It started with something close to a panic attack - understandably enough, all things considered.
Tony emerged from R&D one evening and found Pepper on the couch, staring dolefully at the bottle of his favourite whiskey on the coffee table in front of her, which, what, Pepper rarely if ever drank anything stronger than wine, and the bottle wasn't even opened, so that was weird. She was holding something clenched in her left hand, and she'd kicked her shoes off and left them lying by the armchair.
"... hey," said Tony, feeling an urge to walk softly and speak quietly, as if she were an animal he was trying not to spook.
Now that was a comparison best kept to himself.
"Hey," said Pepper, looking up at him. The doleful look slid away, replaced by something amused and ironic and resigned to her fate. "It just figures, you know."
Tony was lost. "What just figures?"
"That you'd be the one in two thousand for whom the procedure doesn't stick," she said, and grinned this time, genuinely mirthful.
Tony stared at her, and he stared at whatever it was she held clenched in her hand, and he stared at the alcohol she was so resolutely not drinking despite plainly really really wanting to, and then he stared at her again, and when she held out the pregnancy test to him taking it was one of the most difficult things he'd ever done.
"Oh, crap," he said.
"That's what I said," said Pepper.
"I'm gonna be the worst Dad ever."
"That, too, was a thought that had crossed my mind."
"And you barely see me, let alone have time for a kid."
"Plainly there's some truth in that old saying about great minds thinking alike."
Tony reached for the whiskey bottle and opened it. "We'll have to baby-proof the Tower. I'll quit the Avengers. No, wait, we'll have to move back to Malibu, I can't throw them out and we can't keep a baby in a superhero frathouse, it'll get eaten by the next alien tentacle plant or fall out of a window or Dummy will mow it down with the fire extinguisher - actually, that might happen in Malibu - and it'll need a trust fund and a cot and MIT early admi- no, scratch that, it can go to MIT when it hits eighteen like all the other normal kids, I know what I got up to when I was fifteen and at MIT and that's just not going to happen again, will it want my Captain America action figures, I could totally dig those out, and also like, uh, teddy bears? And stuff? And -" and he broke off because Pepper was laughing, flung across the couch and shaking with it. "Pepper?"
"Tony," Pepper managed, and went off into another gale of laughter. "Oh, God. Tony, Tony, breathe, OK? Have a drink. Breathe."
Tony frowned at the whiskey. "Um. Hmm. No. No more - alcohol-free zone. Cold turkey. Uh, that's gonna be ugly, you don't wanna ride that out, I'll go to Malibu and call Rhodey -"
"Pepper, I don't know if you've noticed I’m an alcoholic -"
"Tony, you're - I don't even know." She sat up straight and crossed her arms over her chest. "We don't have to keep it."
"What?" said Tony. "Oh, right, of course, no, yeah. Whatever you want?"
"The more I think about it," said Pepper.
"It'd be cute, Pep, sure, but puppies are cute."
"We'd kill it," she said, "within the week."
"We probably would."
They stared at each other.
"Of course," said Pepper, "we don't know that. I mean, that we'd kill it. Not for sure."
"No," said Tony. "No, actually, we don't."
They stared at each other more.
"Scientific hypothesis," said Tony. "Requires experimentation to prove."
"What happens if we screw it up irreparably?"
Suddenly, Tony grinned. "It turns out like me."
"A lunatic billionaire inventor -"
"An Avenger," said Tony cheerfully, "with a seriously hot girlfriend and a Tower full of superhero frat bros."
Pepper grinned too. "Marry me?" she said.
"Like a shot," said Tony. "When's Rhodey home?"
"Perfect. You won't even be showing."
They went back to staring at each other, stupidly happy.
"What are we going to call it?" Pepper asked.
"Anna, for your mom."
"Maria, for your mom."
"Anamaria," they chorused.
Rhodey laughed down the rickety phone line for ten minutes straight.
"You're telling me," he said, gleeful, "you're telling me that you've been shot, stabbed, sewn up, been riddled with shrapnel, had a magnet implanted in your chest, spent two years poisoning yourself with palladium, spent twenty years as a functioning alcoholic and had a vasectomy and you still managed to knock Pepper up?"
"Keep your voice down," said Tony cheerfully. "I don't need your gossiping squadmates selling this to the tabloids before we've had the first doctor's appointment."
Rhodey's gossiping squadmates sold it to the tabloids after the first doctor's appointment.
"Ugh, not seriously," said Natasha.
"It's a good thing this place is already soundproofed," said Clint.
"You have to promise me that you won't buy out every toy store in New York," said Bruce. "I want to get her something too."
"My sincerest congratulations," said Thor. "A child is ever cause for great rejoicing."
"Tony, you look like you've just been given the worst news of your life," said Steve. "Stop acting so terrified. Nothing is going to go wrong."
"Is there an objection bit, like in the movies?" Rhodey asked the registrar. "I totally feel like I ought to object. They're idiots."
"Idiots have a right to get married in New York same as everyone else, Colonel," said the registrar, blandly unimpressed. Rhodey got the feeling she didn't like him much.
"There's a comment here about civil rights and gay marriage, but I feel like I'm on shaky enough ground as it is," he said.
"You're obviously a far smarter man than you look, sir," said the registrar.
When the calendar invite pinged across his screen Tony stared at it for a good ten minutes before he picked the phone up and rang Pepper, three floors above him.
"Are you psychic?" he asked. "Can you narrow down contractions and stuff to a second? Are you having mystical mom-knowledge about when she's coming, is she kicking you in Morse code or something?"
"No, Tony, I'm just having a Caesarean."
"Ah," said Tony. "That makes a lot more sense."
"If someone decides to try ending the world on that particular day I trust you will not freak out about it, level New York City and/or burst into the hospital room in the Iron Man armour," said Pepper.
"Why would I level New York?" Tony demanded. "The clinic's in New York. Why would I do that? I might take a swipe at Chicago, I never liked Chicago -"
Pepper hung up.
"No christenings," said Pepper flatly.
"Well, OK, but I was going to say we ought to get Thor to do it," said Tony.
"It's just a teddy bear," said Steve, looking awkward. It was a good look on him, especially in conjunction with the roll of wallpaper and the tin of paint.
"It's a teddy bear from Captain America," said Tony. "She'll love it. It will be her favourite bear. We'll have to sew it up a few times before she's ten, you'll see, I ripped Bagheera's front left paw off six different times in the workshop -"
Steve slid into gleefully amused. "You had a stuffed panther called Bagheera?"
"No, it was a black teddy bear," says Tony. "My Mom thought it was funny."
"Well, this one looks like a Winnie the Pooh," said Bruce, patting the bear's head affectionately.
"Then we shall name it Christopher Robin," Tony proclaimed.
"An excellent name," said Thor, with a twitch of a smile. It turned out later that this was because Jane had decided unilaterally that a ceremonial dagger such as those presented to Asgardian royal children upon their first name day, was a less suitable gift for Tony's kid than The House At Pooh Corner.
Tony disagreed. Pepper did not.
It took them six hours to get all the glow-stars on the nursery ceiling shaped like the actual constellations in May, even with Jarvis' help.
"You want what?" said Fury.
"Paternity leave," said Tony, enunciating clearly. "It's a thing, we've done it at SI for twenty years, you wouldn't believe the way productivity went up, it was fantastic, don't make the face, you're supposed to be cooperating with the Europeans, not dissing their pinko commie labour laws."
"Get out of my office," said Fury.
Tony held Pepper's hand and talked nonsense in her ear all through the operation until their little girl was in her arms; it was Rhodey who burst into the clinic barely out of the War Machine armour and brandishing presents. Clint and Natasha, fresh out of an op themselves, followed on his heels.
"We're not really calling her Anamaria," said Pepper to the doctor. "It's just that Anna was my Mom and Maria was Tony's and we couldn't call her 'it' for nine months."
"Of course not," said Dr O'Donovan. "Well, but what are you going to call her?"
Tony and Pepper looked, thoughtfully, down at the baby in the curve of Tony's arm; she had a red, scrunched up little face, and the most delicate of features imaginable, impossibly small and frail, and a smattering of already-dark hair, and her little fingers curled a tiny bit around her father's thumb as she slept. There was personality there already, stamped all over her: brash like her father, smart as her mother, strong and quick and clever and irresistible.
Then they looked at each other.
"Anna Maria," they said, simultaneous.
Dr O'Donovan grinned.
Three weeks later the whole Tower was referring to the baby as Janey, and no one could remember why.
There were nursemaids of course; Pepper didn't give up work for a heartbeat, and neither did Tony, but because of the nature of their respective professions, it was Pepper's office Janey was brought along to, and Pepper's desk she learned to crawl under, and Pepper's shoes she tried to play with until they were taken away from her for being too pointy. Tony stocked the place with Duplo blocks and Mikado sets, slowly becoming aware that for Janey, a visit to her father's workshop was the greatest of privileges. She'd clap her tiny hands and stare in wonder, for hours on end, at the holograms floating in the air above her head. Jarvis used to make her a sort of mobile out of the schematics for the Iron Man suits.
Tony told himself it wasn't the way it had been for him and Howard. He wouldn't ever ignore her - ever.
It helped, he admitted to himself, ashamed and glad at once, that he had a Jarvis. Twenty minutes was the max he was allowed to work without once looking at Janey.
Natasha became reconciled to the baby last of all of them, face set and hands steady.
"You don't have to like her," said Pepper, trying not to be anxious. Which was basically bullshit, and they both knew it. Neither she nor Tony would ever ask any of the Avengers to leave the Tower, but, well, if any of them didn't want Janey around... that would be awkward.
"It's not about like," said Natasha softly, cradling Janey's head in the palm of her hand. There was a pain in her movements that Pepper couldn't identify; she moved, just now, like the old woman she was, in her eighties at least, with a life full of grief and regret behind her. Had she wanted children, ever? Did what the Soviets had done to her body even allow her the choice? Pepper turned away, suddenly, letting her hair fall over her face. She didn't want to see, didn't want to eavesdrop, on Natasha Romanov's mourning - if, of course, that was even what it was. Whatever it was, it was none of Pepper's business.
"Hello, little one," Natasha whispered as the baby's blue eyes peered up at her, tried to get a fix on her face. "I'm Natasha."
"Aunt Nat," said Pepper, clenching her fingers in her skirt. "This is your Aunt Nat, Janey-mine."
Briefly, briefly, Nat's hands shook, and then she smiled.
Pepper's father sent a doll, a gorgeous old-fashioned thing, pinafore dress and little slippers, meant to be dragged around behind the faltering steps of a three-year-old in pigtails -
- or possibly used as an assault weapon, Tony wasn't sure, and trusted his daughter to be capable of both.
"She thinks you think she's thrown it away," said Sarah a few days after it arrived, taking a break from mooning over her niece.
"Nah," said Tony. "She knows I know her better than that."
When Bruce held Janey Tony could see the twist of hurt underlying the love and wonder the baby brought out in him, the lost opportunities, the time and chances his friend would never get back. And then Janey would squirm, or wrinkle her nose, or gurgle, and Bruce would smile, fully present again and delighted, and kiss her forehead.
Tony never saw that ache in Betty. He wasn’t sure if she’d wanted children less than Bruce had – still did – or if she was just better at hiding it than he; at least to him.
Clint, it turned out, told the best bedtime stories. He'd swear, in later years, that he only started on the Robin Hood ones to make Tony laugh, but that didn't stop them being Janey's favourites.
"Kids?" he said. "Never. Not cut out for it." It was one of those moments when Tony saw in him quite clearly the marks of the same kind of childhood that he and Bruce had had: different in their details but all equally damaging in their effects. "But Uncle Clint." He smiled, wondering and surprised. "Yeah. That I can do."
They didn't really go with presents in Asgard, except for the ceremonial weapons kind, and aside from finding gifts Jane would like it was still a custom that had been known to make Thor shake his head, but Tony figured that was OK; his kid had the official blessing of the God of Thunder and the protection of the Asgard extended to her.
Beat that, Toys'R'Us.
Once, on a whim, he took her to his parents' graves. Nothing happened whatsoever: no one interrupted them, no one called, the ground didn't open up under his feet and disgorge Howard's apologetic, remorseful, loving ghost.
Not that Tony had ever wanted that to happen.
He was sure, though, that Maria would have loved her namesake as completely as she'd loved Tony himself. He wondered if, had they lived longer, had they managed somehow to work things out, she ever would have found the kind of backbone Pepper had, the one that stopped their relationship from ever becoming the trainwreck the tabloids had always predicted, that Tony had always feared. Maria Stark had been so many things: clever, witty, insightful, funny, loving, accepting. Too accepting, so that the one thing she'd never managed to be was powerful.
Tony knew perfectly well how badly he needed something to keep him on track. Iron Man alone wasn't enough; couldn't be, though without it any attempt at all was futile. Still, Tony had a few too many flaws to fix them all himself.
"I'd say you won't need fixing, baby girl," he said to Janey. "But that's not up to me, is it? Not entirely. I'm gonna give it a damn good try, though."
Steve filled a sketchbook with drawings of Janey as she grew, warm, lovely pictures no camera could have captured - at least not to Pepper's mind. They'd give it to her when she turned eighteen, she thought, and smiled to see her daughter balanced on Captain America's knee.
"Occasionally it occurs to me that if I hadn't sunk that plane in the ocean I'd've gotten to do this for Tony," he said once, grinning.
"And that is why I've never liked you," said Tony haughtily.
Janey Stark's first word was "Arvis!"
Tony took comfort in the fact that it hadn't been Cap.