Toni Stark is born for a second time from the icy wasteland of betrayal.
She’s a small, destructive bundle of sleek limbs, thick black hair, and a razor sharp mind hidden behind too bright eyes.
The first thing she does is go shopping.
She buys short skirts and skin tight tops. She buys dresses cut down to her navel and split up to her hip. She buys lace stockings and skimpy underwear, sheer bras and almost see through blouses. Knife edged heels, boots that come up to her knees, and jewel ended hair pins.
She buys clothes, jewelry, shoes and lingerie by the truck load. Buys things in different shades and variations of black and red and gold because those have always been her colors. She buys only the best fabrics, everything rich and indulgent because it’s the only touch she can allow herself to enjoy at the moment.
Everything she buys has a purpose though, each piece picked because it plays up her figure and her coloring. Hugs the lines of her body like a second skin, shows off the curves of her figure, the length of her leg, the seductive swell of her breasts. Each item is carefully chosen because they make her look sexy but not soft, seductive but not giving.
The whole world wants a piece of her so she’ll make herself into a goddess and then force them to kneel if they want her attention. They will only get what she gives them from now on.
She cleans up the workshop, patches the holes in the walls, and orders new materials to be delivered. She buys DUM-E and U a basket of nerf balls to play with as an apology for scaring them.
She moves her comfortable, familiar long sleeve shirts and time worn jeans to one side of her closet. She can wear them in the workshop or whenever she’s free to be gentle and real instead of the armor she’s building up around herself. For when she can be just Toni instead of the Toni Stark she’s intent on crafting.
For the first time in her life she wears short sleeves on low cut blouses in soft lace or sumptuous silks. She pairs them with lace topped silk stockings, blood red lipstick and dark, dark eyes.
She keeps her back covered, her wings hidden and her hair up.
Each time she dresses to leave the penthouse she feels as if she’s girding herself for battle, as if she’s armoring herself up for war.
She likes it.
She also hates it.
She meets Aunt Peggy for lunch.
Toni hugs her happily, breathes in her comfortable, familiar scent of tea and orange blossoms before they pull away from each other and settle down in their chairs.
“It’s good to see you again Toni.” Aunt Peggy smiles, eyes crinkling deeply at the corners.
“You too Aunt Peggy.” Toni’s eyes trace over the thick swatch of white in Aunt Peggy’s hair. It’s bigger than it was the last time she saw her, the rich brown slowly being eaten away by time, and it strikes her suddenly how much older than her Aunt Peggy really is.
She’s going to lose her one day too. Just like Jarvis.
The realization hits Toni like a blow and she has to shove the thought away, has to force herself not to think about it just to keep the tears she can feel welling up from spilling over.
She can’t cry in public, not even for this, not anymore. She can’t afford that kind of vulnerability.
“You look different ducky.” There’s wisdom and the bright glint of intelligence in Aunt Peggy’s eyes as they trace over Toni’s clothes, over her bare arms, upswept hair, and heavy lidded eyes.
Toni should have known that she’d pick up on it immediately.
For a moment she’s at a loss for words, unsure of just how to explain to Aunt Peggy that she’s making herself into a weapon. That she’s forging herself into sword and shield both because if she doesn’t then the world will cut her down and this is the best way to stop them from doing that.
“Be careful darling.” Aunt Peggy says after a short moment of silence and her eyes are knowing. “So many hate to see a woman succeed and I can tell you’re going to do a lot of that. They’ll sidle up to you sideways love, slink in with a smile and wait for you to drop your guard, so be careful. Watch your own back because a pretty mouth can still hide fangs dear.”
Toni nods, agrees silently. She knows Aunt Peggy’s right. Pretty mouths can hold fangs. Her mouth is exquisite after all and she has rows of sharp teeth hidden just behind her lips. Just like Aunt Peggy does.
“They’re going to try to hurt you now.” There’s a solemn note in the older woman’s voice then, an aching sort of sadness behind the strength. “I had hoped you’d have more time but …” Aunt Peggy sighs. “Now that they know you’re not going to be passive anymore they’re going to lash out worse than before.”
“I’m a Stark.” Toni tells her and the words hold a wealth of meaning for the two of them. Even if she’s never said it Toni thinks they both know she would have rather been a Jarvis instead. Or a Carter. But she’s neither in anything more than spirit and unfortunately to the rest of the world that doesn’t count at all.
“Exactly darling, exactly.” Aunt Peggy sips her tea carefully and her lipstick leaves a crimson stain on the delicate china. It matches the one on Toni’s coffee cup. They are, after all, two creatures of a similar breed. Different yes, but familiar predators all the same. “Also I’d suggest taking up some sort of training. Jiu-Jitsu is all the rage now days I hear. Or perhaps kickboxing.”
So many forget that in nature beauty also means danger.
A week later she finds a private instructor versed in both.
Wax. Feathers. Heat.
The steel resolve to reach ever higher.
The pain of her wings melting against her back, wax scalding her skin as she ignores the urge to let herself fall to the soothing waters below.
Toni can tell Rhodey is worried about her.
She hears it in his voice when he calls her, can practically taste it in the anxious slant of his latest letter before she tucks it away in the fireproof box she keeps all of their correspondence.
He freezes when he sees her at the airport the next time he’s on leave. He rakes his eyes over her, brows arched high and mouth slightly open, as he takes in her kohl lined eyes, sheer blouse and black leather miniskirt.
Toni feels almost nervous which is ridiculous because he’s seen her naked before. He’d nursed her through pneumonia once when she refused to go to the hospital after Jarvis died and she’d been a sickly mess, weak and helpless. He’d helped her shower, helped her dress, even helped her take a piss. As a result they’ve reached a level of comfort with each other’s bodies that’s normally reserved for married couples or twins, but he’s never seen her like this and somehow that seems almost more nerve-wracking.
“Toni?” There’s something cautious and unsure in his voice, like he knows something’s wrong but just can’t place it.
Toni closes the distance between them in a flash, throws her arms around him, and just breathes.
He wraps her up tight, presses a kiss to her forehead, and very pointedly doesn’t ask.
She just clings to him tighter than ever before.
They go back to the penthouse and get him settled in before they collapse together on the couch, his arm around her shoulders and her cheek pressed against his chest.
“What’s the matter sweetheart?” His hand, large and warm and safe, strokes softly up and down her spine.
Toni presses even closer to him because just like with Aunt Peggy the fact that he can see straight down to the core of her makes her love him more.
She tries to gather the words in her chest and push them upwards and off of her tongue but she just can’t seem to find the right way to do it. Can’t seem to make herself tell him the truth about Jannik and Mari. Can’t seem to find the right words to tell Rhodey that the world wants to chew her up and spit her out simply because of who and what she is. Can’t find the words to tell him that she’s not going to let them do that even if she has to kill a part of herself to prevent it.
Better to die in pieces by her own hands than to be savaged by theirs. At least that way she’d have some margin of control.
Instead she just shakes her head and burrows even further into his side.
“Alright.” Rhodey sighs. He sounds a strange mix of sad and resolved but the hand on her back and the chest beneath her cheek are still warm and solid and there. “You tell me when you’re able to sweetheart. I’ll be here when you’re ready.”
She savors his understanding and hardens her resolve to enjoy each and every moment they’re together. Resolves not to take a single second for granted, to store up these touches, these moments of warmth and coziness and safety. She’ll fold them down into herself and wait to pull the memories back out for the months where he’s gone and she’s alone and the metal claws of DUM-E and U are the closest things she can find to a comforting embrace.
So she pulls away, stands and kicks off her heels before she goes to her room to change. She pulls on a pair of soft sleep pants, a large long sleeved shirt she stole from him at MIT, and comes back to curl up against him on the couch. He doesn’t say anything about her change, just lifts his arm again and welcomes her into his space like he always does.
Sometimes she wishes she could love him in a different way. Wishes she could love him like a part of her loves the Steve Rogers Aunt Peggy had given her all those years ago. But at the same time she doesn’t because as well as they fit together as friends, siblings and platonic soulmates of a sort, Toni knows that they wouldn’t last like that. She’s too much for Rhodey sometimes, too much energy, too much noise. She’d drive him away eventually.
She’s terrified she still might.
They eat pizza, drink coffee and eat cheap burgers like when they were in college. They watch shitty movies on her television, push the couch against the wall and play catch with the boys. Mainly they talk, about her projects, about life in the service, about memories and plans for the far off future.
One night when they’re settling down to watch the basketball game he’s been talking about all week she unpins her hair and lets it flow down her back in a tumble of silky curls. His eyes go wide and soft when she hands him her hair brush and sits down on the floor at his feet.
It is a gesture of trust and love and devotion all wrapped up into one simple, silent act. A vulnerability bared and held out freely in his direction.
He works his hands through her hair with a soft almost hushed reverence, fingers playing with the thick curls, making tiny braids and then brushing them out gently until her curls shine, all the way up until the game ends.
That, more than anything else, lets Toni know he understands.
“Don’t lose yourself to this Tones.” Rhodey presses a kiss to her forehead when they’re standing in the airport terminal together as his plane boards behind him. She’s dressed in her finest armor but she can’t help the way she clutches at his jacket, not wanting to let him go but knowing that she will. “I love you little girl. Just remember that. Just remember that I love you and whatever this is, whatever it is eating at you, I’m here. You’re not alone Toni and you never will be if I can help it.”
God she loves him so much. She wants to burrow beneath his skin, wants to wrap herself up tight and safe behind his ribs and let him protect her.
She knows he’d let her if he could.
If they were those kinds of people. But they’re not and they both know she’d never do that to him. To herself. To them.
Letting him go is still one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do and it never gets easier.
But she does it anyways.
The headline reads: Stark Heiress Rekindles Old Flame: Party Princess Tamed At Last?
Toni sneers and crumples the headline in her fist.
She’s not something to be tamed. She’s not a horse to be broken to the saddle.
Fuck them all.
“Yes young miss?”
Listen. Rewind. Play.
“Yes young miss?”
Wax. Feathers. Heat.
The fleeting comfort of the wind brushing a kiss across her blistered cheeks.
The harsh truth of the sun scorching her upturned face.
Toni has a plan.
Well it’s more like Toni has a performance planned.
It’s complicated, risky, but her mind sees no other route, no other option.
She’s calculated, done the math, drawn up the designs and crunched the equations. No other path ends correctly, no other road goes where she wants it to so she’ll have to forge her own.
This is the best way, the most effective.
Starks are, Toni knows, con-artists at heart. And somewhere along the way she’s made the decision to be the greatest Stark to ever live and this is the start of that journey.
Or maybe it’s not, maybe she started years ago. Maybe the start was her, all of eleven and beaten and bloody beneath Howard’s fists but refusing to stay down, refusing to give him the satisfaction of pounding her down into where he believed her rightful place to be. Beneath him.
Maybe that was the start.
If that’s true then this, at least, will be Act II.
Either way it’s not going to be easy.
The long con is the most difficult performance after all but it’s also often the most rewarding.
One day she’ll overshadow Howard, will push his memory back down into hell where he belongs.
One day when people think Stark it’ll be her face that comes to mind and not that bastard’s.
Like with everything else she’s ever dreamed up all Toni has to do is make it so.
So she squares her shoulders, gathers her strength, and prepares her opening number without another second’s hesitation.
Toni sweeps into society like a hurricane, cuts a swathe through the people who’d stand in her way, and takes her place center stage as if it is her due.
‘All eyes on me,’ Toni thinks with a mirthless chuckle as reporters scream questions and the flashing lights of their cameras burst before her eyes.
She’s a Stark after all and she’s the type of con-artist who works best in the spotlight.
To everyone’s surprise except for her own she takes the world by storm with barely any effort at all.
Toni’s always had a hard time connecting to people on an emotional level but she does know that a lot of them, the ones that matter for her purposes at least, are fickle. They’re needy, gluttonous creatures eager to take a bite out of anyone.
They’ve been feeding off of her for years without her consent and that changes now.
Now she’s going to feed them willfully, gleefully.
Now she’s going to make them all fat and slow.
‘All eyes on me,’ she thinks again, ‘all eyes on me.’
By the time she turns nineteen she’s the new face of Dior and she’s the one who sets the standards others live by.
If she wears it once it’s in fashion. If she goes to a restaurant it’s considered the new ‘it’ place.
A petulant, displeased turn of her mouth can end careers, a smile can send them surging upwards.
A throw away comment here or a casual statement there, leads to donations pouring into the Maria Stark Foundation and other reputable charities.
‘Besides’, self-righteous and smug mouths whisper just loud enough for her to hear, ‘if a shallow socialite like Toni Stark can donate occasionally then so can everyone else. They’re better than she is after all.’
Toni smiles, watches from the sidelines as an orphanage/shelter/youth center on the Foundation’s list gets its remodel/funding/staff, and keeps going.
After half a decade of pixie cuts reigning supreme long hair is suddenly stylish again. Curls are considered in vogue. People speculate on why she never wears her hair down so she pins it more firmly in place and watches out for wondering hands. Award ceremonies that year are seas of up-dos and jeweled hairpins.
Toni wears her curls in a simple but elegant bun decorated with white chrysanthemums and watches the crowds go crazy.
Eventually the Dior house designer puts up a bit of a fuss but she refuses to model with her hair down no matter what he says, no matter how hard he pushes.
She doesn’t need their money, doesn’t need the fame or their connections. She can walk away at any time. They can’t control her like they do the rest of their models, can’t keep her cowed beneath their boot heels with threats of never working again.
They both love and hate her for that.
Her hair stays up and her back stays covered.
She smiles and struts down red carpet after red carpet, entices reporters with flashes of creamy thighs and sultry eyes. Promises everything with a glance and then gives them exactly what they deserve.
She shamelessly fucks a few of her fellow models and doesn’t make a secret of it, hoping to get the taste of Jannik and Mari out of her mouth. The women are all hollow eyed, brittle bird like things who tower over her and seem to live off of breath mints and savage rage. The men are little better, all carved perfection, fisted hands and gritted teeth. Stallions biting at their bits.
It’s cold and meaningless and doesn’t work. She loses her taste for it quickly enough but she’s satisfied with the damage she’s managed to cause in the process. The press assumes she’s fucking anyone she’s seen with anyways so it’s not like it matters anymore.
The only thing small about her now is her height but even in a world where taller is better and thin is still never thin enough no one seems to notice that anymore.
She’s Toni fucking Stark after all.
Twenty and Victoria Secret comes calling. She accepts on the premise that her same rules still apply. They fall over themselves to accommodate her because she’s like Midas and everything she touches turns to gold.
She wears black leather beneath a crimson and gold overcoat as she struts down a runway in Milan, top hat in hand, wings covered and hair up, a ringmaster for all to see.
The irony is almost overwhelming.
Still she grins the entire time and actually enjoys the moment because Rhodey’s in the front row and he laughs, loud and bright and beautiful, when she throws him the hat.
She drinks and parties some but never as much as the tabloids say. She remembers all too well the scent of peppermint and alcohol on Maria’s breath. Still wakes up at night shaking sometimes with the memory of the scotch and rage fueled pain of Howard’s fists.
She doesn’t think those memories will ever fade, she’s not that lucky.
A part of her almost doesn’t want them to fade. Because every time she almost falters she remembers the feel of her shoulder being popped out of place, the pain of Howard’s ring catching against her skin, the numb feeling of Maria’s blunt apathy, how it hurts to breathe with broken ribs.
Each memory is like fuel, like wind beneath her wings, buoying her back up and keeping her on her chosen path.
Toni hates the memories but she uses them anyways.
She’ll take her motivation where she can find it.
The press takes to calling her the Scarlet Stark Heiress. Among other things. Needless to say there’s a running theme to their jabs.
‘Fuck them all,’ she thinks as she reaches for her lipstick and paints herself crimson instead.
They’re all just too stupid to truly understand the difference.
Crimson’s a much darker shade after all.
It suits her.
She still invents in her spare time though, in between red carpets and movie premiers. She wouldn’t be able to stop even if she wanted to. Her mind whirls too fast and too bright if she goes too long without working, her brilliance eating away at her sanity bit by bit if it’s denied its outlet for too long.
The maelstrom in her mind is the price she pays, has always paid, for the genius she possesses.
The difference is that she just stops telling people what she’s making. Instead she files patents on the low, pays a hefty bribe to the file clerk to keep it all quiet because money speaks louder than words and Toni’s learned quickly enough that her money screams.
It’s all part of the plan though, this technological hibernation she’s pretending to undergo. She hates it, hates creating and then hiding it away when she should be releasing most of it into the world to do what it’s intended for. Hates the almost smug way Obie looks at her every time he asks her if she has anything new in the pipeline only to have to say no. She hates being stifled but she knows it’s necessary.
She hires a private lawyer, a willowy Latina woman with hard hungry eyes and straight shoulders, who eagerly signs a NDA and agrees to go over every inch of the rules and stipulations of SI.
Toni learned her lesson from Jannik and Mari, now she always hedges her bets.
The company won’t be hers until she’s twenty-one and Toni already knows they’re going to fight her. The board does not and will not take the idea of a woman, especially one of her age, running things well. They’ll try to get rid of her, try to take what’s rightfully hers.
This is the purpose of her little show.
She needs them complacent, needs to be underestimated. She needs them to think she’ll be something they can easily sweep under the rug, something that they can handle effortlessly enough when the time comes. She wants them to look at her and see vapid instead of shrewd, fickle instead of focused. She needs to take them by surprise, needs to hit them hard and fast so they have no time to prepare against her.
It’s like a magic trick. Like sleight of hand and misdirection. All flash-fire smoke and mirrors to hide the real trick.
‘Look over here,’ she says to them all silently. ‘Look at the parties and the drinking and forget the words prodigy and genius.’
‘Pay no mind to the woman behind the curtain.’
‘Watch my left hand but never my right. Don’t see the knife until it’s already buried in your ribs.’
‘All eyes on me,’ Toni thinks to herself as she sips champagne at yet another boring party, ‘you’re all blind anyways.’
The media loves and hates her by turns.
The Scarlet Stark Heiress, they keep repeating, and for all intents and purposes she might as well have a letter embroidered on her chest.
They call her a whore in every way imaginable without ever outright saying the word anyways.
Toni laughs and forcefully doesn’t care.
In response she paints her lips darker, holds her head up higher, gets louder, faster, more.
Shame means nothing in the face of progress.
She’ll armor herself up until she can’t feel it anymore, turn her music louder until she can’t hear it anymore. Keep her eyes focused on the prize with no room to waver.
“Yes young miss?”
Listen. Rewind. Play.
Wax. Feathers. Heat.
Steve stands, face twisted into a sneer, and just watches as she falls.
The water closes over her head but all she can see is the blue of his eyes.
Shame burns like sea water in her lungs.
She takes a deep breath, wills herself to sink faster.
There’s a room full of clocks in the back of Toni’s head, all of them counting up from or down to some sort of event.
X-amount of years, months, weeks, days, seconds since Jarvis was taken from her.
X-amount of years, months, weeks, days, seconds until she manages to drive Rhodey away.
X-amount of years, months, weeks, days, seconds until Aunt Peggy’s gone too.
X-amount of years, months, weeks, days, seconds until she can finally stop this.
Sometimes Toni wishes she could smash them all.
But they’re all inside her mind, her terrifying, chaotic mind, which means she’s had to learn to deal with them.
“Yes young miss?”
Listen. Rewind. Play.
Twenty-one comes in silence.
Rhodey’s on assignment, Aunt Peggy’s sick with some sort of flu, and the boys are at the penthouse so Toni’s alone as the clock strikes twelve.
Her thumb runs across the edges of her pendant as she sits on the ground, back pressed against the headstone behind her. She’s wrapped in a familiar overcoat and the crimson sundress that she only wears when she comes here. It’s tight across the bust and hips but it still fits. She’s not sure what she’ll do the day it doesn’t anymore.
“You should be here for this. I wish you were here for this.” The cemetery’s empty and she’d made sure she wasn’t followed so Toni feels comfortable actually speaking. She leans her head back so she can stare up at the sky as she sighs. She ignores the warm trickle of tears against her temples as they slide back and into her hair. “I spent all day thinking about what it would be like today if you were still here.”
Toni always misses Jarvis, knows with an intimate sort of certainty that she always will. But it’s moments like this when the grief wells back up to the surface and threatens to choke her like it did in the very beginning.
“We’d get up early and have breakfast, maybe chase the cook away and spend the morning in the kitchen, just you and me. You could tell me stories while we make that orange chocolate gateau we both loved for later. Maybe we could go to that art museum you liked and then the aquarium because you always told me that you’re never too old for sharks.” She smiles faintly at the memory of that conversation, at his exaggerated offense when she’d question his enthusiasm the first time he’d taken her there when she was nine. It’d helped to distract from the pain in her arm and she knows now, had known then, that was his whole intent. “We’d come home and have pizza from that place by the park, eat cake and watch movies. We’d have my first legal drink together. It’d probably be one of those shitty microbrews you always tried to hide the fact that you liked but I wouldn’t care because it’d be a drink with you and anything would be fine.”
Toni squeezes her eyes shut so tightly little bursts of white pop up behind her lids. She doesn’t care though, can’t care. Her voice is low, husky with pain and sorrow, when she speaks again. “You’d brush my hair and tell me our story and it’d be … it’d be perfect. The perfect day Jarvis, just the two of us.”
Toni lets herself imagine it for a moment. Lets the sense memory of Jarvis’ hands in her hair, his warm strength at her side and the safety of his embrace, wash over her. Imagines a day without Howard and Maria, without fear and pain, a day of joy and celebration with the only father she’d ever known.
“Or we could have done nothing. We could have both been busy the entire day, caught up in work and other, more important things until later that night. I probably wouldn’t even realize what the day was.” There’d been more than one birthday like that. “And then you’d stop by my room just before midnight with milk and the cake I didn’t know you made, some kind of gift in your pocket because of the two of us you’d never actually forget my birthday. You’d kiss me on the forehead and tell me our story. It’d still be the perfect day.”
Toni clutches her recorder to her chest, buries her face in the collar of the overcoat that no longer smells like fresh bread and lemon furniture polish. It smells like her now, a mix of metal and heat overlaid with the faintest hint of strawberries and cream from the soaps and shampoos she favors. It’s familiar but not right. It should still smell like him, should still smell like home and love. But it doesn’t because time doesn’t stand still and scents fade no matter how much Toni wishes they wouldn’t.
“I never got the chance to tell you I love you.” She reaches down a hand and fists it in the thick grass of the grave top. “I’d give … so much to fix that mistake. To be able to tell you how much you meant to me growing up, how much you still mean to me. I wish I hadn’t been scared then, before it was too late, to say it to you. Because I was. Just like you were, I was terrified. Scared someone else would hear, or that you’d push me away, or look at me like Howard did. Or worse that you wouldn’t say it back. I knew better in my heart but my head just … well you know how it is. How I am.”
Toni rips up a handful of grass and tosses it to the side. She has to resist the urge to dig her nails into the dirt. A sick part of her wants to tear into the ground, to dig down beneath the soil and wrap herself around the casket that’s resting there. A part of her still wishes somedays that they’d put her in the ground with him or that she could sit here, beside his headstone, until her body calcifies, until she turns to stone.
Toni’s a genius, a prodigy, but she never said she was entirely rational all of the time.
“You should be here for this.” Toni repeats as she twists enough to trace her fingertips across the letters etched into the marble.
E. D. W. I. N.
“I wish you were here for this.” Toni tires to smile but it comes out wrong, a bitter, broken flash of teeth against an unpainted mouth, almost hidden by her cascading hair as she tilts her head forward. “Maybe then I wouldn’t be the way I am now, wouldn’t have to be. Maybe I’d be a better person, like you and Aunt Peggy. Like Steve.”
J. A. R. V. I. S.
“I miss you. I love you.” She presses chapped lips to the cold marble, leans back and grabs her recorder. “Everything good about me came from you.”
She bites back the word she so desperately wants to say, keeps it caged behind her teeth, tucked beneath her tongue.
She wasn’t brave enough to say it while he was alive. She doesn’t deserve to say it now when he’s no longer around to hear it.
But that doesn’t stop the way her mind chants it loudly, relentlessly.
Father. Father. Father.
Maybe one day she’ll let herself say it, maybe one day she’ll be able to tell someone just what kind of monster Howard was. Maybe one day she’ll be able to tell someone about the vicious, visceral joy seeing him dead had brought her.
Maybe one day she’ll bring someone here, to this grave, and introduce them to Jarvis.
Maybe one day she’ll tell them that this man, this wonderful, warm man, was her real father. The only one that ever counted, the only one she’d ever loved.
Maybe one day.
But not today.
Today this is all she has.
“Yes young miss?”
Her party the next night is large, extravagant, and borderline obscene.
Toni is armored to the hilt in a golden high neck gown with inserts missing from sternum to navel and slits up to her hips on both sides.
Champagne, wine and hard liquor alike flow like water. There’s a giant multilayer cake done in red and golds with her name all over it. The rich and the beautiful swan around together, laughing and gossiping. Obie’s holding court with a few senators in the corner and looking smugger by the minute. From a distance Toni sees Justin Hammer and has to forcefully keep her mouth from curling up into a snarl because he’s not supposed to be here the ferrety little bastard.
Honestly it’s a good party, filled with laughter and delicious food, good music and dancing. Any other time she might actually enjoy herself.
Today Toni finds all of it absolutely hateful.
Still when the time comes she sways her way up onto the stage, makes herself smile and look bashful but pleased when the crowd swings into the song. She says a few words, gets a few laughs, and cuts the cake.
She’s gone a half hour later.
No one notices.
Toni doesn’t care even if they do.
She’s twenty-one now. The company is hers for the taking and she has a meeting in New York to attend that she’s not supposed to know about in nine hours.
The board is in for a rude awakening indeed.
“Gentlemen.” Toni greets from her place at the head of the board room table as the door opens. “It’s nice to see you all are ready to join me.” She has the pleasure of seeing their faces go pale when they see her.
She’s dressed in a severe but still seductively tailored black suit with scarlet heels and she's seated like some sort of dark queen in the large, high backed chair. Lounging there as if it’s an actual throne.
For all intents and purposes it is.
The chair is Toni's new throne and Stark Industries will be her kingdom.
There’s the added bonus of knowing that it’s where Howard once sat, where Obie normally sits. She’s usurped them both now and she plans to keep it that way. Priscilla, her lawyer, is seated silently to her right in the next seat of power with a thick bundle of files in front of her. That fact isn’t lost on anyone either.
“Toni!” Obie recovers quicker than the others, pastes a passable smile on his face and moves further into the room. Still, Toni knows him well enough to see the anger in his eyes, the rage behind his smile. “What are you doing here? I figured you’d still be celebrating your birthday.”
She smiles, all teeth, and crosses one black stockinged leg over the other.
“Well I thought it was time I got to see my company.” Toni waves a hand nonchalantly at the other board members, and gestures them towards the empty seats. “Come in gentlemen, we have a long day ahead of us I’m sure. No need to waste more time than we already have.”
They try to fight her, try to convince her to leave, that the company isn’t something a young, beautiful thing like her wants any part of. Leave the business to the men they say, to the ones who know what they’re doing. Go back to your parties and your clothes, your silly little girl hobbies.
Weapons designing is a serious, difficult, business. No place for women, no place for emotions and sentimentality. No place for all those tragic flaws women just can’t help but have.
Toni grins to keep from sneering, lets them say their piece, and then trades an amused glance with Priscilla who hands her the thick stack of files.
Toni stands, makes a show of pushing her skirt back into place, and then struts around the side of the table. She stops behind Obie who’d taken the seat to her left.
“This is a telecommunication device I designed at sixteen.” She drops the folder onto the table in front of Obie.
She picks the next file from the pile and moves towards the next board member. “A grenade at seventeen.” Drops it, moves on.
“Sniper rifle.” Drops it, moves on.
“Hand gun.” Drops it, moves on.
“Satellite.” Drops it, moves on.
“Heat seeking IED technology.” Drops it, moves on.
“Sound based paralytic.” Drops it moves on.
She keeps going until she’s made her way all the way around the table and back to her chair. She settles down and looks at the faces of the board. Some of them are pale, some of them are red with indignation, a few look at her with shrewd appraisal.
She leans back, crosses her legs.
“These are just the things that would move our contracts with the military forward.” Toni tells them. “Stark Industries could and will be, so much more. Medical equipment, telecommunications, automotive design. The sky’s the limits gentlemen and I’ve always had a thing for heights.”
“Miss Stark this is-” one of the board goes to speak but Toni holds up a hand to silence him. His mouth snaps shut seemingly against his will.
“I designed all of this before I was even twenty-one. Just me and my female constitution, my womanly sentimentality. And I did it all between my many, many hobbies and more pleasurable pursuits.” Toni uncrosses her legs, stands to plant her hands on the mahogany table in front of her and leans forward intently. “Give me three years and I’ll build SI to heights that you’ve never seen before. Give me five and I’ll change the face of technology the entire world over.”
Game. Set. Match.
Toni is twenty-one and Stark Industries is hers.
If anyone ever tries to take it back they’ll have to pry it from her cold, dead hands.
Wax. Feathers. Heat.
The euphoria of flight.
The creeping numbness of an endless sky, no landmarks in sight.
Toni hits the ground running.
Within a month her new radios are being produced and then distributed to the troops. The government is all but panting over the streamlined devices. Within six months she debuts her new Stark model bolt-action sniper rifle with the scope she’d developed included and their contracts are renewed for another five years on the spot.
By the end of the first year she’s got enough padding with the board to open up production on the first generation StarkPhone. Money pours in from every direction, sales shoot through the roof, and customer satisfaction is so high the other companies try to call foul. She’s already planning upgrades.
It’s all Toni can do to keep her smug smile from the board.
She doesn’t always do so well at that.
Twenty two comes and Toni’s on the cover of Time Magazine. The photographer poses her sitting on an ornate thrown, shoulders back and head up. Her legs are crossed, her hair is braided and pined to look like a crown, her eyes are dark and sultry. She’s dressed in scarlet because originality seems to be dead if she’s not the one leading it forward but she still looks every inch the queen.
Rhodey frames it and then sends her a picture of the cover and its steel frame settled on his brand new desk with his brand new personalized StarkPhone.
The media calls her The Red Queen. Toni wishes the title came with the ability to say ‘off with their heads’ and have it come true.
Well technically she could do that but then it be contracted murder at the very least and that tends to be frowned on in most circles.
Plus she’s not that much of a monster.
She’s hounded by reporters and paparazzi wherever she goes.
Nothing is private, nowhere is sacred.
Toni keeps her head up high and her shoulders straight. She struts down red carpets and goes to galas and parties. She entices and charms, woos potential business partners, captures the attention of government officials and twists them all to help build Stark Industries higher and higher.
Someone leaves a bouquet of crimson roses on her door step. The card reads: You’re beautiful.
Toni builds and builds and then builds some more.
She works on new programs, irons kinks out of old ones. Strives to push forward, to stretch the boundaries of science further and further, to finally have the chance to expel some of the clutter from her own mind.
Someone leaves another bouquet. The card reads: I’d treat you like you deserve to be treated.
Toni shivers. Throws the roses away. Plays catch with the bots and deliberately doesn’t think about it.
The next four bouquets don’t have a note. She throws them all away, and requests that the door man not let whoever’s delivering them into the elevator anymore.
Rhodey’s there when the next one arrives. He brings them inside for her, sets them on the counter and then teases her about having a new beau. She brushes it off, tells him they’re from someone who’s more interested in her wallet than her panties.
As soon as he turns his back she throws them away, vase and all.
She knows he notices but he doesn’t say a word.
They spend the next week cavorting around the city doing anything and everything they want. Toni hasn’t been so happy in a long time.
It still isn’t easy to see him go.
Toni kisses Steve and curls up amongst silk sheets, she’s swimming in one of Rhodey’s shirts but it smells like him and she needs the comfort until she can get used to being alone again.
“Yes young miss?”
Listen. Rewind. Play.
Two days later there’s a white box outside her door. Toni picks it up, brings it inside, and goes to hunt down a box cutter to open it.
She ends up using a steak knife, distracted half way through her search by U’s new found obsession with trying to wear her shoes as hats.
“You scratch those heels U and I’m going to turn you into a glorified coat rack.” She tells him over her shoulder as she pulls the box open without looking. Her hand hits something that feels like paper and then goes past that and encounters something wet.
Dread shoots down her spine and she turns slowly to peer down into the box.
There’s a magazine article on top, jagged around the edges and wrinkled like it’d been crumpled in someone’s hand. Toni stares down at the full color, glossy picture of her and Rhodey, arm in arm, faces filled with laughter as they frolic through the city together.
Or at least that’s what the picture should look like.
In reality Rhodey’s face has been completely scribbled out, the marks almost ripping through the page. The word whore is written in giant red block letters across Toni’s entire body.
Her hand trembles as she picks the magazine page up and she barely registers the fact that the tips of her fingers are wet and red before she’s moving to see what else is in the box.
She barely manages to stumble back and dash to the kitchen sink before she’s sick.
Toni keeps the boys away from the box when they try to see what’s inside. She doesn’t want them to see that sort of thing so she ushers them into her room, tells them to stay and shuts the door behind her.
For the first time in her life she calls the police.
They send an unsympathetic officer who stares at her chest when she lets him inside. Still she tells him about the flowers, about the notes, gives him the magazine page and shows him the box. He hems and haws for a bit and then gives her a lecture that amounts to, ‘choose your boyfriends more wisely’.
Disgusted she sees him out.
The only bright point is that he takes the box with him.
Toni checks and then triple checks the locks on the door after he goes. She feels unsafe all of a sudden, doesn’t feel comfortable in her own home, and that pisses her right the fuck off. She had never wanted to feel like this again.
No one had the right to make her frightened in her own home now that Howard’s dead.
Toni’s mind begins to click and whirl around the many ways to keep herself safe. Some of the ideas are sane, rational and acceptable, others are … less so. But she doesn’t dismiss those ideas outright. Instead she just tucks them into the back of her mind for a different day.
The idea of designing her own home security is pretty promising though.
She spends that night on the couch, DUM-E and U watching TV while she sketches out blueprints and designs, her mind whirling with what she wants her future home to look like.
She doesn’t try to sleep.
The sight of dead and mutilated cat in the box won’t leave her mind.
Instead she just sketches and listens to her recorder.
“Yes young miss?”
Listen. Rewind. Play.
A week later the doorbell rings and then it’s followed by a crisp knock. Tensing with sudden nerves Toni puts down her blueprints and goes to answer it. DUM-E and U are in the kitchen fighting over one of the long pool noodles she’d bought them.
She checks the peep hole and relaxes when she sees the uniform for one of the local delivery services SI uses. There’s a crash from the kitchen just as she pulls the door open and she turns automatically to see what the boys have broken now.
The blow to the side of the face catches her completely off guard and Toni staggers backwards, hits the hall table, and then the ground with a crash. She hears the front door slam closed, hears the sound of unfamiliar heavy boots plodding closer to her, hears a low, raspy voice spewing insults and slurs in her direction, and knows she’s in trouble.
Dazed and frightened but still thinking Toni forces herself to move.
Her head throbs but she scrambles to crawl down the hallway and away from the footsteps. She’s had training, she can fight, but she’s also small, also already wounded. She can’t let whoever this is get her pinned down.
If he gets her on the ground, gets her under him, her chances of getting away again decrease dramatically.
“D-DUM-E.” Toni tries to rasp but her visions swimming and she can’t seem to focus right. “U-U.”
She needs to get to the bots, her boys. They’ll help her. They have to help her.
A hand buries itself in her upswept hair and jerks her up onto her feet with ruthless force. Toni warbles out a scream, a high pitched yelp of pain, and lashes out behind her. She makes contact with what feels like a nose right when she finally finds her voice.
“What do you want?” Toni grits out, desperate to stall. “Rhodey’s going to be back any minute now.”
“Stop lying.” there’s hot stinking breath on her neck and for a brief moment all Toni can think is Howard’s come back before she realizes that’s ridiculous. “You’re boyfriend’s gone you whore. It’s just us. You should’ve never went out with him Toni. I would have treated you so much better.”
Toni feels a rush of cold realization and knows in that instance that if she doesn’t get away from this man she’s going to die.
“DUM-E, U, help me!” Toni shrieks and gets a rough slap in reward.
There’s the sound of whirling and chirping and DUM-E and U come trundling around the corner of the hall from the kitchen. Toni hears a surprised exclamation from the man holding her at the sight of her boys. U’s still holding the pool noodle and DUM-E managed to get his claw on another box of cereal.
For a moment the four of them all freeze, obviously surprised.
Toni recovers first and practically screeches, “Threat! DUM-E, U. He’s a threat!”
He slaps her again to shut her up and all hell seems to erupt.
U throws his pool noodle, DUM-E his cereal box. The man bats them out of the air before they hit him but it doesn’t make a difference. Her boys come tearing down the hall, metal claws spread wide, servos whirling angrily. U grabs the vase off the other hall table and flings it, the man curses and automatically lets go of Toni’s hair to block.
She whirls, punches him once in the face and then knees him in the balls, before she’s dashing down the hall and sliding safely behind her boys to dive for the StarkPhone she’d left on the counter.
She needn’t have hurried.
There’s a scream and she turns quickly enough to see DUM-E lift the man high into the air by the throat and then slam him hard enough into the hallway wall to dent the drywall. U reaches out and grabs the hand that’s flailing at DUM-E’s camera and squeezes. Toni hears the sick sound of a bone snapping and the man screams again.
DUM-E slams him against the wall again and again until he’s limp in the bot’s grasp even as U reaches for his leg.
Toni realizes that they’re going to kill him if she doesn’t stop them.
“Boys.” Toni croaks, and then louder when they don’t seem to hear her. “DUM-E, U, stop. Stop.”
They pause, U’s camera swings in her direction, but DUM-E keeps his hold on the man.
“Drop him DUM-E.” Toni tells the bot softly. “He’s not going to hurt me anymore. You two saved me.”
DUM-E finally drops him and the man falls, unconscious and bleeding, to the ground.
DUM-E and U roll over to her side and press gentle claws to the rapidly darkening bruises on her face, chirping sadly the entire time.
Toni sets the StarkPhone down, mind whirling, and lets them look.
“Good boys.” Toni sobs as she reaches out and pets them both. “Such good, good boys. I’m so proud of you but Mama’s gonna take it from here okay? I need you two to go to Rhodey’s room and stay quiet alright? Go in there and shut the door and don’t make any noise till I come get you.”
Toni feels sick to her stomach because DUM-E and U have almost killed a man for her, would have killed him if she hadn’t stopped them. She’d never really bothered with Asimov’s Three Laws when she’d built them and they’d almost killed for her because of that.
She can’t let anyone find out. If they do they’d try to take them from her or have them destroyed. Maybe both. She can’t let that happen. She can’t let them kill her babies.
She has to keep this a secret in order to protect them just like they’d protected her.
So, once they’re safely in Rhodey’s room Toni takes a deep breath and goes to her workshop to grab a crowbar.
She has an apartment to trash and a crime scene to fake.
Thankfully she has the motivation and the intellect to do a pretty damn good job.
Then she can finally call the police.
Toni’s in the hospital exam room arguing with a nurse about not needing any kind of medical attention that’s not a butterfly bandage and an ice pack when the story breaks.
It’s a complete and total nightmare.
The media fluctuates between bringing up her sordid past/present and calling her attacker ‘a nice man from a good home, quiet, hardworking, and well-liked by his neighbors’.
Fox makes sure to remind everyone that her nicknames include things like Party Princess, The Scarlet Stark Heiress, and The Red Queen for a reason. Maybe, just maybe, they propose, there’s more to the story than what’s being told.
Toni snorts mirthlessly because they’re right and wrong all at the same time.
It’s honestly only when he starts rambling to the police about killer robots and cereal boxes that anything’s done. Convinced of his mental illness action is finally taken.
Toni would be bitter if her expectations had ever been high enough for her to feel disappointed in the first place.
She goes back home, lets the boys out and lets them help her clean up.
Two days later finds her wrapped up in a ball on the couch, recorder in hand and unable to sleep.
She keeps hearing movement from the front door, keeps imagining footsteps coming down the hall, keeps seeing shadows that shift in the corners of her eyes.
Instead she redesigns the house she’s been tinkering with. She adds in steel shutters on the large glass windows, thick steel reinforced doors, extra electrical output to handle the security system she intends to build into the walls. She adds an underground lab with the ability to lock itself completely down, to turn into what’s essentially a large panic room. It’ll have big wide open spaces for the bots and the promise of safety and solitude for herself.
The only issue is where to build it.
Toni looks out the window, sees the dreary sky and thick heavy clouds, and thinks that sunshine might be a good change. She can work from basically anywhere and maybe she’d like to see the sea outside her window instead of skyscrapers and condos.
She starts searching for property in California, SI has offices out there after all so it be easy enough to deal with.
She wishes she could call Rhodey or Aunt Peggy but they’re both out of reach at the moment so she resigns herself to being alone.
She’s used to it for the most part. And she has her babies with her.
She still doesn’t sleep.
Wax. Feathers. Heat.
Clawed hands grab her ankles and tug her downwards.
Her wings beat frantically and strain towards the sky.
Rhodey shows up early the next morning. He’s red eyed, slump shouldered, and still in his uniform which is wrinkled and stained almost beyond belief.
He reaches out and wraps her in his arms as soon as he sees her, tucks her close to his chest and curls himself around her like a shield.
“Thank God.” He whispers into her hair and his shoulders shake when he inhales. “Thank God you’re okay Tones.”
“Rhodey.” Toni’s voice breaks and she slumps into his warmth, suddenly exhausted and trembling beneath the weight of everything that’s happened. She feels young. Small. “Rhodey I was so scared.”
“I know sugar.” He coos at her, rocking her back and forth where they’re standing. “I was too. I got back to base and then they told me you’d been attack and said since it was you I could come … Jesus Tones I was so scared.”
“I’m okay.” Toni isn’t actually sure who she’s talking to, him or herself. “I’m okay.”
He pulls back far enough to inspect the ugly bruises on her face and the dark circles under her eyes from exhaustion. His face darkens even further in rage.
“That motherfucker better be happy he’s already locked up or I’d kill him. As it stands I’m going to put you in a goddamn bubble.” Rhodey tucks her face back into his neck and tightens his grip on her. “You’re not allowed to get hurt like that Tones. Not ever again. We’re getting you a body guard or something.”
“Actually,” Toni interrupts, “I think I’m going to build a house. In California. Something special, lots of security, a lab that doubles as a panic room. Maybe a moat with crocodiles.”
“Sharks with fucking laser beams Tones.” Rhodey corrects her solemnly. “You’d better have big ass great whites with fucking laser beams. I’m talking trap doors, spike pits, and hidden levers. I want you to go full on mad scientist, supervillain if you have to Tones because I want you safe.”
“Don’t tempt me sweet puff,” Toni chides wetly into the warmth of his throat, “we both know I’d make an awesome supervillain and BFF code says you’d have to join the dark side with me.”
“You can buy me a lab coat and a pair of goggles when you get the chance.” Rhodey reassures her. “I’ll be the Igor to your Frankenstein in a heartbeat baby girl.”
They both laugh, standing there in the hallway where it had all happened, they laugh.
For the first time in weeks Toni feels safe.
They’re on the couch together, Rhodey sprawled out on his back and Toni on top of him, tucked safely against his chest, when she comes to a decision. DUM-E and U are bracketing the couch, intent on staying close to her like they have been since everything happened.
“There’s something you need to know snickerdoodle but you gotta promise not to say anything to anyone.” Toni props herself up on her elbows and meets Rhodey’s eyes head on.
“What is it?” He looks cautious again, almost worried.
“It’s about the … the attack.” Saying the words are harder than Toni expected them to be.
Rhodey sits up, shuffles them around until she’s tucked directly against his hip, and props his feet up on the coffee table because deep down he’s a fucking heathen.
“You can tell me anything Toni.” He gently cups her bruised cheek in his hand. “Anything.”
“I,” Toni swallows, leans into the touch, closes her eyes and forces herself to push forward, “He ah, he hit me when I opened the door. DUM-E and U broke something and I turned to see without thinking about it and he just … bam. I was on the ground in the next second. I started crawling, tried to get away from him cause I knew if he pinned me … I knew.”
She feels the way Rhodey takes a deep breath and when she looks up his eyes are bright and his jaw is tight with rage.
“Anyways, I realized who he was right after he grabbed me by the hair because he was saying all of this stuff. I screamed for the boys to help me.” She takes in another shuddering breath, lets it out slowly, and pushes forward. “They came Rhodey. DUM-E and U. They started throwing stuff until he let me go and I hit him and ran for the phone but then DUM-E, he grabbed him by the neck and was slamming him against the wall. U broke his arm and was going to go for his leg. They, they were going to kill him Rhodey, to protect me they were going to kill him if I didn’t stop them in time.”
“Good.” Rhodey sounds vicious but solidly unrepentant. “They did the right thing and I’m glad that you’ve got them here to protect you Tones. That wasn’t in the report though, I think the brass would have mentioned it if it was.”
“I, uh, I lied.” Toni admits. “I put them in your room, got a crowbar from the lab, and messed things up a bit.”
“You … falsified a crime scene.” For the first time Rhodey seems a little pinch faced and displeased.
“I had to. People already know about DUM-E from MIT but they thought he was just a lot simpler than he’s ended up being. And U’s even smarter.” She’s suddenly desperate for him to understand. “If anyone knew the truth, knew DUM-E and U weren’t bound by the Three Laws, that they could hurt people, they’d take them or kill them if not do both. They only attacked him because I said he was a threat, because he hit me again in front of them. People wouldn’t care though, they’d be frightened. I had to keep them safe Rhodey.”
“Shit.” Rhodey exhales raggedly and pulls her closer to his side. “Shit you’re right sweetheart. You did the right thing. It doesn’t matter how you stopped that fucker. All that matters is you’re safe. Keeping the kids safe is important too.”
“You, you’re not gonna be scared of them now are you?” Toni can’t help but ask because it would break her heart as well as theirs. “You know they wouldn’t hurt your right? Just like they’d never hurt me.”
“Fuck no Tones.” Rhodey turns abruptly to look at DUM-E and U who’ve moved to huddle together like skittish pups. “I still love both the little idiots just the same. They did good as far as I’m concerned. They did damn good.”
Toni sighs in relief and slumps down back against his side.
His hand reaches up to remove her hair pins carefully and it’s the feel of his fingers, familiar and safe, running through her curls that finally lulls her into sleep.
“You boys make sure you keep her safe for me okay?” Rhodey’s voice is a distant rumble that she barely understands. “You always keep her safe.”
Wax. Feathers. Heat.
Clawed hands grab her ankles and tug her downwards.
Her wings beat frantically and strain towards the sky.
She wakes up in her own room, sweat soaked and trembling with a scream lingering on her tongue, from a nightmare. DUM-E and U twirl anxiously at the end of the bed.
Her door bursts open a second later and Rhodey’s there, bare chested in his sleep pants, service pistol in hand as he scans the room for threats.
She stares up at him, wide eyed and shaking.
He sighs, lowers the gun and flicks the safety back on, before he shuffles to her bedside, puts the gun in the drawer beside the bed and collapses down onto the mattress beside her. He tugs her close and she can’t help but huddle into his warmth.
“Go to sleep sweetheart.” He rumbles. “I got you.”
Wax. Feathers. Heat.
The terror of the fall.
Rhodey catches her by the hands and throws her back into the air before she ever touches the water.