Captain Steve Rogers, decorated war veteran and member of two separate ‘superhero’ teams, was at something of a loss with the situation he now found himself faced with. He had gone to comfort fellows and comrades at arms who were struck down before – and usually in a much more literal sense of the phrase than when someone had a cold. At the moment, though, none of his past experience was helping in the least. And he and Thor hadn’t even gotten through the door yet.
“Well,” he said, careful to keep his tone as steady and nonthreatening as possible. “Have you ever had to deal with anything like this, Thor?”
He shook his head. Steve felt a little bad for him. If anything, he looked even more confused than Steve felt, and a little hurt. “I have not, Captain. While I have heard of this sort of behavior from my nephew, he has never before bared fang to me.”
For some reason that surprised Steve, but he couldn’t think why. In the three years since Loki and the triplets had become regular features among the Avengers he had never seen more than the usual spats of childish temper out of Fenrir. Well, normal and translated through the very un-normal circumstances of sometimes being a wolf cub.
A wolf cub that was, yes, baring a set of very white, very sharp teeth at them, lips wrinkled back, ears flat against his skull, eyes glaring menace. He had planted himself in front of the closed door to Tony and Loki’s bedroom suite, evidencing no intention to either move or allow the two visitors to pass through. Fenrir was only a cub, it was true, and possessed all the strung out lankiness of a partly grown puppy, but he was still a fair sight larger than a full grown German Shepard. Cub or not, Steve had no desire to wrestle with anything so large that looked so ready to use those fangs.
Besides which, this was Fenrir, and he was fond of the boy and his siblings, even if they never had completely taken to him.
Steve shifted slightly and the low, constant growl coming from Fenrir immediately increased in volume, yellow eyes fixing on him, legs going stiff. Steve went utterly still, the warning clear even if the reason for it was not. He didn’t think he had ever really noticed how wicked the cub’s black nails looked before, a compliment to the white fangs.
Deliberately keeping his tone light and bantering, he risked another question. “Did any of those folks happen to mention, maybe, how to deal with this kind of behavior when it sprung up?”
Thor snorted. “Nothing I would care to repeat,” he said blandly.
He wouldn’t risk breaking the stare down he had going with Fenrir to glance in Thor’s direction, but he didn’t really need to. He knew what kind of expression the Asgardian wore. It would be the same one he wore whenever a certain period of his niece and nephews’ past was referred to – closed, faintly ironic. It was best to avoid those lines of conversation, so Steve let it drop. Instead he turned his attention to getting past a bristling ball of fur without encountering any teeth along the way.
Slowly, Steve squatted down in front of Fenrir until he was eye to eye. They boy-cub’s growls never ceased, but Steve was somewhat reassured that they had quieted some, were not resurging in response to his change in position. What was less reassuring was the knowledge that Fenrir would recognize that Steve was actually less of a threat and less able to defend himself from that position.
“Hey there, Fen,” he said softly. “How’s about letting us in to see Tony, eh?”
The lips wrinkled back even further, until pink gums were revealed.
“We know Tony’s not feeling well,” he persisted. “That’s why we’re here. We wanted to check on him.”
The glaring eyes did not become one bit less belligerent in face of Steve’s reassurances. Nor did they change at all when the rest of the cub did, his body seeming to jump, flicker and remain still all at once as he shifted back to a human shape. The golden glare was just the same on the rumpled boy as it had been on the irate wolf.
“Iron-daddy is sick,” Fenrir informed them, sounding just as ready for a fight when not snarling. “And dad is already inside taking care of him.”
“How ill is friend Tony, nephew?” Steve noticed that Thor was also keeping his words purposefully gentle.
The kid’s glower softened a touch, and he shrugged. “He slept a long time, and he doesn’t want to get up anymore. Dad is checking if his fever is worse.”
Thor cast Steve a worried glance. The worry of both he and Fenrir was understandable, Steve supposed. Tony was important to them both for different reasons, and in the last three years he couldn’t recall anyone within close contact of the aliens getting anything worse than a bout of allergies. They must have seen some of the diseases humans were prone to; television, the internet and sporadic contact with the general population would provide that opportunity, but nothing close at hand had ever arisen.
The lack of experience wasn’t too surprising, now Steve came to think about it. The super soldier serum kept him more or less immune to anything not specifically engineered to attack his system, gamma radiation seemed to do much the same for Dr. Banner, and he was beginning to suspect Natasha had something a little extra in her system as well, because he’d never seen her so much as sneeze. The most vulnerable members of their group were Clint – who did have his own apartment building he went back to from time to time – and Tony.
It was delayed, but the time to witness human frailty up close and personal had finally come for the little family.
He nodded his understanding and stood again, making Fen crane his neck to look up in his face. “Alright, well, that’s what we’re here for, Fen. We’ll go in and see if there’s anything we can do, anything we can get for them.”
Fenrir straightened up, glare snapping back into place. When Steve went to take a step towards the door the boy got in his way, barring the door. “No, you won’t,” he said.
Steve came up short. Thor tilted his head at his nephew. “Why not, Fenrir? You know we would not cause Tony any sort of harm. Why do you bar our way?”
“Because father told me to,” the boy said, raising his chin.
“He told you to keep us from coming in to see him?” Steve was incredulous.
“Not just you. He said to keep out anyone who did not have business coming in. They would just be bothersome and get in the way. You want to know how he is, I told you. You want to help, father is already doing that. If there wasn’t anything else you wanted or can do, you can’t come in.”
Steve stared, but Thor laughed. “And they could hardly want for a better guardian! Very well, then, young warrior, what errand would grant us access to the sickroom?”
“An official visit,” was the prompt reply.
“An ‘official’ visit?” Steve demanded, patience growing thin. “We’re here to visit already, what could possibly make it ‘official’?”
Again, the reply was prompt. “A gift.”
Fenrir was calm in the face of Steve’s scandalized tone. “We’ve been studying,” he said. “And one of the things Hela found was a human custom of bringing a present to the one who is sick when paying a visit. It’s supposed to be something to make them feel better and to apologize for disturbing them.”
Thor was smiling when he looked over at Steve. “A very considerate custom. Think you we can find gifts suitable for such a thing?”
Steve nodded, privately happy that the gifts were meant for Tony, and Fenrir hadn’t found a crude way of taking advantage of the situation. “Yeah, I think so. Though if this is what we can expect every time we come up, I think Tony will be getting fewer visits than he would normally.”
Leaving a satisfied Fenrir still standing guard over the door, Steve led Thor back down the stairs to hunt up gifts to make their visit ‘official.’
“So what’s the verdict, nurse?”
Loki squinted narrowly at the glass held pinched between his fingers. Tony had seen him concentrate on small things before, those times when he had caught him working on some meticulous bit of unknowable hocus-pocus, but there was something oddly charming about his eyes going crossed when trying to read the mercury level of a thermometer. It was one of the most domestic things he had ever seen Loki do, and he’d seen the man prepare lunch for three kids.
Maybe it was just the fever affecting his brain.
“It would appear that your temperature has neither risen nor fallen,” Loki said, setting the little instrument back on the side table.
“So still 102?”
“If I’m interpreting that archaic device correctly,” he said with a wave at the offending item.
Tony smiled. It was funny sometimes how they came to have the same opinions on certain points. Tony tended to think of a vast number of man’s everyday advancements as outmoded and fit to be replaced – the thermometer was a good example. Loki thought much the same, but while in Tony’s case it was because he had so many much better advancements he was designing himself, for Loki it stemmed from coming from a society that had long surpassed anything mankind had come up with. It was a personal challenge Tony set himself to impress Loki as much and as often as possible with his creations. It wasn’t easy.
He shifted into something closer to a sitting position. “Alright then, what’s the plan? Do you intend on keeping me confined to bed all day?”
“Several, in fact, with only brief intervals allowed for the lavatory.”
“Promises, promises,” Tony said, essaying one of his most suggestive grins. “Suddenly I’m appreciating this ‘nurse’ thing you have going on a lot more than before.”
Loki blinked slowly at him. “There will be none of that.”
“Fine, ‘doctor’ will work just as well. We just need to get you a long white coat – Bruce probably has some spares – and a stethoscope, and we should be—“
“I mean no strenuous activity until you’re well again, Stark. From what I understand that can take from several days to more than a week. Until I am satisfied that your rising won’t cause you to worsen or relapse, you will remain here.”
“…so you’re saying the doctor thing is still a possibility later on?”
“Oh, I am focused. You have no idea how focused this idea has made me.”
Loki sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Tony was a little proud of himself that even sick he could still annoy enough to cause a physical reaction. Childish, yes, but should that make it any less a valid form of entertainment?
He relented in his torment a little. “I hope you’re planning on letting me have some of the less carnal forms of entertainment, because if I’m going to be stuck here with absolutely nothing to do for a week I really will go mad.”
That earned him a look. “And woe to the race that would witness your insanity, if this is what you are like sane.” He leaned down and reached for something out of Tony’s line of sight, on the floor. “But I am aware of your more prosaic needs. I don’t think a certain amount of mental exercise will do you much harm.”
He brought up a small stack and set it down on the bed between them. It included one of Tony’s laptops, two tablets, a book and two physical file folders stuffed full.
Tony felt his face brighten at the sight and sifted through the pile eagerly. “Oh, honey, you really do know me!”
Loki scoffed. “Yes, well, as you say, you’ll go mad without something to do. And if I were not the one to provide these, then you would find a way to recruit that infernal house system of yours to do so, or the children.”
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask,” he said, still flipping through the files. “Where are the scamps? Did the team take them out or something?”
“Oh, no. They have been most helpful in researching human disease and remedies.” He smiled. It was the kind of smile that Tony had learned to view with automatic suspicion.
“Uh-huh. And just what is it they are doing that’s so helpful?”
The mischievous sparkle in Loki’s eye did very little to reassure him. “Only what is appropriate and fitting to their natures. Jörmungandr is learning all he can get out of Dr. Banner on the specifics of the human immune system, Hela is experimenting with the preparation of remedies, and Fenrir is guarding the bedroom door.”
“Could be worse, I guess.” He paused, giving the description some thought. “Wait, what do you mean he’s guarding the door? Guarding it from what?”
“Unnecessary intrusions into the sickroom,” Loki responded coolly, and then stood, brushing off imaginary lint from his pants. “And speaking of the children, I should go and check on them, now that you have been dealt with.” He made towards the door, long legs making the distance short.
“If you need anything I’m sure you’ll find a way to make the entire house aware of the fact.” He tossed this last over his shoulder. As the door opened Tony caught a glimpse of Fen, who peeked in curiously but made no move to come in. Tony supposed that meant what Loki said was true, though he suspected that the boy was out there as much to keep him in as anyone else out.
The door clicked shut behind Loki’s back, cutting off the view of the boy and all of his ineffectual protests. Tony fell silent, staring at the door. He wondered if he should chase after Loki just to be difficult, if he should be doing something to reign in the enthusiasm of Loki and the kids, or if he should take advantage of his condition to absolve himself of any and all responsibility for now.
It didn’t take long to choose, and as his computer began to boot up he cracked open one of the bottles of orange juice left for him.
“Are you sure that you got the right idea for giving gifts to someone who is sick, Thor?” Steve asked, casting a sideways glance at the thing Thor intended to offer Tony, clasped firmly in both of the prince’s hands. It had to be gripped firmly, because even for the ox of an Asgardian it was large and unwieldy, though Steve didn’t doubt that he could wield it if and when the occasion called for it.
Proving his unvoiced summation, Thor flipped the hilt over in his hands, bringing the gleaming metal of the scimitar up to his eye for examination. A faint line appeared between his brows. “Do you think the style is not to his taste?”
“Well, no, it’s not that,” Steve deliberated. “It’s just that weaponry isn’t what one usually thinks of when it comes to gifts for folks who are laid up.”
The look of concern immediately lightened. “But Stark is a warrior,” he said cheerfully, setting the blade that was almost as long as he was tall on one shoulder. “And warriors will always appreciate a well-crafted weapon, even when ill; sometimes even more so when they are unwell. It gives them reason to recover, to wield and master it.”
Steve eyed the blade again. “I’d like to see him master that. It’s taller than he is.”
Thor grinned wide. “Yes, that is why I chose this one.”
They laughed, and made their way up the stairs for the second time that day. It hadn’t taken long for them to each find a potential offering once they had separated, and had met up again out of coincidence rather than design. As they mounted the stairs, it was Thor’s turn to look at what Steve held in his hands.
“And your gift, Captain? Is that another Midgardian custom to give… foliage?”
Steve glanced down and gave what he held a disparaging look. When he had set out in search of something that could work as a gift for Tony he hadn’t given it too much thought. Finding something to serve as a kind of permit to get past the miniature guard at his door should have been simplicity itself. But then, nothing he could think of and readily get his hands on seemed right. It was just a small token gift, but it was still for Tony. What could he give that the billionaire didn’t already have, or could get with a word?
So he had given up on finding anything even remotely clever or thoughtful, gone outside to the Mansion’s gardens and picked a large bouquet of flowers.
He glared at the effeminate bundle – he really hoped there would be no mixed messages derived from this – as though it were there specifically to embarrass the hell out of him. “It is kind of a standard thing, yes,” he said with as much dignity as possible.
“It is just that I’ve never known Stark to be overly fond of flowers, nor for those particular breeds to be good for Midgard disease.”
“No, I suppose not.” He doubted even the most determined of herbalists could look at his handful of daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops and see a cure for as much as a sliver. He shrugged. “But this is mostly to placate your nephew, not Tony. I doubt he’ll care much one way or the other what I bring. But I’m sure he’ll love yours,” he added swiftly.
Feeling ridiculous holding his bouquet – still in his field uniform – and following a man carrying a sword fit for taking down horses, they mounted the rest of the stairs and turned towards the master suite.
Fenrir was still at his post, and had elected to remain in human shape. He sat in the shallow corner created by the wide doorway, eyes fixed on a small device in his hands, his whole slight frame curled around it in concentration. Even from a distance Steve could recognize it as a handheld gaming system, and from the sounds emitting from it, he surmised that the boy was playing a fighting game of some sort. It was the kind that Fen tended to favor.
The illusion that the game completely held Fenrir’s attention lasted only an instant. As soon as they cleared the bend in the hall to bring them in sight of the door, his head snapped up, and it was as though his stare from earlier had never left them. His game was forgotten, and with a crescendo of pixelated noise whatever hero he had been controlling fell in battle. He watched their approach, standing to his feet. Steve was happier than he cared to admit that there were no snarls or growls to greet them this time.
When they were near enough, he set about examining the gifts they brought, starting with Thor’s. There was no way the boy could have held it himself, even if he was much stronger than a boy his size had a right to be. Instead, Thor held it out for him, low so it was at eye level, its length parallel to the floor. Fen looked it over minutely from hilt to point, as though searching for some flaw in the craftsmanship to disqualify it, his tiny nostrils flaring regularly. It was a habit of his, even when human shaped, to sniff and smell everything he came into contact with.
Apparently Fen liked what he saw, and his nose gave no argument. He grinned brightly up at his uncle, a much friendlier showing of his teeth. “It’s great, uncle, he’ll love it!”
The grin was reflected in the brawny Asgardian and he stood aside to let the boy repeat his examination with Steve.
Ridiculously, Steve felt the embarrassment in him surge when he came under the shrewd golden gaze of an eleven year old boy. Staring at the bright white and yellow bundle in his hands, Fenrir tilted his head as though he couldn’t comprehend what it was. When he raised his eyes up to Steve’s face it was with a look of pitying incredulity.
The warm flush on his face only increased, feeding on itself, embarrassed that he was embarrassed as he presented the flowers for inspection.
It seemed to Steve that he made a great show of looking over the flowers, checking each one as though he had never seen blooms before in his life. His snuffling became more pronounced than it had when checking the scimitar, snorting several times to clear his nose, and in the end the boy sneezed to the side.
Fenrir shook his head at Steve. “No good. They’re pretty, but he’s having trouble breathing already.”
The warmth in Steve’s cheeks spread to his ears. “Yes, but that’s because he’s sick,” he protested. “I don’t think pollen will make it any worse.”
Fen’s eyes glinted warningly at him. “How can you know for sure, huh? How do you know it won’t make him worse? If it does, then you coming to visit will only be to the bad. No,” he said, crossing his arms. “You have to find something else.”
“Wha—you have got to be joking! According to your own rules all I needed to bring was a gift to be considered an ‘official’ visitor. I brought a present. I’m official. Now let me in.”
But the boy wouldn’t budge under the logic. “No. You brought a present, but it’s not a good present. It’s like not bringing one at all. You can’t come in.”
“Fenrir.” Steve tried for a warning tone of voice. As with the very few times he had tried it before, it had zero effect.
Thor, still watching the exchange with what Steve was wont to consider poorly disguised amusement, tried to step in on his comrade’s behalf. “Nephew, Captain Rogers has made an effort, and Stark will no doubt appreciate that effort – and his company – even if the results of his efforts are a little…” he hesitated, eyeing the bouquet. “Peculiar.”
The boy looked up at him, his stern expression hardly softening. “Would you have me fail at my post, uncle? This is my first time to officially protect someone, and I can’t make exceptions or it will all come apart, and I’ll never be trusted with another.” He shook his head, coming back to Steve. “No. Try again.”
At the final refusal Thor looked helplessly at Steve, apologetic smile spreading awkwardly over his face, shoulders shrugging almost imperceptibly. If he were worried that Steve’s temper would sour even further, then he worried needlessly. Steve did feel the prickling of annoyance, but it was dampened by Fenrir’s line of reasoning.
Steve nodded with only a trace of ill grace. “Alright, then. I’ll hunt up something better.” He looked down at the flowers. “And put these in water somewhere,” he added.
“Would you care for company, Captain?” Thor offered as he turned to leave.
“No thanks,” he called back over his shoulder. “You go ahead and see Tony, I’ll get there eventually.”
Traipsing back down the stairs, Steve wondered what he could find that would work for Tony as a gift and at the same time satisfy the tiny sentry at his door.
“Hey there, big guy!” Tony greeted, and internally winced when he realized how nasal he sounded even compared to when speaking to Loki, not an hour ago. He did his best to ignore it and to open his throat so it would be less obvious, and nodded Thor’s way. “What’s with the cutlery?”
The big Asgardian, outfitted in what he probably considered relaxed clothing and what Tony thought of as light battle gear, grinned and hefted the huge, glinting scimitar. “Tis for you, my friend,” he boomed cheerfully. With one hand he held up the weapon for him to see, and apparently without much effort, set it to a few lazy spins, the edge flashing lethally as it clove through the air.
“Very impressive,” was Tony’s honest assessment. “But why give it to me, what’s the occasion?”
Thor slowed his acrobatic display of the weapon, resting the point at his feet. Tony wondered how much damage was being done to his floor. “It was my understanding it was a Midgardian custom to bring offerings when coming to see the sick and injured. We have learned of your illness, and so I bring a gift.” A somewhat mischievous grin spread over his face. “That is certainly what Fenrir believes as well. He is guarding the door to ensure no paltry gifts make it to you. Only the best will do.”
After a moment Tony grinned as well. “Oh, that’s it, eh? Well, yes, there is that custom, but it’s more of a courtesy than a rule.”
“Ah. Perhaps I should tell Fenrir of this. He’s following the custom most scrupulously. He even turned Captain Rogers and I away to find gifts before he would let us in.”
Tony chuckled. “Really? Well, can’t fault the kid for shirking his duties. Loki said he’d been stationed out there as a kind of filtering system.” He paused, looking pointedly around. “Which is a point: where is Rogers? Did the skinflint decide to forgo a visit if there was a cover charge?”
If anything, Thor’s smile widened. “No, my friend. The Captain was turned away for a second time for failing to bring a satisfactory gift.”
Tony stared, searching for some sign the bigger man was joking, but he only continued to grin contentedly. “No way,” he finally got out, forgetting to correct his voice and coming out a bit frog-like. “Rogers got bounced?”
Thor nodded confirmation. “He’s seeking something that will grant him access even now.”
“Well,” Tony said with mock seriousness. “Maybe we shouldn’t tell Fenrir yet that the custom is flexible. Wouldn’t want to spoil his fun with the good super soldier, would we?”
The two of them laughed, and Tony felt a little better. Sitting up, even if it was just to cruise around is miscellaneous files on his computer and stare dumbly at them, had done a lot to shake off the feeling of impending death he’d had on waking. But sharing a good laugh helped, too. It was nice to have this, this feeling of camaraderie. It had taken time to achieve it, to exit his shell enough to interact with people on more than a superficial, sarcastic level, and even now it was sometimes exhausting to do so, but he had gotten there. Even with Thor he could now honestly share a laugh – true, at the slight expense of another teammate, but that was alright. No point in trying to be saintly about anything.
“It’s a thing of beauty,” Tony said about his odd gift. “I look forward to injuring myself many times in effort to handle it.”
Thor looked pleased, and moved to set the weapon against a wall, out of the way but still plainly in sight.
“And how are you feeling, my friend?” he asked on returning. “From how Clint was describing your illness I thought it no trifling thing, but you appear to not be much weakened.”
Tony’s smile took on a sardonic twist. “Comes from sitting down, big guy. Hardly anyone looks as bad as they feel when they sit.” He shook his head. “But no, it’s not too bad. Fever,” he pointed at his own nose, “congestion, obviously, aches and pains, the works for this kind of thing. Minus one or two of the ickier symptoms,” he added with a rueful glance in the direction of the empty bucket, ready and waiting for him. So far no nausea, with luck he wouldn’t need the damned thing.
“I am glad,” Thor said earnestly. “I worried that this disease might take you from us for some weeks. Our strength would be greatly lessened without you.”
“I appreciate that. But the flu shouldn’t have me out of the game for very long. So long as nothing that threatens world safety crops up in the next week,” he knocked superstitiously on the headboard, “then I think we’ll be pretty safe.”
“That is how long you foresee this bout lasting, then?” Moving with excessive care, Thor lowered himself to perch on the edge of the bed near to Tony’s feet.
He shrugged. “It’s about how long flus last, unless there are complications. Which isn’t likely to happen,” he was quick to add when Thor’s expression clouded. “It’s the kind of thing that happens when you aren’t careful or there’s something else going on to make you more susceptible. I’m not particularly susceptible, and I think your brother is going to be fussing too much for the virus to dare sticking around.”
“This is true,” Thor said, and the fondness with which he spoke was palpable. “He is one to do a thing thoroughly, and I don’t doubt that when it comes to your health he will throw himself to task.”
“Even if it kills me,” Tony commented drily.
“If he believes that it will help you in the long run,” he agreed cheerfully.
The door opened. “What will I do it I think it will help?”
Tony and Thor both looked to the door. Loki stood in the threshold holding a small tray, a steaming bowl set in its center. Hela followed him into the room, looking in curiously at Tony’s visitor. Behind both of them Tony could just see Fenrir, in cub form, his nose up and sniffing at the air. Whatever it was he scented wasn’t enough to get him to abandon his post, though, and he was lost to sight as the door closed again.
“Kill me with kindness,” Tony provided. His sense of smell was nowhere near as keen as Fen’s, and was only getting worse as his sinuses slowly blocked up, but he could just make out some of the aroma being carried on the tendrils of steam rising from the bowl. It smelled good, a little spicy and meaty, like a stew. He couldn’t see what was in the bowl, but the scent was more than enough to remind him that he had yet to actually have breakfast, despite his earlier attempt, and it was already well into noon. Doing his best to hold back the drool, he nodded at the approaching tray. “What’s this?”
Hela, who had trotted forward ahead of her father to stand at the side of the bed, answered before Loki could get a word out. “It’s food to make you feel better. We did a lot of research to make it. It’s supposed to make you strong to fight the flu!”
Tony smiled at the girl. “And did you boss your dad around while you were making it?”
She nodded. This was a familiar game. “Yes!”
It was a familiar enough game that Loki gave no response. He was too busy giving Thor a very pointed look, making the brother vacate his perch rather awkwardly and shuffle out of the way. That done, he took a handful of Hela’s clothes and lifted her off of the ground as though she were a kitten. She squeaked with surprise.
“Indeed she did,” he said mildly, setting her down gently in the spot Thor had freed. She quickly crawled her way up the bed until she was sitting next to Tony, using the headboard as a back support. “She has been learning well from all the time she spends in that cataclysm you call a workshop.”
Tony raised a brow at his partner. “I hope you’re not suggesting, dearest, that I am the only one who gives an example of being bossy.”
“Certainly not,” Loki replied readily enough. Tony nodded, satisfied, until he continued with, “Captain Rogers does his fair share as well.”
Tony pulled a face at him and Hela giggled.
Any further quips were forestalled by Loki’s quickly plucking away the computer in Tony’s lap and replacing it with the tray, which had small unfolding legs to turn it into a short table that arched over his legs. The bowl and its tantalizing cloud of steam came directly under his nose, which had the pleasant side effect of clearing his sinuses a little.
It was a kind of stew, Tony decided when he got a good look at it, but lighter in color than the kinds he was used to. It looked more like chicken soup, to be honest, but the large pieces of meat were certainly not poultry, and no chicken soup he’d ever had included generous cubes of potato. Stew seemed the more likely possibility.
“Well, are you just going to sit and stare at it, or are you going to eat the food that we made for you?” Loki snapped.
Tony jumped, took up the spoon that was also on the tray – along with some buttered black bread and a napkin, he finally noticed – and sampled the soup-stew.
“If this is the kind of food I get when I’m sick,” he eventually managed, “I will forgo every flu shot from this point forward and go skipping through the rain.” He shoveled more of the liquid heaven into his mouth and swallowed.
Hela looked pleased. Thor laughed outright. “Never have I seen Tony so enthusiastic over his food before! Brother, you truly are a master magician!”
A look of mild annoyance battled the little smile that Thor’s words and Tony’s appreciative eating brought about.
Tony was thoroughly enjoying the soup-stew. He wouldn’t have thought Loki and Hela would have had the time to cook something like this. The potatoes fairly disintegrated in his mouth, and the meat – beef, he thought – had absorbed the spices and become tender in the broth. Maybe they had used magic in the making of it.
Whatever, it was good.
Thor was right when he said that he never saw Tony so enthusiastic over food. He doubted that anyone in the Mansion had ever seen him evidence more than a standard interest in his meals. He couldn’t cook much more than toast and scrambled egg himself, and viewed food as fuel rather than something to find enjoyment in. It was one of those avenues of pleasure that he had never been particularly drawn to, even during that long period of his life when pleasure and indulgence were all that drove him. He wasn’t sure what it was that made this bowl so different, but he hoped Loki would remember how to make it later.
“You like it, daddy?” Hela asked, grinning.
Tony only nodded, pausing long enough to pick up one of the triangles of black bread and dip it into the broth. The bitterness of the bread was a nice accompaniment.
Thor chuckled again at the sight. “Loki, if this meal truly is a balm for human illness, you must teach me how to prepare it. Jane has more than once succumbed to the sicknesses that pervade this Realm, and I should like to have some way of easing her recovery. Especially if she enjoys this dish so much as Tony does.”
Still happily devouring the soup – the bowl was already half empty – Tony snorted, unable to keep from drawing a likeness from Thor and Loki to a couple of owners discussing their exotic pets.
Loki shrugged. “It is a simple enough recipe, I doubt even you could do much to get it wrong. The chief thing is time to allow the ingredients to work and blend. I hurried that along a little in this case—“
Ah ha! thought Tony.
“—but otherwise it is very simple. Perhaps the most challenging aspect is breaking apart the bones.”
Tony froze, spoon poised midway between bowl and mouth.
“Bones?” Thor echoed the word that was bouncing around in Tony’s skull, looking for a way out. “There are bones in the soup?”
“No. The bones are broken apart and left to steep to make the marrow broth. It’s similar to tea, but with animal instead of vegetable parts.”
There seemed to be no way of blocking out the words he was hearing, but at the same time there was this kind of gruesome fascination to them. Marrow broth, huh? To give the soup more body, he couldn’t help but wonder?
He looked into the bowl, suddenly suspicious of the delicious little transparent drops of fat floating on the surface.
“It was fun,” Hela put in from Tony’s other side, not noticing that Tony’s frantic spooning had abruptly stalled out. “We got to use a whole piece of cow and take the meat off, and then use the bone!”
He had such a macabre family, Tony reflected distantly. It was a wonder he hadn’t forced a giant Halloween party on them yet.
Thor was casting a speculative look at Tony’s bowl. Fair dues, so was Tony. “That does not appear to be enough to account for even part of a cow,” he commented.
“There’s more in the kitchen,” Hela provided.
“For Stark,” Loki was quick to add. “We don’t know how long this illness will last, so there is plenty even should it go on a full week.”
With the new knowledge of what was in the soup warring with his taste buds, Tony wasn’t sure whether to be very glad or very uneasy at that news. He squinted at his spoon, decided he didn’t care enough about the ingredients to allow it to ruin his meal and gulped down the bone broth and a crumbling potato.
He looked at Thor and raised his empty spoon to emphasize his point. “If you do decide to make this for your lady, Thor, may I suggest you don’t tell her how it’s made before she tries it? Or perhaps ever?”
Thor looked puzzled, but Tony caught the little twitch of Loki’s lips. He’d known exactly what effect knowing what was in the soup-stew would have on him and had told them anyway, the bastard.
“Why do you say that?”
He waggled the spoon expressively. “Call it a quirk of human psychology. Just trust me on this; things will go a lot more smoothly if you just keep that little tidbit to yourself.”
“What do you mean I still can’t come in?”
The look that Fenrir was leveling on Steve, with arms folded and brows pulled low was becoming far too familiar to him.
It was also infuriating to know that despite appearances Fen could actually give him a fair turn of trouble if he tried to muscle his way through. He would probably still win, Steve could expect at least a slight advantage over Loki’s son for another couple of years, but he wouldn’t come away from any bouts without the bruises to prove it.
The only thing that made it bearable was that Fen wasn’t making a big issue out of it, wasn’t gloating in his ability to boss around an adult. He was just doing his job, the task he had been set to.
And he was sticking to that task with single-minded tenacity.
“I mean you can’t come in if you’re bringing that,” he said, indicating the new gift Steve had brought. “The last present just would have made him sneeze more. This will really make him worse. Are you trying to make him worse?”
“What? No, I—!” Steve floundered under the accusation thrown at him. He looked down at his newest offering. It caused him less embarrassment to be seen walking around with it than the flowers, but when he remembered his first attempt he couldn’t help but wonder if his subconscious was trying to tell him something.
Steve kicked that speculating part of his brain with a scowl. Yes, he thought savagely. It’s trying to tell you that you need to find a steady girl, that’s what.
Fenrir pointed at the mixed bag of chocolates held in Steve’s hand accusingly. “Those are full of sugar,” the boy growled. “And sugar makes the virus stronger, not the one fighting it. If he eats those, he’ll get sicker!”
Steve sighed quietly. He wasn’t even sure that Tony liked chocolate. He had just thought that a tasty treat would be good to break up the monotony of medicines and tea. A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, right?
He was rather proud of that little bit of popular culture. This age he’d woken up in seemed to communicate primarily through references, and it was taking him a long time to catch up on seventy years of the stuff.
“He doesn’t have to eat it right now. There’s no rule that says he has to use his gifts right away, only that they make him feel better. This will make him feel better when he can eat them!”
How an eleven year old boy managed to look so long suffering and superior, even when he still had to look up to look anyone in the eye Steve could never figure out. It must have been something he had gotten from his father. Lord knew Loki did it practically by default.
Actually, that was true of both fathers.
“It was plainly implied,” Fen drawled out, as though explaining to a simpleton – another habit of his fathers’. “What good is bringing something to a sick person to make them feel better if it won’t make them feel better right away? This one is even worse than the flowers,” he said, shaking his head. “Try again.”
He thought about arguing more, tried to imagine it out, and decided against it. There was no way Fen was going to relent, and he would be having a pointless fight with a child for the second time in one day.
He held the bag out to Fen. “Would you like them, then? They’re not the best chocolates, but…”
At the look being given him, Steve trailed away.
“Now I know you’re trying to kill us.”
Bruce had always gotten along fairly well with all of the kids. Since the first day they had arrived they had taken a shine to him for some reason, using him as a jungle gym when they wanted to play and as a warm place to snuggle whenever they began to tire – when neither of their parents could be found, at any rate.
For the most part Bruce accepted all this gracefully. He’d never had any dislike for children, but then neither had he any particular liking of them. He’d never had much opportunity to interact with them, and he and Betty had never gotten around to discussing children of their own save in the vaguest of senses before the lab accident happened.
But the triplets he came to hold dear. They had absolutely no fear of him, and that alone had been reason enough to scare Bruce. With three small children crawling all over him and no idea that anything, some pulled hair or too many loud voices, could set him off and having him go green and mean, he had been tempted more than once to discourage the kids from being around him. If the children were given the proper dose of fear of him and what he could do, then they would stay away and safe.
It had come as something of a shock to learn that all three knew about the Other Guy from the beginning and had still not been afraid. Paradoxically, that made Bruce feel more at ease around them, and their turns of roughhousing and lazy snuggles became even more common.
Still, it was a little strange to have one of them camped out in his lab. That was a habit that Tony and Clint were more accustomed to.
And yet here Jör was, contentedly perched on one of his tall stools, heels occasionally bumping a steel leg as he kicked his feet back and forth. He wouldn’t be able to do that much longer, Bruce observed. The boy was growing so rapidly as of late that soon his feet would reach the ground when he sat in one of those stools.
It was something Bruce had noticed some time ago. For the past year or so the triplets’ normal rate of growth had increased by a considerable margin, with occasional spurts that made it difficult to keep them in clothing that fit properly. What only made it more obvious was that the triplets were growing at different rates from each other. Hela and Fenrir were staying reasonably close in height, but Fen was already showing signs of where he was going to broaden out in a few years. When he changed to wolf form, he was larger than most adult wolves and was only getting bigger.
Jör, though. Jör was leaving both of his siblings in the dust, as a human or a serpent. He was a full head taller than either one of them, now, coming up a little higher than Bruce’s shoulder, and when in his snake form… Well, he couldn’t hide behind the appliances anymore, that was certain. Bruce suspected that he had some minor control over his size when he transformed, though.
It was a little sad that at the age of eleven it was already out of the question for Jör to roughhouse like he used to, and the time was fast approaching for Hela and Fen as well. It also seemed rather unfortunate that at a glance the one likely to draw the most attention was the one who wanted it least.
Maybe it was odd that Jör didn’t hole up in his lab more often.
Bruce wasn’t averse to having company, so long as said company didn’t get in his way, didn’t distract him with pointless conversation or attempt to watch everything he did over his shoulder. Jör fit that bill very well. After sidling his way through the door, he had asked Bruce for any information on the human immune system he could provide. After some basics, he had sat the boy down with a book and was answering any questions that came up as he read.
Bruce would have felt bad about the negligent method of teaching, except that Jör took to it so well. It was no children’s primer on anatomy and physiology he had handed the boy, and the questions he was coming up with were intelligent, showed he was absorbing most of the material. Further, Bruce rather suspected the Jör preferred to get most of his information from the printed word rather than from someone he would have to hold a conversation with.
As tall as he was, and already putting on the girth that Fen was showing the first signs of, Jör gave the unconscious impression of being a little on the slow side. The stereotype of ‘big and dumb’ worked against him, and was only helped along by his inclination for being quiet. In fact, he was one of the most intelligent kids Bruce had ever seen, once again outstripping his brother and possibly even his sister. He simply absorbed everything around him and held on to it; once it was in his head it wasn’t going to leave again.
Going about his work while still remaining aware of his guest, Bruce wondered what it was the boy expected to gain by the study of the human immune system as a whole. It seemed to him that anything he would want to know about colds and flus could be found in much simpler texts or with more pointed questions. Doubtlessly Hela had called up every available file and website on the subject, and there was what Bruce had told Loki directly. It looked to Bruce as though Jör were systematically trying to learn everything about the human body, how it worked, what could go wrong and how to fix it.
Perhaps he was, Bruce thought. Perhaps this sign of human frailty had caused him to worry over his adoptive father.
Oh, Tony had come home beaten and bruised plenty of times before. It was to be expected when you were an Avenger, and he had not been the only one to come home limping. Loki had also come from the field with blackened eyes, lacerations and broken bones. It was something the kids had come to regard as more or less normal. To see that one of their parents could be struck down by something they couldn’t even see, something that they and their birth father were impervious to, must be upsetting. Frightening, even.
The more he thought about it, the more reasonable it seemed. He wondered if Hela or Fen were doing the same as their brother, or if they were even aware of his activities. Bruce wondered if the boy had been set to this task or if he had sought it out himself.
He was working at one of the computers set to a feed from a microscope when the tall, clean-pated boy cleared his throat right behind him. Not surprisingly, he hadn’t heard the boy get up or approach, even though there was no sound in the lab other than the very soft hum of electronics.
Jör held out the book Bruce had given him a little more than an hour ago. “I’m done with this one. I need another, please.”
For a minute Bruce stared at the book. It was thick and heavy, and not exactly light on the terminology. But he knew that when Jör said he was done, he didn’t mean he was done reading because he didn’t want to read anymore. He was done because he had run out of book.
He wasn’t sure whether he should hope the boy chose to become a doctor or fear the possibility.