. She requested:
B***h, please. If I owned the IRON MAN franchise, I would be sitting pretty for the rest of my life. Which I'm not. Please don't sue, don't plagiarise, and enjoy the read. Comments would be nice.
Tony rifled through the contents of the antique wooden jewellery box, a pensive look on his face.
All of the jewellery inside had belonged to his mother, and they were rare, tasteful, and priceless pieces, all dating back to one era or other.
Pepper came back from the kitchen and placed his tea on the coffee table, settling on the sofa with her side flush against his. She sipped at her own tea, and leaned her head on his shoulder, stroking his knee with her free hand. “Found what you’re looking for, yet?”
Tony sighed and briefly squeezed her hand, his steaming cup still untouched. “Not yet. My mother had numerous cases like this one, and she was so organised that she’d put them together in order of style and era. This is one of the older collections, and while they may be less flashy, they’re…worth a lot.”
Pepper turned to look at him. His mouth had taken on a gentle turn, and his eyes shined with remembrance. Tony seldom spoke of his parents, most of all his mother, but she sensed a great deal in his emotions regarding her. He didn’t say it, but Pepper was sure that Tony had adored his mother through and through – all the more so because of the conflicting relationship he’d had with his father.
So she knew that when he talked about ‘worth’, he didn’t necessarily mean the monetary kind.
What a can of worms lay there, she thought.
“Well, have you looked at the other boxes yet? If you describe what you’re looking for, I’ll help you search.” She stroked his knee again and pressed her lips against his bicep. Tony was soaking it all up like a sponge. Despite their contrasting natures – he being a very physical person, she avoiding all unnecessary contact like the plague – the energy they had between each other was special and unique all on its own, compared to the relationships (or lack thereof) they’d had in the past. Growing comfortable with each other had taken time, but it was so natural.
One touch from her, when he was ill, when he was being fractious and difficult, when they were making love, and his skin seemed to sing. Sometimes, when he wasn’t well, she stroked his brow and ran gentle fingers through his hair; this choked him up as much as it made him purr, because his mother had used to stroke him in just that way, soothing him through every fever, every tummy ache.
Pepper was the only woman he had cared for so deeply in all his life, apart from his mother, but that had been a different kind of love. He did not regard Pepper as a substitute-maternal figure at all. No. That was a completely different fire.
Silently, he took one more jewellery box out of the chest lying open on the floor and handed it to her. She smiled at him as she took it and settled down more comfortably onto his side, balancing the box carefully on her knees.
As she carefully sifted through the contents, there was one piece that immediately caught her eye, in light of its difference when compared to the other objects.
Curiously, Pepper picked it up and inspected it in the light, turning it every which way to study it.
“Whatcha got there?” Tony leaned in and looked at the piece in her hands. Pepper glanced at him briefly. “This one is different to the others inside the box. They all have pearls except for this one, look.”
Tony took held it up to the light. It was a pendant that was very, very old by the looks of it. It was made of a metal that he couldn’t immediately identify, but which gleamed in the light despite its grimy appearance. Pepper handed him the soft cloth she’d dipped inside the cleaning jar, and he carefully cleaned the surface of the pendant.
“Did your mother like horses?”
Tony was startled by her words for a second. “Why do you ask?”
Pepper smiled at him patiently. “The pendant is the figure of a woman riding a horse.”
“Oh. Yeah … Yeah, she did. She loved the smelly beasts.”
Pepper frowned. And he’d seen that look before, on another’s face. Uh-oh … here was another horse-lover, he thought.
“Horses are very noble, ancient animals, you know.”
Yep. Definitely a horse-lover. Hmmph.
Tony grunted, staring at the pendant in his hands. He didn’t look at all convinced.
“Do you know anything about this pendant?”
Tony shook his head. He barely remembered her wearing it when he was a child, but his mother had loved horses with the same passion he loved his cars. It was puzzling.
“I think it was definitely handed down to my mother through her side of the family; the Starks have never been great fans of horses, not since my great-great-grandfather.”
Pepper frowned pensively. “Well it must have been of great sentimental value to her then, because the only worthy thing about it otherwise is that it is very, very old. I think it might be well into its hundred years of age.”
Tony looked amusedly at her. “Is that another skill you’ve kept hidden from me all this time? You’re a jewellery connoisseuse?”
Pepper scrunched her nose, mischief gleaming in her bright eyes. “No latent connoisseuse skill; just an ability to estimate how old things like this must be, just by design. I went through a stage in my teens where I was sure I would become a jewellery designer when I was older. I’d pore over books and books of ancient and modern jewellery alike, replicating the designs on paper and plastering them all over my room.”
Tony blinked, trying to imagine the teen Pepper, all bright, thick hair and the long-limbed slenderness models in their twenties would have killed to have. She’d have a ponytail, and be neatly dressed, tucked away in her room drawing designs of necklaces and bracelets and pendants, tacking them onto her walls and surveying her work with that quirky twist to those kissable lips, as she decided whether she was satisfied with the results or not.
His eyes twinkled as he embraced her close to his chest, inhaling her flowery aroma.
“I can just imagine you as a teenager, all lissom curves, and bright hair, diligently working through your imagination until your mother had to come in and force you to go to bed.”
Pepper smirked superiorly at him, her eyes revealing the fact that she was jesting.
“I think that description is more apt in regards to you, Tony. I always went to bed early on school nights so that I’d wake up refreshed and ready to take on the hardships of high school. I never needed my mother to come tear me away from my drawings for dinner or to get a shower.”
Tony narrowed his eyes playfully and drew his lips along the velvety column of her throat, humming. “Is that right? You were a good little girl, weren’t you? Never needed to be grounded or sent to bed without dessert, because your behaviour was irreprehensible even as a young lady? Not even an ickle speck of rebellion in those dreamy teens of yours?”
Pepper squeaked as his beard scraped her skin, feeling the warmth and rush of desire that inevitably followed whenever he touched her like this. She tamped it down.
“I was a rebellious child, but by the time I turned adolescent I’d already learned how to be responsible and level-headed.”
Tony nibbled lightly on the spot under her ear, and delighted in her squeak and in the way her body squirmed deliciously against him.
“Whereas I was a terror up until my father shipped me to boarding school. He was probably relieved to have someone else deal with me.”
They now lay back against the cushions, sweetly tangled in each other’s embrace, basking in this rare moment of peace in their hectic lives. “And your mother?”
Tony hummed, stroking her hip and the contours of her flank, his fingers light, but knowing.
“She wasn’t so pleased. She’d write to me every week, and at first I wouldn’t write back because I thought I could punish my father for sending me away. Then I found out he kept tabs on me through the principal and my tutor, so … my correspondence with my mother was frequent, and I always replied to her letters within two days of receiving them.”
Pepper sensed that he wasn’t telling her everything. “You missed her, didn’t you?”
Tony remained silent for a moment, and she knew how difficult it was for him to talk about these subjects, his childhood and his parents. She was patient and understanding, though. If he’d tell her something, she’d let him do it in his own time, and in his own way.
“She loved me. She loved me, and never tried to hide it. In a way, I think she was trying to make up for my father’s shortcomings, but I … well… I loved her, too. She understood me in ways no one else seemed to be capable of. She would tell me stories of her childhood sometimes. She grew up on a vineyard in Italy, the only daughter of a wealthy man. The differences between her and my dad were staggering sometimes. She had a way of… I dunno, reaching out towards others, like she just knew how to connect with you. My father, and his side of the family in general, were much more … austere. You know, much more reserved and restrained.”
That’s what Tony recalled most vividly about Maria. She’d been so vital, and inartificial, good to the people she held close, and generous to those who needed it. But perhaps that had been the case because she was much younger than Howard. He suspected it had more to do with her upbringing and her family, for they’d brought her up that way, extrovert and free. The Bardi’s had only had one daughter, and they’d spoiled her rotten, but still she retained a steely core of morals that put everyone else’s to shame. His father had had two brothers, both older than him, but Tony didn’t know how close they’d been, because he’d never met them.
When he’d been sent to boarding school, the thing that hurt him most was that his father was shunning him once more, and taking him away from his beloved mother, who was the only one who had understood him, and who loved him without reservations, who was the constant rock and source of comfort in his life.
She’d never told him, but he suspected that this had caused a fissure in his parents’ marriage, one that had never found healing. Maybe his father was jealous. Maybe he was jealous of the easy affection and ardent love between him and his mother. As a kid he’d thought Howard jealous of Maria devoting more time to Tony than to himself, but now he realised his old man had been jealous, if at all, of the relationship between Tony and his mother, because Howard himself wasn’t capable of getting so close on the same level to his son as Maria. His father had grown up used to living with an austere and restrictive family, in a less-than-affectionate environment, and he probably hadn’t wanted his only son to grow up spoiled and unrestrained the way Maria wanted.
No, not Tony. Tony had to become great, had to develop and nurture his talent right from the go, because a mind like his could do great things for the future.
Howard probably hadn’t realised he was taking Tony’s childhood away from him. And that, his mother could not forgive.
He was brought out of his reverie as Pepper picked up the pendant again and fingered the relief on the surface. It was of excellent craftsmanship, and the beauty of the woman’s face was truly exquisite.
“I never could understand why my mother loved the damned beasts so much. As far as I’m concerned, all they’re good for is to stink up the place and drop enormous heaps of dung everywhere. My mother used to take me to this private estate of hers when I was a child. Dad would be too busy with the company and his work, so we’d go up to Apronian House in the weekend, where she had her own stable and three horses. There, she’d ride and ride to her heart’s content, and she always encouraged me to share her passion for horses, but I never went near ‘em.”
Pepper nuzzled his jaw with the tip of her nose and pressed her lips beneath it. Tony almost – almost – purred. There was always a conflict within him. Thanks to his mother’s upbringing, Tony liked physical contact, but experiences with his father had taught him that it was more desirable for a man to not be so touchy-feely and that aspiring to have a certain level of aloofness was what got you approval.
But Pepper … she had a way about her that made him want the physical contact more than he generally did, made him crave and long for it.
Plus, he knew that her own nature tended to make her shy away; Pepper wasn’t the cuddly and clingy type. She just knew him well enough to realise when he needed affection, petting him almost like she did her cat, when she sensed it would do him good.
“Did you have a bad experience with a horse, or did you just not like them on a much more basic level?” She was curious as to his strong aversion of horses. It didn’t sound like mere disgust and indifference; he sounded like he tried to be flippant about something that secretly upset him a great deal.
“Well … there was this one time, but…I mean, it was so long ago, but for some reason it just – stuck with me … I was er, perhaps four years old, and mother had bought this little … pony, for me to ride, and I truly loved it, because at that time I wanted nothing more than to copy what she did. She looked amazing on a horse, it was like the animal was just an extension of her will, and the two understood each other perfectly. Anyway, I mounted the pony and had fun walking around with her hanging onto the reins from astride her own mount, but then … I think my father was truly scared of horses. When he came out of the house, he yelled at us, wanting me to get off the pony, and it spooked him badly. All I could was to hold on to the pony’s mane as he shot off away from my mother’s horse and started down the field. I managed to hold onto that horse for two minutes, I think, before I got so scared that I stiffened up, and … next thing I knew, my father was bending over me, and I was on the ground – I remember thinking that I didn’t like the noises my mother was making, because they meant she was sad and scared … so… right?”
Pepper looked at him solemnly and nodded her understanding. It went without saying that that was the last time he ever mounted a horse. In a way, it didn’t surprise her that Tony got his aversion/fear of horses from his father.
Tony thought back to the time Howard – and this was very rare – spoke to him, telling him that when his mother was pregnant with him, she still rode her horses for the first few months, and that he was very angry with her for doing it because he was afraid for her and their baby’s safety.
Again, the age gap between Howard and Maria seemed to become more prominent, because she was young and carefree and just wanted to ride, whereas he was older and much more restrained, and feared she’d get hurt. He supposed Howard’s thinking was right, it could be dangerous for a pregnant woman to ride a horse, but then his mother had never liked anyone telling her what she couldn’t do. Tony was like her in that respect, too.
He looked down at the pendant again. He seemed to recall something about his mother always wearing the pendant when she rode her horses because she thought it would protect her and give the horse peace when they galloped.
And just like that, he was angry.
He tossed the pendant back onto the coffee table, where it landed with a dull chink, but he didn’t care. All this remembrance was hurting him. He was tired of it.
“My mother used to believe that the pendant would protect her when she was riding, so she always put it on. My father knew better than to tell her she shouldn’t ride so recklessly, but she knew he disapproved. When I was younger, it’d be fun to do things with her we knew Dad wouldn’t approve of, just to rile him up. But when I got older, I could see that in a way he was right, because she was reckless when she rode on the damn things. They-“
Tony couldn’t speak past the tennis ball in his throat, and tried to swallow down the constricting feeling.
And suddenly Pepper knew.
Her heart constricted too. “What happened to your mother, Tony? Did she hurt herself whilst riding?”
Tony was silent for a moment, but she already knew that what he was about to tell her wouldn’t be good. When he spoke, his tone was low and spoke of pain, and deep resentment. “No, she didn’t get hurt whilst riding. They both had an accident. The same one that killed them.”
His eyes stung bitterly as he tried to stop the tears from falling. His hands unconsciously clenched into fists and he stared down at his lap. Pepper’s heart ached with sorrow as she watched him. Tony had never truly accepted his parents’ death. But it was only now that she began to understand better, and glimpse at the boy that still lurked within him. And she could see the devastation, the rage, the pain, that accompanied that boy. It was all festering inside him.
“It was stormy when it happened. They’d had another fight, of that I was sure, because she only ever went back to Apronian House when she needed to cool off from a fight with Dad. Her horses were the only thing that soothed her. But she shouldn’t have been driving, because the roads were in bad condition, and it was pouring torrents form the sky. That’s where she was going. To her horses. I was away at college. I was seventeen years old, and full of charm and felt like the world was laid at my feet. She wanted me to come home that weekend, but I didn’t want anything to do with that…it would just mean her with the horses, my father riding my ass about term-papers, and I didn’t want any of it.”
So Maria had accused Howard of making Tony want to stay away from his own family. Tony knew this, because she’d phoned him that afternoon, crying, and telling him that she knew he didn’t want to come home because of his father, and she was pleading with him because she wanted to see him, and they were his family, and-
His stomach twisted as he remembered, and guessed at what must have happened next.
Maria accused Howard of being the reason their son didn’t want to come home. Howard must have probably shrugged in cold indifference, immersed as he must have been in semester reports, blue prints, and fifty-year old scotch. She must have worked herself up into quite a state. Tony found this the hardest to accept now, years after their deaths. He had become a selfish little prick, and hadn’t wanted to see how much his distance was hurting his mother – Tony, who had been the apple of his mother’s eyes.
Then they probably argued, until Maria told Howard that she was leaving. Howard tended to become more resentful in his barbs when he was drinking, so he must have said something about her going back to her precious smelly beasts. And then Maria must have sped off into the dark rainy night, intent on reaching that haven of peace for her that Apronian House, where she had her grounds, and her horses, and could be content, at peace.
His father obviously followed her in another of their cars, and the angered chase had resulted in the tragedy that had left Tony an orphaned, bitterly devastated young man.
So yeah, he didn’t like horses.
He blamed his mother for going out at all that night. She had promised him, promised him, that she would always be there. But she’d left him.
And his father … this was bitterest of all, because it was Howard that had driven Maria away into the storm that night. Whatever his conflicting emotions on the days straight after their deaths, Tony’s hatred for the horses had intensified. Before Obie found out about it, Tony took his father’s gun from his study. Then he drove over Apronian House and there … he shot to death the last remaining things of his mother that still lived.
And after the rage had dissipated, Tony had been so ashamed of what he’d done, that he shut up Apronian House for good, and never returned to it again.
Those horses … she had loved those horses so, so much … and in the end her own son had killed them.
“For all I care, horses could rot in hell. I don’t want them anywhere near me, not now, not ever. They are vile, useless animals that are of no use to anyone. If a great ball of fire would drop down from the sky and decimate them all, I’d say good fucking riddance.”
Sometimes, instead of carrying the burden that comes with feeling shame, it is easier to remove the guilt in the first place, to remove the cause for the pain.
Far, far away, into another realm of reality, the goddess protector and patroness of horses, Epona, heard Tony Stark utter the vile oath. The pendant had special qualities that enabled her to look down upon the owner, and bless them if they deserved it.
But Tony Stark did not deserve her blessing.
And in that moment, she uttered an oath of her own. Tony Stark never wanted horses to go near him, did he? He would rejoice at their extinction, would he?
Epona frowned stormily, already setting the plan into motion.
She would teach this puny human to respect that most noble of creatures to walk the earth. Let’s see how turning his beloved lover into the creature he reviled affected him.