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The Devouring of Hearts

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~~~

When Maria finally falls pregnant Howard isn’t so much happy as he is satisfied.

His dynasty is ensured now.  He’ll have an heir, a son to groom and mold in his image to carry on his life’s work.  A son he can teach to build, to create, to engineer and push the boundaries of science ever outwards.

A son to rear into a proper Stark, a son who will be Howard’s greatest creation.

When the time comes Howard sits with Obadiah in the plush waiting room of the hospital.  They have fine cigars in hand and cut crystal glasses of scotch at their elbows, far removed from the delivery room and all it contains.  He has no interest in the process of his son’s birth, only in the final product.

“Mr. Stark.”  The doctor looks tired, grim faced with exhaustion but ultimately pleased.  “Congratulations sir, you have a beautiful, healthy new daughter.”

“Ah.”  Obadiah hisses out a displeased sound beside him that Howard distantly hears himself echo.

There’s a long beat of awkward silence before Howard waves the doctor away, picks up his glass, and drains it in one long, burning gulp.  A daughter.  Not a son, not his son.  Christ.  What use is a fucking daughter going to be to him?  To Stark Industries?

“Well at least with Maria as her mother she should be a beauty when she’s older.”  Obadiah slaps him roughly on the back. “You can make sure she marries well, someone who’ll be useful to SI’s growth.  Plus Maria’s still young so there’s time to get a proper heir out of her yet.”

Howard hums in agreement and it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn towards the latest defense contract Howard’s managed to weasel out of the government.  All thoughts of his new daughter are pushed away for more important issues.

Obadiah’s right after all.  Maria’s still young and even though Howard’s never been fond of children there’s still time to have another, to get the son that both he and SI needs him to have.

~~~

The moon is a bright blood red the night Natasha Antonia Stark slithers her way out of Maria’s womb and into life absolutely silently.

She’s a small bundle of limbs, thick black hair, and too bright blue eyes, that almost kills Maria in the process.

Corpse pale with lips tinged just faintly blue, she doesn’t scream or cry.

Instead she just … watches.

Watches with eyes far too alert and aware for a newborn.

Maria, weak from blood loss, holds her daughter exactly once, awash in the glow of fresh motherhood.

But when she looks down at the pale, spindly creature she’s given birth to, that glow gutters out like a candle’s flame.

Staring down at Natasha, Maria feels dread and horror well up inside of her.

Because all it takes is one look in those unnaturally bright blue eyes for her to know the truth.

Her Madre was right all along it seems.  Her Nonna too.

No matter how far she runs, no matter how deep she buries the memories and pretends they don’t exist, Maria will never be able to escape la famiglia.

Will never manage to escape the heritage she’d tried so desperately to buck when she’d fled the Old Country for America and the hopes of a new life without the family legacy hanging over her.

Maria should have known she wouldn’t be able to run from it forever.

Not really.  Not truly.

Some things, it seems, will always breed true in the end.

Her unsettling newborn daughter is proof enough of that.

~~~

Natasha is bundled into the manor and the lavish nursery that had been designed for the son Howard had wanted but not received without much care.

Howard and Maria hand the girl over to Jarvis and a wet nurse and go about their lives, back to SI and galas, back to scotch and spa days and other, more important things.  

The only time they stop to deal with Natasha when there’s a photo shoot to be had or an opportunity to appear like a blissfully happy family for the press to be found.

Jarvis, captivated by the girl’s too blue stare, does his best to compensate, to spend as much time with the girl as he can even though Lydia, the wet nurse, is technically in charge of her well being.

It isn’t enough he knows, as busy as he is with his other duties, but it’s all he can do.

~~~

Jarvis tries only once to encourage Maria, Ma’am, to interact with the young miss.

“Keep that … thing,” Ma’am hisses as she sweeps past him and out the manor towards the waiting car, “away from me.”

Unsettled at her vehemence against the new born, Jarvis clutches young Natasha close to his chest and never tries again.

~~~

Two months in and a blood curdling scream rips through the normal bustle of the manor.

Jarvis, heart in his throat, rushes out of the kitchen and towards the stares, the other staff hot on his heels.

They all freeze, horror struck, as Lydia, the wet nurse, comes running down the stairs.

She’s pale, eyes wide and face tear streaked.  But, what’s worse, is the rapidly spreading red stain on the front of her white blouse.

“Miss Lydia,” Jarvis rushes up to her, hands gentle as he grabs the hysterical woman by the forearms.

“S-She … the baby …” Lydia sobs, hands clawing at Jarvis’ lapels.

Jarvis feels panic slither down his spine.

“Miss Lydia, you must calm down,” Jarvis demands. This time a great deal more harshly.  “What’s happened?”

She bit me.”  Lydia practically wails, a hand releasing Jarvis’ lapel as she reaches up to pull her blouse to the side, modesty apparently forgotten.

Jarvis can only stare down at the small but sluggishly bleeding bite mark on the swell of Lydia’s breast with no small amount of disbelief and horror.

Impossible.

~~~

Jarvis bundles Lydia away into the maid Henrietta’s arms and makes his way upstairs towards the nursery.

The room is dark for some reason, the light not working when Jarvis presses the switch.  Guided by the subtle golden glow seeping in through the drawn curtains Jarvis moves towards the crib.

Laid out on thick blue blankets Natasha stares up at him, icy blue eyes bright in the low light.

Her small rosebud of a mouth is smeared with blood.

But when Jarvis, heart pounding, gently presses his finger past the babe’s lips and swipes the pad across her gums there isn’t a single tooth to be found.

So with Natasha gumming happily on his finger, Jarvis just stands there for a long moment, his mind whirling.

He is at a loss.

~~~

Lydia leaves the manor that very night and never comes back.

Jarvis gives the shaken woman a hefty bonus and a reference to keep her silence and then resigns himself, with relatively little difficulty, to raising what seems to be a rather ... unusual child.

~~~

Natasha’s first word is Jarvis.

Her second is listen.

Her third is look.

Demands for attention that will be granted from the one person in her life who shows her the love she craves.

And Jarvis always, always answers.

~~~

Natasha grows and grows and grows.

And the older she gets the further a shadow of gloom seems to settle on the manor.

Her bedroom always seems to be steeped in shadows.

The once vibrant garden outside the manor becomes thick with strangle vines and thorny bushes.

There is an underlying chill that never seems to leave and the shadows in the corners of the manor seem to grow taller and deeper by the day.

There is, inexplicably, what sounds like howling in the distance on nights when the moon is bright and full.

The household staff, is, as a whole uneasy around her.  Around this pale, scuttling child who creeps around corners and slinks through the shadows of the house.

All of them, that is, except for Jarvis.

For him Natasha is a thing of joy, for all of her budding peculiarities and … macabre interests.

She’s a tiny, whirling dervish that clings to his apron strings or his coat tails whenever she’s not holed up in her room with her tools and books.

A precious gift that he had not realized was missing from his life.

~~~

Natasha is four when things begin to change.

Locked in her room, curtains drown and the lights on low like always, she builds a circuit board all on her own.

Howard is … less than pleased, the cruelty that’s always swam beneath the surface rearing its head sharply, mercilessly.

When he comes for her Natasha hisses, low and vicious, and tries to scurry away, tries to hide in the shadows of a convenient corner.

It doesn’t work.

~~~

Jarvis finds her later, a bruise livid against the paleness of her cheek and blood welling at the corner of her mouth.

Natasha just licks the blood away and stares at him, eyes bright and intent, as he cleans her up.

~~~

She builds a new circuit board and doesn’t stop there.  She builds and learns and builds some more and learns that there’s a heavy kind of price for all of it.

An engine here, a new computer there.  She finds a flaw in one of Howard’s new blueprints, and learns to deal with the feel of his knuckles cracking across the arc of her cheek.  Learns to accept the taste of blood on her tongue.

But still she doesn’t cry.

Instead Natasha just stares up at Howard and knows, with a bone deep certainty, that his days are numbered.

One way or another.

~~~

Natasha eventually becomes Toni and she keeps going.

She grows fast and hard and sharp, honed to a razor’s edge by Howard’s cruelty and bruising fists, by Maria’s cold dismissiveness, and by her own otherness that alienates her even further from the household staff.

The only softness she has is Jarvis’ care and the desperate, aching sort of love she holds for him.

Because she does love him.

Toni can’t help but adore him with everything she has inside of her for all of the ways he constantly demonstrates his care for her.  For the patience and acceptance with which he treats her.

It’s the sound of his voice, soft and soothing as he tells her the story of Icarus over and over again.  The gentleness of his hands as he cares for her. The way he lets her have her meat rare or even the anatomical models he buys her for her birthdays after she expresses an interest at five.

It’s the way that he never shies away from what the maids seem to think of as her more … unsettling tendencies.  The way he doesn’t flinch when she slinks out of the shadows, or when he catches her staring at him, eyes bright, from around a doorway.

Toni loves him with a certainty that echoes in her bones.

~~~

Eventually Jarvis is no longer alone in her heart either.

Eventually there’s also Aunt Peggy.

Aunt Peggy who teaches Toni to make a fist instead of automatically curling her surprisingly sharp nails into claws after Toni gets in trouble at her private school for clawing a boy’s face after he bloodied her nose with a well aimed textbook.

Aunt Peggy who always arrives at the manor with gifts and stories.

Aunt Peggy who tells her about Captain America and the Howling Commandos.  Who laughs, bright and delighted, when Toni calls Steve Rogers wholesome with a grimace and asks instead about the dark haired man at his side.

The one with the sharp eyes and even sharper smile that not even the aged photographs can dim.

Aunt Peggy who tells her what few stories she knows about James “Bucky” Barnes with a smile on her face and sadness in her eyes.

So her visits are infrequent but Toni loves her all the same, cherishes the time they do get to spend together.

Still Toni takes each story Aunt Peggy tells her about Steve and Bucky to heart as she grows and vows that, even though she’s small right now, one day … one day she will be mighty.

Truth.

Plain and simple.
~~~

Toni’s eleven when Howard hits her so hard she goes sprawling.

Laid out on the floor at his feet she presses the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth, the taste of blood warm and almost comforting in its familiarity.

But knowing what had caused its taste to blossom across her tongue is enough to have something dark and cold sit up within her chest.  Something feral and razor sharp writhing its way to life inside of her.

Toni’s gums ache for a split second, fresh blood flooding her mouth before she swallows it.

And in that next second that curl of darkness inside of her sits up and decides that this, that Howard’s continued cruelty and abuse, will no longer be allowed.

Toni licks the blood from her now too sharp teeth before she plants her hands on the floor in front of her and pushes herself back up onto her feet.

This time when Howard lashes out at her Toni ducks low to avoid the blow.

Crouched on the hall floor, sharp nails digging into the dark wood beneath her, Toni hisses, takes a moment to calculate, and then she leaps.

Howard goes down with a shout, arms flying up to protect his face as he kicks out at her.

She goes flying, body too small and too light to resist his flailing.

But when she looks back up at him he’s staring at her wild eyed, face covered in blood and left cheek laid open to the bone by a trio of evenly placed gashes.

Toni’s right hand is slick with blood as she watches Howard lurch back up onto his feet and stumble away from her.

It’s in that moment that Toni makes a decision.

She’s always healed well from Howard’s cruelty, always healed clean and quickly.  But even as young as she is Toni knows that he’ll only continue to grow worse as time goes by if he isn’t stopped.

Eventually he’ll do something to her she won’t heal from.  Will hurt her so bad she’ll never recover.

So, Toni decides, if he’s going to kill her then he’s going to do it while he looks her in the eyes.

If he’s going to hurt her again he’s going to have to work for it.

Toni refuses to die on the ground, cowering at his feet.

Refuses to die small.

~~~

By the time she’s hurtling towards thirteen and heading off to MIT Toni has forgotten what life is like without the taste of blood in her mouth.

Howard’s or her own.
~~~

MIT is a whirlwind of imagination and a soft sort of sadness.

MIT helps her build, helps her create, but it does nothing to stem the sadness of being so far from Jarvis, of feeling so alone.

Toni wanders the campus alone at all hours of the day and night, barely sleeping, barely eating.

The other students and faculty whisper about her behind their hands.

They talk about how pale she is and about her hair, a wild riot of curls that spill down her back like curling tendrils of shadows.

They laugh and point at the dark crimson lace parasol Jarvis gave her before she left, the one she uses on days when the sun is bright enough to sting.

The whispers only stop when the students who gossip about her begin to have raging nightmares.  They start to see things lingering out of the corners of their eyes, creeping along beside them in the shadows.

The campus itself quickly becomes covered in a thick layer of gloom and a faint undertone of misery for anyone who goes out of their way to be cruel towards Toni.

A handful drop out but most of them learn to keep their eyes averted and their mouths closed around and about her.

That’s good enough for Toni.

All she really wants, after all, is to be left alone.

~~~

Jarvis calls her regularly but it’s not enough.

Toni feels so selfish for thinking that way, for wanting more than what she has of him.

But it doesn’t stop her from huddling in her dorm bed with the phone on the days he calls, greedy for every scrap of conversation.

Jarvis is hers and Toni loves him, deeply, dearly.

~~~

Those first two years are hard.

Toni finds herself lonely and isolated in all of the worst sort of ways.  Cut off from any meaningful connections beyond Jarvis and the occasional letter from Aunt Peggy.

But then

Then Toni makes it to the cusp of fifteen and suddenly there’s Rhodey.

~~~

Rhodey is like a breath of crisp night air that breathes fresh life into Toni’s viciously guarded heart.

With Toni, Rhodey is all gentle hands and warm laughter.

Is fierce protectiveness and amused indulgence.

Is razor sharp wit to match her own and an acidic tongue ready and willing to scorch anyone who crosses either of them.

Two weeks in and Rhodey has torn down every barrier she’s ever erected between herself and the outside world.

Two weeks in and he’s burrowed his way down into her soul and taken up residence right beside Jarvis in her heart.

Toni hopelessly, ardently, adores him.

And she plans to keep him until death takes both of them from the world.

And then, if possible, even longer.

~~~

Time dashes forward now that Toni has Rhodey at her side, her best friend, her companion, her other half in ways she hadn’t even realized she was missing until now.

Rhodey who treats her like no one but Jarvis ever has before.  Who carries her dark crocodile skin bag on their way to classes and doesn’t blink when she pulls out one of her parasols whenever it’s exceptionally sunny.

Instead he just talks with her, laughs with her.

Loves her just as she loves him.

He worries over the way she barely eats and doesn’t so much as grimace when she orders her steak blue or buys plate after plate of sushi or sashimi whenever he convinces her to go out with him.

He learns not to turn the light on in her bedroom without a proper warning, learns to be comfortable with the way she can slink in the shadows.  He even seems amused by her more morbidly inclined hobbies and decoration choices.

For Christmas that year he puts a small tree up in her dorm and covers it with tiny skull lights and little black bat figurines.

As a gift he buys her a taxidermied cat skeleton mounted on dark wood, a dark red ribbon tied expertly around its bony neck.

Toni instantly names it Spur and feels joy and adoration surge to even newer heights within her.

He seems amused but appreciative of the crocodile skin jacket she gets him in return.

Ethically sourced of course.

~~~

Toni’s sixteen and out from MIT on break when she runs across Maria in the manor’s library.

It’s unusual enough to see her at all, much less in the library settled on one of the settees with a thick novel in one hand and a drink in the other.

Toni can smell the sherry from across the room but she doesn’t focus on it, used to filtering out such things by now.

No, instead Toni’s attention is captured by a different, far more surprising issue.  Because the situation is made even more unusual by the fact that Maria actually speaks to her.

For a long moment the two of them simply stare at each other, the low fire crackling in the background and the silk of Maria’s gown whispering against the fabric of the settee as she shifts in place.

And then, as if she can not longer stand the silence Toni has no intention of being the first to break, Maria finally speaks.

“You’re just like them, you know that?”  Maria sneers, voice low and tone biting, as she takes a deep sip from her glass.

Toni doesn’t ask who she’s talking about, content in this moment to wait Maria out.  Toni does keep a watchful eye on her though as she moves away from the door and further into the library to hover near the fireplace.  The flames gutter for a moment when Toni leans against the mantle but they snap back quickly enough when she doesn’t move again. Instead she just watches Maria quietly as she leans nonchalantly against the mantel and lets her nails click against the wrought iron of the fireplace poker.

Maria flinches at the sound and Toni has to bite back the urge to sneer.

“I thought I’d managed to get away from them, from all of their … strangeness.”  Maria finally continues after a moment, settling further into the settee with her hand tight around her glass as she seems to abruptly warm to her topic.  “But no.  Howard just had to have a child.  An heir to his empire, a son.  I thought since I was normal, maybe it would be okay.  But it wasn’t.  And instead of a son we got you.”

Toni doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even feel the urge to.  She’s well aware of the fact that she’s not what either of them had wanted in a child.  Maria had outright told her that years ago when she was nine. Howard had done his best to make it abundantly clear to her in a variety of painful ways for almost as long as Toni can remember.

So, Toni more than knows and she doesn’t really care anymore.

If she ever really did at all.

“Howard wanted to try again,” Maria reveals then.  “Wanted to keep going until we had a son, but I refused the surgeries and the treatments.  Even if you hadn’t ripped your way out of me the way you had I still wouldn’t have tried again.  I wouldn’t have risked it.”

Toni takes a single, fleeting second to wonder what life would have been like for her with a sibling, a brother or a sister or maybe both.  To have not grown up isolated in the manor, cut off from everything and everyone besides Jarvis as she had been. She brushes the thought aside almost instantly though because she knows that it wouldn’t have ended well.

For neither her nor her faceless, nameless, would be sibling.

Nothing ever does where Howard is involved and a sibling would have just been another source of torment, in one way or another.

Nonna tried to warn me before I left,” Maria continues, a long buried accent suddenly twining through her words.  “Blood will out, she always said, la famiglia breeds true, Mariella.  I didn’t believe her then, didn’t want to.  But she was right, the old hag.  I knew it the day you were born.  I looked at you and I could just tell.”

Maria drains the rest of the sherry from her class in one long swallow, sits it down on the table beside the settee with a click, and then pushes herself up onto her feet.

Toni narrows her eyes as she watches Maria crosses the space between them and come to a stop a just an arm’s length away from her her.  They haven’t been so close to each other outside of a press event in years. Maria’s always gone out of her way to avoid coming anywhere close enough to touching Toni whenever possible.

So it’s even more of a surprise when Maria brings a hand up, nails painted a delicate pink, and moves as if she’s going to grab Toni by the chin like she had way back when Toni was nine.

Toni stares up at her, eyes intent and focused, and lifts the corner of her mouth up in a silent but pointed sneer.

Eyes glued to the obviously sharp shine of Toni’s teeth, Maria seems to think twice about touching her, her raised hand dropping back down to her side.

The silence between them stretches taunt like a bowstring, thick and heavy like syrup.

Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc,” Maria finally murmurs.  “Do you know what that means, girl?”

Toni’s mind whirls, clicking through her memory as she translates the pseudo Latin.

After a brief pause Toni nods.

“Of course you do,” Maria laughs sharply as she takes a step back.  There’s something bitter and almost frightened in her expression then.  “Of course you would.”

There’s another pause then as Maria stares at her, expression flickering from emotion to emotion before it finally settles on what Toni can only describe as a strange sort of resignation.

“We’ve been cruel to you, Howard and I.”  Maria murmurs then. “We weren’t, either of us, the parents we should have been, not even to you.  I know that and I can’t change it. I won’t even bother to lie and say that I necessarily regret it.  After all we both know it wouldn’t be true and we both know that he doesn’t either.  But even if we don’t deserve it, I do hope that, when the time comes, you’ll find the mercy in you to make it quick.”

And then, with one last lingering look, Maria turns on her heel to make her way back towards the settee.  She pauses long enough to grab the half full decanter of sherry on the side table and then she turns again and strides out of the library without looking back.

Behind her, one hand behind her back and fingers wrapped around the handle of the fireplace poker, Toni watches her go.

‘Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc’, Toni thinks to herself, enjoying the way the words seem to slither across the back of her mind like silk.  Or a snake.

“We gladly feast on those who would subdue us,” Toni whispers the words into the quiet of the library and knows, despite the fluid nature of translations, that that is how it is meant to be said.

Behind her the fire flares higher and hotter and something inside of Toni seems to sing in both triumph and recognition.

The words, Toni muses with an inkling of dark delight, sound just a little bit like prophecy.

~~~

The words won’t leave Toni alone after that either.  They slither, serpent like, through the back of her mind at all times, twining between her ribs and tugging at her heart.

More than once over the next day or so Toni catches herself whispering them quietly to herself when she’s alone in her room.

There’s an itch in the back of her head, a clawing sort of nudge in the back of her mind that seems to be driving her towards a specific sort of realization, a particular sort of decision.

She just hasn’t figured out what, exactly, it is yet.

~~~

Two days later and nursing a newly dislocated shoulder courtesy of Howard, Toni realizes exactly what it is.

And she knows exactly what she’s going to do about it.

~~~

“Jarvis,” Toni slinks into the kitchen, footsteps barely a whisper against the tile, the rustling of her long black skirt barely a breath of sound.

“Yes, young miss,” Jarvis calls back to her, hands busy making the tart pomegranate tea he always makes for her if Toni’s sense of smell is right.  And it normally is.

“Tonight’s the charity gala, right?”  Toni already knows the answer of course, the Stark Industries Christmas Gala always happens around the same time every year.

“Yes,” Jarvis nods absently.  “I was just about to bring up your tea as I’ll be leaving to drive Sir and Ma’am there myself shortly.  I’ve a few items I need to pick up in the city proper as well so I expect to be a few hours at least.”

Don’t,” Toni says, the word cutting through the air between them with enough force to make Jarvis stiffen.

“Don’t what, young miss?” Jarvis asks as he finally turns, tea cup in hand and brow creased in concern.

“Don’t go,” Toni tells him evenly. “Make up an excuse and let Howard drive himself.”

“Sir likes to speed,” Jarvis says slowly, carefully, “Ma’am rather dislikes it when he drives.”

“I know,” Toni says calmly, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.  “But you have a headache Jarvis, and you need to stay here. With me.”

Jarvis’ eyes track over her face, pausing on the small spatter of brake fluid on the pale arch of her cheek for a long second.  Then his gaze moves down to where she’s still gripping a spare pair of wire cutters and a small screwdriver in her good hand.

Toni sees it the moment realization barrels into Jarvis.  The moment he knows, without a shadow of a doubt, exactly what she’s saying to him.  He sucks in a sharp breath, face going white with shock for a split second before he pulls himself back together.

He sets the cup on the counter and then moves towards Toni.  He takes the tools from her good hand and steps to the side to throw them in the trash can.  Then he steps back in front of her and reaches into his pocket to pull out a handkerchief.

“You’re sure?”  He asks her softly as he begins to gently blot as the brake fluid, wiping it away with soft, careful strokes.

“Yes.”  Toni has rarely been surer of anything in her life.  Except for Jarvis and Rhodey of course.

“You were careful?”  Jarvis meets her eyes then, expression intent but still loving.

“Of course,” Toni gifts him with a small and admittedly devious smile.

“Good girl,” Jarvis praises before he leans down and presses an unexpected but sweet kiss to her forehead.  “Now go upstairs and shower, I’m afraid I must go and give Sir my regrets. It seems as if I’ve suddenly come down with a rather incapacitating migraine.  I’m sure he won’t mind driving himself and Ma’am to the gala after all.”

“I’m sure he won’t,” Toni agrees before she leans up on her tiptoes to press a soft kiss to Jarvis’ cheek, an affectionate gesture she rarely allows herself with him.  “I hope your head feels better soon, Jarvis.”

And then she turns and floats her way out of the kitchen, tea left behind on the counter and Jarvis’ eyes on her back.

Maria is in the hall when Toni turns the corner.  She’s dressed in an elegant emerald gown and her head is turned slightly to the side as she slips a matching emerald earring into place.

Maria looks up then as if she knows she’s being watched, and, for a split second, their eyes meet and hold.

After a long second of silence Toni smiles.

Maria goes abruptly pale, the earring back falling to the floor with a quiet tinkling sound.

Toni pays it no mind, just keeps moving across the hall, up the stairs to her room, and into the shower with a pleased smile on her face and a dark sort of glee in her heart.

~~~

Toni feels it, the instant death reaches out Her icy hands and snatches Howard and Maria from the world.

There’s a surge of what feels like peace in her chest, a tickling sort of knowing and comfort that she’s never felt before.

Toni just leans back into her chair and relaxes into the feel of Jarvis’ gentle hands as he expertly braids her hair for her.

That night she sleeps deeply and evenly for the first time in memory.

~~~

The headlines read:  Loss of an Icon: Tragic Accident Claims Life of Industrial Titan and Wife.

~~~

A grim faced Obadiah and a red eyed Aunt Peggy come to the manor to help arrange the funerals.  Rhodey is a day or so behind them, face creased in concern and eyes only for Toni.

But Toni knows Rhodey, knows him down to his bones, knows him like she knows herself.

So Toni can see the barely hidden hints of vicious satisfaction in his eyes.

That spark of raging fire in him that’s only grown since they met.

Oh Toni loves him so.

~~~

Toni has very little interest in attending Howard and Maria’s memorial service.

She’d rather have it done and over with so that the will can be read as soon as possible.  That way she can go about deciding what to do with her life now that she and Jarvis are both finally free and clear.

Alone with her in the study, with Rhodey and Aunt Peggy busy helping Jarvis in the kitchen, Obadiah is outraged at the mere suggestion of her not attending.

Toni, of course, waves him off carelessly.

He moves quickly for his size, closing the distance between them as he lashes out to slap her across the face, a wide, open palmed blow that tips her head to the side from the impact.

Toni takes a moment, licks the blood from the corner of her mouth, and then straightens her head to stare up at him.

Obadiah abruptly trails off in the middle of his tirade about respect and public image and think of the stock prices, Toni.

“You get the one,” Toni warns him softly, evenly, aware of how the shadows in the room seem to flex just a bit.  They’ve been doing that ever since the car crash. Toni likes it, finds it relaxing in a way. Comforting. “Do it again and I will feed you your hands.  Slowly. Finger by finger.”

It’s less of a threat and more of a promise.

Obadiah goes pale but nods at her stiffly, shoving his hands into his pockets as if to hide the fact that they’re shaking.

Toni sees it though, clocks in on the weakness like a shark to blood.

~~~

Toni goes to the memorial because, in a way, Obadiah was right.

It’s better all the way around for Toni and Jarvis both not to invite the scrutiny of the press.  Even if Obadiah’s obviously more concerned about the company and stock prices than anything else.

So Toni goes, bookended by Jarvis and Aunt Peggy, Rhodey’s hand warm and steady on her right shoulder as he hovers behind her.

It ends up being a three ring circus of a funeral, filled with press and military honors and people pretending to mourn the loss.

Toni finds every second of it beyond boring.

~~~

Howard and Maria leave her everything.

Everything.

The company, the properties, the titles and rights to every single piece of property they own.  There are only a few exceptions for things like a foundation that’s started in Maria’s name and the fact that Obadiah will run SI until Toni reaches twenty-one.

But beyond that everything, the entire Stark Empire, now belongs to her.

Overall Toni thinks that the afternoon counts as a rousing success.

Or at least it does for her and through her the people she claims as her own.

And really, that’s all that matters.

~~~

“Tones?”  Rhodey whispers to her when they’re curled together in her bed on the last night before they return to MIT.

“Yeah, sugar bear?”  Toni hums, drowsy for once and more comfortable than she can ever remember being on her own.  Howard and Maria are gone, Jarvis had made her favorite dinner, and Rhodey is at her side. She’s practically blissful.

“Did you …” Rhodey trails off, swallows, and then presses on.  “The accident … did you?”

Rhodey doesn’t even have to finish asking the question because Toni knows exactly what he’s asking.

“I think it was time, don’t you?”  Toni asks as she tilts her head back to look up into his face.  “Time for certain things to come to an end?”

“Yeah,” Rhodey rasps as he tightens his arms around her.  “Yeah it was. I’m glad, you know that right? You saved me the trouble of doing it myself.”

There’s a thread of solid truth in his voice.

Toni just laughs and presses closer to his chest.

Always, always closer.