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The Limitations of Wax

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Toni’s drags herself back into the mansion still wrapped in Jarvis’ overcoat, the box he left her cradled carefully in her hands.

Henrietta meets her at the door, all fretting hands and worry.  Toni brushes her off absently and lets her feet take her to the servant’s wing, to the mid-sized room Jarvis had called his own her entire life.  She walks inside, shuts the door in Henrietta’s face, and locks it firmly behind her.

Aunt Peggy had already been by and gotten what he’d left her before she’d gone back home but beyond that she hadn’t disturbed much.  The room still smells like him, fresh bread and lemon furniture polish, and looks like him too, all tidy corners, rich fabrics, and that all-encompassing feeling of warmth and safety.  There’s a pair of boots on the floor beside his arm chair, polish and rag ready on the table to the left.  There’s a half empty glass of water on the night stand and his dressing robe is folded across the end of his bed.

It all looks as if he’s only stepped out for a moment, as if he’ll walk back in at any second.  For a brief moment Toni closes her eyes and tries to fool herself into thinking that it’s true, that he’s just gone out for groceries or something else for the mansion and any moment now he’ll come breezing back in.  That he’ll be back tonight to brush her hair and tell her their story.

The box in her hands makes that daydream into a lie.

Jarvis is dead and all she has left of him is a tape, a letter, the contents of this room, and what feels like a load of shrapnel in her chest ripping her heart to shreds.

She can’t bring herself to touch anything, to disturb anything, can’t bring herself to destroy this half created canvas, this snapshot of what he was like, his last moments frozen in time.

So Toni just curls down onto the floor beside the bed, pries the box open with shaking hands, pulls out the recorder and presses play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Listen.  Rewind.  Play

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Listen.  Rewind.  Play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Toni presses her face against the side of the bed, buries her nose into the thick, rich fabric of the comforter and tries to breathe.

Listen.

Rewind.

Play.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The choking terror of the sea closing in around her.

~~~

When she finally comes out two days later she’s pale but solid.  She’s broken and shattered inside, bits of scattered metal and melted wax, but she won’t let it show.

Instead she goes to her room, forces herself to finally put the box down on her bed, and stumbles into the shower.  She lets the hot water scald her back and soak into the heavy weight of her hair as she scrubs at her skin, at the still healing bruises until she’s pink and achy.  Then she forces herself to get out, dress, pin her hair up, and march to Howard’s office.

There’s a large box on his desk with his, Maria’s, and Jarvis’ personal effects inside.

Toni carefully gathers Jarvis’ things, takes his monogramed billfold and the ruby cufflink and tie-pin set she’d gotten him when she was thirteen out and sets them aside.  She’ll be taking those with her.  Everything else goes back into the biohazard bag they came in to be placed inside his room.

Anything important has already been taken from Howard and Maria’s things so she grabs the box, the gold plated lighter Howard kept for his cigars, and heads out to the back patio.  She drops the box there and turns on her bare heel to head to Howard’s workshop.  She grabs a blowtorch and lighter fluid then leaves again.

On her way back towards the back door she passes the massive family portrait Maria had commissioned when Toni was eight.  She tilts her head to the side as she stares up at it.  She remembers sitting for that portrait, remembers how much she hated it, hated being stuck so close to both of them, Howard’s hand heavy on her shoulder, Maria’s talon like nails digging into her knee, a plastic smile on her face.

She stares up into her own face, young and tiny, and even through the medium of heavy oils Toni thinks she can see the emptiness in her own eyes.

She sets the blowtorch and lighter fluid down, reaches up with both hands to grab the bottom of the massive frame, and rips it down off of the wall.

The crash it makes is almost satisfying.

She drags it out onto the patio as well and then out onto the actual lawn.  She rips the thick canvas from the frame and the beats the heavy gilt wood against the ground until it folds in at the corners.  She piles it all together with the box holding Howard and Maria’s effects, upends the bottle of lighter fluid, and uses the blowtorch to set the whole thing ablaze.

Watching it all burn is almost sweet.

When it’s nothing but smoldering embers she calls the remaining house staff together.  There’s fewer than there used to be, only the maids Henrietta and Jocelyn, Maxwell the gardener and Brandon the cook.  They all stare at her wide eyed and pale and Toni knows what she looks like, remembers the glimpse she’d gotten in the bathroom mirror.

All pale skin, thick black curls, and bright, manic eyes like a wild thing half crazed in the snare.

“I’m going back to school in a week,” Toni keeps her voice deliberately light, “and I’m closing the mansion so I’d like you all the start the shutdown process.”

They all seem to collectively go pale and Toni knows it’s because they think she’s firing them.  She isn’t though, everyone but Jocelyn’s been with the family since before she was born.  Once the mansion’s closed down she’ll reassign them to other properties or anywhere else they wish to go.  She’s not callous enough to throw them out into the cold.  She’s not Maria or Howard.

She gives them instructions, tells them she’ll close down Howard’s workshop and her own room herself, and then tells them that any of Howard’s and Maria’s personal effects from their rooms are up for grabs.  Clothes, jewelry, watches.  Any of it.  All of it.  Anything left is to either be donated or burned.  She waves away their protests because there’s nothing in either of those rooms she wants.

No one,” and there’s enough ice in her voice then, enough command, to immediately have them all straight-shouldered and listening, “no one touches Jarvis’ room.  The door is to stay locked and no one’s to even set foot inside of it.  Pretend like it doesn’t exist.”

“Yes Ma’am.”  They chorus together and the sound of Maria’s title directed at her is almost enough to make her wince.

Still she won’t have them in Jarvis’ room.  Won’t have any of his things touched.

Changing his room would feel like killing him all over again.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The gut punch agony of realizing that her wings have failed her.

The terror of the fall.

~~~

The next day she goes out and finds a jeweler.  He’s competent and discreet and agrees to set the cufflinks and tie-pin into a tasteful stacked pendant for her without destroying the individual pieces.

She pays him an exuberant amount of money to have the work done quickly but correctly and has them set in gold and hung from a tasteful but expensive gold chain.

When she puts it on the pendant nestles itself directly between her breasts, right beside her heart.

She never takes it off.

It matches her earrings and her lipstick after all.

~~~

Going back to MIT feels like stepping into a dream.

Or a nightmare.

Toni isn’t sure which.

Isn’t sure if there’s even a difference between the two anyways.

Rhodey is there, all warm hands and comforting hugs and it’s good but not enough all at the same time.  The grief is too fresh, too real, too biting.

Still she doesn’t like the sadness and the worry she can see in his eyes so she throws herself into being her.  She’s loud and manic and rude when all she wants to do is be small and quiet and still.  She clings to him and twists around him like a whirlwind in turns.  She laughs and jokes and waits for him to leave and go back to his dorm before she curls herself into a corner with her recorder.

Listen.  Rewind.  Play.

She buries herself in her workshop and only comes out when her hands are shaking, when the world’s spinning around her and she can’t breathe anymore, can’t create anymore, because she can’t sleep.

Listen.  Rewind.  Play.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The harsh scent of salt and the agony of knowing that there are no arms there to catch her before she hits the water.

~~~

“I wish you were still alive.”  Toni tells Steve one night, her recorder clutched to her chest and her other hand wrapped around her pendant.  A part of her knows it’s crazy to talk to a poster, to treat it like a person, but she can’t help it.  He’s been more a part of her life than Howard and Maria ever were.  “If you were still alive maybe I could … maybe you would … maybe we …”

Toni cuts the words off and folds herself around her recorder, doesn’t let herself finish that line of thought.  She’s huddled naked, her hair a damp, heavy weight against her back, amidst the nest of sheets, blankets and pillows she’d piled onto her bed in an effort to feel safe again.

She straightens up, blows Steve a kiss, and then rolls onto her side.

Listen.  Rewind.  Play.

She hasn’t felt safe in months now.

Jarvis was her safe place.  Even when they were apart he was her safe place, her harbor, the eye in the center of the storm that is her life.  The fixed point in the whirling chaos of her mind.

But Jarvis is gone now and the world has never felt so big.

Her mind has never been so terrifying.

Toni has never felt so small.

~~~

“Tones.”  Rhodey turns to her one night when they’re pressed against each other on her couch.

Toni immediately goes on alert because she knows that voice.  Dread settles sick and heavy in her stomach because nothing good ever happens when Rhodey sounds like that.

“Yeah honeybunch?”

“I-I’ve been trying to find the right way to tell you this,” Rhodey rakes a hand across his face, “but with … with everything that’s happened I wasn’t sure how to do it.  It just never seemed the right time to tell you.”

“Y-You’re not sick are you?”  Toni feels herself go pale, feels her stomach clench sharply at even the idea.  Her mind races forward, she thinks of doctors and hospitals and treatment plans for whatever’s wrong with him.  She’ll do/pay/build whatever she has to.  She can’t lose him too.

“No!”  Rhodey immediately pulls her closer, wraps her up tight against his chest.  “Fuck.  Jesus honey no.  I’m not sick.  I’m fine Toni I promise.  It’s, it’s nothing like that baby girl.  Shit.”

“Then what is it?”

“I’m leaving at the end of this semester.”  Rhodey says it in a rush and Toni goes still.  “I’m being shipped out Tones.  I wanted to tell you earlier but I just didn’t know how.”

“You’re leaving?”  Toni hates the way she sounds so young in that moment but she can’t help it.  Rhodey’s leaving.  Leaving her.  He’s the only friend she has, the only thing standing between her and utter solitude, and he’s leaving.

“Yeah.”  Rhodey sounds rough, voice gruff as his arms tighten around her.  “Yeah I’m leaving sweetheart.”

“I-I could pay you to stay.”  Toni blurts it out, pulls back from him far enough to stare up into his face.  She knows even before she gets the words out of her mouth that he’s going to say no.  “I could hire you on as a bodyguard or something, pay off your students loans and buy out your enlistment or something.  SI does a lot of business with the US military and it’s going to be mine in a few years, they’d let you go if I asked them to.”

“Toni.”  There’s a slight warning note in his voice that lets her know she’s toeing a line with him.  “You know I don’t want your money.  I don’t want you to try to fucking buy me either.  I’m in the military because it’s where I want to be.”

“I know.”  It’s an admittance and an apology all in one.  “I just … I don’t want you to go.”

“I know sugar.”  Rhodey pulls her close again.  “I know.  But you know I’ll always be there for you right?  We can write, call, all of that.  We can talk whenever we get the chance.”

“Yeah.”  She buries her face against his neck, breathes his scent deep into her lungs, leather from the jacket she’d bought him and the rich spice of the cologne he favors, and lets herself cling.

They both know it won’t be the same but neither one of them wants to admit it aloud.

~~~

Toni throws herself into spending as much time with Rhodey as she can for the last few months she has left with him.

The rest of her time she throws into her workshop.

She works with a frenetic kind of mania, with a bright and feverish kind of concentration because she’s working towards a specific goal.

Rhodey is leaving and she’s going to be alone.  No Rhodey, no Jarvis.  Just Toni, her recorder, and Steve’s smiling face on her bedroom wall.

That’s …

She can’t do that.

She won’t.  Not ever again.

So she’s going to build something to stop that from happening.  She’s going to make sure she’s not alone.

She’s … she’s … going to create.

Because she … she can’t be alone again.

She can’t.  She can’t survive like that again.  Not after having tasted love, tasted friendship.

So she’s going to make herself a partner, someone to help her in the workshop.  Someone to listen to her talk.

She’s going to make herself an AI.

Or she’s going to die trying.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The loneliness of the sky.

The bitter grief of soaring alone and without a companion.

~~~

The first four versions fail.

They’re complex programs but not AI, not really.  She wants something that learns, something that grows, something real.  Plus they won’t integrate with the robotic arm she built so that it can aid her in the lab, don’t seem to want to mesh well.

“You damn useless machine.”  Toni snarls, hands shaking, mind a bright whirl as she desperately solders another wire into place, puts down another component and then powers up the fifth version of her would-be assistant.  “Just.  Fucking.  Work.  Work you dum-“

An almost inquisitive chirp cuts her off.

Toni freezes as the thick metal claw swings in her direction like a dog called to point.

Breathless, a hair away from completely broken, Toni laughs because the only other option is to sob.

“Hey boy.”  Toni breathes as she brings a shaky hand up to pet a thick metal joint.  “It’s about time you decided to wake up.  Thought I was going to be waiting on your dumb ass forever.”

The bot chirps, rolls forward, and abruptly knocks the coffee cup on the side of Toni’s workshop down to shatter on the tiled floor.

“Damn useless machine.”  Toni mutters as she brings her arms up to swipe at the tears she doesn’t want to admit are pouring down her face.  “Damn useless, beautiful machine.”

~~~

The ‘Damn Useless Machine - Version E’ or DUM-E as she takes to calling him is more than a bit buggy.  His spatial awareness isn’t the best even with the camera she gives him, he bumps into things, knocks over coffee cups, and seems enamored with the small fire extinguisher she keeps in the corner of the workshop.

“It’s okay buddy.”  Toni tells DUM-E after he’s shattered yet another mug because he’s too glitchy to be a real help in the workshop right now so she’s trying to teach him to refine his fine motor controls by carrying glasses and cups.

“There’s nothing wrong with you DUM-E.”  Toni tells him as she strokes a hand down the flat of his base.  She has to bite back a sob at the way the words burn her throat but she needs to say them because he’s hers, her bot, her boy.  She needs to say them because Jarvis had said them to her and those words had made all the difference.  “You’re different, special, but not wrong.  No shame in that.  I’ll help you find your way.”

That night she lets him lumber through her suite and follow her into her room because he’d chirped sadly when she’d tried to leave him in the workshop.  He watches as she presses a kiss to Steve’s chest and then collapses onto her bed.  He chirps and whirls at her questioningly and rolls over to her bedside.

“Bedtime buddy.”  Toni slurs, exhausted and brittle but oh-so-pleased as she hugs her recorder to her chest and presses play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The breathless joy of flight and freedom.

~~~

She wakes the next morning to DUM-E’s camera in her face, claw tilted to the side like he’s curious, and all she feels is a burst of formless joy.

~~~

She splits her time between Rhodey and DUM-E after that, sometimes together, sometimes separate and she’s pleased that they get along so well.

Rhodey spends thirty minutes with him before he shakes his head and says he’s kind of like a really large, really dumb dog.  But he’s also more than a little awed at the way DUM-E seems to listen to her and there’s real affection in his voice when he tugs at Toni’s curls and tells her good job.

They spend time together teaching DUM-E how to hold things, how to help her, how to not break things.

She enters him into the Annual M.I.T. Robot Design Competition.

They win.

Howard would have beaten her bloody.

It makes the victory that much sweeter.

~~~

The time finally comes where Rhodey has to leave.

Toni drives him to the airport, stands with him as his plane begins to board.  He wraps her in a tight hug, presses a lingering kiss to her forehead, and buries his face in the upswept mass of her hair.

“I’m gonna miss you Tones.”  Rhodey whispers.  “You take care of yourself, you and that crazy bot of yours.”

“I will.”  Toni mumbles, hands clenched tight in his shirt.  “Stay safe Rhodey.  Just, stay safe.”

“Promise.”

Then he lets her go, takes a step back, and leaves.

Toni watches him go and feels as if her whole world is ending yet again.

She isn’t all that sure how she makes it back to her suite but she does somehow.  DUM-E greets her with a chirp and follows behind her as she kicks off her heels and stumbles towards her bedroom.

She collapses face first onto the bed.

There’s a pause, a moment of silence, and then an insistent nudge against her side.  She ignores him for a moment but when he won’t stop she rolls over.

“What?”  Her voice is watery.

DUM-E reaches out, grabs her wrist with an impressive amount of care, and tugs.  He tugs and tugs until she finally gets up and, bemused, lets him tug her across the room.

“Oh.”  Her breath catches when he lifts her arm and presses her hand clumsily to the star on Steve’s chest.  “Oh DUM-E.”

She hugs him carefully, sobs against his joints as he whirls and chirps but stays still.  Eventually she pulls back, wipes her tears, and walks him back towards the bed.

“Hey DUM-E?”

He chirps.

“I think it’s about time you heard the story of Icarus too.”  She holds up the recorder for him to see.  “Come over here and listen with me.”

He chirps, moves closer to the bed, and waits.

Toni presses play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

~~~

The next time she stumbles into her room to finally sleep, she kisses Steve like always.  Then she watches from the bed as DUM-E reaches up his claw and presses the tip of one thick finger against the star on Steve’s chest as well.

~~~

The headline reads:  Stark Heiress Dumped By Longtime Beau:  Party Princess Too Much To Handle?

There’s a photo of her standing, white faced, teary eyed, and alone in the airport terminal.

Toni crumples the paper in her fist.

Fuck them all.

~~~

A month later she builds U so that DUM-E will have company when she’s gone.  He’s smaller in size but a bit better than DUM-E because she already had a frame work to build on.  He’s still special though, unique in his own way just like his name says he is.

Just like with DUM-E she makes sure to tell him so, just like Jarvis had once told her.

She sends Rhodey a “It’s a Boy” card with a picture of U and DUM-E inside.

He calls her the next time he gets a chance and makes her promise not to take over the world with her robot sons while he’s gone.

She laughs.

~~~

When she finally lets him out of the workshop she watches as U trails behind DUM-E as he follows her to the bedroom.

She kisses Steve and sees DUM-E do the same while U watches on quietly but doesn’t move.  DUM-E seems to take offense to that.  He chirps and whirls until U rolls forward and presses the knuckles of his hand roughly against the glass as well.

Toni laughs, settles down, and reaches for her recorder.

“Hey DUM-E.”  She calls.  “Bring your little brother over here.  It’s time for him to hear about Icarus too.”

~~~

That becomes their routine, her and her clumsy ducklings.  Kissing Steve and the tale of Icarus every time she’s finally able to pull herself away from a project, from the bright, screaming whirl of her mind, to try and sleep.

She still misses Jarvis.  His absence is like a gaping, open wound, bleeding and jagged edged.

She still misses Rhodey.  His absence is like an ache, there, present, and steady.

But the bots, DUM-E and U, they make it all a bit better.

Just a bit.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The sorrow of all she’s left behind.

~~~

Time skips forward.

Toni turns seventeen and graduates.  Rhodey gets a promotion and time off base.  He helps her find an apartment, a sprawling penthouse with three bedrooms, one for the each of them and a room to convert into a workshop for her.

She has no interest in the mansion or any of the other properties Howard left her at the moment.

He’s with her when the anniversary of Jarvis’ death rolls around and when Aunt Peggy makes an unexpected stop by her new place Toni knows it was all planned.

They’re there for her when Obie shows up, swans into her place like he owns it, and forces her into attending the memorial for Howard and Maria.

She goes.  She hates it but she goes.

That night, still clad in her party dress, Toni wraps herself in Jarvis’ overcoat, grabs her recorder, and goes to his grave.

She spends the night there.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Listen.  Rewind.  Play.

Aunt Peggy and Rhodey find her there the next morning and Rhodey picks her up and carries her back to the car.

She wishes they’d left her there.

She’s glad that they didn’t.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The sorrow of an empty sky.

The terror of the fall.

~~~

Rhodey and Aunt Peggy leave.

Toni has DUM-E and U though so it’s not okay per se but it is better than nothing at all.

She loses days, weeks, months in her workshop.  There’s a list of patents as long as her arm with her name on them now but her mind is still as bright and chaotic as ever.  It’s still overfull.  It still whirls and twists and terrorizes her by turns.

Her life is too much coffee, too loud music, DUM-E, U, Steve, her recorder, and the breathless, terrifying act of creation.

She only realizes her eighteenth birthday is coming when Aunt Peggy’s package arrives in the mail and Rhodey mentions it on one of their all too infrequent calls.

On the actual day of her birthday she grabs her recorder, gets into her car, and drives to the mansion.  The place is dark, electricity cut off and furniture covered with dust sheets.  It doesn’t matter to Toni.

She picks her way through the house until she’s standing in front of Jarvis’ room.  She unlocks the door and steps inside.  Closes it softly behind her.

She spends the night curled on the floor, face buried in the dusty comforter on his bed, chasing the phantom scent of fresh bread and lemon furniture polish.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Listen.

Rewind.

Play.

~~~

A month later she catches herself sketching something on the corner of her newest set of blueprints.  She stops, looks at the image curiously, and something inside of her seems to hum in agreement at the sight.

She traces a rough, calloused fingertip across the image.

Yes.

That’s what she wants.

~~~

It takes her three weeks to find what she’s looking for.  Three weeks of scouring galleys and photos and searching, searching, searching.

When she finally finds it she settles the bots, promises to be back as soon as possible, packs her recorder, presses a kiss to Steve, and calls her pilot.

She’s going to Denmark.

~~~

Jannik and Mari Hatke are a stunning couple.  Jannik is all blond Danish strength and muscle and Mari is much the same, only she’s all fire and dyed blue hair.  They speak English which is good because of all the languages Toni can speak her Danish it rudimentary at best which is something she’ll have to fix.

That doesn’t matter though.

What does matter to Toni is the fact that they’re both positively bristling with ink.  Tattoos sloping over and across almost every visible inch of skin from the neck down.

What matters to Toni is that Mari and Jannik together run a tattoo parlor famous for some of the most hyper realistic art to be found in the world.

That’s what matters to Toni.

She tells them what she wants, watches as together they sketch out the design, tweaking and changing it until just the sight of it leaves Toni breathless and hot with anticipation.

“Is a large piece.”  Jannik tells her in highly accented English.

“Will hurt.  Take a long time to do, long time to heal.”  Mari confirms.

“Pain isn’t an issue.”  Toni tells them and there must be something in her eyes or in her voice that takes them aback because they just look at her for a moment.

“We start tomorrow.”  Mari finally tells her.  “You stay with us until it heals.”

~~~

Toni stays in their spare room as they work on her tattoo.

There’s no describing the bliss she feels from the needle, from having the design etched into her skin.  It’s like nothing she’s ever felt, a pain that’s almost sweet, almost righteous.

It’s slow going, hours at a time filled with the buzz of the needle, hands wiping blood from her back, the low chatter of music and conversation.  They only stop when Mari can no longer handle the gun.

Her Danish improves in leaps and bounds.

Slowly, oh so slowly, feather by feather, wings unfurl across the smooth expanse of her back.

Mari applies cream and bandages, helps Toni care for the tattoo as they add each feather, each strip of stark black ink.

Somehow it feels like coming home.

~~~

Toni knows, objectively, that she’s what the media considers beautiful.  She’s never really paid too much attention to it but she knows.

Her body’s blossomed over the past two years and her Italian heritage is prominent in the high arch of her cheeks, the pout of her mouth, the width of her hips and the lush curve of her bust.

She’s been told more than once that she looks like a painting, like a sculpture, like some other useless, meaningless piece of flattery that men think women like to hear.  Like they don’t realize all they’re doing is calling her a thing, comparing her to something made to be viewed by others.

That’s not what Toni is.  That’s not who Toni is.

So normally she brushes that sort of thing off, aware that all those people want from her is either her money or the chance to say they fucked her.

But this … Jannik and Mari … this feels different.

They are kind to her.  They heal her from this wound she’s chosen to inflict upon herself.  They have late nights in their living room with beer and heavy Danish food with her.  They laugh with her, play with her.  Jannik teaches her to cook, rounds out the things she’d learned when she was small and attached to Jarvis’ apron strings.

They ask her for nothing but the price they’ve already agreed on.  For her to buy every other meal when they go out.  For her to bake the lemon squares Jarvis taught her to make when she was eleven.

The way they touch her feels different too.  Feels deeper.  More.  Hotter.

They don’t tell her she’s beautiful.  Instead they make her feel as if she is.  As if it’s true.

No one has ever made her feel that way before.

Mari winds her arms around Toni’s neck, pulls her against the tall line of her body, careful of her back.  She teaches Toni to dance but not the proper ballroom from her youth.  Instead she teaches her how to roll her hips, how to sway, how slink and slide, how to strut and entice.

Her hands linger on the curve of Toni’s waist, on the dip of her spine, the elegant arch of her ribcage.  Her lips brush the shell of Toni’s ear as she sings along with the music, trace the curve of Toni’s neck as the two of them sway together, limbs entwined.

Jannik watches them quietly, eyes dark and a small smile on his lips.

Toni thinks this is what seduction feels like.

She likes it.

~~~

It takes a little over a month for the tattoo to be finished.

The wings arch across her shoulder blades and flow down her back, down past the dainty curve of her waist to end just above the swell of her ass.  Each feather is intricately done, lovingly etched.

Looking at the finished, healed product Toni can almost believe they could unfurl from her skin and take her skyward.

“Exquisite.”  Jannik murmurs to her.

When Mari leans down to kiss her Toni meets her half way.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The blistering euphoria of the fall.

~~~

They teach her about her body slowly, generously.

They make her comfortable in her skin, in her sex, in all that both imply.

She learns to be comfortable sun bathing topless with Mari in their backyard.  In dancing in their kitchen in only her panties. In loving both of their bodies together and separately, in watching them love each other and themselves.

Jannik cups the weight of her breasts in his large hands, tells her she’d look lovely with a bit of metal.  Mari agrees.  Twenty minutes later Toni has steel bars through both nipples.

She loves the way they hurt.

She stays another month.

She doesn’t sleep in the guest room anymore.

~~~

Life with them is like a beautiful daydream but Toni knows it’ll have to end eventually.

They’re married and she has an entire life waiting for her back home.  She doesn’t love them enough to stay.  They don’t love her enough to ask her to.

There’s affection there though and that’s more than Toni had thought to ever have before.

Still she misses her apartment, misses DUM-E and U, misses Steve and her workshop, the luxurious expanse of her bed, the act of creation.

So she packs, writes her address and number down for them if they’re ever in the states, kisses them both one last time, and leaves.

It’s bittersweet but unlike so many other things in her life Toni has no true regrets.

~~~

DUM-E and U are ecstatic to see her.  They whirl around her when she lets them out of the guest room where they’ve been docked to keep them out of trouble with the television on for their entertainment and education.

Toni sheds her clothes as she moves through the apartment, used to wondering around half naked now.  She unpacks her recorder, presses a kiss to Steve’s star, drops her suitcase in her closet, her purse on the floor, and flops down on her bed to watch DUM-E and U kiss Steve as well.

“I’ve missed you guys.”  She smiles at them as they chirp and turn circles in the room, her bra hangs from one of U’s fingers and DUM-E’s wondering around with one of her spiked heels, one of the towering knife edged kind she’d fallen in love with back in Denmark, in hand.  They’re adorable.  “Come on boys, time for a bedtime story.”

She sprawls out across the bed with her recorder by her hip.  Presses play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

Steve catches her just before she hits the water.

~~~

The headline reads:  Drunken Debauchery in Denmark:  Stark Heiress Out Of Control?

There’s a picture of her kissing Jannik over Mari’s shoulder.  She can tell from what they’re all wearing that it’s a photo of their last outing together where they’d gone to a club and drank and danced and just been happy to be together.

That’s not what gets her though.

That she could have handled.

It’s the interview that’s attached that does her in.

Toni reads it in one go.  Sits on her couch with DUM-E and U whirling around the living room and reads her secrets in stark black and white.

Jannik and Mari tell the whole world things about her, about how wild she is, how uninhibited she can be, how reckless and fast she is.

They do her the kindness of not telling the whole world about her wings.

It is the only kindness they show.

Absently Toni wonders just how much the paper had paid them for the story.

She would have paid triple for their silence.

She crumples the paper, drops it to the living room floor, walks to her workshop and shuts and locks the door behind her.  She hears DUM-E and U whirling curiously from the other side but she doesn’t pay them any attention.

Instead she turns the stereo up loud, sits down at her work bench, and picks up her tools.

She’s halfway through building the new sniper scope she’s been working on and hoping to patent when she snaps.

Her arm sweeps across the worktable’s top almost before she realizes she’s moved.  Tools and materials go flying.  The half formed scope shatters against the far wall.

Once she starts it’s as if she can’t stop.

Toni’s on her feet in the next second, crow bar in hand.  She bashes it against the worktable, turns and slams it against and into the nearest wall.

Her chest is cold, all the warmth in her eaten away by pure, icy rage.

It takes her a few seconds to realize that she’s screaming, inarticulate and jagged, a wounded, bestial roar as she raises the bar high above her head and smashes it against her tall chrome tool box over and over again.  She destroys anything and everything within reach, half-finished projects, delicate instruments, sheets of glass and plastic all shatter into scrap beneath her fury.

Finally she stands in the center of her destroyed workshop panting.  Her face throbs, she can feel the tacky slide of blood as it drips down from her left eyebrow.  Her arms and hands are bloody from shrapnel and flying debris.

She feels abruptly ill.

Toni drops the crow bar, unlocks the door, pushes past DUM-E and U who are huddled like they’re frightened by the couch, and rushes towards the bathroom.

She barely makes it to the toilet before she’s sick.

She clutches the bowl as she dry heaves, her hands slip against the porcelain and leave jagged streaks of crimson in their wake.  She flushes, fumbles the lid closed and then presses her forehead against the chill.

‘How could they?’  It’s all she can think and even in her head it sounds young and bewildered, a puzzled sort of hurt like a dog that doesn’t understand why it’s been kicked.  ‘How could they?  I thought we were friends.’

But she knows.

God she knows.

She’s always known.

It was for the moneyIt’s always for the fucking money.

She’d let Rhodey lull her into compliance, let his honest friendship dull some of her edges, let him blunt the razor sharp shield Howard had beaten into her with his addicting kindness and his gruff care.

“You’re so stupid Toni.”  Her laugh is high pitched and desperate and it pitters out on another choked back sob.  “You’re so fucking stupid.”

She’s a Stark and Starks don’t get things like friends.  They don’t get things like kindness and loyalty and fucking common decency unless they pay for them.

She’s already beaten the odds by finding Rhodey, already gambled and won with him.  She shouldn’t have been greedy, shouldn’t have thought she could have Jannik and Mari and their warm hands and hotter mouths for free.  She shouldn’t have thought she could have those two stolen months with them, with their little cottage and their cozy kitchen, the softness of their bed.  She shouldn’t have thought her own companionship, her body and her conversation, her spirit and her mind, would be payment enough for what they gave her.

She should have known they’d want more.  People always want more so she should have known she wasn’t worth that much.

She’s never been worth that much.

She’d bet against the house and lost.  Just like Howard had always said she would, just like he’d always warned her not to.

“You were right,” Toni rasps to the ghost of Howard Stark that hovers just behind her eyelids.  For a moment the remembered stench of scotch and Cuban cigars is heavy in the air around her.  For a moment she could swear she can feel his hand, hard and heavy, on her shoulder again.

It’s enough to make her gag.

“Of all the things to get right it had to be this.” Toni beats her head against the porcelain hard enough to hurt but it doesn’t help her stop the sob that works its way up her throat.  “Goddamn you to hell you sorry son of a bitch you were right.”

She’d miscalculated with Jannik and Mari.  She should have hedged her bets but instead she’d chosen to trust.

She won’t make that same mistake again.

Not ever.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The sick shudder of relief when the sea pulls her under and the dark closes in around the edges.

~~~

She spends the night in the tub, emptying and refiling it with scalding hot water every time it cools despite the way it makes her cuts burn when she cleans them because she feels dirty somehow.

Because it was easy to ignore all those other headlines when she knew none of them were true.  But this one … this one eats at her.  They took something precious to her and made it dirty, turned it deviant and shameful.  It makes her feel violated, stripped down and exposed.

Small.

There are few things in the world that Toni hates more than feeling small.  At the moment only Howard ranks above that.

There are seventy-six messages on her answering machine the next time she pulls herself out of the bathroom.  The number blinks at her from the large face plate she’d installed above the phone so it would catch her eyes when she was distracted.

DUM-E and U are lingering by the bathroom door.  There’s a small mountain of cups and mugs, pillows and shoes, a punctured box of cereal and the fire extinguisher from her workshop, all piled by the door like offerings at an altar.

She makes sure to pat them both lovingly before she moves towards the phone.

The first message is from Playboy because she’s eighteen now and it’s legal.  The second is from Hustler.  The third’s from Obie.  The fourth is from a porn studio in L.A. who wants to know if she’s willing to do full girl on girl or if she’d rather stick to the gangbang dynamic they heard she likes.  They promise the tape would sell well, get a lot of exposure.

She’s eighteen and these people treat her like she’s meat, like she’s a resource to be consumed, like they have a right to her body or her time or her sex.

It hits her then that they’ve been doing this her entire life.  She’s been in and out of magazines since she was born, in and out of tabloids since she went to MIT at thirteen, wrapped up in fake sex scandals since she was fifteen.

It takes all her will power not to get sick again.

She doesn’t bother to listen to the rest of the messages, just hits the erase button and watches the number flick down to zero.

Toni strides naked to her bedroom and doesn’t stop until she’s directly in front of her full length mirror.  She looks at herself, at her waterfall of thick black curls, at the glint of rubies set high on the arch of her ears, at the warm gold of her pendant cradled between her breasts.

She runs her hands up her own arms and across her shoulders, watches red lines pop up from where her nails have actually managed to grow out a bit.  She marvels at the pale expanse of her skin, at the lack of bruises or injuries except for the ones she gave herself.  She cups the full weight of her breasts in her hands, thumbs at the steel bars through her nipples, runs her fingertips down her ribs and across the width of her hips.  She brings her hands back up and pulls her hair up off of her back, twists until she can see the wings etched into the skin there and the swell of her ass.

She meets her own eyes in the mirror, ice blue and bright like stained glass, and watches them harden in real time.

“This is my body.”  Toni tells herself softly, firmly.  It’s a prayer, an affirmation.  A promise.  “This is who I am.  They can’t take that away from me.  I won’t let them.”

She pivots and goes to her dresser.  There she opens the thick enameled box Aunt Peggy had sent her for her birthday and pulls out the thick gold hairpins that had made up the other part of her gift.  She also grabs the angel wings Jarvis gave her and her newest tube of lipstick before she whirls back to the mirror.

Slowly, deliberately, she pins her hair up as sexy and elaborately as she can, sets the angel wings around her temples like a crown and then paints her lips in blood.

Her smile is all teeth.

She’s a Stark.

She’s the Stark.

As much as she hates Howard, as much as she feels nothing towards Maria, she’s still a Stark and that’s a name that matters.  That’s a name that gets attention, that has command.

Plus, Howard’s dead now, she can’t help but think with a vicious sort of glee.  Howard’s dead and the Stark name is hers.

She’ll be damned if she’ll let any of them take that away from her either.

Her name’s Natasha Antonia Stark.  She’s a prodigy.  A genius.

And she’s going to show the whole world exactly what that means.

~~~

Toni lines her eyes in black, makes them smoky and slumberous, and then smooths scarlet stockings up the supple curves of her legs and snaps her garter belt into place before she slinks her way into a tiny black skirt.  She pulls a crimson blouse over her shoulders and grabs the highest, sharpest heels she owns.

She feels as if she’s donning armor.

She likes it.

She’ll paint herself in shades of red before she gives any of them the opportunity to do it for her.

She makes sure to tuck Jarvis’ monogrammed wallet, the one she long since claimed as her own, into her purse and grabs her wide lensed sunglass off her dresser.  She pauses long enough to look up into Steve’s smiling face.

“You’d have never loved me.”  Toni tells Steve’s smile and there’s a curl of something almost sad in her chest at having to admit that fact, at having to speak the words to the open air.  Captain America, Steve Rogers, would never choose her if given the opportunity.  “I know that now.  I’ll never be the kind of woman Aunt Peggy is, I’ll never be that good.  I’m fine with that.  But you were small once and you became mighty.  I think I could love you for that alone.  At least loving a dead man is safe.”

Toni steps forward and is, thanks to her towering heels, just tall enough to lean forward and press a single gentle kiss against the glass directly over Steve’s heart.

When she pulls back there’s a perfect imprint of her lips in crimson on the glass.

She doesn’t wipe it away.              

Instead she tilts her chin up, straightens her spine, and plants her free hand on the curve of her hip.

“I’m Toni fucking Stark Stevie and I’ve been small my whole life.”  Toni’s smile is a slow, seductive curl of lips.  But there’s still far too many teeth involved to be considered even remotely polite.  “Now it’s my turn to be mighty.”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

She screams, a vicious and unbridled thing, and turns upwards towards the sun.

She leaves the sea and the taste of salt behind.

Except for how she doesn’t