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The Limitations of Wax

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“Toni?”  Pepper’s teary voice barely manages to break through the numb, icy cocoon that Toni has wrapped herself in.

“Pep?”  Her own voice is ragged, throat raw from sobbing.

“Toni you need to come get cleaned up.”  Pepper’s hand is on her shoulder then, gentle and caring and coaxing, but Toni doesn’t move.

Instead she keeps her eyes glued to the red caked lines of her own hands, unwilling to do little more than stare blankly at them.  She’s not even sure how long she’s been standing in one spot.  Time seems to have come to a standstill, frozen in place just as she is.

“Toni,” Pepper’s hand tightens on her shoulder briefly, “you, you can’t stay like this.  You’re covered in b-blood.  You need to see a doctor Toni.  Please.”

“It’s not mine.”  Toni tells her numbly.  “None of it’s mine.”

Because she’s covered in it, arms soaked up to the elbows, ruined dress drenched, her face is spattered and smeared with it like some sort of macabre face paint but none of it is hers.

Oh God, she wishes it was hers.

Pepper sucks in a breath that sounds like a sob and there’s a telling silence behind Toni but she still doesn’t turn.  As much as she loves Pepper, as much as a part of her wants to turn around and comfort her, Toni just can’t.

She can’t.

She doesn’t have the emotional depth at the moment to comfort anyone.  She’s icy to the core, frozen down to the very center of herself.  All that is good and warm and sweet has been washed away by the tide, burnt out by the sun, swallowed by the teeming sands of the desert.

Because Rhodey was …

Because Rhodey is …

Toni just can’t.

“This isn’t what he would want.”  Pepper cuts in again, voice harsher this time.  She almost sounds angry but Toni knows in a distant sort of way that she’s just desperate.  “Toni you know this isn’t what he would want.  He’d want you to take care of yourself.”

Don’t.”  Toni snaps the word out and she feels more than sees the way Pepper flinches because she’s never been so harsh with her before.  Toni would probably hate herself for that if she had the ability to feel anything at all at the moment.

“I’m sorry.”  Pepper whispers from behind her.  “Toni I’m sorry but please.”

I can’t.”  Toni can hear the agony in her own voice, can hear the barely buried plea, and it breaks something inside of her.

She sounds small again, feels it too in a way that not even Afghanistan and the water had made her feel.

Like a dam giving way to a flood rage rushes through her as unrelenting and all-consuming as the sea.  Toni’s chest burns with it, burns with an icy fury so cold it feels as if she’s being devoured by flame.

With a sudden burst of movement Toni shoves her way to her feet.

“Toni what is it?”  Pepper reaches out to her again but Toni can’t bring herself to reach back.

What’s more is the fact that, in this moment, she doesn’t want to.

“I’m going to find the motherfucker who did this,” Toni seethes out through suddenly gritted teeth, “and I’m going to kill them.”

She rushes past Pepper and down the long, cold hallway.  She can’t stay here, can’t stay near Pepper.  She’s too furiously angry, too cold in her rage.  She can’t be around Pepper right now, not like this.

She’ll only hurt her if she does.

Because Toni always seems to hurt the ones she loves and with the way rage and anguish is currently eating away at her she won’t be able to stop once she starts.

She’ll hurt Pepper, will hollow her out inside with her words and her rage.

She doesn’t want to do that to Pepper right now too.  She doesn’t want to do that to Pepper ever.  But she will, she knows, if she stays.

Toni!”  She hears Pepper’s desperate call from behind her but she doesn’t slow, doesn’t stop.

She can’t.

She almost runs into Happy when she hits the lobby.  He’s pale, red eyed and obviously exhausted but he still straightens up when he sees her approaching.

“Boss y-” he goes to speak but she doesn’t let him.

“Keys.”  Toni thrusts her hand out in front of her expectantly.

“No, Boss ple-” he tries to protest.

Keys.”  Toni practically growls.

Happy’s shoulders slump as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the keys to the car he’d driven himself and Pepper in to the gala.

 Toni snatches them from him roughly, darts around him, and heads for the door.

Boss!”  Just like Pepper had Happy calls after her desperately but Toni doesn’t listen to him either.

Instead she keeps moving, uncaring of the startled looks she’s getting, of the gaggle of reporters she sees in the distance rushing in her direction, or the fact that she’s missing her shoes.

She ignores all of that and just darts across the parking lot and straight towards the car.

She can’t be here anymore.

She’ll hurt someone if she is.

~~~

Toni’s out of the city and on the long stretch of dark highway that leads to the mansion when her mind finally clicks back into a calmer state of working order.

She presses the call button on the navigation feature with a blood smeared thumb.

“JARVIS?”  She calls out for him, voice low and husky.

“Miss?”  JARVIS sounds worried again.  “Miss the news reports say that there’s been an incident.  Have you been injured?  I can find no reports of you being admitted to a medical facility alongside Lt. Colo-”

Don’t JARVIS.”  Toni interrupts him because she can’t hear this right now, can’t bear to listen to it.  It’ll only set her off again.  “Just … don’t.”

“Of course Miss.”  JARVIS softens immediately.

“Did the Mark III finish the fabrication process?”  It’s what she needs to know at the moment because her mind is whirling.

“Yes Miss,” comes JARVIS’ prompt reply.  “The suit finished fabricating to your specifications and is currently ready and fully operational.”

“Good.”  Toni takes a curve a hair too sharp but can’t bring herself to care.  “I’ll be at the mansion in twenty minutes.  I want you to have Butterfingers and U start the process to calibrate the gauntlets to above average range JARVIS.  No mistakes, no fuck ups.  This is too important.  You ride herd on them if you have to, just get it done and get it done right.”

“Yes Miss.”  JARVIS sounds almost morose at the harshness of her voice but he doesn’t try to argue with her.

“Also I want every camera within a thousand yards of the gala JARVIS.”  Toni tightens her hands on the wheel.  “I want every angle, every frame, every second of video footage you can find.  I want to know exactly who sho-,” Toni takes a deep breath and lets it shudder its way back out, “I want to know who did it JARVIS.  You get your code on everything you can and you tell me what son of a bitch thought they had the right.”

“Yes Miss.”

“I’ll be there soon.”  Toni cuts the call abruptly with a harsh stab of her finger.

She’s hurting everyone tonight it seems and as much as she knows it isn’t right she just can’t seem to stop herself.  Just can’t seem to reign it in and push it down like she normally does when her temper starts to flare out of control.

She’s always been icy in her rage, destructive and calculating.

Especially when the one she really wants to hurt is herself.

~~~

Toni strips her destroyed gown off as soon as she steps into the mansion, her delicate, blood spattered lingerie following behind it.  She leaves them all in a ball where they drop and pads towards her bathroom naked, ripping the pins from her hair as she goes.

She steps beneath the showerhead’s flow while it’s still ice cold.  She lets the swell of panic and terror that automatically wells up inside of her chest eat at her until she’s on the verge of a panic attack instead of jerking back right away.

Only when she’s in danger of collapsing does she force herself to back up.

It makes her chest ache, makes her head hurt, but it’s good, a fitting punishment of sorts.

Toni’s sure that it hurts a lot less than the bullet that had …

She cuts that train of thought off and starts to scrub at her skin instead.

She watches the blood sluice off of her body silently, sees the way it stains the water pink through unfocused eyes.

Even when it’s all gone she still scrubs and scrubs until she’s red and just a shade off raw.  She still feels as if she’s covered in it, painted crimson in the worst sort of way imaginable.  She has a lot of blood on her hands these days but somehow she thinks that this is the time it might never actually come off no matter how hard she tries.

She dries off automatically when she’s done, pulls her hair back into a quick, tight braid that she then twirls into a bun.  She moves into her room for a pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt without really realizing she’s moving.

She almost floats her way to the workshop.

U and Butterfingers are around one of the gauntlets, screwdrivers in hand and diligently working.  Toni shoos them away silently and takes over.

“International news JARVIS,” Toni clips out as she hooks the gauntlets up to the reactor and beings to make adjustments, mind whirling and calculations running just behind her eyes, “anything currently mentioning Gulmira.”

“Yes Miss.”

The TV mounted on the wall flicks on a few seconds later and the news report is dark and horrible.

Toni seethes.

In her hand the repulsor mounted in the gauntlet glows like a star.

In the background the reporter drones on about the horrors in Gulmira, about desperate refuges, about destroyed homes and murdered families.

Behind Toni’s eyes all she can see is red, in her ears all she can hear is that last, chocked off whimper right before Rhod-

Toni tosses aside her screwdriver, stretches out her arm, and fires once at an overhanging light fixture.  She watches clinically as it shatters in a shower of sparks.  In her tank Mother startles and the bots whirl and whine in fear, rolling behind Toni to crowd together by the kitchenette.

“Miss?”  JARVIS’ voice is tentative, cautious.  Afraid.

Toni turns and a flicker of movement catches her attention.

It’s only her reflection in one of the thick glass panes that comprise that wall of the workshop.

She stares at herself for a moment.  She’s scrubbed clean, hair up and arc reactor shining brightly in her chest.  She’s pale but beyond that she looks normal, looks as if nothing has happened.

Like Rhodey had never been …

Like Rhodey isn’t …

It’s hateful.

The sight of her reflection shattering, the sound the glass makes as it falls, is much better.

Yes.

This is what she wants.

~~~

The flight suit she’d put together earlier fits her like a glove.  There are no loose seams, no folds of fabric for anything to catch on.  It molds to every dip and curve of her body almost indecently with only an opening on her chest so that the light of the arc reactor can shine brilliantly.

Toni pulls it on in silence and then strides towards the stations she’d put together to put her into the suit.

Robotic arms and machinery surround her as she’s fitted into the Mark III but Toni doesn’t flinch.

She stares straight ahead, shoulders set and spine stiff.

The armor is heavy as it settles around her but Toni can and will bare its weight.  A life time of working with machines and metal, years of dance lessons as a child and then years of physical training afterwards have all made her so much stronger than she seems.

Now she’ll use that strength for this.

Because she wants nothing more than to hunt the bastard who’d taken the shot down, wants to cave their face in with her fist, wants to watch them bleed just like Rh-

But she doesn’t know who it is, not yet.

But she will.  One way or another she’ll find out who’d ordered the attack.  She’ll find out who took the shot.  JARVIS is digging into it and nothing stays hidden from him forever if he’s looking for it.

So Toni can’t follow her first instinct of hunting them all down viciously.

But she can do this.

She can redirect the icy flow of her rage and do this thing that would make Steve and Jarvis and Aunt Peggy proud of her.

She can do this thing for Yinsen and in the name of all he’d done for her.

She can do this thing that would make Rhodey proud of her.

So, with that thought in mind, when the helmet and face plate are put into place, Toni takes one deep breath and then she steps forward.

~~~

She makes the long flight to Gulmira in relative silence, only speaking to JARVIS when it’s absolutely necessary.

JARVIS, to his credit, has long since picked up on her mood and he stays otherwise silent.

She arrives to chaos and the sound of innocents being murdered.

When she lands one of the men turn one of her guns in her direction but Toni doesn’t hesitate.

The repulsor blasts send the first shooter flying, then a second and then a third.

She turns and there are cowards hiding behind women and children, using those they’d tormented as shields.

Toni lowers her hands and tracks them silently through the HUD, little red targets popping up on each of them.

They die easily enough.

She feels no regret.

For a moment there’s quiet and then a small boy is rushing forward and into his desperate father’s arms.

Toni allows herself one look and then moves.

Her fist slams through the wall like it is rice paper and she grabs at the coat of the son of a bitch hidden there only to throw him to the ground at the villager’s feet.

“He’s all yours,” she tells them as she takes flight again.  She doesn’t stay to watch what they do to him, can’t bring herself to feel any sort of victory or relief.

Her work’s not done yet.

Besides her weapons had helped to do this to these people, had helped to hurt these innocents who should have never known terror and agony like they have.

She doesn’t deserve to see their happiness.

~~~

She has a cache of her missiles in view on the HUD when the anti-aircraft missile hits her dead on and knocks her to the ground.

It hurts.

But Toni pulls her way up from the crater she’s left in the earth and shakes the pain off with an efficiency born of long practice.

Then she destroys the bastard who shot her before she turns her weapons on the Jericho missiles that should have never left the factory floor.

The fiery hell-scape she leaves in her wake feels almost right.

~~~

“Miss,” JARVIS cuts through the silence suddenly, “I’ve picked up chatter from Edwards Air Force Base.  You have been detected.”

“Do they know it’s me?”  In her rage she hadn’t accounted for all of the facts it seemed but Toni is good at thinking outside the box, good at thinking her way around obstacles.  With JARVIS at her side there are few who could out think or outmaneuver the two of them working in tandem.

“No Miss, they are confused as to what has happened.”  JARVIS informs her promptly.  “The use of human shields prevented them from gaining access to the area and as such they are now trying to determine your origin as well as classification.”

“Scramble their feed JARVIS.”  Toni orders as she banks hard upwards to take towards the possible safety of cloud cover.  “Don’t let them get a lock on me.”

“Done Miss,” JARVIS relays only a few seconds later, “I am blocking your image but the scramble will not last long for fear of compromising their entire surveillance network.”

“All I need is enough time to get out of range.”  Toni grits her teeth and pushes forward.

“You have inbound F-22 Raptors, Miss.”  JARVIS sounds almost panicked a full minute later.  “They’re heading in the direction of your last known location.  If you are not careful they will see you.  I would advise going supersonic and engaging stealth and tactile evasive maneuvers now.”

Toni spins, shoots up as high as the suit can handle and then engages supersonic.  She jets through the air like the fastest of bullets, like a creature created to exist here in this place of sun and wind.

The feeling is enough to momentarily break through her calm and she can’t help but revel in the act of flight once again.

The F-22 Raptors never even see her.

~~~

“Miss?”  JARVIS calls for her attention as she stands silently letting the machinery remove the Mark III from her.

“Yeah J?”  She feels calmer now, less like a seething sea but still cold deep inside, still almost breathtakingly numb in that secret place inside of her where before she’d been warm and soft.

Because Rhodey was …

Because Rhodey is …

“You have sixteen missed calls from Ms. Potts, eleven from Mr. Hogan, and two from Mr. Stane.”

“Any messages?”  She can’t talk to Pepper or Happy right now.  She knows it’s selfish, knows they’re hurting too, but she just can’t.

“Yes Miss,” JARVIS confirms, “sixteen messages from Ms. Potts, eleven from Mr. Hogan, and one from Mr. Stane.”

The sound of Obie’s name again sends a shiver down Toni’s spine.  He still owes her an explanation for what had happened in Gulmira, still owes her an explanation for a lot of things.

“What’s the progress on your digital comb through for SI?”  It’s been a while now and she knows he’s made progress she just isn’t sure how much.  He’s yet to bring anything new to her attention besides one embezzlement attempt, a few occurrences of petty theft, and two cases of harassment that she’s had him handle with pink slips and thinly veiled but still legal threats for the offenders.

SI’s supposed to be safe for its employees and Toni will be damned if she lets that fall to the wayside even with everything else that’s going on.

“I have combed through all but the highest encryption levels Miss.”  JARVIS tells her solemnly.  “The top-tier encryption levels take longer to decipher given the need for both discretion and thoroughness.  Still I suspect that I will be finished sometime within the next hour.”

“You do good work J.”  Toni praises softly.  “And I’m … sorry for being harsh with you earlier.”

“I understand Miss.”  JARVIS soothes.  “You have had a … difficult time.”

“Yeah,” Toni laughs bitterly as she steps away from the machinery at last and moves to where the bots are all sitting uncharacteristically docile in their charging cradles, “difficult is probably an understatement.”

“Hey babies,” she sighs as she reaches out a hand towards them only to let it drop when none of them move.  “I’m sorry guys.  I shouldn’t have scared you like that.”

Butterfingers narrows his camera aperture in her direction but then looks away.  Neither DUM-E nor U move from where they’ve folded in on themselves. 

She feels almost stricken because for the first time her boys are scared of her.  Of her.  She’s done the one thing she swore to never do.  She’s made them afraid of her.

“Give them time Miss.”  JARVIS says softly.  “They will understand.”

“Sure thing J.”  Toni scrubs a hand over her face, slumps with a broken sigh, and then stands to move back towards the stairs and her room.

She’s in the shower again, this time washing off sweat and dirt and poking absently at bruised skin, when JARVIS interrupts her again.

“Miss, Mr. Stane is currently outside and requesting entrance.”

“Obie’s here?”  Toni’s surprised because of all people to show up she hadn’t expected it to be him.  “Direct him towards the living room and tell him I’ll be out in a moment J.”

“Yes Miss.”

Toni slams a hand against the shower controls to shut off the water and practically leaps out of the stall and towards her towel.  She’s dressed in seconds, hands winding her hair back up as she moves out of the bathroom and towards her room to grab a thicker shirt to go over her tank top.  There’s no time to dress to the nines as she normally is with Obie but honestly Toni’s too exhausted to care.  As long as her hair’s up and the reactor is covered that’s all she cares about at the moment.

In fact she’s almost glad he’s here because he owes her an explanation.  He owes her answers and she’s almost desperate for something to take her mind off of what has happened.

Obie’s staring out the large bay window that looks out over the sea when Toni steps into the living room.

“Obie.”  Toni calls to get his attention.

“Toni.”  He turns, rakes his eyes over her for a split second, and then smiles almost comfortingly as he holds out a hand in her direction.

Toni doesn’t take it, doesn’t step closer to him at all, and after a few seconds Obie’s face seems to fall and he lets his hand drop.

Kiddo.” Obie sighs and for a second he seems older somehow, like there’s a heavy weight on his shoulders.  Toni’s never seen him like this before and she finds that she doesn’t like it.  Not because she feels any sort of real attachment to Obie but because it doesn’t seem natural on him.  Doesn’t seem real.

“Why are you here Obie?”

“I was worried about you Toni,” Obie tugs at his already loosened tie, “with everything that’s happened and the fact that you’re not answering your phone I wanted to come check on you.”

“I’m fine.”  She’s not but she’ll never tell him that of course.  No matter what she is in this moment, willing to be vulnerable in front of Obie isn’t one of them.

“You know,” Obie slides a hand into his pocket and just stares at her for a moment, “we’ve never been close.”

Toni bites back a sharp snort because that’s a fucking understatement.

“A lot of that’s my fault I think.  I never quite knew how to deal with you.”  Obie gives an expressive shrug.  “I don’t think Howie did either to be honest.  You were always … too much.”

Don’t,” Toni grits the words out through gritted teeth, “talk to me about Howard.  Not now and not here.  I’m not interested.”

“I know he was a little rough with you sometimes kid, but he was your father and he wanted what was best for you.”  Obie holds up a hand when Toni scoffs.  “You didn’t know him like I did Toni, he had plans for you, a lot of plans I did and didn’t know about.”

“The only good thing the bastard ever did for me was die,” Toni spits, suddenly at the end of her already severely frayed temper.  The last thing she’s capable of doing right now is standing by and listening to someone else wax poetical about Howard motherfucking Stark.  “Now if this is what you’re here to talk about Obie I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Alright, alright.”  Obie holds his hands up in surrender.  “I’ve actually come to talk to you about something a lot more important.  I wanted to wait but it’s too urgent.”

“Fine.”  Toni agrees because she’s eager to hear what he has to say and then get him out of her house.  It doesn’t feel right to have him here, to have him in her space, in the safe place she’d built for her and her family.

“Let an old man make a pit stop kiddo and then we’ll get down to the brass tacks since this is going to take a while,” Obie grins at her, seemingly restored to a more natural mood, “pour us a drink for when I get back would you?”

Toni waves Obie away in the direction of one of the bathrooms and moves towards the bar to pour him a drink and grab herself a bottle of the sparkling water she keeps there.  Drinking’s not the best idea for her at the moment and Toni knows that.

Miss.”  There’s a tone of urgency in JARVIS’ voice again that makes Toni perk right up.

“JARVIS?”

“I have broken the top-tier encryption on SI’s database and have finished my digital comb through.”  To Toni’s apprehension JARVIS sounds almost worried.

“Give me a rundown J,” Toni moves towards the screen mounted on the living room wall so that JARVIS can give her a visual.

The information JARVIS has found flashes up onto the screen and Toni feels herself go white, feels her heart skip a beat beside the reactor.

Missile plans.  Shipping manifests.  Double dealing.

Sector 16.

A suit.

Her suit.

Someone was building her suit.

And then the video.

The sight of herself, beaten and bloody, chest a horrific mass of crimson stained bandages and face pale with pain, is like being punched in the gut.  Toni feels bile rise in her throat even before the sound of familiar harsh voices threaten to send her mind whirling back to that cave, back to pain and terror and the burning need to escape.

“Translate JARVIS.”  Toni croaks out the request.

“You did not tell us that the target you paid us to kill was the great Toni Stark.”  The English pours out of the speakers and Toni feels herself go still as the video plays.  “As you can see, Obadiah Stane…”

Oh God.”  She barely makes it to the kitchen sink before she’s sick, heaving over the gleaming surface as her body shakes.

Toni’s mind whirls.

Why?”  Toni moans even as she straightens and scrubs at her mouth with the sleeve of her shirt.  “Why didn’t I see it from the beginning?  How did I not see it?”

Because this?  This all makes sense now.  Everything fits together perfectly.  Like jigsaw puzzle pieces finally coming together, the picture’s now perfectly clear.  She should have seen it, should have put all the pieces together sooner, but she hadn’t.  She’d been wary of him before, had known something was wrong, and she’d allowed herself to push it to the side and focus on other things.

She should have known better.

She should have been smarter.

She’d failed.

“Miss,” JARVIS interrupts quietly, cautiously, “I have also obtained the requested data from the area around the gala as you requested.”

“Tell me,” Toni rasps because it’s one more thing to add to everything else, one more black mark.

“All video feeds were normal Miss,” JARVIS starts, “except for a small bubble of inactive cameras atop a local office complex and the surrounding buildings that were all seemingly taken off line roughly an hour before the gala began.”

Toni stills, attention captured and her mind still whirling.  “An hour?”

“Yes Miss,” JARVIS confirms, “the blank spot was also well within the higher end of the logical range for a sniper to be positioned.”

“JARVIS,” Toni’s mouth is dry and her mind is whirling, calculating, putting together pieces she’d been too enraged, too shaken, to see before, and still it all makes sense.  “JARVIS get your hands on Obie’s call log.  I want to know everyone he’s talked to in the past two months, start from the gala and work your way back.”

Obie was behind it all.

Obie had tried to kill her.

Even without JARVIS getting his hands on Obie’s call log Toni knows what he’ll find.  Probably texts sent to a disconnected and/or untraceable number.  Communication with a burner phone no doubt because Obie had tried to kill her again.

Obie had been the one to sell her out to those fuckers in Afghanistan who’d decided it made more sense to try and keep her like Daedalus in a cave instead of snuffing her out right away.

“Miss,” JARVIS interrupts again voice urgent, “I believe you are in danger with Stane currently being in the house.  Please, get to the workshop.”

Toni remembers leaving the gala now, remembers the text Obie had sent, remembers the way his phone had rang as soon as she stepped outside.  Obie was the one who’d moved away from her, the one who’d made sure she was in the direct line of fire.

Toni would be dead now, murdered on the steps outside of her own gala, if it wasn’t for Rhodey.

She’d be dead now if he hadn’t thrown himself between her and a bullet.

Oh God.

Obie had told her he’d take care of everything.  Toni just hadn’t realized at the time that everything actually meant her.

Obie had paid to have her assassinated, more than once from the looks of it, and now he was in her house.

“JARVIS,” Toni whispers as she skirts around the kitchen counter and towards the living room because JARVIS is right, she needs to get to the workshop, “call Pepper.  Tell her what’s going on.  Send her everything J.”

Miss!”  JARVIS’ voice, panicked and afraid, cuts through Toni’s instructions.

Toni hears a whisper of fabric, the sound of footsteps behind her, and whirls around.

She sees Obie, sees the blink of familiar blue lights in his ears, and then her body stiffens and she falls, paralyzed, towards the floor.  Obie catches her in the crook of his arm right before she hits the ground and then brings up a familiar black box to wriggle it tauntingly in her face.

“Now Toni,” Obie tisks as he lays her almost gently on the couch, tucks the paralytic in his pocket and takes out his earplugs, “be a good girl for once in your life.”

Toni stares up at him, body frozen and mind twisting in panic.  She can barely breathe, her muscles refuse to listen to her, and in the back ground she can hear JARVIS practically screaming at Obie, his normal composure nowhere to be found.

“Either be quiet or I’ll kill her right now.”  Obie tilts his head up towards the ceiling as he speaks and JARVIS immediately falls silent.  Toni knows he’s up to something though, knows that her precious, smart boy, is doing something to try and save her.

She just isn’t sure if it’ll work this time.

This time her own shortsightedness, her own special brand of tunnel-vision, has waltzed her directly into the lion’s jaws as it were.

“Oh Toni,” Obie sits down on the couch beside her.  Toni wishes she could flinch away from him, wishes she could bite him, could latch her teeth onto his traitorous throat, but she can’t move.

“Toni, Toni, Toni,” Obie repeats as he takes a moment and just looks at her.

Toni is scared.  She’s so fucking afraid that she’s almost sick with it again.

“You know,” Obie leans back, puts an almost amicable arm around her shoulders, and holds the paralytic up again, “it’s a shame they didn’t approve this thing.  There’s a lot of uses for temporary paralysis out there, but, that’s business I guess.  Just like this is actually.  It’s just … business.  Plus, in a way it’s your own fault really.  If you’d just been the empty headed little doll Howie was so sure you were going to be none of this would have had to happen.”

Obie reaches over and strokes a stray curl away from her face, tucks it almost tenderly behind an ear.

“If you’d just been malleable, we could have avoided all of this.”  Obie sighs.  “You’d be married to that Hammer brat just like Howie and I talked about when you were small and I’d be running things at SI like they should be run.  But no, you just had to be so goddamn willful.”

Obie stands then, reaches into his suit jacket and pulls out what Toni recognizes as an expensive pocket knife, the sort that older business men carry for looks.  He reaches for the bottom of her sweatshirt, presses the knife against the material, and slowly, purposefully, cuts up and through it with barely any resistance.

The shirt parts like flower petals and leaves Toni exposed, arc reactor glowing brilliantly through her thin tank top.

“You know, I thought I was doing the right thing sending that twisted little shit after you all those years ago.  I thought he’d take care of you, do my dirty work for me, but he fucked it up and ended up in jail.  At least he kept his mouth shut though about how he kept getting in your building, about how he knew were you lived, how he got the uniform he used.  Still I was pissed when you walked away from that one.”

Obie laughs, that same great booming sound that Toni’s always associated with him.  It sounds sickly cheerful for the terrible moment they’re captured in.

But then again it’s only really terrible for Toni.

“You came out swinging on the other side of that though didn’t you?  I’ll give you that Toni.”  Obie looks almost fond again, sort of whimsically amused.  “You might have whored your way around the world but you’ve done good work for SI, built it up further than Howie ever could even with me holding his hand.  But I got sick of playing second fiddle to you and your whims, sick of sitting back and watching a little girl run the company I dedicated my life to.  So I figured the Ten Rings could take care of you for me.  I admit I was worried that I’d be killing the golden goose as it goes …”

He reaches down and traces his fingertips across the front of her shirt where the reactor lays.

“But you’re like a fucking cockroach kiddo, cause you came out of that alive too.  I was disappointed, had a lot of loose ends to tie up because of that, a lot of people to make disappear.  But in the end it wasn’t too bad.  You were back, I’d have plenty of other chances to put you out of my misery for good.  Plus, in the end, you still had a few more golden eggs to give me didn’t you Toni?  Like that fascinating suit you built and this supposedly impossible little beauty here of course.”  Obie taps at the front of the reactor’s glass before he straightens and pulls a sleek and sinister looking metal device from the inside of his coat pocket.

“It’s a shame about your little friend Rhodes, about how he stepped in when he shouldn’t have.”  Obie taunts as the device whirls and twists to form a claw and he comes back down onto the couch to kneel over her body.  “I thought for sure they’d have a better degree of success when it came to getting rid of you when I contacted them.  Especially given how much practice they’ve gotten over the years but you know what they say Toni …”

Obie fits the device against the front of the reactor and Toni feels her entire body jerk as it clicks itself into place and then moves.

“If you want something done right,” Obie grins down at her as the reactor is slowly pulled from her chest, “then do it yourself.”

Toni can just feel the scream building in her throat, can feel the way it’s desperate to get out, but she can’t move, can’t speak.

Toni is locked into place inside her own body, terrified and paralyzed with her heart being ripped out of her.

And yet, at the same time, in the back of her mind where rational doesn’t always exist, she finds that she’s distantly sort of grateful.  Grateful that Obie was never a father figure to her.  Grateful that they were never close.  Because if he had been, if he’d been close to her and then gone on to do this it would have ruined her in all the ways Howard had never quite managed to.

Still it somehow feels as if Howard has managed to come back from the dead, as if he’s managed to rip the heart right out of her just like he’d always wanted to.

Like, somehow, not even the grave could stop him from reaching out his hand and smacking her down.

“Look at that.”  Obie sounds almost admiring as he turns the arc reactor over in his hand.  “Such a small thing and it’s going to do so much Toni.  You should be proud.  Or well, if you weren’t going to be dead that is.  When the Ten Rings told me about this you could have knocked me over with a feather.  I’ll give you this kiddo, you’ve always been something else when it comes to building.  Gonna be a shame to go forward without that beautiful brain of yours.”

Obie steps forward, leans down, and presses a kiss to Toni’s forehead, a sick facsimile of care and comfort that they’ve never shared before.

Then he turns on his heel and just … leaves.

He leaves as if he hasn’t ripped her heart out and left her to die, slow and painfully, on the couch in her living room, insides torn to pieces by the shrapnel he caused in the first place.

Miss.”  JARVIS’ voice is frightened, urgent, and Toni wants to move, wants to do something to calm him down, but she still can’t.

“Miss please.”  Toni feels her stuttering heart clench at his frantic tone.  “I’ve contacted Miss Potts and Mr. Hogan.  They are on their way to you directly but you must replace the arc reactor or you will die.”

Toni knows that.  She knows.  But she … still … can’t … move.

“Miss,” JARVIS almost whispers, “you must get up.  Do not leave us alone again.  Please.”

And Toni moves.

She rolls, falls from the couch onto the lush carpet and then she drags herself foot by painful foot towards the hall that leads to the workshop.  She clings to the walls with her fingernails just as she had when she was small and stumbles haltingly forward with one goal in mind.

She has to get the spare reactor she made.

She has to get to it or everything has been for nothing.

Obi-Stane is out there, out there with her reactor and a cheap knock off of her suit and he’s the one who’s kept trying to kill her.

He’s the one who’d caused Rhodey to get shot.

And that, in many ways, means more to Toni than any attempt on her life.

Toni has to get the spare reactor and she has to stop him, has to make him pay for what he’s done, has to stop him from hurting anyone else.  She isn’t stupid enough to think that her death would end any of this.

Because it wouldn’t.

He’d just go after everyone else she loved, would put them all in some new kind of crosshairs.

Toni can’t allow that to happen.

What’s more she has to get the reactor because she can’t leave her boys alone, can’t leave them like this.

Can’t just sit back and force JARVIS to watch her die.

She makes it, sweating and shaking, down the steps somehow and then through the workshop door.

“You’re almost there Miss,” JARVIS is half encouraging and half coaxing by this point and his voice helps her to gather the strength to move forward.

She can see Steve on the wall across the way, his frame hiding the blast proof safe from view, protecting the gathered pieces of her heart just as he always has.

She makes it halfway before her body gives out on her.

She collapses down onto her knees, unable to move forward no matter how hard she tries.

Toni lays there for a moment, mouth working but unable to catch her breath enough to actually speak.

She’s dying.

She can feel it, can feel life slipping away from her inch by precious inch.

Her eyes flutter shut and she can’t find the strength to open them again.

Sorry,’ she thinks to JARVIS, to Rhodey, to Pepper and Happy and DUM-E and U.  To Butterfingers and Mother.  ‘Sorry I wasn’t strong enough.’

Then there’s whirling, the feel of cold, hard metal against her waist, and suddenly Toni’s moving.

Toni marshals the last dregs of her waning strength and opens her eyes.

Butterfingers chirps at her almost angrily as he rolls, both his hands wrapped around her waist as he half drags, half carries her towards the safe.  The poster of Steve’s been swung open on the hinges and JARVIS has apparently told U what to do because he’s punching in the key code to open the safe as Toni watches.

DUM-E’s the one who grabs the coded case with the reactor inside and meets her and Butterfingers half way.

Toni slots her thumb against the scanner, enters the string of numbers with shaking fingers, and pops open the case.

The reactor shines up at her like a star.

Toni picks it up, fumbles it once only to have her arm steadied by U, and slots it into place.

That first breath is painful, her chest aches, her scars pull, but then there’s a rush of energy that’s hard to describe.

“Thank you.”  Toni pants the words out, hands reaching for any part of her boys she can find.  “You saved me again you beautiful, beautiful boys.  You saved me.”

“We are family Miss,” JARVIS says, obviously relieved, “it is what we are meant to do.”

~~~

Pepper and Happy arrive ten minutes later.

Happy has the pistol in his hand that Toni’s rarely ever seen him touch but knows he carries because she’d built it for him.  Pepper is pale and red eyed but determined when she storms into the workshop directly behind him.

They both look immensely relieved to see her up and about but obviously, openly, worried over the way she’s still paler than she should be.

“No time to explain you two,” Toni cuts them off before they can say anything, “Stane has my reactor and he’s built a suit.  I’ve got to stop him.”

“What suit?”  Pepper sounds frazzled and Toni winces because she hasn’t exactly gotten around to showing anyone else what she’s been working on.  “You mean the suit from the files JARVIS sent me?”

“It’s what I’ve been doing since I got back,” Toni doesn’t waste time going into details, just steps forward onto the outfitting platform.  Sometime showing is better than telling after all.  “I’ve got to stop him.  He’s the one behind everything.  Afghanistan, Rhodey.  All of it.  I have to stop him.”

Happy makes a startled sound and raises his gun when the machines whirl to life and start piecing her into the Mark III.  Surprisingly enough, or maybe not, it’s Pepper’s hand on his arm that gets him to lower it again.

“What do you need us to do?”  Pepper sounds confident, calm and in charge as she always in.  Her rock steady nerves are a balm to Toni’s fraying self-control.  She’s a steady counter point to the icy rage that’s creeping back up on Toni now that the pain and terror from having the reactor taken is beginning to fade to the background of her mind a bit.

Not gone though, Toni isn’t sure if that particular terror will ever leave her now that she’s tasted it so intimately.

“Call Coulson,” Toni tells Pepper because his name hasn’t actually managed to slip her mind yet mainly because she knows a possible asset when she sees one.  “Tell him to keep the skies clear if SHIELD can manage it.”

“And this?”  Pepper gestures towards the armor.

“You’re gonna want to get a press release together Pep because I don’t think this is going to stay a secret after tonight.”

“What do I call it?”  Pepper already has her phone in hand as she asks.

“I’ll tell when I get back,” Toni tells her as the faceplate slips down.  She gives herself a split second to adjust to the suit and then moves towards the hole she still hadn’t gotten around to fixing in the roof of the workshop.  It’ll be easier to take flight from there.

“Hey Boss,” Happy calls and when Toni looks back at him he gives a significant look towards Pepper, who’s standing by the door and obviously already busy, and then lifts his gun up.  Toni gets the message loud and clear.  Happy will protect Pepper while she goes and gets what needs to be done, done.  “Kick his ass.”

Toni gives him a thumbs up and then she’s gone.

~~~

“J?”  Toni pushes the armor forward with a burst, not quite supersonic but damn close.

“Yes Miss?”  JARVIS is back to his normal, steady voiced self.

“You with me baby boy?”  Toni needs him with her, needs him by her side for this, but she’s still so terrified of forcing him into something he doesn’t truly want to do.

“As always Miss,” JARVIS answers promptly, “I am with you till my last day.”

“Which isn’t going to be for a long, long time if I have my way about it JARVIS.”

“I could say the same to you Miss,” JARVIS sounds almost exasperated and it’s enough to make Toni smile just a bit despite the circumstances.  “As a matter of fact there is something I wish to bring to your attention Miss.”

“Make it quick J, we’re five minutes out from SI.”

“Indeed Miss, that brings me to my point,” JARVIS redirects smoothly, “I would like to suggest some form of internal tracking device for you, and possibly a look into something that can augment your healing and general health issues.  Perhaps something along the lines of the super soldier serum?  You are rather fond of Captain Rogers after all.”

“JARVIS are you asking me if you can have me chipped like a puppy and then try to find something to make me some sort of superhuman?”  Toni feels more than slightly surprised and yet amused at the same time because at least the tracking chip hadn’t come out of left field.

“To put it simply Miss,” JARVIS says, “yes.  A tracking device would ensure my ability to locate you should the worst happen again.  Adding to your ability to withstand damage would be a … comfort especially if you plan to continue using the armor for future purposes that align to your stint in Gulmira.”

“You got something in mind J?”  Toni’s more than a bit intrigued.  “I’ll agree to being chipped for your sake as long as it goes under S.T.E.V.E level encryption.  But the other stuff …”

“I have taken the liberty of pursuing some independent research on the subject and found that the idea is not so far-fetched as to be implausible.”  There’s an almost coaxing note in his voice, like he’s trying to convince her.  “It is rather fascinating and while it would not be the super soldier serum per se …”

“Glad you’ve got a hobby baby boy,” Toni smiles slightly and then abruptly sobers, “Like I said, yes to the tracker J, but bookmark the rest until you’ve got something concrete to show me.  I’m not saying no, just later sugar.”

“Very good Miss,” JARVIS has a pleased note in his voice.

Toni shakes her head and then turns her attention back to the issue at hand.

Stane must be stopped.

~~~

The factory isn’t dark, the massive are reactor and security lights prevent that from happening, but it is empty from what Toni can see which is what’s really important.

Toni wants to avoid collateral damage if at all possible.  No more innocents should suffer at the hands of her tech and she already knows this is going to be a fight.

Stane isn’t going to go quietly and Toni is almost viciously pleased by that fact.

He doesn’t deserve for this to be easy, not after what he’s done, what he’s caused with his greed and his war mongering.

Not after hurting Rhodey.

Toni is ready and willing to fight him every step of the way for that reason alone, to make him pay his debt in blood and pain.  The same currency he’s extracted from so many others.

She knows she’s not innocent in this by far but she’ll fight to her last breath to claw her way towards some sort of redemption.  Will carve herself to pieces to rebuild what her naiveté and her almost willful blindness has helped to destroy.

Determination and icy rage weighing heavily on her shoulders Toni makes her way inside easily enough.  Her hands are relatively gentle even with the strength of the suit as she opens the doors and heads for where JARVIS has already told her Sector 16 is hidden.

The large, steel plated yellow door ahead of her is locked but JARVIS is completely inside of SI now and nothing stands in his way for long.  The red light on the card slider blinks green a second before Toni’s hand reaches out to pull the door open.

It is dark inside the large, cavernous room but again that doesn’t matter much to Toni.  The HUD has sophisticated night vision so nothing’s hidden from her.

The suit’s footsteps are loud against the grate floor as she moves further into the place, HUD scanning for movement, for heat, for any sign of anything out of place.  She only pauses for a split second beside the computer screen that’s flashing with the schematics for the suit Stane was obviously building.

“Give me weak points from those schematics J,” Toni says into the privacy of the inner coms when she sees the empty support cradle a few seconds later, “because he’s got a suit up and running.  Tell me where I need to hit him to make his whole tower of blocks come tumbling right the fuck down.”

“Yes Miss.”

The attack comes from the left and just behind her.  Toni hears the familiar sound of servos whirling, louder and more menacing than her own suit, and instinct makes her duck as she spins around on her heel, one hand raised and repulsor firing almost before she’s aware of moving.

In that moment Toni comes face to face with the suit Stane has built for the first time.

It’s huge, a lumbering monstrosity of metal, bristling with guns and practically dripping with menace.

Its faceplate is eerily reminiscent of the Mark I and that makes Toni hate it just a little bit more.

Because Stane has taken something she’d built out of a desperate bid of freedom and then rebuilt for redemption and made a grotesque copy in the name of his own greedy desire for war.

“Ton, Toni, Toni.”  Stane taunts her through the speakers, voice slightly distorted but still recognizable.  “You just couldn’t stay dead could you girl?”

“You don’t have what it takes to kill me Stane,” Toni spits, “you’d think you’d have gotten the picture by now.”

“This time,” Stane says as he raises one massive arm of his suit up, Gatling-gun pointed in her direction, “I’m going to make sure there’s nothing left of you to salvage.”

“Try me motherfucker,” Toni has time to taunt and then he’s firing and the battle is on.

Toni throws her arms up when he fires, protects her face plate with the thicker armor on her forearms on instinct.  She has a split second to realize that the bullets aren’t penetrating any better than they had in Gulmira before her brain speeds back up and clicks into what she’s already recognizing as her own particular version of battle mode.

Toni’s mind doesn’t so much go quiet as it does smooth.  She’s still a whirling mass of screaming equations and angles and information but it’s all even somehow.

It all just flows.

It feels … right.

Like this … this is what she’s always been meant for.

She rolls to the side, out from under Stane’s oppressive fire and comes up with the repulsors blasting, icy rage sharpening her mind even further.

Stane’s suit rocks back a bit on the first hit but otherwise he doesn’t flinch, just takes one large, heavy step in her direction and continues to fire.  It doesn’t matter to Toni though because she’s going to stop him.  He’s going to pay for what he’s done.

She’s going to rip him apart or she’s going to die trying.

“J give me that analysis,” Toni prompts as she dives under a powerful haymaker swing and fires at his center mass.

“Stane’s armor is not properly calibrated for full performance and compatibility with the stolen arc reactor Miss.”  JARVIS tells her promptly, voice just a shade off tight in that way that lets Toni know he’s uncomfortable with what’s happening.  She knows that he’s worried and she hates that but she’s still glad that he’s with her, that he wants to be with her.  That’s more than she deserves and she loves him for it.  “While physically powerful it falls far below the Mark III in terms of both speed and maneuverability.  In other words Miss, he is both fat and slow.”

“Well then J,” Toni grins, sharp and wide and all teeth, “let’s show this fucker how we dance.”

Toni jolts forward, arms cutting out sharp angles in the air in front of her, repulsors blasting, as she dives directly into Stane’s space.  With the grace of years of dance lessons and the strength of years of metal work she weaves the armor in and out of his space, repulsors firing rapidly.  He falters for a moment under the barrage and Toni hears his enraged scream over his broadcasting coms as she gets a direct hit that makes him stumble again.

The way she goes flying from the brutal punch she’s too close to dodge directly afterwards doesn’t even matter.  Pain is, often, the price of any sort of victory as Toni has long learned.

So instead of lingering over the hit Toni uses it to her advantage.  She fires the boot repulsors and takes flight, weaving her way around hanging chains and support columns as she heads back towards the doorway.

She needs to get out of the building, preferably without bringing it down on top of herself or causing an explosion that’ll destroy the surrounding area.

Maneuverability and speed are two of her main leads here and she needs open space to work with in order to utilize them both to her maximum advantage.

“Running away again Toni?!” Stane screams after her, too close for comfort but obviously intent on following her which is, incidentally, exactly what Toni wants him to do anyways.

“Catch me if you can asshole,” Toni mutters as she twists her way around one last corner, the door in sight ahead of her.

Toni fires off a repulsor, blasts the door from its frame, and flies through the opening in one smooth move.  She’s out of the building in the next second, Stane following behind her with a loud crash as he tears his way through the too small doorway.

“Now we’re on my playing field,” Toni says, pleased and calculating all at the same time, “J, weapons system on full baby boy.  We’re going in hot.”

“Of course Miss.”

Toni hits Stane with a volley of shoulder missiles as soon as he’s clear of the building.  His suit stumbles back and then forward, the armor scorched and dented in places but still coming like a battering ram.  It might be a dirty, cheap knock off of her own armor but it’s still effective, would still change the face of warfare for all time.

Toni’s done enough of that in her life already, she won’t let the armor be added to her legacy of bloodshed and chaos.  Not like this, not by him.

The armor is hers in a way none of her other weapons were, it’s personal, intimate

The armor and her are one in a way she’s only just beginning to fully understand even after building it from the ground up and Toni intends to keep it that way.

She turns, goes in low, and races towards him.  They clash in the center of the parking lot, asphalt and rubble flying up around them as they crash together, Toni’s feet digging deep into the ground under the strain of his weight and force coming down on her.

She backs him up with a repulsor blast/missile combination to the fucking face.

They trade blows, Stane’s hits sending vibrations through the armor that make her teeth rattle and clench, but she keeps going, keeps pushing forward.  She’s almost feral in her rage, teeth bared behind the face plate like she’s itching for blood, like she aches to have his throat between her jaws.

But, beyond that, she’s still icy calm deep down inside.

Toni’s mind is a whirling storm of calculations, equations and angles piling in at her from all sides just like they always do but sharpened now with the heat of battle.  The information from the HUD, JARVIS’ steady voice in her ear, the sensory input that streams in from all directions, all of it comes together to form this giant whirling mass of life in her mind.

Again Toni spares a though to marvel at how this frame of mind, this battle mode of hers, is so smooth and even and almost peaceful in its chaos.

It’s the kind of peace that she hasn’t had since she was young, since warm hands and a familiar scent had soothed her at night before she went to sleep.

She likes it.

Stane seems to grow tired of trading blows with her because he moves, steps back and fires up his own volley of missiles.  Tony ducks and dodges away from them, gauntlets coming up to shoot others out of the air between them in a staccato bursts of sound and fire.

Then they’re moving again, armors clanging against one another in an almost graceful exchange of savage blows.  The fight drives them across the empty lot and ever closer to the busy highway just a too short distance away from their makeshift arena.

Toni missteps finally, not perfect in battle yet but that’s something she decides will change, and the hit she takes sends her flying through the divider and out onto the highway before she can correct herself.

There are screeching tires, the sound of vehicles swerving and panicked screams, and then Stane’s there again.  His hulking armor looming over everything like an ominous specter of pain and fear.

He plucks a car up off of the highway and raises it up above his head, uncaring of the screaming woman desperate to protect the children that Toni can see, huddled together inside.  They’re small and innocent.  Terrified.

Precious.

Toni seethes.

“Put them down Stane!”  Toni growls out even as she calculates angels and percentages and optimal hold positions.  A part of her wonders how she hadn’t seen this kind of willful cruelty in Stane before, how, even with the distance between them, she’d overlooked his obvious willingness to destroy innocents.  Maybe the way he’d never seemed bothered when it came to watching Howard raise a hand to her should have been more of a clue as to his true nature.

But then again no one else had ever seemed particularly bothered about it either except for Jarvis so maybe that wasn’t the right measuring stick to use.

“Collateral damage Toni,” Stane laughs, loud and callous, “you’ve never had the stomach for it girl.”

Toni catches the car when he throws it at her.  The suit handles the weight easily enough but the positioning leaves her open and vulnerable for the blow he directs at her chest and stomach.

She grits her teeth but still stumbles a bit, the car making her top heavy in a way the suit can’t compensate for fully.  Yet.

“Unibeam J!”  Toni snarls.  The way the chest plate of the armor jerks from the blast, the way the arc reactor is suddenly an even hotter weight in its hollow, takes her off guard for a second but she manages to hold it together.  She doesn’t have the option to do otherwise because if she doesn’t do this, doesn’t hold her shit together long enough to stop him, then who else will?

Stane’s armor goes flying back from the force of the attack and Toni has a moment of vicious satisfaction when he doesn’t immediately power back through the smoke and debris to come at her again.

Toni struggles with it but she manages to get the car safely on the ground a few seconds later.

The way the screaming mother inside runs her over afterwards isn’t exactly appreciated but Toni can understand.

There’s not much Toni herself wouldn’t do to protect her own children and she’s far more terrifying.  Far more ruthless.

“Miss,” JARVIS puts forth suddenly into the relatively quiet of the momentary lull, “the danger of significant civilian casualties rises with every moment the battle continues.  Plus I am worried as to your own health.  Having the reactor removed so forcefully was not good for your heart.  The strain of a prolonged battle might worsen your condition at this point.”

Stane chooses that moment to come back at her again and Toni leaps away from his extended hands and fires at him again and again.

“I hear you J,” Toni’s teeth are gritted so hard her jaw aches.  She can taste blood from where she’d been hit earlier hard enough to rattle her even in the suit.  She ignores it, blocks it from her mind with the ease of long practice because she’s busy calculating.  Her mind is whirling, flashes of the files JARVIS had shown her at the mansion mixing with the stolen glances at the schematics from inside Sector 16.

Toni needs to end this quickly.  She can’t draw it out no matter how much she wants to repay him in kind for every drop of blood he’s caused to be spilt.

Can’t take the time to break his armor apart piece by piece and watch him writhe the way some dark part of her wants to.

No, she can’t have what she wants in that direction.  Instead she has to wrap this all up as quickly as possible.

He has to have a weakness, something beyond maneuverability, something besides speed.

Toni needs something else to work with, something that doesn’t involve detonating high payload explosives in the middle of a public highway.

Or, well, more so than she already has.

Toni dodges, fires the boot repulsors to take to the air long enough to avoid being thrown through a still evacuating bus.  She hovers there, repulsors giving her a bit of distance from his melee attacks.

“You’ve upgraded your armor for true flight!”  Stane crows.  “I’ll have fun ripping that tech off of your corpse Toni.”

Wait.

Toni’s mind clicks.

Yes.

That’s it.

That’s what she needs.

“You’d have to catch me first you sick fuck,” Toni taunts as she moves closer to him, careful to hover just out of reach. Her mind slides over what those glances at his schematics had shown her, over what JARVIS has whispered in her ear.

“I’ve made some upgrades of my own!”  Stane sneers in triumph and then the boots of his monstrous armor fire, the flames thick and inelegant, an out of control blaze to her honed laser.

And then they’re in the sky.

Right where Toni belongs.

Now the playing field is truly hers.

She swoops around him, shoots off another volley of missiles just to piss him off, to damage his calm and make him chase her.  To lure him further up into the sky, farther away from the city.

Just, further out.

Finally, when she’s judged it to be far enough Toni darts into his space.  She lets him get his arms around her in a move that has JARVIS practically shrieking in her ear.

It hurts.  Her armor’s far more sophisticated and gives her almost an entire foot in height but his still has strength and sheer size on her.  The squeeze of his arms around her is, by far, hard enough for Toni to really feel it.

“Miss the armor’s integrity is not designed for prolonged compression.”

“Make a note about that for the Mark IV J,” Toni groans even as she bears down to put more power into the boots, “but for now just hang with me baby boy, Mama’s got a plan.”

She needs to go higher, needs both of them to go higher.

Please,’ she can’t help but think in one corner of her mind, ‘I need to go higher.’  For a moment she could swear that the wings etched so carefully across her back tingle in answer but she knows it’s only in her mind.

“Face it Toni,” Stane still sounds smug, still has a jeering note of mocking cruelty clear and open in his voice, “you’ve finally been out done.  My armor’s more powerful than yours, more advanced in every way.”

Toni’s mouth tilts up in a feral grin, all teeth and sheer vicious glee even if he can’t see her face, as she notices the telltale frost rapidly forming on the outside of his helmet.

“Oh yeah?” Toni taunts him nastily.  “How’d you fix the icing problem then?”

“Icing?”  Stane sounds puzzled in that second, unsure of what’s happening.  Toni hears him curse, loud and hateful, and feels the way his arms tighten once around her crushingly.

Then the grotesque eye-slits of his helmet go dark and gravity seems to reach up and pluck him directly from the sky.

He falls but Toni doesn’t let him fall alone.  She stays in his space, practically wraps herself around him, and acts while his systems are off line because she only has a few precious seconds for this to work.

And she needs it to fucking work.

The first thing she does is grab the semi-exposed wiring in the neck joint of his armor and rip it out.  Next she fires up the repulsor on her gauntlet and points it directly at the casing in the chest plate that holds her stolen arc reactor.

“Miss impact with the water in twenty seconds,” JARVIS warns her and Toni has a moment of sheer panic before she clamps down on it because she’s not done yet, “nineteen, eighteen, seventeen …”

Toni cuts the gauntlet’s repulsor and thrusts her hand at the reactor in Stane’s chest.  Her fingers dent the heated metal and sink in just a bit.  Toni manages to get a grip on the edge of the casing of the reactor.

Then …

Miss!”

And then she’s underwater.

Oh God.

She’s underwater.

Oh God.

For a moment Toni is back in the cave, a hand fisted in her curls as her face is forced down into a trough, as her hands clutch at her car battery or as they flail in panic as she slowly drowns.

Over and over again.

“Miss,” JARVIS breaks into her thoughts, “you’re heart rate is dangerously elevated.  Please, you must calm down.”

Toni sucks in a harsh breath and comes back to herself with a snap.  Data and equations realign themselves in her mind and reality floods back in around the edges like a burst dam.

The armor is waterproof.  Of course it is.  She’d done that before she’d fixed the icing problem, but Toni can barely shower as it is so she’s not actually taken this feature for a test drive.

Panic wells up inside of her even with that knowledge firmly in mind.  It’s a dark and ugly creature with teeth eager to bite, eager to sink deep into the heart of her and rip her apart if she lets it.

Panic still clouding her mind Toni jerks her hand away from Stane’s armor, angles her body upwards in order to blast the repulsors and get back into the sky again where she’s safe.  Where she’s at home.

Away from the water.

Away from the fear and the panic.

Away from the memories.

But …

She stops.  Turns.  Looks at the rapidly sinking armor with Stane inside of it, with her stolen arc reactor still in place.  If she doesn’t end this now he’ll probably reboot shortly, will probably be able to follow her up and out of the water.

No.

Unacceptable.

She remembers what he’s done.  Remembers what he’s caused.

Toni remembers the almost thankful look on Yinsen’s face as he embraced death and the chance to see his family again one day.

Toni remembers the destruction and terror filled streets of Gulmira.

Toni remembers the feel of Rhodey’s blood, slick and hot and wrong, sliding over her skin.

He doesn’t deserve to leave the water.

This is more important than her panic, more important than her fear.

More important than her.

Toni draws a fist back and hammers at the chest plate again, digs the gauntlet into the creases around the reactor and pulls.

This is for all the innocents who have died.

For the weapons that should have protected them but had instead been turned upon them.

For Yinsen.

For Gulmira.

For the countless others killed by one man’s greed and indifference.

For Rhodey.

The reactor comes loose in her grip and with another solid jerk Toni rips it from its cradle and fists it in her hand.

Grotesque armor completely dark, Stane sinks.

Toni knows that there’s probably water rushing in through the hole she’s left in the chest, through the cracks and ruptures she’s put in the hull.

She knows he’s going to drown.

Slowly.

She knows she could save him even now, could pull him up and out of the water.

She won’t save him though.  Knows she won’t do it even if that makes her the type of monster everyone’s always accused her of being in the past.

Obadiah Stane will die here and now, will drown in the sea, lost to its dark embrace, just as he’d left her to a watery hell after trying to have her put in her grave.

She doesn’t care about that though.  What she cares about is all of the other lives he’s taken, all of the pain he’s caused the truly innocent.  All of the murder and pain he’s enabled and encouraged from sheer greed alone.

Death means that Stane can’t hurt anyone ever again.

She hopes he burns in hell for what he’s done.

Toni takes one last look, turns, and points the armor towards the surface.

“Well done Miss.”  JARVIS tells her softly just as they breech the surface and Toni flings herself high up into the night air with a broken gasp.  “Well done.”

“Thanks J,” Toni’s voice is quiet and rough but she’s never been more sincere.  “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.”

“Somehow Miss,” JARVIS says and fondness is so evident in his voice that Toni has to swallow harshly, “I doubt that very much.”

Toni takes a deep shuddering breath as she hangs there in the air above the dark waters.  After a few, calming moments, she forces herself to think about what to do next.  Because there’s always something to do next and Toni doesn’t have the luxury or the ability to forget that even for a moment.

The skies are still clear, Coulson has obviously done his job, but Toni can see the lights of ambulances and firetrucks as well as the shapes of news vans near SI as she flies back towards the city.

She has a decision to make in this moment Toni knows, because she’s currently standing at a fork in the road that is her life with two paths stretched out before her.

She’s already told Pepper to prepare a press release but there’s still things Toni needs to decide first, things she needs to account for.  Things that’ll impact the future in ways she once would have never thought possible.

The major thing Toni has to decide is whether or not she’s ready to accept being known as the one who pilots the armor or if she’s willing or even able to keep that fact hidden.

Toni doesn’t doubt that Coulson and SHIELD would be able to put together an alibi for her in a heartbeat if she decides to keep the secret.  Hell they’ll probably be more than eager to do it for her.

It would, Toni admits quietly to herself, probably be smarter in some ways.  Keeping the secret from spreading any further than it already has would provide a certain level of protection for herself and all those involved.  It would allow her to craft smokescreens and cloak herself in secrecy in that way she’s always been so good at.

Keeping the secret would help to layer protection on those around her, would help her to keep them safe from those who might set out to take what’s hers again.  Strength invites challenge after all which is a lesson Toni’s learned well over the course of her life.

Keeping the secret might, in fact, be the best and smartest thing to do.

And yet …

And yet the consequences of that decision is what has her veering rather quickly in the opposite direction.

No secret can be kept forever after all.  Eventually it will be discovered that she’s the one inside the armor because she doesn’t plan to stop.

Secrets invite investigation, invite discovery, and even with all of her skill that’s not a secret she could keep forever.  There are too many variables, too much left to chance.  If she tries to hide things Toni might not be able to control what is and is not revealed when that moment inevitably comes if she doesn’t stay on top of everything.

Plus keeping the secret would be like refusing to take responsibility for her actions, would be like dodging the realities of her past and her future all at the same time.  Toni doesn’t like that idea at all.  She’s been a part of a system with zero accountability for far too long now to willfully go down that road again.

Keeping the secret would be handing over power to SHIELD in some ways too.  Would be opening herself up for their interference.

Because others are going to want the armor.  SHIELD, the military, terrorists, etcetera etcetera.  They’re all going to want what she’s created, Toni’s not stupid enough to think they won’t.

They’re going to want control, going to want to either put her on a leash or take the armor from her so they can take the opportunity to put who they want into the suit.  They’re going to want her to share the technology or give them the chance to reverse engineer the armor and create their own army.

If she gives any of them an inch, they’re going to want to take a hundred miles and make her build them the road they do it on all at the same time.

If she gives them a chance they'll make her into a puppet.

Toni isn’t going to do any of that.  She’s never going to be forced to build for anyone else ever again, will never dance to a tune she doesn't choose herself.

Never again.

So Toni knows she’s going to have to fight if she wants to step forward out of the shadows, if she doesn’t keep the secret.

Toni’s going to have to battle tooth and nail, going to have to bite and claw and rip her way through her opposition to keep her hands on the armor and everyone else’s off.

It’s going to be hard.  It’s going to be painful and exhausting and complicated.

Choosing to keep the secret really would be the easy thing to do.

“Whatever choice you make, whatever this hard decision is, I know you’ll make the right one.”  Aunt Peggy’s voice whispers in Toni’s ear in that moment.  “That doesn’t necessarily mean the easiest one but I know it’ll be the right one and that’s what’s more important.”

Toni swallows roughly and nods ever so slightly to herself, mind made up.  Honestly there was never really any other option because Aunt Peggy was right then and she’s right now.

The right decision isn’t always necessarily the easiest one and this situation is no exception.

Toni knows what she has to do, knows what the right choice for her to make in this moment is.

“JARVIS,” Toni calls quietly.

“Yes Miss?”

“Send Pepper a heads up message for me will you baby boy?” Toni smiles slightly at the thought of what Pepper’s face will look like when she gets JARVIS’ message even as a sliver of dread traces down her spine.

“Should I also include an order of new Jimmy Choo heels in this message Miss?”  JARVIS’ voice is as dry as ever because he knows Toni’s voice, knows her every expression and tone by now, and he can obviously tell she’s about to really piss Pepper off.

“Make that a medley of shoes J,” Toni corrects him, “a proverbial shoe cornucopia if you will since I don’t think one pair’s going to make up for this.”

“As you wish Miss,” JARVIS sounds like he’s wavering between despair and amusement.

“That’s my boy,” Toni grins even as she turns her aching body towards the flashing lights and kicks the repulsors into high gear, “that’s my boy.”

It’s going to be hard but Toni’s used to fighting by now.

She’s been doing it her entire life.

This is just one more battle added to the seemingly never ending war.

~~~

Guns are drawn when Toni lands in front of the police barricade that’s keeping the press well back from the destroyed highway where she and Stane had fought.

“Stand down,” Toni tells the nervous looking cop who has her gun leveled in Toni’s direction, and then, because she’s more than a bit of an asshole, she follows it up with, “I come in peace.”

The cop looks vaguely pale and ready to pass out but to her credit her hands stay steady and her gun stays up without wavering.

“Stand down officer,” a familiar voice calls out before things can escalate any further.  Toni sees Agent Coulson press his way forward through the crowd and into the large bubble of space that’s developed around Toni.

Toni also sees the flashing lights of the various cameras that are frantically taking shot after shot of the armor from a distance.  She subtly shifts, a tiny gesture that makes the lines of the armor easier to capture.  She’s been controlling her own press for so long now that the move, the attention to detail, is second nature.  A delicate manipulation designed to work in her favor.

“Ms. Stark,” Coulson says lowly, face blank but eyes vaguely stressed.  “When I booked a meeting with you this isn’t what I had in mind.”

“Sorry about that Agent,” Toni’s voice is unrepentant for all that she keeps it low, “we had a bit of scheduling conflict it seems.  Forgot I had an ass-kicking penciled in for tonight.”

“Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing I’m asking you to reconsider Ms. Stark.”  Agent steps forward further into her space, seemingly unfazed by being so close to the armor.  "SHIELD can help you with this.  Help you keep this whole thing under wraps, make sure no one gets hurt.  Make sure you stay safe."

"Oh I bet you can," Toni doesn't sneer but it's a damn close thing.  She can just imagine how they'd help her with all of this.  Her resolve to step forward down this path solidifies even further.  She can only hope that it isn't a mistake and that if it is she'll be able to atone for it in the future.  "Sorry Agent, but I'll have no strings on me.  Not even ones that trace back to SHIELD."

"Ms. Stark ..." Agent steps forward but Toni isn't listening anymore.  Instead she’s focused on the press standing just a little ways behind Agent.  She knows what she has to do, knows it’s going to piss Pepper off, but also knows that it’s necessary.  She needs to control the situation, needs to influence the flow of information before the next morning’s papers go to print and articles go live online.

"Are you ready J?"  Toni breathes the question into the silence of the helmet, outer coms muted for the moment.

"Always Miss."  JARVIS' steady voice in her ear is the last push forward she needs.

Toni steps forward passed Agent and closer to the crowd of reporters and photographers who are practically pressing against the police barricade in order to get closer to her, to get a better shot of the armor, to just get closer all in the hopes of getting something they can use.

Toni's about to give them more than they could have ever imagined.

With one final deep breath Toni raises her hands, disengages the release on the helmet, and pulls it off.

There's a moment of brief, stunned, silence when the press registers just who is inside the armor.

And then ...

Chaos.

Toni smiles, teeth bared in a sharp and vicious grin, and steps closer to the group.

Her hair is up, her wings are covered, and her emotions are buried deep.  For the moment at least she is once again in control of herself, in control of her grief and her rage, of the pain and anguish that eat away at her from the inside.

This is her theater after all, her stage, and the show must go on.

She’s a Stark.  She’s the Stark, and playing to the cameras is one of the things she does best.

No matter how much she aches, no matter how tired she is, no matter how the thought of Rhodey makes her want to sob and scream, she has to press forward.  She has to grit her teeth and smile.  Has to do what she can to make these people say and show what she wants them to.

This will be no different from all the other times she’s had to play act in the past despite the fact that the stakes are immeasurably higher this time around.

"Ms. Stark!"  One excited reporter cries out for her attention.  "Is this new military technology?  Are you reopening the Stark weapons division?"

"Absolutely not," Toni nips that idea directly in the bud without even pausing to think about it.  That’s the last thing she needs them to print tomorrow morning.  “This baby is all me.”

"Toni," another voice calls, "what do you call this thing?"

Toni pauses for a moment because it's the same question Pepper had asked her. Toni had brushed the thought aside then as unimportant but now she knows she needs an answer.

Names have power, have weight, and the armor needs one with both.

Toni's mind whirls.

A part of her wants to call the armor Icarus, wants to name herself after the boy who’d flown too close to the sun, but she can’t.

She can’t take that story, that guiding, calming light in her life even after so many years, and turn it into a weapon, into something so intrinsically linked with violence.

Icarus is comfort, is calmness.  Icarus is Jarvis and love and home.  Is JARVIS and the bots and safety.  Icarus is soothing hands and comforting metal claws.

Icarus is peace.

The armor, as much as Toni already feels as if it is a part of her, is not.

So no, that isn't what she wants.

Her mind cycles through a million different phrases and words, trying to find the ones that fit.

Names have always come easy to her in the past, have been laid out at her feet like offerings.

Natasha Stark.  Genius.  Prodigy.  The Scarlet Stark Heiress. The Red Queen.  The Merchant of Death.

She's had so many names over the years but only one has ever been chosen by her and that was Toni.

Now is her chance to choose again.

If only she could find one that fit because she is everything those other names and titles have always described her as and yet she's also so much more.

Toni is a phoenix rising from the ashes of every cycle of death and rebirth that has ever been forced upon her.

She is Icarus flying too close to the sun and then too close to the sea, never able to find a happy medium.

She is a Stark, is the Stark, who Howard had always said were men made of iron.

But she wasn’t born a man.  Wasn’t born male like Howard and Maria had always wanted.

Toni is a (fe)male, but despite that, or hell maybe even because of that, she’s still the greatest Stark to ever live.

She's still better than Howard who’d beaten his own child bloody and raw more times than she can count.

She's better than all the ones who’d come before him.

Toni is everything the world has ever said about her and none of it all at the same time.

It comes to her then, what the name of the armor is, what she’s going to call it, what she’s going to make them all call her.

It’s the only name that works, the only name that strikes that perfect balance between all that she is and all that has shaped her over time.  It’s a perfect fuck you to everything and everyone who’s ever named her against her will, who’s ever looked at her and found her wanting.  To everyone who’s ever made her look at herself the same way.

Toni is ...

Toni is ...

~~~

“I want to be mad at you,” Toni whispers the confession into the quiet of the room, “I want to be so pissed off at you for what you did.  For that stupid, selfless fucking thing you did.  I want to be so mad at you because I’m not worth it.  I’m never going to be worth that.  Not from you.”

Toni heaves a deep breath, squeezes her eyes closed, and then sags forward to rest her head against the cold metal in front of her.

“Doing what you did, putting yourself between me and a bullet like that,” Toni feels fresh tears prickle her eyes at the thought of what had happened, at the memory of living through it all, “that’s not something that was ever supposed to happen.  That’s not …”

It’s hard to talk at this point.  The emotions Toni’s been suppressing for the better part of three days are rising back up to the forefront, threatening to overwhelm her and eat her alive.  She’s exhausted, battered and bruised, but unwilling to move no matter who pokes their head in and tries to get her to leave.

I can’t bury you,” Toni breathes the words out, lets the truth of them coat her tongue again, “I can’t.”

Toni shudders, bites down on the inside of her jaw hard enough that the fresh pain is enough to help her focus a bit more.

“The truth is, I don’t know who I am without you anymore,” the confession comes surprisingly easy, mainly because it’s a truth Toni had long ago accepted, “I’m not sure what I’ll be without you by my side.”

“Toni,” a rough, raspy voice answers her, “you’d be Toni.”

Toni’s head snaps up off of the hospital bed railing in surprise.

Rhodey’s awake for the first time since he came out of surgery the day before.  His dark eyes are slightly glazed and hazy but still focused on her face, a smidgen of concern in his expression as he takes in the fresh bruises that mar her skin.

Rhodey.”  Toni breathes his name out even as she jumps to her feet and stumbles forward until she’s plastered against the railing.  “Rhodey.”

“Hey baby girl.”  Rhodey slurs just slightly, obviously high with painkillers and residual exhaustion.  “You okay?”

“You idiot.”  Toni sobs as she leans forward and presses her forehead gently against his.  “You noble, beautiful, idiot I’m fine.  You made sure of that.”

Good.”  Rhodey smiles.  He still looks exhausted and, despite the drugs he on, like he’s in agony underneath the thick swathe of bandages that covers his shoulder and chest.  “Gotta protect … my best girl.  Now … come here.”

Rhodey clumsily raises the arm not thickly bandaged upwards and motions Toni closer with an awkward finger wave.  Toni only hesitates for a split second, wary of hurting him but also so tired and desperate for his warmth that she’s not even sure how she’s still functioning.

Rhodey makes a small, impatient sound in the back of his throat, and Toni’s hesitation disappears.

She makes her way around the bed, kicks her heels off beneath it, and climbs carefully up onto the mattress until she can lay comfortably, her head tucked onto his uninjured shoulder and her body pressed cautiously against his side.

I love you,” Toni whispers against the side of his neck even as the tears she’s been repressing slide slowly down her face, “I love you so much Rhodey.  So much.”

“Love you too little girl, love you best.”  Rhodey sighs and Toni can tell from his tone that sleep is steadily rising up to claim him once more.  “Sleep now, talk more … later.”

“Later,” Toni whispers her agreement because she’s so so grateful that there will even be a later to even think about arguing with the idea.

So instead she settles down, turns her face further into his neck so that she can carefully breathe him in, and sleeps for the first time in almost four days.

~~~

The headline of every major newspaper across the country reads:  The Iron Queen Rises.

Every news channel runs the story, speculates and discusses everything about the armor they can think of.

And yet, Toni doesn’t care.

All that matters at the moment is the fact that Rhodey is alive and relatively well.

All that matters is that, despite everything that’s happened, they’re both back where they belong.

At each other’s sides.

The Iron Queen will be there when they both wake up.  For when Rhodey is alert enough to hear her explanation and then probably ream her out for it.

For when Pepper and Happy both come back.

For now … for now all Toni wants is this.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

Steve watches her silently from the surface of the water with eyes so blue they burn.

Rhodey stands wordlessly by his side staring up at her with a small smile and dark, warm eyes.

The skies are clear.  The waters are calm.

And in her chest a star burns brightly.