Pepper considered getting up. This was always problematic now, and sometimes required assistance—a fact she wasn’t thrilled about, given how Tony smirked about it. Still, she needed to move now that her bladder was aching, and with a sigh, Pepper gripped the arms of the chair, preparing to heave herself up.
Balance, she knew. It was all just a matter of shifting the center of gravity, and getting some momentum behind it. Pepper sucked in a breath and heaved forward, making a little headway. Then gravity caught up with her backside, and Pepper slumped back in the chair, defeated for the moment.
“Damn it,” she grumbled, half annoyed, half amused by her predicament. Glaring down at the volleyball shaped bulge below her waist, Pepper sighed. “You’re not making this easy, are you?”
The lump said nothing, of course, but Pepper sensed a tiny hint of smugness that was clearly Stark in nature. She rubbed her belly and sighed. “Okay, funny as this is, I really need to get up and go to the bathroom, sweetie. A cranky mommy is not a fun mommy.”
With a little more effort, Pepper managed to get to her feet; not that she could see them much. Gone were the stilettos of old, replaced with slip-on Sketchers in light red. She waddled across the living room, rubbing her lower back a bit, zeroing in on the bathroom just off the kitchen. Afterwards, while washing her hands, Pepper looked at herself critically in the mirror there.
She looked good, she admitted. Some sleeplessness of late, but her skin was nice, her weight was on target, according to Doctors Lloyd, and overall Pepper felt better than she had in the first two thirds of her pregnancy. Thanks to the elixir, the morning sickness was done at least and that helped.
Pepper sighed. Tony had been amazingly patient about that aspect; something she truly hadn’t expected of him at all. She’d never expected him to hold her hair out of the way or stroke her back soothingly as she threw up, but he had.
“I learned all this caretaking stuff from you, you know,” he’d pointed out. “Although generally I was too busy ralphing up booze to get all the finer points in.”
“You’re,” she gasped, “doing fine—” and then punctuated her assurance with another retch.
Fortunately, Tony seemed to know better than to tease her about it while it was happening, although he was merciless at other times. He’d sent her a catalog of designer trash cans at one point, asking her to color coordinate her choices with the rooms of the mansion and although Pepper had tried to be annoyed, she had laughed.
*** *** ***
They’d adjusted, although not all of it had been easy—understatement of the year, as far as Pepper was concerned. Dealing with the curiosity and speculation of the media had been tough, but Jarvis had arranged for a few carefully staged photos to insinuate that Pepper was choosing single parenthood with Tony’s grudging tolerance.
The photos had been fun to set up: Pepper being dropped at her doctor’s office with Tony and Happy driving off; a shot of her at a Mommy and Me gym picking up enrollment information; a quick photo of her at the Stark Industries benefits desk, filling out paperwork. Jarvis had arranged for the pictures to be ‘leaked’ to a few sources, and they helped to create the impression to all and sundry that the ever-resourceful Ms. Potts was going it alone.
Naturally, Tony hated the entire process. “Jesus, I look like a total bastard kicking you to the curb!” he groused at the first picture. “One big heartless asshole, sending his faithful, pregnant PA into the rain!”
“Tony, it’s Southern California. It only rains when the special effects people are making a movie,” she teased him when they studied the photo in the magazine together.
“I don’t care if it was the most perfect cloudless day there ever was. I’m a son-of–a-bitch for dropping you off like laundry and I deserve to get my ass kicked. Hell, I’d kick it myself after this photo!”
“Then it’s served its purpose,” Pepper assured him sweetly. “Clearly in these you’re not the proud and doting father-to-be that I know you are.”
Tony, however was not completely appeased. “I want photos that tell the truth,” he mumbled. “Secret beautiful pictures to counteract the sordid lies we’re forced to throw to the media.”
“Remind me again which one of us is hormonal?”
“I’m serious. I don’t want our kid to find these shots years from now and think ‘Gee, Dad really is as fucked up as people say—look at the way he treated Mom and me before I was born!”
“Tony,” she shot him a patient and bemused glance, “you of all people should appreciate the need to deceive, but if it matters that much to you, then yes, we can take some pictures that refute the lies, okay?”
“Thank you,” came his soft, simple reply. Tony let go of the tabloid and moved to put his arms around her, brushing his cheek against hers as Pepper relaxed against him.
Along her skin he whispered, “We already have to hide so much as it is—the Arc, Fey blood, and now this. I know the three of us are never going to have a normal life, but I want it to be . . . loving, at the very least.”
She hugged him, hard.
*** *** ***
Tony felt frustrated. In the old days, this would have been the cue for a binge; either a bacchanalian overload of alcohol, women, and possibly drugs, OR a weeklong marathon of coffee, schematics, calculations and engineering in his workshop.
Both would have ended badly, he knew. The alcohol could only dull perception for so long, and it was difficult to dispose of both the women and drugs afterwards. As for the engineering jags, far too often he’d crashed and found himself hours later, drooling on blueprints, or twitching on a caffeine high so intense that a straitjacket looked calming.
There was always a third option nowadays, and Tony hated to admit it, but donning the Suit and going out to kick terrorist ass was, he’d learned, very stress-relieving. Delivering righteous smack-downs was one way he could channel his frustrations without falling back into old, dangerous habits, and the added bonus of coming home to Pepper each time sweetened the deal.
She was definitely worth it, though, and Tony still marveled at the magnificent twist of fate that had brought the two of them to this point in their lives. Ever since discovering his hitherto unrealized Fey heritage along with the fact that his most loyal and loving companion was heir to the same, things at Mansion Malibu had been good.
Only a few little minor points of contention marred it, in fact. One was Pepper’s refusal to marry him . . . but Tony was sure he could eventually win her over. He had time, resources and charm; the campaign was ongoing and relentless.
The other was the not so subtle pressure from the Fey community to promise the baby in a Bond, and Tony was adamant that wasn’t going to happen, no matter WHAT tradition said. As far as he was concerned, tradition had personally screwed him over, and Tony figured he didn’t owe the Fey anything.
Mab though, had other ideas.
“The very foundation of your family’s wealth comes from your father’s choosing to promise you in bond, Anthony. And you have benefited greatly from his decision.”
“That was my father and that was the past; I’m not him,” Tony snapped back testily. The two of them were having lunch together on a private terrace at the Malibu Grill, looking out over the ocean. Tony could see his mansion off in the distance to the south, just over Mab’s shoulder.
He wondered what her wings looked like. Mab hadn’t revealed them back during the Bonding, and for a fairy as old as she was . . .
“Clearly not,” Mab sniffed. “It’s sad to see that the element of common sense has skipped this generation.”
“Tradition is overrated,” Tony told her impatiently. “And in any case, it’s not as if you can compel me. I know your Glamour is legendary, but I’ve wised up in the last few months, and I know you wouldn’t force me to do this.”
“What about a bribe?” Mab responded after a few moments. She turned her gaze to the water, and Tony looked to see what caught her attention.
Three lithe, green-scaled mermaids were leaping in the waves, disappearing as quickly as they’d appeared. He blinked, and shot a sidelong look at Mab, who smirked.
“Nieces of mine,” she offered. “You’re right. I wouldn’t force you to make a Bond for your child, Anthony. But, I might make an offer that’s difficult to refuse.”
“Spoken like a true Godmother,” Tony muttered. “You would. But there’s nothing you can offer my kid. I have money, power, loving parents--”
“—Security,” Mab interrupted him. “World-wide; twenty-four hours, seven days a week security, Anthony. The eyes and ears and Bond of Every Fey blood on the planet, watching out for your baby.”
Tony drew in a breath, and the implications of Mab’s offer sat heavily between them, like a promise carved in granite. He closed his eyes to control his fury, all too aware that Mab had hit the one small chink in his armor with precise aim.
Life before becoming Fey had been difficult. Life after Iron Man had become even more difficult. Now life as a Fey as well had made the issue of safety all the more paramount. The Ten Rings were regrouping; there were mutant-haters; hero-haters; terrorists both international and home-grown; madmen with agendas and cunning intelligence, and despite all his efforts, Tony dreaded the day that one of those rabid wolves outside the gates would find a way in.
“You bitch,” he breathed.
Mab said nothing, and had the compassion not to smile. Instead, she held out her hands, palm facing palm, and a soft little glow began to shine out between them, unearthly and hard to look at. “Yes,” she murmured. “I am that, truly. But I am also a Godmother determined to protect my Godchild.”
“You don’t care about this baby,” Tony countered. “Not really. My kid is just another pawn to you; another Fey to be manipulated.”
“And you’re not prepared to protect your child from everyone and everything out there that could harm it. Or your Bond mate,” Mab shot back. The form in her hands took shape; a crystal mermaid lounging on a rock, the figure tiny and beautiful, glints of color dancing along the cut edges. Mab flexed her fingers and the statue solidified. She caught it and set it down on the table, pushing it towards Tony. “Here. It sings a lullaby.”
Tony stared at it. “Thanks,” he muttered.
Mab gave a slow, long sigh. “Anthony, believe what you will about me, but understand this: you’re not immortal. You will die someday, and given what you’re doing, it may very well be sooner rather than later. Don’t let your mistrust of me lead you to a bad choice for Virginia and your child, because like it or not, the Fey are your family, by blood and by tradition. That’s all I have to say on the matter.”
“No it’s not,” Tony accused her in a monotone. “There are still three weeks to go before the baby is born, so I’m sure I’ll be hearing yet another variation of this theme between now and then.”
Mab glared at him but couldn’t hold it for long; she laughed, finally, and Tony did too, a momentary truce as they both relaxed and sat back in their chairs.
“True,” Mab admitted, “but then again, stubbornness is a trait you have from your mother. Your child will have some strong strains if it from both sides of the family.”
“I don’t really consider that a drawback, you know.”
“You will,” Mab predicted confidently, “Right around toilet-training time. Your mother thought you were going to drive her insane through that. Seriously, Anthony: your terrible twos were legendary. Maria once told me she sure you plotted your tantrums deliberately to coincide with her garden parties and gala benefits.”
Tony didn’t look at her, but he listened intently, hungry for moments like this. Mab shared them during these lunches, and he both resented and appreciated the little insights she told about his mother and father. It seemed so strange to think of them as young, struggling parents, but Mab’s words were honest, and Tony knew her recollections were true.
“I,” he told her firmly, “was a spirited child.”
“Were?” Mab pointedly muttered, shooting him a tolerantly amused look. “As far as I can see, you still ARE, Anthony. Never mind though; you’ll learn how the other side feels soon enough. Is Virginia still taking the Tiger Dew?”
“Faithfully,” he replied. Tiger Dew was the only treatment that helped keep her nausea at bay, and Tony was grateful for that. Mab gave a sigh and began to rise from the table, her profile elegant in the warm sunshine. She accepted Tony’s help, and held his arm as he walked with her from the table they’d shared, looking for all the world like a devoted nephew with his elderly aunt.
Which was what everyone non-Fey believed.
*** *** ***
Pepper sat cross-legged on a blanket in the wheat field, concentrating on her breathing. The warm night air carried the scent of grasses, and the stars overhead seemed to dance.
They actually were dancing, but Pepper didn’t look up. She’d seen most of their disco and chorus line repertoire through the years, and in any case, her mind was occupied elsewhere. On the blanket with her, Augie sat, looking slightly tense.
“So then she tells me we need time, and I’m crowding her; that she doesn’t have enough space. Space I tell you! We have a whole guest bed! And shelves, ya know. Tons of space, right there. Space my feathered tushie! I bet Miss Hot Gams was never stuck in a shoebox in the back of a closet for four years!”
“I said I was sorry about that,” Pepper murmured, not opening her eyes. “You weren’t the only thing I had to put into storage for a while, Augie.”
“Oh I know, I know,” the penguin dismissed it with a wave of one plushie flipper. “You’re missing the point, babe, which is, I am NOT crowding her! Sheesh! All I want is to be, you know, together.”
“Forever?” Pepper mumbled.
“Well of course!” Augie squawked. “I mean we’re making it work, right? That whole ‘vegetarian/pescetarian’ thing, and I’m totally good with bringing the kids up in her faith--”
Startled, Pepper opened one eye. “Her faith?”
Augie nodded. “She’s an Arborist. High church.”
Pepper snorted. “And what are YOU? Church of the Exalted Anchovy?”
Augie glared at her with his beady glassy eyes. “Briny Baptist. Full immersion, you know.”
It was hard not to laugh but Pepper bit her lips and nodded, trying to look supportive. Augie huffed a bit.
No one could huff better than an annoyed penguin, Pepper realized, and she reached over to stroke him. Augie tried not to give in, but by the third pat, he sighed and flopped over against her thigh. “Aw man . . . why, babe? Why is she doing this to me?”He mumbled in a dispirited voice.
Pepper sighed. “I don’t know. You did come on a little . . . strong.”
The plushie gave a dramatic sigh. “That’s my style; my way, woman. I see what I want and GO for it. And in this case, oh hubba, those long, long leggies, and those big brown eyes and that *smile!* Did I mention I’m in love with a smokin’ giraffe?”
“More than once,” Pepper nodded. “Augie—give her a day or two, okay? Just hang out here, and let Miss Clairol, um, figure out how wonderful you are.”
“Sure, sure. I can spare a few minutes,” Augie languished.
All was quiet for a while, and Pepper pressed her hands to her rounded belly, concentrating, feeling a sweet sense of pleasure.
The bubbly awareness reached out from within and touched hers. Innocence. Joy. Delight.
“Hi,” Pepper whispered. “How are you, sweetheart?”
The response was some solid kicking, and despite the sensation, Pepper laughed. She brushed her hair back and rubbed a hand along her belly once more. “Yes, well it’s good to see you too,” she murmured. “Or feel you, I suppose.”
A rumbly shift seemed to concur, and Pepper smiled. She took a moment to concentrate again, quietly sending waves of love to the little being deep within her.
Augie gave a dramatic sigh. “Even though my heart is breaking and my entire LIFE is in a shambles—how’s the kid?”
“Doing good,” Pepper assured him. “Feeling a little bit cramped through. I can tell that baby-do wants to stretch.”
“Don’t say stretch!” Augie moaned. “That makes me think of long, tall and gorgeous. Like in that seven mile long neck I love to nibble—“
Pepper rolled her eyes, but before she got halfway through the response, a tight constricting cramp rolled through her belly. She froze; this was stronger than her usual little Braxton-Hicks. “Oh.”
“Oh? That’s the best you can do?” Augie snapped. “Oh? You’re supposed to be supporting me in my hour of crisis here, ‘Ginia!”
“No I am, but I just had a really strong . . . contraction,” Pepper admitted quietly. “I think I better wake up.”
Augie fluffed in alarm. “Don’t panic!” he told her. “No panicking, okay? You KNOW how bad I am with panic!”
Pepper scooped him up, squeezing him hard. “Calm. Down. NOW.”
He blinked, yellow glass eyes focusing on her once more, plush slowly settling along his stuffed body. “Okaaaay. Thanks; we’re good. So—do you think I should like, send her flowers or something?”