It's...UPDAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATE TIIIIIIIIIIME! And it's another long chapter! I guess that's what happens when I stop updating, like, every twelve hours-I actually have the time to produce something substantial. Huh. Who knew?
This chapter is a pretty nice mix of fluff and angst, I think; it's not too gooey, but it's not an emotional roller-coaster, either. Balance! Yeah!
Like always, don't own Iron Man or any of the characters. Enjoy
To Pepper's everlasting—and grateful—surprise, Tony turned into a model of efficiency in the face this particular illness. He picked up Pepper's usual responsibilities in addition to his own, all while simultaneously managing to take excellent care of both her and Harley. Pepper had planned on being very business as usual—not asking for much, taking care of herself for the most part, no complaining, getting back to work as soon as she felt well enough.
But, it wasn't often that Tony took care of her; usually, it was very much the other way around. And when he came into the room, unprompted, bearing tea and fresh tissues, Pepper realized she'd been given a golden opportunity, and she decided to milk her admittedly egotistic boyfriend for every last drop of sympathy she could. At first, she couldn't help but think, maybe, she was being a little bit selfish. But then she remembered the dozens of press conferences she'd dragged Tony to—kicking and screaming, hung-over or worse—and the guilt quickly passed. She'd more than earned this, and besides—she was sick.
Harley did his share of manipulating, too, but Pepper was quite sure that sort of unapologetic guilt-tripping came naturally to most sensible ten-year-olds. He did make excellent company, though. They threw themselves a quiet pity party and commiserated over their shared misery. It was a strange thing, perhaps, to bond over; but, then, nothing about Harley's relationship with Tony and Pepper was remotely conventional. Knowing Tony in the capacity that she did had long ago taught Pepper that there was no point in dissecting moments—you just had to take them as they came and enjoy them while they lasted.
It was nice, Pepper decided. She and Tony were both such workaholics—in completely different ways—that it wasn't often their respective schedules were clear enough to spend time together. Though Pepper hadn't cleared hers willingly, she could at least, she figured, take something away from the unplanned downtime. "You know," she sighed contentedly, when Tony brought her a tray laden with orange juice and the soup from earlier, "I think I could get used to this."
"Don't," Tony advised her, "This just happens to be a novelty, and you know how much I love new things. But I wouldn't make it a habit, if I were you."
"Oh, please," Harley said, without looking up from his comic book, "You know you love us."
Pepper beamed at Tony, and he offered a small smile accompanied by an eye roll in response, "Yeah, well," he said, "I really do have a full afternoon ahead of me, so one more cup of tea and then you two are on your own."
One cup of tea turned into two, then three, and a long nap late into the afternoon. When Pepper woke up, Harley had since vacated his spot next to her. She wondered if he was napping in his own bed, or if he was feeling well enough to be up and around. She shrugged; she could figure that out later. She got out of bed—shivering reflexively at the sudden temperature change—and walked to the bathroom.
One relaxing, thirty-minute shower later, Pepper was feeling considerably more human. At least, human enough to dress in a pair of jeans, an old sweatshirt of Tony's, and see about dinner. She found a few cartons of leftover Chinese in the refrigerator. Normally, Pepper was considerably more selective about what she put in her body, but she was still too tired to handle the time and mess cooking an entire dinner involved. Pepper was resting the small of her back against a counter while the microwave hummed away, when Tony and Harley ambled into the kitchen.
"Hey," Tony sounded pleased, "You live."
"I do," Pepper smiled, "I'm alive and better—not well just yet, but better. What have you guys been up to?"
Harley, who was still pajama-clad and had a grease mark on his forehead, answered, "We were in the lab. Tony was helping me build a new potato gun!"
Pepper shot Tony a knowing look, "Oh, was he?"
Harley didn't pick up on Pepper's less-than-ecstatic tone, "Yeah!" he exclaimed, "It's way stronger than my old one, plus it shoots with much more precision. We did some target practice and tested it out."
Pepper pursed her lips and didn't answer. There were already more than enough weapons in Stark Tower as it was, and she didn't relish the thought of Harley having his own. Tony blanched slightly at Pepper's expression, "Pep, come on," he wheedled, "It's not a big deal; you can buy potato guns for, like, five bucks online. Don't be a fun sucker."
"I am not a fun sucker," Pepper said crossly, "I resent that."
Tony's mouth opened in preparation of either an apology or a sarcastic retort, but a series of congested coughs from Harley distracted both Pepper and Tony from the impending argument. "Oh, that doesn't sound good at all," Pepper worried.
She went over and placed her hand on Harley's brow, "You still feel very feverish," she said with a frown, "I'm not sure you should be up and around—"
Harley ducked out of Pepper's reach, "I'm fine, Pepper," he insisted, "I've been in bed all day, and it's so boring. I just want to hang out for a while before I go back."
Pepper looked ready to protest further, but Tony was faster, "You can stay down here, buddy," Tony told him.
Pepper rolled her eyes, but she didn't object anymore. Instead, she got her Chinese out of the microwave and stabbed moodily at a few noodles with her fork. Harley could insist that he was fine all he wanted, but that didn't mean she was going to believe him. Ordinarily, she would've pressed the point, but tonight she just didn't have the energy.
Tony seemed a bit nervous about the sudden mood Pepper was in, and reluctant to say anything else. Harley was the first to speak, "Can we watch a movie?"
An expression of relief crossed Tony's face at the subject change, "Sure thing," he turned to Pepper, his tone a bit more apprehensive, "Pepper? You want to watch with us?"
Pepper shrugged noncommittally and set her lo mein down on the counter. Tony walked over to her and cupped her hands between his in that earnest way he adopted when he was trying to get something out of her, "Pep," he coaxed, "Come on. It'll be great."
With a long suffering sigh, Pepper finally allowed, "I suppose a movie could be fun. It's at least more relaxing than spending the afternoon building weapons."
The last part of her sentence was directed pointedly at Tony and Harley, who exchanged embarrassed grins. "I'm gonna go pick something out," Harley said.
"It better be good!" Tony called after him, "If I have to watch Finding Nemo again, I'm going to lose my mind. You can only find a fish so many times before the interest wears off."
"Chill out," Harley said as he left the kitchen, "It'll be good. I promise."
Tony turned his attention to Pepper, "Are you really feeling better?" he asked, "Or are you just trying to downplay it for my sake?"
Pepper shook her head, "I really am feeling much better," she assured him, "Well, maybe much is going a bit far. But I feel better than I did this morning. I do still have a fever, though I think it'll be gone in a day or so."
Tony nodded thoughtfully, "You know," he said, "You aren't nearly as whiny as I'd be, if it were me in this situation."
Pepper didn't have the sinus clarity to snort, so she just settled for rolling her eyes, "Then I sincerely hope you don't get this," she told him.
Tony gave her his best kicked-puppy expression, "You wouldn't take care of me? Come on, Potts, I handled your gross tissues all day," he protested.
"Well, I'm not touching yours," Pepper shot back.
Tony laughed and kissed Pepper on the top of her head, figuring he couldn't catch cold germs through her scalp. Pepper allowed herself a bleary smile, "In all seriousness, though," she said, "I really do hope you don't get sick. It's a pretty miserable virus."
"I've been through worse," Tony said with a shrug, and Pepper winced. That was true, they both had, but that didn't mean she liked being reminded of it.
"Come on," she said, "Let's go find Harley."
They found him in the lounge closest to the kitchen. He was sprawled out on a sofa, getting the movie he'd chosen ready to play. "What'd you decide on?" Tony asked.
Harley looked up at him and smiled, "The Iron Giant!" he said, "Like you, kind of. Told you it'd be good."
Tony nudged Harley to make room, "I've never seen it," Tony told him, "So the jury's still out."
Harley waved a dismissive hand, "It's amazing," he maintained, "I've seen it literally a hundred times."
"A hundred times, wow," Tony said sarcastically, "You do realize that means you've spent over a quarter of your life watching this one movie, right?"
Harley stuck out his tongue at Tony before he wrapped up in a cashmere throw that was lying on the arm of the sofa. He gestured for Pepper to join them, and she did—curling up serenely in-between Tony and Harley. As the movie began, Pepper found that she wasn't actively paying attention; though, she did very much enjoy resting her head on Tony's lap while he ran his hands through her hair. Mmm.
Perhaps Harley really had seen the movie a hundred times, because not even twenty-five minutes into it, he was sound asleep. "I'm sure all that lab work probably wore him out," Pepper said.
"Very subtle," Tony commented, "Should we take him to his room?"
Pepper thought for a moment, "It's just barely eight, which is pretty early," she reasoned, "But he clearly needs the extra rest."
She lightly shook Harley's shoulder, "It's time for bed, sweetheart," she whispered, "Let's go back to your bedroom, okay?"
Harley sat up and stared confusedly around the room, "Bed?" he asked.
Pepper nodded, "Bed," she agreed, suppressing a giggle at his sleep-muddled answer, "Do you want one of us to carry you?"
Harley shook his head, "I can do it," he said as he slid off the sofa.
He headed towards the door, and Tony got up to follow him, "I should probably make sure he actually manages to make it there," he said, and Pepper laughed.
Tony returned a few minutes later, "He's asleep," he told her.
"Did he brush his teeth?" Pepper asked.
"Yeah, sure," Tony said, "Brushed his teeth, and—what else is he supposed to do?"
"Wash his face."
"Yep, he did that, too," Tony said.
Pepper was quite sure Tony wasn't telling the whole truth—or even half the truth—but she let it go, just this once. "Do you want to watch something different?" she asked.
"Do I get to pick?"
"No," Pepper said, ignoring Tony's noises of protests, "Because anytime I let you pick, we wind up watching NOVA Tech and Engineering specials. Besides," she added in her best pathetic voice, "I'm sick."
Tony sighed loudly, but complied, "Fine, okay. But only because you're so sick," he imitated her pout.
They wound up binge watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix—one of a select few non-science based TV shows that Tony would grudgingly admit to enjoying. Xena: Warrior Princess was on the list, too, but Pepper was sworn to secrecy on that one.
It was 10:30 and they were two-and-a-half episodes in when Pepper began to cough and sniffle with increasing frequency. The third time she asked Tony to hand her a tissue so she could discretely smother a sneeze, he lay his hand on her forehead and said, "I think it may be time for you to head to bed."
Pepper peered up at him, "I think you may be right," she agreed.
They were curled up under the covers before Pepper knew it—Tony's arm wrapped protectively around her waist. Just before falling asleep, Pepper couldn't help but think—if she had to be sick, this certainly wasn't a bad way to do it.
The hoarse whisper jerked Pepper awake. "Harley?" she said, immediately on alert, "Is that you?"
Tony stirred next to her and sat up, "What's going on?" he mumbled, running a hand through his hair.
"JARVIS, turn on the lights," Pepper commanded.
JARVIS complied, and Pepper walked over to the door so she could get a better look at Harley, "It's past midnight, sweetheart," she said, "Why are you awake? Is something wrong?"
His face was bone white except for fever spots high in his cheeks. He stared at Pepper with glassy eyes, "I don't feel so good," he managed, just before he threw up all over the carpet.
"Harley!" Pepper cried, and quickly wrapped her arms around him. He was shivering violently, Pepper realized.
He looked up at Pepper, "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Don't apologize, honey, you can't help it that you're sick," Pepper soothed as she guided him over to the bed.
Pepper turned to Tony, "He's burning up with a fever," her voice a note higher for dread, "JARVIS, what's Harley's temperature?"
"It's 103.5, miss," the AI answered.
"103!" Pepper gasped, "Tony, that's so high! Why is it so high? He was fine a few hours ago!"
Tony looked just as shaken as Pepper, "I don't know," he admitted.
He got out of bed, "Stay here with him," he instructed, "See if you can get his temperature down—wipe his face and arms with a cool washcloth, maybe. I'll be right back."
Tony raced down the hallway, fervently hoping that Bruce was spending the night at the Tower like he sometimes did. Skidding to a stop in front of what had become Bruce's unofficial bedroom, he threw open the door and flicked on the lights. "What the hell?" a lump of covers in the bed mumbled angrily.
"Oh, Jesus, Banner, I am so glad you're here," Tony said, "Sorry for waking you up, but are you still taking patients?"
Bruce sat up and stared at Tony, "Am I still taking—what? Tony, what's happening?"
"Harley's been sick, but not all that sick," he explained quickly, "But then he came into our room and his fever's spiked up to 103 out of fucking nowhere and I have absolutely no idea what to do."
Bruce, the epitome of doctorly calm in a crisis, got quickly out of bed and threw on a shirt, "Don't panic," he instructed, "I'm sure this is upsetting, but fever spikes are actually pretty typical in young kids."
"Well, his brain is going to fry if we don't hurry up," Tony snapped, his worry making him angry and impatient.
If Bruce noticed the brusque tone, he didn't comment on it. Instead, he just followed Tony back to his bedroom. Harley was half-sitting in Pepper's lap while she pressed a washcloth to his forehead—his eyes were open, but unfocused. "Hey, Harley," Bruce said steadily, "I hear you aren't feeling very well."
Harley nodded groggily. Bruce turned to Pepper, "The washcloth was an excellent idea," he said kindly.
"Tony thought of it," Pepper said hollowly, "Bruce, I'm so scared—what's wrong with him? Is he going to be okay?"
"He's going to be completely fine," Bruce reassured her, "I already told Tony—high fevers aren't uncommon in younger children. They'll scare the hell out of you, but they happen."
Pepper smiled weakly, "So what do we do?"
"Run him a bath," Bruce instructed, "Lukewarm water is best. It needs to be warm enough that he doesn't get chilled, but cool enough to lower his temperature. If he starts to shiver, take him out. Once you've done that, get his temperature. If it's 101 or below, he's okay, and he can go back to bed. Though, I would monitor it throughout the night to make sure it doesn't spike again. If it's still 102 or higher, I'd give him half a dose of ibuprofen, and take him to the ER."
"Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you," Pepper said to Bruce, her voice wavering slightly, "Bruce, you're wonderful."
Bruce chuckled, "I guess I'm okay," he said with a shrug.
Pepper gave him a grateful kiss on the cheek as Tony clapped him on the shoulder, "I owe you one," he said.
Bruce shrugged off their thank-you's in his customary sweet, self-effacing manner, "It was nothing," he told them, "Really."
Tony and Pepper followed Bruce's instructions to the letter. Well, Tony followed them; even in his barely coherent state, Harley still managed to get embarrassed at the idea of Pepper seeing him without his clothes on, "It would just be way too weird," he said.
Pepper was privately relieved, because to be totally honest—she'd been nervous about how that situation was going to play out, too. She stood anxiously outside the bathroom door and asked for updates every two minutes. "Pepper," Tony called back exasperatedly after what must've been her fiftieth request, "Nothing is going to drastically change in the thirty seconds you wait between each question."
Pepper, her emotions already riding high, lashed out, "Tony, I cannot help it that I'm worried, and so help me—"
"Pepper," came Harley's sleepy voice, "Relax. I'm okay."
And he was, indeed, okay. After the bath was over, JARVIS scanned his temperature. It was resting at 101.1—which was still higher than Pepper liked, but considerably more stable than it had been. Once Harley was settled in the middle of the big bed, he let out a long, contented sigh, "Feels better," he murmured, "Thanks."
He dropped off to sleep almost immediately, which was good—considering it was officially 2:30 in the morning. Pepper and Tony got in bed on either side of him, "What a little trooper," Tony whispered fondly.
Pepper nodded. "He really is," she said.
She hadn't meant for her voice to tremble, and certainly not her mouth, but before she knew what was happening, she was shaking with tightly bottled sobs. "I d—don't know what's wrong with m—me," she managed, "I'm so—so sorry."
Tony, worried that they were going to wake Harley, led Pepper off the bed and into the bathroom. He shut the door behind him as Pepper sank down the floor. He sat down next to Pepper and folded her into his arms, "It's been a long, terrible night," he said, "There's nothing wrong with you. You're tired, and sick, and overwhelmed. Just take a few minutes to calm down, and you'll be okay."
When Pepper managed to regain her composure, she gazed at Tony—her eyes shining with tears, "I was so scared we were going to lose him," she admitted shakily.
Tony looked back at her; she was pale and fragile and somehow smaller than usual. His throat swelled in a sudden rush of affection—love, he realized, but instead he just said, "But we didn't. He's still here. He's here, and everything is fine. And that's all that matters."