Tony went cross-eyed, trying to contort his face so he could focus on the semi-transparent wand sticking out from between his lips. All that he accomplished, however, was creating two blurry shapes to try and bring into focus instead of one. He twisted his mouth around, trying to bring the shape closer to one eye.
“Tony, would you please hold still? The kids are better behaved than you.”
“And shut up as well, you’ll throw off the reading.”
Tony stopped trying to read the thermometer stuck under his tongue and pouted up at Pepper. Later he would deny – weakly – that he did anything as childish as pout, but it didn’t stop him from doing it shamelessly now.
For her part, Pepper was ignoring his protests, verbal and nonverbal. Instead she was standing over him, something she was able to do because she refused to let him do more than sit up in bed, one hand on her hip and eyes glued on her wristwatch. Tony rather thought she was enjoying the opportunity to play nurse; it gave her carte blanche to boss him around.
Well, he could hardly blame her. He’d probably be crowing a lot more than she was if given the opportunity to boss himself around. What bothered him more were the four other people in the room, a veritable audience gathered around as his temperature was taken, each evidencing various levels of concern.
The most obviously worried were the kids. Loki’s three children that had become first legally and then over time in spirit his own, all had eyes glued on him as the procedure went on. Surprisingly enough, Tony thought that Jörmungandr looked the most distressed out of the three. His brows were drawn low and close together over his light blue eyes, which flicked back and forth restlessly between watching Tony and watching Pepper’s every move. He had yet to voice any of his anxiety, but he had never been one to speak if he could get by without words. That was as true now as it had ever been.
In contrast, Hela seemed the least interested out of anyone. When Tony had woken with a fever and feeling vaguely of death, she had wandered in with her brothers to see what was wrong. After a few minutes and a single question if he was uncomfortable, she had sat in one of the room’s chairs with her tablet and begun reading. She would glance up from time to time, but for the most part she remained hidden behind text and a veil of slightly ragged bangs. They would have to get her hair cut again soon, Tony reminded himself. She looked bored, like the only reason she was still in the room was because everyone else was. Considering the amount of fuss being made, Tony rather wished the rest of the family would take her lead.
Fenrir was a little harder for him to read. Tony wanted to say that he was just as bored as his sister, with less skill at hiding it. He was barely even in the room, standing in the doorway and fidgeting, sometimes pacing away only to come back a few moments later. It wasn’t until he noticed that Fen was actually watching the proceedings, particularly whenever Pepper got close to Tony, that he thought the boy cared at all what was going on. Impossible as his current anatomy made it, he thought he could see the boy’s ears twitching in irritation.
Sometimes Tony wished they could send the kids to school. Not boarding school, no, never that kind of hell; regular school, where they would get on a bus in the morning and come home in the afternoon. It would make things a lot simpler, not to mention calmer at home to have some adult-only time. But even ignoring their unusual qualities, the three of them had direct links to Tony Stark, multi-billionaire and Iron Man, and Loki, God of Chaos and once enemy of Earth. Those sorts of connections would make them far too tempting as targets, for good and evil people alike. It was safer to keep them close where their fathers and the Avengers, their extended family, could keep watch over them.
And when their particular natures were taken into consideration, the idea of letting them loose in an only semi-controlled environment, full of hyperactive children and a handful of mere human adults keeping watch over them… no. Just no.
Still, it would have made for a less awkward morning than this one was turning out to be.
Though possibly not, he thought as he let his eyes drift over to where Loki was standing.
After waking, finding Tony hot to the touch, drafting Pepper – who had come to the Mansion early to drag him into the office – into the job of figuring out what was wrong with him and explaining as best he could what was happening to the triplets, Loki had yet to put on anything other than a loose pair of pajama bottoms. Actually, they were an old pair of hospital scrub bottoms, and Tony had no idea when he would have gotten them, but they were what he wore these days when they were having a lazy night before going to bed. A rumpled Loki was still an odd sight, familiarity doing nothing to acclimatize him.
At the moment, Tony was less distracted by Loki’s lack of attire than he was by the daggers being glared in his direction.
It really wasn’t fair. It wasn’t as though Tony had gone out of his way to get sick, and it wasn’t that big of a deal, anyway. It was really Pepper and all this fussing that was keeping him from jumping out of bed. Did Loki think he actually enjoyed all of this? Being kept in bed, (he’d protested that loudly), being poked and prodded with thermometers, (his constant struggles should have been a clue on his thoughts there), or having Pepper lord it over him while he was down? Seriously, that last one should have been a giveaway. Yet there he was, scowling a dirty scowl across the room, green eyes gone toxic, arms crossed over chest. He’d yet to say a thing since Pepper had come in and begun her impromptu examination, but Tony had the sneaking suspicion that he was going to get an earful as soon as they had an idea of how bad his sniffles were.
The thermometer was pulled out of his mouth, clinking against his teeth on the way out. “Owie,” he complained for the sake of complaining.
“Oh, grow up, Tony.” Pepper squinted at the little glass tube, reading where the mercury had stopped.
He chose to ignore the suggestion. “Don’t we have more accurate ways of taking a temperature than that old granny stick?”
“Yes,” Pep replied absently. “But this works fine and comes with an added bonus.”
“It makes it hard for you to talk.”
Before Tony could retort, Loki finally spoke up, cutting him off. “And what is his temperature?”
Pepper tensed almost imperceptibly at the sound of the Asgardian’s voice. She had gotten better over the years, becoming more comfortable in his company. She still took pains to never be alone with him, but she could hold a conversation with him with only the smallest signs of uneasiness. Maybe a better word would be ‘accustomed.’ Tony doubted that she would ever be 100% at ease with Loki, even if he never showed sign of going evil on them for a straight decade – one could always dream. There would always be something held in reserve. He sometimes wondered if Pep noticed how much effort Loki put into not making her uncomfortable.
For now, that slight tightening of muscles was the only outward sign she gave as she sighed. “It’s hovering right around 102 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“This is dangerous for humans?”
Pep opened her mouth to speak, but it was Tony’s turn to interrupt. “Nope, perfectly normal, I’m right as rain.” He began disentangling himself from the bed sheets. “I told you this was all a waste of time—“
Pepper put a hand on his bare chest, chilly against his fevered skin, to keep him from rising. “Tony, don’t make me use your own house systems against you.” The little pressure she used was pathetically effective in holding him down. Tony pretended to not be as determined as a way of salvaging his dignity. Pep turned to Loki, who watched the demonstration with a raised brow. “Our temperature should be at about 98.6 degrees. Once we hit 100 it’s considered a fever, and it gets dangerous for adults at about 104 degrees.”
As one, the kids looked up from their various positions to examine Tony, Jör with wide eyes, Hela with a little frown, and Fen with alert attention.
“That is a relatively narrow margin of safety,” Loki commented drily. “Are you sure?”
Pep nodded. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. These are core body temperatures. So long as he takes- it- easy-,” she punctuated the words with little presses of her palm, “it shouldn’t get any worse.”
The eyebrow came back up. “A rather high order, given who it is we’re talking about.”
“What sort of disease has caused this?” he asked, ignoring Tony.
“Most likely either a cold or the flu. They’re both fairly common, and the fever says to me that it’s flu. Although someone,” she looked sternly at Tony, “was meant to get a flu shot to prevent this kind of thing.”
“You know what those shots are actually good for, right? They’re basically just guesswork and only give you a 50/50 chance of immunity.”
“50/50 is still better than nothing, Tony.”
“Hey, I got the shot, okay?” He shifted a little, wondering how quickly he could get into some warm clothes if he were allowed to get out of bed. The air in the room was unexpectedly chilly. “Not my fault if it couldn’t block a sniffle. Besides, that’s all it is, so I’m fine to get up and come into the office with you…”
Tony got twin glares from Loki and Pep. Even the kids looked at him incredulously.
Once they were both satisfied he wouldn’t be making a break for the door, Loki pushed away from the wall he’d been propped up against to stand beside Pepper. “Now he has contracted this illness, what do we do to remedy it? Will he require your physicians?”
Again Pep shook her head. “Not unless it gets a lot worse, which I don’t see happening. The main things are for him to get rest, plenty of fluids, and bone up on some vitamins. Other than that just keep him comfortable, he should recover on his own in a few days.”
A few days. Tony had visions of being watched over by the six foot plus Asgardian, confined to his bed for a few days. And not even in the fun way.
He groaned. He was ignored.
Pep looked around at the kids. “I know they must be worried, but you might want to have them keep their distance until Tony gets better. Just so they don’t get sick as well.”
One side of Loki’s mouth quirked up, the closest he’d come to a smile since waking. “Do not concern yourself. With a few notable exceptions, anything that does not kill us within the first five minutes we will recover from. I doubt this illness will even faze any of the children.”
Pepper smiled as well, looking across the bed at Jör still hovering nearby. “Lucky them,” she said, the two words full of affection. She failed to see the look of warm approval that earned her from the boy’s father, distracted as she was by Jör’s embarrassed little head duck.
Tony smiled at the byplay. Pepper was still nervous around Loki – fair enough, all things considered – but around the triplets she let her guard down some. They were finding new ways to worm their way further and further into her heart every day, and in doing easing the way for her to accept Loki as well. It was more or less the same with everyone who came into contact with them. What was interesting to observe, though, was just how much it worked in the opposite direction as well, how the affection people genuinely felt for the triplets softened Loki to them.
“Well,” Pep said briskly, “I was going to drag Tony into the office by his ears to get some work done, but he’s no use to me like this.”
“Oh, no,” Tony put in quickly. “I wouldn’t want to leave you high and dry in your hour of need—“
“—that’s never bothered you before when it comes to office work—“
“—this little cold isn’t enough to keep me down, I can handle a few mountains of paperwork just fine—“
The double refusal came simultaneously, both speakers glaring down at him. They were able to unite on two things, then: affection for the kids and annoyance for him. Typical.
“Tony, if I catch you trying to get into Stark Industries while you’re sick I will have security – your own security – drag you out and all the way back here again. I’ll have Happy do it personally, and don’t think he won’t.”
“No need to worry, Ms. Potts.” There was a gleam in Loki’s eye that Tony decided he really did not like. “You won’t see him trying to sneak into your offices. He’ll never make it out of this house.”
Tony looked back and forth between the two determined faces hovering over him, trying to decide if the shivers he felt coming on were part of the fever, or mild terror at this unprecedentedly united front. He scooted further down into the blankets, not pouting. “No fair, ganging up on a sick man like this.”
One of the kids giggled.
“I, on the other hand, still have to go in.” Pep stepped back a step from the bed, removing herself from the scene. “I don’t have the excuse of sickness, and now I have to put off some things for the next couple of days until you get better.” She looked at Loki. “I’m sure the others will help you out with different treatments, or just in keeping him held down.”
Loki paused, seeming to give this announcement a little consideration. “Will you be leaving for the offices immediately, Ms. Potts?”
Pep blinked. “Well- yes, I suppose, I—“
“I wonder if you would be willing to keep him occupied for the next few minutes. I will return momentarily.”
Without waiting for an answer, Loki blinked out of existence. Pep and Tony stared where he had been standing. Surreptitiously pulling the blankets closer, Tony commented, “After three years, you would think I would be more used to that. But nope, terrifying every time.”
“How long have I known you, Tony, and I’m still not used to everything that you throw out there.” She looked at him, and just for a moment she looked tired. The same particular kind of tired she had looked back when they had been together, but coming close to the end of their ‘together.’
There had been plenty contributing to their relationship issues, long before Loki had ever appeared on the scene. If Tony were honest, he could admit that from the very beginning they had been building on quicksand. Always two steps forward, one and half steps back. This wasn’t to say his current relationship wasn’t chockfull of its own issues, but with Pepper… They had both tried hard to make it work. Accounts varied on who put in the most effort, but they had both worked hard at it. To see all of that effort not wasted, but still come to nothing, left a bitter aftertaste.
“Hey, monsters,” he said, catching the attention of the triplets. “Why don’t you run off and find where your dad went, eh?”
Hela looked up from her tablet, leveling the same kind of look on him her father often did, the green intensity not at all lessened for only having one visible eye. Fen, still hovering in the door, cocked his head, and Jör blinked. “But he’ll be right back,” Jör pointed out, speaking softly as always.
“And JARVIS can tell us if you really want to know,” Fen added.
There was a slightly awkward pause in the room. JARVIS, who would normally pop up immediately with information at the mention of his name, remained silent. Finally Hela stood, padded over on one bare and one socked foot, grabbed a handful of her brother’s sleeve and towed him out of the room. Fen fussed a little when she did the same to him, but went with all the same. “But it’s true, why do we need to go look…?” The petulant voice trailed off and was lost entirely behind a closed door.
Then it only became more awkward.
“Look, Pep,” he began, and then realized that he wasn’t sure what it was he wanted to say. It was there, right there in his head, ready to be said, what should have been said years ago and a hundred times since, but he couldn’t quite form the shape of the words. He knew the feel of what he wanted to express, but the words themselves fled from him, as they always did when he tried to reach for them.
“Look,” he started again. “I’m sorry about this. If you really need me to come in, I’m sure I can manage a few hours without collapsing. It’s not as though signing papers is all that strenuous.”
She stared at him, apparently waiting to see if there was any more forthcoming. When there wasn’t, she exhaled in a small huff. “It’s fine, Tony. It’s kept for the past week; it’ll do for a few more days. Just be ready to be worked ragged when you finally do drag your carcass in.”
Tony had the distinct impression, now and every other time he had tried to get across this huge thing squatting in his mind that refused to be said, that Pepper understood exactly what it was he was trying to say. She never said that she understood, though, or gave him an easy out by picking up where he sputtered out, filling in the blanks as he stumbled. She let him struggle with it alone, over and over, apparently content to do so until he finally figured it out. It was a mild form of torture Tony thought she probably had a right to.
He sat back into the pillows, tilting his head back, and tried to ignore the fact that it was getting hard to breathe through his nose.
Why me? Bruce thought to himself, trying to not let the thought show on his face.
He didn’t ask for much – well, no, fine, he asked for plenty. His personality and abilities combined with circumstances in just such a way that he could ask for quite a lot on a regular basis – new scientific breakthroughs, miracle cures, temporary but invaluable periods of peace, shoes that didn’t hurt his feet – and actually have a fair shot at getting them. But relatively, on a personal level, he didn’t ask for too much. Coffee in the morning, at least one good meal in a day, a roof, clothes… he’d lived on the run long enough to learn how do without a lot of what his companions considered basic. Truth was, though he now lived in what he considered the lap of luxury, able to exercise his mind and contribute to those causes he cared the most about, what he still valued the most was his personal space.
He took another try at patting his trousers dry – the remains of his morning coffee, proven to still be very hot at the moment of spilling – and tried to think soothing thoughts. Mostly he tried not to think of a half-naked god suddenly appearing in his lab, demanding to know the ABC’s of influenza, while at the same time attempting to reconcile this event as his new definition of ‘normal.’ It wasn’t as much of a stretch as it should have been.
“Tony is sick?” he asked, grasping at the one thing he thought he could be certain of.
Loki, hair an uncombed mess and arms crossed over his bare chest in a show of annoyance rather than modesty, nodded. “His temperature has elevated, there is some impediment to his breathing, and his voice is becoming progressively rough. Despite his fever he’s seeking more warmth, and he’s being quite fractious. Ms. Potts has deemed it ‘the flu’.”
Bruce nodded at the assessment, continuing to mop at his trouser leg. “Sounds the most likely diagnosis, though the uncooperative attitude is probably just Tony’s personality.” He looked up at the sleep rumpled god. “You know that I’m not a medical doctor, right?”
“I was given to understand that this is a common enough malady that any reasonably educated human could provide information about it.”
“Then why…? Oh, never mind.” He was going to ask, if anyone in the Mansion could answer his questions, why had Loki decided to pick on him, but decided not to. He could tell by the way the Asgardian stood that he wasn’t likely to get a straight answer. It was sometimes hard to predict how Loki would behave, except that very rarely did what he have to say and what was on his mind coincide. His body language was closed, which was also rare, and said that questions would meet with uncharacteristically blunt evasions. Better to just get to the point. “What was it exactly you wanted to know?”
“What to expect, remedies and any possible complications.”
“Everything, then.” Loki’s stare was unblinking. Bruce sighed. Loki’s sense of humor was hard to predict at times, as well.
Deciding his pants were as dry as he was going to get them with a handful of paper towels, he tossed the wad into a trash can. “Alright,” he said, rubbing his face. “The very basics, then. If it is flu, what you can expect is high temperatures, but only worry if it lasts a long time, say a couple days, or gets higher than 103, 104. Right around there is when you start cooking brain cells. Unless and until it gets there, just keep an eye on it. It’s the body’s way of fighting the infection. Eventually the fever will break and he’ll go from piling on blankets to pouring sweat in a hurry. If the temp gets too high, we have medications to lower it. Other symptoms will be congestion, cough, sore throat, muscle and joint pain, muscle weakness, headache, fatigue and – if it gets really bad – diarrhea and vomiting.”
As Bruce listed off symptoms Loki’s face gradually shifted from annoyed, to attentive, to incredulous, to mildly horrified. “And this is a common illness for humans?”
Bruce shrugged. “Not as common as the cold, which isn’t as severe, but sure.”
“No wonder you are all so short lived.”
“Could be,” he smiled humorlessly. “Depending on who you talk to, the annual rate of flu related deaths ranges somewhere between three and forty-nine thousand.”
Loki looked at him, very carefully not looking alarmed. It didn’t fool Bruce. Hard to read or not, they had lived and worked in close proximity long enough for Bruce to recognize that look.
He let the Asgardian stew a few moments, enjoying this mild form of stress relief. Sure, it was a little sadistic, but he’d liked these pants, and been looking forward to his coffee, dammit.
“But,” he said, taking pity, “most of those are made up of the very young, very old and those whose immune systems are compromised.” He pretended to not notice the look of relief break over the other man’s face. “As for remedies, there are hundreds, ranging in complexity and effectiveness. Generally, you’ll want to help Tony’s body to do the job itself. Carbs and sugar will feed the infection, so proteins are better at this point: soups and broth are both good. Water, juice, tea, anything you can get down his trap that’s liquid and has vitamins or nutrients will be fine. Keep him comfortable and make sure he rests until he’s actually better, which will probably be the biggest challenge.”
“I see,” Loki said eventually. “Are there any potential complications other than death that I should be aware of?”
“Pneumonia and bronchitis are the worst ones to watch for, where the infection works its way into the lungs. It’s why you want to stomp out the influenza as soon as you can, so that doesn’t happen. Sinus infections are possible, but not as much of an issue. Although…” Bruce trailed off, a thought occurring.
“Well, illnesses like this tend to have negative effects on pre-existing, chronic conditions. I’m not sure about all of the specifics of Tony’s arc reactor, but…”
Again the doctor failed to finish his sentence, but he didn’t need to. He could see the wheels rapidly turning in Loki’s head. However much he tried to hide or obscure it, he really was protective of Tony, and Bruce’s vague but ominous caution was likely to throw that into overdrive. Tony was going to hate it.
Bruce wasn’t quite able to hide a small smile. Tony had been annoying him lately as well.
Tony had never been particularly good at following directions. Sure, as a kid he’d done his best to do as his father had told him – when the old man had bothered to say anything. He had run himself ragged trying to live up to this standard, that dream, and eventually being sent to a boarding school to ‘shape up.’
He’d never enjoyed it. Always chafing under the orders of others as a child, now that he was – technically speaking – a big, grown-up adult, he was wont to go against perfectly good advice just because he could. He was aware of the habit, and saddled a lot of the current blame for it on Nick Fury, who seemed to take a delight in bossing him around.
Tony took out his stress in small, mostly harmless rebellions.
“Tony, would you please get back to bed?”
Deciding to get up and walk around was probably not the best of moves, he would admit. He still wasn’t fully dressed and missed his warm blankets. They hadn’t been warm enough, but they were as the surface of the sun compared to the icebox outside them. What joker decided that negative four was an appropriate temperature setting for his mansion?
“Well, that’s something I never thought I would hear,” Clint said as Tony finished his descent down the stairs and turned into what had been collectively chosen as the Avengers’ breakfast nook. He and Natasha were seated at the table, food and coffee spread out between them. Tony was pleased to note that they were using cups this time. Normally he wasn’t too picky about table manners, but even he had drawn the line when he’d caught Barton drinking straight out of the coffee pot one morning. The coffee pot where everyone else got their coffee from, mind.
The archer had gotten his own personal tour of the kitchen after that, with special attention given to where the mugs were kept.
“What’s that?” He did his best to ignore how cold the place was and the faint beginnings of muscular trembles in his legs as he made a show of studying the food spread out on the table. Pepper followed him, disapproving scowl still in place.
“Playboy Stark saying ‘no’ to an invitation to bed.” Clint grinned at Tony and offered a sly wink at Pep, apparently oblivious to the storm clouds hanging over her head.
“Where have you been the last couple years, Hawkguy? Haven’t you heard that Tony Stark has settled down?” He eyeballed the fried eggs and toast. Then he eyed Natasha’s hand, twirling her sharp silver fork ever so nonchalantly. She smiled sweetly at him.
Maybe he wasn’t so hungry, at that.
Clint snorted, cutting up his own eggs with a kind of sadistic vigor. “Yes, so I hear, and with Loki. I’m not sure if that makes the possibility of a relapse into your old playboy ways more or less dangerous.” He looked at Pep again. “Either way, I’d be careful with those propositions, Pepper.”
Pepper blinked. “What?”
“Well, showing up and shouting out you wicked designs across the Mansion so anyone can hear. Not exactly stealthy, as plots go.”
“A good thing I’m not trying to be stealthy, then,” she quipped, not one to be thrown off balance for long.
Clint choked on his bite of fried egg.
Tony looked around, trying to decide if he wanted to risk his own cooking skills. He frowned. “Where are Cap and Thunderdome?”
Natasha didn’t look up from patting Clint on the back. “Off somewhere being stealthy. Well, as stealthy as possible in Thor’s case.”
“Really?” Tony edged around, peeking into the kitchen in hopes of finding some leftovers. Besides, being in motion made it harder to feel the shakes. “I was under the impression that stealth was more of your guys’ shtick. Is Fury recruiting more for his little covert clubhouse?”
“I suppose you could say that.” She looked up from Clint, who was no longer in danger of passing out due to inhaling his breakfast, to Pepper who was still glowering at Tony. The two women had gotten off to a rocky start to their relationship, what with Natasha taking Pepper’s place as Tony’s PA when Pepper had taken over Stark Industries – he had been dying at the time, it could hardly count against him as bad judgment, right? And then it had turned out that Natasha was actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent meant to spy on Tony. It’d left Pepper feeling wary around her, a sentiment the agent had done little to amend.
Still, despite that lack of action, they got along tolerably well. Maybe it was because Natasha had done so little to improve relations between them that the gap was slowly closing.
“Why does he have to get back to bed, exactly?”
She wasn’t exactly scoring any brownie points with Tony, though.
“I don’t, obviously, because I can walk just fine—“
“He’s running a temperature of 102 and he insists—“
“—not an invalid, I can function with a cold—“
“—the point is that you don’t have to, Tony—“
“—done it with much worse—“
“—and it’s always such a good idea—“
“Whoa, alright!” Nat raised her hands referee style, looking between the two of them with exasperation. “You know, sometimes you two are worse than the eleven year olds wandering around.”
Tony couldn’t resist. He gestured at Pepper. “She started it.”
“I did not!” she flashed back, and then winced when she realized what she’d said.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “Fine. Tony has a fever, is that what I heard?”
Clint, no longer choking on his breakfast, looked Tony up and down, eyebrow raised. “He doesn’t look sick. You sure it’s not just his personality?”
“I have been described as ‘too hot to handle’ in the past,” he replied with a grin.
Privately, he was quite pleased that at least one person didn’t think he should be restricted to bed rest. It was encouraging that all the effort he was putting into not slumping where he was standing or to let too much of the tiredness creeping up on him show in his face was paying off. Whether he wanted to admit it or not he was going to be thinking quite fondly of his bed soon, and not just for the warm blankets. If he wanted to keep up this pretense he was going to have to find something to do that involved sitting rather soon.
Natasha was looking him up and down as well, and Tony felt his pride deflate a little. Somehow he doubted his act would work as well on her.
“Maybe you should get some rest, Tony,” she said, confirming his worry. “At least until the acute phase is over. Clint, Bruce and I are all here, the world will continue to function if you tag out for a bit.”
“Yeah,” Clint put in. “It’s not as though Earth is under any great threats this week. Catch the Z’s while you can.”
Tony scowled around at them. “You know, to hear you all talk, you would think I was at death’s door or something. Sure, I’ll take it easy for a few days, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to vegetate upstairs, doing nothing. That would drive me nuts, and I think everyone can agree that would be bad times for everyone involved.”
“Oh, yes,” a smooth voice said from the direction of the elevators. “I think those who have never even heard of the great Tony Stark would agree with that assessment.”
A small train of people filed into the room. Fenrir bounded in first, his brother following him more sedately. Loki strode in with purpose, looking at Tony with dark disapproval, and Bruce brought up the rear with Hela, looking curious and faintly amused as he steered the little girl along. Tony wondered at Bruce’s being there, a vague suspicion worming its way into his brain. Before he could think too much on it, Fenrir crashed into him, arms wrapping around his waist.
“We found him!” he shouted, not noticing Tony’s little stumble. He looked up, face creased in a frown. “He was about to come back, anyway.”
Tony ruffled the already messy head of blond hair. “I still appreciate it, pup. Thank you.”
When he looked back up the dark look on Loki’s face hadn’t lightened at all; neither had the faintly amused expression on Bruce. In fact the doctor had set himself off to one side, where he could see everyone in the room with little effort, a ready spectator. That did not bode well, in Tony’s estimation.
Everyone felt the change of atmosphere when Loki entered the room, and the brewing argument subsided. Rather quickly, Tony found he was sharing center stage of a domestic tableau with the Trickster.
“And what sort of acrobatics do you think you will be getting up to while you are ill?”
Tony sighed theatrically. “No acrobatics, I swear. I just want to work on some projects downstairs—“
Tony blinked. The refusal had been absolutely flat, brooking no argument. Not that Tony was one to pay heed to little hints like that. He tried to rally. “Look, I’ve already promised to take it easy. This way I’m confining my infectious self to my workroom where no one else will get sick, and keeping myself from going stir crazy.”
“No.” The temperature in the room, already an icebox to Tony, dropped even further. Loki stood in the middle of the breakfast nook, in nothing but an old pair of scrub pants and could still look as imposing as he ever did when in his leathers and armor. “Should you spend your day working on your contraptions, your idiotic pride will have you forgetting that promise within an hour. It’s your pride that has you on your feet right now, when you should be in bed. We will remedy the problem – and you – by getting you back there now.”
It was a little disconcerting to realize, as he listened to all of this, that there was very little he could do to keep from being forced into convalescence. In the past he had always outranked anyone who showed concern, or was outside of their sphere of control entirely. Usually these were Pepper, Happy and Rhodey, and yes, he would admit to having vetoed, ignored, or argued out of anything like an instruction to remain in bed. None of those would work in Loki’s case.
To everyone’s surprise, Tony smiled. “You want me up there,” he said through his grin, “you’ll have to drag me up there yourself.”
His smile was returned with an incredibly sweet one from Loki. “I have a much better idea,” he purred.
Loki looked around the room, but ignored the Avenger team members and Pep, all of whom continued to watch the drama unfold. Instead he looked to each of his children. “Kids,” he said, smile stretching wickedly. “Fetch.”
“Wha-?” Abruptly his waist was released. Now the front of his shirt was being gripped between a set of very sharp teeth, the forepaws of a lanky wolf cub planted on his thighs. Tony stared wolf-Fen in the eye. Fen growled with mock menace, lips wrinkling back and golden eyes flashing. “Wha?” he repeated, genius incarnate.
Jör and Hela had rushed in and clamped down on each of his forearms, the same wicked flash of mischief in Fen’s eye reflected in theirs’. Before he could get out a third brilliant ‘Wha?’ they began towing him forward, out of the breakfast room and towards the stairs. Instead, Tony managed a strangled, “Whoa!”
The triplets were each stronger than they looked, a fact that was driven home when all three were dragging him across the room. At approximately eleven years old – it was hard to pin down an exact age, Loki had tried to explain the math, which Tony had entirely failed to understand – they were stronger than any human child would be, and Fen was far larger and stronger than a wolf cub ought to be. With Tony’s strength laughably diminished, Hela pulling on his left arm, Jör on his right and Fen on a mouthful of his shift, Tony didn’t stand much chance. Still, he put up a struggle, for the spirit of the thing.
“Hey, hey!” he squawked. “Knock it off, guys, let me go! I swear I’m fine, c’mon! JARVIS! How about a little help, here?”
The AI had the audacity to sound ever-so-slightly amused when he replied. “What would you recommend, sir? Electric shocks?”
It was a good point, but hell, he wasn’t being serious. “I don’t know, just do something!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the AI responded, not sounding at all apologetic. “But they seem to be acting in your best interests, which coincides with my own directives.”
Tony pulled a face. “Et tu, JARVIS?”
“I’m afraid so, Caesar. The ides of March is come.”
Tony was dragged off, complaining the whole way, two and four legged children towing him along, a smug Loki following along behind. As the sounds of protest interspersed with the occasional word or two from Loki or the kids faded away, the remaining four were left in silence. Clint was the first to break it. “Do you think we should have… I don’t know. Come to the rescue on that?”
“He was outnumbered,” Bruce said after a moment, trying not to look too pleased with himself.
Natasha sniffed, scooping a spoonful of egg onto her toast. “There are some struggles you just have to let your teammates get through on their own,” she said pragmatically.
Clint shuddered. “True.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. Still, with so many around him to, one: keep him from overdoing it and, two: nurse him through the worst when it came, she could concentrate on getting things done until he got better. Tony would be fine without her having to hang around, and she could get to rescheduling a lot of appointments and meetings.
Stifling a sigh, Pep said her goodbyes and left the Mansion.
Tony would never admit it out loud, but it was probably a very good thing that he had been drug off to bed again.
Under continuing protests and promises to curtail the kids’ video game time – and much more intimate privileges in Loki’s case – he had been hauled like a congested barge back upstairs and to the bedroom. From there Loki had taken over from the children and tossed Tony into the sheets bodily when he’d refused to get in under his own power.
He could have blamed that on the Asgardian naturally being so much stronger than he was, that he was not only capable of lifting Tony like a bag of feathers and throwing him around, but that he was free to do so with very little resistance. He could also say that he had learned long ago to save himself a lot of aches and pains by picking his fights carefully, except that no one would believe him. Truth was he just didn’t have the reserves to put up more than a cursory struggle and a lot of arguing.
Once back in bed, Loki made it very clear via body language and a toxic green glower that he would be well advised to not attempt getting up again. Tony stayed still.
Satisfied that his patient wouldn’t be making any further escape attempts, Loki turned to the triplets.
“Alright,” he said, and the at-attention postures of all three immediately increased. “Tony is very sick. It may not look like it just now, but from what I understand, it is going to get worse before it gets better.” Three sets of worried eyes glanced at him, looking for any sign of his illness suddenly becoming terminal. “We are going to need some supplies to assist us in getting him better. Hela, see what you can find in the way of bottled water and juice and bring as much of it up here as you can. Fenrir,” he turned his attention to the boy-in-cub-form when Hela instantly sprinted away. “Get into the storage closets and bring us more blankets. Take note of where the sheets are for later. And see if you can manage some small washcloths, as well.”
Fenrir chuffed his understanding and loped off after his sister.
“With your hands!” Loki called after the flipping, feathered tail. He looked back down at the final remaining sibling, who stared back up unblinkingly. “Jörmungandr, find Dr. Banner and see what it is we have in the way of medicines for this. He mentioned there were some to assist with high temperature, but I neglected to find which they were.”
Jör nodded, and took the path of his siblings, following at a less hurried pace.
With the children set on their various missions, Tony and Loki were left alone in their bedroom. It might have been the past experiences he’d had over the years, but he half expected Loki to begin berating him as soon as they were alone. It wouldn’t even matter what he was being berated for, really. Anything from his behavior to having caught a cold in the first place and it would have been very familiar – and expected. Watching the taut lines of muscle in his bare back jump, Tony thought the chances of a tongue lashing were well over 90%.
It never came, though. For a while Loki did not move at all, refused to even turn and look at him. Still mostly sprawled where he had been unceremoniously dumped, Tony refrained from interrupting whatever train of thought was taking place.
When Loki finally did turn around, there was no scowl in place, no glare trying to pierce through him. He was surprisingly neutral.
Tony wasn’t sure what to think, or what to do about a non-combative companion approaching him. If Loki would just give him the argument like he was expecting, then he would have something to do other than stare. With the half-dressed Asgardian silently moving around the bed, straightening the blankets and pillows – the words ‘tucking in’ scuttled treacherously though his mind – he was at a bit of a loss. What was a grown man meant to say in a situation like that?
In the end he suffered himself to be tidied into the bed. Loki seemed to need to have something to do, and being under the blankets again was nice.
Finally satisfied that everything in the bed was as it should be, Tony firmly tucked and propped and the thermometer Pep had brought in set out neatly on the bedside, he looked Tony over intently.
“How are you feeling?”
“Now we’re asking? See, I thought the repeated shouts that I was fine would have gotten the message across.”
He didn’t realize that he’d been hoping his abrasive reply would result in a return of the same until it failed to do so. Loki refused to be baited into an argument, or even to frown. “And we both know what those amounted to. I want an honest answer.”
“Kind of a funny thing to hear coming from you.”
It was a low blow just to try and press him to a response, but the only one he got was a faint smile. “Perhaps, but indulge me. All of your protestations fool no one, least of all me. This illness has affected you, and the more you insist that it does not, the more obvious it is.”
Loki reached out and pressed a hand against his forehead. His palm felt like ice, and Tony shivered involuntarily. “You’ve grown weaker,” Loki murmured. “And despite what you say, you only continue to do so. You’re exhausting yourself to appear well. Your eyes have grown bright and you feel like a furnace. There is no point in feigning health when it’s plainly deteriorating. So,” the long, cool fingers that had carded into his hair tightened against his skull. “How. Do. You. Feel?”
Tony winced at the pressure, even though it didn’t hurt, and grinned a little at Loki. “Have I ever told you that you can be a nuisance sometimes?”
“About as often as I remind you of the same.”
“That much, huh?” He sighed and shrugged, giving in. “I ache, I guess. I can feel the congestion building up here,” he tapped between his brows, “so Kleenex and Aspirin are going to be in my future. And I’m cold,” he admitted, and finally allowed himself to nestle into the warmth of the bed, pulling the blankets up to his shoulders. Gods that felt better already!
Looking down at the human burrowing himself into the bedding, a faint line appeared between Loki’s brows. Tony couldn’t quite interpret the expression, he was too concentrated on suppressing a bout of shivers that was sweeping through him. “You have felt poorly before,” Loki said thoughtfully. “But this is the first time I have seen you really ill. Why would that be?”
“An unusually high constitution and clean living?”
Loki snorted, and Tony gave him another grin. It took entirely too much effort to do so. Now that he was in bed again, he was fading fast. He could actually feel a difference in his condition from one moment to the next. It was amazing what a shift in attitude would do. From stubbornly refusing to even admit having the flu to surrendering to being taken care of, and this was how his body responded: by making sure he couldn’t change his mind again and spring out of bed, charge down into his workshop and work for a few days straight.
“I was more concerned with why exactly it was that you have contracted this illness now, when you have never seemed particularly susceptible in the past. What has changed to make you more vulnerable?”
The bed really was very warm, Tony decided, feeling like he was beginning to thaw. As he warmed he was becoming drowsy as well, the notion of sleep becoming not only agreeable but inevitable. I must have gotten up too early, he thought.
“Can’t be sure,” he replied, hearing as though at a distance how slurred his words were already becoming. “They say idiots can’t catch a cold. Maybe I’m getting smarter.”
With his eyes drifting shut, Tony heard rather than saw the smile on Loki’s lips when he answered. “Small fear of that, Stark.”
Yeah, it was probably a very good thing that he had been drug off to bed Tony reflected as he felt sleep make a final tug of his weakening consciousness, dragging him under just as the first of the kids made it back from their assigned tasks. He didn’t even make out which it was before the darkness overtook him.
Sleep didn’t last long, but it certainly had an effect. It felt as though whoever had set the Mansion’s temperature controls somewhere in the Arctic Circle before had decided to make a change for the Congo. The blankets he had cocooned himself in were suffocating him rather than providing a haven in an igloo.
He went to kick off the offending covers, but apparently sleep had been a physical struggle. What little strength he’d had before was even less now. The weight of his own legs was almost too much, never mind the two sets of blankets draped over him. He would need a forklift for those, because they obviously weighed several hundred pounds. If only the press could see him now, he thought to himself hazily. The suave Tony Stark, Iron Man the great protector of mankind, completely at the mercy of a couple of comforters wrapped around his legs.
He groaned, the closest he could muster to a snappy one-liner for his fleecy adversary, and geared up for the Herculean effort of kicking.
“Daddy, he’s awake! He’s awake!”
Something exploded inside Tony’s head, and his defiant groan turned into a pathetic – more pathetic – whine of protest. Obviously the congestion had gotten worse if the throbbing in his temples, forehead and more or less his entire face was anything to go by. It was like a mother of a hangover, the residue of the kind of night he’d not enjoyed for a few years.
He buried his face in the pillows, which made breathing only marginally more difficult, abandoning the struggle with his blankets. He was aware of one of the triplets – Fen, he thought – charging out of the room, presumably to fetch Loki.
With any luck he had brewed up a cure for influenza while he’d been asleep, or Tony was sure he’d die within the next hour or two. Cure or death, either one was fine with him.
Weren’t naps meant to make you feel better? Shakespeare had called sleep ‘Death’s counterfeit,’ but from available evidence there wasn’t too much difference between the counterfeit and the real thing.
“I see the illness is continuing apace, much as was predicted.”
Tony came back up from his bastion of pillows, glaring in the general direction of the door. It was difficult to see, not only because his eyes refused to focus but because the room was dimly lit, only weak sunlight managing to muscle its way in through the drapes. Loki was easy to pinpoint, though. A tall silhouette topped with a mop of hair and sporting an insufferable smile. Tony tried for an expression more like a scowl than the already pinched arrangement his features had fallen into. “Please tell me you have concocted a cure for this, before the real fun starts.”
The smile quirked, becoming a smirk. “And become known as a kindly god, bestowing favors of health upon the populace? Thank you, no.”
Sitting up was too much work. Tony let gravity have him, flopping to his side. “What if I promised to be a complete bastard and not share it with anyone on Earth?”
“While I don’t doubt your ability to act so, I think you would fall back on your more philanthropic habits once you were feeling better.”
“Probably,” he agreed, and sniffed hard. His sinuses, though, were well and truly blocked, and no amount of snuffling was going to clear them. “It might be a different story if you catch me later.”
“Not so difficult a feat,” Loki commented. “I doubt you could outrun a lame goat.”
He made Tony shift a little to make room for him to perch on the edge of the bed. He wasn’t sure how long he had been asleep, but it had been long enough for Loki to get dressed in slacks and a loose fitting tunic, his casual wear for home. Which probably meant he’d had breakfast already, and if he had then so had the kids. Tony found himself wondering what everyone had eaten without him, which quickly expanded to wonder what had been going on generally while he slept. Maybe he could get JARVIS to give him a briefing on the highlights.
A chilly hand pressed itself against his forehead. He batted at it, weakly. “Yes, thank you, I still have a fever.” He made another feeble attempt at extracting his legs from the blankets. “Feels like a sauna in here.”
Loki watched his struggles thoughtfully. “No more chills,” he said to himself. “But still an elevated temperature and no sweating. How do you feel?”
“Like the beginnings of death,” Tony grumbled. “Everything hurts, nothing wants to move, and it feels like my head was put in a vise.” He sniffled again, grimacing. “And I think the waterworks has started up. No doubt it will get worse before it gets better,” he sighed.
Loki raised an eyebrow at him, then picked up a box of tissues from the bedside table and thrust it under his running nose. “Not if I am to have any say in the matter it won’t.”
Tony took a fistful of tissues gratefully, casting an eye over the surface of the bedside table. It had changed since he was last conscious. Normally it was the resting place for a lamp, clock, a glass half-filled with something drinkable, and whatever he was most recently reading. Now it looked a little like a school nurse’s top drawer. A thermometer, five sealed bottles of water and juice, a jar of Vicks, a pink bottle Tony assumed was Pepto-Bismol the same way he assumed the smaller white bottles were pain relievers, boxes of decongestant, a package of crackers, a jar of peanut butter and a knife, a couple of empty mugs, what he thought was a box of teabags and – Tony was rather impressed with this – an electric tea kettle set up and ready to boil. When he leaned over the edge of the bed to toss the damp tissues into the garbage he also found two mini ice chests, one empty and one full of damp washcloths, and an empty bucket.
He sat back up, his turn to raise a questioning eyebrow. “And since when have you been such an expert on human illnesses?”
The smirk widened. Loki looked supremely pleased with himself. “This morning. Now,” he set down the box of tissues, trading it for the thermometer, “let’s see just how high this fever is, shall we?”
Protesting was a lost cause, so Tony suffered to have the old granny stick stuck between his teeth again, trying to shake a vague feeling of déjà vu.
“Stark is not feeling well?”
Clint shook his head, still flipping through channel after channel of trash TV, hoping against hope that a wider selection than his own basic cable plan at home would equal more hits than he was used to. He was quickly becoming disappointed, though far from disillusioned. It seemed to be one of the Laws of Murphy that flew right in the face of the Laws of Math. With a greater number of stations to choose from, there should have been a correspondingly higher percentage of them that were tolerable. But no, that number was exactly the same: two.
Sighing, he tossed the remote when he came back around to the more endurable of the two channels and looked back over his shoulder. Thor and Cap had gotten back from their covert mission sooner than expected, and from the sound of it, it had been less than covert in the end. Which might go some way to explain why it had finished up early; Cap had looked rather annoyed when they had trudged through the door, and Thor as contrite as was possible for a 6’ 3” powerhouse to be. Clint made a mental note to ask for stories later.
“Yeah,” he said. “Pepper came in early this morning to get the jump on him over some office stuff, I think. Left saying he had a temperature and should stay home.”
Thor’s brows came low over the bridge of his nose, while Cap’s rose to his hairline. He cast a glance towards the stairs leading up to the second floor and the bedrooms. “Ms. Potts always has been a very… tenacious sort of woman. It must be pretty serious for her to tell Tony not to work.”
Clint shrugged. “Hard to tell with her, and with him. He wandered down before she left and he looked alright. Maybe a little out of it, but you know – walking and talking, all parts in working order.”
“What is being done?” Thor asked, concern evident in every line of him.
“Well, after Pepper left for Stark Industries, your brother dragged Tony back upstairs to enforce some bed rest. Though from the sound of it, he would have to enforce it with a rope. That was nearly two hours ago and I haven’t heard anything out of Tony since, so I’m assuming that he’s resting as ordered. Loki and the kids have been charging around and interrogating everyone about flu remedies. It’s all been rather surreal.”
Thor nodded. “If Loki is looking after Stark, then whatever the ailment, it will not last long. My brother is most talented with healing magics and very determined.”
Clint was a little skeptical, but decided not to comment. He hadn’t done it often to begin with, but he had learned not to let his mouth run in front of Thor where it concerned opinions on his brother.
Cap was looking around the large living room curiously. Still in his mission gear it made him look like he was on task in the middle of the Avenger’s Mansion. “Where is everyone now?”
“Pepper is at Stark Industries, I’m here, tall, green and brainy is in his brain cave, Tasha’s gone out somewhere, and Tony’s upstairs. Fen came pelting out of there a little while back, yipping that Tony was awake, so I’m assuming that’s where Loki is now. As for the other two little ones, I sorta lost track.” He turned and stretched out on the sofa, pleased to have the whole thing to himself. “They both seemed pretty into their projects, though, so I doubt we need to worry about any fires.”
“Indeed not, Mr. Barton,” a synthetic voice informed him, making the archer jump out of his relaxed lounge. “I can assure you that I am quite capable of monitoring each of the children, and all are behaving well, with no indication of setting anything aflame, purposefully or otherwise.”
Heart still pounding, Clint glared at the ceiling. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that thing,” he grumbled.
Ignoring his teammate, Steve also looked up, a habit all of the Avengers had taken to when communicating with the Mansion’s AI system. “Where are they right now, JARVIS?”
“Fenrir is currently just outside the master bedroom, Hela is ensconced in the back kitchen, and Jörmungandr is with Dr. Banner in research laboratory three.” The AI listed them all off smoothly and coolly.
On the surface it was the completely emotionless voice of a very sophisticated computer, but Clint was sure he could hear the slightest tinge of smug amusement lurking in the words. It hadn’t taken very long for everyone on the team to discover Clint’s mild but persistent fear of intelligent robotics, precipitated by watching far too many films where man has created what he cannot control and is summarily destroyed. It wasn’t enough to make him spurn the use of robotics or smart computers, though. They were becoming far too prevalent, too useful, and in some cases, too much required to spurn. He learned to get over or ignore his discomfort in most cases, but JARVIS made him nervous. He was sure that the system was really much closer to a true, strong artificial intelligence than Tony would have generally known – for obvious reasons. He was also sure that JARVIS was just as aware of his mild paranoia and took a positive delight in it, finding ways of subtly exploiting it.
Natasha said that line of thinking was just his paranoia showing through even more.
Cap was looking over at Thor, giving a half shrug. “You want to go up and check on him?”
Thor nodded. “Indeed. It’s only right to show solidarity to a comrade who is low.” He glanced at Clint meaningfully. “Will you come as well, Barton?”
The archer waved his hand, flopping back down onto the sofa. “Thanks, but I’ve already paid my respects to the dying, shown my brotherly solidarity and all that. Unless he’s taken a serious turn for the worse – which I doubt – I’m staying out of the way. He has enough nurses.”
Cap raised a brow at the veiled meaning but nodded. “Sure thing,” was all he said, and drew the big Asgardian away with him to the stairs.
Clint smiled faintly at their backs, turned back to the barely acceptable program, wondering if he should just switch it off. You could always depend on Cap being a diplomat, which with this particular group was a must-have skill. Only occasionally was he a source of friction, and he had gotten better at smoothing that over. For a dude from the 40’s, he was alright.
He turned the television off, opting for silence and possibly a nap. It wouldn’t hurt to take the advice he’d given to Tony and catch some Z’s. He was just digging his shoulders into the couch cushions when a voice made him jump for a second time.
“You appear bored, Mr. Barton. Would you like me to provide you with some form of entertainment?”
There was definitely a note of malicious humor in that voice. He could hear the damn computer laughing at him.
“No thanks, JARVIS, I’m fine.”
“I thought perhaps you might enjoy a film. Perhaps Terminator? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey?”
Clint growled. “Thanks. No.”