Pepper was walking into Tony’s house when she received the call.
“Hello,” she said.
“Yes, I’m Pepper,” she said, cautious as it was an unknown number.
“This is Sheila Rosenberg—Willow’s adoptive mother,” she said.
Pepper clutched the phone, her stomach in knots. “Is everything okay with Willow?” she asked.
“That’s why I’m calling. Ira and I are away at a conference,” she said. “Willow was in some sort of accident at school. She’s in the hospital. Do you think you could go to Sunnydale? We can’t get a flight out for another day.”
“Of course,” she said quickly. The thought of seeing her daughter face-to-face after all these years was incredible.
“That would be wonderful. Tell her we will be home as soon as we can,” Sheila said.
“Does she know who I am?” Pepper asked.
“Well, sort of,” Sheila said. “We did tell her when she was twelve that she was adopted. I showed her a picture of you.”
“Really? That’s good,” Pepper said, relieved. “Thanks for calling me.”
“You are on the west coast, right?” Sheila asked.
“I am right now, so I can get to her within a few hours,” she said.
“Great. I’ll speak to you later,” she said, disconnecting.
Pepper stood there in a fog for a long minute as she tried to wrap her mind around the call. She had gotten pregnant her junior year of high school after she’d been swept up in the romance of junior and senior prom. Her very conservative parents had been horrified and convinced her to give up her daughter. She wouldn’t do so unless it was an open adoption and parents that she approved of. Ira and Sheila were both highly educated, and Ira was a rabbi. They seemed perfect, and they had been willing to send her yearly reports on Willow’s progress. Her daughter was kind, brilliant and headed for a bright future.
“Pepper?” Tony asked, coming upstairs from his lab. “JARVIS told me you’re here.”
She nodded but said nothing.
Tony moved to stand in front of her, sensing something was wrong. “Pepper, are you okay?” he asked. He put his hands on her shoulder.
“No, I’m not,” she said. “I have to go. Can I take your plane?”
“Remember, I put you in charge of Stark Industries, so you don’t have to ask me to use the plane,” Tony reminded her.
“Okay. I have to go to Sunnydale, California,” she said.
“That’s what? Two hours?” he asked. “Do you need to fly? Wouldn’t a car make more sense?”
“My daughter is in the hospital. I have to go now,” she said.
Tony took a step back. “What? You have a daughter? How? When? And why don’t I know this?” he asked in shock.
“It’s a long story—one I can’t tell you now,” Pepper said impatiently. “I have to go.”
“I’ll get the helicopter. It can land basically at the hospital,” Tony said. “JARVIS, tell the pilot we need the chopper.”
“Go upstairs to the guest room and get your overnight bag,” he said. She kept clothes in all his houses. “I’m coming with you.”
“You don’t have to, Tony,” she said.
“Pepper, you’re my family. If you have a daughter who needs you, then I want to be there for you both,” he said simply.
Less than twenty minutes, they were on the helicopter, Happy with them. He hated the chopper, but he wasn’t about to let Tony go to a new town without him.
“So you want to tell me about your daughter?” Tony asked, speaking into the mike.
“I got pregnant in high school, and my parents convinced me to give her up for adoption,” Pepper shared.
“I’m pretty shocked,” Tony said.
“Yes, I know,” Pepper said sourly. “The one time I allowed myself to be overcome by romance and passion. It was the prom.”
“Well, that explains it,” Tony said with a grin. “I lost my virginity at the prom.”
“Really?” she asked, surprised.
“Of course, I was a sophomore, dating a senior,” he said.
Pepper smiled and shook her head. “That doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “I agreed to an open adoption, so I picked parents who would keep me updated on Willow’s progress.”
“You named her Willow or did the parents?” Tony wondered.
“I did,” Pepper said, smiling at the memory. “They said since I was giving them my daughter, I should be allowed to give her a name.”
“That was generous of them,” Tony said.
Pepper nodded. “They’re a nice couple. Sheila is a child psychologist, and Ira is a rabbi. Both have doctorates and have provided a nice life for Willow,” she said. She pulled out her wallet and showed Tony a photo.
Tony looked down at the young girl with long red hair and a shy smile. “Wow,” he said. “She looks a lot like you.”
“Sheila has red hair, too, so most people don’t know Willow’s not their biological daughter,” Pepper said. “She’s a child prodigy.”
“Really?” Tony said with interest. “What’s her thing? Math?”
“Actually, it’s computers,” Pepper said.
Tony grinned. “I can’t wait to meet her,” he said.
Pepper groaned. “Tony, I’ve never met her before. I can’t have you taking the spotlight in this,” she said. “You understand, right?”
“Don’t worry, Pepper. Once she meets you, she won’t give me a second thought,” he assured her. Sometimes, Pepper didn’t realize just how perfect she was, but Tony knew. He couldn’t function without her. In the month since she took over at CEO of his company, the stocks were climbing. She didn’t just bring stability to his life, but she did the same thing to his business.
Pepper didn’t say anything more as she became more anxious the closer they got closer to Sunnydale.
Tony wasn’t about to trust Pepper’s daughter’s care to just anyone, so he’d arranged for a top doctor to fly in and check Willow out.
Pepper went to the front desk to find out what room Willow was in while Tony had JARVIS locate the doctor he’d requested.
When they made it to Willow’s room, she hesitated outside the door.
“What if she isn’t happy to see me?” Pepper asked Tony.
“How could she not be happy to see you?” Tony asked. “You’re the most amazing woman on the planet. She’ll be ecstatic.” He saw the doctor approaching. “You go see her while I speak to the doctor.”
“Thanks, Tony,” she said, squeezing his hand before stepping into the room.
Pepper saw two teenage boys sitting on each side of Willow. They looked up when she came in. One of the boys had his arm in a cast.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” the boy with the broken arm said. “Can we help you?”
“I’m actually here at the Rosenbergs’ request,” she said. “They can’t get here until tomorrow.”
“No surprise,” the boy said, rolling his eyes.
Pepper frowned, disturbed by his attitude. “I’m Pepper Potts, Willow’s biological mother. Is she okay?” she asked. She couldn’t help but notice that her daughter hadn’t opened her eyes.
“What? Willow’s adopted?” the boy exclaimed in disbelief. He looked at the other boy. “Oz, did you know that?”
Oz nodded. “Yes,” he said. Then he looked at Pepper. “I’m Oz, Willow’s boyfriend.”
Pepper held out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you even if the circumstances are bad,” she said, and Oz moved to shake her hand. “What happened to Willow?”
“I’m Xander, her best guy friend,” the other boy said. “A very heavy bookshelf in the library fell on top of her. She’s not regained consciousness.”
“Seriously?” Pepper asked in dismay. “How did a bookshelf fall on her?”
Oz and Xander exchanged a look. Oz shrugged. “This woman isn’t like the Rosenbergs,” Oz said to Xander. He and Willow had discussed Willow’s adoption at length. Willow had been keeping tabs on Pepper Potts ever since her mother told her about her. She wanted to ask to meet her, but she was too afraid. Oz tried to convince her that Pepper would be happy to meet her, but Willow was too fearful of rejection. Oz knew that Willow would be very happy to see her when she woke up.
“How is Willow adopted, and I don’t know?” Xander asked, still in shock.
“Does Willow tell you everything?” Pepper asked.
“We’ve been best friends since kindergarten,” Xander said. “Why wouldn’t she tell me?”
“She didn’t find out until she was twelve, and it really upset her. She was afraid you’d look at her differently,” Oz explained.
Pepper was looking down at her daughter, her eyes filled with tears. She’d cut her hair, a sign she was growing up.
Tony came into the room. “Pepper, the doctor said that Willow should be okay once she wakes up,” he told her. “There’s some swelling in the brain, but it doesn’t require surgery.”
Xander stood up, his mouth opened in shock. “You’re Tony Stark!” he exclaimed.
Tony smiled. “I am,” he said, holding out his hand. “You must be a friend of Willow’s.”
“That’s Xander. Her best friend since kindergarten,” Pepper said, wiping her eyes. “That’s Oz, her boyfriend.”
“Oz, good to meet you,” Tony said, shaking his hand. “What are your full names?”
“Alexander Harris,” Xander said. “But I don’t like Alex, so please don’t call me that.”
“I’m Daniel Osborne. People call me Oz,” Oz said. “I play guitar.”
“Cool,” Tony said. “I’m a mechanic.”
“You’re Iron Man,” Xander said.
Tony shrugged. “I’m that, too,” he said. “So how did Willow end up with a brain injury, you with a broken arm, and another friend dead?”
Pepper looked surprised. “What?” she asked.
“Happy showed me the police report,” he said. “Another student named Buffy killed a girl.”
“That’s not true!” Xander said angrily. “Our principal is an evil troll, who hates Buffy. She didn’t kill Kendra. It was Drusilla.”
“You saw who killed her?” Tony asked.
“I know who was in the library and attacked me. Dru led a group of her guys,” Xander said.
“Who is this woman?” Tony asked.
Xander looked at Oz, who said, “A local gang leader. She and Angelus, Buffy’s ex, are trying to hurt Buffy anyway they can.”
“It was a bad break-up,” Xander said. “Buffy wasn’t even there when Dru attacked. She must’ve come afterward.”
“Xander?” Xander looked up at his name and saw Cordelia standing in the doorway. She ran into his arms.
“I was so scared. I just ran, and it took me a while to realize no one was chasing me,” she said.
“That’s Xander’s girlfriend,” Oz explained.
The adults nodded. “Why is Tony Stark here?” Cordelia asked, recognizing the billionaire.
“He’s with Pepper,” Xander said. “Turns out that Will is adopted, and Pepper is her real mother.”
“Really?” Cordelia said. She straightened up and went to Pepper, holding out her hand. “I’m Cordelia Chase, and I want to be you when I grow up. I used to think I’d want to be an actress because I want people adoring me but being CEO of a huge company and having everyone do your bidding has to be the best job in the world.”
Pepper wasn’t sure how to take the brassy young woman, but Tony did. He laughed, appreciating her bold personality. “Pepper is very good at getting people to do what she wants,” he said, putting his arm around Pepper’s shoulder.
“Is Willow okay?” another voice said. They turned to the front door.
“Buffy!” Xander exclaimed, moving to hug her. “Are you okay? Did Angelus hurt you?”
“He didn’t really try. It was about luring me away from you guys,” Buffy said bitterly. “I’m such an idiot. I fell for it and left all of you unprotected.”
Tony was quick to note that the very fragile and petite looking teenager somehow believed that her presence would have protected them all. Something very odd was going on.
“You couldn’t have known, Buffy,” Xander said.
“True,” Oz agreed.
“Is Will okay? Who are they?” Buffy asked, looking at the two adults she didn’t know. They weren’t in medical clothes, so they didn’t work for the hospital. The guy looked kind of familiar, but she couldn’t place him.
“Will has some swelling in her brain, and we’re waiting for her to wake up,” Xander explained. “She’ll be okay. This is her bio mom.”
“Willow’s adopted?” Buffy asked, surprised.
“You didn’t know either?” Xander asked, feeling a bit better.
Buffy shook her head. “No, but I’m glad to know those unfeeling people aren’t her blood,” she said.
Pepper gave the girl a sharp look and glanced at Tony, who also noted the words. This was the second time one of them made a disparaging remark about the Rosenbergs, and Pepper was not happy.
“Are you okay, young lady?” Tony asked Buffy.
“No, I’m not. I have to go stop Angelus before he does a ceremony that will open the hellmouth,” Buffy said, bluntly.
“Excuse me?” Pepper asked.
“Our town is on a hellmouth,” Xander said. The adults would either think they were joking or just not believe them out of principle. However, Xander didn’t think Iron Man was someone who would dismiss their words out of hand. Maybe, he could even help. It would be nice to have someone else help them for a change.
“Which is?” Tony prompted.
“A gateway to hell,” Xander said when Buffy didn’t protest his frankness or answer Tony’s question. “Buffy is a vampire slayer, and Angelus and Drusilla are both vampires.”
“You’re not serious,” Tony said with a frown.
“I wish,” Cordelia said.
“He’s telling the truth,” Oz said.
“You’re saying this town—the town my daughter lives in is full of monsters?” Pepper asked, a note of hysteria in her voice.
“It’s only dangerous at night,” Cordelia said. “Or if you spend time around Buffy. She attracts the bad things ‘cause they’re always wanting to kill her.”
“Thanks, Cordelia,” Buffy said sourly.
“No problem,” Cordelia said with a bright smile. “I’ve been nearly killed a dozen times since you’ve came to town.”
“That’s because you’re always the damsel in distress that I have to save,” Buffy said, glaring at her.
“Is this a joke?” Pepper asked. She looked at Tony. “Tony, you’d know if there were vampires in this town, right?”
“JARVIS, what are the death stats in Sunnydale?” Tony asked.
“Who’s JARVIS?” Xander asked.
“He’s my personal assistance,” Tony asked.
“Is he invisible?” Cordelia asked, looking around. “We had an invisible girl a few months ago. She tried to kill me.”
“Because you were all mean girl on her,” Buffy reminded her.
“Being rude to someone isn’t a reason to kill them,” Cordelia said. She looked at Pepper. “Right?”
“Of course not,” Pepper said quickly. She felt like she was in a dream—one that was becoming stranger by the minute.
“JARVIS says that the town’s per capita murder rate is worse than Los Angeles, which shouldn’t be possible,” Tony said, frowning. “Death by blood loss or barbeque fork stabbings are the most common reason of death. That’s the most insane thing I’ve ever heard. Who kills with barbeque forks?”
“Vampires,” Cordelia said. “Or rather they just use their teeth, but cops can’t very well put death by vampire on their reports.”
“Right,” Tony agreed, bemused. Cordelia flashed him a beaming smile—she loved when people agreed with her.
“It would be logical to conclude, sir, that vampires are real and killing people in this town. Or some other threat that has two teeth and drains the blood of its victims,” JARVIS told him.
“I’m going to go take care of Angelus,” Buffy said grimly. “This is my fault, and I have to end this. He killed Ms. Calendar and tried to kill you guys. Kendra’s dead. No more.”
Tony frowned, not liking the look in the girl’s eyes. It was clear that she’d seen too much and was willing to go on a suicide mission to stop this guy. “Hey, if you’re going to fight whoever put Willow here, then I’m going to go with you,” he said to her.
“He’s Iron Man, Buffy,” Xander explained.
Buffy stared at him a long moment, thinking. Then she shrugged. “And that makes a difference how?” Buffy said bluntly. “I don’t fight terrorists. I fight demons. Angel is a problem I created, so I’ll deal with him.”
She turned and left. Tony glanced at the kids. “Is this Angel guy really dangerous?” Tony asked.
“Angel? No. Angel loved Buffy, but then he got vertical with Buffy and had that one moment of happiness, and lost his soul,” Cordelia explained. “Angelus is the vamp wearing Angel’s face. He is a psychopathic monster, who likes playing mind games with Buffy and torturing and killing her friends.”
“Why do I feel confused?” Tony asked, looking at Pepper. “I’m the smartest guy in every room, and I feel slow. Explain that to me again.”
“Angel is a vampire that was cursed by gypsies with a soul. He was not evil,” Xander explained. “He and Buffy fell in love, but they didn’t know that one moment of true happiness would cause his soul to be taken away.”
Pepper felt sick. “So she slept with him, and he woke up wanting to kill her?” she asked.
“Basically,” Cordelia said. “Buffy’s life is pretty sucky.”
“I’ll say,” Tony said, feeling bad for the poor girl. “Where do you think this Angel guy is?”
“Probably at the mansion he lives in,” Xander said.
Willow chose that moment to open her eyes. “Oz?” she asked.
“I’m right here, baby,” Oz said, going to her side and holding her hand.
“My head hurts,” she said.
“Go get the doctor,” Pepper said to Tony.
Tony left to do that while Pepper gazed down at her daughter. Willow hadn’t noticed her yet.
“We’re so glad you’re okay,” Xander said from her other side.
“Yea,” Cordelia said. “Kendra is dead.”
“How about you back off and give her a minute?” Pepper said sharply.
“Fine. I’ll go get something to drink for everyone,” Cordelia said. “Glad you’re not dead, Will.”
Then she turned to leave.
“Is that girl for real?” Pepper asked Xander.
Xander grinned. “Cordy doesn’t believe in bullshitting people,” he said. “Considering Willow and I used to hate her guts, she’s come a long way.”
Willow sat up with Oz’s help. The doctor came in and did an examine, declaring her on the mend. When he left, Pepper stepped into her line of sight.
“Hello, Willow,” Pepper said, smiling at her.
Willow stared at the woman who gave birth to her in shock. “You’re here!” she exclaimed, looking at Oz, who gave her an encouraging smile.
“Your mother called me, and I came,” Pepper said. “I’m sorry it took so long for us to meet.”
Willow started to cry, so Pepper moved closer, sitting on the edge of her bed. When Willow threw her arms around her and hugged her. Pepper felt the hug all the way to her soul.
She was holding her daughter, and she never wanted to let her go.