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The Limitations of Wax

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“I must say Miss it is good to have you back home.”  JARVIS speaks up as soon as Toni steps inside.  The front door locks automatically behind her and Toni bites down a chuckle.  She’d known he was going to go all over watch on her for a while.  She has a feeling that she’ll be lucky if he doesn’t have her chipped like a puppy before the week's out.

“It’s good to be back J.”  Toni grins and blows JARVIS a kiss.  “And the boys do know I’m here right?”

“Yes Miss.”  JARVIS confirms as Toni moves towards the hall that’ll take her to her room.  “As I said before they are rather excited.  Though I must warn you that while DUM-E and U are eagerly awaiting you by the door, Butterfingers is rather cross with you and might endeavor to give you the silent treatment as it were.”

“I’m going to have to grovel right?”  Toni asks again and sighs as she kicks off her heels and slowly eases her sling up and over her head.  She’s not sure if they know she’s been hurt or not but she doesn’t want the boys to see her like this.  It’s bad enough that there are cuts on her face that not even her unusually heavy makeup can completely cover.  The last thing she wants to do is to worry them more than she already has.

“Might I suggest trying your hand at an upgrade for Mother?”  JARVIS suggests helpfully much to Toni’s confusion.  “While DUM-E and U are attached to her Butterfingers would surely appreciate the gesture the most given his sensitivity on the subject.”

“Sensitivity about what?”  She asks as she makes her way to her closet and pulls out one of Rhodey’s long sleeve shirts she stole and a pair of soft sweats.  Conscious of the way her body aches and the gauze covered reactor buried in her chest that she still hasn’t told anyone but Rhodey about Toni tugs the shirt on carefully but quickly.  That’s not a conversation she wants to have with JARVIS at the moment.  Soon, but not right now.

Ah.”  JARVIS pauses for a telling moment.

“J?”

“Perhaps I was remiss on being clear when it comes to Mother’s circumstances.”  JARVIS admits almost sheepishly.

“Oh God what is it now?  Is she radioactive?  Gonna shoot fire bolts or blue lightning or like grow thirty feet when my back’s turned?”  Toni waves her hands around expressively.  “Is it secretly a Gorn JARVIS?  Is it gonna try and sell me car insurance?  Cause all of that’s not necessarily a deal breaker but depending on which one it is we’ll have to reconfigure some stuff in here, maybe build an extension or something.”

“As admirable as your willingness to deal with radioactivity and a propensity towards salesmanship in a reptile is Miss, I assure you it’s nothing quite so dire.”  JARVIS soothes her.  “It is simply that Mother is not exactly … whole.”

“Come again?”

“That is to say, Mother is missing a limb.  The front right leg to be exact.”  JARVIS repeats slowly.  “The fault lies with the previous owner who allowed a wound to fester.”

“That’s … actually kind of horrible.”  Toni admits slowly before she winces.  “And now I know why Butterfingers is so sensitive about her.  I’d hoped he’d grow out of it but I guess not.”

“Yes, he’s never quite gotten over having two arms instead of one like DUM-E and U.”

“As long as he knows that being different doesn’t make him wrong.”  Toni says firmly.  “I’ve told you all that for different reasons and I stand by it.  What’s he been doing?”

“He hovers Miss.”

“Hovers?”

“Indeed Miss, he’s extremely protective of Mother.  I believe it stems from his anxiety about your absence.”  JARVIS confirms.  “I tried to reason with him about being so defensive but after Butterfingers … expressed himself again I thought it best to let the matter lie.”

“Hmm.”  Toni hums absently.  Toni’s all too familiar with Butterfingers expressing himself.  While generally well behaved he’s also the most likely to act out of the three bots.  And while Toni isn’t afraid of him actually hurting anyone who isn’t a threat to her or the others it could be said that his grasp on his temper is … slippery at best.  “Oh well.  It’s not like it’ll affect anything in the long run right?  I mean health wise for her?  I should be able to build her a leg easily enough so it’s not like it matters to me, but let me know if we need to take her to a vet or anything.”  Toni hums again, mind already whirling with ideas.  “Haven’t done much in the way of prosthetics for animals but it’ll be a nice project.  Who knows maybe we’ll get something patent worthy out of it alongside making Butterfingers cool his circuits.”

“One could hope Miss.”

Finally dressed Toni presses a lingering kiss to Steve’s chest, an action she’s missed for months now, and heads down to the workshop.

There are other things she needs to do, Toni knows that.  Things that have been hovering in the back of her mind for days now.  Things that, if she goes through with them, will change everything.  But she pushes them all aside for now, shoves them to the back of her mind to concentrate on the here and now.

She has a reunion, a fucking lizard, and a sulking bot to take care of after all.

Family, no matter how strange, comes first, comes before everything else in this instance.

After so long being forcefully separated from one another, they all deserve some time together before everything goes to hell again.

Which, Toni knows, it will.

Because it always seems to in one way or another.

~~~

DUM-E and U race for her as soon as JARVIS opens the door to the workshop.  They swirl around her, chirping and whirling happily.  DUM-E is carrying a glass of what looks like shredded grass and U has what Toni’s sure was once one of her t-shirts but has now been fashioned into some kind of scarf tied just below the joint of his hand.

“Hey babies.”  Toni coos as she reaches out and runs a hand over each of them.  They lean into her touch like puppies, desperate for her attention and somehow obviously relieved to have her back.

DUM-E pulls back first only to shove the glass into her hand and beep at her encouragingly.  U seems happy enough to curl his fingers carefully in the hem of her shirt.

“Do not drink that Miss.”  JARVIS chimes in.  “While DUM-E is enthusiastic about seeing to your health I’m afraid he’s not yet learned to completely differentiate between what is and is not toxic for you.”

“What he put in this?”  Toni takes a cautious sniff of the glass and has to force herself not to gag.

“An appetizing blend of cabbage and antifreeze I believe Miss.  He took the cabbage from Mother’s refrigerator and the antifreeze from storage.”  JARVIS informs her and Toni immediately looks around for somewhere to covertly drop the glass.  “Luckily Butterfingers is the only one allowed to feed Mother so she’s rather safe from DUM-E’s culinary skills, such as they are.”

That’s when Toni takes the time to really look around at her long yearned for workshop.

The place is, to Toni’s surprise and yet immediate acceptance, a goddamn mess.

The kitchenette corner is a stunning mosaic of green splattered goop across one wall, her worktable is littered with bits and pieces of half built items that’ve been stacked in small groups and clusters.  There’s a large, star burst shaped crack in the glass of the Steve poster she’d hung for them, centered directly over the star on his chest.  Her cars are covered with tarps thankfully but the couch is standing on its end in the far corner, lent precariously against the wall and covered partially with a sheet like some sort of strange tent.

Beyond that though the entire back corner of one wall is now dedicated to a large glass tank complete with what she assumes is the necessary Mother related equipment Happy had delivered and set up under JARVIS’ directions.

Butterfingers is, suspiciously, nowhere to be found.

Toni eyes the sheet covered couch with a deep and fond sort of amused suspicion.

“Hey J?”  Toni moves forward, DUM-E races ahead of her twirling circles in his excitement while U still clings to her shirt, and sets the glass of green death on an uncluttered section of her table.  “Where’s Butterfingers?”

“I am afraid I’ve been asked not to tell you Miss.”  JARVIS sounds both exasperated and faintly amused.

The sheet over the couch rustles.

“That’s too bad.”  Toni forces a pout onto her face and exaggerated sadness into her voice.  “If only I knew where he was then maybe I could tell him how much I missed him and his brothers, how lonely I was without them.”

The sheet twitches.

“I mean maybe we could even work on some stuff together.  Maybe even something for Mother.”  Toni strokes a hand over U’s knuckles and sighs, eyes carefully adverted from the couch and still rustling sheet.  “But if Butterfingers didn’t miss me then I guess I’ll just … go over here with U and DUM-E.  Maybe they’ll introduce me to Mother and we can all play basketball later, maybe put in some circuit upgrades.  It’s too bad though, I was really looking forward to some Butterfingers hugs.”

Butterfingers comes practically bursting out from his makeshift tent, the sheet falling to the ground and the couch wobbling precariously in place.

Toni has a moment to register his movement as he comes at her with both arms extended eagerly, and can only blink in shocked incredulousness.

Because across the back of his joints, laid out directly across the hydraulics that connect to his arms, is the biggest fucking lizard Toni’s ever seen.

Mother, and Toni hopes that’s who the lizard is because if there are more lurking around the mansion somewhere then her and JARVIS are going to have words, is five foot if she’s an inch with a long, whip like tail.  Her skin’s a vibrant green and she has a row of wicked looking red and yellow spikes that runs from her neck to the tip of her tail.  She’s also, just as JARVIS said, missing the majority of her right front leg.

Not that it seems to bother her much with the way she’s draped lazily across Butterfingers like a reptilian queen.

At least on that fact Toni can agree as she too is often considered both cold blooded and something like royalty.

“Hey Butterfingers.”  Toni steps forward into his arms and can’t help the smile that comes across her face when he oh so carefully wraps his large hands gently around her waist in his version of a hug.  Still she keeps a close eye on Mother and her wicked looking claws.  “I’ve missed you too baby bot.”

He whirls at her, sounding both angry and chiding at the same time, but his hands stay at her waist just like U’s is still tangled in her shirt.  DUM-E, forever the enthusiastic one, has managed to find the glass she’d set down and is bearing down on all of them with his own particular brand of insistence.

From across Butterfingers’ back Mother stares at her steadily, long forked tongue tasting the air.

“I missed you guys so much.”  Toni has to blink back the tears that well up but a few still trickle out anyways.  “It’s good to be home babies.  It’s good to be home.”

~~~

“J, buddy, when you said you bought them a lizard,” Toni rests her elbows on her worktable hands pressed together in front of her face and fingertips pressed directly between her eyes, “I was expecting something like a gecko maybe, or one of those cute little bearded dragon things.”

“In my defense Miss …” JARVIS goes to say but Toni, head now pressed to the curled knuckles of one hand, raises the other up in a silencing gesture.

“Oh you’ll have a chance to defend yourself baby boy.”  Toni reassures him as she drops her hand back down.  “But yeah like I was saying, a gecko, maybe, mostly cause you said it was small.”

Relatively small Miss.”  JARVIS points out unhelpfully.  “I did say relatively small.”

“Oh I’m gonna put you in a relatively small time out J if you keep on splitting hairs with me.”  Toni warns.  “Time out’s the ATM on the corner of 2nd and Main by the way.”

“Yes Miss.”  They both know she’s lying but it’s a familiar and comforting kind of banter.

Toni has missed this, them, so much.

“So, small lizard I could deal with.  Maybe even learn to love.”  Toni sits back in her seat so that she can stare at the creature who’s appropriated the long length of one of the shelves that used to house JARVIS’ models before Toni had given him his own room.  She’s sprawled out directly underneath what looks to be a sunlamp that Toni doesn’t remember buying.  Must have been one of the things JARVIS had Happy deliver and set up for Mother’s care.

She’s also staring directly at Toni, head tilted and large eye fixed on her position.  She looks menacing, her green hide offset by the red and yellow spikes that flow down her back.  She’s been staring ever since Butterfingers had made his way to the shelf and let her step leisurely off of his back.

Toni has a sneaky suspicion she might have been semi-usurped by a reptile.

“This is not a small lizard JARVIS.”  Toni waves a hand in Mother’s direction.  “This is a fucking dinosaur.”

“Technically Miss, Mother is what is commonly referred to as a giant green iguana.”

Technically.”  Toni mocks.  “Technically I’m gonna donate all of your classic mecha models to an elementary school.”

Miss.”  JARVIS sounds almost scandalized and it takes all of Toni’s willpower not to break out into a grin.

“Just think about it J, all those grubby, sticky little hands playing with your premium, limited edition, hand tooled models.”  Toni taunts him gleefully.  “All the high gloss paint, all the small and easily broken moveable joints.”

“It is no surprise to me that Butterfingers has a propensity for violence.”  JARVIS says archly.  “He came by his cruel streak honestly as he obviously resembles you the most out of all of us.”

“Butterfingers is indeed a rage powered bot after my own heart.”  Toni finally breaks into a grin.  “I’m just joking J.  You know I’d never do anything untoward to your Gundam set.”

“Indeed Miss.”  “JARVIS agreed.  “And in my defense Mother was slated for termination due to lack of owner care and the missing limb.  In some light you could say that we … staged a rescue of sorts for Mother as well.  Mr. Hogan was rather pleased to be of assistance.”

“Can’t argue with that J and I’ll never be mad at you for doing something good like that.  Just try not to turn the mansion into a zoo every time I go out.”  Toni sighs.  “Well can’t say I ever wanted a small dinosaur before, well at least not after Rhodey explained to me that Jurassic Park wasn’t supposed to be, like, a goal to work towards, but as long as she’s not going to eat me in my sleep I’ll adjust.”  Toni looks to where Butterfingers is rolling up to the shelf, staring up at Mother with apparent adoration, a dish of shredded green clasped carefully between his hands.  “Plus I think Butterfingers would stage an actual mutiny if I tried to get rid of it.”

“He has grown rather attached.”  JARVIS agrees.

“Still a bit confused as to how they decided to name her after me though.”  Toni tilts her head and stares back at Mother for a moment.  “I mean I know I’ve been called cold blooded before but beyond my inner reptilian personality traits I’m just not seeing it.”

“It was, I believe, their desire to have you back as well as your similar coloring that lead to her being named in your image.”

“Similar …” Toni stops, looks back at Mother for a long moment, and considers.  “It’s the spikes isn’t it?  The yellow and red?  Looks an awful lot like the colors I normally wear so I’m guessing it reminded them of me?  Some sort of skewed color association?”

“Yes Miss.  I find myself agreeing with them on their decision.”  JARVIS put in.  “Beyond the coloring similarities she too seems to possess an inexplicable sort of charm despite her obvious personality flaws.”

 “J if I didn’t know better I’d say you were insulting me.”

“Then I am grateful you are remarkably intelligent Miss.”

“JARVIS I think your lessons in sarcasm might have paid off more than I intended.”  Toni wipes an imaginary tear away from her eye.  “I’m so proud.”

“As ever Miss I aim to please.”

“As ever J you surpass every expectation.”  Toni carefully stretches her arms above her head and barely bites back her wince when the movement pulls.  DUM-E and U are busy cleaning up, or rather U is.  DUM-E’s sort of just turning circles with the sheet from the now resettled couch draped over him.  “But back to business baby boy.  I’ve got a little time to play before I need to get down to the super serious stuff so why don’t you open up a new project file for me.  Let’s index it as … Godzilla.  Also get me all the info I need to catch up on regarding how to treat Mother like the queen she is.  I’ll start working on how to fix that leg issue and maybe retrofit her habitat.  She’s a Stark now which means she needs to be living in style.”

“Of course Miss.  Shall I put together a list or would you rather I read them off to you?”

“Serenade me J.”  Toni commands with a lifted finger.  “Sing me sweet, sweet lizard related facts.”

“Yes Miss.”

~~~

Toni spends a few hours unwinding, tinkering with the holographic design display as she pieces together a rudimentary prosthetic and harness for Mother.

It’s relaxing being able to just create without any urgency behind the act.  It’s just the sort of recharge her mind needs.

The bots seem happy enough, DUM-E is still busy playing with his sheet and U seems to be categorizing the myriad of things Toni had him clean off of her workbench.  JARVIS had told her they were all small projects the bots had put together in her absence, trinkets left to lure her home as it were.

They look sort of like some of those abstract art sculptures Pepper likes so much.  Toni already has plans to put them up on one of the cleared shelves in her room once U has them organized to his satisfaction.

Mother’s back to laying on Butterfingers’ because she seems to consider him her throne and the workshop resounds with one of Toni’s more relaxing playlists.  It’s all smooth, seductive French and mournful Jazz instead of the heavy rock or loud, infectious pop she normally favors but it helps the tension to drain from her shoulders.

Because outside of Rhodey’s arms this is where Toni feels safest, and above anywhere else this is where she feels the most at home.

Exhaustion finally catches up with Toni, finally eats through the last remaining tendrils of adrenaline that have been keeping her running.

“I’m tired J,” Toni yawns as she pushes herself up from her chair, “save progress on all open projects, put the leg into fabrication, and then lock the lab down.  No one in or out for the night unless it’s Rhodey.”

“Will you be retiring to your room Miss?”

“Nah J, I think I’m gonna stay down here tonight with the boys.”  Toni sways her way over to the poster of Steve and traces her fingers across the starburst of broken glass over his chest.  “What happened here JARVIS?”

There’s a moment of silence.

“When you were first … indisposed Miss and did not return on time nor send word,” JARVIS starts softly, “the bots were rather distraught.  I’m afraid to say that they seemed to think that a combination of pressing on the poster and building the trinkets they left on your work station would bring you back quicker.  The glass simply wasn’t strong enough to endure their strength or their anxiety.”

Toni chokes back a small, hurt sound at the mental image of her boys basically begging a poster of Steve to bring her back.

“Put in an order for a new frame J, something with a high stress level, maybe bullet proof.”  Toni kisses her palm and then presses it against the spider webbing cracks before she turns to flop down on the couch.

She watches, heavy eyed and drowsy, as the bots, one by one, roll over to kiss Steve as well.  Butterfingers goes last and Toni huffs out a fond laugh when he turns so that Mother’s nose can butt against the poster as well before he rolls towards her habitat.

“JARVIS?”

“Yes Miss?”

“Icarus please J.”

“Of course Miss.”

Toni listens to JARVIS’ smooth, comforting voice as the bots all come to settle down around her.  DUM-E strokes her hair carefully with one finger while U clutches at her shirt and Butterfingers drapes his arms across the back of the couch, one hand butting lightly against her own.

She falls asleep there, surrounded by her children.

Safe.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

Below her the sea shifts from endless sand to writhing water, a chimera made up of all she fears.

Steve stares up at her expectantly from the ever changing surface with eyes so blue they glow.

In her chest a star burns brightly.

~~~

Toni wakes with a pained gasp.  For moment she’s disorientated, doesn’t remember where she is, and it’s that fact coupled with the way her chest aches that threatens to send her into a panic attack.

“It is 8:23 a.m. on Saturday the 23rd.”  JARVIS’ voice cuts through her panic like a knife.  “You are inside the workshop of the Malibu mansion.”  He pauses for a moment and then continues softly.  “You are safe Miss.”

Toni forces herself to take a shuddering breath and then another until her heartbeat begins to slow down and the panic begins to finally completely fade away.

“Thanks J.”  Toni mutters as she sits up and buries her face in her hands.  Her body aches and she feels dirty, hair oily and face still heavy with makeup.  She wants a shower, coffee, and maybe, if she can stomach it, something to eat that isn’t cabbage or laced with antifreeze.

“There’s a message from Lt. Colonel Rhodes Miss.”  JARVIS cuts through the still sleep hazed clutter of her mind.

“Rhodey?”  Toni perks up slightly because she’d been expecting him to come back last night but had also figured he’d probably be busy being run ragged with everything that’s going on.

“Indeed Miss.  Shall I play the message?”

“Go ahead J.”

“Hey Tones,” Rhodey’s voice spills out of the speakers, “JARVIS said you’re asleep and I didn’t want to wake you up.  I’m swamped over here and I’m not sure when they’re going to let me out.  The brass isn’t happy baby girl but like I said, fuck ‘em.”

Toni smiles softly to herself at the reminder that, once again, Rhodey’s backing her play.

“Anyways I was just checking in, call me when you’re up so I don’t spend all day worried about you.  Also you’d better not hesitate to call someone if you need help Toni.  I mean it.  Me, Pepper, Happy.  We’d all be there in a second if you need anything sweetheart, even if it’s just to talk.”

“I know Rhodey.”  Toni murmurs even though she knows he can’t hear her.  Sometimes she still can’t believe she has him, them, in her life.  Can’t believe that anyone except for Jarvis would love her or care for her enough to come for her in any situation.  Would love her in a way she’s not even sure she loves herself.

“I’ve got to go now Tones,” Rhodey’s voice softens, goes noticeably affectionate, “I love you little girl.  Don’t forget that okay?  I know you wanted, needed, time to yourself and that’s basically the only reason I’m not carrying you around in a papoose.  I know you’re strong Toni, stronger than just about anyone I know, but you don’t have to do this, do anything, alone.  Just keep that in mind.  I’ll talk to you soon.”

The message ends and Toni feels happier, lighter in that embarrassing way that overt displays or announcement of affection always makes her.  It’s a weakness of hers, this vulnerability to outright and sincere care and praise.  Before Rhodey it had been something she’d only gotten from Jarvis and she’s so pathetically weak for it even now after all these years of Rhodey and Pepper and Happy’s steady friendship.

Toni’s almost shamefully sure it’s something she’ll likely never outgrow.

“Save message to the archives J.  I’m gonna go get a shower and then we’ve got some actual serious work to do.”

“Yes Miss.”  JARVIS agrees.  “I’ve taken the liberty of turning on the coffee maker in the upstairs kitchen for you Miss.  Also file index Godzilla has completed the fabrication process.  Mother’s leg is now complete.”

“Awesome.”  Toni cheers lightly even as she rubs lightly at her chest, the ache of the reactor cutting slightly through her good mood.  “You’re a saint J and I’ll fit her up after my shower.”

With a small but still happy sigh Toni pushes up onto her feet, pats each one of the bots lovingly, and then drags herself off of the couch and out of the workshop to take a much needed shower.

It’s right when she’s about to pull off her shirt that she once again realizes that she’s not told JARVIS or the boys about the reactor.  She’s not sure if JARVIS knows, if he’s found out somehow, but surprising him with it by stripping down isn’t something she really wants to do.

“JARVIS,” Toni calls out, “engage privacy mode on bathroom cameras buddy.”

“Miss?”  JARVIS sounds faintly alarmed because, like with Rhodey, nudity isn’t something that’s even been a real issue with her where JARVIS is concerned.  She very rarely engages the privacy mode on his cameras and it’s a clear sign that something is amiss.

“There’s some stuff we need to talk about J,” Toni reassures him.

“Does this concern the unusual energy readings you’ve been exhuding since your return?”  JARVIS is as astute as always.

“Yeah J it is.  It’s nothing too horrible but I’d rather show you and the boys all at once okay?”

“Yes Miss,” JARVIS agrees reluctantly, “it is just …”

“Hey,” Toni calls to him softly because she has a good idea what his issue is, “I’m gonna be okay J, I’ll … I’ll talk the whole time alright?  So you can hear me even if you can’t see me.  That sound good?”

“It’s not necessary Miss.”  JARVIS disagrees.

They both know it’s not necessary but comfort is rarely about necessity.

Plus there the fact that Toni isn’t entirely sure how she’s going to deal with taking a shower.  The thought of the water washing over her face is enough to send her heartbeat speeding.  The thought of a bath, of being submerged at all, is even worse.

There’ll be no more pool days in Toni’s life for the foreseeable future.

Just another thing those bastards had taken from her and something Toni just didn’t have the strength to fight for at the moment.  Not now when there were other, more important things, to worry about besides her fear.

“Yeah, JARVIS baby, no,” Toni says, “it kind of is.  I’ve already made you worry enough, keeping up a line of chatter’s not really all that big a deal to me anyways.”

In the end the shower’s a trial.

She sets the water to just a shade off blistering hot because it’s different from the frigid chill of the trough they’d drowned her in.  Then she tries to edge underneath the spray from a variety of directions, chatting loudly all the while, in order to find one that doesn’t send fear and panic jolting through her.  In the end she just resigns herself to contorting and twisting to wet and rinse her hair and to using cupped hands and flexibility for her body.  It’s overall unpleasant and Toni resolves to buy/create a suitable removable showerhead later on.  

Even with all of the time and effort she puts into it Toni ends up shaking by the time it’s done.  Ends up with her body hunched over and her arms curled protectively across the reactor, but she’s clean so she’ll count that as a victory.

She waits until she’s dressed, hair in a towel, and reactor’s light covered by the extra thick sweater she’s wearing before she disengages privacy mode and heading back to the workshop.

She needs to work on the reactor and that means a conversation with JARVIS and the boys.

~~~

The reveal of the arc reactor elicits a wide variety of responses.

JARVIS seems both panicked and almost intrigued by the connotations of its placement as well as its power output.

DUM-E likes the light while U seems almost scared of it until Toni coaxes him to lay his hand gently across the top of it, careful of the ache in her chest that too much pressure always makes worse.

Butterfingers, fresh from feeding Mother, takes one look at it, realizes it’s inside of her, and promptly freaks the fuck out.  There’s angry whirling, hand curling, and circle twirling.  Toni’s not sure if he’s cursing her or despairing her inability to stay in one piece.

She’s almost afraid to ask JARVIS but either way she’s pretty sure that it’s a sign that Butterfingers has been spending too much time with Rhodey.

Eventually they all calm down and Toni takes a moment to pull Mother’s leg from the fabrication unit, attach it to the hand tooled, padded leather harness she’d put together, and head over to the habitat.

Mother stares at her with one unblinking eye as Toni moves closer to the enclosure but otherwise doesn’t react.

“Hey Lil’Mama,” Toni coos as she reaches out to her and slowly, carefully, strokes her fingertips over Mother’s side before she even thinks about trying to attach the harness.  She spends a few minutes there, lightly petting Mother, getting acquainted to her, before she slowly attaches the harness and the leg.

It’s made out of high quality plastic so that it’s solid but lightweight enough not to hamper Mother’s movements.  JARVIS had taken the liberty of having it done in reds and yellows and Toni thinks it looks pretty badass once it’s on and settled.

“Alright JARVIS buddy,” Toni calls after a few more, surprisingly relaxing, minutes petting the lizard she’s sure to now be officially attached to, “time to get busy.  Mama needs a new reactor and that means we need to build.  Keep the process off the servers though J.  This one is strictly in house in all sense of the term.”

“On your word Miss,” JARVIS responds, “all stations ready.”

So Toni moves to do what she’s best at.

Create.

~~~

Toni refines the arc reactor, makes it better, more solid and secure in her chest, more efficient it its power output.  It’s easy to do, almost ridiculously so for something that had been considered a dead end science just weeks before.

She’s a bit queasy when it comes to replacing it, considers calling Pepper or Rhodey or even Happy to help her but the thought of anyone else’s hands inside her chest, even theirs, isn’t something she can deal with at the moment.  Just the thought has her flashing back to that day, to waking up on the table with Yinsen’s hands buried inside of her as he cut her open and took pieces of her away.

She … she can’t handle that again.  Maybe someday in the future, in a time where showers and her own fucking pool don’t fill her with terror.  Maybe then she’ll be able to ask sweet, clever Pepper for help, will be able to go to Rhodey or Happy with a clear mind.  But that day is not today.

Today all she has is that fear and JARVIS’ steady voice to keep her from falling into it.

Plus her hands are smaller than any of theirs are and it’s easier for her to readjust the exposed wire and slot the new reactor into place on her own.  All she would have done was upset or disgusted them.

Because she’s seen herself naked in the full length of her bathroom mirror and she knows exactly how unsettling the reactor’s subtle glow and the implied depth of its casing is.

Rhodey’s already seen it and Pepper and Happy know about it and have been sworn to secrecy but she won’t ask them to do that kind of thing for her.

Not now.

~~~

Toni watches the old reactor, the one born of fear and desperation, burn in the small industrial grade incinerator in the back corner of the mansion grounds.

She’d thought about keeping it, about having it mounted or stored.  She’d even thought for a second to give it to Rhodey or Pepper.

But …

She couldn’t.

That reactor was … dirty.  It was a product of pain and rage and fear.  It was stained with Yinsen’s blood, with Toni’s pain, stained with the evil of the bastards who had taken her, tortured her.

Toni didn’t, doesn’t, want to carry it.

Toni doesn’t want anyone else to carry it either, doesn’t want the few people she loves touched by it.

Instead she watches it burn and in her mind it’s like finally giving Yinsen the burial he deserved.

Instead it’s like taking the first step towards what she knows she needs to do.

Toni watches plums of white smoke rise up into the air and behind her calm façade her mind whirls.

~~~

“Miss?”  JARVIS sounds hesitant when Toni makes her way back inside.

“Yeah J?”

“I understand your reluctance to keep the former arc reactor given its origins and yet,” JARVIS pauses and seems to deliberate for a moment before he continues, “and yet I believe that given the importance the reactor plays in your continued health having a secondary unit available for emergency use would be wise.”

“You think I should build another one?”  Toni can see his reasoning but having a second reactor just laying around has the potential to be dangerous if anyone was able to get their hands on it.

“If you are worried about the security Miss the blast proof safe as well as a coded container should be sufficient enough to shield it from both detection and theft.”  JARVIS reassures her.  “The bots and I would be more than capable of holding off anyone who attempts to enter the workshop unbidden.”

Toni debates for a moment before she sighs and runs a hand through her hair.  It’s loose down her back for once because she’s alone and at home where it’s safe to be just Toni for a while.

“Would it make you feel better if I built a second one J?”

“I took the liberty of making sure there was enough in the way of materials for the creation of a second reactor when you started construction on the first.”

That’s answer enough for her right there.

“Okay.”  Toni smiles fondly and shakes her head.  “You’ve got me baby boy.  I’ll make a back-up.”

“Thank you Miss.”

~~~

The back-up reactor is placed inside a padded container and then inside the blast proof safe.

It sits beside her recorder, the fireproof box of Rhodey’s letters, Jarvis’ briefcase, the small footlocker Aunt Peggy had given her with some of Steve’s things inside, and Aunt Peggy’s old, scratched up pistol from the war.

Toni looks at the items she’s stored away, proof against the rest of the world’s assumptions about her cold and heartless nature, and thinks it’s sort of funny.

Toni can’t remember when she’s seen so many pieces of her heart clustered together like this before.

~~~

“JARVIS?”

“Yes Miss?”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

Steve stares up at her expectantly with eyes so blue they burn.

Yinsen’s voice floats to her on the wind, ‘Don’t waste your life Stark, don’t waste it.’

And in her chest a star burns brightly.

~~~

JARVIS alerts her when Rhodey comes into the mansion but Toni doesn’t move.  She’s curled up in the expansive sea of her bed and she knows that Rhodey will find her eventually.

He does.  About an hour later and freshly showered he slips beneath the sheets in a pair of loose sleep pants.  He wraps her in his arms and pulls her close to the warmth of his chest, the light from the reactor dimmed by her shirt and their close contact.

“Not sleeping?”  He asks her softly.

“Thinking.”

“You’re always thinking baby girl.”  Rhodey sounds tired but amused as he presses his face into her hair and inhales for a long moment.  “Gonna tell me what’s got that crazy head of yours in such a whirl this time?”

“How are things down at the base?”  Toni asks instead.

“There’s a lot of pissed off people who look ready to cry at the thought of not getting any more Stark weapons.”  Rhodey huffs out a laugh.  “Can’t blame them really.  I mean your stuff’s the best baby girl, no doubt about that.  Hammer’s the next in line to take up your contracts you know?”

Hammer.”  Toni hisses his name in the same tone of voice that she usually uses for foul words like Fox News and Reed Richards.

“Down girl.”

“But Rhodey …” Toni whines as she pokes him in the side, “it’s Hammer.  He couldn’t code through a game of Minesweepers not to mention an actual weapons system that works.  He’s awful gumdrop, just awful.  He’s like what would happen if someone taught the actual word awful how to be self-aware and then gave it a pair of pants.  Awful pants.”

“Yes Toni I know how much you hate Justin Hammer.”  Rhodey cuts in.  “It’s been made abundantly clear over the years.  More than once.”

“Doesn’t make it any less true,” Toni grumbles.  And it doesn’t either because yeah, it’s Hammer.  Toni built better than he does now when she was seven.  “Anyways you were saying?”

“The brass is in a tizzy but there’s not much they can actually do and they know it,” Rhodey sighs.  “Your contracts were up for renewal and they can’t force you into signing new ones so they’re stuck.  I think they’re all hoping you’ll have a change of heart.”

“I won’t.”  It’s a promise.

“I know sweetheart,” Rhodey’s arms tighten around her, “I’m not asking you to either.”

“Rhodey,” Toni hesitates for a moment and then plows forward, “I’m working on something new, something big.  It’s not for the military but I’d like you to be in on it eventually, when I’m ready to share it.  I’m not there yet, but … maybe soon.”

“Hey,” Rhodey pulls back far enough that they can look each other in the eyes thanks to the dim light of the room, “whatever it is I’m here for you Tones.  They’ve got me lecturing new pilots while everything’s up in the air but I’m here for you Toni.  Till the day we die.”

“You and me,” Toni agrees as she snuggles back into him, “you and me.”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

“Don’t waste your life Stark, don’t waste it.”

And in her chest a star burns brightly.

~~~

Toni takes a day, gives Rhodey and Pepper a heads up, and has her jet fly her out to see Aunt Peggy.

“Hey Aunt Peggy.”  Toni whispers as she settles down on the edge of her bed.  Peggy’s still a beautiful woman, age and her sickness hasn’t stolen that from her yet, but there’s a softness to her now that wasn’t there before, a frailty.

Toni hates it almost as much as she loves her.

“Hello ducky.”  Aunt Peggy smiles at her and Toni could have sobbed in relief because it’s obviously one of her good days.  “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too Aunt Peggy.”  Toni presses a careful kiss to her cheek.  “I just … got caught up in work.  You know how I am.”

“You’re too hard on yourself darling.  You should take some time for yourself.”

“I will, I promise.”  She’d always gotten onto Toni about that in the past even when she was partying or off up to other kinds of no good.  “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Yes?”

“I’ve got to make a decision, a choice.”  Toni starts, unsure exactly how to phrase what she’s trying to say for once.  “It’s … difficult and complicated and I can’t explain, but it’s important.  A lot of people won’t be happy about it but I think it’s the best thing to do, for me and for a lot of other people too.  I just … I’m conflicted.”

Aunt Peggy’s silent for a long moment but before Toni can begin to worry that she’s slipped away from her again she finally speaks.

“After the serum, when Steve first started off, they restricted him to the USO tour.”  Toni perks up immediately because even now, when she’s heard most of them, she still likes to hear Aunt Peggy’s stories about Steve.  “It was all glitz and foolishness, nothing like what he’d been intended to do.  When he made it overseas to where I was stationed I caught him once, drawing himself like a dancing monkey.  He was so disappointed about not being able to fight, not because he wanted to hurt anyone but because he wanted so desperately to save them instead.”

Toni’s enthralled, attention focused fully on Aunt Peggy.

“Then when the 107th went missing and he found out that Sergeant Barnes was among those listed as gone … it was like someone had lit a fire inside of him.”  She smiles softly with a dim sort of fond remembrance.  “The men were given up as dead, or as good as in any case.  A rescue would have been suicide.  So of course Steve went anyways, managed to talk me and Howard both into helping.”

Toni winces at the mention of Howard but she’s used to it, used to the knowledge that the man she hated above all others had once worked hand in hand with the one she admired.

“He didn’t hesitate but it wasn’t because he wasn’t conflicted.  He was scared, I could see that easily enough, but he went anyways because that was his way.”  Aunt Peggy sighs.  “He was so brave ducky, so good.  I see a lot of him in you.”

“I-I’m not, Aunt Peggy.”  Tears well up in Toni’s eyes so quickly she barely has time to breathe and force them back down because she knows it’s true.  She’s not that kind of person, not good and right like Steve was.  She’s not.  “I’m not like Steve.  He was a good man, I’m just … me.”

“You are ducky.”  She insists.  “You’re brave Toni, just like Steve was.  Good like he was no matter how you try to hide it, no matter how you overlook it time and time again.”  Aunt Peggy squeezes her hand.  “Whatever choice you make, whatever this hard decision is, I know you’ll make the right one.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the easiest one but I know it’ll be the right one and that’s what’s more important.”

I love you.”  Toni says it desperately, mournfully.

“I love you too ducky.”  That bright glint of knowing, of awareness, is still in Aunt Peggy’s eyes.  “I’ll always love you Toni, even when I don’t know you.  A part of me will always love you.”

God it still hurts.

~~~

“Hey.”  Toni reaches out and traces her fingertips over the familiar letters.  “It’s been a while hasn’t it?”

E. D. W. I. N.

“Things have been … bad Jarvis.”  Toni confesses.  “It’s only been a little while since I got home but sometimes … sometimes I wake up and it’s dark or cold or quiet or a million other little things and all I can think is that I’m back there.  Back in the cave.  I keep waiting for Yinsen to say my name, keep waiting for the water.”

J. A. R. V. I. S.

“I worked hard to get out Jarvis because it was terrible in that same way that Howard was terrible.  All hurt and pain and sick hatred.”  She shudders at the memories.  “And yet, in a lot of ways, it was almost … better.”

Toni bites down on the inside of her jaw so hard she tastes blood because a part of her can’t believe she’s saying this, can’t believe she’s so broken inside that she’s actually been thinking this.  The other part of her is happy to finally confess something she’s told no one, will never tell anyone, not even Rhodey.

Like always Jarvis will keep this secret for her.

J. A. R. V. I. S.

“It was almost better,” Toni whispers, “because they hurt me but I knew why.  I … I never really knew why with Howard.  I thought I did, still think I do, but I’ll never be sure.  He’s dead though, like they are, and I’m grateful for that.  Grateful that he died, that I killed them.  But that question … the not knowing, it haunts me sometimes.  He was supposed to be my father like Maria was supposed to be my mother.  They were supposed to love me not hurt me and I’ll never know why they couldn’t.  I’ll never know what was so wrong with me that he couldn’t forgive besides being born a girl.”

J. A. R. V. I. S.

“That’s one of the reasons I love you so much you know?  Because you didn’t have to love me, weren’t supposed to really, but you did anyways.”  Toni wipes a tear away with the heel of her hand, a rough almost angry swipe.  “You loved me anyways and that made all the difference Jarvis.”

J. A. R. V. I. S.

“I’m going to do something,” Toni tells the stone, “I’m going to do something big, something just a bit crazy, but I think … I think it’s the right thing to do.  It’s right like Steve going after the 107th was right.  Like fighting Hydra was right.  I think that this is something you’d have been proud of me for doing.  Something that would have made you proud to call me … yours.”

J. A. R. V. I. S.

“I love you.  I miss you.”  She pushes her curls behind her shoulder, presses a kiss to the stone, and stands up.  “Everything good about me came from you.”

~~~

"JARVIS?"

"Yes Miss?"

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

Steve stares up at her from the surface with eyes so blue they burn, a ghost of a smile on his lips.

She turns her face into the burning sun and pushes her wings to go faster.

And in her chest a star burns brightly

~~~

“Hey JARVIS?”

“Yes Miss?”
“I’m going to be starting a new project, something big.”  Toni settles down into her chair and brings her keyboard to life.  Her fingers run over the special symbols that comprise the language she’s put together for her and JARVIS, a special combination of symbols and glyphs that only they understand.  “It’s going to be complex, complicated, and if it goes the way I want it to then it’s going to require assistance of a special kind.”

“Assistance Miss?”

“Yeah J,” Toni pauses and bites her lip as she brings up the mock-up of the first suit she’d recreated from memory. “I’m going to rebuild this, make it better, faster, stronger.  It’s going to be complex and it’s going to require your help to pilot.  I don’t want to force you into this J, so if you don’t want to help me with it once it’s done then I need you to tell me now.  I’ll have to make a lot of adjustments, maybe even build special programs to help me out.”

“I am, as Lt. Colonel Rhodes so often tells you, with you Miss.”  JARVIS tells her softly, certainly.  “In fact I would much rather be involved than not.”

“Thanks J, I’d rather have you at my side than not.”  Toni grins.  “You can be my co-pilot.”

“We lost you once Miss,” JARVIS reminds her, “I’ve no intention of losing you a second time.  If my presence will facilitate your safety then rest assured I will strive to never leave your side.”

“I love you too baby boy,” Toni’s grin softens, goes warm and loving, “now then, let’s open up a new project file J, index Mark II.”

“Shall I save this to the Stark Industries Central Server Miss?”

“No, private server only J, highest levels of encryption possible.” Toni orders with a raised hand.  “And I do mean highest JARVIS.  I’m talking the only thing I want more secure in this place is your personal code.  It goes you, this, and then the arc reactor.  Special tier encryption – verification essential, J.  Understand?”

“Yes Miss.”  JARVIS sounds almost surprised at her insistance but Toni can tell that he understands how serious she is.  “File encryption level set to S.T.E.V.E.”

“Good job baby boy.”  Toni praises.  “Now let’s get to work.”

~~~

It’s time to zero the clock now.

It’s finally time for Toni to be what she’d been born as for the third time in the burning heat of the desert.

It’s time for Toni to create.

~~~

Toni throws herself into her workshop with a clear and intense focus that borders on obsession.  All other projects are closed, all other trains of though halted and shuffled to the side.

There is only this.

~~~

Toni starts with the boots because she’s a scientist first and she knows that building from the ground up is always best.

The bots attempt to help and they do well except for with the finer work.  Toni does that herself.

It takes her two days to have the first set of boots done, the thrusters are a gorgeous compilation of circuitry that hooks directly to the reactor.

Toni has U hold the camera because she’s smart enough to document all of this for future reference, and DUM-E to hold the fire-extinguisher because there’s a small chance she might explode.

Butterfingers watches everything judgingly with Mother draped across his back.

Toni fires it up.

The impact against the wall is both painful and humiliating but it’s still progress.

Plus DUM-E is inordinately happy to have been able to use the fire extinguisher.

So, yeah, there’s that.

~~~

She grows used to working with Mother close by, begins to get used to the sound of her prosthetic clicking lightly across the shelves as she settles under a sun lamp.

Eventually she gets used to Mother perching on the back of her chair, tail lightly whapping her in the side, in those moments when she’s sunk so deep into coding that she barely blinks.

~~~

Pepper’s unusually unamused when she comes down to the workshop with news that Obie has called and watches as she damn near sends herself through a wall.

Pepper doesn’t ask though and Toni appreciates her purposeful lack of curiosity.

The scowl and icepack to the face not so much.

~~~

“Obie,” Toni smiles lightly in greeting as the video call connects.  She’d taken the time to shower and dress to the hilt as she always was around him.  He might have said he was backing her but Toni’s still not comfortable enough to be casual around him.

“Toni!” Obie grins, cigar hanging out the corner of his mouth.  “It’s good to see you kiddo.  You’re looking good.”

“Thank you.”  Toni’s always hated small talk for all that she’s skilled at it.  “Pepper said you called?”

“Wanted to give you an update kid,” Obie looks almost smug and it immediately sets Toni’s hackles to rising because she’d never liked that look on neither him nor Howard.  “Everything’s going good Toni.  The boards a little worried, there’s been some talk of you having posttraumatic stress but I think I mainly managed to whittle those down to a murmur at the meeting tonight.  The stock drop hasn’t helped but if you’ve got anything new in the pipeline that’d be a major plus.”

“I’ve got a few things I’d put on the back burner for board review before Afghanistan,” Toni very carefully doesn’t tap on the reactor as she’s taken to doing these days, “I’ll send them something tomorrow.  Maybe that’ll help back them off some.”

“Good, good.”  Obie smiled, soft and slightly affectionate in a way he’d never really been in Toni’s life.  “You’re doing good kid.  I’m proud of you.  Howie would be proud of you.”

Toni feels her heart skip a beat and she fights to keep the small, pleasant smile on her face natural.

“Thanks Obie.  I’ll talk to you later.”

She ends the call with hands she doesn’t want to admit shake.

“Miss?”  JARVIS’ questioning voice is a balm to Toni’s suddenly rattled nerves.

“J,” Toni clears her throat as she stands and heads to her room to change, “how far are you inside SI’s servers?”

“I am as far as you need me to be.”  JARVIS promptly replies.

“Something’s going on,” Toni tells him decisively as she strips down and grabs her t-shirt from where she’d left it on the end of the bed, “I want you to find out what it is.  Fine comb everything, go over every piece of digit correspondence you can find, rip the fucking thing apart if you have to.”

“It will take some time Miss.”  JARVIS cautions her.

“I know, but work on it as much as you can, as quickly as you can.”  Toni strides out the door and down towards the workshop.

“Yes Miss.  Might I ask the reason why?”

“Obie said he was proud of me.”  Toni tells him softly.  “He said that Howard would have been proud of me.”

“Yes Miss,” JARVIS obviously doesn’t fully understand, “I’m afraid I don’t fully understand the correlation.”

“I know, I’m glad that you don’t,” Toni reassures him gently, “but J the thing is, Howard would have never been proud of me.  Obie and I both know that.  Him saying that, him talking like that … it doesn’t compute, doesn’t add in.  Something’s wrong.”

“I’ll begin analysis immediately Miss.”  JARVIS sounds certain, solid, and it’s so nice to have his undivided belief and trust.

~~~

Toni wakes up on the couch after passing out from three days with no sleep to the feel of Mother curled up on her chest.  The iguana’s a heavy but somehow comforting weight, curled as she is around the residual warmth of the reactor.

That afternoon she finally calibrates and corrects the flight system.

She’s ready for the next step now.

~~~

The armor goes on easily enough.

It’s all sleek, gleaming silver lines and thick, sexless armored plates.  It makes her taller, broader at the chest and shoulders still, but it’s more refined than the Mark I was, less bulky and awkward.

It is, if Toni does say so herself, a thing of utter beauty.

JARVIS uploads himself to the HUD seamlessly, imports all of the home specifications Toni had spent days coding in.  The virtual walkthrough they do is riveting and effortless and Toni wants more.

“Miss,” there’s caution and a hint of pleading JARVIS’ voice when she asks him to check the weather and to listen in on ground control.  They both know what she’s going to do.  “Miss please, there are still terabytes of calculations needed before actual flight should be attempted.”

“Sometimes you gotta run before you can walk baby boy.”  Toni grins, flushed and heady with their success so far, with the promise of what this could mean.

And then Toni does as she’s always dreamt and flies.

It’s exhilarating.  It is like freedom and sex and every other type of pleasure she’s ever experienced rolled up into one.

The night is beautiful, the city is beautiful, the moon is beautiful and it calls to her.

“What’s SR-71’s record J?”  Toni calls out as her eyes track over the HUD.

“The altitude record for fixed wing flight is 85,000 feet, Miss.”  JARVIS tells her reluctantly.

“You know what they say about records J,” Toni laughs as she ups the output of the thrusters, “they’re just made to be broken.  Come on!”

Toni lets out a whoop and shoots forward into the sky.

“Miss there’s a potentially fatal build up of ice occurring.”  JARVIS warns but Toni just pushes forward, too drunk on flight, too high on all of it.

JARVIS’ voice sputters in her ear and then dies.

Toni’s heart falls almost faster than the suit does.

It’s a mad tumble through the air before she manages to defrost herself, to get JARVIS back in her ear where he belongs, but she does it.

Joy shines bright and powerful in her heart and it’s like nothing she’s ever felt before.

Falling through her ceiling and getting doused with the fire extinguisher is something she could have done without.

~~~

Toni makes tweaks, fixes the small things she or JARVIS had noticed and works out how to solve the icing problem along the way.

The gold-titanium alloy from the satellite makes the suit glow like the sun and for all JARVIS’ playful banter the color calls to her.

“Throw a little crimson in there J,” Toni tells him with a smile because crimson and gold have always been her colors just as they were Jarvis’ before her.

“Much more subtle Miss.”

“What can I say J, I’m a creature of habit.”

“Miss,” JARVIS interrupts, “Obadiah Stane is on the line for you.”

“Voice only JARVIS,” because she’s freshly showered with an ice pack on her shoulder and the reactor shining through her shirt.

“Toni!” Obie’s voice rings out.  “Something wrong with your video?”

“Just got out of the shower actually.”

“Right, right. That’s good timing then.”  Obie’s grin is evident in his voice.  “I wasn’t sure if I’d catch you in time or not.”

“In time for what?”

“Before you left for the gala of course.”

“Gala?” Toni’s confused for a split second because she hasn’t heard about any gala.

“It’s the Firefighter’s Family Fund gala tonight Toni.  Don’t tell me you forgot.”  Obie scolds.

“Pretty sure I didn’t get an actual invitation.”  Pepper would have been down if she had.

“You’ll be coming right?”  Obie seems concerned again and it makes Toni want to grit her teeth.  “I know I told you to lay low but I didn’t mean disappear completely.  Come out tonight, show the public and the board you’re alive and kicking.”

“Alright,” Toni glances at the time, if she hurries she’ll be able to get dressed and get there fashionably late as always, “I’ll be there soon.”

“Looking forward to it.” Obie signs off.

Toni takes one look at the completed render for the suit and tells JARVIS to fabricate it because it’s perfect.

“Call Rhodey J, voice only,” Toni calls out as she goes off to get dressed.

“Tones?”  Rhodey answers promptly as always.

“Rhodey baby, sweet berry, honey crunch, marshmellow of my heart …”

“What do you want Toni?”  He knows her so well.

“I’ve got a gala to go to tonight and my arm is sadly dateless.”  Toni whines as she paws through her closet.  “You should fix that for me.”

“Toni,” he huffs, “this is last minute as all hell.”

Rhodey,” she draws his name out childishly.

“Fine.”

“Wear the tux I bought you and I’ll let you drive.”

“I’ll be there in half an hour.”

Toni laughs, has JARVIS end the call, and pulls out a dress she hasn’t worn yet.  It’s gold with a choker like neckline and slit, as always, almost indecently high on both sides.

Dressed to kill, hair up and wings covered, Toni’s waiting when Rhodey shows up twenty minutes later.  She throws him the keys to the sexy little silver car he likes so much and grins at the glee on his face.

~~~

Toni and Rhodey strut down the red carpet to the shouts and shuddering camera flashes of reporters suddenly ravenous for her attention.

Obie seems almost gleeful when he greets her on the stairs.  He busses her cheeks softly, smiles at Rhodey, and then waves her on inside.

~~~

Toni dances with Rhodey because he’s one of the few people she enjoys dancing with.  She laughs, low and amused, when he’s dragged off by one of the society matrons shortly afterwards.  Mrs. Lavestone is a notorious flirt and enjoys handsome young men shamelessly enough that Toni actually enjoys talking to her on occasion.

She’s at the bar idly sipping a flute of champagne when she’s approached by a face she doesn’t know, which is both not unheard of but also sort of rare by now.

“Ms. Stark,” the man greets her polietly.  Toni takes a moment to observe him.  He’s taller than her even in heels, but most people are, and he wears his suit with an obvious kind of ease.  He’s handsome in a strict, office man sort of way, polished and composed in that same way Rhodey often appears even out of uniform.  She’s also fairly certain that there’s a gun hiding somewhere beneath that jacket.

“Yes?”

“Agent Phil Coulson,” he holds out a hand and Toni takes it slowly, carefully, because his name does ring a bell, “I’m from the Stra-“

“You’re from SHIELD.”  Toni cuts him off because she remembers the name now even if she hadn’t been paying attention to Pepper when she’d mentioned him the first time.  Plus there’s no way she wouldn’t have made a note of someone who worked for Aunt Peggy’s old division.

“You know about us?”  Agent Coulson seems surprised and slightly wary.

“I make it my business to know things Agent.”  Toni doesn’t even try to play him further.  She knows what kind of people SHIELD employs even if she isn’t supposed to.  But there’d been no way in hell she’d have been willing not to dig deeper into Aunt Peggy’s stories.  SHIELD is a massive organization but still very discrete and relatively not a concern of hers so she’d dug but not too deeply.  Plus she’d made a careful note of anyone interested in her return from Afghanistan.

“Well that makes it easier to tell you that we’d like to speak with you.”  Agent says and while he’s stern and blank faced there’s also an almost gentle kindness to him.  “I know it’s been a trying time for you recently Ms. Stark but I’d appreciate you finding time in your schedule for me.  Perhaps at Stark Industries, say the 24th at 7:00 p.m.”

“Of course,” she spots Pepper out of the corner of her eye and sets down her champagne flute, “I’ll speak to my PA and set up a date.”

“Thank you.”  Coulson shakes her hand and then Toni’s moving again.

~~~

Dancing with Pepper is always a treat because she gets so flustered at the attention they receive.  Toni takes pity on her though, lets Rhodey steal her away before her face can match her hair, and goes to the bar to order the other two a drink.

Agent Coulson is gone but a familiar and much dreaded blonde head bears down on her quickly enough.

“Ms. Stark.”

“Ah,” Toni plays deliberately forgetful, “Carrie?”

“Christine.”  Everhart’s mouth goes pinched and indigent.  She’s never gotten over the way Toni had snubbed her a few years back when she’d printed a particularly insulting piece about her and Rhodey in Vanity Fair.

“Can I at least get a reaction from you?”

“Dread.  I would say dread is my reaction.”  Toni smiles, all teeth and barely repressed disdain.  “Followed closely by irritation.”

“You know I almost bought it,” Everhart continues on nonsensically, “I almost thought that there was an actual heart behind that shallow ice-queen bitch façade you wear but I guess I can’t be right all of the time.”

“Oh honey,” Toni drawls, patience wearing thin, “you should be used to being wrong by now.  You do it so often after all.”

“Does this look like I’m wrong to you?”  Everhart shoves a photo practically in her face.  “You and your company have been involved in yet another atrocity.  This time in a small town called Gulmira.  Heard of it?”

Toni’s entire body turns to ice.  Gulmira.  The word repeats in her mind.  GulmiraYinsen.  She thumbs through the photos and rage begins to peter in through the ice at the sight of her weapons, of the dead bodies lining the streets and crates bearing her name.

“When were these taken?”  Toni can hear the rage in her own voice, barely suppressed beneath her mask of calm.

“Yesterday.”

“I didn’t approve of this shipment.”  She hadn’t either.  Weapons manufacturing and selling was supposed to be down goddamn them.

“Well your company did.”

Toni whirls on her heel, photos held in her hand, to pull Rhodey away from his latest dance partner with a tight smile, Everhart on her heels the entire time.  Rhodey knows her so he immediately realizes something’s wrong.  The three of them end up huddled by the bar as Rhodey looks the pictures over, face slowly darkening.

“When?”  He grits the question out.

“Yesterday.”  Toni narrows her eyes as her mind whirls.  “Come on, I need to talk to Obie.”

~~~

They find him on the steps almost as if he was waiting for her.  Toni strides up to him, Rhodey and Everhart on her heels.

“Obie.”  Toni smiles sweetly for the cameras but her jaw aches from how tightly her teeth are gritted.

Obie raises a finger at her as he pulls his ringing phone from his pocket, pauses long enough to fire off a text, and then slips it back into place and turns towards her with a smile.

“Toni,” he greets her, “that was fast.  You and Rhodes leaving already?”
“Explain this Obie.”  Toni shoves the pictures in his direction and watches his face darken as he turns his back to the reporters and looks.  “Are we double dealing Obie?  Is this something that’s been going on?  Because this?  This crosses a line that SI swore to never cross.”

“Toni calm down,” Obie slips the photos into his jacket pocket and takes a step away from her so there’s some space between them.

“Do not tell me to calm down Stane.”  Toni grits out as she immediately bristles.  “This is an entirely unacceptable lev-“

Toni!”  Her name’s screamed from behind her and then she’s suddenly being tackled to the ground, a hot, heavy weight on top of her before she’s even had time to process what’s happened.  It takes her a moment to realize that it’s Rhodey sprawled out on top of her, his arms curled around her head and her face buried in the front of his shirt that’s damp with sweat.

“Rhodey what in the fu…”  Toni trails off because there’s suddenly screaming and someone’s rolling Rhodey off of her.  She hears Happy’s voice as if from a distance, hears other voices as men in black suits are suddenly there, grabbing at her arms and trying to pull her up.

For a moment Toni’s frozen, world silent and body completely still.  Her entire focus is on Rhodey.

Rhodey whose crisp white shirt is slowly bleeding red from high on his shoulder.

Rhodey whose eyes are closed.

Rhodey who isn’t moving.

Rhodey who has obviously been shot.

That’s when the world seems to speed back up in a flash.  Toni thrashes against the hands holding her, realizes that she’s screaming Rhodey’s name as she fights them.  She hears Happy’s voice again and then she’s being let go.  She flings herself at Rhodey, collapses down beside him on the ground, hands scrambling to rip open his shirt.

The wound’s high on the shoulder but he’s losing blood fast.  Too fast.

“No, no no no,” Toni’s sobbing, panic eating at her as she presses her hands against the welling blood only to realize there’s too much.  Her hands scramble for her skirt and she rips the fabric away mercilessly at just above her knees, bundles it up and presses it against his wound.  “Rhodey no.”

“T-Toni,” Rhodey groans out as his eyes finally flutter open.  She’s never heard him sound so young, so afraid, but his voice has also never sounded so beautiful.  “To-ni … y-you oka-y?”

“You idiot.”  Toni sobs as she leans down to press a kiss to his forehead, his cheeks, the corner of his mouth, her hands pressing down sharply against the wound all the while.  “I’m fine, you’re the one who got shot you fucking idiot.”

“Was aiming for you.”  Rhodey gasps out and Toni can just hear Happy screaming into his phone for an ambulance.  “Couldn’t … let you … get hurt again.  Not on my watch.  Not again”

“You took a bullet for me.”  Toni can barely see through her tears and the pained gasp he gives when she presses down on his shoulder makes her whimper.  “Rhodey … why?”

“L-o-love you.”  He tries to smile at her, brings his other hand up and cups her cheek.  Toni leans into it uncaring of the blood.  It drops a few seconds later and Rhodey groans again, teeth clenched and face going chalky.  “Hurts.”

“It’s okay Rhodey.”  Toni can hear the panic in her own voice, can hear the way she’s sobbing out the words and barely breathing.  “Rhodey, baby it’s okay.  You’re gonna be okay.  You have to be okay.”

“Toni.”  He rasps her name again and Toni feels a hand on her shoulder, slim and delicate, trying to pull her away.  She shrugs it off without even paying attention.

“You’re going to be okay.”  She sobs out again, heart breaking with every bit of blood that spills up and around her fingers.

There are more hands on her then and Toni only lets herself be pulled back when she sees the stretcher and the medical bags.  She watches them load Rhodey up and then she’s running, following behind them with every step they take.

She must look a sight, covered in blood and half feral, because they don’t even protest when she barrels into the back of the ambulance behind them.

She tucks herself into the corner as they work on him, reaches out and grabs his hand when it flops off the side of the stretcher.

“You’re going to be okay Rhodey.”  Toni keeps talking to him, uncaring for once who hears her because talking to him is more important than anything.  Rhodey’s kept her anchored so many times in the past and now it’s her turn.  “You’re going to be just fine.  Because … because you said it’s me and you right?  Me and you until the day we die and that’s not today for you Rhodey.  Today is not that day.  You hear me soldier?  You don’t get to quit on me, not like this.”

Toni presses her mouth directly against his palm and whispers against his skin.  “I love you Rhodey and I’m not gonna bury you too.  Not you.”

The wailing of the sirens threatens to drown out her voice but it doesn’t matter anyways.

Rhodey’s eyes are closed and his hand is limp in hers.

He can’t hear her anymore.