Five days after they sent Loki back to Asgard with Thor -- and, Steve truly if ashamedly hoped, to the worst prison Asgard had to offer -- Tony Stark got bronchitis.
Steve was made aware not because he was especially friends with the man now, or even because they had spent any more time together after shaking hands and parting ways, but because Fury recalled him from Philadelphia, where he'd been making something of a pilgrimage. He felt about as cracked as the Liberty Bell, and he'd thought that somehow he might find some insight on the journey, or get an epiphany from looking at her, but he should have known better. The poor old dame was silent and surrounded by bored kids and unimpressed parents.
So when Fury called, even though he was technically on leave, Steve answered. When he said Steve was being asked to return to New York to serve as standby head of the Avengers, Steve said, "What, did Stark stop answering your calls?"
"Didn't have much choice," Fury replied. "Potts just got in touch. He's down with bronchitis. Should only be a few days, but with New York still rebuilding -- "
"No, I understand," Steve said, a frisson of worry coursing through him. Bronchitis was a serious illness. A few days seemed highly optimistic.
He collected his bags and his bike from the motel he'd parked himself at, ate lunch before leaving Philly, and made good time to New York. SHIELD had put him in temporary housing before the Chitauri, and fortunately the apartment block in Brooklyn had survived, but it wasn't really very...homey. It was clean, a little shabby, and mostly devoid of personal touches. His own fault, really.
He looked around as he took out his phone. Funny how one good battle could reorient your life. Maybe he'd hang some posters or something, make the place his.
First things first; if Stark was out and since he didn't have Ms. Potts' number, he'd have to call his favorite spy.
"Hey, old man," Natasha answered. "How's Philadelphia?"
"Your intel's out of date," he said, amused. "I'm back in New York. Fury's got me on call."
"Oh? I've been busy."
"Anything I should know about?"
"Loki left a network of baddies behind him. Clint had names, so we're taking out the trash."
"Atta girl," he said, and then wondered if that was offensive. She just laughed. "Listen, I need a number for Pepper Potts. Fury says Stark's out, which is why I'm up, and I want to debrief."
"You want to debrief Pepper Potts?" Natasha asked.
Steve hesitated. "He's got bronchitis," he said quietly. If Stark didn't make it, he'd need to know what Stark had known.
"So? Z-pack'll fix him up," Natasha replied carelessly.
"Z...pack?" he asked.
"Ah. Strong antibiotics." Her voice turned just barely kind. "Bronchitis usually isn't terminal in healthy adults anymore, especially ones with access to the kind of medical care Stark Industries has. Tony'll be fine."
"Oh." He considered this. "Well, I should speak with her anyway, shouldn't I?"
"Definitely," she replied, sounding gleeful. "Actually I want to be there for that. I'll set up a breakfast debrief for tomorrow. You just show up at Stark Tower at eight and I'll see you there, okay?"
"Are you sure?"
"Believe me, it'll be the highlight of my week. Do not wear plaid, Steve."
"You're not the boss of me," he tried, and she cackled and hung up.
Natasha did meet him in the lobby of Stark Tower the next morning, tsked over the suit he was wearing (NOT plaid), and then guided him past security and into Stark's private elevator, smiling at the guards as if they were old friends.
"I once went undercover in Stark Industries, and my ID's still good," she said, as they ascended.
"Undercover as what?" he asked, then felt his face heat.
"Sexy lawyer," she replied. "My job was to keep an eye on Tony."
"In that case, I'm shocked you had time for anything else."
She shot him a grin in the elevator's reflection. "I thought you two kissed and made up."
"Made up, maybe," he agreed.
"Well, be careful around here. The walls have ears," she said.
"Penthouse," said a tinny voice in an English accent, and the doors slid open.
Steve had never actually met Pepper Potts. He'd seen video clips and he'd been briefed on her, but she hadn't come to Loki's little going-away party. She was unusually tall and unbelievably beautiful in person. She and Natasha hugged like old friends, Ms. Potts exclaiming over her hair (apparently she'd cut it since they last met) before coming forward to offer her hand.
"And you're Steve Rogers. I understand you're here to pick my brain," she said.
Steve fumbled for words. "Only on the relevant subjects, ma'am," he managed. Behind Ms. Potts, Natasha gave him a look that said it had sounded exactly as stilted and awkward as he thought.
"Well, it shouldn't take long; I know a great deal about Stark Industries but probably less than you do about the Avengers Initiative," she said. "Call me Pepper, everyone does."
"How's Mr. Stark?" Steve asked, following her and Natasha into an enormous kitchen, and down to a table at one end, with a gorgeous view of the city.
"Cranky. He hates being sick. Fever messes with his thinking and there's nothing Tony hates more than feeling stupid," she replied. "Fortunately for me, he usually spends the whole time in bed and lets me get on with things."
"Does this happen often?" Steve asked.
Pepper looked at him, carefully neutral.
"Tony manages his health as best he can, between being a chronic workaholic and a superhero who gets dinged around in a tin can," Pepper said. "Smoothie?"
Steve took the cup that was offered him, peered at it, and decided it probably wouldn't kill him. It didn't taste half-bad, in fact. Natasha selected a croissant and a bowl of fruit from the spread on the table.
"But I don't think Tony's health is what you wanted to ask me about," Pepper continued.
"No -- I thought it might be good if I had a better picture of the Avengers. Stark's been more fully briefed than I have," Steve said.
"By which he means, Tony's hacked pretty deep," Natasha added.
"And of course I'd like to know in a general sense what his plans are for the team. If he has any assessments he's done himself, any strategies for the future. I understand he has a friend, Colonel Rhodes, who might stand in for him? War Machine? I don't have full specs on its capabilities."
"Nor will you -- not full specs," Pepper said. "I can give you the basics, but the tech is proprietary."
"All due respect, ma'am, I wouldn't understand the tech anyway," Steve said with a smile.
"All due respect in return, Captain, I've seen the team assessments and I think that's probably untrue," she replied. "But I appreciate the thought. So -- "
They were interrupted by a noise, a sort of cross between a huff and a sneeze, and Steve turned in surprise to find Tony Stark in the entrance to the kitchen.
He looked terrible -- chalk-white skin, pale lips, deep dark circles under his eyes. Under his open robe he was wearing a t-shirt that read I GOT TRASHED AT STARK EXPO and a pair of striped pajama bottoms that had seen better days. He looked up at the same time Steve turned, and they blinked at each other for a while.
"You've never looked sexier, Tony," Natasha drawled from behind Steve.
It was almost like a visible gearshift -- Stark's eyes cleared a little and his head came up that much further, toes curling against the kitchen tile.
"You say that now," he wheezed, "but you haven't seen the mucus yet."
"I thought we agreed you were staying in bed," Pepper said. Steve realized he was still staring, but he wasn't sure what else he could do.
"I desperately wanted to, but if I lie down I can't breathe and if I sit up I can't sleep, and also America is here in my kitchen, so I came to say hi," Tony said. He waved at Steve listlessly. "Hi."
"Fury said you were down for the count," Steve said. "Figured it'd take more than a little bug to put you out of commission."
"Shows what you know, I'm a delicate flower," Stark replied, pouring himself some coffee from a complicated machine on the counter. Pepper got up, lifted the coffee out of his hand, and deftly replaced it with an empty cup that she refilled from a different spigot. She popped a tea bag into the cup and watched him, daring him to object.
"Steve wanted to make sure he had all your briefing materials before you died," Natasha put in, as Stark shrugged and began dumping honey into his tea.
"Bronchitis is a serious condition, where I'm from," Steve felt compelled to point out. "Nearly got me twice as a kid."
"Well, if you have any solutions to the breathing and sleeping issue, I'm willing to workshop it," Stark said. He gave the tea a resigned slurp.
Steve glanced at Pepper for permission, and Stark caught it; he laughed, which turned into a wracking cough.
"Are you seriously going to suggest some old-timey cure?" he asked, between coughs. "Captain America defeats aliens, also modern medicine?"
"Well, not if you're gonna be a jerk about it," Steve said, without much heat, and he heard Natasha snort.
"No, by all means." Stark waved a hand. "Hit me with your best shot, Old Fashioned."
"You got any kind of spirit stove?" Steve asked Pepper, who frowned. "Like a single-burner stove, chemical fuel...?"
"We have an electric hot plate the caterers use, I think," she said. "Plugs into the wall."
"Sounds like it'll do," Steve said, shrugging out of his suit jacket and rolling up his sleeves. He remembered this from his mother, the...the bustle of healing. And at least it was more useful than staring slack-jawed at a sick billionaire. "Natasha, would you get a pot of water boiling?"
"This seems fun," she observed, taking the pot that Pepper dug out of a cupboard. Steve held his hand out to Tony, not quite touching yet.
"Can I?" he asked. Tony looked at Steve's hand, looked at him, narrowed his eyes.
"Wash your hands first," he said. It came out harsh, but Steve ignored it; it wasn't a dumb idea. He went to the sink, scrubbing thoroughly, then tentatively hovered a palm over Tony's arm. Tony nodded and let himself be guided back through the doorway, half-leading because Steve didn't know where the bedroom was. It surprised him quite a bit when they got there; the bed was simple, the room spartan except for worktables and floor lamps --
"Jesus christ," Steve managed, as one of the lamps moved.
"Ignore him, he just wants attention," Tony said, and Steve wasn't sure if he was talking to Steve or to what he now recognized as a robot, not a lamp. "That's Dummy," he added. The robot had a surgical mask hung around one of the joints of its arm.
"Okay," Steve agreed, bewildered, and herded Tony towards the bed. "Hot plate on the floor, next to the bed, please, Pepper?"
While Pepper got the hot plate plugged in and turned on, Steve turned his attention to the bed. The sheets were rumpled, so he straightened them, then pulled one of the numerous pillows up to the headboard, setting another one perpendicular to it on the bed, so they formed an L. He began propping others against them, wherever they would fit.
"Are you building a fort?" Tony asked, watching him in perplexity.
"More like a foxhole," Steve said, and Tony coughed, which might have been a laugh. Steve studied the pillows, then picked up a blanket from a nearby chair and tucked it around them, holding them in place.
"In, on your side," he said. Tony went without even cracking a joke, lying down on top of the blanket he'd just tucked around the pillows. Steve could see him trembling minutely. He remembered the way a fever could make you freeze.
"Almost done," he said, in the brisk tones he remembered from his mother, and shoved another pillow up against Tony's chest, tugging until the one under his head was only supporting the back of it. When he pulled on his shoulder gently, Tony tipped forward with a whuff, face at the edge of the mattress, body propped by pillows.
"I'm taking so many pictures," Pepper announced, as Steve pulled the sheet and duvet over Tony's shoulders, tucking them up around his neck.
"You go straight to hell with your pictures," Tony answered. Natasha appeared in the doorway with the pot of steaming water. Steve nudged the hot plate over until it was as close as safety allowed, below Tony's face where he was lying, leaning over the very edge of the bed. When he put the pot of water down on top of it, steam rose, and -- gratifyingly -- Tony's eyes slid shut.
"Ohhhhh," he managed, his whole body slumping. His breath rasped in his throat a few times and then quieted down.
Steve saw Pepper taking pictures and grinned at her.
"Steam bath is good for the skin, too," he said. Natasha made a snorting noise. "Smooths out all those worry lines."
"I heard that," Tony mumbled.
"You stay there and sleep, I've got to conspire with Pepper about a coup," Steve informed him, as Pepper and Natasha crept out of the room. Without thinking about it, he did the last thing he always remembered his mother doing before he'd fall asleep in a similar position -- he tucked his fingers between Tony's head and the pillow, smoothing the hair back so it wouldn't irritate him.
Steve didn't know if Tony even remembered him showing up in the middle of his struggle with bronchitis, later. Pepper did, though, and texted him to say that Tony was up and around and feeling better after a few days. Even so, the cough was still lingering when, three weeks later, he met with Tony and the other Avengers in a conference room at Stark Tower. Still, Tony seemed about as prickly and sharp-tongued as ever, which in its own way was reassuring.
Especially since apparently not only did Tony want the Avengers to have proper written bylaws -- shocking in itself, given the man's penchant for going off-book -- but he wanted the Avengers to live in Stark Tower.
"All of us in one place?" Bruce asked. "You sure that's smart?"
"Well, it's not like we'll be sharing a bathroom," Tony said, and then discreetly coughed into his sleeve.
"I was thinking more from the standpoint of one tactical strike taking us all out," Bruce said.
"I've thought about that," Clint said, startling everyone. He'd been...very quiet.
"You have?" Steve asked.
"Seemed like the logical next step, keeping the team in one place. Training, bonding..." Clint waved a hand. "There's the tactical-strike issue but I think this is actually a solution to a problem nobody saw."
"Which is?" Natasha prompted, a little grin on her face. It looked like Clint got underestimated a lot, Steve thought, and Natasha enjoyed watching him demolish that...lack of expectation.
"You get six tac teams and you hit everyone at once in separate locations, everyone goes down. Maybe one gets away," Clint said. "You get six tac teams and hit Stark Tower, we all fight together, probably more'n half of us get away, if they get any of us at all. Any sensible baddie's going to think it's honestly too much work."
Everyone, even Tony, looked to Steve.
"I think Clint's right," he said. Clint looked especially pleased by this.
"Well," Tony said, still sounding a little startled. "In that case, the tower is move-in ready. Get in touch with the scheduler in your hilariously old-timey paper briefing packets, and they'll put you in touch with Stark Freight and Cargo, who can help you move in."
Steve, who didn't really have enough to warrant calling a mover, spoke to a nice English man on the phone, and showed up a few days later with his army duffel, the trunk his Captain America effects were stashed in, and a box of books.
He was putting the books away on a shelf, thinking that this time he would definitely find some posters to hang up at least, when JARVIS -- who would take some getting used to -- announced, "Mr. Stark is on his way to see you, Captain Rogers."
"Thanks for the warning," Steve replied, just as Tony arrived, knocking on the open door.
"Welcome wagon," he called out, hacked dryly against his shoulder, and held up a bottle of wine. "You're the second one moving in today, so you get the cheap stuff."
"Oh? Who beat me to the champagne?" Steve asked, setting his books aside.
"Bruce. He had even less shit than you apparently do, so he deserves some small delights," Tony replied. "Clint and Natasha are moving in tomorrow, they'll get a six-pack of microbrew. If Thor ever shows up again, he's getting the piss beer."
"And probably be thrilled to have it," Steve said, stretching. Tony stifled a cough. "How are those steam baths going?"
"Can't you tell? All my worry lines are gone," Tony replied, and deftly changed the subject. Steve noticed that whenever he coughed, or was about to, he'd press the heel of his hand over the little glowing light in his chest. And whenever Steve circled back around to matters of health, he tended to derail them. Which was interesting, but not unexpected.
It became part of a pattern in the weeks that followed, as Tony's cough cleared. Just when Steve thought he had him pinned down, he'd do something surprising; just when he thought he had him figured out, something would shift. It wasn't like Howard, who had been slippery and clever; Tony was straightforward, in his own way. He was just much more complicated than his father, or perhaps Steve hadn't noticed, because Howard had been a good engineer and a helpful armorer but he hadn't been a teammate. Howard didn't really do teams, unless they were teams of chorus girls.
Steve had thought the preoccupation with washing and cleanliness, so odd in a man often covered in engine grease, was to do with the recent bout with bronchitis. But even once Tony stopped coughing, he insisted -- shoes off in the common kitchen or on his floor, hands washed before helping prepare a meal or eating one. Steve had thought his dislike at being handed things was some sort of...game, a manipulation, but he did it to everyone except Pepper (and, eventually, Bruce). If he saw it coming he'd find a casual way to avoid it, but if he was caught off-guard, he'd shy away skittishly, then cover it smoothly.
Looking back, it was embarrassing how long it took Steve to put the pieces together.
"You know, for a guy who blows stuff up for a living, you're pretty fastidious," Clint was saying one afternoon, just before a late lunch, when Tony insisted not only on washing his hands before eating but also on scrubbing the spoon they were dishing out the spaghetti with.
"So wrong in so many ways!" Tony answered lightly. "A, I do not blow stuff up for a living, and never did. I used to make stuff that blew up other stuff for a living, and now I blow stuff up as an unpaid hobby while making my living from making stuff that should never, ever blow up." He finished washing the spoon, dried it with a paper towel, and dished up food for himself before sticking the spoon upright in the pasta so Bruce could take it. "And B, I am not overly fastidious," he continued. "I just don't like getting sick, and it happens enough as it is."
"Shrinking violet," Natasha said, taking the spoon from Bruce.
"I believe I have informed you previously that I am a delicate flower," Tony pointed out. Natasha looked at him, lifted the spoon, and ran her tongue all over it. Steve glanced at Tony, who made a face.
"You are childish and gross," Tony told her. "Steve, use another spoon."
"It's fine," Steve said, taking the spoon and giving her a warning look. "Super soldier serum means I can't get cooties," he added, trying out a slang term that had arisen during his time in the ice. The laughter from Bruce and Clint told him he'd probably used it correctly. "You are very gross though," he told Natasha.
"Someday I'm going to decode your DNA," Tony said, seating himself and digging into his bowl of pasta. "Then I, too, will be beautiful, young, and disease-free forever."
"Live the dream," Clint said.
"Too late to be young forever," Bruce added.
"I'd settle for disease-free," Tony said. "Hell, I'd settle for sick twice a year."
"You don't get bronchitis that often, do you?" Steve asked.
"Bronchitis, no, that one's generally in the spring or late fall," Tony said. "Angina, strep throat, the flu no matter how many stupid flu shots I get, food poisoning. I'm hoping you people will be my herd immunity," he added, pointing at all of them with his fork. "You're all healthy and probably aren't carriers, so your good health protects mine. But I still have to do meet and greets, governance meetings, galas, R&D conferences, and let me tell you no matter how Stark Industries pushes workplace wellness, all offices everywhere are terrible vectors for disease."
"Isn't that a little unfair?" Clint said.
"No, it is exactly fair. JARVIS?"
"The workplace is the most common locale for 82% of all disease contracted by healthy adults," JARVIS recited.
"Really I blame children for it, because they sit around and lick each other at school all day and then go home and shove their fingers in their parents' mouths and everyone thinks it's cute but it's not," Tony said, with a dramatic shudder. "It's why we haven't been able to cure the common cold."
"Lack of discipline in children?" Steve asked.
"Exactly. Damn them all," Tony replied with a grin.
Two days later, Tony got the flu.
"Motherfucker!" Steve heard him yelling, and when he walked into the kitchen Tony was glaring at the coffee machine. Being fair, the yelling was more like Mudderfuger.
"You sound awful," he said. Tony whipped around to glare at him. "And very angry," Steve added warily.
"I think I have the flu," Tony rasped. He pinched his nose shut and closed his eyes; Steve remembered that feeling, shifting the pressure around until your ears popped. "I'm waiting on the test results now."
"You saw a doctor at five in the morning?" Steve asked, very gently nudging him out of the way and reaching around the coffee machine to plug it in. Tony looked enraged that such a simple fix had escaped him.
"No. I have rapid diagnostic tests in my workshop," he said sullenly. "They take fifteen minutes, I just wanted some goddamn coffee," he added, loudly, apparently addressing the coffee machine. It gurgled in response, which might have been JARVIS's sense of humor.
"And if it's the flu?" Steve asked. His anxiety around illness had gotten a little better since he'd had ample evidence that modern medicine could generally take care of stuff that used to kill people when Steve was a child, but that had given way mainly to a kind of fascination with how the cures worked.
"Tamiflu. Stark Medical keeps me stocked with antivirals," Tony replied.
"Is that legal?"
"Why, are you gonna bust me if I say no?"
"Have you told Pepper you might have the flu?" Steve asked, and Tony's swagger decreased a little.
"I'll let her know once the test comes back," he muttered. "And once I have coffee."
"You know if you have the flu she wouldn't like you drinking coffee."
"Well, she's not my boss," Tony replied. "I mean, she is my boss. But not personally. It's not like we're dating."
"Aren't you?" Steve asked. He'd just...assumed. All the tabloids said they were.
"No. Keeps people off her back as CEO if they think she is, and keeps gold-diggers off mine," Tony replied. He reached under Steve's arm to grab the coffee carafe, pouring it into a clean mug.
"Oh," Steve said thoughtfully.
"Why, are you into her? You're both very tall, so you've got that in common," Tony said, around sips of coffee.
"No, not her," Steve said absently, then bit his lip, but Tony didn't appear to notice.
There was a soft beep and JARVIS said, "Test positive, Sir."
"Ah, fuck," Tony mumbled into his coffee. "Okay, what's my week like?"
"Clearing your calendar now," JARVIS replied. "Operation Soup is an option, Sir. Shall I activate?"
Tony sighed. "Yeah, you'd better."
"What's Operation Soup?" Steve asked.
"Initiating," JARVIS intoned.
"I'm going to bed, try and sleep while I can," Tony said.
"Tony, what's Operation Soup?" Steve persisted. "Do you need soup?"
"No, Cap, I'm good!" Tony called congestedly from the elevators. "JARVIS, keep an eye out!"
"For what?" Steve managed, but Tony was already vanishing behind the elevators doors. "JARVIS?"
"Mr. Stark would like me to watch for a guest. If you could remain within the Tower for the next four hours, or at least be available three hours from now on an ongoing basis, it would be appreciated, Captain," JARVIS said.
"Why?" Steve asked, bewildered.
"I am anticipating aid for Mr. Stark arriving in roughly four hours," JARVIS said. "My physical limitations can make welcoming people difficult."
"Well, I mean...sure, I can let the doctor in or whatever," Steve said.
"Thank you, Captain. Mr. Stark values your concern for his health."
"He does?" Steve asked, bewilderment mounting.
"Of course. Mr. Stark appreciates when others understand his unique needs."
"Oh. Well, I'm glad," Steve replied truthfully.
Four hours later, Steve was not so glad.
It wasn't a doctor who showed up after all; it was James Rhodes, the War Machine. Steve had met him before, and he'd liked him, but their meeting had been brief and Steve had been more concerned with other things at the time. This time, Rhodes arrived in his War Machine armor with a giant hot bag strapped to his chest.
"Hey, Captain," Rhodes said with a nod, as the removal rig took his armor and Steve opened the door to the landing pad. "JARVIS said you were around. Some kind of job keeping Tony Stark from death's door, huh?"
"Is that why you're here?" Steve asked, as Rhodes began unpacking food from the hot bag -- two huge gallon containers of soup, plus enough noodles, rice, and various other dishes to choke a whale.
"Normally I wouldn't jump just because Tony asked me to, but I was more or less in the neighborhood, and he doesn't trust anyone else with The Soup," Rhodes replied. "Bowl, please?"
Steve, unsure what else to do, took down a bowl, and in a weird act of defiance he couldn't explain even to himself, put a spoon in it. Rhodes took the spoon, stirred up the soup, and dished broth, noodles, tofu, and greens into the bowl.
"Tony doesn't usually like ordering out," Steve felt obliged to say. "He says most restaurants are germ traps."
"Don't I know it. But this place has really high hygiene ratings from the health inspector, Tony runs some kind of algorithm to track all that stuff. And he loves this soup," Rhodes said with a shrug. "It's Hot-and-Sour. He says it cleans out the sinuses."
"What's in it?" Steve asked.
"Hell if I know. Tofu, onions, miso? The deal is, if I bring him the soup, he pays for whatever I want. I figured since you're all here now, I'd just bring a double order of everything and share. Dig in," Rhodes offered, gesturing at the hot bag.
"I can take the soup in -- " Steve began, but Rhodes waved him off.
"Nah, I got this," he replied. "JARVIS, call everyone, tell them Chinese is here. Save me some noodles, I'll be out in an hour or two."
"An hour or two?" Steve said to himself, once Rhodes was out of earshot.
Sure enough, two hours later, Steve knocked gently on Tony's door and it was Rhodes who called, "Come in!"
Tony, Steve was pleased to see, had built himself a pillow foxhole this time, and was mostly faceplanted into a pillow, while Rhodes was sprawled on a chair next to the bed.
"I hear I subsidized dinner," Tony said, muffled by the pillow.
"Clint ate his weight in fried rice," Steve said, which was more or less true. "I thought I'd look in and see how you were."
"Rhodey's keeping me entertained," Tony replied. Rhodes gave Tony an affectionate look that made Steve prickle jealously, though he knew he shouldn't. After all, this was Rhodey -- they'd been friends for decades. Steve had heard Tony talk about him often enough and that never bothered him.
Different with him here in the flesh, though.
"Want me to take a shift so you can get some eats?" Steve asked.
"Nah, I'll bore this guy to sleep first," Rhodey said.
"He should sleep," Steve agreed. Tony peered at him from the pillows with one eye.
"He's kicking you out, Bean Sprout," he said to Rhodey.
"I'm tough to kick," Rhodey replied calmly.
"Go, eat," Tony said. "I'll be fine with Steve."
Rhodey nodded, offering Steve a high-five as he left, which Steve fumbled. He sat down in the chair and stretched out. Tony cleared his throat, sounding miserable.
"I could have gone on the soup run, y'know," Steve said, trying not to sound reproachful.
"Yeah, but Rhodey was close enough," Tony replied, eyes closed. "Gets him out of boring Air Force drills because the military still thinks I'm gonna come back to them some day, and I like having him around. First time I got sick at MIT he skipped classes to hang out with me."
"That was...nice of him," Steve allowed.
"Jarvis -- the first Jarvis, not the present pain in my ass -- "
"Thank you, sir," JARVIS put in.
" -- he used to look after me when I was sick as a kid, but he died..." Tony shrugged, a weird half-body twitch, propped as he was in the pillows. "I like having Rhodey around when I'm sick. Good distraction. Nice guy."
Tony adjusted his face in the pillows, then let out a deep breath. Steve deliberated between continuing the conversation and being quiet, but he found he didn't have anything to say that wasn't rude or petulant, so he let it go. Tony snored quietly, and Steve brushed his hair back, careful not to wake him, before settling in for his watch.
Natasha found him the following day, taking out his frustrations in the gym. He didn't hear her come in; he just looked to his left after a particularly vicious jab at the heavy bag and she was sitting on a weight bench, legs crossed, watching him calmly. He put out his hands to stop the bag from swinging and raised his eyebrows.
"Don't let me interrupt," she said, gesturing. "Watching you let loose is a treat."
"I feel objectified," he said.
"Aw, you used objectified correctly, I'm so proud," she replied. He began winding the tape off his hands, aware that his back hurt from swinging, from holding in all that tension. It'd fade, but it was an unpleasant reminder of his bad mood.
"Did you need something?" he asked. "Wanna spar?"
"No, I like my limbs where they are. Would you mind talking instead?"
"Boring," he sing-songed, and she grinned.
"James Rhodes thinks you don't like him," she informed him.
"I like Rhodey fine. I'd be ungrateful not to after he brought us all dinner," Steve said, but he could tell she saw him tense. Score one for Natasha; she always knew to confront him after a workout, when his walls were down. "Besides, what do you care?" he added, going on the offensive. "Usually when there's team drama you find a bunker and lock yourself in."
"You know why I do that?" she asked, without missing a beat.
"I'm sure whole books could be written."
"Because I am very good at emotional manipulation," she said. "Especially using it to my advantage, that's how I was trained. But sometimes also I just want to piss someone off out of spite. So I keep out of it, in order to keep from making things worse. Like I could have, just now, reminded you that you don't have so many friends you can afford to alienate two of them at once."
He stared at her, jaw hanging. That had hurt, like a barb right up under the ribcage.
"But I didn't," she continued.
"Pretty sure you just did, actually."
"Focus, Rogers," she said. "The point is that I'm not usually the peacemaker, but nobody else knows Rhodey well enough to know he's worried you don't like him, and nobody else except Tony has the guts to get under your skin when you're like this, and he's sick."
She stared at him, a pointed look on her face. He tossed the tape from his hands down on the mat and sat on the bench.
"I'm not trying to be," he muttered.
"I'm sure it comes easy," she said, patting his thigh, and it took him a good ten seconds to realize the burn.
"Low blow," he said.
"I've given lower. So? What's wrong with Rhodes? Did you catch him kicking a kitten or something?"
"Nothing's wrong with Rhodes," he replied. "He's fine, he brought Tony soup, he's helping while Tony's out of commission. No problem with the guy."
Steve looked down at his hands, at where the creases from the tape were fading. He flexed his thumbs, considering.
"It's not fair," he said, spreading one hand, "but I don't like how he takes up Tony's time."
"I told you I know it's not fair. It's just -- Tony talks about him even when he's not around, and when he is he's special. Like we aren't, somehow. They've been friends forever, and I can see that, and I resent it. And I know I oughtn't'a, so I try not to take it out on Rhodey, and that means just...not being around him. It's nothing to do with him, himself."
Natasha made a thoughtful noise. "That's a lot of baggage to hang on a guy who's been here for like, eighteen hours, Steve."
"I know that. Just can't seem to do anything about it. And it's better if I avoid him than if I'm around him and a jerk about it, right?"
"I suppose. Why just him, though? Clint and I -- "
"That's different. You're both part of the team."
"Is that what it is?"
Steve glanced at her, wondering if she knew, or if she was just really that good at firing random shots that would land, or if she was honestly curious, if she didn't know. Sometimes he felt like it was scribbled all over his face, but nobody else seemed to notice.
If anyone would, it'd be her, though. And if anyone would keep it to themselves, it'd be her.
Natasha was good at keeping secrets. And he'd known this was coming sooner or later.
"You remember a while back when Tony found that book that suggested Bucky and me were an item?" he asked.
"Sure," she said slowly.
"And I got pretty mad, you remember what I said?"
She nodded. "You said you were brothers, and brothers didn't do that kind of thing. Nothing against two fellas," she added in a pretty good imitation of him, "but we weren't sweethearts."
"Yeah, well, we weren't," he said. "But there's more'n one reason I got nothing against two fellas."
Natasha was watching him, face carefully blank.
"Wasn't anyone for me after I met Peggy. Even after I woke up from the ice," he said. "Before Peggy I had a fella or two. More success with them than with the ladies anyway," he added ruefully. "There wasn't anyone after her, though. And then, I didn't see it coming...."
"There was Tony," she guessed. He nodded, looking down again. "Are you two together?"
"Lord. No." He shook his head. "Nobody even knows. Well, nobody still living, anyway. About the fellas, I mean. Except you, now, I guess."
He heard her moving but only because he knew she meant him to. Her arms went around his shoulders but it felt like the sensation was coming from a long way off, until she pressed her forehead against his.
"Thanks for telling me," she said. "Also this makes me giving you crap about Rhodey seem pretty shallow, so ten points for you."
He laughed a little. "That wasn't intentional."
"Well, then you're a natural." She leaned back, sitting back on her heels. "So Tony doesn't know?"
"I suspect," he said slowly, "that Tony shouldn't ever know, at least not about him in specific. Not a good idea. I been working up to telling people about the rest of it."
"For what it's worth, Tony and Rhodey have a bromance for the ages," Natasha said. "But he isn't a teammate, and you are. It's easy to be friends when you have twenty years behind you and you're never in the same state. If Tony saw Rhodey every day, it wouldn't be as special for him."
"Hadn't thought of it like that," Steve admitted. "I don't want Rhodey to think I don't like him."
"Well, I'm not Miss Messenger," Natasha replied, standing up. "Put on your big boy pants and go be nice to him. Ask him to sit in on some team practices. We could use the time with War Machine anyway, the way Tony's going. By the way, that's official advice from your professional emotional manipulator."
"I appreciate it," Steve told her gravely.
Seeing Rhodey's pleased, surprised grin when Steve invited him to team practice made Steve feel like a heel. He really should just let Natasha run his life; things would be much easier in the long run. Rhodey's smile was even bigger when Steve suggested, after practice, that they bring some dinner to Tony together.
"You know, the nice thing about getting older is it slows him the hell down," Rhodey said, as they reheated soup and Steve made toast. "He goes to bed and stays there, at least."
"Didn't he used to?" Steve asked. "He seems like he settled into the whole delicate flower act a while ago."
"Couple of years," Rhodey replied. "Before that he was a hellbrand. He once drove from Malibu to San Francisco with the chicken pox."
"Sounds...itchy," Steve remarked.
"And of course because it was Tony, it was some virulent adult-onset version that infected me even though I'd already had them," Rhodey continued. "Tony can't win for losing when it comes to his health."
"He does seem cautious about it, at least," Steve said.
"Yeah, well. He's got a giant gaping hole in his chest compromising his immune system," Rhodey replied, and Steve felt his muscles lock up.
"Is that why?" he heard himself asking.
"What, why all the germophobia? Sure. He ever show you the arc reactor?"
"No. I've seen it, of course, but he's never shown it to any of us, not like that."
"I'm not surprised. I mean a little, because you're...you," Rhodey said, gesturing at him. "I figured he'd tell you everything."
"No," Steve mumbled. "He doesn't tell me everything."
"Well, supposedly the seal on the reactor is airtight, but when you have a stainless-steel cookie cutter in the middle of your pectorals, the germs get in," Rhodey was saying, while Steve stared numbly down at the counter. "Hell, I'd disinfect constantly too."
"It makes sense," Steve agreed. And it did; he'd just never thought about it before. Tony's insistence on cleanliness, his fastidiousness about food and about who touched him, it suddenly made perfect, rational, terrifying sense. Even his 'delicate flower' act, declaring himself fragile and taking to his bed at the first sign of sickness...of course he'd defend himself by shouting his weaknesses to the world as if they were just poses.
Steve was aware he'd tightened his hands on the counter so hard it was creaking, and he let go before Rhodey could notice.
"Well, let's go indulge his whims," Rhodey said, and Steve picked up the plate of food he'd fixed for himself and followed Rhodey down the hall to Tony's bedroom.
To his surprise, Rhodey didn't stay long; he fussed over Tony, propping him up and presenting his soup, but in the middle of the fuss his phone rang.
"Go, take it, the Air Force is already mad I'm monopolizing you," Tony told him, face bent so low over the soup his nose nearly touched it, inhaling the fragrant steam. Rhodey glanced at Steve, who shrugged, and then retreated to the kitchen to take the call. Steve sat quietly for a while, waiting for him to come back, but even after Tony had finished the soup, it remained just the two of them.
"You've been quiet," Tony observed, gnawing on a crust of toast.
"Long day. We were drilling with War Machine all morning," Steve said.
"Rhodey's pleased. He was texting me from the suit, he had the time of his life."
"Well, we're a fun bunch," Steve drawled. Tony croaked a laugh.
"He thought you didn't like him," he said.
"So I've heard from several sources," Steve replied. "I like Rhodey just fine."
"I told him you just take a while to warm up to people. You thought I was an asshole for like four months."
"I d -- I didn't!" Steve protested, and Tony let out another hoarse laugh. "Four weeks at most!"
Tony's laughter dissolved into coughing and Steve unsympathetically whacked him on the back.
"Don't worry about it, I am an asshole," Tony managed, knuckling away the tears running down his face. "You may have set a record for resisting my charms. Even Pepper came around after two weeks of working for me."
"No she didn't, she just trained you to behave," Steve said. "Not very well, but you're probably more stubborn than the average dog."
"And I can buy my own treats," Tony agreed. "Nope, Fury didn't kill me for making fun of his eyepatch, Natasha stabbed me in the neck but in a friendly way, even Christine Everhart slept with me and only hated me after. Is it exposure? Did my dad inoculate you?"
Steve hadn't ever brought up Howard. Tony had, once or twice, but usually in a situation where Steve couldn't immediately reply, like in combat, or in the middle of a group meeting.
"I'm just very stubborn," he said finally.
"Is he a sore spot with you?" Tony asked. "You flinch whenever I mention him."
"The war's still recent for me," Steve said, which was true, and then, "I didn't really know him very well. I just figured you think I compare the two of you."
"I did, a little, at first. You're not very alike, though, so I didn't see the point."
Tony fixed him with a steady gaze. "I'm not like my father," he repeated.
"Not really. I knew him when he was younger than you, so maybe he changed, but I doubt it. You're less..." Steve searched for the word, "...twisty. I know where I stand with you."
"Yes? Where's that?"
"At your side," Steve said, then corrected, "On your side. We're Avengers. You don't have the ulterior motives he would have. I know when we're in combat that you'll put the mission first. The mistake was in assuming otherwise without having seen you fight."
"So have I graduated to a guy who'd lay down on the wire?" Tony asked.
"Well, maybe I'm understanding better that you're the guy who always has the wire-cutters handy," Steve admitted.
"Yeah, the right tool for the right job," Tony said, pressing a hand over the arc reactor and wheezing. "Goddammit."
"Not easy being sick," Steve said.
"Well, you would know, I guess. Still waiting on your blood so I can extract a magical cure for the common cold," Tony told him, and Steve leaned over and kissed him.
He hadn't meant to do it. He had no idea what even possessed him to do it. Tony just seemed -- frail, and in need of something, maybe in need of defending, but Steve was an old-fashioned guy, and you oughta make your feelings plain before you took up the banner of a valiant knight. And he wanted to cheer him up, too, he wanted to make Tony's face light up like it had when Rhodey had showed up --
Tony choked into the kiss and started coughing almost immediately, and Steve started to lean back, appalled at himself. Tony's hand shot up and twisted in the stretchy fabric of Steve's uniform undershirt, bunching the fabric up and tightening the collar of the shirt so that Steve couldn't pull away. So he sort of dangled there, slightly hunched over, pinned by Tony's grip, until the coughing subsided.
"You are gonna kill me here, Cap," Tony hacked.
"Sorry," Steve began, words tumbling over themselves in an effort to get every part of the apology out at once. Sorry I startled you sorry I kissed you sorry I'm a fella who kissed you sorry I didn't ask first --
"Just, Christ's sake," Tony continued, letting go of his shirt and holding up a hand to keep him quiet. "Literally any warning at all, so I could pop a cough drop first."
"So, that was a briefing, sorry for the delay," Rhodey's voice was suddenly in the room, as he all but burst through the bedroom door. "I'm being recalled, I've got until tomorrow while they muster out and then I need to fly escort on a -- "
He paused, looking at Tony's blotchy red face and Steve's wrinkled shirt and (probably terrified) expression.
"I can come back?" he suggested.
"No, if you're going soon you should..." Steve stood, gesturing at the chair. Tony pulled his knees up in the bed and leaned forward, resting his face in the blankets, apparently ignoring them. "I'll just...go and...team roster...dishes...stuff," he said, pretty much fleeing the room.
Outside, in the kitchen, Steve ran into Natasha, who gave him the most knowing look. She patted his chest affectionately.
"You are hopeless," she told him.
"Well, it's been eighty-five years of hopelessness, I'm not anticipating a change now," he told her.
"You should've let me set you up with the girl with the lip piercing," she said, and walked away before he could come up with a response.
When Rhodey left that evening, he said Tony was asleep. He gave Steve an odd look, but not enough of one -- Steve guessed that whatever conclusions he'd drawn, he kept them to himself, and Tony hadn't mentioned the ill-timed kiss. Then again, even if it was awkward and unwanted, Tony wouldn't have; he would make fun of a lot, but not of that kind of thing.
And what if it was...wanted? It was definitely awkward, but Tony hadn't said not to do it -- just to let him take a cough drop first. Could have been a polite let-down. Could have been an invitation.
Steve didn't dare bother him about it. The man was sick, after all. He let Bruce take in breakfast the following morning, and busied himself with a half dozen things he'd been meaning to do for a while, little errands that he'd been putting off until there was something more unpleasant than the errands to be avoided in turn.
He got back from errands just after lunchtime, as planned, and was carrying the new art supplies he'd bought into the little studio he'd set up, facing north so he'd get good sidelong morning light, when something moved on his sofa.
He set the bags down carefully, as Tony, in a garish robe and tattery pyjamas, unwound himself from the couch.
"You're up and about," Steve observed.
"Fever's down," Tony replied. "I'm feeling better. Probably be back to work tomorrow. You can put me back on the roster."
"You can take a few days. No impending threats on the horizon, no need to push yourself," Steve replied.
Tony wagged his head. "If I never pushed myself, I'd never get anything done."
Steve shoved his hands in his pockets, uncertain what else to do with them.
"Does it hurt?" he asked. Tony looked blank. "The arc reactor. You press it, when you cough."
"No, not anymore. One of the first things I did....studied up on anatomy, worked out how to minimize the pain," Tony said. "Yinsen, my -- surgeon, he did a good job. It's not rational, I just do it because I'm worried it'll pop out when I cough."
Steve gaped, horrified. "Could that happen?"
"No. It locks in. Tell that to my subconscious," Tony shrugged, socked feet waggling against the rag rug Steve had found in a thrift store. He'd been forced by JARVIS to wash it about thirty times before he was allowed to put it in his living room, just in case there were fleas or bed bugs or germs. "I thought it was impossible for you to make yourself look small, the way you take up all the attention in a room. You're managing it, though, kudos I guess."
"Got a lot of practice being small. Hard to shake, I suppose," Steve mumbled.
"I'm surprised and I'm not, you know," Tony said. "I have a reputation for being complicated about everything except sex, so if you wanted to experiment I'd be the logical choice. Doesn't explain why you tried it on when I was sweating through a fever and covered in germs -- "
"That wasn't it," Steve said.
"So I gathered."
Steve scowled. "You don't have to be so composed about it."
"I'm on a lot of medication," Tony told him. "Look, you are stupendous at avoiding stuff you don't want to talk about and normally I think that's admirable, because avoidance works better, in general, than most people think."
"We don't have to," Steve began.
"No, we don't, but you could give it another shot now that I'm not actively dying," Tony replied.
"You weren't dying, ya drama queen," Steve said.
"Sassy. So why'd you do it?" Tony asked. Steve glanced away.
If Natasha were here, running his life like she ought to, she'd tell him that the time for lying was a long ways in the rear view mirror.
"I...like to...look after people," he began haltingly. "I wanted to be doing what Rhodey was doing and I got mad at him for it, which wasn't fair, and -- when you want to care for someone, you should have an understanding with them of why, and whether you're allowed to, and I." He swallowed. "Before I could do anything like that I wanted there to be an...understanding."
"That was less an understanding and more your tongue in my mouth," Tony said, but there wasn't any bite to it -- he looked amused, and seemed pleased, almost smug.
"It was an impulse," Steve admitted, encouraged by the kindness in Tony's tone.
"I didn't say I minded."
"Well, did you?"
"No. And I've had a cough drop now," Tony added, standing. "But I am still enough of a seething mess that you're probably into it."
"I don't have a -- a kink for ugly bathrobes," Steve felt obliged to say.
"Shame, I have a lot of them. If I'm going to be sick all the time, be sick in style, you know?" Tony said. Steve stood very still as he crossed the living room floor. He did not look particularly seductive; his hair was a mess, his nose was red and chafed, and his beard was less than its usual perfectly-trimmed glory. But this also felt...real. Visceral. This was Tony's normal, and Steve found that he could get to like that kind of normal. It was familiar to him, too.
Tony tasted mostly of menthol, and Steve could feel how shallowly he was breathing to keep from coughing. It was easily one of the best kisses he'd ever had.
"I don't mean to sound slick," he said, when it was done, "but you should be in bed."
"Oh, thank god," Tony agreed, leaning into him. "I am falling the fuck over, I need a nap."
"Yeah, you're not back on tomorrow's drill roster," Steve said, letting Tony lean on his arm as he walked him back towards the elevator. He was obscurely pleased Tony hadn't demanded he wash before all of this. They made it back to Tony's floor and into the bedroom, where Tony slunk out of the bathrobe and under the blankets, burrowing into the pillows.
"You gonna stick around?" he asked.
"You want me to?" Steve asked. "When I was sick I used to hate other people staring at me."
"Have you ever known me to hate the attention of other people?" Tony asked, ensconsing himself thoroughly in the bed.
"I've known you to blow a lot of smoke."
"Well, stay, I'd prefer that," Tony decided. He rubbed his face against a pillow and Steve automatically reached out to smooth his hair against the pillowcase.
"Do you have any idea what we're doing?" Steve asked.
"Nope. But I bet you have even less an idea than I do, so I'll handle it," Tony said.
"You're dying," Steve teased.
"Am not. You just sit there and look pretty, I'm gonna sleep, I'll put it on my to do list to figure this out in the morning," Tony said.
"Just like that, huh?"
"Listen, I privatized world peace, a relationship where you actively want to look after me when I am at Peak Annoying is not going to be a challenge. Compared to that, it's practically normal."
"Sure," Steve echoed, settling back, and Tony's eyes slid shut. "I like this normal."