. What he's worried about is that Tony might take unnecessary risks or push himself too hard and end up getting hurt – it wouldn't even be the first time. If only he knew whether this is just Tony getting up on the wrong side of the bed, or if it's something Steve has done or said, or something else entirely.
Once they're done with this, Steve is going to have a very long conversation with Tony and get to the bottom of whatever's eating him. He'll take a leaf out of Natasha's book if he has to, use blackmail or bribery, whatever it takes. For now, though, he'll play by his own rules, give Tony the benefit of the doubt, and focus on finishing the mission.
When he returns to Natasha and Bruce and they look at him inquiringly, all Steve can do is shrug. "He says he's good to go, so we'll proceed as planned."
They arrive at the Hydra base on schedule, at 0645 hours, the Quinjet in stealth mode, the flight-capable Avengers taking shelter from trees. The supply truck they are waiting for is on time as well, approaching the ramp leading to the underground complex at 0700 sharp.
Their plan is simple and relies more on surprise and brute force than stealth, because everything they've seen suggests that the base only has a skeleton crew at the moment. The trickiest part is getting in, and that's the part that depends entirely on Tony.
As the gates open and the truck drives in, Tony follows right after it, and then Thor lands in front of the ramp and calls forth a massive lighting strike, bringing every eye in the base to him. Soon, he's fighting off guards, easily managing them on his own.
When Tony broke into the base's computer systems earlier, he tried to find an easy way to open the gates, and more importantly the doors to the hangar - the gates lead to a long network of narrow tunnels that is easy to defend and difficult to navigate, while the hangar is a horizontal opening right in the middle of the complex. Unfortunately, Tony couldn’t figure out how to open it, suggesting that the controls are partly or entirely manual.
It was the obvious choice for Tony to be the one to go in through the trickier entrance and clear the way for everyone else – he has the perfect combination of speed, tech skills, and armor to protect him. He’s suspiciously quiet as he flies in and advances deeper into the base, until he finally announces he's found and cleared the control room, and will have the doors wide open in no time.
A minute later, there's a sudden loud crash on the comms, followed by a groan and a string of swearing.
Tony lets JARVIS take care of most of the flying. He'll have to do most of the fighting, too, because fighting is a little challenging with an interface that's based on voice commands and eye movements.
It's also difficult with a headache that's so fucking bad it’s already gone past the exploding supernova stage and collapsed into a black hole.
Around the time they reach the enemy base Tony's come to realize that the error of judgment wasn't drinking too much last night, but thinking that he drank too much last night, when he in fact didn't. This isn't a hangover. He's had enough morning after headaches to tell this has to be something else, something worse.
He thought migraine headaches were the worst you could possibly get, but no, apparently not. Is he having a stroke? He might be a little young for that, but it can happen at any age, right? He can still speak without slurring and move both arms, though, so maybe not? Besides, he's starting to feel chilled in a way that suggests his temp must be at least pushing 101 °F. He almost asks JARVIS about it before he remembers JARVIS only has the headset and the tablet, he doesn't have Tony's numbers. Ah, shit.
His jibe to Clint about weird Siberian bugs seems way too foreshadowing right now.
He knows he should probably call the whole thing off, but damn it, he's just spent the morning telling everyone he's fine, starting with JARVIS, then Steve, and finally Thor, who kept pestering him during the flight because he was so quiet. He'll just have to see this through. If he manages to fly the suit back before the others get here, he can pretend he was in it all along and cranky due to the killer flu. He'll worry about surviving said flu later.
Luckily, getting inside the enemy base is ridiculously easy. While Thor is wreaking havoc on Hydra’s front yard, Tony flies in, automatic targeting dealing with the few goons that try to slow him down. He zooms through endless, mostly empty corridors – the visuals make his head reel, but he obviously can't do this with his eyes closed – and eventually locates the control room next to the hangar bay. There are only two people inside, soon taken care of. He barricades the door and sits the suit down in front of the controls and computer terminals.
"All right, I'm in, the control room is secure," he tells the others.
Time to take a breather, finally. He closes his eyes and just concentrates on pushing back the nausea and the bile at the back of his throat. He pulls the blanket up to his chin, but it's not enough, he's still freezing, shivering all over, his internal thermostat telling him it's not a crisp autumn day but fucking double digits below zero midwinter.
What he really needs is another blanket. Steve's bed isn't far from his, and there's one there, neatly folded as always (Clint's rumpled one is almost as close, but there's no question whose blanket he'd rather grab).
Carefully, slowly, gingerly, he slides his feet over the edge of the bed and tries to sit up, head and neck protesting fiercely – and crashes to the floor, legs tangled in his own blanket, as the room does a backflip.
"Fucking hell, shit, ow," he groans under his breath. The world is spinning, and his head is pounding like he's brained himself on the floorboards, though he’s pretty sure it’s just the same old headache.
Thankfully, he hasn't lost the headset, but once he can think again, he realizes the audio feed was on and the whole team heard that. He switches it off quickly.
"J, not a word to the others about this. Not one word," he adds in private.
The good thing is, he can now reach Steve's blanket without getting up from the floor. He spreads it over himself, and feels marginally warmer. Not worth ending up on the floor for. Then again, it’s not a huge difference to the hard mattress. He decides to stay where he's landed, since he’s got much more important things to worry about.
He opens his eyes to stare at the Hydra compound's control center on the HUD. One more thing left to do. Get the doors open and the others will handle the rest, and he can just fade away.
An ominous silence follows the crash and Tony's unexpected outburst.
"What the hell was that?" Clint asks from the pilot's seat. Bruce, Natasha and Steve have gathered around him to follow the mission unfold.
"Iron Man? Tony, status report?" Steve calls out, but there’s no reply. "JARVIS? What just happened?"
"I'm unable to say," the AI answers.
"What? How come?" Steve wonders aloud. Surely JARVIS must know what's going on. “Can you put his video feed on screen?”
"Can you show us his vitals, then?" Bruce suggests.
"I'm afraid I can't."
"Can't or won't?" Natasha asks suspiciously.
"Can't. I currently lack access to Mr. Stark's biotelemetry."
The four Avengers share confused glances over that, but before there's time for questioning the AI further, Tony finally speaks up.
"Stealthy bastard snuck up on me," he offers as a vague explanation. "Dealt with him, though. All's well now. Give me a minute and you can join in on the fun." His voice is off, somehow, none of the usual heat of the battle excitement, just flat and weary.
"Tony, I'm starting to run out of patience. If you're in trouble, you need to let us know! And why the heck is JARVIS unable to give us your status? Did you tell him not to?" Steve complains, realizing he sounds like a nagging parent, but he's so damn frustrated, stuck up here, unable to do a thing, with Tony deep inside the enemy stronghold, in the middle of who knows what, and refusing to keep them updated like he should.
Tony doesn't argue back, he just doesn't answer at all. That's odd as well, since usually he's the last one to go for the silent treatment.
A minute later, Tony’s talking again, though it's only to say, "You guys better be ready, because I am. Open sesame!"
With that, there's no more time to be wasted on puzzling over Tony’s behavior, since the hangar doors are sliding open, which is their cue to enter the fray. Clint gets up from the pilot's seat and Bruce takes his place, as planned. They're hoping they won't need the Hulk here, which makes Bruce the designated driver in case of rapid retreat.
Just as their intel suggested, the hangar is currently empty, no aircrafts present – plenty of room for the Quinjet. This is almost too easy, really. It reinforces the feeling Steve has had all along, that they’ve come too late, and Hydra have already shut down most of the operation. Still, they need to go through the base and see what they can find, perhaps it will give them a clue as to the purpose of the place.
From here on, the plan is as simple as anything: they’ll just storm the base and deal with the remaining resistance. Bruce puts them down smoothly, right in the middle of a dozen Hydra soldiers pointing guns at the now visible Quinjet, shooting uselessly at its durable exterior.
The three Avengers leap out and into action, working seamlessly together. Steve and Natasha proceed side by side, Clint stays behind, taking cover by the Quinjet, and targeting the Hydra soldiers that are further away.
Between hitting one soldier with his shield and kicking another in the face, Steve takes a quick look around, and notes the big windows overlooking the hangar, obviously the control room Tony’s in. Once he’s dealt with the third soldier, who somehow thought Steve wouldn’t notice them approach because he was facing the other way, he looks up again, and spots Iron Man in the control room, just sitting there as far as Steve can tell. Well, at least he doesn’t seem to be in any trouble.
The rest of the Avengers have no trouble, either, fighting off Hydra soldiers, using non-lethal force whenever they can. They’ve almost dealt with the small group that was protecting the hangar when four more Hydra men show up through a door at the far end of the room. One of them, a lieutenant by his insignia, is carrying a large gun that Steve doesn’t recognize.
“By the door, watch out!” he shouts to the others, and takes cover, just as the Hydra lieutenant takes aim and fires.
The projectile – bullet? – is clearly not meant for any of the Avengers, but their aircraft. It strikes home, hitting the nose of the Quinjet, not with an explosion but with a soft “thwup” – and suddenly, there’s a hole the size of Steve’s head in the side of the jet.
“Uh, guys, we might have a problem,” Bruce calls out on the team channel. “You better stop him before he hits anything critical, because that could do serious damage.”
“Copy that, Banner,” Steve acknowledges. He’s not seen that sort of ammunition before, but it’s evident from that first hit that it’s bad news.
The lieutenant and his henchmen have taken cover behind a big wall support pillar, and Steve heads towards them, keeping low, dodging bullets. He’s counting on them not wanting to waste the special ammunition on a foot soldier such as himself, and it does seem to be that way. Clint is shooting arrows back at them, and gets two of the men, but the lieutenant with the gun is still there.
There’s a bang and a sound of shattering glass above, and when Steve looks up, he sees Tony fly through the window and towards the remaining two Hydra soldiers, shooting bright repulsor blasts as he goes.
Iron Man is not an unarmored hand-to-hand fighter, but exactly the sort of target you’d use that gun against. The Hydra lieutenant points it at Tony, and surely Tony must have seen what it’s capable of, but he doesn’t dodge, just keeps going, and takes the hit, straight on his right palm repulsor, which, as Steve watches in horror, just – oh, God, it just melts away, and – Tony’s right hand is gone.
Tony gets the hangar doors open. It’s a task any of the Avengers could’ve handled, it requires nothing but finding the right switch and that’s it, and yeah, he’s glad it’s that simple, because he probably wouldn’t have been able to manage anything more complicated.
The bright lights on the HUD are driving ice picks through his eye sockets. He dims the video feed down a notch, but it doesn’t really help that much. Painkillers might, but hell if he knows where he could find any, he must’ve packed some – somewhere – probably, or maybe not, he’s not sure – or are all the medical supplies on the Quinjet?
He really shouldn’t be here alone right now. He can honestly admit he’s not capable of taking care of himself, and usually he’d never say that, but he’s just feeling too plain awful. He’s not entirely sure he could get up from the floor if he wanted to.
The nausea sweeps over him in a wave even more intense than it’s been so far, and he’s past fighting it, all he can do is turn on his side as fast as possible with the achy neck that seriously limits his mobility, and throw up before he chokes on it.
Thank fuck he’s remembered to turn the audio feed off so the team doesn’t have to hear this.
JARVIS hears it, though, of course. “Sir, may I suggest you notify the others of your condition? Or allow me to do it?”
Tony spits out the last of the bile and takes a couple of deep breaths, trying to pull himself together enough to form an intelligible reply. “I’ll do it. Later. Now’s not the time.”
Now is totally not the time. Focusing on what’s going on in the Hydra compound, Tony sees the Quinjet has now landed in the hangar, and Steve, Natasha and Clint are doing just fine taking care of Hydra’s meager forces without Tony’s help. He sees Steve look up at him, frowning as he takes in Iron Man just sitting in the control room. Tony should probably say something, anything, but he can’t figure out what that could possibly be. Better to just sit tight and after this is all over, they can – what the hell was that?
The Hydra officer has just shot at the Quinjet with something that went right through the hull. That should not be possible. Tony knows the properties of that alloy and to pierce it like that – some kind of acid? Nanotechnology? They need to get their hands on that gun. And what does Steve think he’s doing, running straight at them? He could get hit, and since they have no clue what that weapon is capable of, it might damage his shield, and more importantly, it would definitely burn through his body armor like it's paper!
A sudden surge of adrenaline breaking through the sickness, Tony makes the armor stand up and smashes his way through the window in front of him. He has no need for finesse, he doesn’t need to watch out, because he can always fix the suit, so he just goes straight for the bad guy with the big gun. The hit that the armor takes registers as a painfully bright warning on the HUD, and his right repulsor goes offline, but whatever, the important thing is that he gets the bad guy.