There was no answer. Then again, Jarvis didn’t actually expect one. Young master Stark was supremely stubborn and self-sufficient. Jarvis had actually hoped to catch him before now, but the lady Stark had only just left the house and given him time to go looking for the young boy.
He didn’t much like his employers. As an adult, he could understand intellectually the reasons they were as they were – but the help never spoke ill about their employers. For one, it would lead to being fired and blacklisted. For another, Jarvis did his utmost to see the good in everyone, even now.
Even knowing that the elder Stark was the reason the younger had gone into hiding.
Leaving Anthony Stark’s room and making his way down the hall, he considered his options. If it was just a regular fight, and not a continuation of one, Anthony would have headed to his small lab or holed up in the library. Yet it wasn’t a regular fight, it was a continuation of an issue that had first cropped up when Anthony was seven and thrown up at the elder Stark’s Christmas party, and beyond that Anthony always was intractable when he was feeling ill.
The library still wasn’t a bad idea. If not, there was the small dumbwaiter where the tiny eight-year-old might have sequestered himself.
After searching the library, the dumbwaiter, the various staircases, the greenhouse and gardens, the kitchen, and the many guest rooms, it was nearing midnight and Jarvis was very quietly panicking. Master Howard was away as usual, on a business trip somewhere, and Lady Maria would not return until the early hours of the morning, at one of her various charities’ balls. Her escort, a young, up-and-coming businessman who worked closely with Master Howard, would drop her off most likely around two.
Considering that Jarvis had started looking for Tony at nine in the evening, when the lady Stark had left the house, that was two hours too long to wait. And the lady Stark would not be pleased to have her ball interrupted because Jarvis had managed to lose Anthony.
Swallowing hard, he rubbed the back of his neck and cursed the sprawling New York mansion that Master Howard had only expanded, and cursed the scathing lectures Master Howard would subject Anthony to whenever Anthony claimed illness, real or not. Anthony always went and hid but this was the first time Jarvis had not been able to follow Anthony immediately when he went to do so—
He liked high places, though.
Jarvis eyed the hallway that would take him to the attic. Anthony detested the place, filled with Captain America memorabilia and ancient clothes. He would normally never set foot up there, willingly.
Heaving a sigh, Jarvis ascended the last of the attic stairs and looked around. It wasn’t as dusty as it could be – the maid came up here daily to make certain Master Howard’s collection remained intact and clean, and once a month the entirety of the attic would be thoroughly cleaned – but he could still track Anthony’s movements through the light layer of filmy dust. He wouldn’t even take the maid to task for it; it made it that much easier to find Anthony curled up between the display cabinet and the wall, gripping his mechanical toy to his chest and wheezing lightly through a congested nose.
“There you are, Master Anthony.”
The child was obviously not fully asleep, as those words roused him enough to shift fretfully. “J’vis?” he mumbled, blinking open fever-glazed eyes.
“You gave me quite a scare, you know,” Jarvis scolded gently, even as he carefully extracted the small child from the small niche and lifted Anthony up onto his shoulder.
Anthony was too hot, tiny limbs clinging like a spider monkey, runny nose burying in the crook of Jarvis’s neck. “M’sorry, Jarvis,” he mumbled, the metal car poking Jarvis’s chest painfully. “Sorry.”
Jarvis let out a sigh, looking at the smudged fingermarks on the display cases of the Captain America memorabilia. “Quite alright, young sir,” he murmured. “But you do not have to hide your illness from me, do you understand?”
“You most definitely are, young man,” Jarvis whispered, closing the attic door behind him.
“M’no.” Anthony smeared his nose and wheezed again.
Jarvis caressed the messy hair, full of dust and cobwebs. “I would be most pleased to help care for you, Master Anthony.”
“Daddy says stop pretending.” A tiny cough set off a set of dreadful shivers, and Jarvis shifted his grip to rub a hand soothingly against Anthony’s back. “Daddy says Stark men are iron.”
“What Daddy doesn’t know can’t hurt him,” Jarvis responded blandly. “And I hope you are not iron. Just think of how difficult it would be to dress you then. Let alone bathe you.”
At that, Anthony squirmed, more fully awake. “No bath,” he said in a squeaky growl. “Jarvis, I don’ wanna bath.”
“You’re absolutely filthy, Master Anthony, and the warm water will be soothing for you.”
Anthony pushed back to look Jarvis in the face. “No’ dirty.”
“Yes you are.” Jarvis shifted enough to poke the child in the nose. He – if there was a way to claim parental rights to Anthony, he would. This young child was so precocious and precious. Awake, healthy, he wouldn’t put up with Jarvis carrying him. Anthony was so fiercely independent, so headstrong and explosive, that he took Jarvis’s breath away at times. Now, though, half-asleep and ill, clinging to Jarvis’s neck, Anthony scrunched his nose and scowled at Jarvis, but didn’t unwrap his legs from Jarvis’s waist.
“Come on then, Anthony,” Jarvis murmured. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
James rubbed the back of his neck and cast a glance around the apartment again. He’d looked everywhere else – in Tony’s lab, in the engineering department, in the library, in the coffeehouse, and in the cafeteria. They were supposed to have met in the dorms to study, but Tony wasn’t there, either. The only other place Tony could be was at his apartment, because Tony was rich enough to have an apartment.
That, and having a sixteen-years-old kid around eighteen-years-olds was a disaster in the making. Add in Tony’s smart mouth and it was a guaranteed catastrophe. James could only save Tony from so much.
The problem, of course, was that he couldn’t find Tony here, either. He’d looked in the bedroom, the kitchen that was only ever used to store takeout, the front room, even the closets and bathroom. There was nowhere else James could think to look, and—
There was a muffled thump.
Frowning, James made his way back into the bedroom and looked at the closet. He’d stepped inside, looked around, but there were small cabinets built into the wall against the floor that he hadn’t looked in – mostly because, to get inside, even Tony would have a difficult time crawling in and squeezing.
Then again, this was Tony. Tony lived for difficult.
He dragged open one, to reveal nothing but shoe boxes and bits of machinery. Another one only revealed more shoes and a robotic arm. The last one revealed machinery bits, too – and a tousle-haired kid curled up on the metal bits, a screwdriver clutched in his hand and fast asleep.
“Goddammit, Tony!” James snarled, relief making him growl. He could very clearly remember the last time Tony had been kidnapped, and that had been terrifying for him in the extreme—
Tony let out a whine, flinching at the loud noise, and the flinch had his head slamming against the back of the cabinet. James winced in sympathy. Maybe not asleep – passed out? Drunk? James had seen the tail-end of Tony’s drunk-engineering sessions before, but at them Tony had always been wired and unable to drop off, twitchy and nervous. When he crashed, he slumped over on a workbench or on the sofa. He didn’t curl up and hide. Maybe something had happened.
In any case, drunk Tony couldn’t stand loud noises. With a sigh, James crouched and twisted to gently grab Tony’s upper arms and pull him out.
“Jeesus Tony, you’re like touching a furnace!” James hissed, the worry that he’d thought had gone ratcheting up again to dizzying levels. Tony wasn’t just hot, he was sweating, and now that James was closer he could hear the teenager mumbling and whispering. When James finally got Tony out of that dratted cabinet, Tony’s eyes opened to mere slits that were glazed with fever.
“Turn’ff tha’ jackhammer, Rhodey, please, jus’ le’ m’ head splode in peace,” Tony croaked.
“We’re going to get you to a hospital. I’m willing to bet your temperature’s way over what it should be,” James said firmly, shifting Tony in his grip and then lifting the kid up in his arms. It was awkward – James was newly twenty-one, and Tony was a short sixteen, but that didn’t change the fact that Tony was all arm and leg and flopping limbs, and five feet two inches was still five feet, two inches.
But at that, Tony twitched and gripped a hand in James’s shirt, fingers curling weakly. “No, no hospil, please, honeypot,” Tony said with a wisp of his old smile. “Jus’ – jus’ leave me in peace.”
“If you think I’m leaving you like this,” James grumbled, depositing Tony carefully on the bed and using the corner of the sheet to pat dry Tony’s brow, “you’re crazier than usual. Who knew you got clingy when you’re sick, huh?”
“M’not sick,” Tony grumbled.
James didn’t listen – he’d learned not to, when Tony was being more deliberately obtuse than normal – and instead slipped into the bathroom to try and find basic medical supplies. Of course Tony didn’t have any on hand, or at least nowhere James could find off the bat, and so he spent the night before his final physics exam running to the 24-hour mart and tending to a sick Tony with a 105 degree temperature.
More than worth it, though, when he ran a hand through Tony’s sweaty, matted hair, and heard the young man – normally so stand-offish and arrogant – practically purr and curl up like a kitten. It was a welcome sight, especially on the tail-end of finals week that had had Tony more prickly than normal.
“All of this,” James grumbled, pouring more children’s Tylenol out into a spoon, “could have been avoided if you just took some pills before it got this bad. You wouldn’t have had to be this sick.”
If a computer system could blush or be sheepish, Pepper was certain that the AI would be right now. As it was, it said quietly, “Yes, Ms. Potts?”
“I have a feeling that you’re not being entirely truthful with me about Tony’s whereabouts.”
Considering that the AI had been the one answering Tony’s calls for the past day and a half now, and that Pepper had had to come out to the Malibu house to figure out what Tony was up to now, that was a massive understatement.
“I assure you, Ms. Potts, everything I have said is complete truth.”
“Yes, Ms. Potts.”
“And he’s too busy to come to the phone? Or the intercom? Or the door?”
“…For a definition of busy, yes.”
Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. “Open the door for me, JARVIS, and let me find out what his definition of ‘busy’ is this time.”
There was a long pause, long enough that Pepper began to seriously worry that Tony had locked everyone out of the house, and then the front door swung open. Pepper strode into the house, paperwork clutched in her hands, and stormed down to the workshop.
After checking the workshop, the bedroom, and the gym, she stood in the center of the living room and snarled in frustration, “Where the hell is he, JARVIS?”
“Sir is in his garage.”
Pepper frowned. The garage was attached to the workshop; there hadn’t been anyone in the garage. No one visible, at least. “Where in the garage, JARVIS? Specifically?”
“Sir is in the foot-well of the 1932 Ford Roadster.”
Pepper paused. On the floor of his oldest car, the one he tinkered on for fun instead of for speed? Slowly, she made her way back into the workshop and crossed over to the garage area.
Sure enough, Tony was curled up in the shallow space for the feet and legs of anyone sitting in the seat of the Roadster. He was taking up far less space than any grown man rightfully should, and looked far more adorable than anyone as devilish as him should.
Which was about when she realized his hair was sweaty and his shirt was damp. Leaning over the door and placing the back of her hand against his forehead had her yanking her hand back in shock – it was far warmer than healthy.
“Tony, I don’t know why I expected better of you,” she grumbled, setting the paperwork on the nearest flat surface – the seat – and opening the car door. “I can’t pick you up and I’m not going to try. Get up Tony, or I’ll dump water over your head and stain your precious upholstery.”
“Whuzza? Peps? Why – whazgowinon?”
She bit her lip in worry, squatting down to run her fingers through his tangled hair, and he blinked open dazed eyes to stare at her uncomprehendingly for a long moment. “Tony, do you know where you are?”
He squinted at her, and this close she could hear the rough wheeze in his throat, hear the click of his swallowing, feel the heat radiating off of him. “Th – car?”
“Very good. You have a cot down here; let’s get you into it. I think you picked up the flu from me, and you won’t be very happy with yourself if you throw up in here. Can you stand up?”
That seemed to insult him. Scowling indignantly at her – which made him look like a peeved bunny – he mumbled, “Can stand. Course I’cn stand. Why?”
“Stand up, Tony,” she said with a sigh, tugging lightly on the shoulder of his tank.
It took her a few more minutes to coax him out of the car – he banged his head against the steering wheel, which added quite a few minutes to the process as he clutched his head and obviously fought not to puke – and then she managed to lead him over to the cot he slept on when he was in the middle of a spurt of engineering brilliance. With gentle pushes and shoves, she guided him down onto it and pulled off his sneakers before wrapping every blanket she could find around his shoulders.
“I’m going upstairs to get some Thera-Flu and heat it up for you. You can’t afford to be sick, you know,” she said, keeping her voice light and teasing even as JARVIS quietly informed her that Tony’s fever had been 100 degrees this morning and was currently 102 degrees. “You have that meeting with the board coming up, and you’ve fallen asleep in too many to count. Wouldn’t want to mess up your streak, would you?”
“No’sick,” Tony grumbled, but he burrowed into the blankets and curled up tight. “Y’th’best, Pep.”
She stroked his forehead and temple before rising up to get the medicine from the upstairs bathroom. And if her hands shook more than normal, and she took a while to compose herself before going back down to Tony’s side, well. Who could blame her? Tony lived to scare the living shit out of her.
“My head, Clint, what th’hell?”
Clint stared in shock at the scrunched up form of Tony Stark, somehow fitting in the cabinet under the television, around all the various game systems and controllers that were also stored in there. “How did you get in there?”
Tony stared at Clint for a moment too long, triggering a warning bell in Clint’s mind, and then grunted. “Doesn’ matter. Go ‘way; head hurts.”
“Dude, you’ll give Bruce a heart attack and trigger the Big Guy; you don’t want that,” Clint said easily, even as he narrowed his eyes and took a closer look at Tony. Slight shivers ran through the frame, and Tony was wearing a hoodie two sizes too big, holding it close to his sides. He was slurring his words and turning away from the light of the room.
No, that wouldn’t fit – Tony had been at a charity gala last night, yeah, but so had Steve, and Steve kept Tony from drinking himself into an early grave. If Tony had drunk too much, Steve would have spent the night pounding away at a punching bag instead of sleeping more or less throughout the night uninterrupted.
Crouching down, he realized that Tony had grease smeared on his forehead and wires clutched in his right hand. “Dude, you didn’t try to make our game systems better, did you?”
“Wha?” Tony grunted, eyes barely opening before he closed them again. “Go ‘way Clint.”
“Okay, c’mere,” Clint sighed, reaching in and gently taking Tony’s empty hand by the wrist. It was cold and clammy, and his pulse was racing far too much for Clint to be comfortable with it. Suddenly worried, he placed a palm against Tony’s forehead and then touched at Tony’s vein in his throat. “Did you get hit with some magic thing last fight?” he asked, though Tony definitely wasn’t functioning at optimal levels at the moment. “I knew we should’ve forced you into medical – you’d been moving off the whole fight, you know, and you got smacked around twice as much as normal—”
And then Clint stopped. Because, actually, what he’d just described had been just what Natasha had been like four or five days ago, when she’d had that nasty cold and cough mix that had her feeling too cold and slowing down her reflexes.
“Bro – are you sick?” he asked incredulously.
That seemed to stir Tony, because Tony’s eyes opened half-way to send what would have been a scathing glare if only his eyes were tracking normally and weren’t half-closed. “M’not sick,” Tony said, and began coughing into his arm.
“Riiiight,” Clint drawled, getting his hands under Tony’s arms and half-dragging him, half-tugging him into an upright position. Tony swayed, and Clint gently propped him up. “Well, Mr. Not-Sick, I think it’s time to get some of that green tea and honey into you and tuck you into bed, what do you say?”
“M’fine,” Tony grumbled, taking a step away from Clint and back to the cabinet – which immediately made Clint grab at Tony’s elbows and gently lead him away from the small space. “Jus’ need to rest my head a bit.”
“You can do that in your room, you know,” Clint pointed out, walking Tony into the kitchen and dimming the lights when Tony winced. “Let’s start you off with some light fluids and medicine, and see where this goes from there.”
It took about twenty more minutes to cajole Tony enough to get him to take the medicine and tea, and then ten more minutes to get Tony into his room and convince him that his room was safe, that it was alright to be sick while lying down in his bed. Clint wasn’t certain what deep-seated issue they were tiptoeing around at the moment, just that there was one present and he needed to tread carefully. After all, if Tony got a hangnail or burned his fingers, stubbed his toe or got hit in the eye with a Wii remote again, he was loudly and blatantly whining within minutes. That he retreated when he was really sick…
Well. Which of the Avengers came without issues, really? Clint certainly didn’t have room to throw stones.
Once Tony was situated in bed, a box of tissues at the side, Clint turned the lights off completely and quietly crept out the door. And when, a few days from then, Clint found some really interesting and new kinds of arrows in his quiver, he promptly used them and then slipped into Tony’s workshop to whack him gently on the back of the head.
When Tony turned around, Clint folded his arms. “I don’t need a reward for being a decent human being. That being said, a reward for being this awesome all the time is always a good reason to give me gifts.”
Tony blushed, but he laughed as well, which was what Clint had been aiming for, and the two of them chatted and snarked at one another well throughout the night.
When Phil Coulson couldn’t find Tony in his workshop, he tilted his head upwards (yes, he, like all the Avengers, knew JARVIS wasn’t in the ceiling, but that’s where JARVIS’s voice came from) and said mildly, “Did Stark forget we had a meeting to go over the changes he wanted to implement in Hawkeye and Black Widow’s body armor?”
There was a brief moment of hesitation before JARVIS replied quietly, “I believe he has. Shall I make a note of it for sir when he returns?”
The hesitation was what prompted Phil to shake his head. “No, I think it’s best I go find him and just remind him, at least. Perhaps we can still complete this meeting today, which would make things simpler all the way around.”
“Very well,” JARVIS replied, but the AI’s voice held the faint hint of condemnation.
Phil idly wondered what Stark could possibly be up to, and turned to exit the workshop. “Where is Stark, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Again, that tiny hitch in the reply: “In the kitchen, Agent Coulson.”
As Phil made his way down from the workshop’s floor to the communal kitchen, he tried to figure out what, exactly, Stark could be doing there. Certainly not eating; it was too early in the day (read, before noon) for Stark to want anything beyond coffee and toast, unless one of his fellow Avengers had dragged him down for a communal meal. Still, if he was coherent enough to eat a meal, he was coherent enough to remember the meeting set up for a week and a half now, a meeting that he had set up himself.
The kitchen was empty.
Phil stood in the doorway and tapped a finger once against his thigh. “JARVIS, did he leave the kitchen?” he asked.
“No, Agent Coulson.”
Interesting. “Tony Stark is physically within the kitchen at this moment?”
JARVIS’s voice was clipped this time; Phil had already resigned himself to the fact that any AI Stark would make would be wounded if someone questioned its knowledge.
“Where, specifically, is Stark?” he finally asked, because looking under the table and even in the fridge (Clint had managed to shut himself inside one once, whether on a dare, because of an actual accident, or because Natasha’s sense of humor, Phil hadn’t bothered to ask) revealed no Tony Stark.
If an AI could sigh, JARVIS would be right now – the tone of voice was mild and resigned as JARVIS replied, “In the cupboard.”
Phil stared at the cupboards. After a moment to regain his calm equanimity, he cleared his throat and asked dryly, “In all of them, or one in particular?”
“Underneath the sink, Agent Coulson,” JARVIS answered.
Phil crouched down and opened the double-doors of the under-the-sink cupboard, and sure enough, there was Tony Stark, bottles of cleaning solution knocked over and shoved to the side as he huddled in the darkness. Immediately, Phil picked out fever-bright eyes, shallow breathing, and general disorientation.
“What have you gotten yourself into this time, Stark?” he murmured, shaking his head with a sigh.
“J’vis?” Tony mumbled in reply, and then his eyes cracked open even wider. “Agen?”
“Yes, Tony.” Tenderly, Phil put his hand out and waited for Tony to focus on his hand before continuing, “Let’s get you out of there. Why are you under the sink?”
Tony’s eyes blinked rapidly, still staring at Phil’s outstretched hand, before clumsily shoving his hand in Phil’s. “Too loud,” he mumbled. “Jus’ wanna coffee. You get th’designs?”
“I’m sure I will, eventually,” Phil sighed slightly, and pulled ever so slightly back. Tony followed obligingly; at least Stark, when sick, was more tractable than Clint, who had to be manhandled out of whatever perch he found for himself and practically tied to the bed. “What was too loud?”
“Dripping,” Tony replied, the word so carefully formed that Phil, for a moment, could imagine that Tony was in actuality drunk, not ill – but no, his skin was hot to the touch and Stark, for all that he had been a big drinker before, was actually doing very well keeping himself away from alcohol recently, even with his and Pepper’s break-up.
“While we’re here in the kitchen,” Phil said absently, leading Tony out from under the sink and carefully closing the cupboard door behind the inventor, “we might as well grab some of that extra strength ibuprofen. I believe you need it, in any case.”
“Not sick,” Tony said immediately, starting to pull away from Phil’s hand. “I’m not. I’m fine.”
Phil raised an eyebrow at the swaying, dizzy, and barely coherent man, and decided that whatever it was that prompted Tony to deny his illness could be dealt with later. “I don’t doubt that you will be fine,” he said solemnly, and Tony’s eyes focused in on Phil with a laser-like intensity at odds with his earlier distractedness, “but for right now, let me take care of you.”
After a long moment, Tony poked Phil in the chest. “No baths.”
Stifling a chuckle – it wouldn’t be well-received – Phil simply gave Tony a bland look. “You are pretty filthy. Cupboards are no places to sleep.”
“No baths,” Tony replied firmly, and then dropped his hand to tentatively curl his fingers against Phil’s wrist.
Accepting the trust in the gesture, and the out of character docility, Phil snagged the bottle of ibuprofen off the kitchen table and gently led Tony out of the kitchen and down the hall to Tony’s bedroom, Tony trailing behind him like a child.
“Sickness does make you much easier to deal with, Stark, I have to say. You wouldn’t think it, seeing what a fuss you kick up when you get wounded in battle—”
Which was as far as Phil got before Tony dug his heels in and glowered half-heartedly at Phil. “Not. Sick.”
“Very well,” Phil responded blandly. “Are you coming?”
Reluctantly, Tony began walking after Phil again, looking for all the world like a rumpled kitten. Phil resigned himself to the fact that he would be caring for Tony tonight – not that it was all that difficult, really, the man had to be running at least a 103 temperature from the feel of his skin – and wondered if Tony had caught the bug from one of his fellow Avengers or if he would be passing it around to Natasha and Clint soon enough. Clint was hell on wheels when he was sick, but Natasha was just as bad as Tony, apparently, holing herself up in unlikely spots until she was better again.
In Tony’s room, he sat Tony down on the edge of the bed and went to the bathroom to wet a washcloth with lukewarm water. Shoving the pills into Tony’s mouth and wiping his face and neck with the cloth, he urged Tony under the covers.
Tony went along with it obediently, blinking dazed eyes too wide to be really aware of everything that was going on, and when Phil was certain Tony was situated, and after giving JARVIS verbal instructions to monitor Tony’s temperature and let Phil know if it went higher than it was right now, Phil turned to leave.
“You won’ tell anyone ‘m sick, right?”
Phil half-turned back to the bed. “I thought you weren’t sick,” he said, gently teasing.
Then again, with Tony as out of it as he was, why he thought Tony would recognize the tease he wasn’t sure. Old habits, maybe. As it was, Tony nodded eagerly. “Not sick,” he repeated, rasping voice immediate and agreeable. “So – don’ tell anyone I am.”
“Your team would enjoy being able to care for you, after all you do for them.”
Tony blinked at Phil, and Phil sighed, positive Tony hadn’t caught that at all.
“We’re your family just as you’re ours. Family cares for each other when they’re sick, instead of letting it get this bad that we worry you’re going to cook your brains.”
Tony blinked again. “Not sick,” he whispered, the words faintly a question.
Nope, not getting through. With a small smile, Phil stepped back to Tony’s side and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Go to sleep, Tony,” he murmured. “We’ll keep watch. Whether you’re sick or not.”
“…Not,” Tony mumbled, and then he was asleep.
“Where are you going?”
The question penetrated the fog of Tony’s mind, and he blinked at Natasha, who was curled up in an armchair and eyeing him suspiciously. “To my room?” he asked.
“It’s movie night, Tony,” Bruce replied, peering at Tony over his glasses.
Now that Tony forced himself to notice, everyone was in the main room. Everyone except Thor, that is, who enjoyed popping the popcorn and was currently in the kitchen. He and Steve always took the extra popcorn – of which there was a lot, always – and fed the pigeons the next morning.
But Tony could feel the itch in the back of his throat and the muzziness in his head and he just wanted to find somewhere and curl up and just not think for a while. Sickness had always been something intensely private, something he’d never consciously shared with anyone. Maybe Jarvis, back in the day when he was nine or ten and feeling crappy, but he was a big boy now and…
“Tiring day today?” Steve asked, and his voice was understanding, commiserating. Tony worked at the downtown SI offices whenever they weren’t saving the world, and while his hours were much less than Pepper or Happy or any of his employees put in, he spent his day dealing with the idiots in R&D and on his board.
He could take advantage of Steve’s understanding nature, and Steve would keep the other Avengers from dragging him from his room and from his self-imposed isolation.
“Yeah,” he said slowly. “I’m just gonna – crash.”
Clint narrowed his eyes at Tony, and Tony vaguely remembered the archer dragging him out from underneath the television. But before Clint could say anything, Steve patted Tony’s shoulder and moved into the living room holding an array of DVDs. “Alright, Tony. Get some rest.”
Tony slunk out of the room before anyone could say anything more, and closed the door of his room behind him. His closet had a nice, cool, dark atmosphere, but it got a bit stuffy – under the bed, or in the bathroom cupboards, were better choices at the moment.
His mind traveled to the muffled sounds of everyone in the living room.
No, they’d be too loud. Too much light, too much movement. Stark men are iron, his father whispered in the back of his mind, and besides, he wasn’t that sick. Barely sick at all. Just a little head cold.
Family cares for each other when they’re sick.
Except Tony wasn’t sick.
Dumping the expensive suit and shoes and tie on the floor, he scrounged up his favorite hoodie – still smelling of Rhodey, of safety and strength – and a pair of sweatpants. He was beginning to shiver, and now was about the time he curled himself up somewhere small and told JARVIS to have everyone leave him alone unless his temperate spiked above 106.
But he could still hear the rest of the team, muted sounds of joy and teasing.
They wouldn’t appreciate someone sick around them, though. No one liked having someone sick around them, Tony least of all – having someone sick nearby practically guaranteed you’d get sick yourself.
“I’m insane, aren’t I, JARVIS?” he mumbled to himself as he dragged the thick wooly blanket off of his bed and wrapped it around his body.
“I am not one to judge, sir, though I must say I would rank this as one of your better decisions.”
“You would,” he muttered, opening the door and wincing at the light and the noise. At least he could control the hallway lighting – or, rather, JARVIS could, as the hallway dimmed to acceptable standards.
Tony crept down the hall and stood in the doorway of the living room, swaddled in thick clothes and a thicker blanket. It took moments for Natasha and Phil to notice him standing there, and mere seconds after them for the rest of the team to turn around.
Tony cringed under the weight of all those stares. “Y’know what, never—”
“Are you sick?” Steve asked, concern lacing his voice even as he stood up and began moving to Tony’s side.
Reflexively, Tony said, “Not sick,” at the same time that Clint and Agent Coulson did. He stared at them and they stared back at him.
Then Bruce was there at his side, lightly pressing the back of his palm to Tony’s forehead. “You’re starting to run a low-grade fever,” he murmured. “You wanna huddle on the couch with us? Thor and Steve are better furnaces than any blanket.”
“Geez, Tony, we can keep it down if you want, turn the movie down a bit, JARVIS?” Steve said at the same time, but his voice was as soft as Bruce’s.
Thor’s deep rumble sounded from behind Steve, but it wasn’t booming or loud or anything abrasive – if anything, it sounded like the gentle purr of one of Tony’s cars. “My fair Jane has taught me of the broth of chickens, to ease Midgardian illnesses. Shall I make some for thee, Tony?”
And somehow Tony found himself herded over to the couch, Steve sitting down in the middle and then pulling Tony down next to him, arranging Tony against his side. Bruce made murmuring sounds and stuck pills down Tony’s throat – Thor brought out a cup of soup, winking at Tony about this ‘broth of chickens’ and playing up his Asgardian ignorance to make Tony smile. The strange thing was… Tony did.
Smile, that is. And laugh a little, and accept the cool hands pressed against his brow from various different people. He appreciated Natasha’s smooth control over the light and the sound – both of which cut down drastically – and gratefully took the extra blanket Clint brought for him. Agent took his temperature and consulted with Bruce, before they declared letting him try to sweat it out there on the couch.
Steve’s arm curled around his shoulders, even as he and Thor – Thor had sat down on the other side of Tony, lending his heat as well – made certain not to jostle Tony while he sipped every so often at the mug of chicken broth Thor had made for Tony. His team continued to talk around him, but in soft voices, soothing voices, and Tony found the kindness comforting. He found himself drifting asleep – nimble fingers, Natasha most likely, saved the mug before it spilled anywhere, and then strong arms and hands were arranging him gently so that he could lie down, his head in Thor’s lap and his legs in Steve’s. Surrounded as he was by his team, he felt… safe. Protected.
He drifted in and out of sleep, and he knew his fever was climbing as he began to shiver and shake. But no one pushed him away – no one condemned him for it. Even when he threw up on Thor’s feet, apologizing through the convulsions and cramps of his stomach, the steady hands in his hair and rubbing against his back never disappeared. Instead, someone brought him water to rinse out his mouth, and someone else gave him mint to clear the taste from his mouth. Thor left, presumably because he needed to change his pants and shoes, and Tony knew he was babbling apologies, but no one… no one got mad at him.
His team was there, throughout it all, and it was sobering to know it.
Family, he thought fuzzily, even as Thor’s gentle rumble reappeared, and his large hands caressed Tony’s hair.
“’Least he’s not hiding under the TV this time,” he could hear Clint murmur, and Natasha and Agent laughed.
“I found him under the kitchen sink,” Agent replied.
Tony would lift a hand to give them the finger, he really would, only he was so warm and comfortable, he couldn’t be bothered to move. And they weren’t – they weren’t insulting him. They were just his teammates, giving him a gentle ribbing.
Tony fell fully asleep, fever broken, curled up between Thor and Steve, with Bruce and Agent checking on him periodically, and found that this experience was light-years better than any other one he’d had when sick.
Well. Not really sick.