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The Arc Ain't All That

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It starts with chills. His shower feels too cold, even though it's at the perfect temperature; he shivers through routine maintenance, fresh repulsor lenses clicking against the seatings. He knows he must have a fever, but he gets those if he has a deep bruise, and the ones on his back and left thigh are deep enough to explain it; they were black when he took of the armor, and they’ll only get bigger as they heal.

He takes the usual antipyretic and puts on an extra sweater to combat the icy shivers that run down his spine. It smells like Bucky, which is mostly machine lube and nutmeg, and he curls up on his workshop couch to let the pills kick in. He'll be fine once his bruises clear up, he's done this before, he's not worried. He knows the guys would be, but there's no need for any of that drama, he's too tired. JARVIS is quiet, and dims the lights, the sneak, and Tony drops off to sleep.

He wakes up to whole body low-grade pain. It's in his joints, in his head, and even in his god damned eyeballs. JAVIS raises the lights when Tony makes noises that show he's awake, and the usual 25% per minute rate is way too fast and makes him cringe back into the blankets.


"Ugrrgh. Call in for a refill on the anti inflammatories. I think I need to check the reactor, maybe send off a sample."

JARVIS audibly droops. "That is most unfortunate, sir, shall I make arrangements?"

"The usual, please." He levers himself out of the couch and trundles wearily over to the seldom used dentists' chair, resigned to sticking himself with needles again. The lights in this particular corner of the workshop are usually off, and everything's a bit dusty; he needs to resterilize the important stuff before he starts. Dummy creaks over to bump up under his arm for support, quiet for once. He needs maintenance too, oil, bearings. He's an old bot, resistant to having parts swapped out. Tony understands, he doesn't like fiddling with the reactor either; too many memories.

"Hey buddy, go grab a red two-two-eight for me, good boy."

Dummy's happy to have a job, as usual, but waits for Tony to sit his butt down before going. He hasn't realised how heavy he was leaning on him.

Everything's in reach from the chair still, even though it's been a while, because JARVIS likes to make sure of shit like that, conveniences and efficiencies. Tony wipes down the cantilevered equipment tray with antiseptic, then the armrests and monitor touchscreens; all the places he might touch once he's scrubbed up. Then it's off with Bucky's sweater, because he doesn’t want to contaminate it’s scent with antiseptic, and his undershirt. The workshop air is frigid, briefly, then J turns on the air scrubbers and the steriliser heats the stream of clean air washing over him up to a balmy 35°C.

He's good to go.

Dummy delivers the 2-2-8 pack then backs out of the sterile zone; he's not got a green sticker, so he knows he's not allowed to help. This is tough, alone, but cleaning Dummy up is just too much work, and he’s pretty sure his boys will turn up sooner or later. The pack is sterile inside, but not outside, so Tony rips it open carefully, turning the foil just so, so that everything is accessible without touching the outside packaging. It's a bit of an art, but he's got it down. JARVIS had helped him practice, with fluorescent contaminants and a dark light. It’s better they’re not here, they’d need supervising for all this, anyway.

Tony takes a deep breath to quell the shakes, and starts scrubbing his hands with alcohol. The stink is acrid and vicious, far enough from the oaky smells of good scotch to stop him from thinking too hard about having a drink, even if it would dull the ache in his bones.

A 2-2-8 contains a tourniquet, a vacuum syrette, needles, swabs, and a tiny round bandage.

Tony always stabs his left arm, out of habit, and soon has a vein standing proud of his forearm. He pushes the needle in, but overshoots; a little drop of blood in the valve shows he's in the vein, but stops flowing as the shake of his hand pushes the needle too deep, into the other side of the vessel. It hurts more than it has any right to; his skin is starting to feel hypersensitive, air movement on his skin turning into pain, and the needle has become a focus radiating pain all the way up to his shoulder, and flaring into something more focused in his fingertips. He wishes he had three hands for this, he can't even hold things with his left, he has to keep it fisted or the bruises will be twice as big and last that much longer.

He has to stop, panting against the swimming in his head, then carefully pulls the needle back until the vacuum tube starts filling, the flow piling up a little hill of blood in the glass. It's...really, really red.

He shudders and pulls the needle out, dropping it and the vial into a tray then slumping back into the chair. He hates it, even now it's familiar, but the next bit's worse. He washes his hands again; even his own skin is too bacterially laden to touch without rewashing after, and washes his chest around the reactor, then the grooves of the housing interface. There's a telltale tender spot underneath, where he can't see because the raised lip shadows it, and he's fairly sure his scars have pulled away from the titanium. Maybe not much --he feels awful but he's not actually bleeding-- but enough to let in infection.

With a shaky breath, which he then holds, he twists the reactor out of place with his left hand, and runs a dry swab around the cavity. It comes away sticky; that's for JARVIS, to test for white blood cells and infection. It's sealed off from his body, or it should be, but he always checks. The human body is aggressive, oxidative, worse than seawater or acid rain, and the seals are experimental by definition.

He reseats the reactor with a shudder and slumps, cold despite the hot air, and aching all over. The swab goes in a sample tube, looking slightly blue and non-organic and he sits back to just breathe, it's okay, gonna be fine. His chest heaves to make up the oxygen he lost holding his breath, and it takes longer than it should --maybe he should get some O2 set up, just in case. His head swims and he can smell blood and salt and antiseptic and even his fingernails hurt. His toes on the other hand, he can't feel much of at all.

One last thing, and he can cover up, one last push, and he can go back to the couch for a bit of peace. It's not even hard. Another swab, against the unseen tender scar, a bit of a press and a rub, until the sensation changes just a little, going hot and damp. He doesn't look at this one before he puts it in its sterile tube, he knows he doesn't want to see it before he gets the test results back from Dr. Very.

He bandages himself up, applying ointment then sticking down a dressing roughly centered over the lowermost point of the reactor housing, and JARVIS green lights Dummy to come and fuss over him.

The air outside the sterile bubble is freezing, and he curses it bitterly, wondering where the sweater he stole has gone. Dummy herds him away from the couch, though, towards the viewing gallery. There are blankets, and sitting downs and naps waiting for him on that couch, and he wants it a lot, to the point of whining subvocally at his Bot.

His bleary eyes and shuffling feet make a compelling argument for taking the elevator up to bed, though. Dummy knows when he's winning, too, and ignores his whining.

JARVIS unlocks the door ahead of him sooner than he usually would, and Tony looks up from his careful supervision of his feet.

Steve and Bucky are waiting for him-- well, not so much waiting as coming, through the door, even though he's only a few steps away.

"Hey, sorry the door was locked; positive...pressure, what? What's wrong?! Shit." He stumbles forwards, reaching to meet them. Their faces are not good, very not good, someone's hurt, or dead, not good. "Are we suiting up? Who--"

"No! Don't you fuckin' dare put the armour on right now, Anthony Edward Stark, don't even talk about it!" Bucky's accent is thick as treacle with worry, and he sounds a bit like Tony's mom. Though the accent has nothing to do with that.

Steve's hands are all over him, his left arm, the dressing on his chest, his sweaty-cold forehead. "Bucky, he's burning up."

Tony's overwhelmed by all the touching and it sets off a chain of shivers and sickly sparkles under his skin. It feels a hell of a lot better than the hypersensitive pain from before, though, and Steve's hands are so warm compared to the air.

"I have a fever, 'm fine, you don't have to make a thing out of it."

"Tony, hey, over here," Bucky says, demanding his attention with a snap of his human fingers. Tony looks, and leans against Steve's ridiculous bulk, he smells like butter and molasses, they must have been baking, but he's got his shield too, it's weird. "-did you take?"

He's not making sense, and Tony gives him a nose wrinkle in confused protest.

"Sir has taken his prescribed fever management, and taken the appropriate samples to ascertain whether further action is necessary."

There, thank you JARVIS.

"You took your own blood test? Why would you even-- ouch. That's dedication to avoiding medical."

Steve's arms tighten around him, warm and steadying. "Okay," he mutters, mostly to himself. Tony feels his chest woosh against his back, then hot air washes across his nape. "Okay," Steve repeats, "let's get you some clean clothes, something warm. We'll talk about doctors when you're actually tracking."

Tony huffs, twisting to squint at Steve in irritation, to prove he is entirely present, thank you very much, he’s just a bit distractible. "Dr. Very'll say if I need a doctor, don't get all-” he makes a vague spinny hand gesture when he can’t find the right word, and it actually helps for once. “-twisty about it."

Steve gives him a squeeze, and Tony gets the feeling that he could just lie back and Steve would carry him. Doesn’t sound like a bad idea, he’s that tired. He hasn’t had a housing infection since... before Bucky. And not a bad one since before Steve, either. It's just bad luck, something must have pulled during the fight that gave him his bruises. He should have been more careful with checking.

Steve and Bucky are talking over his shoulder, and he bumps his head against Steve’s collarbone, half turning to snuggle up a little better. The bits of him pressed up against that supersoldier are warm enough, but the rest of him is getting chilled. Sort of, he’d glow like a beacon on an IR camera, he’s sure.

“Up, Steve, I need blankets, soup. Hey Buck, make me soup?” he wheedles, making over exaggerated sad eyes at Bucky. Since they’re here he might as well make the most of it, right? They won’t mind snuggling up on the couch; he doubts they have any other plans on a post-mission day.

Bucky goes all soft eyes and grouchy, the sappy lunk, and Tony knows that there will indeed be soup, and possibly even croutons if he’s good.

“Alright, second lunch it is,” Steve comments, and deliberately misunderstands Tony’s ‘Up’ statement. Or at least, Tony assumes he does, because instead of walking him to the elevator and pressing ‘up’, he picks Tony up and pulls him close to his chest. Tony doesn’t complain, he opts to wrap his arms around Steve’s shoulder, and rest his cheek against the side of Steve’s head, instead.

“You too, Dummy. You can work the blender for me,” Bucky tells the bot, to a chorus of subdued but pleased squeaking. Tony should take a look at him; he’s not his usual bubbly self. Maybe he needs an oil change, that always cheers him up. Tony heaves a sigh and drapes himself over Steve’s shoulder, drooping down the rest his chin on his shoulder and breathe in the warm body smell.

Urgh, he probably smells gross after sleeping on the couch and the fever sweat and the antiseptic wipes, he doesn’t want to smell himself with his standard human nose, let alone let a super nose near him. “Shower first, I’m gross,” he grumbles, watching Dummy do a little jig with himself in the mirrored elevator wall.

“Nah, I like you just fine like this.” Bucky’s metal hand touches the back of his neck and the cool sets up a shiver of contradictory reactions down Tony’s spine. It feels good, taking away the muscle aches all down his back, but the cold is not what his body wants right now, and it protests with a rolling tension than he can’t relax himself. Bucky keeps touching though, and the metal warms up enough to make the thumb rubbing tension out of his nape the best this he’s ever felt.

His attempts to relax into Steve’s grip finally succeed and he blows out a long breath just as JARVIS gets them to the penthouse.

“You shouldn’t shower with a fever anyway,” Steve adds. He turns sideways a little, coming out the door, to keep Tony’s feet from knocking it, and Bucky’s hand slips away. Tony sits back up a little, enough to see over Steve’s head, and watches Bucky’s ass recede into the kitchen.

“Steve, Steve, I’m sweaty and disgusting and I would really like clean clothes, but seriously, I don’t want to put them on a sweaty body. Also I smell like a hospital.”

Steve gives him an assessing look, leaning back and twisting to do so, but not even momentarily leaving Tony feeling unstable. He tries to look awake and alert, even though he’s exhausted and increasingly chilled-feeling. A shiver, true to form, ruins the attempt.

Steve snorts and pulls him close against his body again, Tony goes willingly. Warm. “You get five minutes, if you come to bed with us after.”

Tony wriggles uncomfortably. “I don’t wanna do the sex, Steve, c’mon, I’m drugged!”

Steve makes another huffing snorty sound, turning sideways through the bedroom door. “Not for sex, you massive dope. Pyjamas and movies and soup, in bed.”

Tony is dubious, that is dubious. “Y’know those couches are literally the best money can buy, right? I went out and tested them myself. Steve, hours of putting ass to cushion--”

“I know, they’re great, really. Your bed is just better.”

He has a sneaking suspicion that Steve just wants him where he can lie all over him and squash him until he sleeps. Because Steve is a sneaky bastard and Tony’s brain is happy to collude in said sneaking by releasing way more oxytocin and orexin than is strictly necessary in response to squishing, who the hell goes to sleep when squashed. (ohh, ohh, me! say’s Tony’s hormones, making him drowsy just thinking about it.)

In the bathroom, Steve helps him balance while he gets his shoes off, then holds him up when his energy dips below the ‘able to stand’ threshold. The bruises on his back and leg are a nice dark purple black, now, and Steve is extra careful in handling him, like the bones underneath will break if he’s not. Tony’s not quite that far gone, thank you, and turns the water on himself. JARVIS is being scrupulously quiet, not even an acknowledging beep when he adjusts the water temperature. Suspicious.

He props himself up against the tile and shivers in the stream of water; perfectly body-temperature water, even though it's calibrated to his fever temperature, feels cold and slimy. It’s like Bucky’s hand again; it washes away the overheating symptoms, the ache and mugginess, but makes the shivering worse and pulls the energy out of his bones.

Steve helps him wash and the gentle sweep of cloth and soap chases away the hypersensitivity, replacing it with nice-smooth-comforting touch feelings, and the presence of naked Steve is a wonderful distraction from other things. Any other things.

He nuzzles into Steve’s neck, face protected from the water, and decides he’ll call Steve before investigating a fever next time. Hopefully there won't be a next time, but no bets. Bucky isn’t good with injuries, but maybe Steve could hold the tourniquet while he stabbed himself for a blood sample, it’d be nicer than pulling it tight with his teeth, for chrissakes.

Once he was clean, Steve cranked the water temperature up enough to feel fantastic, and rinsed him down with hot. His skin pinked up and all the shivers went out of his body, at which point he realised JARVIS was in Steve’s earbud, which he was wearing to shower, the enormous dork. It was good though, JARVIS was his best doctor after all, Steve’d better listen to him. (He had no hope for Bucky, he never listened.)

Skin hot and air steamy, Steve turned off the water and gave him a questioning look.

“I’m good, bit wobbly but,” he shrugs, “nothing unusual.”

Steve doesn’t seem to like that, or find it reassuring, and Tony finds himself with a super soldier hug all over his everything. Tony strokes the back of his head, which is hiding his face in the crook of Tony’s neck, then paps him wetly. "Towel?"

Steve makes a disgruntled whining noise, and doesn't let him go so far as an inch. He just stands up straighter, tightens one arm under Tony's butt and lifts him three inches off the floor. Tony's not complaining; if he was feeling even a little bit better, that would be one hell of a turn on.

Soon, Tony's not sure how -his head is swimming and over heated- Bucky has him all bundled up in soft towels and Steve is sitting on the edge of the bed, drying his hair.

“I’m okay, guys, you know that, right?” he mumbles, half obscured by the towel and muted by tiredness.

“You’re not, you’re sick, and we had to find out from JARVIS, behind your back.” Bucky grunts in agreement, leaving Tony feeling puzzled.

“JARVIS wasn’t going behind my back, there’s a protocol,” Tony tells them. It’s been set up for ages, a sort of informed consent, thing. Since Pepper got such a shock, swapping out the MkI and MkII reactors.

Steve stops rubbing at Tony’s hair, and pulls the towel off, looking bemused and upset. “So, this happens often enough to have a protocol?”

Relieved, Tony smiles up at him. “Exactly! It’s routine, nothin’ weird. I have a guy on retainer, and I’ll be back up to stuff in a coupl’a days.”

Bucky does not look reassured, and Steve has that ‘I’m going to hug you now’ look, his face all devastated and sad.

“Stark,” Bucky growls, voice hoarse as fuck, “That is the other side’a town from reassurin’.”

He’s picking up their accent against his will, glottal stops and all, and now he’s tired and defenceless and watching the way Bucky’s mouth is so round over the hard syllables, making them soft and throaty. “...’s plenty reassuring, I’m fine, we’ve got this covered. You know what it’s like, Buck, c’mon.”

Bucky’s stump is the same skin-on-titanium interface, buried deep in the panels of the arm and about half way through the shoulder. One joint face is bone and cartilage, the other nylon and titanium, just like the reactor.

“Tone, babe, I’ve got the serum, I don’t get fevers, or whatever this is.”

“J didn’t tell you?” Tony asks, looking at the camera by the door in askance.

“I felt it was better coming from you, sir.”

Tony huffs and plucks at the soggy bandage, peeling up the corner so they can replace it. This is why he wasn’t careful putting one on, in the first place.

“He said we should come pick you up from the ‘shop, said you weren’t feelin’ well.”

“We came out of the elevator just when you took the reactor out, wasn’t--” Steve swears under his breath, a sharp little ‘fuck’.

“Not good?”

“Bit not good.”


Steve hands him a fresh bandage, and Tony finally notices Dummy tooling around the room, medicine box on his chassis. “Look,” Steve continues, “all we saw was needles and blood and you fishing around inside the reactor with shaking hands.”

“Needle, singular. And when was there blood? I was very neat!”

JARVIS pipes up; “You neglected the bandaid after the blood draw, sir, the resulting bleeding smeared over quite a large area.”

Tony hadn’t even noticed. Steve presses a hand over his, where he’s cradling the reactor, and stops the shivery shaking. Bucky leans in close, their shoulders touching and the faint smell of cooking coming off his hands. Tony is suddenly more aware than usual of the solidity of them, the immovability and inevitability.

“Tony, what’s wrong with the reactor?” Steve asks. The earnesty level is almost overwhelming, and Tony can’t quite wrap his head around how seriously they’re taking this.

“It’s... the connection between metal and skin, it gets breached sometimes, it’s not a big deal. Just a tiny infection, it’ll clear up when the Doc works out which antibiotic to give me. Test won’t take long.”

Steve looks faintly disbelieving, but Bucky’s face is weirdly intense. “You were expecting me to have the same, weren’t you? From the arm.”

Tony nods, insinuating his achy hand into Bucky’s metal grip. His temperature is destabilizing again, after the relief of the shower, and the cool metal feels good for now. “It’s why I made sure it’s detachable, ‘cause you just gotta put ointment on, sometimes.”

“An’ here was me thinking that was for my peace of mind.”

Tony can feel the flush creeping up his face, but he has a fever, it’s perfectly understandable. “That too, and for upgrades, and all the rest.”

Steve huffs out a sigh, and when Steve sighs it's a big fucking deal, his chest is giant, lung capacity like a horse. He picks up a folded thing-- ah, a PJ top, from the bedside table, and holds it out for Tony to pull on. He manages to get everything through the right holes, and it’s big enough to pull down over his ass so he can sleep pretty much naked, which is preferable. Bucky helps him under the covers, which is great because he’s at the limp noodle stage and his legs feel a long way away from his muzzy head.

Steve comes back (when did he leave? he’s starting to lose time between blinks) with the soup Tony'd asked for, and he’s struck by the fact that they’d gotten him sorted and in bed, catered to him, before even demanding an explanation. Tony was just being... a brat, his usual self, all high handed and demanding and not really thinking about it, and they’d done it.

His eyes prickled and he curled up smaller, tucking into Bucky’s shoulder and pulling his human arm around his waist. He’s hot, running like a furnace, and it drives off some of the shivers. He hates to make the comparison, but... Pepper had never had the time for this, they’d never had time for this. But with three of them, they... there’s space, to steal time. Steve is setting out lunch, but Tony and Buck can just sit, and be warm. He blinks slowly, head cradled against Bucky, and when he opens his eyes again, Bucky’s bowl is half empty.

“Hey, you want some Tony? It’s cool enough to eat now.”

Tony opens his mouth to say yes, but his hands shake as he untangles them from the blanket, and he lets them drop back. His joints ache, and he’s exhausted, it takes a lot of energy to mount an immune reaction, okay? He’s running on empty after the fight, and healing the bruises and fighting the infection and fixing the armour. He shakes his head, and lets it rest back on his best guy’s shoulder.

“Hey, no don’t be like that,” Steve says, cajoling and making clicky spoon noises.

Underneath him, Bucky sits up a little, enough to prop him up against his will. “Don’t you fuckin’ sleep on me after demandin' soup an' not eating it. C’mon Stark.”

“I’m sorry, I promise, I’ll eat later, I just want to sleep for a bit.”

“Nope, come on, open up. I’ll get it in your beard if you don’t cooperate.”

Tony is dismayed, this is horrifying, why did he ever think he should call these two sooner? This is the worst. Steve holds the spoon against his bottom lip, and he opens his mouth because threats against the beard. He cracks an eye and glares up at Steve, sucking on the spoon irritably.

It tastes delicious, ‘cause Bucky is a genius with a gas ring and leftovers. It’s Chinese, there’s noodles in there from last night’s post-mission dinner, and Tony abruptly remembers that he’d ducked out of post mission sex to go to the workshop.

Past-him is a fucking moron.

Steve faithfully spoons him soup, which is almost stew, and Tony does his level best to meet the spoon half way, until Bucky gets irritated at being knocked in the jaw when his wobbly head wobbles too much. He presses his human hand, no longer occupied eating his own lunch, apparently, across Tony’s forehead, and holds his head against his shoulder.

A long ripple of move-dontmove-buzzing runs down his spine and into his legs, and he relaxes. Who was he fooling, anyway.

Steve is good at this, and Tony...well, he supposes he doesn’t mind all that much. It’s not strawberries dipped in chocolate but it still tastes like...

He groans because he’s such a sap, and refuses the next spoonful to hide his face in Bucky’s neck.

It still tastes like love.