They had a conversation on a Tuesday evening, the night before the world fell apart. Pepper was sitting on the couch, and Tony sat in a chair next to her. They were both, ostensibly, hard at work.
"So what do we do if this child turns out to be a Potts?"
Tony lifted an eyebrow. "I expect that this child will be a Potts, given that you're doing the majority of the lifting. Minus the actual naming of the child, because it may be sexist, but, come on, Pep, you've got to give me something here."
Pepper crossed one very long leg over the other and tried not to contemplate the way her waistband was straining today - sooner or later she'd have to go up a size in pants. She was no walking cliche. She was perfectly in control of her emotions and capable of being rational. But she was also holding on to these pants because... dammit. She liked them.
"No, I mean... you've been talking to JARVIS, making plans..."
"I talk to JARVIS all the time. It's like talking to myself. But with fifty percent more sarcasm. And Google." Tony picked up a Rubik's cube that had been left on the table next to the chair he was currently fidgeting in, and began to put it in order. "Put the cell phone away, Potts, if you want to have an actual conversation with me."
Pepper looked up from her iPhone. "Okay... Pepper."
"Now. What did you actually mean?"
"I just meant - what if this kid's, you know... normal."
"You're making an underlying assumption here that I find troubling," Tony said, "that being that you are normal. And clearly you are not."
"Tony. You know what I mean."
"Actually, I do not," Tony said, "hence, I am expressing confusion."
"We're making all of these plans - talking about what to do if this kid is like you, you know... MIT at 16 and all of that, but... what if..."
"Then we shall all take a moment and thank whatever God smiled down upon us. Potts, honestly," Tony took her hand, "that would be a blessing. The very last thing we want is a child like me."
Pepper sighed. "I just - there's all of these expectations. Already."
"Think that's kind of unavoidable, you know? Even if we were Dick and Jane, living in our suburban house with a white picket fence and a spaniel of some kind, we'd have some kind of expectations for our kids. It's human nature."
"Yeah, but we're not Dick and Jane."
"We're Pepper Potts and Tony Stark, and you and I are the only ones who are allowed to have expectations. Every one else can just suck my..."
"Serious, Potts. And if you're worried, you know, that I'll only love this kid if it's some twisted reflection of myself..."
"Now you're putting words into my mouth -"
"Then you should know. I love you. And you are... in no way, a reflection of me."
"There are those in the world who would disagree."
Tony waved a hand. "Fuck the world."
Pepper tilted her head to the side and nodded.
Agent Coulson was having a fairly good day, all things considered. Granted, things had been rough going there for a while, with Fury's deception in the name of team unity straining relations between SHIELD and the Avengers so much so that his role as liaison had been a little... precarious, but bit by bit he'd managed to repair their trust in him, if not the system. Now, he was nearly caught up on paperwork, and knock on wood, there hadn't been any alien invasions or near-takeovers of New York for him to worry about, and although there were always threats being monitored and the status of the security of the free world could change on a dime, he was confident that he would be able to clock out a bit early, go home, turn the ball game and put his feet up.
Phil lifted his head. Darcy Lewis had been a good hire, he decided. She was sassy enough to keep him interested, quick enough not to need hand-holding, reacted well in dangerous situations and rolled with the personalities of the Avengers as well or better than anyone else he'd tried in the position of Assistant to the Supervising Agent - a job description Fury had insisted he create when it turned out that supernatural spears in the chest had some long-term side effects.
"What's going on, Ms. Lewis?"
"Something pinged I think you're going to be interested in," she said, stepping into his office and closing the door securely behind her.
Phil hid his sigh. His DVR was nearly full-to-bursting with ball games he'd meant to watch. Hopefully tonight would not be the straw that broke the camel's back. "What is it?"
"Got a hit on one of your watch lists? Alexander Lukin?"
Something cold crept over Phil's spine. "What about him?"
"He's got an employee on a Transatlantic flight. The boys upstairs thought you'd want to know."
"An employee?" Phil snorted. "They have any more information than that?"
"They told me to tell you it's Winter Soldier." Darcy shrugged. "Whatever the hell that means."
"The Winter Soldier. One. Singular. For which we are all grateful." Phil's chest ached and he pressed a hand to it, wincing. "Anything more?"
"They've got reason to believe his primary target is Stark."
Coulson shook his head. "Well. Okay. This day had a lot going for it, in the beginning, I'll have you know."
"Anything I can do to help?"
"I'm going to need a really good bottle of booze."
"To bribe Stark with?"
"No." Phil shook his head. "To drink after I have this conversation with Stark. And Natasha. And Steve. And, you know what? Barton's not going to take it so well either, so..."
"What you're saying, basically, is... Buy All the Booze."
Phil laughed without real mirth. "Yes."
"Listen, I need you to do me a favor."
Bruce looked up from his work to find Tony standing, legs spread shoulder-width apart, his hands in his pockets. It was as close to humble-looking that Tony ever got.
"What do you need?"
Tony's lips twitched in amusement at Bruce's wary tone. "I can promise you, it's nothing illegal. Or frightening or threatening in any way. In fact, in terms of things I have asked you for in the past, it's fairly banal."
"Tony, if it's within my power..."
"The media's onto us." Tony's hands came out of his pockets to punctuate his words with broad gestures, clasping and unclasping nervously. "Pep's being followed everywhere she goes and I think, you know, it's not going to take much more and they'll have it all figured out."
"And that's not good because you two don't have it all figured out."
"Yes, exactly. And I mean, eventually it'll be obvious, but for now, I just don't want Pepper to feel stalked while she's, you know, getting the baby checked out."
"Wait. Are you asking me to be Pepper's physician?"
"For the time being. You're qualified."
"Only if you use the very loosest..."
"Pep's comfortable with you. And so am I." Tony started to fiddle with the post-it notes on Bruce's desk. "We trust you, Banner."
"I'll have to brush up. I did some prenatal work in Calcutta, out of necessity, but..."
"No pressure. Think about it. Let us know."
"Excuse me. Dr. Banner, sir?"
Tony lifted his head. "Yeah, JARVIS?"
"Agent Coulson is here to see you."
Tony clapped his hands together. "And I'm sure that nothing about that will irritate me in any way, nor by extension you, so come along Bruce."
"No more Doctor Who for you," Bruce said under his breath.
The conference room Phil met them in was one rarely used. It was specifically designed for the Avengers, and despite the initial high of their meeting, there weren't that many world-ending crises, in general. So Tony was more than a little surprised when he and Bruce were the last ones in the room.
Darcy Lewis sat next to Phil, tapping away on her phone, hopefully in an effort to remove some of the stress from Phil's life. Tony knew enough about injuries to the heart to know that Loki's somehow-not-lethal jab would weaken his friend for a long time to come. Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton were all gathered in one corner, speaking in low voices. Pepper and her assistant, Danner, were already sitting in the corner. She was giving him dictation and reading something on her cell phone all at once, but she lifted a hand to wave at him.
"Good." Phil stood up, a bit shakily. "You're all here."
"We seem to be missing one demi-god," Tony said, "but other than that: hey hey, the gang's all here. How did SHIELD break the world this time?"
"We didn't this time," Phil said. "This is a briefing on The Winter Soldier." He ignored Natasha's sharp intake of breath. "This information is need-to-know only."
"The Winter Soldier?" Barton laughed. "He's a myth. The monster under the bed they tell all rookies about so they'll crap their pants."
"It's not," Natasha said flatly."He's not."
"For a while, we've been monitoring a Russian businessman by the name of Alexander Lukin," Phil said. "It appeared that he'd gained control of the asset. Up until now he either hasn't used him, or he's slipped so far under the radar that we haven't noticed..."
Natasha cursed under her breath. In Russian.
"This man is extremely dangerous. Darcy will hand you all out a paperfile. You will have two hours to read the file and retain what information you need to. These files will be destroyed before we all leave this building."
"Why are we being briefed now?"
"Because he's on his way here," Darcy said.
"He might be on the way here." Phil stood up, his hands in his pockets.
"Why?" Natasha's eyebrows drew together. "They used to say it wasn't a good idea to send The Winter Soldier to the States."
"Wait. You know something about this guy?" Tony asked.
"We... knew each other." Natasha's eyes were unfocused. "Once."
"You don't have a picture in here," Steve said.
"We don't know what he looks like. All we know is what he's capable of. And that is ruthless violence. He slips in, he slips out and people are dead and there's no way to trace him. He's a ghost. There's a reason even a man as experienced as Agent Barton was convinced he was a myth," Phil said. "Even some of the higher-ups at SHIELD have long assumed that he had all the validity of a Boogeyman. Some of us knew differently, but as long as he was inactive, it could be assumed that perhaps the problem had taken care of itself."
"So why call in the Avengers? I mean... it sounds like you need a Sherlock Holmes on this guy's trail. We're more apt to fight off aliens or... mad scientists or something," Tony said. "This guy's not exactly our pay grade, if you know what I mean."
Pepper's face had gone white. "Tony, did you read the file?"
Phil cleared his throat. "We traced Lukin to a terrorist group with ties to Ten Rings, Tony. We've got every reason in the world to suspect The Winter Soldier's primary target is you."
Tony raised his eyebrows. "So we up the security."
"Tony." Pepper shook her head. "You've got to take this seriously."
"We get a million and one security threats every day, Pepper."
"If you'll excuse us," Pepper said, standing up. "Tony, we need to talk."
They walked out of the room. There was a long moment of silence. Steve tapped the table. "So, uh... what's the pool up to about when they tell the rest of us about the baby, now? Cause I'd take even money on any second now, if that's still available..."
When Tony and Pepper came back in the room some time later, Tony stuck his hands in his pockets. "I've been convinced that we should react to this news with a... reasonable degree of caution. I'll start carrying the suit briefcase everywhere I go."
"And?" Pepper asked.
"Uh. I suppose a few extra SHIELD agents, you know, here and there, won't be completely amiss. Romanov, can I see you privately for a moment?"
"Yes, of course." Natasha and Tony adjourned to a corner and began to speak in low voices.
"I suppose now might, uh... be a good time," Pepper said, clearing her throat, "since you're all here. For us to tell you that uh... Tony and I are expecting a child. In six months' time."
For a long moment, no one said anything.
"Well," Agent Coulson said, tapping his hands on his desk, "that certainly changes things. I notice a good number of you aren't particularly... surprised."
No one met his eyes.