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heart made of iron (still bleeds)

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There’s a photo of her when she’s seventeen and at her parents’ funeral.

It’s a grainy sort of picture, not the best quality, but Toni’s seen clearly, standing over freshly filled graves, straight-backed and firm, hands clasped properly in front of her, dress morosely dark, hair tamed and pulled back, sharp and severe. Her head is held high, cheeks free of tears, eyes clear and piercing. There’s no trace of grief on her face, only blankness that makes people around her uneasy.

She looks cold and unfeeling, statue-still and unnatural in her poise.

The soles of her sky-high heels are fire engine red, the only splash of color in the whole drab depiction. It’s disrespectful, the gossip rags inform her later, she’s clearly not mourning correctly and what does that say about her? Reporters ask her about her feelings, about her barely-there grief and Toni doesn’t comment, only smirks and saunters as she always does, avoids interviews and shouted questions, head held high.

She thinks about Howard, and frequent absences broken by rare workshop-filled days at home. He had no time for a daughter.

She thinks about Maria and galas and charities and spas, eyes filled with mist and hands clenching bottle of pills. She had no will for a daughter.

Toni doesn’t mourn.

She has nothing to mourn for, not really, and she sees no reason for making a sham of it and who cares what the world thinks.

(Toni doesn’t. She never has.

And she never will.)

 

 

She takes over the company as soon as she reaches twenty-one, and not one person on the board is happy.

Not one man on the board is happy.

Because Toni is twenty-one, is a girl, is fond of parties and alcohol and sex, and is absolutely not what an heiress to enormous fortune should be. Toni's not meek, not sweet, and she does not even have demure in her dictionary. She's all abrasive edges and sharply burning brilliance wrapped in torn jeans and combat boots or low-cut dresses and mile-high heels. She's wild and uncontrollable, and for all of her intelligence, they do not think her good enough.

Toni brings Stark Industries higher than ever before and relishes the gobsmacked looks of her detractors.

(Toni has been beaten down and told she's not good enough, not man enough all her life. People tried to bring her down, to use her, to manipulate her, to make her weak. They wanted her to fit in their neat little boxes, with their neat little bows on top of it all.

They tried to break her and remake her into something more acceptable.

Tony's response?

Fuck you.

Toni Stark doesn't break; not for her father, not for her classmates, not for the media.

Certainly not for a bunch of money-grabbing asses that think they can play her off as their puppet.

She shows them all what she's made of soon enough anyway.)

 

 

Afghanistan changed her.

Everyone thinks it softened her, after the first conference. Toni reads the headlines with amused twist to her lips, reads speculations about mental breakdowns, long-lost maternal instincts, guilt-ridden nightmares and paranoid delusions. She reads about weaknesses they ascribe to her, and tries not to laugh at their stupidity.

Afghanistan didn’t soften her. It made her harder.

Hard enough to tell the whole world to go fuck itself and do what she’s wanted since she was twenty-one and newly head of the company.

Hard enough to ignore them when they try to force her to comply with their wishes.

Hard enough to eradicate those who would use her weapons on innocents.

Hard enough to kill the person that has been her second father for years now.

And – she realizes while she looks at Agent Coulson, calm and expectant, feeding her lies and dangling rewards in front of her face – hard enough to look a man, a dangerous man, in the eye and metaphorically tell him to go fuck himself.

SHIELD wants to control her, she realizes. It wants leverage, information it can hold over her, a literal Damocles’ sword they’ll use to force her cooperation. They want her, she thinks; her tech, her money, her mind. They need her.

Well, they aren’t the first and they won’t be the last.

Toni’s smile is a slash of crimson against her face, bruises hidden underneath the make-up, but eyes cold and hard for everybody to see. “Truth is,” she says and doesn’t move her gaze from the blandly expectant face in the crowd. “I’m Iron Woman.”

The explosion is inevitable.

Toni watches it and smiles.

 

 

Natalie Rushman is temptation wrapped up in blood-red hair and sensual skin, a perfect invitation subtly hidden in her every gesture and Toni doesn’t trust her one bit.

Like calls to like, after all, and Toni recognizes a bitch and a liar when she sees one.

Normally, she wouldn’t have done anything since she has enough on her plate – she’s dying, she has to make sure her company’s safe, that the world will have Iron Woman when all is said and done, that no one will try to take what’s hers (Pepper’s, Rhodey’s) when she’s gone – and she has no time for playing games with beautiful, dangerous women.

But Natalie comes with Pepper, she endangers Pepper, and that cannot be tolerated.

So, Toni’s not surprised when SHIELD tips its hand eventually, she’s not surprised by invasion in her home and threats, both overt and implied. She’s prepared for that, prepared to play along, to make nice, as long as she gets what she wants in the end.

The evaluation is surprising though, if only because it’s such a cheap trick.

Iron Woman yes, it says, Toni Stark not recommended.

As if this is the first time someone tries to exploit her daddy issues. As if she would fall for manipulation that obvious.

(Even SHIELD, Toni realizes, sees her gender and her dresses and high heels, perfectly painted nails and painstakingly arranged hair, and thinks female, fashionable, weak. Easily manipulated. Easily used.

They forget about easily underestimated.

Toni doesn’t.)

Toni thinks about Agent Coulson and his bland face, about helpful notecards and needle in her neck. She thinks of Damocles’ sword over her head and drops the folder with a smirk that makes subtle triumph leech out of Fury’s good eye.

“I think you should talk to Pepper,” she says, crimson nails tapping idly on the papers. “If you want me to consult so much –“ Fury twitches at her correct conclusion, ever-present frown deepening. “– you should go through all the legal channels, right, Nicky?”

(Pepper, Toni knows, will eat them alive.)

 

 

Sometimes, Pepper reminds Toni of her mother.

It’s in the way she deals with the male-dominated world around her; in the straight line of her back, painfully immaculate clothes, demure colors and pretty words. It’s exact opposite of Toni, who is a violent whirlwind of too-short skirts and too-high heels, bright shades of fire-engine red and metallic gold, daring looks and aggressive stances. They shouldn’t mesh very well, two women so completely different, so irrevocably dissimilar that it takes Toni by surprise when they become lifelong friends.

It’s the iron in Pepper, Toni thinks, that Maria Stark didn’t have. Her mother was a perfect socialite while she lived, confident and dazzling and always so proper, prideful to the last; so prideful in fact, that she somehow managed to hide the bitter slant of her mouth in public, the heavy-eyed, unfocused gaze and mind dulled with alcohol and pills. Maria couldn’t handle her life, in the end, couldn’t deal with absent husband, scandal-starving media and a daughter who wouldn’t even entertain the thought of socialite existence. She ran away, in thought if not in action, and Toni can never forgive her for her weakness.

Pepper, though. Pepper is silk over steel, pretty face hiding a sharp mind and even sharper tongue and Toni delights in it, in the way she is so very often underestimated. She’s a constant in Toni’s life, unbreakable and unshakeable, in a way that only Rhodey and JARVIS manage.

So when Pepper strides in the room, heels clicking rhythmically, and drops a folder in her lap, Toni actually sits up and looks

“Are you sure about this?” Pepper asks, matter-of-fact.

Toni skims over the SHIELD contract and smiles when she sees how many stipulations Pepper managed to wrangle out of supposedly superiorly trained spies. “I need to keep an eye on them.”

Pepper does not insult her by asking again. She knows all about preventive measures.

“Then we should finalize our move to New York,” she comments, and her eyes are hard for all that her tone is casual, because she likes SHIELD even less than Toni does. “I have it on good authority that their headquarters are there.”

JARVIS and Pepper together are a frightening combination; Toni has been resisting the move for weeks, but now she’s effectively cornered.

(Sometimes, Pepper reminds her of Maria Stark. The rest of the time, she terrifies her.

Toni loves her for it.)

 

 

There’s something broken in Loki, Toni can’t help but think as she watches him, defeated and in chains, and it can never be mended again.

Toni’s familiar with the feeling, intimately and horrifyingly, and it only makes her warier of the supposed god and would-be invader. She knows how she is when’s she’s cornered, knows that she’s ready to burn anyone and everyone in her way, and she has no doubt that Loki’s the same, that he’s at his most dangerous when he’s trapped with no apparent way out.

Only this time, he seems almost… content, sitting there pinned by Mjolnir and unable to move, more at piece than he was during the whole invasion business.

He smiles when she approaches. It’s not a kind smile, razor-sharp as it is, but it’s sincere so Toni only takes it as encouragement. There are other people here though – Natasha’s watchful eyes tracking her every movement, Thor’s crackling presence assaulting her senses – so she can’t say what she really wants.

(Who was the mastermind? Where did the army come from? Will there be more? When? Why? How can I stop them?)

She merely smirks, slow and smug, and watches as the wry amusement in his eyes grows. “Told you so,” she says, and thinks, I told you we will win, but also, I told you it was hopeless, but both of them knew the second one from the beginning. There’s no throne on Earth, after all.

“So you did, Lady Stark,” he answers, as respectful as he’s been with her from the start, even while he held her by her throat. “Are you here to gloat?”

“Yes,” she lies, and he knows it. She does not need to gloat; she needs to asses, to size him up, to make sure he’s done for now. To make sure that Earth is safe.

Green eyes sparkle, shrewd. “Such a shame I couldn’t turn you,” he says, and sounds genuinely regretful. “You could have been magnificent. You could have been a queen.”

Toni’s smile is a slow thing, warm and intimate, her words a throaty purr and her eyes as sharp as chips of broken glass. “Oh, honey. I already am.”

The rest of the Avengers, those that can hear her, mistake her words for empty boast. Loki, who is entirely too much like her, does not.

(Toni doesn’t do empty boasts.)

 

 

"You have some grey in your hair," Natasha says in one of the rare moments when they are not trying to rip each other's heads off.

Toni knows that everyone expects them to get along, the only two women in a team of manly man, but she can never quite bring herself to like the other woman. Toni respects her skills easily enough, but she does not trust her – she had read SHIELD's files on her, the unedited ones – and Toni values trust more than anything else, especially after Obie. Natasha lacks principles, lacks loyalty, and that, Toni can't forgive, no matter how much fondness she has for strong and snarky redheads.

"I know," Toni says and takes a sip from her mug, ignores the piercing green eyes on her face as she does so.

"You should dye it. It makes you look old," Natasha, with her perfectly curled red locks, and her perfectly painted lips, says.

Toni scoffs. "I am old, Charlotte," she says, because she is Toni Stark and she has no shame, not even about her age. "Let's not kid ourselves."

Natasha's mouth turns down in the slightest of frowns. "Still," she insists. "It presents a wrong image."

Toni eyes her over the rim of her cup doesn't ask what kind of image. She already knows. (She's a hero, but she's getting old, getting slow and letting herself down. She's a woman that allows herself to look something other than her best, doesn't make an effort. What does that say about her abilities? What does that say about her team?) She merely says, "No, it doesn't," and refuses to meet Natasha's questioning glances.

She is getting old.

(She’s closer to fifty than forty.)

She survived long enough to get old.

And that is the message she wants to send.

 

 

The first time someone comments on possible relationship between her and Steve Rogers, Toni almost chokes on laughter during the interview.

On national television.

During the live feed.

The reporter is left looking at her, wide-eyed, as Toni forcibly calms herself down, her shoulders shaking, eyes bright with mirth, and leans forward, as if she is going to tell a secret. "Oh, sweetheart," Toni purrs, voice low and seductive, filled with dark promises. "I don't think the two of us would be any good together. I would break him."

The reporter nods and doesn't continue the line of questioning, waves off her answer as if it were a joke.

It isn't.

Toni is quite sure that it is the truth.

She knows that Steve is hardly a virgin, that he is not innocent in any measure of the world. But he is young, despite his seventy years long nap, and seems even younger when faced with the marvels of the modern world. And Toni… well, she's been called a man-eater before and she will be again because it is not necessarily incorrect; she's the embodiment of the future Steve so fears; an independent, crass, technologically savvy and irreverent woman, and he simply does not know how to deal with her.

He is a boy still, compared to her. A boy that does not even try to grow up, but clings to his old values and beliefs and desperately thinks them correct.

Toni Stark has no use for boys.

(And a few years later, when Steve Rogers ignores more than hundred countries in a childishly simple attempt to save his best friend, Toni knows that she was right.

She would have broken him in the end.)

 

 

Toni doesn’t like to think about Ultron.

Not because she blames herself – though there’s an element of guilt in it too, even though she knows she’s not the one solely responsible – or because she sees the way the team breaks around her and it pains her.

(It does, a little, though she’s been expecting it for some time now; as Bruce said it, they’re a time bomb and bombs tend to explode – she would know, she makes them.)

The reason is simple and more painful than almost anything else that has happened in her life so far.

JARVIS.

Her dearest child, her greatest creation, is dead. And no one but Toni seems to care.

Toni hates Ultron.

 

 

They attack her, after Ultron, because she’s the only one left to blame.

Bruce is gone. The scepter is destroyed. Wanda is the new darling, the newest Avenger and nobody pays any attention to her past. But Toni’s here, she’s convenient, and the media leaps at the chance.

Toni can only grin and bear it. The SI doesn’t involve itself in Avengers business so Pepper can’t help, and the Avengers themselves are distancing themselves from her, slowly but noticeably. Oh, they still take her money and her tech, and Toni’s not petty enough to deny them, but their interactions are markedly colder, more reserved and Toni can’t help but be bitter about it.

She doesn’t care about the media. She’s Toni Stark; the reporters can bark all they want and she won’t grace them with even a iota of her precious time and attention. But Avengers are completely different matter – they are her teammates, some of them are her friends and yet they all seem to blame her for Ultron, regardless of her explanations.

Steve, especially, is vehement in his opinion and Toni can only watch as he steers the rest of them further away from her, leading by example, and her lips curl resentfully.

Still, Toni is a Stark. She begs for no one’s approval. Not the world’s. Not her teammates’. Not even Steve Rogers’.

Ultron is not completely her fault.

She’s simply the only one who answers for it.

(When Toni’s six, Howard gets drunk enough to necessitate a trip to the hospital. There is some speculation about his private life, about what drove him to drink, but Stark Industries stock doesn’t drop one bit.

When she’s nine, a reporter finds out about Maria’s antidepressants. The media speculates about her capability as mother, as a socialite, as a head of several charity functions and her next fundraiser gathers barely more than half of expected profits.

“Actions have consequences,” Maria tells her in one of her rare maternal moods when she catches Toni wondering about discrepancies. “But those consequences are especially worse for women in this world of ours.”

Toni never forgets it.)

 

 

The Accords are a gift.

They’re positive, much more positive than Toni’s expected in the wake of DC and Sokovia. There are restrictions, of course, and expectations of accountability, but in the whole, they see the superhumans as people and that’s the part that matters.

Amendments can be made. But labels stay for a long time and they have gotten lucky this time.

The rest of the team doesn’t see it that way.

Toni’s smart. She knows that, she’s perfectly aware of that, but she doesn’t think that it’s so hard to understand the concept of responsibility. What they do is dangerous; it hurts people, sometimes it kills them, and they need to be ready to answer for that.

She thought that Steve, at least, would have leapt at the chance.

(It’s not the first time Toni’s wrong about someone close to her.

She hopes it’s the last.)

 

They betray her in the end, the team that Fury promised her. As everything else that has ever came out of SHIELD, it is simply not meant to last.

She expects Natasha, because the spy is loyal only to Barton and nobody else. Toni knows that, is aware of that, and yet it still hurts, the way Natasha tosses barbed words in her direction, cold and vicious, but almost preternaturally pointed and well-aimed.

She does not expect Steve.

Perhaps she should have, but she has always been sure that Cap is the best of them. A good man, she thought, an honest man. She does not like him most of the time – too rigid for her tastes, unbending and stubborn in ways that irritate her, ignorant and unwilling to change it – but she’s never even thought that he’s a man capable of such a complete and utter treachery.

She had faith in him, she realizes while she’s lying half-frozen in Siberian bunker. And he repaid that faith with betrayal and violence.

It burns, that thought. She’s been conned and deceived and she’s so angry, the feeling hot and blazing inside her chest, and unable to do anything about it. She’s powerless for the first time in her life, trapped in her suit in the middle of nowhere and she hates it, hates the frustrating, helpless sensation that slowly snuffs out the anger, hates the desperate hope that someone will find her, the bitter knowledge that she can’t even help herself now.

Hates that Steve Rogers made her feel that way.

(Vision comes for her. Toni’s in pain, bitter and angry and ready to burn Steve Rogers to ground.

Maria was the one who taught her that actions have consequences.

Life taught her that, if you want someone to face them, you have to make sure of it by yourself.

Toni’s a quick learner.)

 

 

There is a photo of her that appears on all the front pages after the Civil War debacle.

Toni Stark sits in a leather armchair, her body garbed in a sharp black suit and killer heels, silver metal glinting at her wrists and ears, make-up barely visible. There are wrinkles at the corners of her eyes as she smiles enigmatically, and lines on her forehead that speak of stressful life. Her dark hair is pulled back in elegant knot at the nape of her neck, temples shot with grey standing out against the brown tresses.

She's closer to fifty than forty by the time the photo is taken and it shows.

Some gossip rags attack that image, make it look like she stopped caring for herself after the mess with the Avengers, and she laughs and laughs and laughs.

Toni Stark is closer to fifty than forty, with wrinkles and grey hair, and she sits in a throne-like chair, telling the world their dearest hero is wrong. She looks distinguished, elegant, formidable. She appears worldly, and wise and powerful.

She looks like a survivor.

She looks like a queen.

(Toni Stark frames that photo and wears her imperfections with pride.)