Russian Vodka Truths
It turned out that there were a lot of rules to this pregnancy thing. Rules no one had ever briefed Tony on in his whole life – not that he would have paid attention to such a briefing (briefings being one of those things, like board meetings, which he thought of as strictly attention-optional), but still, he felt like there should be some sort of… manual. Something he could read, which would help avoid being a universal failure at this… father… thing.
To be honest, he'd been a little upset that he hadn't noticed sooner – Pepper hadn't really been herself, but he'd attributed it to stress and a changing relationship dynamic and… You didn't pay attention again, a little voice inside of his head insisted. All the genius in the world won't do you any good if you don't notice what's right in front of you.
"Shut up, Dad," Tony muttered, and then hastily looked up to make sure no one had noticed his gaff. If Bruce had noticed, he had the decently to pretend otherwise, and the various other techs working in the tower were well-trained, and well-paid enough to ignore anything they were told to.
Rules. Like not being able to tell people until they were "out of the woods", as Pepper called it, which was a silly expression anyway, since Tony had felt like they were in the woods since the beginning of this thing. Pregnancy. …Thing. Anyway, he had two weeks to go until they were out of the first trimester, and two weeks until he could tell anyone the thoughts running through his head. Anyone besides Pepper, that is, and it didn't seem fair to unload on her when she was… gestating.
He was giving "fair" a shot.
The thing of it was that, at the end of the… thing, they'd have a baby. Which, you know, was a hell of a shocker, really. A fully functional, fully autonomous (if a little dependent, initially) human being, who would look to Tony Stark to form his or her moral character… and, you know, character in general. It would be his responsibility to pass on the great truths about the world. He could think of nothing more frightening.
Okay, except for maybe stealthy (and if he was being honest, sexy in a you-can't-touch-this, literally-kind of way) Russian assasins who regularly appeared without making a sound like a decent goddamn human being.
"Romanov." There. That almost sounded suave. He used to be cool. There was a version of himself, somewhere, that was laughing at this future-self and bemoaning the inevitable lack of coolness that came with impending fath… shit.
"You've been staring at the same screen for the past ten minutes."
"I'm… absorbing," Tony said, quickly flicking his wrist and sending the screen (which he hadn't read a single word of) fleeing out of sight.
"You're Tony Stark. You read, what? 15,000 words a minute? The last time it took you ten minutes to absorb something, you were trying to unify string theory."
Tony laughed. "Physics was more of a hobby than a real pursuit. I should let you do my press."
"I think I'd rather be lit on fire."
"And you're just the kind of person with the real-life experience to back that decision up, aren't you?" Tony shook his head.
"As a matter of fact…" Romanov – her first name was really Natasha, he remembered – Natasha peered over his shoulder and quirked her eyebrows, "yes. Did she tell you herself, or did you figure it out?"
"I still have access to her personal schedule – and yours, actually. It wasn't that hard to work out."
"That's what you do in your spare time? You keep track of Pepper and me? There are things called restraining order—"
"It's not my spare time if SHIELD is paying me."
"Here's a question. Do any of you people ever just… pick up a phone and ask a question? Or is going for the 'horribly invasive violation of privacy' your default method of information-gathering?"
"I'm going to let that go," Natasha said slowly.
Tony grinned. "Very generous of you."
"Because you're obviously so scared you can't see straight."
Natasha lifted an eyebrow. "You're going to pretend I'm wrong? Really?" She plunked a bottle of premium vodka down on Tony's workstation. "Your cooperation in this little discussion will be rewarded."
"And how are we defining cooperation?"
"You will act as little like the version of yourself that's a billionaire jackass as possible, and as much like the guy who just needs to hear it's all going to be okay as you can."
"For that to happen, you're going to need to start pouring the vodka now."
Natasha deftly produced two shot glasses (from where, he hesitated to guess) and laid them down, expertly filling them to the top. "Cheers, Stark. Catch up."
"Okay, so here's the problem."
Tony was definitely feeling the alcohol – which was saying something, because he'd trained his liver to be an expert filter over several years of hard drinking – and Natasha was definitely not, which led him to believe there had been shenanigans. Possibly hootanannies. He peered at her over the top of his shot glass, which had occupied the majority of his attention over the last half-hour or so, during which he and Natasha and put away an obscene amount of vodka.
"I have never once, in all of our time we've known each other… for…"
"Points for that brilliant sentence construction. English isn't even my first language and I'm doing better than that…"
"I have not ever, not once, heard you say 'get moose and squirrel'."
"Eat a goddamn cracker, Stark."
"You know what I want? I want cranberry juice. Don't you think cranberry juice would be a good idea in this particular sit…sit… instance?"
"You're not violating my good vodka with cranberry juice. Jesus." She used the same tone that his mother had used when he asked if he could color in the pictures in the family Bible.
Why had they even owned a Bible, he wondered. It wasn't like it was anything his father or his mother took seriously.
"We started drinking for a reason," Tony said, narrowing his eyes. "What was it, again?"
"You're a pussy."
"Yes, that's it ex…" Tony trailed off. "No, we went with 'reasonably scared about the upcoming life change barreling right towards me like a fucking freight train'."
Natasha shrugged. "You might have. I went with 'you're a yellow-bellied coward'."
"When did you learn English, anyway? 1945? No wonder you and Captain Underpants get along so well."
Natasha just shrugged her shoulders.
"No. I know, right, that you're supposed to be magically changed, or some shit, by the appearance of an infant in your life…"
"What is that saying? 'It can only go up from here'?"
"The more you drink, the more Russian you get."
Natasha allowed one side of her mouth to lift in amusement. "This, I have heard before."
"Yes, okay. So maybe we have the kid, right? And maybe it changes me, magically, and I'm a better person and all of that…"
"But what if it doesn't? What if, underneath, you know, I'm still the same old Tony? I mean, that's fine for Pepper, she can walk away any time she wants to, she's made a choice, you know? A decision. I feel like we're thrusting an innocent into a relationship with, you know… me."
Natasha eyes went dark for a moment with some remembered pain, but she shrugged it off. "But you make decisions also, do you not? You chose to become a better person. You chose to pursue Ms. Potts after you felt you were somehow more worthy of her attention and respect. What's to say you will not do the same with the child?"
"Genetic material," Tony muttered.
"You're very hard on your father, in private, aren't you?"
Tony shrugged. "We didn't have what you would call a warm relationship. He was an okay guy, from what I can gather from friends… but he wasn't interested in having a kid. He never meant to have an heir, you know? Mom sure as hell didn't plan on getting pregnant. You can see how I'm having a 'history repeats itself' panic attack here."
"You heard me. Bullshit. Choice, Mr. Stark. It's what separates us from lemmings and cows. We are aware of the past, cognizant of the present, and we worry about the future… we can be aware of all of this and change the outcome. It doesn't have to be the same, no?"
"It doesn't have to be."
"No. It does not." Natasha leaned back, looking triumphant. "All it takes is waking up every morning and deciding that it's not going to turn out the way you're life turned out. Although, it should be stated… your life's not so bad, really." She gestured around. "Am I not right?"
"It was a hell of a road to get here, though."
"Life must be interesting, for I am assured that death will be quite boring." Natasha smiled.
"Wait… is that your idea of a joke?" Tony asked, after a beat.
"You will be a good father, Stark, if you choose to be. That's no joke."
Natasha got up and walked away, in a nearly-perfect straight line. Tony sighed, and laid his head on his arms on his workstation.
"Nobody mind me," he said to JARVIS (the other techs had quietly left the room as soon as the alcohol had appeared), "I'm just going to pass out here. Like a boss."
There was a ringing. Or a clanging… something… no, definitely a ringing. Like a high, shrill siren, right in his ear. Incessant. Never-ending.
He opened his eyes. It was his cell phone. The display read "Rhodey". Tony sighed, and hit "ignore". If it was important, the colonel would call him back on an official line.
He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
"Tony? Tony?" A hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. "Tony!"
"Ooooooooow," he groaned. "Just… do it. Take me out. I no longer want to live."
A sigh. A trademark Pepper sigh, actually. "JARVIS told me I'd find you down here. Why do you smell like a distillery?"
"Soviet conspiracy," Tony said, opening one eye, "get me drunk and I'd divulge all our secrets. Worked surprisingly well, actually…"
Pepper rolled her eyes. "C'mon. Let's get you upstairs where you can sleep it off like a responsible adult."
"Boo. I'm going to sleep it off right here, thank you very much."
"No, you won't, because you enjoy the ability to move your neck and you're not nineteen anymore. C'mon. Up and at 'em." Pepper reached under his armpit and yanked him upright.
"Ouch! Holy crap! Pep!"
"Allow me to tell you how not at all sympathetic I am to your plight right now."
Tony sighed, but began moving his feet in a forward direction – towards the elevator that would take him upstairs to the master bedroom they now shared. "Oooh, you're wearing the skirt."
Pepper rolled her eyes. "Yes, I am. I'm wearing a nice, professional…"
"Have I ever told you that skirt makes your legs look like they go all the way up to your neck? Legs like a gazelle, you've got, Potts. Like a sexy gazelle."
Pepper fought off the laughter swelling in her throat. It wouldn't do to encourage him. "You're being ridiculous right now, and I hope JARVIS is recording this for posterity."
"My children won't be allowed to drink until they're forty-five. Or have any fun of any kind!" Tony wrinkled his nose. "No, that doesn't sound right. Fun having's all right. Drinking with Russian assassins is not. Let the record show that my children are not allowed to get drunk with Russian assassins."
"I think this is one of those things that you can't really control, Tony."
She'd got him out of his clothes and into a t-shirt and boxers with the ease of long-practice and was settling him in with a glass of water and a couple of aspirin when he caught her wrist and looked at her with serious eyes. She could see Tony under the alcohol, and some of her irritation eased.
"I'm sorry, Pep. I didn't mean to."
"Didn't mean to what?"
"Try to drink Natasha under the table. I should have known better. Never try to outdo a Russian in vodka consumption. My father told me once, he told me a hundred times…"
"It's okay, Tony."
"You know something, though?"
"Natasha thinks I can do all right at this, if I really try."
"Being a good guy. Being a Dad."
"Well… if it means anything, I think so too."
Tony smiled and closed his eyes.
…Not twenty seconds later, he was snoring. And Pepper was making her way out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her, and thinking that some things never really changed.