It began with the sniffles and a sore throat, or so he was told. He had no intention of catching the death plague currently making the rounds of the compound.
Personally, Tony blamed the renegade faction for the outbreak of colds amongst the Avengers and their support staff. After all, the Barton family was struck first, and it had happened very soon after Barton (and the rest of them) returned to the compound. Coincidence? He thought not.
It was true that kids had a well-deserved reputation as germ magnets, but Barton's kids were decent and he could vouch for them not having been anywhere to pick up any such nonsense. They'd been at the compound for months, and the only place they ever went was the public library. (Which he still didn't understand, it's not like he couldn't buy them any book they wanted, but Laura insisted.)
In any case, the rampant cold germs were his excuse for shutting himself in his workshop and avoiding contact with just about everyone. Rhodey was the only one he saw with any regularity, and even that hadn't happened since Rhodey contracted the cold of doom. He'd sent a bot up to Rhodey's room with a package of hospital masks in encouragement, but his friend hadn't made an appearance for a few days.
Perhaps it really was a death plague. He should probably check, but then he might run into one of the many people he didn't want to deal with. Like Barton. Or, worse, Rogers.
Sometimes he wondered why he didn't just go back to the Tower. But Rhodey was here, and he'd gone to the trouble of bringing the bots and they hated any change in surroundings after what happened in Malibu.
And there was the pride aspect: he was Tony Stark, for god's sake, and he wasn't going to let a bunch of criminals run him out. Never mind that he'd agreed to this 'rehabilitation' scheme concocted to keep them out of Ross's hands, and never mind that Rogers claimed he'd like to mend the rift between them. There were things that happened that he wasn't ready to forgive.
He cleared his throat for the millionth time that hour and tried to focus on the suit upgrades he was working on, but his mind felt sluggish and dull. He gulped the last of his cold coffee, wiped his nose on his sleeve, and heaved a sigh that ended in a slight cough.
"Friday, display vitals," he said, his growing suspicion quickly confirmed by the numbers on the screen. Heart rate and respiration slightly elevated, body temperature a full degree above his usual.
His self-quarantine was for naught. He'd caught it anyway.
"J--goddamn it, Friday--why is it so fucking cold in here?" He hoped it was his imagination that his voice sounded hoarse. He swallowed down a cough as he shivered and curled up more tightly on the workshop futon, clutching the thin blanket with trembling fingers.
"The ambient temperature has not changed, boss, but your internal temperature has risen another half degree. You should consider medication to alleviate the symptoms."
"Don't you sass me. I didn't program you to sass me," he grumbled. He should have thought of drugs sooner. She should have suggested drugs sooner. He'd only been feeling progressively worse for at least twelve hours.
But people. Namely Rogers and company. Right. He was avoiding them, especially now that he'd caught the death plague. No point in giving them more to needle him about. He could take care of himself.
But drugs. Sweet, sweet drugs to calm the pounding in his head and maybe let him sleep without coughing himself awake. He should keep a stock of drugs in the workshop, because he needed them and didn't have them and that was unacceptable.
He needed drugs. "Friday, where are the drugs?"
"The cold medication is on the counter in the kitchen area."
Ugh. Common area. There would be people, probably. But also drugs.
Moving took way more effort than it should have. The elevator wall was nice and cool against his face, though, and it meant there didn't have to be stairs. Both good things.
Tony could feel a cold sweat gathering under his rumpled clothes as he approached the doorway. He hoped it was from the effort of moving or the anxiety about who he might have to face while retrieving his needed drugs. If the cold sweat was thanks to the stupid virus, then it had already developed further than he'd realized and he might have bigger things to worry about.
He dismissed the tightness in his chest as the result of exertion.
Rhodey had just about given up on Tony making any sort of overtures toward getting the team back together. They'd exchanged sharp words on that very subject less than a week ago, right before he'd gotten a bit of the cold that was going around and he'd decided to leave Tony to it for a few days in hopes that would get through his stubborn skull.
Predictably, Tony seemed unmoved and had not shown his face for days. Rhodey could understand some of it, he really could, but Tony was beyond the point of reason and far off into the land of ego.
After all that, it was a surprise when Tony appeared in the common area as everyone else was sitting down to lunch. The Barton kids were thrilled to see him and ran over to hug him before he reached the table.
"Hey, kids. Uncle Tony needs some cold medicine, okay?"
Rhodey was alarmed by the rough sound of Tony's voice.
He was even more alarmed by the ashen color of his skin. "Friday, get Doctor Harris up here pronto. Tell her Tony's picked up that cold," he ordered as he rose from the table.
"Is Stark such a delicate flower that he needs a doctor for a cold?" Barton asked snidely.
There were other comments like "drama queen" and "just wants attention" murmured behind him with varying degrees of venom, but Rhodey ignored them.
Tony had made it as far as the kitchen island and seemed uncertain where to go next. Rhodey put a hand on his shoulder and grimaced. "Jesus, Tony, you're burning up. How long has this been going on?"
Tony shrugged absently. "A few hours. Where are the drugs?"
"No drugs until the doctor has a look at you. Why didn't you come up sooner?"
"Didn't want to bother," he said. Rhodey wasn't sure if Tony had intended to say more or not, but anything else was lost in a fit of coughing that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. It sounded wheezing and wet and painful and all of those things meant potentially bad news.
Tony reached for him and managed to grasp part of his sleeve before his legs gave way beneath him. Rhodey tried to catch him but went down with him in an awkward tangle, though he somehow prevented Tony from hitting his head on the counter on the way to the floor.
Rhodey cradled Tony in his arms, Tony's head resting on his shoulder. Tony seemed dazed, like he wasn't quite present. "Someone get me a damp cloth," Rhodey said shortly.
A washcloth materialized in his line of sight a moment later. "What's going on?" Steve asked, crouching next to them.
Rhodey shook his head sharply. "I'll explain later. Tony, are you with me?" he asked, pressing the cool cloth against Tony's neck and cheeks before draping it on his forehead.
"Shit," Tony said eloquently. "I swear, it wasn't this bad before." He started coughing again, and Rhodey helped him lean forward to make it a little easier.
Hurried footsteps approached and Steve gestured the doctor over. "That doesn't sound right," Doctor Harris said, kneeling in front of Rhodey and dropping her equipment bags on either side of her. She pulled out a stethoscope and listened carefully, then took Tony's pulse and checked his temperature.
"What's the verdict?" Rhodey asked.
"I'm calling an ambulance. He needs to be at the hospital."
"Do you disagree?" she asked candidly.
Tony shook his head. "No," he whispered, wheezing and trying not to cough again.
"Do you want oxygen?"
Tony took a careful inhale and still choked a little. "I'd better," he said softly. "Don't want to lose too many brain cells." He could only get out one or two words at a time and it was miserable to hear.
"Your brain cells would be perfectly safe if you were less of an idiot," Rhodey scolded.
Dr. Harris quickly got an oxygen mask onto Tony before stepping aside, her phone to her ear.
Steve seemed bewildered. "Why does Tony need to go to the hospital? Isn't it just a cold?"
Tony pulled the mask off his face slightly. "Bum lungs," he said hoarsely.
Rhodey shoved the mask back onto his face. "I'll talk. You breathe." He took a steadying breath, then adjusted the washcloth on Tony's forehead as he spoke. "What do you know about the arc reactor?"
In the time it took for the ambulance to arrive, Rhodey explained how the combination of shrapnel, palladium poisoning, and the arc reactor had done a number to Tony's lungs. "He's down to around two thirds the normal lung capacity and only about half of normal lung function from all the scarring. It makes him more vulnerable to illness," he finished as the paramedics approached.
Tony moved as if he was going to stand up, but Rhodey held him in place and the paramedics carefully lifted him onto the stretcher. Steve helped Rhodey regain his feet while Tony was buckled in and his oxygen mask was exchanged with the one the paramedics had brought.
Rhodey started toward the stretcher and Natasha appeared at his side. She shoved a bag at him. "Your lunch," she said. "Since you're going with him."
He accepted it without taking the time to look inside. "Thanks."
"You'll keep us updated." It, like the previous comment, wasn't a question.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket to check its charge. "Yep, will do."
"Will Uncle Tony be okay?" one of the kids asked tremulously. Probably Lila, she was fond of Uncle Tony.
Tony gave her a thumbs up as the paramedics raised the stretcher and started rolling it away.
Rhodey's answer was more circumspect. "We hope so," he said before hurrying to follow.
Once Tony was settled in the ambulance, Rhodey sat where he could see and reach him. "Hey, you doing okay?" he asked, gripping Tony's hand.
Tony squeezed back, but the bravado he'd put on for the kids had melted away. He looked quite ill and there was fear in his eyes. Fortunately the hospital wasn't far.
Tony's grip on Rhodey's hand faltered before they arrived.
Stunned silence followed the departure of the paramedics with Tony and Rhodey. Dr. Harris packed up her equipment and Steve offered to help her carry it back down to the medical floor.
He waited until they were in the elevator to speak. "What will happen?"
She shrugged. "They'll pump him full of IV antibiotics and fluids and hope for the best. He could end up on a ventilator for a while. Once he's out of the hospital he'll be looking at weeks of recovery. Pneumonia isn't kind to lungs like his."
"But he will recover," Steve said, holding onto that word so the rest couldn't concern him as much. He followed her off the elevator and she paused in the hallway where there was no one to overhear.
"I can't guarantee anything," she cautioned. "All I can say is that he's recovered in the past."
"This has happened before?"
"Don't ask me for details, I can't give them to you. But yes, from what Rhodes has told me previously, it has happened before."
He returned to the team and told them what he found out, then all they could do was wait.
Rhodey's first text to Nat came less than an hour after they'd left.
He's got a room in ICU and most likely has pneumonia.
The second text came shortly thereafter.
It's definitely pneumonia. They've got him on antibiotics.
Nat texted back. Visitors?
Not yet. They're still trying to stabilize him.
What does that mean?
Minutes dragged by without a response.
Finally, almost an hour later: He's going downhill fast despite the meds.
Should we be worried?