Toni Stark didn’t really do downtime, she worked hard or partied harder, but didn’t carve out moments to smell the paper or read the flowers or moving on Jarvis, we have shit to do, fuck the semantics. But sometimes, in the torturous wasted moments waiting for sleep to just hit her already, or the literally wasted moments before she blacked out during a bender, she considered Hannah Stark and the weight of her own name.
Michael Stark was really, honestly, just a dumb slice of Americana who had been dragged along for the ride. Hannah Stein was ambitious, and impatient to get out of her childhood home. She couldn’t work around the clock or sleep around the neighborhood with her parents breathing down her back. Mike was just another boy next door who thought she was a cute dish. When the war revved up, Hannah leapt at the opportunity and skillfully wormed her way into his unsuspecting bed. When all six foot one of him had finally been shipped off and away with a sweet picture of Hannah and a gold band on his ring finger, Hannah Stein-Stark threw herself into working, and when she could manage it, cheating. To be fair, she’d say, Mike might not come back. To be fair, she’d say, she didn’t even know him that well. To be fair, she always preferred her maiden name over her married one, and an ocean away, Mike was little more than a distant landlord. To be fair, all she had wanted was to be her own woman. Hannah loved the war for a lot of reasons.
But Mike did make it back to his girl and spent the next fifteen years hoping to start a family. He drank and she drank more. She yelled and he shut down. He offered a divorce and she refused it. The company was booming, she was the Mother of War, the second coming of a powerful patriotic woman since Captain Stella Rogers, the papers called her Athena and they had all of the fifties to ride out together in sardonically wedded bliss. She poked and prodded at Mike’s heart over and over throughout the years, tearing giant emotional gashes where ever she could, still feeling as trapped as she had been when she was 18, when she had been reading patents for new tech until her eyes burned, taping articles about the Manhattan project to her headboard until it was wallpapered, writing letters to higher ups until they gave her a shot and found her to be exceeding expectations. But trapped was how she thrived, and in recompense to Mike, she gave up a part of her very self and slapped his name in giant letters across the company stationary, and everywhere else in between. So everyone knew Hannah, but history would know Stark. It was the first time Hannah would break her own heart.
The second time was in the late 60’s, and Hannah finally relented and gave Mike Antonia Stark, dumping her in his arms, reapplying her lipstick and strolling out of the maternity ward. She was moving now through her 40’s, still beautiful and dangerous, still unprepared as ever to have something she built but could not reprogram wandering around her lab. She didn’t care for motherhood but she did love Toni and she resented Mike for it, resented having the onus of something so terrible and dear put on her when it had finally seemed as though she achieved everything she had ever wanted in life.
In those moments, before the alcohol hits (and to be fair, whether she parties or goes to bed, the alcohol eventually is what finally hits) Toni thinks of Ma, icily looking at Mike as she descended the stairs to meet her new young escort for the night, Ma, coolly tearing through Toni’s first boyfriend, her second, her third before she wised up and just started seeing the boys unofficially and slyly, not even mentioning them to Daddy, who chewed the inside of his lip when Toni went to the clubs, went off to MIT, ended up in the papers. Toni had been the perfect storm, because when it was almost safe for Hannah to officially and publically break away from her marriage, Toni came, and Mike couldn’t leave Toni to grow up with Hannah and her benders, and Hannah couldn’t let Toni grow up with Mike and his simple idealism that she knew would one day destroy her daughter in a way she was all too intimately familiar with.
Hannah always told Toni she had to have iron in her backbone to succeed and through her actions, enforced that iron in her heart couldn’t hurt as well. Because even when the world knew of Hannah Stark, she would look up at the neon letters shining on the company’s masthead and scream that the last three letters were wrong before popping one more pill and throwing back another finger of expensive vodka. Hannah pushed and pushed because a child will not listen to reason, cannot understand the weight of a sacrifice until it is made and sealed in blood and Hannah loved Toni too much to watch Toni fail to prove her mother wrong. In a dance more elaborate than her own blueprints Hannah instilled fear and loathing that she hoped would outweigh love and curiosity so that one day, the Stark name on the building would really belong to a woman who intended to keep it.
In her later life, Hannah knows there is a chance that Toni will never really understand her mother’s reasons, her bitter grace and sharp mind. Once, visiting home from MIT, Toni as a teenager and newfound feminist announced she would begin to go by Hannah’s maiden name, and to Mike’s surprise and Toni’s horror, Hannah had slapped her only daughter across the face, sober but seething with fury. Under no circumstances, Hannah had explained, measured and deadly beautiful and quiet as ever, would Toni ever forsake the Stark name. She had given up too much for some hippie college shit to mar the stationary she intended Toni to use. Toni had been devastated and shrilly left the house, mocking Hannah, asking what could the selfish ice queen have possibly given up for the Stark name besides her hand—did the engagement ring break one of her perfectly manicured fingers?
No, of this life, Toni knows very little, and spends very little time, save when she’s preparing for a trip into oblivion, thinking about any of it, instead basking in the well cultivated distaste she feels for family, babies, boyfriends and rings. When her parents die, she has everything packed away into storage. After her third truly near death experience, she invites Peter to check out all of the shit she has literally pushed into dark corners, feeling as though it’s something she can’t put off much longer. Recently she has found it very hard to fight off the feeling she can feel even in the artificial core of her arc reactor for her assistant and CEO. She still feels sad and alone when she wakes up in a cold sweat, remembering space stretching out forever in front of her and the resigned click of an unanswered phone, and reaches across the blankets for Pete’s sweet, definite hands, lighter than a hundred nuclear missiles but infinitely harder to hold, and to need.
The storage space is huge and Toni keeps track of Pete by the tufts of red hair she can see flashing around as he bounds off into the chaos, thrilled to be let into another part of Toni’s life that is closed off to the general public. Pete is the one who finds Toni near the very back, shifting through small stacks of old, very old books and sheaves of paper, blinking in the hard way he knows to be her last defense and waits for her to gain her composure and speak when she’s ready.
“They're Ma’s old diaries… right before the war, and Daddy,” she says quietly, passing a stack to Pete, who knows this is an indication that he is being allowed in, and invited to sit. He flips through some of the papers, tens of blueprints and patents all signed the same way: Hannah Stein.
“Do you see it,” she says, passing a diary to him and pointing to the open page. “Look at that. There’s a passage about Daddy being shipped off but look at the page across from it.” He does. The page is littered with Hannahs, Hannah Stein in different scripts, with a Ms. or a Dr. in front of some. The one that Pete had been expecting was alone at the very bottom, crossed out once, twice, three times.
“Mrs. Michael Stark,” he murmurs, looking up at Toni who has involuntarily shed a tear or two. She watches through narrow eyes as his hand twitches for just a fraction of a second, as he resists the urge to brush them away, knowing how much she would hate him for it. Still, he finds another branch to go out on, because Toni doesn’t just keep him around for decoration, because there are times when she needs him to ask the hard questions, to stick her where it hurts just once so she can remember she is more human than metal.
“Did she hate him?”
Toni brushes away the tears herself and purses her lips, considering the question.
“I suppose a bit,” she says slowly, digging another journal out of the box. Yes, it would be silly to say Hannah didn’t hate Mike. For the longest time, Toni had hated Hannah for the way she had treated them both, for the neglect and the benders and the secrets and the lovers and Toni still would not enter a Chanel store for fear of smelling her mother’s own scent on a new dress or purse. For the longest time, Toni had felt like a walking, breathing regret, learned to avoid her mother, and eventually avoid her own feelings in an attempt to become more abstract than human, losing herself in battlefields and bottles and beds.
Toni flipped through another journal, this one dating from the first year and a half of the company that would become Stark Industries, and found more Hannahs scattered throughout the pages, the elegant Stein morphing into the harsh and awkward Stark, eventually finding some Steins crossed out more brutally than the first “Mrs. Michael Stark” had been. She thought about the nights Hannah had drunk herself into oblivion, as if Hannah Stein-Stark could be crossed out as easily. Thought about the nights that Toni had done the same thing, only there was no little Toni dumping out the alcohol bottles, no little Toni sneaking into the lab at night with blankets, and for the longest time, no Pete carrying her to bed and tucking her in the way Mike had done for Hannah maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of times in their youth. And perhaps, because this was the closest thing to downtime Toni ever allotted herself, time with Pete, sitting and allowing herself to simply be, Toni thought about her name—her name—plastered from building to building and felt a mixture of pride and shame when something clicked into place for the first time, because Toni knew the taste of regret but Toni also knew the taste of victory and success, and friendship when she had the energy to let it in and love when she had the patience for its messy inexactitude and exhaled, closing the diary and crawling to Pete’s side, dropping her head onto his shoulder.
“But not like she hated herself.”