AN: This story is for the lovely ihearttwojacks for donating to LLS for me. I really, really hope she likes it, since I think I might have failed on her prompt. *ashamed face* Thank you to forsweatervests for the quick beta, and for making me better, as always. All problems remaining are solely my fault. I am using this for the "lost childhood" square on my hc_bingo card.
The announcement comes earlier than Jane had planned on, that's clear. Pepper is in town and actually has three seconds to spend chilling with the team. She offers to order sushi, since most of the team loves it. Jane's affection for it far outstrips everyone else's, however: she can often out-eat everyone except Thor and Steve when indulging. When Pepper asks for Jane's order, she says, "Udon noodles, please."
Tony feels like it's one of those sitcom moments, where the music playing comes to a screeching halt and everyone just stares. Jane gives one of her little shrugs, her smile small but bright, and says, "I know the risk of getting sick isn't really any higher, or anything, but for the next nine months I'm making decisions for two, so, you know, extra caution never hurt anyone."
Coulson gets over the shock first: congratulating her with a hug and asking how long she's known. Thor is strutting around like a peacock on steroids, clearly having suffered the torments of hell keeping this to himself. Natasha looks like someone who has been tutored in how to react to this sort of thing, but isn't entirely sure that knowledge applies to family while Clint is already planning shenanigans with the kid. Bruce is happy for Jane, that's obvious, but there are worry lines around his eyes.
Tony puts on his game face and orders sparkling grape juice for a Jane-friendly toast and doesn't for a minute let himself think about the panic in his chest: what it means, if it means to stay, anything. Tony once (mostly) successfully ignored the fact that he was dying for months and months. This will be easy.
Pepper calls him on it when she's back in town three weeks later. "I realize you would not like to talk about whatever is freaking you out, but I would like you to, and I think we both know who wears the proverbial pants in this relationship."
Tony is in the workshop, where he has locked everyone but her out. The only reason he has not done so with her is because JARVIS refused. This, in a nutshell, is the problem with AI. But just because she has access to his inner sanctum does not mean Tony has to respond to her.
She comes to where he is fiddling around on his workbench and asks softly, "What are you working on?"
"Thor 'n Jane are building a nursery," Tony murmurs, avoiding her gaze as best he can with her sitting right there. "You have any idea how many ways a baby can get hurt in an empty room, let alone one with things in it? Gotta have some safety precautions."
Pepper puts her hand over one of Tony's. "You know that kid will have nine people, plus JARVIS, who will be doting on it, making sure it's every need is taken care of, right?"
Tony waves the hand not held by hers expressively. "There are missions and you've got the company and we're all busy people and what if—"
"Tony," she says, all of her usual exasperation missing, which is often how Tony knows she's not going to let up. "That baby will have nine people who love it from the moment it is born. No matter how busy any one of us is at any time, someone will always return, always tuck the baby in, when it grows older mend its knees after a fall, cuddle it when it's had a nightmare, anything and everything the kid needs will be given."
Tony stills for a moment, caught between relief and irrational, disgusting jealousy. He doesn't really mean to ask the question, but he finds himself speaking aloud to Pepper, musing, "What kind of asshole envies an unborn kid?"
Pepper leans in and kisses his forehead. "The kind who deserved better when he was a kid."
Tony closes his eyes, his head drooping forward. "Think I'll be like him?"
"I think you're going to give this kid all the attention and love you never had," she tells him quietly.
He forces his eyes open. "Sometimes, Miss Potts, your faith in me is terrifying."
She smiles. "For both of us."
Tony comes across Jane sleeping in the common area on the couch a little over six months into the pregnancy. She's been sleeping a lot. Tony imagines Thor is somewhere near, he usually is. Tony begins to back out of the room quietly—he can't even remember what he came in for—but she snuffles a little and murmurs, "Thor?"
"Not it," Tony tells her quietly. "Sorry."
She opens her eyes, finding him without having to look, maybe by sound, or maybe because Jane is just like that. "You're a hard man to get alone, Tony Stark."
It's possible Tony's been avoiding her. He grins. "You know how it is. Things to do, people to—"
She cuts him off with a small, "Mm," and hauls herself into a sitting position, patting the seat beside her.
Tony considers whether he can lie about having a meeting to attend, but it's nearly seven at night, so probably not. He asks, "Want some water or—"
Tony sits. He would fight with Steve or Coulson or Fury, but Jane, Bruce and Pepper somehow fall into a different category. He would sit for Natasha, too, but that's because Tony is smart, okay?
She asks, without hesitation or any sign of disgruntlement, "Would it be better for you if we moved out?"
Whatever Tony has been expecting, whatever reasons he's had for avoiding her, this has never, ever crossed his mind. "What?"
She continues on, as if his question was actually to suggest that such an idea might be worth considering. "I've been looking, there are some nice two bedrooms not so far from here that I could probably—"
"You want to leave?" Tony's trying for incredulous, but he senses at least some of the emptiness is getting through.
Jane frowns. "No, of course we don't. The team is our family. But this is your home—"
She rolls her eyes. "You own—"
Tony shakes his head sharply. "I get that I know fuckall about family, but I'm pretty damn certain a family home doesn't just belong to one person."
Jane is silent for a moment, and so, so gentle when she speaks again. "Even so, Thor and I don't want to make you uncomfortable in it."
"You leaving—" Tony stops, unsure of how to continue. Finally, he says, "This is just the kind of thing that it would be really easy for me to screw up, and not be able to fix."
Jane tilts her head, then blinks, once, a drawn out, thoughtful gesture. "We're not going to leave because you're not kid-friendly, Tony. It's a big tower. You won't even necessarily need to see her all that often."
It would be easy to let her believe that's the problem. Tony's tempted. In the end, though, he says, "I want to see her. I just…don't want to damage her."
Jane's laugh is quiet and kind. She ducks in to kiss his cheek and promises, "Thor will kick the shit out of you before he lets that happen, no worries."
Maren Foster Thorsdottir is born on a blustery March day with all her fingers and toes, a chubby little thing with curls and curls of Thor's golden hair. She has her mother's nose and makes funny noises. Tony is terrified by how badly he wants to keep her safe until the day she dies. Given that she is part Norse-goddess, that's probably going to be well after Tony has done the whole dust-to-dust routine.
The birth goes well. Routine is the word the doctor uses, but Tony isn't sure how anything about a new life just happening is routine. He's created three or four separate AIs, and there's never been anything routine about it.
Jane has Maren at home, in the Tower, though, because Tony offered and she looked pleased at the thought, so there's no home to go to, no release from the hospital, just Jane getting up and moving around a few days after Maren's arrival.
Steve is—surprise, fucking surprise—fantastic with her. Tony thinks she might be a little confused as to whether Steve and Thor are the same people, but whenever she's fussing, and Jane is asleep or otherwise unavailable, either of those two can take her and she'll settle right down. Coulson is also shockingly at ease, seeming to know just what to do whenever she gets a cranky face.
She makes Natasha uncomfortable, and Clint and Bruce are both clearly concerned about accidentally breaking her, so Tony spend a lot of time hanging out with them when Pepper's not around. Pepper, when she is in town, wants to have some time with Maren, which means Tony's got to, by default.
On the third trip back, when Maren is reaching her fifth month—she does things like smile and gurgle and grab onto people's fingers and not let go—Pepper is holding her when the phone rings and she hands her over to Tony. Tony starts to say, "I don't like being—" but Pepper is walking away. He finishes anyway, just to make himself feel better, "—handed people."
Maren is looking at him, wide-eyed, like he's something new. He tells her, "I've been here the whole time."
She reaches out and grabs some of his facial hair. She can't really get hold of it, but she tries her best. Not entirely sure what makes him do it, except for the fact that one of his only fond memories of childhood is a baby-sitter who would do silly things, like play airplane and blow bubbles with him, Tony lifts her up and blows a raspberry onto the skin of her stomach, the stretch peeking out from below her t-shirt and above her diaper. She smells like the milky baby shampoo Jane uses on her, like mashed bananas and something Tony doesn't recognize, something that reminds him of sleepiness.
She squeals at the sensation, smacking her lips happily, and Tony laughs. "Yeah?"
He does it again, and her legs and arms flail in the air. Without being able to say why, he twirls her and tells her quietly, "You're a princess, did you know that?"
She just makes a play for his beard again and Tony stays still, letting her.
He has a nightmare that night. It's not one of the dramatic ones, not the kind that wake him with his own twisting and turning, the taste of his screams still on his tongue. No, this one he wakes from aching and empty and shaking from something that feels like cold, but is not, because he's under the covers and JARVIS is keeping the room perfectly temperate. Pepper murmurs, "Tony?"
He kisses her forehead. "Sorry, babe. Go back to sleep."
She grabs onto his tricep—the first thing her hand manages to come into contact with—and asks, "Afghanistan?"
"No, no. It's nothing."
She opens her eyes then, and they are somehow soft even as she glares. "Anthony Stark."
He sighs and gives into what she wants, what he wants, sinking back down onto the mattress where she wraps herself around him, somehow bigger than him. She orders, "Talk."
"Nightmare," he says. "Memory, really."
One of her hands cards through his hair, the care she always takes with him even more present than every other moment. "Tell me."
Tony arches into her touch, using it to ground himself. "The first thing I really created that I can remember, that mattered, was this little tech-based…pet, I guess. Almost like those Tamagachi things, but about twenty years before they were even a twinkle in Japan's eye. I think I was five or six at the time, memories from then get a little mixed up."
"Mm," Pepper says, by way of both acknowledgement and encouragement.
"I don't even…it probably wasn't really about making something at all. I think, mostly, that other kids could still convince themselves that their teddy bears or dolls needed care from them, could respond to them, and I—I wanted something like that. Something that—" Tony falters.
"Noticed you," Pepper finishes, her tone compassionate.
He shudders beneath her touch, but she just holds on more tightly. "I got excited. I wanted to show my dad, make him see that I was useful, I could help."
He shrugs. "You can figure out how that went."
"Say it, Tony."
"Say it," she insists.
"He told me he had more important things to be doing than looking at some kid's toy. Those were actually his exact words. Can't remember anything sharply except 'some kid,' like I wasn't even his son, just some five year-old who had wandered in off the street." Tony makes himself laugh.
She kisses the laughter off his lips. "Tony."
He doesn't want to say anything else. He wants to bury his face in her chest and hold on so she can't get away. "I keep thinking they're—you're—going to figure it out."
"Figure what out?" she asks.
"That I buy your love. That Howard was right, and I'm just 'some' guy who's good at making toys. People like toys." He leaves the obvious end to that unspoken.
"Yes," she agrees. "People like toys. We all like them, all the ones you make for us, and this home and everything you've given us, we like all of it. But we love you, Tony. There's a difference."
Love has only ever made sense to Tony in an output form. He's known how to love his whole life. He's never been entirely sure how to receive it. He doesn't know what to say. He settles for, "Pepp."
"Ease up, sweetheart," she murmurs, the command somehow careful, understanding. "I'm not going anywhere."
He realizes how tightly he's been gripping her and loosens his fingers, his arms, immediately. There will be bruises in the morning. And because Tony's a fucked up, awful person, it will calm him, like everything she wears of his does.
In the space of four hours, Jane gets a call that the lab in New Mexico needs her STAT, and Thor is informed that his presence is required on Asgard, possibly for purposes of battle, immediately. These things happen. What does not happen, and should not happen, so far as Tony is concerned, is the two of them approaching him and asking, "Can you take Maren for a couple of days?"
Tony knows he's looking at them in horror. "I thought you loved your child."
Jane laughs a little, but Thor informs him solemnly, "More than Mjolnir."
Tony asks, "You realize Pepper's not here, right? She's in England for the better part of two weeks."
"We know. It was not the Lady Pepper that we named as the child's guardian in case of our deaths," Thor tells him.
"What?" Tony is well aware he hasn't managed nonchalant at all, neither in tone nor facial expression. In fact, he would wager good money he looks gobsmacked at the moment. There's nothing to be done for it in the face of such ridiculousness.
Jane winces. "We were going to break that to you more slowly. Subtlety, thy name is Thor."
Tony is not distracted by her gentle humor. He forces his brain to slow down, pushes away the background noise of equations and formulas that are a constant and says, "You have a whole house of people to choose from. Steve's literally the most responsible person on the planet, Coulson—Coulson's job is the feeding and care of adult children, Clint has turned out to be a bizarre natural with kids, even N—"
"But you are the one we chose, Anthony," Thor says.
Jane takes his hands, stilling at least that part of him. He knows the rest of him is vibrating with tension. She says, "Tony, I've seen you with her. I see the way you look at her like you would give her the world. If there is nothing else I know, it is that you will put everyone and anyone who has earned your love above yourself. That is the person we want taking care of our child, whether for a few days, or forever."
Tony wants to take his hands back, he does, but somehow he finds himself incapable. "You don't-- I'll do something stupid. I broke DUM-E like six times the first year he was around."
"And then you fixed him," Jane says, as though that matters.
"He's a machine, Jane." Even if he's something more to Tony, they're all so much more, Tony knows his limitations. "I can't—if I break her—"
"You will not," Thor says, as though it is fact.
"You won't," Jane echoes quietly. She lets that sit for a moment and then follows it up with a simple, "Please."
Tony has told a million people in his life no, expressly or implicitly. The eight people who have taken over his tower seem to be an exception in every possible way. He tells her, "You're going to rue this day, rue it so hard."
Tony has contractors on his floor within a day setting up a room for Maren, since if she's going to be his goddaughter, and all, she's got to have space in his quarters, clearly. In the meantime, though, he has her pak 'n play up in the main area, and most of the day, he creates a padded area where the two of them can stay. He works a little while she lies on the floor, looking up at the projection of Aurora Borealis he's created just for her.
He keeps classical music on non-stop rotation, since evidently it's good for her brain. And the minute she starts fussing, he's got her in his arms, where, surprisingly, she always seems to settle. He falls asleep one day, lying next to her, both of them staring up at rotating DNA helices. He startles awake to her gurgling and has several seconds of mindless panic before he realizes she's safe, he's holding her, nothing has happened.
Steve comes over and brings fingerpaint. The two of them spend hours making prints of Maren's feet and hands in deep purples, fire engine reds, canary yellows and mossy greens, swirling and dragging out their own designs. Tony finds himself getting lost in the simplicity of it, how Steve doesn't seem to expect anything from the finished product except that they enjoy the experience.
Steve helps clean up afterward, while Tony washes Maren, tickling her stomach. She hasn't gotten laughing fully down yet, but she has a firm grasp on the beginnings of it. Tony spends a lot of time working to get her to make that sound.
Steve stays over while Maren takes her bottle and askss Tony, in a contemplative, genuinely curious, tone, "You know they were right?"
Tony looks up from where he's raptly watching her sucking at the bottle. "What?"
Steve has his Serious Face on, the one he uses when he expects that his word be taken as the gold standard truth. "When Thor and Jane chose you to take care of her, they were making the right choice."
Tony is pretty sure his face is a picture of confusion, which he'll regret later. He recovers quickly enough with a, "Careful Cap. I might start to think you consider me trustworthy."
Steve's lips quirk upward and a spark of merriment flares in his eyes. "Worry not. Never that, Tony."
"Good," Tony says, and ignores how good Steve's confidence makes him feel.
Steve drops a kiss on Maren's forehead and says, "Sweet dreams, little girl."
When Steve is gone and Tony has put Maren down to sleep, he collects all their "art" from that afternoon, and hangs it on the fridge.
Clint and Coulson show up the next morning, a baby-sized quilt with the alphabet on it, animals peering out from every letter. It's soft and bright and Maren drools on it immediately. Tony tells them, "I've decided that's a sign of affection. Otherwise, she hates me."
"Your interpretive skills are truly awesome, Stark," Coulson says in the dry tone that Tony has learned to understand as mostly fond.
Clint spends an hour telling her the names of all the animals and talking about horses, elephants, monkeys, lions, tigers and any other animal that ever performed in the circus. Tony falls asleep to the sound of his voice at some point. When he wakes, Coulson is burping Maren, and Tony has an odd surge of jealousy, because that's his job. Jane and Thor trusted him to do it.
He ignores the part of the jealousy that wishes he could remember if his mom had done that. He knows better than to think his dad may have. There's a blanket on top of him, which he's certain he didn't put there. He sits up, letting it fall back, only to realize he doesn't recognize it.
He holds it out to see. It's a handmade quilt, a representation of Iron Man sewn together from hundreds of red and gold cloth scraps in the middle of the quilt, surrounded by the blue and white of a clouded sky. It's incredible.
Clint, being Clint, scares the fuck out of Tony by suddenly being perched on the back of the couch. "Like it?"
"How many times have I told you that sneaking shit is unacceptable household behavior, Barton?" Tony snarks.
"Language," Coulson reprimands calmly.
Clint smirks. "And yet, Natasha still lives here. Answer the question, Stark."
When he was a kid, Tony had a blanket, just like any other kid. It was blue and cotton with a silken border and he hugged it to himself every night as he fell asleep. When he was four, he returned to his bedroom one day and it was nowhere to be found. He told his parents, and his mom said something vague about looking for it, too high on Percocet or whatever her chosen escape was that week to really pay attention. His dad didn't bother responding. It was one of the best lessons Tony ever had in not getting attached to stuff.
Now, though, he wants to wrap the quilt around himself, burrow himself inside of it. Clint and Coulson are both looking at him expectantly and he finds himself being flippant, "I suppose for a home ec project, it's pretty nice."
Clint snorts, takes the blanket from Tony's hands, and tucks it around him. He says, "You're welcome, Stark."
Tony, who isn't really sure how to thank them, clutches the quilt more tightly around him and says, "Any time."
Natasha and Bruce show up that evening. Natasha's got her game face on, which Tony is pretty sure means she's not certain she's welcome, and Bruce is even more fidgety than normal. Their visit is appreciated, since he knows it's harder for them than Clint or Steve or Coulson. The others have been good with Maren and have brought him things he's never had before, chances he never got, but the off-kilter sensation he shares with Natasha and Bruce reminds Tony that if he's broken, he's at least got good company.
Natasha hands over a stuffed mouse in a pink ballet tutu with matching slippers. The action is sharp, almost forcing the toy into Tony's hands, her body stiff in a way it never is, not even in briefings about how the world might imminently end. She looks away, saying, "She's probably too young and I guess it's pretty old-fashioned, but I always wanted one. Before I decided not to want anything."
Bruce holds out a large, wooden toy car. Its body is a bright green with blue and yellow wheels that pop. He's shuffling his feet, which is normal for Bruce, but Tony has spent a lot of time with him over the last year, he knows when Bruce's shuffle is just muscle memory and when it means he's forcing himself not to run. This is the latter.
Bruce puts on one of his more open expressions, the one that lets others know he's unsure, testing out the waters. "Uh, most of the stuff I wanted as a kid was swallowable. I figured you'd make her all the robots she needs, so this seemed like the best I could do."
Tony says, "C'mon."
The three of them spend two hours on the floor, rolling the car back and forth and watching as Maren gets excited no matter how many times it happens. When she finally falls asleep, Tony goes and gets three of the twenty-seven lego boxes he has ordered in preparation for the day when Maren is less likely to eat them. It's cheating to open them before her, he knows, but he thinks she'll forgive him.
He brings them out to Natasha and Bruce and plunks them down. Natasha's eyes widen as much as they ever do, barring imminent world annihilation, and even then, sometimes not, and she says, "Oh, it is so on."
By the time they leave, yawning and laughing their way out the door, they've built a city, complete with a railroad running in and out of it. Tony puts it in the area that's nominally his office. He'll disassemble it later. Like, when Maren's old enough to actually want the parts.
Thor returns about ten days after he left and states, unequivocally, "It is a pleasure to return to Midgard, my Brothers and Sisters in arms."
Tony tells him, "She's sleeping. You wanna see her?"
Thor's eyes light up and he falls into step with Tony. "Thank you, Anthony, for seeing to her care."
Tony, because he's Tony, can't help saying, "You owe me, buddy."
Thor blinks. "Was my daughter a trial to you?"
Tony opens his mouth to go on about how she's a baby and babies spit up, and poop themselves and do all kinds of other innately disgusting things. But Thor is watching him from the corner of his eye, open and genuine and Thor and Tony ends up saying, "No. No, we had fun."
There is something old and wise in Thor's voice when he says, very simply, "I am glad."
Tony says softly, "You're a good dad," hoping that the wistfulness he can't lie to himself about isn't apparent. If it is, Thor doesn't call him on it. Tony really does love his family.