It wasn’t planned.
Tony was amazed that all of the toxins in his body hadn’t sterilized him ages ago, even before the palladium exposure. Pepper had cried, having been told years before that the cysts on her ovaries essentially rendered her infertile.
At first they debated. Tony made holographic charts, outlining the pros and cons. His con list was larger and saddled with his deeply-rooted issues with his father, substance abuse problems, and narcissistic tendencies to disregard anyone but himself. Pepper was a career woman, focused and driven. She knew there were hardly any other areas she could tackle than the top seat in Stark Industries, but she worried what the stress of a difficult pregnancy and working would do to her, or the baby, during those long nine months. She worried about the post-partum depression that had almost taken her mother’s life. She worried that some new project might take her away from their child. She worried that their child would take her away from a new project.
Their window was a very short one. On the last day the doctors had advised was a safe and legal day to carry out any terminations, Pepper sat on the floor in Stark Tower, leaning against one of the curtain windows, staring out at the millions of people weaving their lives through Manhattan. Tony found her, and stood nearby silently, watching. Waiting. Hours passed. Neither moved much during that time.
At four o’clock, Pepper turned slightly, looking at Tony. She held out her hand. He took it, and tensed to pull her to her feet, but she tugged him to sit next to her instead.
It wasn’t planned, and neither were prepared. As with everything, though, they faced it head on. Together.
Telling the others was the interesting part. Clint was deep undercover somewhere; no one outside of top S.H.I.E.L.D. officials knew where, or when he’d be back. Bruce was pleased, shyly offering his congratulations. Thor was ecstatic, raised a toast in Tony’s honor and to their ancestors, and insisted on a feast in celebration. Natasha was silent, her face and posture giving nothing away of her true feelings. Steve, on the other hand…
“Are you going to marry her?” He asked Tony, point blank.
“Steve, it’s just a piece of paper,” Pepper said, reclining slightly on the couch.
“What she said. We know how we feel, who gives a damn about anything else?” Tony agreed. He turned his attention to Natasha. “Really, Your Imperialness, you let him get away with this train of thought?”
She smiled, breaking her silence of the last hour or so. “It’s charming, really. I don’t want to break him just yet.”
“I’m surprised at you, really I am. I’d have thought you’d ruin him the first night.”
“Not necessarily. A lady never kisses and tells, but a lady also needs to know how to… take care of herself,” Natasha said, capturing the straw of her drink between her lips.
Her lover cleared his throat loudly, his cheeks flushed. “But what if something happens to you?” Steve argued, steering the conversation back to the matter at hand.
It had been months since their services as a team had been needed, several long months broken up by individual dispatches, and Tony rolled his eyes at the implications. “Things are different now. Pepper’s been the chief benefactor of my will for most of the time I’ve known her. I’d fix it to include the kid as well.”
Pepper’s eyebrows rose at this. “Really? For how long?”
“I didn’t tell you? Huh. Since… What day did you start working for me?”
“It was a Monday. You blamed the accounting accident, and letting me win an argument, on a hangover.”
“Right. So, since that Wednesday.”
“Bossy little thing, two weeks on the job, storms up to my office from the bowels of the company to yell at me about a decimal point? I got your measure real quick. You’d be fine.”
Steve cleared his throat loudly again. “And what if something happened to Pepper?”
Tony looked wounded. “You don’t trust me with a kid?”
“Both of you. If something happened to both of you. Pepper has been a target before. Or even the child might be targeted.”
Orphan Steve, still recovering from his time in the Depression-age children’s homes of Brooklyn, spoke from ages long gone. Tony sat down, bracing himself on his knees. “That’s what the will’s for, Starry-Eyed Surprise.” Steve raised an eyebrow. Tony waved him off. “Not one of my better ones, I admit. But we can set something up. Guardians, regents of my vast wealth, to rear my heir until such a time that he can take it upon himself. My dad left everything to me in his will. I would have had the same thing happen to me, if the accident had happened a few years earlier.”
“I would be most honored to raise the son of Stark, should the Man of Iron join his brethren in Valhalla,” Thor announced.
“I think we all would pitch in,” Bruce remarked, much quieter than Thor.
“There, see?” Tony clapped Steve on the shoulder. “It’s all worked out. We’re not leaving anyone penniless and out on the streets. I’ve already collected all you strays, why go back on it?”
Steve was staring at the carpet. “It’s just… It doesn’t seem entirely decent.”
Pepper took his hand. “Families are different now. Married, unmarried, single parents, same-sex parents; as long as everyone is loved and healthy, it doesn’t matter.”
“We had that too, you know,” Steve glanced up at her. “It’s not all that different now; we just didn’t talk about it back then. And if it was talked about, it was with some scorn. And my parents… well, Ma raised me by herself. I can’t judge you on that, she did alright. But the other women on our block, I remember them talking about her. I just don’t want you to face the same.”
Pepper smiled. “It’s sweet of you, Steve, no one’s denying that. I’m afforded a little more protection from that kind of talk.”
“Right!” Tony clapped his hands. “I’m starving, and I think Thunderbird over here has called for a feast. Who’s up for what?”
Thus began the nightly ritual of arguing over what to have for dinner—with the pleasant change of everyone winning, and a feast was had by all.
Natasha was taking it easy on Pepper in their weekly self-defense lessons. After the second kidnapping attempt, Pepper had sought out the other woman’s help. “You won’t be able to continue for long,” the Russian stated as Pepper threw up a block to her punch.
“As long as you aren’t flipping me around or punching me in the stomach, we can take it easy. I read that some low-key aerobics were good for me,” Pepper replied.
Natasha said nothing more for the rest of their hour together, until they completed their cool-down stretches. “You’re really going to do this?”
Pepper took a long drink from her water bottle. She leaned back on her elbows, staring at the skylights. “Yeah… yeah, we’re going to do this.”
“You never considered…?”
“We did. I did. For a lot of reasons. Tony didn’t want to give it up for adoption. He had a lengthy speech about the genetics of intelligence and what if the child wanted to find his biological parents and saw us and what he would see as his biological birthright as heir to Stark Industries… There was a lot. I was uncomfortable with the idea as well, for other reasons.”
“And the other option?”
“We’re past that window.”
“But you considered it.”
Pepper met Natasha’s eyes. The other woman had an uncharacteristically hungry look about her that surprised Pepper. “You’ve had an abortion,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
Natasha’s jaw set, but she nodded. “It was a long time ago.”
“And you regret it?”
She tucked a leg up to her chest, hugging it. “No. Not always. But there are days that I wonder. I don’t think there’s anything I would have done differently, but if the circumstances had been different… I do wonder. I don’t know if there are many women who don’t wonder what might have been.”
Pepper slid over on the floor. She didn’t dare touch the assassin, but hoped her presence would be a form of comfort anyway. “I think it’s human nature to wonder ‘what if’s.”
Natasha smiled briefly. Pepper sighed. “There’s Tony. Worse daddy issues than any of the women he’s slept with in the past, a narcotics history that likely lined some drug lord’s pockets for the next century, selfish, rude, overbearing, sarcastic, absent-minded, absent, driven to insanity by his work. For some reason I love that man, but he’s an asshole. And there’s me. Career-oriented and working seventy hours a week or more. Meddling to the point where a middle manager would be irritated. A hand in every project. A mother who almost committed suicide from post-partum depression. The prospect of a difficult pregnancy thanks to my polycystic ovarian syndrome.
“Really, there was a long list of reasons why we should have done it. A lot of good reasons. But in the end… It wasn’t some magical connection I felt, no sudden overwhelming power of motherly love. It was just a decision I didn’t think fit. It won’t be easy, it’s not going to be fun all the time, it’s going to make my hair grayer than it’s becoming, but… It’s Tony. And it’s me. We don’t back down from a challenge, even when it’s each other.”
Natasha pushed her gently. “Sap.”
They decided not to find out the sex of the baby.
After she passed month six, Pepper looked ready to give birth any day now. Bruce, the closest of any of them to a doctor of medicine, was perplexed. “You’re sure of the conception date,” he said, biting the end of the arm on his glasses.
“Sure enough that I shouldn’t be nine months pregnant,” she replied agitatedly.
“Have you seen anyone since you found out?”
“Not since…” Pepper hesitated. Only Tony and Natasha knew about the abortion debate. “Not since the end of the first trimester.”
“I see.” If he took anything from her hesitation, he didn’t mention it. That was the nice thing about Bruce. He offered no judgments against anyone unless they truly deserved it. “Did you have an ultrasound done?”
“Yes, but I didn’t see it.”
He pondered it for a few more minutes. “Well… Either something’s very, very wrong, which I’m sure you would have noticed by now, or you’ve got more than one of those in there.”
Bruce put his glasses back on. “Pepper, you’re slim, but not that slim. You’re either growing a tumor or you’re growing two babies. I’m surprised you didn’t go to an OB before this.”
She looked down. She’d known better, of course, just like most modern women. But between brief sit-downs that turned into four hour naps, and trying to run a Fortune 500 company, the weeks had slipped by. “I’ll go as soon as I can.”
“Pepper I know how you are, but please consider pushing your work onto someone else for a while. If something’s not already wrong, it’s going to be,” Bruce said gently.
It was twins.
Thankfully it was mild, at most, and Pepper was put on a low sodium diet. She wasn’t ordered on bed rest just yet, but she was advised to take on a much lesser role in the company, and a weekly appointment.
Pepper swore and shouted for most of the way home. Tony listened, amusement clearly written on his face. After a full ten minute tirade, she sat back in the seat with a sigh, and grabbed a bottle of water. “You good?” He asked while she downed almost the entire thing.
“No. Six major projects under way and I can’t look at one of them until November. And four of them will be done by then.”
“I’ll step in as acting CEO until you’re allowed to work full time again. I’m already president, the board isn’t going to exactly stop me from running a company with my name plastered on all the pens and memo sheets.”
“And you’ll keep me updated?”
“Until I’m blue in the face from talking.”
“And coming from you, that’s a lot of talking…” she muttered, staring out the window darkly.
She suddenly felt hot tears stinging in her eyes. She wiped at them furiously. “Hey. Hey, what’s that about?” Tony’s entire person changed, and he reached over to hold her. She knew it bothered him when she cried.
“I don’t know. It’s all these stupid… hormones. I’m just…”
She leaned into his embrace. “I hate this.” She could feel him tense against her. “No… I don’t regret it, Tony. I’m just… I don’t… Why am I more worried about my job, than I am about my safety, and the babies?”
“You aren’t asking the right person.”
“Not a good answer right now, Tony.”
“Well, how am I supposed to know? Maybe you like… have some mystical woman power that knows the kids will be fine and you’ll be fine, so you can prioritize something else,” Tony said.
“Maybe it means I’m not going to be a good mother.”
“And maybe there’s that.”
“It’s a possibility. One we hope won’t happen. But hey, I had one good parent and one bad parent, and I turned out… human. Ish.”
Pepper cried the rest of the way home, not soothed in the least by Tony’s brash words. She knew he was trying to ground her in reality, but sometimes she preferred pretty lies to make her feel better at night.
She was put on bed rest a month later. The doctors weren’t sure she’d make it to nine months—eight was rare with multiples, so to be safe, Pepper was confined to the bedroom. It was a nice bedroom with an enormous bed that Tony occupied at least seventy percent of every night, and a friendly AI that was able to summon anyone to bring her what she needed or just to chat, and a television with hundreds of channels and nothing to watch.
She was bored after five hours.
After a week, she’d read seven novels that she’d been meaning to get to for the last twelve years. After two weeks, she’d watched more Lifetime movies than she’d ever cared to and cried during every one. She’d finally learned how to knit, and had produced a scarf and a half—very useful in New York City on the cusp of July. She’d planned Steve’s upcoming birthday party, and helped Tony organize a backlog of old Stark Industry files dating back to 1983.
She slept occasionally.
On July 14, Pepper and Tony were parents.
They came home after three days to the shambles that was the tower’s living space. Even Thor isn’t able to tell anyone what happened after he initiated a drinking celebration. Tony suspected he’d found the hard liquor, instead of the beer they usually kept on hand for the Asgardian.
Pepper sighed. Judging by the tone, some experiment or other had been left out in the open for an unsuspecting bystander to set off—for good or for bad. She resigned herself to whatever was going on in the living room, and heeded the call of her daughter.
She didn’t even have to ask. The cat’s angry spitting and hissing was enough. Pepper silently counted to ten, and then shouted, “TONY!”
“What?!” Two voices, male and female, responded through JARVIS’ intercom program.
“Why is Natasha’s cat stuck on the ceiling?”
“It worked!? YES!” The female voice responded, and they heard a chair scraping against the floor above them, and hurried steps.
Tony was laughing, the sound echoing through the speaker. “Not my idea. All hers. Electromagnetic booby-traps, that’s pretty good for a ten year old.”
“Things are a little different around here, Bullseye, I don’t know if Fury briefed you about anything…” Tony was saying as they entered the kitchen.
Clint was focused on Tony, and Tony in turn made sure to speak clearly and face him head on. “Not about domestics, no.”
Pepper’s eyes narrowed, noting a slight slur in Clint’s speech. It was worse than Fury had warned them about. “Girls, there’s someone we want you to meet.”
Two redheads looked up from their work; one was doing algebra in crayon, the other was practicing cursive writing. Twin blue eyes followed their mother’s hand to Clint. “Girls, this is your Uncle Clint,” Pepper said clearly, looking at him.
Clint’s eyebrows shot up. “Whoa. Guys, I was only gone seven years, hell froze over that fast? Who let Stark reproduce?”
“Mommy says it’s not nice to say that word, even though Daddy says it all the time,” the twin who had been doing cursive said, spelling it out in rudimentary American Sign Language as she talked.
“You were gone two years before this happened, they held him back as long as they could,” Pepper said wryly.
The twin who had been doing algebra slid off of her stool and marched up to her new uncle, sticking out a small hand. Tony covered a laugh with a cough. “It’s very nice to meet you, Uncle Clint. Cleo is better at signing than I am, I’m sorry about your ears.”
Clint’s callused hand engulfed the small one, and he shook it cordially. “Thanks. And I’m not great at it either, so Cleo might have to give me lessons.”
Cleo smiled shyly. “Okay.”
“I’m Antonia. Cleo’s name is Cleopatra.”
“Mommy says Daddy thinks he’s funny,” Cleo supplied helpfully.
Clint looked between Tony, who was smirking, and Pepper, who looked exasperated. “I was under some heavy medication after the C-section, I couldn’t stop him.”
Clint has returned to his comic book status as DHOH. It was an accident during his undercover operation.
Steve heard something clattering in the kitchen. It was well after midnight, and no one was usually awake at this time. Curious, and on alert, he went to investigate.
To his surprise, the fridge was out of its normal place, and there was a light shining behind it. He walked around it. “Hey kiddo, isn’t it a bit late for you?”
Cleo removed the screwdriver from between her teeth. “Hi, Uncle Steve. Couldn’t sleep. Is Tyotia Natasha away?”
“For a few weeks, yeah.”
“Are you worried about her? You’re always wandering when she’s gone.”
“Not really. She can handle herself. It’s just hard to sleep without her. What are you doing?”
Cleo grunted, twisting the screwdriver as hard as possible to fasten her project into place. “Motor silencer I’ve been working on. I’m testing it out here before I show the designs to Dad for the suit.”
Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “I see. Any particular reason why the fridge?”
“It’s noisy. And it’ll freak everyone out when they think it’s broken.”
She gave each of the screws another twist, before leaning back and sighing in satisfaction. She brushed one red, errant curl behind her ear. “So. I’m still not tired, you’re not going to sleep anytime soon. Want to play chess?” She grinned at her adoptive uncle.
Steve held out a hand to help her to her feet. “If you promise not to brag much when you win again.”
“No can do, Uncle Sam.”
He fought the urge to grimace. Now he had to deal with the nicknames from an eleven-year old as well.
“One, two… three!” Pepper expertly snapped his shoulder back into place as Tony swore colorfully.
“Jesus,” he gasped, before dissolving into laughter.
Pepper was thin-lipped and pale and tired, but she held her tongue and tried to dab away the blood as he convulsed from hysteria. He returned to swearing when she dabbed the antiseptic on a particularly large gash on his forehead. “Are you done now?” She asked.
He winced, chest heaving. “Done what?”
“With the hysterics.”
“Maybe,” he gasped, a few breathy laughs following. “Dunno. Is it done being funny?”
“Involving yourself in an African civil war is not funny. A land mine is not funny. Needing S.H.I.E.L.D. to cart you home in pieces is not funny.”
“It is kind of funny. In an ‘oh wow, I’m alive but that hurts but gosh isn’t it great to LIVE’ kind of way.”
She pursed her lips, and jabbed at him with the antiseptic again. He hissed, and tried to sit still for her. She’d spent enough time putting him back together at this point that she knew which cuts needed stitches (four), how long he’d need to wear a sling for the out-of-place shoulder (ten days, fourteen at most), if his ribs were broken (no, just severely bruised, but he was going to be fairly inactive for a few days lest they decide to just shatter under stress anyway), and if he was concussed (probably not, but until he recited the periodic table of elements in alphabetical order, backwards, and including the elements that had not been officially recognized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry over the last fifty years, she wouldn’t be satisfied). “Daddy?”
She turned. The girls were poking their red, curly heads around the corner. Tony propped himself up, looking more than a little worse for wear, covered in bloody streaks and salve and half-applied bandages and dark bruises. “Hey. Hey, girls, you shouldn’t be up. You need… You should be in bed.”
The twins exchanged a clearly exasperated set of looks that Pepper was sure she hadn’t taught them. “Mommy always lets us stay up when you’re away,” Tonia said as they came in.
Tony fixed Pepper with a look of his own. She took his arm and wound a bandage around a large gash. “They had fallen asleep…”
“Does it hurt?” Cleo asked, careful not to touch any of his injuries.
“Nah,” he replied, showing only the mildest discomfort as he bent down and scooped her up to sit on his lap. “I’m Iron Man. I’m your dad. Who could hurt me?”
“Daddy’s invincible!” Tonia declared.
“That’s right!” He replied, ruffling her already messy hair as she giggled.
Pepper abruptly turned and went to the sink. She made a show of washing the salve from her hands slowly, to cover the fact that she was trying very hard not to make a sound as she wept—from terror, from joy, from a thousand emotions being released at once… but mostly from being able to see the three most important people in her life together, when just an hour ago she hadn’t been sure if she’d ever see it again. She took pride in the fact that she’d never let Tony see her cry after he came home from another mission (more or less in one piece), or the girls see her cry ever. She was the rock they relied on. Still, Tony managed to interrupt the girls’ chatter and pleas to tell them how he’d saved the day again, “Pep. I saw that.”
Damn. She’d tried to wipe away evidence of her moment discreetly. She turned, guiltily. Tony beckoned to her with his free arm. She picked up Tonia and sat next to him. He put his arm around her and kissed her temple. “I’m fine. I will be fine, thanks to you.”
“This time, Tony.”
“And next time.”
“And what about the time after that?”
They locked eyes. The girls, picking up on the tension between their parents, were silent for once. “I will always come home to you. All of you. As long as I know you’re here, waiting for me, absolutely nothing can stop me from getting home to my girls.”
Her head knew he was saying that mostly for the benefit of the twins. Privately, this would have escalated very quickly into an argument about his recklessness and single-minded drive, his insane quest to single-handedly save the world he’d almost single-handedly delivered into chaotic warfare. What it would be like for their daughters to grow up without a father. But her heart hoped against hope that he was telling the truth. “Okay.”
“Why do we have to go to the aquarium? We live by the ocean,” Tony grumbled.
“We live in Malibu, where the Pacific Ocean is both very cold and very dangerous to little girls who can’t swim against rip tides,” Pepper responded as the twins raced ahead of their slow parents. “It’s very educational for them.”
“We have tidal pools. And an AI who can teach them about every bit of life that lives in them.”
“You’re the one who got them interested in fish with pointy teeth.”
“I could build them an aquarium and fill it with pointy-toothed fish.”
“And they will fuss at you every day until it’s done, which could take weeks if you’re called into action, and you will have two very disappointed daughters on your hands. What’s gotten into you today, Tony?”
His eyes were hidden behind his sunglasses, but his mouth was set in such a way that she guessed easily. “You wanted to sit in the workshop and fiddle with your cars and your suits. Well, I wanted to make sure that business meeting in Taiwan was on schedule and plan that the dinner we have next weekend with the Tunisian ambassador. We both don’t want to be here, but it will make the girls happy, and that’s what matters.”
He didn’t respond, and Pepper knew he was just being stubborn and sullen at this point. She muttered a prayer for her sanity and walked ahead of him to catch up with Tonia and Cleo. Cleo was standing on her toes to read a sign about the fish in the tank. They may have only been seven, but Pepper could already tell that while they may have inherited her red hair and blue eyes, they would inherit Tony’s height—still tall for women, but not nearly as statuesque as she. She looked around for Tonia, to no avail. “Tonia? Cleo, where’s your sister?”
Cleo shrugged, uninterested, and continued reading. Pepper bit back a wave of panic. “Tonia?! Tonia! Antonia Virginia, come here now!”
Tony sauntered over. “She’s busy,” he said, pointing.
Pepper whirled, and saw Tonia kneeling in front of a mini-aquarium, a pillar in the middle of the room. “What on Earth…”
Both girls kept backpacks with them; Pepper was trying the mantra of “If you want to bring it you have to carry it yourself”, to cut back on how many toys and games they wanted to take on every trip out of the house. Tonia’s was on the floor and open. Pepper stalked over to her, and saw that the girl had pried open the hatch at the bottom of the pillar, where the electrical equipment that kept the tank running was kept. “Antonia, what are you doing?”
“Hang on, Mom.”
There was a bright spark, accompanied by the crackle-fzzt of electricity, and a large number of bubbles erupted in the tank. Two staff members were running over to them. “Hey! You! What are you doing, that’s dangerous!”
Tonia ignored them, and took a roll of electrical tape out of her backpack; she was wearing rubber gloves. She quickly reattached the wires and taped them back into place, and then reattached the hatch with a screwdriver. “I just saved you several hundred dollars in fish replacement costs. Your aeration filter was covered by the gravel and sand they moved, so I fixed it.”
The staff members looked at her, completely baffled. Pepper understood their confusion, it was still very weird to have your seven-year old talk like a twenty-seven year old. “But… how could you possibly know?”
Tonia pointed at the clear bubble stream. “This wasn’t working. And the fish look a little beat up, like they’ve been fighting. They panicked.”
Some of the fish did have what looked like recent wounds. Pepper quietly asked Tonia to pack up her things so they could move on. “Ma’am, I think we should ask you to go,” one of the staff requested.
Pepper looked him squarely in the eye. “Sir, I appreciate that you are unnerved by my daughter, but I will politely decline your invitation. I am Virginia Potts, CEO of Stark Industries. We have paid to be here, and we will enjoy that privilege. I fail to see how rescuing sea life from certain demise, when they live here in an attempt to preserve the species, is any grounds to have us removed from the premises. If that is all,” she nodded to him, took Tonia’s hand, and walked back to where Cleo and Tony were waiting.
“Mom, you are so cool,” Tonia breathed, awe-struck.
“Thank you, sweetie. Now, what have we talked about before about breaking into public or private property to fiddle with the electrical engineering?”
Cleo elbowed her sister. “Way to go, hero.”
Tonia sighed. “That I should talk to a grown-up first, not just jump in headfirst and get myself electrocuted. Again.”
Tony took charge of Cleo. “See, I still think that you get better at it by electrocuting yourself. And besides, it doesn’t hurt after a while.”
“See? Dad agrees with me!” Tonia protested.
“Stop encouraging her,” Pepper warned him.
“Where do they keep the piranha?” Cleo asked, trying to change the subject.
“Do they have Great White Sharks here?” Tonia joined in with her sister’s efforts.
“Those funny-looking sharks with the saw-noses!”
The girls wrenched themselves free from their parents to race ahead again. Pepper sighed, resigned. “Those two…”
“It’s fine. Let them have fun,” Tony said, taking her hand. “Nice work with the locals, by the way, my years of tutelage have paid off.”
“Oh stop it,” Pepper said, but she couldn’t hide her grin.
Tony followed the two nurses into Pepper’s room. She smiled at him wearily as the nurses placed the bassinets near the bed. “Hey.”
He flashed a smirk, patting one of the bassinets. “Top-notch effort. Good work team, the project was an enormous success,” he said, going over and kissing her forehead. “I’m confident the next one will go even better.”
Pepper chuckled. “I’m so not even ready to contemplate having any more. Two should be enough for now, and I’m sure they’re perfect as they are.”
Tony gave her a wide-eyed, innocent look. “I’m just saying, give me a bit of time in the lab and I’m sure we can engineer the perfect offspring.”
He tried pouting, but she rolled her eyes and reached for one of the babies. Tony gently lifted her from the bassinet and placed her in her mother’s arms. “This one is Antonia.”
“You named them without me?” Pepper asked, hurt.
“They were really pushy with the birth certificates!”
“We never even discussed names, Tony!”
“Well, look, see I named this one after both of us. Antonia Virginia. That’s nice, right? There’s a musical quality, it’ll be sublime to yell when she’s getting in trouble. And this one,” he lifted the second girl from her bassinet, “is Cleopatra Selene.”
“Two girls?” Pepper asked, looking from one to the other.
“Just the way I like it, I’m now surrounded by beautiful women,” Tony said. She smacked his arm, and he kissed her lips.
She moved over, and he slung an arm around her shoulders as he settled in next to her. “Wait a minute,” Pepper said. “You named our daughters Antonia and Cleopatra?”
Tony grinned. Pepper gave him a look. “You think you’re so funny, don’t you? You know they’re stuck with that for life, right?”
“Oh come on. What’s life without a little humor?”
“Who names their daughter Cleopatra?”
“Uh, eccentric billionaires? Mothers of psychics? The Ptolemy line? For your information, I didn’t name her after the doomed Queen of Egypt; I named her after her daughter and only surviving child. She was a fighter, fiercely intelligent, and ruled over ancient Mauretania. Perfect for the heiress of an industrial empire.”
Pepper shook her head, smiling. She ran one finger down Antonia’s cheek. “Tony, what have we gotten ourselves into…”
“Dunno, Pep. They’re pretty cute; I think we should keep them for at least a few weeks. Test run.”
She nudged him. “They aren’t puppies.”
“And we have a super team of super nannies to help out. Maybe not Thor, but he’s never on-planet anyway.”
They were silent for a while, drinking in the new, scariness of being a family. Pepper shifted. “Here, can you put them down, and help me walk a bit? I’m so sick of being in bed…”
He obliged, and they made a few circuits around the room. He held her upright as much as possible, but she still hunched slightly, holding her abdomen. It wasn’t long before she had to sit down again. “Ouch… Well that was pathetic…”
“As I recall, you asked for the highest dose of epidural legally allowed under New York law. I think a nurse commented that it was enough to take down a small elephant.”
“I suppose that’s you being nice about saying “it will take a while to get yourself back together, don’t rush it”.”
“Pepper, please. Look who you’re talking to. You almost had to have Captain Sparkles lock me in the panic room after I broke my ribs and another emergency came up. All I’m saying is, and I speak from experience as a semi-professional connoisseur of alcohol, you have no game and can’t keep up with the big boys.”
Pepper laughed outright at that. Tony grinned. “There we go. See, this is why we’re a team. Fifty-fifty, the whole way.”
“If we’re going fifty-fifty, you have a long way to catch up,” Pepper teased.
“What? I distinctly remember carrying a brunt of the load these last few months.”
Pepper raised her eyebrows. Tony amended his statement, “Okay, I did a lot of the work.” Her eyebrows went up further. “Some of it? Oh come on, give me some credit.”
A smirk played on her lips. “Twelve percent credit?”
“You’re still mad about that?”
“I distinctly remember doing most of the work in both of these situations.”
“And I distinctly remember playing a huge role in both situations. Building it, for one thing. And I’m fairly certain I was there at the beginning of this one. In fact, I remember it pretty well, if we pinpointed it correctly. Christmas party, you had too much eggnog,” Tony said.
“Okay, fine. We’ll split it,” Pepper said.
“Good. Negotiation. Business’ blood and breath.”
“Five percent for the help during the pregnancy, and seven for the sex.”
“You call that a seven percent performance? I remember at least a ninety-five. And, if we’re going to start rating bedroom performances, I will be happy to do the math. We can make charts, hold quarterly meetings on how and where to improve.”
Pepper’s lips twitched in an effort to hide a smile. Tony waved his hands. “Okay, okay. I can present a really, really good argument for twenty-three percent.”
“And that would be?”
“Twenty-three chromosomes from each parent. Since there’s two of them I would say forty-six, but they were from the same source, so I’ll be nice.”
Pepper smiled. “Fine. I’ll give you that one.”
One of the girls began to cry, quickly followed by the other. A fleeting look of panic crossed Tony’s face. Pepper rested a hand on his arm in reassurance. “It’s fine. They’re probably hungry.”
They called in a nurse. Tony disappeared to the cafeteria while Pepper was taught how to switch between nursing naturally and with formula. He returned well after feeding and diaper-changing time was over, which Pepper teased him about. He presented her with a blueberry muffin and a small decaf in response.
Later, she was dozing against him while he paged through a book he’d brought. The twins had been taken back to the nursery for the time being. A nurse stopped by, knocking quietly on the door. “Mr. Stark, I just wanted to let you know that visiting hours are over in about twenty minutes. If you wanted to see your daughters again before you left, they’ve finished with the test.”
“Right. Got it, sounds great. Thanks.”
Gently, he dislodged himself from Pepper. She mumbled something incoherent and he shifted her pillow under her head. He kissed her on her forehead. “You did good, Pep,” he murmured against her hair.
“I’m telling you, Daddy won’t like this.”
“And I’m telling you, it’s going to be just fine.”
“Didn’t you read the notes on Uncle Peter’s fight against Doctor Octavius?”
“And didn’t you read what Doctor Octavius was trying to do? I’m telling you, with enough time to hammer at it, we can make it work.”
“Yuh-huh.” The twins glared at each other over their glasses as they carefully made their way down to Tony’s private lab; pint-sized scientists that they were, their arms were full of papers.
The elevators were down for maintenance, and the stairs were not well lit. “Mommy probably figured out we were going to try nuclear physics next and purposely closed the elevator to Daddy’s lab…” Tonia grumbled.
“She’s in Colorado this week, dummy. She’s not psychic,” Cleo retorted.
Tonia opened the door to the lab floor, and they were met with the sight of Steve and Natasha, kissing. Both girls made faces. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeew!”
Steve jumped about three feet away from Natasha. “Girls! You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that!”
“You shouldn’t be kissing Tyotia Natasha. Boys have cooties!” Tonia admonished.
Cleo grabbed one of Natasha’s arms. “Quick, you need a cootie shot.”
Natasha hid her amusement as Cleo performed the ‘medical proceedure’. “And what will happen if I catch Uncle Steve’s cooties?”
“You really don’t want to know,” Tonia said, with such seriousness that Natasha’s mask almost broke.
Steve looked put-out. “And here I thought you stopped having cooties when you grew up.”
Cleo regarded him solemnly. “You always have cooties. You have to be very, very careful about spreading them around.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You know girls,” Natasha said, snaking an arm around Steve’s waist, “sometimes after people are together long enough, they become immune to that sort of thing.”
Tonia and Cleo traded disbelieving looks. Natasha nodded. “It’s true. And someday, you might find that it’s worth getting cooties from someone.”
Tonia stuck her tongue out. “Yuck.”
Cleo shook her head. “No way.”
A door opened down the hall. Tony stuck his head out, wiping his hands on a dirty cloth. “Hey. No parties without my express written permission.”
“Daddy!” Tonia raced down the hall to meet him. “Look, I have a formula I want you to look at!”
Cleo looked back at her adoptive aunt and uncle before joining her sister, “Remember, Tyotia, that cootie shot only works against one infection at a time. No more kissing!”
She didn’t hear Steve murmur to his lover, “I think we can risk it.”
I haven’t seen the new Spider-man movie yet, but dammit all if I won’t figure out a way to incorporate all of the Marvel movies together somehow anyway… And, for the etymology-inclined, ‘cooties’ were first coined in World War I, so Steve would be well-versed in cootie-lore. ;)
Thor laughed and scooped up the twins in a massive hug. Their already unruly hair stuck out a little more from the residual charge left over from his dramatic entrance. “Truly, I am greeted by the fairest maidens of Midgard!”
“Doesn’t ‘fair’ mean blond?” Tonia asked. “We’re redheads.”
“He means we’re pretty,” Cleo told her, blushing slightly. At eleven, Cleo was hitting puberty faster than her sister. Even though he was her adoptive uncle and he loved their Aunt Jane, she still thought Thor was handsome.
“And here is the loveliest woman created,” Thor announced as he spotted Jane. Even after more than a decade of courtship, she still couldn’t suppress a nervous giggle as he kissed her hand in greeting. He grinned at her, and then kissed her in the usual way.
Tonia made a face; Cleo sighed wistfully. “Ew, really? Uncle Thor?” Tonia asked.
“He’s handsome! But no, other than that… It’d just be nice if a boy treated me like Uncle Thor treats Aunt Jane. Don’t you think?”
Tonia rolled her eyes. “What boys do you know? Other than Squeaker?”
Cleo’s cheeks were burning red under her freckles. It was true that they went to an all-girls prep school, but unlike her sister she didn’t spend all of her free time in the labs. Occasionally she sneaked over the fence with a few friends to watch the boys’ prep school play soccer at a nearby park. Tonia didn’t know this, of course, (one of the few secrets kept between them). “At least I know something about boys. I don’t spend every moment in a lab.”
“And that’s why you got an A-minus on the last chemistry exam.”
“Not everything is about school, Tonia.”
“No, you’re right. The important thing is blasting through it so I can get into M.I.T. earlier than Dad did and hold it over his head for the rest of his life.”
Cleo sighed, and walked away from her sister. It wasn’t worth the argument. It would only spoil her appetite, and they always had the best foods when Thor came to Earth.
Later that night, Cleo went to find her mother. Tonia was babysitting Squeaker, (their nickname for Uncle Rhodey and Aunt Darcy’s two-year old son), and she wasn’t sure when she’d get another chance to talk privately with Pepper for another month. She was in luck, finding her mother in the living space with half of the usual amount of paperwork spread out on the coffee table. She’d actually manage to have more than half of Pepper’s attention. “Hey, Mom?”
“Mom, I need to talk to you about something.”
She must have sounded more serious than intended; because Pepper took off her glasses and gave her a look she and Tonia had long-ago dubbed the “Dad-handler”. It was the look she wore whenever Tony did something stupid, and needed to be reined in and spun in another direction before the news ran away with it. “Cleo, what’s wrong?”
“Oh God, Mom, don’t give me the Dad-handler look, please. It’s not that serious!”
Pepper moved some of her work so Cleo could sit next to her on the couch. “Well, you usually don’t come to me with problems.”
“Well… I don’t know if Dad wants to talk to me about boys.”
Pepper smirked. “Oh, I’m sure he does. He just doesn’t want to tell you the good things about boys.”
“Because he used to be that kind of boy and he doesn’t want his little girl to get messed around the way he used to mess around other dad’s little girls, yeah,” Cleo muttered.
“Somehow I don’t think he’d appreciate the irony,” Pepper told her. Cleo often wondered if her mother had ever regretted being so open about Tony’s past, or her relationship with Tony (though it had never occurred to her or Tonia that parents were supposed to be married until they entered school and saw how different families worked; out of all their adoptive aunts and uncles, only Bruce and Betty had married, and they were childless). She supposed that Pepper’s thinking had been along the lines of “They’ll find out eventually from someone, so let’s just make it clear from the start”, but hearing her say things like that was still slightly upsetting.
Still, there was nothing she could do about that now. “Right… Well… Is it weird, like… Tonia doesn’t care about boys or romance or anything. And we’re twins, and we’ve always been exactly the same. It just seems… I mean… So why do I care about these things, but she’d rather stay in the lab all day and just… work? I know she wants to get into M.I.T. earlier than Dad did, but she’s just… there’s more to it than that, right?”
Pepper rested her head on her hand. Cleo fought the urge to sigh with envy—which was another annoying thing she was noticing lately. She disliked being so short and a bit stocky, compared to her mother’s willowy form. Even her sister was starting to look more like Pepper than she was. They made everything look elegant, even when Tonia was just mixing chemicals. “Well, Cleo, it’s okay if you two have different interests. You’ve always been into the same things, so it’s going to seem weird for a while. And everyone gets into romance at different stages. I was about your age when I started noticing boys.”
Cleo didn’t like to think about her mother liking other boys than her father. “But I still like the same stuff, I just... I like other things now too. Tonia thinks that the fact that I like boys is just getting in the way, since I got a lower score than her on the last chemistry test. She thinks it’s distracting me.”
“Personally, I think it’s better if you have more interests. You two have always been so focused on being just like your dad that it worries me. You can’t always be so single-minded.”
“Tonia will come to realize this in her own time. Or she won’t. And that’s okay too. I honestly don’t think I could handle having two of your father around the house, and I’d prefer it if she didn’t. Or maybe she just doesn’t like boys. Maybe she likes girls. Maybe she doesn’t care who she likes. Maybe she doesn’t like anyone.”
Cleo puzzled over that one. It seemed, to her, that two people who came from exactly the same place should always remain identical, in mind, body, and spirit. “Can she do that?”
“She can. And even if she couldn’t… you know your sister. She’d do it anyway.”
“But we won’t be the same.”
“And you won’t be.”
Suddenly Cleo felt tears stinging her eyes. “But I don’t want Tonia and me to be different!”
Pepper looked alarmed, and Cleo knew it was because she never was one to cry—even after the time Dummy had accidentally hit her in the arm with a hot iron; she still had the scar, a long, thin stripe. She let her mother hold her and stroke her hair while she cried. “I know, sweetie,” Pepper said soothingly. “You two have always had each other, and it’s scary when people drift apart. And you know what? Tonia probably thinks the same. She sees you getting interested in other things, and she gets scared because she wonders if you aren’t interested in doing things with her anymore. She wants you to keep up with her in school. She’s probably scared that you won’t come with her to M.I.T., and she doesn’t want to go alone.”
“She doesn’t?” Cleo asked, her voice thick.
“You’ll have to talk to her about it, but I’m sure she’s just as scared about growing apart from you as you are about her.”
“But… But what if I don’t want to go to M.I.T.? Tonia wants to be like Dad, but what if I want to go somewhere else?”
“You and Tonia will have to talk about that. You get a say in this too.”
Cleo sniffed, wiping her cheeks. “Okay…”
“Can I ask what started this?”
She felt her cheeks reddening again. “There’s a boys’ school nearby… me and some of the other girls watch them play soccer in the park sometimes, and there’s one boy who’s really cute but I can’t talk to Tonia about it because she doesn’t care…”
Pepper kissed her on top of her head. “In my opinion as a mom, you’re a little young to be going with any boys.”
“Mo-om. No one says ‘going with’ anymore. And I’d die of embarrassment before I could talk to him.”
“Well, alright then, maybe if you tell your sister everything you told me, she’ll realize that if she wants you two to stick together, she has to compromise and try to care about some of the things you care about.”
Cleo knew she was right; the hard part was making Tonia listen to her for more than twelve seconds. As if she’d read her mind, Pepper said, “You know how you’ve got your dad wrapped around your little finger?” Cleo nodded, smiling a little. “Try the same tactics on her. She’s more like your dad than you think. And remember that sometimes… even when they look like they’re absorbed in their work and can’t concentrate on anything else, they’ll still be listening to every word you say. And some of it even sticks.”
“Like you and the strawberries,” Cleo remarked slyly. About once every three years, Tony would accidentally purchase something made with strawberries as a gift, and they’d have to go through the entire argument again.
Pepper gave her a look. “Yes, like me and the strawberries. Just give it time. Eventually it’ll stick.”
“How long are you waiting for it to stick with Dad?”
Her mother put her reading glasses back on. “Until Judgment Day, I’m afraid.”
—Sir, Miss Cleopatra requests that you, Miss Potts, and Miss Antonia step out on to the balcony.— JARVIS’ voice echoed through the living room.
They looked up in surprise. Cleo had been working on her doctorate in Germany for the last two years. What would she want them on the balcony for? Tony eventually shrugged, and led the way. Outside, they looked around. “Why did she want us on the balcony?” Tonia asked, running her fingers through her hair in agitation.
Pepper pointed. A fiery streak was shooting through the sky, heading for the tower. “JARVIS…” Tony started.
—Miss Cleopatra says to stand back, her landing skills are very rusty and she does not wish to injure anyone.—
They scrambled backwards as the small missile crashed on the Iron Man suit landing pad. The disassembling mechanisms did not activate, and the missile straightened, revealing it as a more feminine-shaped suit. It reached up and removed the helmet, and Cleo shook out her close-cropped, sweat-soaked hair. “Whew. I think I broke Mach 1 over the Atlantic. What a trip!”
“Cleo!” Tonia rushed her sister, hugging her. “You should have warned us!”
“And ruin the surprise?” She grinned, and looked over her twin’s shoulder. “Happy birthday, Daddy.”
“Well, well. You finally made a suit,” Tony grinned, coming up behind Tonia.
“I’ve been helping some other doctoral candidates with renewable energy studies, and got a few ideas… I completely overhauled your original designs.”
“I look forward to seeing them.”
“Actually…” Cleo didn’t meet his eyes. “I can’t show you them until Branson submits to the panel. He really helped me a lot in the prep work, and most of the groundwork was based on his ideas…”
“Do I have to pay the kid?” Tony asked, just as Pepper inquired, “Branson?”
Cleo smiled shyly, and Tonia shoved her. “If you’re taking time out of studying for boys, at least tell me he’s hot.”
Tony frowned, a step behind his girls. Pepper rested a soothing hand on his shoulder to keep him calm as Cleo said, “I think he’s cute, but it’s the accent that does it. Swoon-worthy.”
Tonia shoved her twin again. “Airhead.”
“Have you taught the appliances in the MIT labs how to talk yet?” Cleo fired back.
“You have a boyfriend?” Tony demanded.
“Yes, and he’s very nice, and smart. He wanted to come with me, but his suit isn’t ready yet.”
“You made him a suit?” Tony bellowed. “I spend twenty years keeping the Department of Defense off my ass and away from my suits, when my own daughter goes behind my back and builds one for some little prick she’s made eyes at?”
Tonia was backing away, her skin paler than normal. In eighteen years, the girls had only heard their father bellow once, and they all remembered that incident with varying degrees of disgust, misery, and humiliation. This time, however, Cleo stood toe-to-toe with him, raising her chin to look him directly in the eye. “A suit of my own design that is weaponless; one that, if the need arises, I can have decommissioned and destroyed in under five minutes. It’s locked away where he can’t access it without my permission, and he hasn’t seen the suit blueprints, only the power source ones that are based on his ideas. I’m not a child, Dad, I know what I’m doing.”
They glared at each other unblinking, until Tony said, “You’re too young for a boyfriend.”
“Dad, I’m eighteen.”
“You’re the youngest grad student Dartmouth has had in years; don’t tell me this kid is under twenty-five.”
“That’s a big gap.”
“And the gap between you and Mom is…?”
“That’s different,” Tony started, his temper rising, but Pepper came between them. “Okay, okay. Let’s just chill out here. Tony, Cleo came all this way to surprise you for your birthday, now is not the time to yell at her. Cleo, we’ll discuss your college friends at another time.”
“With Mom to mediate…” Tonia snickered. Cleo elbowed her; she yelped from the jab of metal.
“Let’s go inside, and we can fight about dinner instead,” Pepper beckoned, and Tonia followed.
Cleo clanked down the landing pad and past Tony, her helmet still under her arm. She was embarrassed to feel tears start to form, and just wanted to get to the lab to take off the suit so she could wipe them away. Tony’s arm around her shoulders stopped her furious escape. He wiped a stray tear from her cheek with his thumb and kissed her on the forehead. “I’m glad you’re here, kiddo. And I’m proud of you.”
“This is weird. I look weird. Cleo, why did I let you talk me into this?” Tonia moaned in dismay.
“You look lovely, hon, just relax. We’re going to get you all fixed up,” her sister said, waving over another hairstylist.
“If I look “lovely, hon”, then why didn’t you do it too?” Tonia snapped, flinching away from the scissors.
Cleo raised her eyebrows at her through the mirror. “Because we’re in our twenties, sister dear, and we’re allowed to have different hairstyles. I like mine short like this. You were moaning and groaning about your hair anyway.”
“It’s even longer now!”
“We’ll trim it up a bit, miss,” the stylist said. “You just need to sit still for a few minutes. It’s only temporary.”
Tonia tucked her long legs up to her chin, looking at herself in the mirror miserably. She still wasn’t sure how Cleo had talked her into straightening her hair—oh right: her chemist boyfriend, what’s-his-name, and his new product needing a rich-and-famous seal of approval. ‘How she deals with not only a chemistry nut, but one who focuses in something as frivolous as hair care products, I’ll never understand… She’s been living in California too long,’ she thought.
As much as she claimed to not care about how she looked, she still wasn’t sure she liked this look. Her head looked too small now with all that limp, wet hair. The stylist worked at it, and Tonia’s frown deepened as she watched several inches fall to the ground. At the end of it, she was dragged through a blowout and styling her bright red hair into an elegant twist at the back of her head, and then flinched through having make-up put on. Cleo smiled at the stylists when they were done and leaving. She picked up two diamond-studded combs and fit them into her sister’s hair, saying, “Was that so bad?”
“Yes,” Tonia said mulishly; a strand of hair slipped from its moussed-and-sprayed position. She tucked it behind her ear. “I hope what’s-his-name is happy…”
“It’s Kyle, and he’ll be very pleased that you not only went through with it, but you didn’t even maim his styling team.”
“Why wasn’t he here?”
“He had a few things to wrap up before he could fly out here for Mom and Dad’s party. He should be arriving about now, actually, I sent Happy out a while ago to pick him up.”
Tonia looked at her sister through the mirror. The litany she’d prepared all through the torment of beautification was at the tip of her tongue, but she pulled the reins on her temper. Instead, she merely said, “A hair care specialist, Cleo, honestly.”
Her sister smirked. “Come on, let’s go get dressed. And you’re not wearing that suit you always wear for these sorts of things. Mom helped me pick out a few dresses for you.”
Tonia’s shoulders slumped. “Aww, Cleo, come on!” She whined.
“I feel naked,” Tonia muttered.
“Stand up straight. You’re beautiful,” Cleo murmured.
The two sisters wove their way through their parents’ friends, and their adoptive aunts and uncles. Tonia wore a bright blue, backless dress that hugged her slim form and winked with jewels in the low lighting. Cleo was in a strapless vermillion number with little decoration but for her silver jewelry. Tonia envied the easy way her sister moved through the room, chatting amicably with many of the guests. She felt awkward, like a spotlight was on her, and hunched over more to hide her height. Cleo had always bemoaned the fact that Tonia was the one who took after their mother more, but she would have gladly traded places if it meant people didn’t stare at her. She was perfectly happy to spend her days sitting, or under a machine, and working. This sort of public event was more Cleo’s thing anyway, but she knew that her parents would be unhappy if she had ducked out. Sighing, Tonia grabbed at the first passing glass of champagne she found, hoping the alcohol would dilute her nerves. “It’s unladylike to gulp champagne,” a male voice said near her ear.
She jumped and whirled. “Uncle Steve!”
Steve grinned. “And here we thought we’d have to drag you out of the workshop kicking and screaming.”
“No, Cleo took care of that…” she muttered darkly. “Where’s Tyotia Natasha?”
Steve pointed across the room; Natasha, dramatic in black and gold, was seated with three burly men, a bottle of vodka between them, having what looked like a spirited discussion about subjects that many guests here would frown upon. “Friends from Mossad,” he explained.
“And Mom and Pop know they’re here?”
“They’re acting bodyguards for the Israeli ambassador, who I last saw flirting with the son of someone from the Moroccan delegation.”
“An international scandal…” Tonia murmured over the rim of her flute. “Sounds about right for one of Dad’s parties.”
“What sounds right?” Tony asked, coming up to them.
“Nothing,” Steve said, while Tonia chimed in with, “Potential worldwide conflict caused by too much alcohol and wandering hands.”
“Ah. The usual Saturday, then.”
Tonia smiled. Tony offered his hand, and she excused herself from Steve while placing her empty flute on a passing server tray. He led her out to the dancing floor and they picked up easily into the waltz the chamber orchestra was playing. “Is Mom middle managing everything?” She asked, half-focused on not tripping over her own feet.
“Actually, no, your uncle Rhodey stole her away a bit ago. They had the look of nasty plotters. You look very nice. I see by your focus and lack of bandages that Cleo didn’t have to resort to underhanded techniques to get you under the styling brush,” Tony said.
Tonia’s eyebrow twitched in amusement, a habit long-ago picked up from her aunt Natasha. “It was a near thing.”
“I appreciate the effort.”
They managed three dances before she pleaded sore feet—how anyone walked in heels regularly, she was mystified—and went to sit for a while. She had a small plate of food brought to her, and a glass of wine; when she finished, she was content to watch the party continue around her. She was halfway through designing a new set of blueprints on a stack of napkins when her father got up on stage with a microphone. Pepper wasn’t far behind him. Quiet rippled through the crowd until Tony could be heard, “That’s better. Evening, everyone. On behalf of my lovely partner and I, I’d like to thank you all for coming out here for our anniversary party.”
Polite applause broke out. Tonia felt her sister’s presence slip into the chair behind her. Tony continued, “And, I’d also like to take this moment to make an important announcement.”
Tonia looked over her shoulder at Cleo; she wore a similar look of confusion and apprehension. Their father’s unusual brand of ‘important announcement’s never came with easy consequences. From the murmur coming from the crowd, they were thinking the same thing. “I think this is the right place to say, surrounded by friends and business partners, people who would understand. I’m not getting younger. And in the recent years of stability, I find that I can’t make any more excuses—to myself, or to Pepper.
“I’m retiring the Iron Man.”
Tonia sat up straight, stunned. Cleo gasped behind her. The crowd’s volume rose slightly, and Tony had to shout into the microphone, “It’s in my best interest, and the interest of others. In the interest of my family. I’ve been in talks with S.H.I.E.L.D. about this for some time now, and we’ve agreed it’s for the best.”
Pepper took the microphone from him. “For privacy’s sake, we’re asking everyone to keep this out of the press until we make an official announcement.”
“I’m sure Mom has a stack of NDAs at every exit, and no one will be able to leave without signing…” Cleo muttered.
Tonia twisted in her seat as their parents left the stage. “You didn’t know about this?”
“Not at all.”
“Half of the world has stability because of the threat of the Iron Man suit. He can’t just retire like that!”
Cleo swirled her wine lightly, focused on it instead of her sister. “He’s in his sixties, Tonia… Even if he does run on a battery, his body won’t be able to stand the pressure for much longer. It’s going to have disastrous world security results, but if we want Dad around…”
The chair scraped against the floor as Tonia stood up abruptly. She stormed her way through the crowd, making her way to where she saw Tony and Pepper talking with a man on the United Nations Security Council. “Excuse me,” she said, remembering her manners for the moment, “I need to discuss something in private.”
She dragged them away, out a door, and into the hallway. She whirled on them and opened her mouth to start lecturing, but Tony began first. “We have a plan.”
“Tonia, this isn’t an easy decision for anyone, and your father knows there will be some security problems that will come out of the Iron Man suit being out of the picture.”
“And there’s other ways I can be involved in S.H.I.E.L.D. that doesn’t involve me getting my ribs cracked open every other week.”
She frowned. “Like what?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Maria’s looking to step down as director. I’d say I have a few qualifications.”
Tonia blinked at that. “The council would approve of you? I would hardly think… But what about Uncle Steve? Uncle Bruce? Did you let anyone know before this?”
“We discussed it, when Clint retired from field duty to training director. Steve and Bruce are different than most of us, with the serum and replicate serum running through them. Even Natasha was given a similar bottle. We’re all getting decrepit, but some of us are more able to handle active field duty than others,” Tony explained.
“Why did you leave Cleo and me out of this?”
“Because it wasn’t your decision, Tonia. And you’re so attached to the idea, both of you, and what can be done with it… You two are so like I was when I was younger. And that’s my fault. I admitted that a long time ago. I didn’t dissuade you when you both showed so much potential… and you focused on my passions. That was wrong of me.”
Tonia’s shoulders drooped with the slight scolding. Pepper gripped her arm lightly. “Honey, it’s not the end of things. It’s just something new.”
“So… what happens now?” She asked.
“You do it,” Tony said easily.
This time, it was Pepper’s turn to blink. “What?”
“She and Cleo could do it. Cleo’s already got her own suit. Tonia’s been working on hers for a while. Cleo already lives in the Malibu house, Tonia mostly stays East Coast… it works out well. And S.H.I.E.L.D. has two replacements. Everyone’s happy.”
“Dad, I don’t…”
He slung an arm around both of them, leading them back in to the party. “Nothing has to be decided right now. But give it some thought.”
Pepper chuckled. “Twenty-five years ago, this conversation would have played out so differently.”
“You mean, I’d give them the keys to the armory, say “Sayonara” and take you to Italy with no further arguments? I mean, we could still do that, we haven’t been to the Tuscany villa in a few years.”
Tonia left them to their vacation plans, and sought out Cleo. She didn’t bother with politeness this time, and merely snatched her sister away from a circle of admirers. “You have a boyfriend, you don’t need to spread them out across the country,” she said when Cleo protested.
“What is it, Tonia?”
“Dad wants us to take over the Iron Man business.”
Cleo gaped. “You’re joking.”
“Not in the least.”
“And what’s he going to do? Sit around eating bon-bons?”
Tonia rolled her eyes. “Maria wants to retire as director, and Dad’s looking to take her place. And he figured since we’re living on either side of the continent, and you have a suit, and I’m working on mine…”
Cleo picked at her nail beds. “He’s crazy…”
“I know, but… what if he isn’t?”
The twins looked at each other. Cleo bit her lip. “As long as we don’t go by anything lame, like the Iron Maidens, or the Twin Alloys…”
“The suits aren’t made of alloys anyway. We’ll think of something.”
“I’m ruling out “Iron Lady” too. I’m no Margaret Thatcher.”
Tonia snorted as they rejoined the party. “You haven’t heard yourself in the mornings, then.”
“You’re one to talk.”
She let Cleo thread an arm through her own, though, and they went to their parents, surrounded by the remaining active Avengers Initiative. She swallowed hard, but tried to hide her sudden panic. They’d be fine.
As long as they had each other.
I think this is as far into the future as I want to take these two; I know I’ve gotten a few grumbles from people about not enjoying Tonia and Cleo as young women, but I wanted to develop their personalities before going back and doing more fun kid things. Tonia especially is harder to write, as I don’t want to make her a Tony-clone, but still be more similar to her namesake than Cleo. I also wanted to see how far I could go before Tony said “No, I’m done, passing on the legacy now”, and we’ve hit that point. Future chapters will probably take place any time between when the girls were born, and now, when they’re about twenty-five.
Cleo flounced into the lab, tossing her backpack and notebooks on the table. “Hi Daddy! Hi Uncle Bruce!”
Bruce mumbled something incoherent as he measured chemicals into the beaker. Tony looked up in annoyance as his tools rattled. “Hey, kid.”
“What’re you doing?” She asked, hopping up onto a stool.
“Oh,” Cleo stuck out her lower lip a bit, swinging her feet. “That’s kind of boring, isn’t it?”
“Kind of, but it keeps me familiar with what I want to improve on.”
Tony picked up the soldering iron and went back to work; hopefully, Cleo would figure out he had nothing for her to play with, and either leave, or just sit quietly and do her homework. Unfortunately, that was not the case, as she started chattering about what had happened at school that day. For the most part, he managed to tune her out and focus on the Black Sabbath blaring, but he picked up on the few key problems they’d been having since advancing her and Tonia a few grade levels: notably, being picked on by the other girls, and trying to act and dress the same as her sixth-grade classmates (which was inappropriate for an eight-year old). And then the hurricane that was his other daughter whirled into the lab, and his irritation grew. He’d had a difficult morning with the Taiwanese clients, negotiating arc reactor technology for their buildings, and wanted nothing more but peace and Black Sabbath and his toys.
There was the pinch of guilt he felt whenever he thought these things about his daughters; he remembered a father who wanted nothing to do with him. Even though he knew now that Howard had cared, and wanted to give his son the best possible chance at bettering the world, that information would have been more helpful about thirty years before.
So, he let his girls stay, and talk about things he had no interest in, and distract him. He acquired three new burns in the process, but at this point why bother counting?
Tonia was holding down a metal plate for him when Cleo went to watch Bruce’s experiment. She fidgeted; Tony missed what happened next, but suddenly there was a clatter of glass, a smashing noise, and screams. He dropped the welding torch in an automatic motion to prevent both Bruce’s Hulk-out and Cleo getting hurt; but instead, Cleo was holding her hand, standing on a stool, while Bruce was covered in chemical. The rest was on the floor. Tony’s irritation snapped. “CLEO!”
She jumped, already scared out of her wits before he started shouting about how a lab was not a playground and there were dangerous things everywhere, and how she needed to be more careful if she ever expected to be allowed back in the private labs—let alone the research department. He wasn’t sure how long he shouted, but when he was done, all she could do was look at him briefly before jumping off the stool and sprinting out the door. He turned, and saw Tonia—also fearful—glaring at him before going after her sister. Bruce by now had stripped the ruined clothes off his body and was standing under the chemical rinse shower, scrubbing himself raw. “She got burned too. I don’t think she’ll think to wash that off after that litany,” he commented when he turned it off.
Tony was instructing the robots in cleanup. “What?” He asked, distracted.
Bruce grabbed one of the cotton robes kept on hand in just these types of emergencies. “Cleo. She got some on her hand when I caused the accident. I don’t know if Tonia will remind her to clean it before she gets too badly burned.”
“You did that?”
The younger man side-eyed him. “I would have no problem telling you if Cleo or Tonia wasn’t capable of being in here safely, or without extra supervision. Kids usually aren’t up for being in this sort of environment, but yours grew up here. They know what they’re doing. She was asking me questions, talking with her hands like you do, and when I knocked over the rows of beakers with my elbow, she was in mid-gesticulation. It was my fault, and you owe her an enormous apology.”
“You were probably dodging her hands,” Tony muttered mulishly.
“I wasn’t. I work with you, remember? It’s a habit to keep away from any flailing Starks I come across.”
As Dum-E managed to clean up most of the spill with few threats and little added damage, hot shame flared inside Tony. He sat down, pinching the bridge of his nose. He’d never yelled like that before, at either of them. And he hadn’t noticed that she was hurt.
Howard’s ghost was a heavy presence in his mind.
Abruptly, he left and went up to the residential floors. Lucky for him, Pepper was still several floors below in the offices, so he could deal with this with minimal shrapnel from her exploding at him as well. He knocked on the door to the twins’ room. Tonia opened it a crack, and glared at him. “Go away.”
“You were horrible, and Cleo’s hand got hurt, and she doesn’t want to see you. I don’t either. Go away, Dad.”
She tried to close the door, but he put his boot in the doorway. “Not today, kiddo.”
“This is a complete violation of personal privacy!”
“Tough shit, Antonia,” Tony snapped.
Her eyes widened, and she stepped back; the door swung open a little more. He sighed: he was oh-for-two today. He crouched down to her level. “Look, Tonia… Sorry. I didn’t mean that, I just really need to talk to Cleo.”
She eyed him dubiously, standing a respectful distance away. “Are you going to apologize to her too?”
“That was the general plan.”
“Okay. But don’t say I didn’t warn you, she’d not happy.”
Tony resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Instead, he ruffled her hair, and let her leave the room as he went in. He closed the door behind him; Cleo was curled in a ball on her bed, facing away from him. She sniffed, and the guilt ate at him. “Let me look at your hand,” he said gently, sitting on Tonia’s bed.
“Tonia took care of it,” Cleo’s voice was thick. “Thinks it’s just a mild burn.”
“Well, Tonia is eight and not a qualified medical professional. I, on the other hand, am also not a medical professional, but someone who has been to enough of them for similar reasons that I know a burn wound when I see it.”
He waited while she stalled, making up her mind on whether or not to give in on this. He and Pepper didn’t keep anything stronger than bandages and disinfectant ointment within reach of the girls, so her hand was likely throbbing in pain. She sniffed again, and rolled over; she held out the offending hand, which was haphazardly coated in Band-Aids. Tony pursed his lips, peeling away the layers as Cleo winced as it pulled at her skin. In the end, he took her to the master bathroom, and applied burn ointment and wrapped her hand like a mummy. “Still hurt?” He asked.
She nodded, and he gave her two children’s ibuprofen. They sat on the rim of the bathtub together, staring at their hands. Cleo fiddled with her Dixie cup. Tony cleared his throat. “I should have known that you knew better. I was wrong and I yelled without thinking, and I’m sorry about that.”
“Okay,” her response was quiet.
“I mean it, kiddo. I wasn’t in a great mood when you came home, and I should know better by now to not let everything get to me.”
That made her look up. “But you’re a grown-up. You’re supposed to know better.”
Tony winced. “I know. But grown-ups make mistakes too, you know that.”
She nodded. He continued, “And I made a really big mistake, and I yelled because I forgot that you’re smart, and I was worried that your uncle Bruce was going to have... a different accident.” She nodded again, her eyes growing rounder at the thought that Bruce had almost Hulked out. “And I was too upset to notice you were hurt, and that was probably the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae of terrible things I’ve accomplished today.”
Cleo looked back down at her hands. “I know, Daddy. And I was a bit… I was annoying today, I know.”
“You weren’t. You were being a kid.”
She gave him a look that was very reminiscent of Pepper’s exasperated one. “Aren’t the two synonymous?”
He chuckled. “Isn’t it a bit early for SAT prep words?”
“Never, according to Tonia.”
He sobered, and put his arm around her. She let him, leaning against his chest. “They aren’t synonymous. They’re correlated,” he paused, and she gave him the look again, “Just checking. A kid can be annoying, but to be annoying is not to be a kid. Metaphors or similes or whatever.”
She giggled. He hugged her shoulders. “There’s my girl. So, am I forgiven?”
She considered it. “Maybe after a sundae. Your metaphor made me hungry.”
It was his turn to give her a look; she grinned cheekily at him. “Spoiled,” he taunted.
“Not my fault, Dad.”
“Fine, but hurry, before your uncle Clint gets home and his sweet tooth takes over.”
She hugged him briefly before skipping away. He let out a breath and ran his fingers through his hair; the guilt was still there, but less so after their talk. He hoped that he’d remember this incident well enough to keep himself in check the next time something went wrong. Maybe ice cream would help that too. He got up and went to join Cleo.
Tonia poked her head around the door to the lab; Tony was fitting Steve with new duralumin scale armor, while Bruce watched. “Hey Dad?”
“A little busy, Tonia.”
“Just really quick.”
“I have a date, don’t wait up for me.”
“WHAT?” All three men exclaimed, swiveling to look at her.
She grinned, and looked over her shoulder. “I told you. Pay up, Cleo.”
They heard Cleo grumbling as the twins left. “Double or nothing, you can’t get the same reaction out of Mom and Aunt Darcy.”
“For a hundred bucks, I’ll even put on a dress and lipstick.”
You may have guessed from earlier chapters, I’m kind of playing with the idea that Tonia’s platonic-asexual, just to make that much of a striking difference from her otherwise similarity to her father. I think this takes place during their early teen years, when everyone would have kind of figured that out by now.
Hi, wow I’m finally updating! Yes, a long, dark winter has passed and the glory of Iron Man 3 has brought the sunshine back into my writing life. Purple prose, sorry. Anyway, assume from here on out that there are spoilers for IM3.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Even after so many years, and countless hours of therapy, the nightmares were still there. They weren’t as frequent. But it seemed like the moment he let his guard down, there they were.
So fairly often, it turned out that he was the awake parent when one of the girls would have nightmares of their own. Kids, it seemed, had more nightmares than their parents, and at their age it was still acceptable to come running out of their room and to a pair of waiting arms that would keep them safe from their night terrors. Their nightmares had less to do with death-defying, world-saving stunts and the very real possibility of losing everyone who meant something to him and more with things like giant rabbits and not being able to run away from them. He dreaded the day when some new superdouche showed up and tried to kidnap his girls. He could barely handle his own nightmares about that, let alone theirs.
Pepper asked him after the first couple of times if this ever bothered him, particularly when they spent more time with him during the day as well; but the truth was, if it ever did become a problem he would want Bruce to recalibrate his brain. He was not the perfect parent, but he loved those little twerps. He did his best. And if he spent a big chunk of his nights in the living room so Pepper could sleep, then he could keep the girls from waking her up as well.
There was something else, too, about holding one or both of his girls that made his own terrors slip away. Feeling them go limp with sleep against his chest made his brain turn off—his brain. And more than once, he found himself waking up hours later from a dreamless sleep. He knew Pepper knew—not that she ever said it outright, but he’d once seen her computer’s background before she had brought up a window to cover it and it had been a picture of Tonia, Cleo, and himself all fast asleep on the couch. Later, he’d quietly asked JARVIS to make a copy of that picture. Now it was displayed in his workshop next to a photo he’d taken of Pepper, half-asleep in bed, her hair mussed up every which way.
Pepper didn’t know about that picture either.
So he really couldn’t be too upset about the nightmares. They sucked, but he didn’t deny that there were some silver linings.
I reread the story and was pleasantly surprised that I hadn’t made any mention of the RT in Tony’s chest, considering it’s now gone. I think I made Cleo quip about running on batteries at one point, but that could just be a family joke at this point. Nice thing about something just being an integral part of a character, it’s not necessary to mention it. As for any mentions of living in the California house, assume they have another house there by this point, if they aren’t in the Avenger’s Tower, which is where most of my Avengers universe fic takes place. Thanks for reading and being patient with the downtime. Now that I know how Tony canonically deals with kids (by treating them like he treats everyone) I should be able to get a few more plot bunnies out!!
Uh, blame Tumblr for this one. I’ll just leave it at that. Keep an open mind on who is speaking for the duration of the chapter, though some are obvious.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
At one time in their lives, Tony and Pepper seemed to take turns panicking in a crisis. Sometimes, Pepper would take parts of the Iron Man suit and save Tony’s life without thinking twice—often without realizing exactly what she had done until it was over. Other times, Tony would have to be the voice of reason while she succumbed to the pressures and anxieties of managing a Fortune 100 company. This gradually changed as Tony was called up for Iron Man services more, and then as their daughters and adopted nieces and nephews grew older; but this story takes place when they still had their assumed crisis time table.
Unfortunately, when Pepper went into labor (finally, it seemed to her; not long enough, to Tony), both of them promptly forgot that time table, and whose turn it was to panic.
So did everyone else.
There was the get-Pepper-from-the-bedroom-to-the-car-to-the-hospital panic. (“MEATHANDS I SWEAR TO YOUR DAD IF YOU DROP HER I WILL USE YOU FOR TARGET PRACTICE.” “Tony, that doesn’t help!” “Man of Iron, you will keep a civil tongue in your head. For the sake of your lady and unborn sons I will hold mine.” “Jesus, Stark, go get her bag, stop being That Expectant Dad.” “Fuck you, Anastasia.” “Stark, if she doesn’t end you I will.” “Oh my God, will you all refocus on the fact that I will literally impale someone with my stilettos if you don’t all shut up and get me to the hospital so this stops hurting so goddamn much!”)
There was the Happy-forgot-how-to-drive-because-Pepper-was-yelling panic. (“Hogan, why aren’t we moving?” “Boss, it won’t go! We just had it tuned up, I don’t understand why…” “…Happy, it’s in neutral.” “Oh.” “SERIOUSLY. STILETTO. IN SOMEONE’S SKULL.”)
There was the no-really-Tony-doesn’t-remember-any-important-personal-information panic at the reception desk. (“Okay but you know who I am, and who she is, and all of these people, because I think CNN and Fox and all of those other news channels will go out of business if our faces aren’t there at least once every three hours.” “Mr. Stark, we just need an insurance number.” “I will buy the insurance company, do I need to provide it then?” “Mr. Stark…” “Tony, get the card out of your wallet.” “What card?” “The insurance card, moron.” “What insurance card?” “You don’t have it?” “Don’t tell me you don’t have insurance.” “Are you even carrying a wallet?” “He owns about fifty…” “Tony, what’s your social security number?” “…five.” “Tony. What’s your cell phone number?” “I know that one. There’s like, four sevens in it.” “Oh my God. How did you function before Pepper?”)
Then there was the abandon-Tony-all-alone-with-Pepper-in-the-maternity-ward panic. (“Wait, stay. She’s scary. Please.” “Tony, we need to go home and keep the others informed.” “There’s too many people already.” “But…” “You’ve faced worse.” “I still think it’s odd he’s going to be in there with her…” “Rogers, please go tell Pepper that. With me there to watch.” “…shut up, Barton.” “I do not understand your confusion, Captain.” “We’ll explain later, big guy.”)
At some point during this confusion, Pepper requested, and got, her epidural. A lot of it. She was fairly unresponsive after that, and that only made Tony panic worse. Apparently that was expected, and they talked at him on how they would fix that and told him the babies would be fine as long as things were resolved in some amount of time that he didn’t hear because he was too focused on not fleeing the room in terror. Her head lolling to the side was causing flashbacks to her encounter with Killian. The nurses seemed to get that this wasn’t helping him, and made him walk around the halls and drink ginger ale.
When he got back, Pepper was more or less aware of her surroundings. The fact that he could talk to her and she wasn’t threatening to use her shoes as weapons anymore helped a lot to calm him down. Tony delighted in seeing what he could get her to say in her drug-induced state. (“Pep, when did you request ducks be brought into the room?” “There aren’t any ducks, Tony…” “Yes there are over there.” “I don’t… Oh my gosh, that’s a duck. How did…” “You requested it. Live ducks, really? This bill is going to be enormous.” “But ducks… the babies will like them right?” “They’ll be too confused to like them. Being born is pretty confusing.” “I guess so… I don’t remember that… and I remember everything…” “Yes you do.” “Do you?” “Do I what?” “Remember…” “Remember what?” “It.” “It what?” “Tony…” “What?” “What?”)
The time came, almost a full day after it started (and by this point Tony was very glad of his self-imposed sleep deprivation training), and Pepper was ruled incapable of a natural birth. He never got a clear answer as to why—or maybe he did and he just didn’t remember because of the no sleep and the panicking. So they prepped for surgery and went down for a C-section. Pepper was very out of it, and asked a lot of very strange questions he couldn’t answer; he was too busy trying to ignore the smell coming from the other side of the curtain.
And then came the first wail, snapping him out of his focused staring at Pepper’s face. He looked up as there was a lot of business around one screaming baby on the table. His heart wrenched. His kid. And as the second came out screaming as loudly as the first, a nurse came over with the first. “Congratulations, Mr. Stark. Two girls,” he said, his eyes squinting a smile over the surgical mask; he tried handing Tony the baby girl.
“I don’t like to be handed things,” Tony said dumbly, staring at the very small, very noisy bundle.
The nurse blinked. “I… You don’t… But this is your daughter…”
Pepper was mumbling next to him. “…love being… handed things…”
“Her hand,” Tony said abruptly, his brain sparking on one cylinder and trying very hard to catch up to the chaos around him. “Put her hand on the kid and then bring it close and then…”
The nurse seemed confused, but as a medical professional he’d seen worse than an eccentric billionaire’s OCD tendencies. He placed Pepper’s hand on the baby’s torso, and then Tony was able to take her from him. The nurse shifted his hands and arms around the baby better, and then went back to help with the second.
He wasn’t sure what to do. He was afraid to move. They’d barely cleaned her up, for one thing, and she was very vocally protesting this kind of treatment. “Give ‘em hell, kid,” he told her, for lack of anything else to say, and looked over at her sister, who was still doing the same. “You’re a Stark. You’re both Starks. We don’t take things sitting down.”
“Do you have names, Mr. Stark?” Another nurse asked.
“I uh… We hadn’t… I mean…”
This nurse had been hovering around for quite a bit of the experience, and was familiar enough with the situation to recognize that there was still a lot of New Dad Confusion going on in his brain. “Why don’t you take a rest while we fix up your partner and get your girls all settled? You can give us names when your head’s on straight,” she said soothingly.
The baby in his arms waved an arm as she wailed and her tiny fist landed on the scar that remained from where the RT had been. He looked down as her cries faded, and she looked up at him with her huge eyes. They were Pepper’s eyes, but with his shape, he realized. She had his nose and chin too. “Antonia,” he said abruptly. “Antonia Virginia, that’s her name.”
The nurse wrote that down. His second girl, Antonia’s twin, had been wheeled over in a bassinet. Tony looked at her. She was smaller than Antonia; the second-born. Twins. Two. His brain whirled through about four hundred connections before landing on his selective history knowledge. “Cleopatra. Cleopatra Selene.”
If the nurses had any comments about the name choices, they kept them to themselves. But they shooed him off to his nap, assuring him that his girls, all of them, would be taken care of.
Of course, this was all nothing compared to the confusion that came when all of Antonia and Cleopatra’s newly-minted adoptive aunts and uncles met them when they arrived home.
Okay, I don’t think Tony is THAT incompetent when it comes to remembering personal information, but I’m sure a blind panic doesn’t help. This is probably the most fun I’ve had writing a chapter in ages. Pure, dialogue-fueled insanity. Thanks for reading!!