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Better Days

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The streets of New York still gave Steve vertigo sometimes. His eye had almost adjusted to them during the months he’d spent living in Avengers Tower with the others, between the fall of SHIELD and Ultron. But it seemed his months away at the compound upstate had set him back, because Steve had a dizzying sense of double vision everywhere he looked: the past laid over the present.

If Bucky was having similar problems, he didn’t say so. Then again, Bucky’s problems were such that a little historical vertigo probably didn’t even register.

“You sure you don’t want me to stay?” Steve asked, for probably the fifth time.

Bucky frowned at him from the opposite side of the car. “I can handle a couple of doctors on my own. I’m not––I’m better than I was.”

“Yeah, but––it’s a neurologist and a psychiatrist, you’re not afraid that––”

“No,” Bucky said, determinedly. “You trust Dr. Cho, Stevie?”

Steve nodded. “With my life. Regularly.”

“Then I trust her with mine. She said these guys are good. And she’ll be there. You should get out, get some fresh air. Go see Stark, make sure he’s not accidentally destroying the world.”

That last was said affectionately, because Bucky genuinely liked Tony, though their relationship didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to Steve. From the moment Bucky had shown up at the mansion on Park Avenue, disoriented and reeling from the memories that were returning to him, Tony had shown him nothing but kindness. And that had won him Bucky’s loyalty for life. Steve’s, too.

That Steve hadn’t warned him about the the landmine in Bucky’s past before Tony found out about it from the man himself... well, that was still there between them. Might always be. Steve could admit he’d fucked that one up royally, as Clint would say. Had said.

“Yeah, okay, I’ll go see Tony,” Steve said, because he couldn’t face a walk through the city just then.

“I’ll come join you after, maybe we can all have dinner,” Bucky said.

“You sure you’ll be up to––”

“If I’m not, I’ll damn well say so,” Bucky growled, and Steve threw his hands up.

Dr. Cho was waiting for them in front of the hospital when the car pulled up. Bucky wouldn’t even let him get out. “I’m fine, Steve.”

“You want me to come get you, you’ll call me, right?” Steve said, leaning forward to look at Bucky through the cab window.

“More likely that I’ll stage a break-out and just show up at Stark’s,” Bucky replied.

Bucky.”

“Stop worrying. Go play with Stark for an afternoon.”

Steve grimaced, but he didn’t stop the driver from pulling away from the curb. For some reason, Bucky was determined to see this through on his own, without Steve’s help. Steve couldn’t deny that it stung, but he was going to respect Bucky’s choices. He trusted Helen, too.

Besides, he’d seen Fury’s files on both the neurologist and the psychiatrist. Outstanding credentials. Almost definitely not Hydra.

Steve had only been to the Stark mansion a handful of times. It was not Tony’s favorite place, he knew. He’d grown up there, and his memories of it were decidedly mixed. But it‘d been the logical place for Tony to move after Avengers Tower was destroyed and the initiative moved upstate.

Hello, Tony, I’m in town, he wrote on his phone, aware that he probably should have made sure Tony was home before making this decision. Are you available this afternoon?

Almost instantly he got a message back. Hey Cap, it’s FRIDAY. The boss is home. You should come by.

Steve blinked at it. It was a little odd for FRIDAY to text him as herself. He knew Tony had often used JARVIS to send messages, since he couldn’t be bothered to stop working and pick up his phone. But Steve couldn’t recall ever getting a message from JARVIS––only from Tony through JARVIS.

Thanks, FRIDAY, he wrote back. Tell him I’m incoming. ETA 10 minutes.

It was closer to fifteen because of traffic in Midtown. But once they got free of the snarl at Columbus Circle, it was free sailing.

The mansion had an unused look to it, though Tony had been living there for months now. Steve was briefly stymied by the front door; he couldn’t imagine that Tony actually answered it himself, and he somehow didn’t have the impression that there was much of a staff. But before he could even ask, FRIDAY sent the security code to his phone.

The entryway was quiet and dark, aside from the light pouring in from the windows high overhead. “Tony?” Steve called.

“Boss is in his workshop,” FRIDAY said. “Down the stairs to your right.”

“Thanks.” That explained it. If Tony was in the middle of a project, it was possible he hadn’t even heard FRIDAY tell him that Steve was coming. Steve didn’t want to interupt, but it would probably be good to make him stop and eat. Sleep, even, depending on how long he’d been at it. The Avengers had all taken turns making sure Tony ate and slept, back when they were all living together in the tower.

But there wasn’t any of the noise Steve associated with Tony working as he opened the door to the basement and started down the stairs. No heavy metal bass throbbing through the floor, no banging, no soldering, no shouting at DUM-E or You.

“Tony?” he said again, coming to the bottom of the stairs. It was dark down here with no windows, though he could hear an air filtration system thrumming away, and it didn’t feel hot or stuffy. It was smaller than Tony’s workshop at the tower by probably half. “FRIDAY, lights?” Steve asked, with a sense of foreboding.

The lights came up, though not very much. It was just bright enough for Steve to finally spot Tony, draped over a battered sofa, sound asleep.

Steve sighed in relief. “FRIDAY, you should have told me he was sleeping. I wouldn’t have bothered him.”

FRIDAY didn’t answer. “FRIDAY?” Steve prompted after a moment.

“Sorry, Cap. Boss told me not to call anyone. But he didn’t say not to let you in if you came on your own.”

Steve frowned. “What the––”

“Boss’s body temperature is elevated, approximately 103.6 degrees. I detect dehydration from sweating and vomiting without sufficient fluid intake.”

“What?” Steve said, starting forward toward Tony. Now that he was closer, he could see that Tony was pale, aside from a high flush on his cheeks, and that he’d sweat through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. “FRIDAY, why didn’t you say so?”

“Boss told me not to call anyone,” she repeated.

FRIDAY was young, Steve reminded himself. JARVIS had had years to know and understand Tony, and he’d had relationships with all the other Avengers that FRIDAY hadn’t had time to develop. JARVIS would have found a way to circumvent Tony’s order and call Steve. It wasn’t FRIDAY’s fault that the best she could do was let Steve in.

“You did a good thing, FRIDAY,” Steve finally said. “Thank you for letting me in.”

“Thank you for coming, Cap,” she replied, sounding, to Steve’s ear, relieved.

Steve crouched down next to the sofa and pressed the back of his head to Tony’s forehead out of instinct, even though FRIDAY had already told him exactly how high it was. He shook Tony’s shoulder gently. “Tony, hey. Wake up.” Tony twitched and moaned. “Come on, Tony. Wake up. Gotta get some fluids and medicine into you, move you into a real bed.”

It took a long time for Tony to wake up, long enough that Steve started to worry that he wouldn’t. He’d just started to think about possibly calling an ambulance when Tony finally slitted his eyes open, just far enough that Steve could glimpse a hint of brown through the lashes. “St’ve?” he mumbled.

“There you are,” Steve said, relieved. “Thank God.”

“Feel... like shit.”

“Yeah, I think you’ve got the flu.”

“Oh,” Tony said, slowly. “Yeah.” He closed his eyes. “FRIDAY wasn’t... supposed to...”

“Call anyone, I know,” Steve said. “Lucky for you, I showed up on my own.”

He’d thought about trying to get Tony on his feet and up the stairs under his own power, but that clearly wasn’t happening. He scooped Tony up, one arm under his shoulders and one under the bend of his legs.

“Show’ff,” Tony mumbled, face falling against Steve’s chest.

“You want to walk?” Steve asked, even as he carried Tony up the stairs to the first floor.

“...no.”

“Second floor, Cap,” FRIDAY said, when he hesitated in the foyer. “Third door on the left.”

The third door on the left was a bedroom suite, decorated in a style that had probably been Tony’s ten years ago, before Afghanistan, before Iron Man. Steve wasn’t sure he could have named specific differences, but there was something about it that felt hollow, even in comparison to the hyper-modern style of the Tower. The glass and clean lines had felt alien to Steve at first, but he’d grown accustomed to it; that was just Tony. But this––this felt like a cartoon of Tony.

The rumpled bed looked comfortable enough, though. Steve lowered Tony onto it, carefully cradling Tony’s head as he let it down onto the pillow. “How’re you feeling?” he asked.

“Awful.”

“Not surprising. You’ve got a hell of a fever. We need to get it down and get some fluids into you. FRIDAY mentioned you’d been vomiting. Are you nauseous now?”

“A little,” Tony said. Then he glared up at the ceiling. “Tattle-tale.”

“You don’t get to be mad at her,” Steve said, frowning at Tony. “You’re really sick, Tony.”

“‘S just flu.”

“The flu can be deadly,” Steve said sharply. “Even today, if you get dehydrated, which you are, and don’t have anyone around to look after you. You are damn lucky that Bucky had an appointment here in the city and I happened to swing by.”

Tony didn’t answer, but his eyes dropped, and Steve immediately felt bad. He couldn’t really have said what was going on in Tony’s head, but it couldn’t have been fun to be so sick and on his own, and feel––for whatever reason––that he couldn’t call anyone for help. He smoothed sweaty hair back from Tony’s forehead, and Tony’s eyes flicked up to his in surprise.

“Sorry,” Steve said quietly. “I’m not angry. I’m just worried about you.”

Tony’s breath puffed out in a surprised, “Oh.”

Steve stroked his hair again. “I’m going to go see what you have in the kitchen. Are you okay here for a couple of minutes?”

“Yeah,” Tony said, eyes sliding shut.

The tower had had a fully stocked medical facility, with the appropriate personnel. All those people had moved upstate with the Avengers, so most of what Steve was hoping for––IV lines, saline––was nowhere to be found. He did find ice packs in the fridge and, better yet, a flat of Gatorade.

That the fridge didn't have much in it except the Gatorade was... concerning. Still, Steve wasn't going to argue with the gift horse. He grabbed three of the Gatorades, a box of crackers, and two of the ice packs.

He also texted Bucky. How's it going? he asked, hoping that was innocuous enough.

Don't hover, he got back.

Then, perhaps contritely, How's Stark?

Sick with the flu, Steve said. I might need to stay for a few days.

We.

What?

We might need to stay.

Steve blinked. They want to keep you for longer?

No, punk, because of Stark. Though that wouldn’t be a bad excuse if he tries to kick us out.

Steve somehow hadn’t expected that. Though perhaps he should have, in retrospect, knowing how grateful Bucky was to Tony for the kindness he’d shown him months ago. Good point, he finally wrote. It's really going ok?

It really is. Don't worry about me.

Steve snorted. Not worry about Bucky. He didn't even know what that would be like.

At the moment, though, Buck was fine. Tony, on the other hand...

Steve thought Tony had fallen asleep at first, but he opened his eyes when Steve sat on the edge of the bed. “Think you can drink some of this?” He held up one of the bottles of Gatorade.

Tony looked unenthusiastic, but he nodded. Steve helped him sit up; Tony leaned subtly into him, and so Steve stayed, sitting up against the headboard, giving Tony something to lean against as he slowly drank the first Gatorade. Tony was a tactile person, always had been, and it occurred to Steve that he'd been stuck here too long with only FRIDAY to talk to and no one to touch.

Halfway through the second Gatorade, Tony finally roused a little. His hand was steady enough to take the bottle from Steve, though he didn't pull away.

“Doing better?” Steve asked.

“Mmm. Fluids are great.”

“They are.”

Tony took a few more sips. “Did you say you were in town for Barnes to see a specialist?”

“Yeah, Dr. Cho had a couple of colleagues from medical school she wanted to consult. A neurologist and a psychiatrist.”

Tony nodded. Then he frowned at Steve. “What're you doing here then?”

Steve smiled ruefully. “Buck kicked me out. Told me to come see you. And I'm glad he did.” He squeezed Tony's shoulder gently.

“You don't have to, you know,” Tony mumbled, gaze focused on the Gatorade bottle. “I'm not even an Avenger anymore. Not your responsibility.”

“But you are my friend, right?” Steve said gently.

Tony nodded. “But you don't have to––”

“Like I don't have to for Bucky?”

Tony looked away. “That's different.”

“Not as different as you think.” Steve gripped the back of Tony's neck. “Finish that bottle. I'm going to run you a bath. We need to get your fever down.”

Steve waited a beat, but Tony didn't argue. Steve slid off the bed and went into the bathroom.

His eyebrows nearly raised right off his forehead. What had Tony used this bathroom for, before his Iron Man days? How many people could fit in that jacuzzi? How many shower heads did one shower need?

He shook his head and set about trying to figure out how to use the ridiculous jacuzzi for a normal bath for just one person. Fortunately, it was less complicated than it’d initially looked. He kept the jets off, just set the tub to filling with lukewarm water. He didn't want Tony to be uncomfortable, but he needed to cool him off. He also found a bottle of ibuprofen in the bathroom medicine cabinet, miraculously unexpired.

He spoke quietly with FRIDAY as he worked, ordering more Gatorade and matzo ball soup from a deli Steve knew Tony liked. It'd be here within the hour, she assured him, and she’d let him know when it’d arrived.

Tony had finished the second bottle of Gatorade. Steve cracked open the third and made him take some ibuprofen with a couple of the crackers. He resisted Steve’s attempt to carry him into the bathroom, but he did let Steve lend him a shoulder, at least. He was unsteady enough on his feet that Steve made him sit on the edge of the bathtub rather than step in directly.

“Shit, that’s cold,” Tony said, as soon as his feet hit the water. “I’m not sitting in this.”

“It’s not that cold,” Steve said, “and you’re too feverish to sit in hot water. You’ll get used to it.”

“Sadist,” Tony muttered, shuddering as he slid in.

Steve rolled his eyes and tucked a rolled up towel under Tony’s head. He’d brought one of the ice packs in with him; he wrapped it in its sleeve and pressed it to Tony’s forehead. Tony grimaced, but after a few seconds his eyes slid shut and his body seemed to relax into the water. Steve sat down on the floor and leaned against the side of the tub. He checked his phone surreptitiously. No texts from Bucky.

“Better?” Steve asked after a few minutes.

“Yeah,” Tony said, eyes fluttering open. “Guess this isn’t awful. I felt pretty gross.”

“Fever of over a hundred and three? I’m sure you did.” Steve frowned. Tony looked pale and exhausted, and his ribs stood out more than Steve remembered. He wondered how run-down Tony had been before he got sick. “The flu can be really serious, Tony. I think most people have forgotten that Spanish flu killed more people than World War I.”

“I’m okay,” Tony muttered uncomfortably.

“You’re looking a lot better,” Steve agreed.

The two of them fell silent. Steve looked out the window, where he could just catch a glimpse of the Chrysler Building. The view from the tower had been more impressive, but this was pretty good for not being ninety stories up. “Bucky used to sit with me like this sometimes, if I had a fever and it wasn’t too cold to bathe,” he said after a few minutes. “If it was too cold, he’d just wipe me down in the bed to try and get my fever down.”

“Sexy,” Tony said with a smirk.

Steve laughed. “Not even a little.”

Tony’s smirk gentled, became an actual smile. “How’s he doing?”

“Better than he should be, seems to be the consensus,” Steve said with a sigh. “The visit to the specialists isn’t because something went wrong. Dr. Cho just seems to think there might be options she’s not thinking of. He said it’s going okay––but he might need a follow-up appointment tomorrow or the day after. Do you think we could stay over?”

“Yeah, of course,” Tony said. “Though, uh, not sure how many of the guest rooms are made up.”

“We’ll make do,” Steve said, not bothering to mention that for tonight, at least, he planned on crashing on the sofa in Tony’s room. Bucky being Bucky, he’d probably sleep on the floor or “accidentally” fall asleep on the unoccupied half of Tony’s bed. “I––um, I’m not sure that I ever thanked you for helping him––”

“Don’t,” Tony said wearily. “I was glad to do it. It was... Bruce had left, and Pepper and I weren’t talking, and Rhodey was deployed, so it was good for me to have someone to talk to. Even if it was mostly monosyllables.”

Steve nodded. “Still. I hope you know that I won’t forget that. And that he won’t, either.”

Tony looked away, uncomfortable as he always was when anyone acknowledged his generosity. “I’m not looking for gratitude.”

“You have it anyway,” Steve replied, as gently as possible.

He was tempted to apologize, again, for not having told Tony about the Winter Soldier’s involvement in his parents’ deaths. But Tony already looked uncomfortable, and he was clearly exhausted and drained. It didn’t seem like the time, or as though yet another apology was going to do them any good. It might make Steve feel better, but it probably wouldn’t help Tony.

Steve glanced at the clock and decided Tony had probably been in the tub for long enough. “You ready to get out?”

“Yeah, though...” Tony hesitated.

“What?”

“Could you help me wash my hair?” Tony asked, flushing. “It’s been like three days––maybe four––what day is it?”

“Thursday,” Steve said. “Sure.”

Tony was shivering a little. Steve dumped the cold compress, which was mostly melted now anyway, off to the side, and then ran some warmer water in the tub. He wanted to bring Tony’s temperature down, but he didn’t actually want him to get chilled. “Okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Tony murmured. “Feels good, actually.”

He helped Tony wet his hair. It was kind of awkward; the side of the tub was high, and Steve was getting wet down his shirt. He hoped some of his stuff from the tower was in a box somewhere in the mansion basement, because none of Tony’s stuff would fit him.

Still, he wouldn’t have traded this for anything. Tony didn’t trust easily; Steve knew that, and he knew the reasons. It had taken months for Tony to trust him, and Steve had worried when the Avengers moved upstate, leaving Tony behind in the city, that they’d be back at square one. And they might’ve been, if not for Bucky.

Steve settled Tony’s head back on the towel and reached for his shampoo. Tony had gone quiet. His eyes were closed, the dark lashes fanned out against pale skin. The shampoo smelled of something spicy, masculine, and expensive that Steve couldn’t name.

Tony kept his eyes closed as Steve worked the shampoo into his hair, but his neck muscles relaxed. Tony’s hair was thick, but Steve noticed that there was a hint of silver at the roots. Not much, not enough that Steve would’ve noticed if he hadn’t had his hands buried in Tony’s hair, but enough.

He smiled to himself, deciding not to say anything. Tony had clearly gone to some trouble to hide the fact that he was going gray––perhaps had already gone gray––and he wasn’t going to call it out.

Not right now, anyway.

“Slide down, gonna rinse you off.” Steve cupped the back of Tony’s head as he slid down so his head was in the water. Steve stroked through Tony’s hair, trying not to pull too much as he got the shampoo out. It was kind of tough one-handed, but Tony was no longer just relaxed, he’d gone almost slack under Steve’s hand.

“Conditioner, too?” Steve asked quietly.

“Nah,” Tony mumbled. “Just wanted it clean.”

“How about this?” Steve asked, lightly tapping Tony’s three-day old beard growth. The rest of it had just about caught up to the goatee he meticulously maintained. “Looks itchy.”

“It is, but I’m too shaky to shave right now. I can deal.”

“Or you could just let me do it, and not have to,” Steve pointed out.

Tony’s eyes opened, and he squinted suspiciously at Steve. “You’re being really nice to me.”

“I always want to be nice to you,” Steve said, as he got up to hunt for shaving supplies in the bathroom cabinets. “But sometimes you make it hard, and sometimes I fuck it up.”

“Language,” Tony said, almost sounding amused.

Steve threw him a look, then shook his head, smiling despite himself. He’d found Tony’s razor and shaving cream. He got a couple of towels, which he soaked in hot water in the sink, and a bowl for rinsing out the razor.

Tony sighed in what sounded like pleasure when Steve wrapped the hot towel around his lower face and neck. He closed his eyes again, and Steve got to work, spreading the shaving cream evenly over his face.

Steve paused, razor in his hand, and said, “I’m just going to do your whole face, if that’s okay. I’m not going to try and do what you normally do, with the goatee and stuff.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Tony said drowsily. “It’ll grow back in a couple of days.”

It’d been a long time since he’d done this to another man. Once, before the war, Bucky had injured his right hand working down at the docks, and Steve had had to shave him for a few days until it healed up some. Steve remembered it being kind of a pain in the ass, but also weirdly... nice. And not a big deal, because he and Bucky hadn’t ever really had any concept of personal space back then anyway.

This felt like a little bit more of a big deal. Tony had a bubble of personal space that he liked to maintain, and while some people––Bruce, Rhodes, maybe Pepper, maybe Bucky these days––had a free pass to violate it, Steve definitely didn’t. He talked quietly to distract them both from any potential awkwardness, telling Tony about having to shave Bucky, which led him on a tangent about how the docks in Brooklyn had changed. The warehouses in Red Hook where they used to work were lofts now, with art galleries and shops and restaurants on the first floors.

Eventually he fell quiet, working methodically, two swipes of the razor down and one up, swishing the razor out in the bowl of water in between. He thought Tony might’ve fallen asleep, but he opened his eyes when Steve set the bowl aside. He let Steve press the second hot towel to his face, and then he reached up and felt around on his jaw. From the bemused look on his face, Steve guessed it was weird for him not to feel anything there.

“How’re you feeling?” Steve asked.

“Exhausted,” Tony admitted. “Achey. Kind of nauseous. But...” He hesitated, then looked up at Steve. “Better. Thanks.”

Steve smiled. “Good. Let’s get you back to bed so you can sleep.” Steve got Tony upright, then practically lifted him to his feet so he could sit on the edge of the tub again. He draped a big fluffy towel over Tony’s shoulders and went to get him fresh pajamas from the bedroom. Tony had managed to half-heartedly dry himself off by the time Steve came back, but Steve rubbed his hair and shoulders dry, so he wouldn’t drip all over his pillows. He offered Tony his shoulder to lean on when he stepped into the pajamas.

Tony was sleepy and pliant as Steve helped him back into bed. He pulled the covers up and tucked them over Tony. “FRIDAY, what’s Tony’s temperature?” Steve asked quietly.

“A hundred and one point nine,” she said. “Good job, Cap.”

Steve smiled briefly. “Thanks.”

Tony was at least halfway asleep already. It was only noon. With any luck, Tony would sleep the afternoon away.

With FRIDAY’s help, Steve actually did manage to find a change of shirt in a box in the basement, in a cluster of Avengers stuff that had never made it upstate. The same box contained a couple pairs of his sweatpants, and since it seemed as though he was destined to spend the afternoon lounging around and watching Tony sleep, he put those on, too.

The soup showed up a few minutes later. Rather than wake Tony and force him to eat, Steve put it away in the fridge. He stretched out on the sofa in the corner of Tony’s bedroom with his StarkPad and his headphones and spent the afternoon switching back and forth between his e-reader and his drawing app.

It was soothing and restful, especially knowing that FRIDAY was monitoring Tony for any changes. Life at the compound had been intense since Bucky had appeared again––since Ultron, really, but especially since Bucky. Steve had missed Tony more than he’d expected, but there’d been too much going on to make a trip down to the city a priority until Helen forced it.

He stalwartly resisted the urge to text Bucky again, but at three-thirty Buck texted to say he was done and on his way. This was followed two minutes later by a message from Dr. Cho: He’s more stressed out than he’s letting on. Keep him calm.

Thanks, Steve sent back. He glanced at his watch. It was time to wake Tony for his next dose of ibuprofen and to get some more fluids and maybe some food into him.

“No, stop,” Tony grunted when Steve shook him awake.

“Come on, you can go back to sleep after you take the ibuprofen and drink something,” Steve said. “And Bucky’s on his way.”

Tony groaned. “God, you’re the worst.”

“Yep, terrible,” Steve agreed. “Have a cracker, take these pills.” He opened the third bottle of Gatorade. “I got you matzo ball soup, you want it?”

“Um.” Tony chewed his cracker slowly. “Yeah, actually. I think I could eat.”

“Good.” Steve squeezed Tony’s shoulder. “Be right back.”

Bucky showed up while the soup was heating up on the stove. One look at him and Steve could tell Dr. Cho was right. Bucky looked tight around the mouth, and there was a tell-tale wrinkle between his brows.

“How’d it go?” Steve asked, stirring the pot on the stove.

“Fine,” Bucky said shortly. “Don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s fine,” Steve said easily. “You hungry? I got a lot of soup.”

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky said. “Stark upstairs?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. He didn’t ask again if Bucky was okay. The answer to that was pretty obvious.

There wasn’t quite enough soup for two super soldiers and Tony Stark, but FRIDAY had had a few other groceries delivered along with the soup. Steve made himself a couple of sandwiches and put them on a tray with two bowls of soup and another Gatorade for Tony.

He tried to stay quiet as he approached Tony’s bedroom door. He paused just outside, listening shamelessly. He should probably be less curious about Bucky and Tony’s friendship, but it was just so... unexpected. He couldn’t help himself.

“You look like shit,” Bucky was saying to Tony.

“You sure you want to throw stones in that glass house, Buckeroo?” Tony replied. “You’re looking kind of shitty yourself.”

“I’m doing a hell of a lot better than I could be. I could be curled up in a ball, rocking back and forth.”

“You want to?” Tony asked, sounding curious and not at all concerned. Steve wished he could master that tone. Bucky seemed to respond a lot better to it than he did to Steve’s mother-henning.

“Nah. Won’t help. I got better coping mechanisms. Where’s your remote?”

“Here.”

“Thanks for giving Steve someone to hover over today. Didn’t want him at the hospital.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah, that was definitely my plan all along. Get sick as a dog just to distract Captain Worrywort for you.”

“Worked.”

“Yeah, I guess it did.”

“Say, where’d your beard go?”

“Steve shaved it off for me. It was itchy and gross.”

“Speaking of. STEVE. Stop eavesdropping, it’s fucking rude.”

Steve rolled his eyes and shoved the door open. “I wasn’t eavesdropping.”

“Sure, pal, you were just listening at the door. Totally different.”

Bucky, as Steve had predicted, sprawled out on the unoccupied half of Tony’s bed. He was scrolling through the offerings on the enormous TV mounted on the wall opposite the bed. Steve helped Tony sit up against the headboard and distributed soup before taking his sandwiches back to the sofa.

“What are we watching, Buck?” Steve asked, even though he was pretty sure he knew the answer.

Bake-off,” Bucky said, through a mouthful of matzo ball.

“What?” Tony said.

“Bucky’s favorite show. A bunch of British people are nice to each other in a tent while baking things.”

“This is the better coping mechanism?” Tony asked dubiously.

“Better than booze, punching holes in walls, or curling up in a ball,” Bucky told him.

“I don’t see how this could possibly be interesting.”

“It’s strangely soothing,” Steve said. “I hate most reality TV, it’s just... mean. But this isn’t.”

Tony look skeptical, but he also looked too tired to argue. Steve kept an eye out, watching as he ate about half his soup before letting the spoon drop into the bowl. Bucky rescued it before Steve had to and shoved it onto the nightstand.

“I guess this is okay,” Tony said after a long silence. “You were right about it being soothing.”

“Told you,” Bucky said, slouching down. “Better than any drug they’ve been able to come up with for me, anyway.”

“Maybe Dr. Cho’s colleagues will come up with something that works as well as Bake-off,” Steve said, smiling.

“Doubt it, but they can try.”

Tony was starting to kind of melt into the bed. Steve was about to say he needed to drink something before he fell asleep again, when Bucky handed him a Gatorade and said, “Half before you sleep, or you’ll feel worse when you wake up.”

Tony drank it with about a third as much grumbling as he would have if Steve had said the same thing. Steve wanted to roll his eyes, but he had the feeling that Bucky was enjoying being able to pay back some of what Tony had done for him, when he’d first come in. He knew that Bucky sometimes felt like he couldn’t be useful to anyone, and it was good for his sense of self and agency for him to do things for others. Or so Steve had been told by Natasha and Sam.

Bucky shifted over and somehow managed to help Tony lie down without ever looking as though that’s what he was doing. “Staying over?” Tony mumbled.

“That’s the plan.”

“More tests tomorrow?”

“Maybe,” Bucky said evasively. “Dr. Cho said she’d be in touch.”

Under normal circumstances, Steve thought Tony would’ve smelled a rat. But he was either ill enough that he didn’t notice, or he was willing to let it go in order to give them an excuse to stay.

Quietly, Steve took out his phone and texted FRIDAY. Tony’s temperature? he asked.

101.5, she replied, and Steve nodded in satisfaction.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad day, just a very quiet one. Tony drowsed and woke, drowsed and woke. After a while, Bucky fell asleep, too, sitting up next to him. Steve drew to the quiet murmur of the TV and Tony’s slightly congested snoring.

The room had grown dark by the time Steve woke Tony to give him another dose of ibuprofen. Bucky woke, too, and grouched about smelling like a hospital––which hadn’t bothered him earlier, Steve helpfully did not point out––until Steve mentioned the boxes of clothes in the basement. Bucky left, muttering to himself, and Steve and Tony shared an amused look.

“You want anything more to eat?” Steve asked, as Tony ate a handful of crackers.

“Not hungry. Maybe tomorrow.” Tony eyed him. “You’re not staying just for me, are you?”

He was clearly feeling more himself. Steve shook his head. “You heard Buck, he might have more tests tomorrow.”

“Hmm,” Tony said, suspiciously. He threw the pills back and washed them down with Gatorade. He shot Steve another sharp glance, but in the end he just shrugged. “Okay.” He ran a hand through his hair and grimaced. “My hair is a disaster, isn’t it?”

Steve had to grin. “It dried all fluffy and sticking up.” He reached out to try and smooth it down. Tony made an attempt to dodge him, but it seemed half-hearted at most. “You seem like you’re feeling better, though.”

“I am,” Tony said, and glanced away. “Thanks. For, you know.”

Steve shook his head. “I’m just glad I came by when I did.”

For a few seconds, he thought Tony was going to say––again––that it was “just” the flu, and they were going to have to argue about that––again––but at the last second Tony just sighed and said, “Yeah.”

Bucky returned eventually wearing a pair of Steve’s pajamas that were too long but otherwise fit. “What is this, a sleepover?” Tony said, when Bucky collapsed back onto his bed. “There are guest rooms.”

“Not as nice as this,” Bucky said, practically starfishing in the bed. “Deal with it, Stark. We’re bunking with you tonight.”

Tony could have thrown a huge fit about this, but he didn’t. Instead he let Bucky shivvy him into the bathroom to brush his teeth, while Steve went to shower in one of the guest bathrooms. By the time he returned, Tony was tucked back in bed. He and Bucky were watching another episode of Bake-off and apparently having a very serious conversation about custard.

Tony looked... relaxed, and easy, and if not healthy, then not nearly as sick as he had earlier. And Bucky looked happy––settled, even––as though distracting Tony with ridiculous arguments about dessert was the most worthwhile thing he’d done in a while. In some ways, Steve thought, he felt the same. His work with the Avengers was satisfying, but it wasn’t the same as the satisfaction he got from taking care of his friends when they needed him.

“Hey, Tony,” Bucky said, “you wanna see a really dopey look on Steve’s face, look over right now.”

Steve rolled his eyes. Bucky smirked, and Tony gave a sleepy laugh. “He can’t help it,” Tony said, “that’s just what his face does. Some people have resting bitch face. Steve has resting dope face.”

“You’re both assholes,” Steve said easily. “Watch your cooking show.”

“Baking show,” Bucky corrected.

Steve grinned to himself and re-opened the drawing app. They thought he was a dope, but they had no idea how dopey they looked enthralled by a show about cake. But they would by the time he was done.

Fin.