The first time it happened, everyone assumed it was the dust.
They had just finished taking out a group of former AIM scientists who, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that their first freelance project should involve giant mechanical wasps that fired lasers from their stings. The Avengers had dealt with the so-called threat easily enough, but taking out the wasps' control center ended up also taking out an empty warehouse in Jersey City as collateral damage. They were all standing around in the rubble, surveying the damage and keeping an eye out for stray laser beams, when Cap sneezed.
No one thought anything of it because, well, dust. Tony, who was standing closest, said "Gesundheit," and Cap said "Thanks," and then Clint said, "Hey, guys, does that look like a bomb to you?" and everyone got distracted for a few minutes.
The second time it happened was in the kitchen in Avengers Tower two days later, so dust was no excuse.
It was two weeks before Christmas, and the tower was a lot quieter than usual. Clint and Natasha were gone on SHIELD business to what Nick Fury called "a highly classified location, don't even think about it, Stark, you couldn't dream of a security clearance that high" and Tony called "Urus-Martan, duh, did Fury really think I couldn't find out?" Thor was visiting Jane in New Mexico. Bruce was around, but Bruce was always quiet when he wasn't twelve feet tall and smashing things. So when Steve sat down with his bowl of corn flakes and then sneezed, loudly, three times in a row, no one could possibly miss it.
"Hey!" Tony grabbed his mug and cradled it protectively against his chest. "Keep your supergerms out of my coffee, Gramps."
"You know I can't actually get sick, right?" Steve said. "Haven't had so much as a sniffle since I got the serum."
"You sure? Because that sounded suspiciously sniffle-like to me." Tony scooted his chair back a few inches. Sure, there was a whole kitchen table between him and Steve, and sure, Tony had gotten his flu shot, but better safe than sorry, right? After all, any germ strong enough to make Captain America sneeze had to be serious bad news. "Also, your nose looks red."
"No it doesn't," Steve said confidently, as if he could see his own nose better than Tony could. Tony was about to point out the fundamental fallacy in that assumption, but Bruce beat him to it.
"It kind of does, actually." Bruce looked vaguely apologetic, as if correcting Captain America was some sort of social misstep. "Have you had a flu shot, Steve? This year's strain is supposed to be pretty nasty. Even with the enhanced immunity system, you could--"
"I don't get sick!" Steve snapped, loudly enough to make Tony rock his chair back an inch and Bruce do that thing he did where he hunched his shoulders and tried to look smaller. Steve must've realized that he was overreacting, because he took a long, slow breath and modulated his voice to something that was less "I punched Hitler in the face" and more "I'm kind to children and small fuzzy animals."
"I feel perfectly fine."
"Famous last words," Tony muttered.
Tony spent the rest of the morning in his lab, and most of the afternoon in a teleconference with Pepper. Stark Industries was in the process of buying out the last sad remains of HammerTech, and Pepper wanted Tony's input on which parts of the R&D division to keep and which to shut down. Tony was tempted to write the whole thing off as a lost cause, but the division did employ a little over five hundred people, many of whom were reasonably competent and probably not evil. He supposed they shouldn't be penalized just because their employer was a criminal idiot. Besides, Tony had ambitions of being the kind of ex-boyfriend that Pepper could talk about fondly with her friends rather than the kind she'd cry about over a bowl of ice cream at three in the morning, and that meant not blowing off teleconferences. Well, not too often anyhow.
He was back in the lab, rewarding himself with a celebratory post-conference cheeseburger, when JARVIS spoke up.
"Sorry to interrupt, Sir, but I believe Captain Rogers may require your assistance in his quarters."
"Requires assistance," in this case, meant "sitting on the bathroom floor wearing only a towel." The air was thick with steam, and Steve himself was pink and damp and dripping water from his hair. Most of the time, Tony would've been secretly thrilled to get an eyeful of wet and nearly naked Captain America. This time, though, the effect was spoiled miserably by his hunched posture and bleary-eyed expression.
"I don't feel so good," he slurred when Tony crouched down in front of him.
"You don't look so good, either." Steve's face was flushed, his eyes were puffy, and his nose was even redder than it had been at breakfast. "What happened?"
Steve's answer was a mournful wheeze, followed by a loud and painful-sounding coughing fit.
"Right," Tony said. "Supergerms one, Captain America zero. Come on, let's get you someplace more comfortable."
"Okay." Steve gripped the towel rack with one hand and tried to lever himself up to his feet. He made it about six inches off the floor before coming down again with a thump. "Ow. Maybe I'll stay here for a while."
"Bad idea." Tony took hold of Steve's arm and tugged. "Come on, we can do this."
Tony liked to think of himself as pretty fit, all things considered, but the trip from the bathroom to the bed made him resolve to spend more time at the gym. Steve was heavy dammit, and unreasonably tall. When he draped his arm around Tony's shoulders and leaned, Tony could practically feel all his vertebrae compressing. Still, he managed to keep both of them upright and moving in a reasonably straight line until they reached the bed.
Steve face-planted into the mattress as soon as Tony let go, and just lay still for a few seconds before rolling over and sitting up.
"Ugh," he grunted, and promptly started coughing again.
"Please don't die in the next five minutes," Tony told him, and went back into the bathroom.
Captain America's medicine cabinet contained an impressive stash of plasters and bandages, a bottle of mouthwash, and a shaving kit with an actual, honest-to-God straight razor in it. What it didn't contain was any sort of medicine.
"Figures," Tony muttered. "JARVIS, do we have anything for the flu?"
"The bathroom in the common area has been stocked with several varieties of cold and flu medication, Sir."
"How foresightful of me." Tony shut the cabinet door and returned to the bedroom.
Steve must've pulled himself together somewhat while Tony was excavating the medicine cabinet, because he'd put on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, and was sitting cross-legged on the bed and towel-drying his hair. He was shivering a little, and still looking thoroughly miserable, but at least he no longer seemed in imminent danger of keeling over.
"So," Tony said. "Wanna explain yourself, Mr. I-don't-get-sick?"
Steve winced. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be such a bother."
"Oh, please." Tony rolled his eyes. "You're speaking to one of the world's leading experts in being a bother, and you, my friend, are an amateur. But if you've got something more serious that the flu going on, you need to say something."
Steve shook his head. "It's nothing. I just-- I thought a hot shower would make me feel better, but then I got dizzy for a minute. I'm fine now."
"Sure you are." Tony pressed his hand against Steve's forehead. "You're hot, and by that I don't mean your chiseled jaw and washboard abs. Should you be lying down? I think you should be lying down."
"You don't need to fuss," Steve protested, but he did lie down and allow Tony to pull the comforter over him. Tony was beginning to feel a guilty sort of sympathy for Pepper and Rhodey. He'd never before considered how goddamn annoying it was, dealing with someone who kept insisting he was fine even though he clearly wasn't.
"Take a note, JARVIS," he grumbled as soon as he was out in the corridor with Steve's door securely shut behind him. "The world's most perfect man was naked and wet and hanging all over me, and all I did was tuck him into bed and check his temperature. I'm officially a grown-up."
"Shall I alert the media, Sir?"
"Wiseass. Get Bruce on the line, will you?"
There was a soft click, followed by Bruce's voice.
"What is it, JARVIS?"
"It's me," Tony told him. "I just got done putting our fearless leader to bed. Looks like he's got the flu after all."
"Really?" Bruce sounded concerned and curious in equal measure. He'd be demanding blood samples before the end of the day, Tony would bet on it. "Is he all right?"
"God, no," Tony snorted, "he's the most pathetic thing I've ever seen. You'd weep if you saw him. I'm weeping right now, in fact. I'm going to make him some tea from your stash, what've you got that's good for flu and doesn't taste like lawn clippings?"
"Try the lemon-ginger," Bruce advised, and Tony could've sworn there was an amused note in his voice now, except that Bruce was much too nice to ever be amused by a teammate's illness. "Do you want me to come down and help?"
"Nah, I think I can manage a cup of tea." Tony headed for the nearest kitchen. "Jarvis, we have a teakettle, right?"
"I believe we have five, Sir."
By the time Tony came in with the tea, the flu medicine and a glass of water on a tray, Steve had cocooned himself in the comforter until he looked like a puffy blond caterpillar. His eyes were red, his damp hair stuck out in all directions, and Tony had to squash a sudden and inappropriate urge to give him a hug.
"Oh good, you're not dead. Here, take these."
"Tony." Steve wriggled one arm free to take the pills and pop them into his mouth. "I appreciate this, I really do. But you don't need to fuss over me."
"Yeah, 'cause you're looking so self-sufficient right now." Tony sat down at the edge of the bed and handed Steve the water glass. "Look, I know I'm not the sort of company that misery loves, so I'm going to leave you alone now, but if you need anything, tell JARVIS and he'll call me. Or Bruce. He can totally call Bruce instead. That would be an improvement, right? Much better bedside manner than me, as long as listening to someone cough doesn't make him angry."
"That's not..." Steve broke off, shook his head and sighed. "Your bedside manner is fine. It's just that I--" He started coughing again. It lasted nearly a minute and sounded as if he was bringing up a lung one small piece at a time. Tony plucked the glass from Steve's hand before he spilled it all over the covers, put it back on the tray, and then sat and fidgeted at the edge of the bed and wondered what the hell else he was supposed to be doing.
He had no idea what to do in a situation like this. He was not the caretaking type. He had made a point, for most of his life, to surround himself with people who didn't need caretaking so that he never had to worry about failing at it. Having a team of superheroes as his primary social circle worked very well for that, until now.
Part of Tony -- the part that didn't like being handed things -- wanted to bolt from the room. But the rest of him was having the "teammate in trouble" reaction, which he'd been honing for over two years now, and which demanded that he do something. Not to mention the "Steve's in trouble" reaction, which he tried to avoid thinking about. It didn't come up very often. Steve wasn't as indestructible as the Hulk or Thor or the Iron Man armor, but he could handle himself just fine.
Except now, apparently.
Steve let out a strangled wheeze in between coughs, and curled his knees up to his chest. Tony scooted closer and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. He could feel the heat radiating from Steve's skin, right through the sweat-damp fabric of his t-shirt. Just how high could a supersoldier's fever climb before it became a problem?
"You know what?" Tony said, "I think I'm going to call Bruce anyway. And maybe an actual medical doctor. Just in case."
"It's--" Steve let out one last, extra-loud cough and finally got hold of himself. "You don't need to call anyone. It's just a flu."
"Yes, but it's a flu that you got, which means there's something weird about it. JARVIS, get Dr.Banner to come up here, will you?"
"Right away, Sir."
Bruce, thankfully, had all the caretaking talent that Tony was missing. He was calm and reassuring. He checked Steve's temperature and blood pressure, listened to his breathing, drew a blood sample "just in case," and pronounced himself not worried.
"His baseline temperature is higher than most people," he pointed out while Tony was puttering in the kitchen, "so the fever is not as bad as you'd think. We'll keep checking every few hours, but as long as it stays below a hundred and three, I think we're good. Just keep him hydrated and try not to panic again."
"I didn't panic!" Tony drew himself up and gave Bruce his best offended glare. "I was being cautious. People are always telling me I'm not cautious enough, so I finally make an effort, and what happens? I get accused of panicking. Just because I thought a doctor might be--"
"Okay, okay." Bruce raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I get it. You did not panic. You're burning your grilled cheese, by the way."
"Fuck!" Tony grabbed the spatula from the counter and flipped the sandwich in the frying pan just as it started to smoke. It looked a bit dark at the edges, but not actually burnt. "Okay, that's not so bad. And it's not my grilled cheese, it's Steve's. I found some tomato soup in the pantry. Tomato soup and grilled cheese is comfort food, right? Natasha practically lived on the stuff when she was in traction last winter. Well, that and the weird Russian pickled herring we had to get from Brighton Beach. But I don't think Steve would want pickled herring."
"Probably not," Bruce agreed. "Did you actually ask him if he wanted soup and grilled cheese?"
"Uhm." Tony stared blankly at the frying pan. "No." Damn, he was doing it again. Pepper always warned him about giving people stuff without knowing if they actually wanted it, but she usually meant things like airplanes and fancy cars and giant stuffed rabbits. Apparently soup required advance scouting too? Maybe he should start keeping a list.
"Relax." Bruce patted Tony's back. "I'll go ask him."
Steve voted firmly in favor of tomato soup and grilled cheese, which made Tony feel pretty damn good about his caretaking skills. The warm glow of satisfaction lasted right up until the moment he noticed Steve wincing with every mouthful he took.
"Is something wrong with it?" He tried not to sound defensive and wasn't sure he succeeded. "I've been told I nuke a mean can of soup, but if I messed it up somehow you can tell me."
"Nothing's wrong with it. My throat hurts." Steve stared glumly into his soup bowl. "I hate being sick," he muttered in a small voice, and Tony had a feeling that this wasn't Captain America talking or even the Steve Rogers that Tony knew. This was the skinny asthmatic kid from Brooklyn whose mother had to work an extra shift to afford the medicine. "They told me it wasn't supposed to happen anymore."
"Well," Tony said, "now you know to get a flu shot next winter so it won't happen again. Live and learn, right?"
"Right," Steve sighed. "I guess I shouldn't complain anyhow. It's just the flu. Half of New York has it."
"And half of New York is sitting in bed, eating soup, and whining." Tony patted Steve's shoulder. "If they're allowed, you're allowed. You don't have to be ashamed of being sick just because you're Captain America."
"That's not why--" Steve began, then stopped, swallowed and shook his head. "I'm not ashamed," he finished, not very convincingly.
"Right." Tony rolled his eyes. This was getting ridiculous. He pulled a chair closer to the side of the bed, sat down, and gave Steve his best determined glare. "So are you going to tell me what's really bothering you, or do I have to get Bruce to come up here and make his sympathy face? You know what he's like with the sympathy face, right? It's almost as bad as Natasha with her 'this is fascinating, tell me more' face. You'll be spilling your deepest, darkest secrets in no time."
"I don't have any deep, dark secrets," Steve said, but his mouth was twitching slightly at the corners, as if he was trying hard not to smile. Tony decided he was on a roll.
"Natasha's not here, of course, but I could always go get Fury and his 'talk or I'll make sure they'll never find your body' face. Really, I'm the only person around who doesn't have a guaranteed-confession face, which makes me the safest person to talk to. So talk. Tell me what's wrong. Because I've seen you with a dislocated shoulder and three cracked ribs, and you were more stoic than you are now. It's weirding me out."
"That's different," Steve said. "I choose to fight, and I have good reason for it. If I get hurt in battle -- well, at least I've accomplished something. It's the being miserable for no good reason that I hate." He sighed and moved the tray from his lap to the bedside table. "You'd think I'd be used to it, given how much time I spent being sick before the serum. But I never stopped hating it. And I keep remembering my mother, working at the hospital all day only to come home and deal with me. I always told myself I'd make it up to her when I grew up. That I'd do right by her, eventually. And then when she got sick herself, I couldn't do a thing. At the end, they wouldn't even let me into the TB ward to see her..."
Tony bit his tongue against the impulse to say "sorry." This was clearly not a situation where "sorry" was going to cut it. Maybe he should've called up Bruce after all.
"Look," he said after a while, "I don't know much about your mom except what you've told me. But I do know that she raised you, and seeing as how you're, well, you, I'm pretty sure you've done well by her."
Steve didn't seem to know what to say to that, and Tony didn't have any brilliant follow-up, so they lapsed into an awkward silence that stretched and stretched until Tony decided that some drastic action was in order.
"I know what you need," he declared. "You need a distraction. If I spent all day sitting in bed staring at the wall, I'd be feeling morbid too. JARVIS, screen."
"What would you like to see, Sir?" JARVIS asked smoothly as he projected a holographic screen directly in front of the bed.
"I think we'll let the littlest patient decide." Tony waved one arm toward the screen. "Go on, Cap. Pick a movie, any movie."
"Uhm." Steve looked blank for a moment, then smiled. "Do you have A Night at the Opera?"
"Opera?" Tony gave Steve a dubious look as a black and white title card appeared on the screen. "Is this going to be highbrow or something? I'm not sure I can be on a team with someone who wants to watch opera when they're sick."
"It's not highbrow," Steve said. "I think you'll like it."
An hour later, Tony was memorizing the "sanity clause" scene for the next time Pepper made him go over a contract, and Steve had discovered that laughing made him cough. It was worth it, though.
"I've figured out why you got sick!" Tony declared a day later. "Or, okay,
mostly Bruce figured out why you got sick. But he did it using equipment I made, so that counts, right?"
"I'll take your word for that," Steve said. He looked and sounded much better than the day before -- still a bit wheezy and bleary-eyed, but no longer threatening to cough up a lung every few minutes. He was also wolfing down a stack of pancakes the size of his head, which Tony took as a sign of recovery. "So why did I get sick?"
"Apparently, your immune system worked a little too well. Tony reached over and stole a piece of bacon from Steve's plate, ignoring Steve's half-hearted slap at his hand. "It went into overdrive trying to fight the flu virus and set off a cytokine cascade, which for most people is a major problem, but for you is apparently a twenty-four hour inconvenience. Bruce thinks it happened because this was the first time since the serum you got hit with something truly infectious. So we can file it under 'new data' and make sure you get a flu shot every year from now on. But it won't happen again... probably."
"Well, that's good... probably." Steve smiled, and Tony found himself positively beaming back. He couldn't help it; it just felt good to see Steve back to his normal self again, as if the world has been put back to rights after leaning off-kilter for a day. Especially since his normal self was freshly showered and wearing a thin white t-shirt stretched tight across his shoulders and chest. Now that the chest in question was no longer making scary wheezing noises, Tony felt free to enjoy the view.
"...Hello?" Steve leaned across the table and waved his hand in front of Tony's face. "Earth to Tony?"
"Huh?" Tony shook his head. "I'm sorry, were you saying something? I'm not properly caffeinated yet."
Steve had gone from smiling to puppy-eyed and sincere, and Tony had totally missed the transition because he'd been too busy zoning out over the man's pectorals. It would've been embarrassing, if Tony were the kind of person who ever got embarrassed. "I was saying," he said, "that I had a really bad day yesterday, and you helped. A lot. I appreciate it."
Okay, so maybe Tony was the kind of person who got embarrassed. "It was nothing. You looked so pathetic, anyone would've been nice to you. Victor von Doom would've been fluffing your pillows. AIM would've held a telethon. Loki would've--"
"Okay." Tony shrugged awkwardly. "You're welcome."
"There. That wasn't so hard, was it?" Steve dialed back the sincerity a bit, much to Tony's relief. "Anyway, I was trying to think of a way to make it up to you--"
"You don't need to--"
"And I asked JARVIS to check around, and as it happens, there's a Marx Brothers retrospective at Lincoln Square next weekend. So I figured, since you liked Night at the Opera yesterday, maybe you'd like to go. There's a new Mexican place over on Amsterdam that I wanted to check out, too."
"Dinner and a movie, huh?" Tony grinned. "You going to wear a tie and bring me flowers while you're at it?"
"Sure, if you like," Steve said easily. Tony blinked. He'd been joking, but Steve sounded like... well, it was hard to tell with Steve sometimes. He had a truly impressive poker face when he put his mind to it. Now he was leaning back in his chair, watching Tony with a small, inscrutable smile on his face, and Tony had no idea if he'd really just agreed to a date.
Well then, the only way to find out was to go.
"Sounds great. But I warn you--" Tony held up an imaginary cigar and wiggled his eyebrows. "When I take a man to dinner, I expect him to look at my face. That's the price he has to pay."
Steve rolled his eyes. "I'm going to regret ever introducing you to these movies, aren't I?"