If Tony had been paying attention, he probably would have realized there was something up the first time he had trouble getting himself to go to Finn's swim meet. Sure, maybe at first it had been a little hard going to the events with the other parents being so unsure of what to do with him. Some had been too friendly, others hadn't acknowledged him. But Pepper had slowly made inroads for them, and if nothing else, Tony loved snacking on whatever Peeta brought along, hanging out with Jo and Kat while they watched Finn cream everyone in his bracket.
And as much as Tony loved watching Finn school the others—seriously, Tony had genuinely considered the possibility that he'd been stolen from the merpeople—he secretly enjoyed witnessing Finn's slow social progress as well. He was clearly making friends with other kids on the team, and Tony would have put money on the fact that one or two of the girls who always showed up to the meets had a crush.
Basically, swim meets were almost as awesome as that first second with an idea, where creation could lead anywhere. And that moment was Tony's favorite, hands-down. So it should have been a sign when he looked at the clock on a nice late-fall day and considered, for the first time ever, not showing up to one of the kids' events without an actual emergency occurring.
But Tony was better at thinking about mechanics and the people he cared for than he was at taking care of himself, so it wasn't really that much of a surprise he didn't catch on—not then, and not for a while.
The kids had begun their second year of school while in the Stark household seventeen days after the adoption papers had finally gone through. Tony'd taken them all to the Malibu house in the jet, and they'd spent a week playing hookey from life.
Finn went to public school because it had the best competitive swim team in the city. Jo went, as far as Tony could tell, to keep an eye on Finn. Kat was home-schooled in the same classroom with Peeta and the other household kids.
No sooner than the third week of school, Finn caught the strep virus going around and stayed home, quietly miserable, mostly sleeping and sipping tea for about a week. In that time, Peeta and Kat also managed to get it. They passed it to Pepper. Jo and Tony, miraculously, managed to avoid it.
Pepper'd looked at Tony and asked, "Since when do you have such a great immune system?"
It was a good question, because since his capture and torture, which had ended with serious cardiac scarring and the loss of his spleen, Tony' immune system was basically the least reliable thing on the planet. But he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. He shrugged. "Maybe you and the kids should be taking after my kale-inhaling habits."
Pepper said, "Maybe," but he didn't miss the look she leveled at him when he turned away. She wasn't convinced this had anything to do with leafy greens.
"You—" Peeta started to say, but then shook his head. It was two days after Tony had dragged himself to the swim meet, and it had taken everything he had to get himself down to the workshop that morning.
He looked at the clock. Evidently it was well-past lunch time. Peeta was standing at the door with a tray, but Tony didn't remember letting him in. JARVIS must have been conspiring again. Tony raised an eyebrow. "You were saying?"
"Have you been outside any time in the last…month?" Peeta asked, his head tilting.
Tony took the tray from Peeta and set it down on the nearest surface. He drank the water greedily, but eyed the potato soup and grilled-vegetable sandwich offering warily. Not really in the mood to play games, but knowing not doing so would be seen as odd, Tony offered, "I have a reputation to maintain, Mellark."
"The one where you glow a sort of iridescent blue?"
Tony forced himself to take a spoonful of the soup. In the back of his mind, it registered as delicious, but it was hard to register much past how badly his joints were aching. He fucking hated how nothing in his body ever worked quite the way it had before his god-father's terrorist pets had torn him apart and cobbled him back together. "You still work for me, kid."
Peeta smiled, but it was stilted. "Seriously, are you feeling all right?"
Because it was Peeta and Tony was exhausted, he gave in enough to say, "Nothing that won't pass with the change in the weather."
Peeta didn't look certain, but he didn't push, either. "Okay, well. Get some sleep, at least?"
Tony waved him off, promising nothing.
In the middle of discussing budgetary concerns for the next SI fiscal year, Pepper asked, "Are you losing weight? I feel like you're losing weight, but I see you every day, so it's hard to tell."
Tony, who had admittedly only really been half-listening to the entire conversation—Pepper was CEO for a reason—answered her with another question: "Do you really think Peeta would allow that?"
"I think Peeta does his best," Pepper said. "I'm serious, babe."
Tony blinked. She rarely ever called him pet names. It was for that reason he gave her something other than the bullshit he was sorely tempted to layer on. Instead, he said, "You know how winter is, sometimes."
Nights in the desert had been cold. His body never seemed able to forget that, and the first few months of winter could be miserable. Right now his heart felt like it was beating strangely, and the side that had housed his spleen made him want to curl up in a ball and cry. It wasn't exactly how it had been in years past, but he was no stranger to the fatigue and muscle aches, and as much as he pretended not to be aware of it, he knew he was getting older.
Softly, Pepper said, "Maybe you should go see Bruce for a few weeks. Isn't he in Bangladesh right now?"
The thought of his best friend was appealing, but he didn't feel like he could leave the kids that way, not just yet. He shook his head slightly. "Give it a month, Pepp. If you're still worried, I promise I'll go bug Bruce in whatever sub-tropical locale he's decamped to."
Pepper didn't look mollified, but she did look like a woman who knew she'd gotten everything she was going to out of these negotiations. She said, "One month," and turned her attention back to business.
When Tony came in to talk to Phil and Sara about one of their cases, Phil took one look at him and asked, "Should you be in public?"
Tony glared and burrowed his hands deeper into the pockets of his hoodie. Usually he wore a suit when he came into the FBI offices, but he'd been experiencing chills so intense he couldn't bear the thought of anything less than three layers topped by a hoodie. Phil put his hands up in a gesture of peace and said, "I'll get you some coffee."
It took Tony an hour longer than it normally would have to point out the inconsistencies he'd noticed in the latest tech-lab heist. Phil just kept pouring coffee. When he got up to leave, though, Sara said, "Thanks for coming in," and Phil said, "Get some rest," and neither bothered to hide the concern in their expressions.
It was the cough that finally made Tony seek out Jen Keller and see what she had to say. Everything else, the pain, the chills, even the way he was swelling in places, he could see all that as side-effects of a body that had seen better days. But when he started coughing, and didn't stop, he worried he might get one of the kids sick.
Jen listened to his lungs and asked him about the tiny purple spots gracing whole swaths of his skin, which he'd honestly thought was just a stress reaction. She leafed through his file and said, "Well, it's possible you just have a bad cold or some other viral reaction, but I'm going to do a few tests to make sure it's nothing more serious."
Tony nodded tiredly, and let her poke and prod as she needed to. When she released him, he fell asleep in the car while Happy drove him home, and had to be helped inside when they arrived. He went straight to his bed, wanting nothing more than to bundle himself under eight or nine comforters. He was so cold.
The next thing he knew, Pepper was pulling him out of bed and he was saying, "Pepp, 'm tir'd. Just…just a little bit longer, 'kay?"
"You can sleep all you want when we get to the hospital," she said, and Tony tried to make himself pay attention. When he opened his eyes, Kat, Jo, and Finn were standing around, watching Pepper and Peeta walk him out of the room.
"Hospital?" Tony asked, confused. "Just left. Jen—she—"
"You've slept for nearly forty-eight hours, Tony," Pepper said with surprising calm. "The test results came back."
Suddenly, the fear that was dark in Jo's eyes, stark in Kat's, and burnt deep in Finn's, came into focus. He told them, "It's okay."
"It's going to be," Pepper agreed, but she didn't sound certain the way Tony knew she could, and if he hadn't had to concentrate so much on helping them get him to the car, he would have asked what was going on. He told himself to remember to ask. Someone at the hospital would tell him.
When he next woke up, Tony had IVs running from both arms. He felt a little disoriented, his joints still somewhat sore and the fatigue not too far away, but he was definitely improved from what he last remembered.
Peeta and Kat were curled up on the empty bed a few feet from him, Jo was perched at the end of his bed, looking ready to run if need be, and Finn was curled up in the windowsill. Pepper was in the single chair in the room, typing away at her tablet.
Tony tried to say, "So," but his tongue had evidently been cemented to the roof of his mouth while he was unconscious.
Jo saw that he was awake, though, and said, "Pepper."
Pepper looked up and said, "Oh, hey, there you are," offering him a cup with a straw.
He took a few sips and tried again, "So."
Pepper put the cup back on the stand beside the bed and rubbed at her eyes. "So, if I weren't so relieved that you're alive right now, I would kill you myself."
Tony frowned. "I had a cough."
From the other bed, Kat's voice floated over. "You have subacute bacterial endocarditis."
"Pretty much," Peeta tagged on, "we almost killed you."
"That is not—" Pepper started.
Finn said, "It came from the strep. Only Doc Jen says it got into your heart, because of the scar tissue."
Tony tried to process all of that. He'd have to speak with Jen, figure out what was actually going on. He knew he was at risk for endocarditis, but he'd thought he would have to get the originating virus for it to occur. First thing was first, though. "You guys wanted to have strep? Was it a not-wanting-to-go-to-school thing? And does this mean Pepper was trying to kill me, too? Because I'm pretty sure there's something about that in the fine print of our marriage contract."
It got Kat to sit up so he could see her face. Finn said, as if it were the most obvious and logical thing in the world, "Pepper got it cause we got it, because I wanted to be on the swim team."
"You got it because you go to school," Tony said, thinking about his words carefully, afraid he'd mess this up so that not even Pepper could fix it. "Which is so far beyond your simple rights as a teenager it's like an unwritten rule. And it's not your fault, or anybody in this room's fault, that my heart doesn't stand up to things the way it used to."
Pepper looked at the floor. She still thought she should have been there when it had all gone down, she should have known. Tony said, "Pepp."
She canted her head and gave him a rueful smile. He felt himself grinning in response. "I'm on some stuff, huh?"
"Mostly antibiotics and fluids, but yeah, a little something extra," she agreed, her smile more amused.
"Gonna sleep more, now."
Pepper leaned over and kissed his forehead. "We'll be here."
He woke up again to the smell of coffee and didn't even open his eyes before grumbling, "Unfair."
"Pepper said you'd say that," Jo told him.
He opened one eye. She was in the chair Pepper had been in, cradling a hot cup. Kat was now in the windowsill, Finn on the bed, and Peeta and Pepper nowhere to be found. Kat said, "She also said that since you scared the living crap out of all of us, you could live without fairness for a bit."
"She didn't sound mad, though," Jo said thoughtfully.
Tony tried to roll his neck a bit. He was pretty sure he was still on some kind of painkiller, since the ache of his body was distant, not even throbbing all that much. Jen shuffled in then, and said, "'Morning."
"Is it really?"
"Nope," she said, looking at the readouts on the machines she had Tony hooked up to. "Jo, Kat, can you take Finn and go hang out with Pepper and Peeta in the cafeteria for a bit?"
When the room had cleared, Tony asked, "Should I have known?"
Jen crossed her arms over her chest. "It's less that you should have known and more that when you start to have temperature fluctuations or aching joints, you need to come in. Nine times out of ten it probably will be a cold or a flu, but that tenth time, if it's not, we need to catch it early."
He nodded. "How bad was it?"
"Bad enough. You're going to have to be on IV antibiotics for another three and a half weeks. We'll reassess at that time."
Making himself sound calm, Tony asked, "Do I have to stay here?"
Jen rolled her eyes. "Like you would if I told you yes. No, the treatment can be administered away from the hospital. I'd prefer, though, if you hired a professional."
Tony wished he could hide the sigh of relief that came with her words, but he'd spent nearly two months in the hospital after Afghanistan. The thought of more time trapped in sterile rooms with people who touched him as a matter of course, despite not really knowing him, had been causing him to freak out. And that was without considering being away from Pepper and the kids for that long outside of visiting hours. "Talk to Pepper."
Tony smiled at her. "Tell the kids it's going to be okay?"
"I've tried. I'll see if John or Ro has any better luck."
Tony felt fairly confident they would. "Thanks."
It was another twenty-four hours before Jen sent Tony and his gang home. Pepper got him settled in bed, then curled into his side, one hand grasping one of his wrists. She said, "I probably should've made the kids go to school, huh?"
Tony inhaled the scent of her hair, so very glad to be away from the antiseptic smell of the hospital, to be able to hold her this tightly. "Not thinking the normal rules apply. For any of us, really."
"You might have a point."
"I'm a genius," he mumbled, and gave into the heavenly comfort of his bed.
JARVIS' unsettled tone jolted him from sleep with a simple, "Sir."
"Wha's wrong, J?" Tony realized he'd clenched Pepper too tight instinctively and made himself loosen his grip.
"I believe Miss Katniss is having a nightmare. The two others are with her, but they seem unable to wake her."
Tony was already out of bed, Pepper right behind him. He wobbled a little on his feet, but that wasn't going to stop him. He'd tweaked JARVIS's programming to prioritize the kids' health and safety for just this sort of thing.
It took all of maybe twenty seconds for them to reach the kids' room—Tony had given them each their own, but after the third time they all crept into one he'd reconsidered and just knocked out a few walls to give them more space—which was down the hall. By the time they arrived, Kat was awake and running for the bathroom. Tony winced at the sound of her being sick. Jo was in there with her, Finn was stripping the bed.
Pepper went to Finn and put her hands over his with a soft, "Let me help, sweetheart."
Tony went to the bathroom. Jo was sitting between Kat and the door, like a barrier, her hand rubbing in circles over Kat's lower back. He said, "Hey there."
"We're okay," Jo said, even as Kat's dry-heaving was just beginning to peter out.
Tony decided not to touch that one. "Let us spoil you anyway. It's what we live for."
Carefully, choreographing his intention, Tony crossed behind them to sit on Kat's other side and pull her into him. He expected a bit of a fight, but instead she came easily, fisting her hands in his shirt and seemingly trying to burrow into his skin. He wrapped his arms around her and murmured, "Okay, baby girl, you're okay."
When the worst of the crisis had seemingly passed, Kat beginning to go a little limp in Tony's grasp, Finn came in with a glass of water and coaxed her to drink. Tony looked over at where Pepper had managed to cajole Jo to her side and was talking to her quietly.
Taking a stab, Tony said, "You realize if anything happens to one of us, the other is still your legal parent? And that if something should happen to both of us, Sara and Buck are your legal guardians, and have agreed to relocate to the tower so that you don't have to move in that unlikely eventuality? I should have told you."
Finn blinked. Jo said, "Oh."
Kat, still cool to the touch and with shudders running through her frame, asked, "Can we, maybe, sleep in your room tonight? We can use the air mattress."
Tony waved a hand. "I had trundles made for each side in case one or two or all of you needed to crash there some night."
Kat pulled back a little, then, her gray eyes searching his. "Don’t—don't go away."
He hugged her again, rocking a bit. "I'll do my best, kid, promise."
After a moment, with the help of Finn, Tony got to his feet and they pulled Kat up, too. The five of them made a silent procession to Tony and Pepper's room. Tony could barely keep his eyes open at this point, but he held on long enough to hear Finn say, "Sweet dreams."