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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 her 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 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.

Chapter Text

Life without Howard and Maria is vastly different but ultimately as close to perfect as Toni has ever felt.

With their absence Toni feels lighter, freer, and almost smugly satisfied.

Even the distance between her and Jarvis doesn’t feel as heavy or as long now that she knows he’s safe and happy at the manor while she’s at MIT.  Their every phone call is filled with laughter and joy and Jarvis even takes the time to visit on long weekends when her classes are done and his duties leave him free to come and see her.

Now that Howard and Maria are no longer obstacles to their relationship or any portion of their peace and happiness they are closer than ever before.

It’s just another bit of proof that Toni did what was necessary, that regret and guilt is useless in this situation.

Not that Toni feels either of course.  Not for Howard who was cruel in the worst kinds of ways, nor for Maria who let herself be ruined by her own cowardice and apathy.

No, instead of regret or guilt, Toni likes the way it feels.  Relishes the idea that she was the one to have so summarily destroyed such a large problem in her life all on her own.  With her own hand as it were.

To have put words into action and feasted on the misfortune of the two people who would have seen her subdued, beaten down into a pale shadow of herself.

To take that power in her own hands and to use it to erase a blemish on her life that had no right to her time or her blood.

It is … intoxicating.

It is a high that Toni rides for months.

~~~

The only less than pleasing spot in the aftermath of everything is when Rhodey leaves her, off to what Toni knows will be a shining career in the Air Force.

Toni has a single moment of dark, flickering, jealousy but it passes between one breath and the next.

Because he leaves her but only in body.

Rhodey is never far from her thoughts.

And he is always, always in her heart.

They’re intertwined at the base, the two of them.  Soulmates of a sort and animals of two different but ultimately complementary breeds.

He is hers and she is his and distance will never touch the bond that ties them together.

So Rhodey leaves and Toni misses him.

But she doesn’t try to make him stay.

She has Jarvis at the manor and during his rare visits so she’s content to wait for Rhodey to come back to her.

~~~

Rhodey misses her just as much as she misses him.  It’s obvious in the way that they reach out for each other as often as possible instead of waiting for one or the other to start the process.

There is no burden of contact resting one of them, no expectations.  There’s just their hearts and their souls ever reaching back towards one another no matter the distance between them.

So they call and write as often as they can, a steady stream of letters and calls and packages.

But, despite those lifelines and despite her determination to be patient, left alone in the silence of her dorm Toni admits to, once again, feeling the hot bite of loneliness.

And it’s from that loneliness that DUM-E is born, her first and undeniably quirky child.

They win the robotics competition that year despite, or maybe because, of how eager DUM-E is to get his claw on anything that even vaguely resembles a knife.

The judges are a mix of terrified and awed with his reckless enthusiasm and impressive aim.

Toni just thinks he’s adorable.

~~~

Still high on the sweetness of DUM-E’s birth Toni builds U a month later to keep her enthusiastic bot company.

U, as it turns out, is calmer than his brother.  A sweetheart of a bot who is only a little bit obsessed with electricity and shocking things.

It’s a bit of an unexpected quirk but, overall, U’s very gentle.

In the end Toni loves both of her boys fiercely.

She doesn’t even mind the way DUM-E occasionally throws his knives at her or the way U sometimes gets too enthusiastic with the taser she built him.

She’s an old hand at dodging and DUM-E’s games are good for her reflexes and hand-eye coordination.  She can catch a knife at twenty paces now and is only getting faster at throwing them back much to Jarvis’ resigned despair.

Plus the electrical burns U hands out like candy are barely even noticeable and always heal quickly.

Small prices to pay for their happiness as far as Toni is concerned.

Plus Jarvis and Rhodey both seem beyond fond of them as well once the bots understand that knife games and tasers are only for Toni, and really that’s all that matters.

Her entire family, both flesh and metal, getting along.

~~~

Eventually Toni sails her way to graduation with multiple degrees and sets her sights on the rest of the world.

She shuts the manor down, sending the willing staff to other locations or retiring the ones who ask with hefty pensions that’ll keep them settled, happy, and, most importantly of all, quiet for the rest of their lives.

Instead of buying a new house Toni has Jarvis buy a rather sprawling penthouse with more than enough room for three people and two overly enthusiastic bots.  They move in a flurry of boxes and crates and Toni happily sets about making a new home for her and her little cobbled together family.

Jarvis, looking younger and more relaxed than ever before, carries on beside her with the dignity and love that’s always defined his place in her life.

They have evenings filled with laughter and music, with a bone deep warmth and joy as they settle into their new home together.

Toni is almost incandescently happy.

~~~

An itch eventually develops in her feet after graduation though.  Without MIT to capture at least a portion of her attention and SI not a worry for quite a while, Toni finds herself at a bit of a loose end.

So, with Jarvis blessing and Rhodey’s enthusiastic encouragement, Toni sets off and spends the next few years jet setting around the world like a dark shadow.

She finds a plethora of things to keep her distracted between inventions and experiments.  Modeling contracts, red carpets, trips to places with intriguing histories, and beautiful people of all types.

They are all hers for the taking.

So take is exactly what Toni does.

Lips painted blood red, hair up-swept in a mess of inky curls, shadows curling around her feet, and one parasol or another in hand, Toni sets her mouth to the pulse of the entire world and drinks.

And it is delicious.

~~~

Jarvis is always waiting for her when she comes home of course, a smile and a cup of pomegranate tea in one hand and a tray of delicacies in the other.

The first night Toni’s back is always spent settled at Jarvis’ side.  They pass the time with stories about her travels and his adventures with the bots and their latest antics.

Rhodey is there as often as possible too.  He comes home to the penthouse every chance he gets or meets Toni in this city or that one whenever she makes her way to whatever country he’s stationed in at the time.

Toni basks in every moment they spend together and Rhodey meets her enthusiasm with equal joy.  Together they get into mischief across the world, get banned from a city or two, and generally have a marvelous time.

Somewhere along the way, drunk on laughter and feeling childish, Toni slides a razor across the palm of her hand at Rhodey’s tipsy but vehement insistence while he does the same.

Then, his hand just as bloody as her own, they press their palms together and declare themselves bound in all of the ways that matter.

When they wake up the next morning Rhodey does a double take in the mirror when he catches a glimpse of his now bright amber eyes.

“Huh,” Rhodey says with admirable calm as she comes up at his side to coo just a bit at the brilliant color, “you’re some kind of strange, you know that baby girl?  Got a knack for kooky shit happening where you’re involved.”

“You love me and my oddities,” Toni reminds him even as she thinks back on that night in the library with Maria.  “Your life would be so very dull without me.”

‘Blood will out,’ Toni remembers Maria quoting her Nonna.  Toni had never met the woman but she can’t help but think she might have been far more right than even Maria had eventually come to know.

“They’re really very pretty, sugar bear,” Toni tells him as she reaches up and presses a sharp nailed thumb gently beneath his right eye.  The black shine of it stands out starkly even against his darker skin.

Toni doesn’t actually own any nail polish but that’s yet another secret that’s kept close to her and her family’s chests.

“Everything about me is pretty,” Rhodey reminds her easily as he grabs her hand and presses a kiss to her knuckles.

“Agreed,” Toni nods, because it’s true.  Rhodey is gorgeous and anyone who says otherwise will have to answer to Toni.  Which is not something they’ll want to do.

“Momma’s gonna flip her shit, you know that right?”  Rhodey asks then, more than a bit spitefully smug. “And you know she's gonna know you're involved somehow.  Because you always are.”

“Ah,” Toni grimaces at the thought of Roberta’s possible wrath.  “Think she’ll forgive, forget, and accept that they’re contacts if I send her and David to the penthouse in Dubai for at least a month?”

“You do that and they’re liable to disown me and adopt you in my place,” Rhodey laughs brightly.

It isn't true of course but Toni figures it still might be worth a try.

~~~

So, shifting eye colors aside, the two of them just press forward.

Rhodey refuses to change his last name to Stark though no matter how much Toni badgers and pouts.  Instead he keeps throwing his parent’s probable reactions in her face even when she insists he can hyphenate instead.

She doesn’t let it get her down in the end, just keeps going and going, a silk clad whirlwind intent on having it all.  Plus she has plenty of time to wear Rhodey, and possibly his parents, down in the future no matter how often he tells her it’ll never happen.

What really matters is the way that every time her heart beats now, she can feel Rhodey’s beating right along with it.  A twin rhythm in her chest letting her know that he’s alive and well.

Blood binding them now as surely as their souls always have.

It carries her through the days and months when they have to be apart.

Thankfully though there’s still a million and one other things to keep her busy.  Even Aunt Peggy stops in when she can, meeting Toni and Jarvis for lunch or dinner or afternoon tea.  She’s as dignified and fiery as she’s ever been and she’s also just as amused as always at Toni’s antics.

Life is, in a word, glorious.

~~~

And then Toni turns twenty-one.

That night, when the clock strikes midnight, Jarvis comes to her room, a blood orange chocolate cake in one hand along with a bottle of deep red wine and two glasses in the other.

They settle together on the balcony, the moon bright and red above them, as they quietly ring in her birthday.

“I’m proud of you, Toni,” Jarvis whispers to her as he brings a hand up to pass it lightly over the shadowy fall of her curls.  “So very proud.”

“I love you, Jarvis,” Toni tells him just as softly, willing and able to be honest and open in that way that Rhodey’s love and devotion has taught her to be with those she loves.

“I love you too, my girl,” Jarvis says with a smile.  “And I think the time has long since come for you to call me Edwin.”

Edwin,” Toni tests the name out on her tongue and finds it pleasing.  “Might take some getting used to but I like it … Edwin.”

“Very good, young miss,” Ja- Edwin tells her.  “Very good indeed.”

Toni leans her head on Edwin’s shoulder and stares up at the moon as she sips at her wine.

Neither of them mention the fact that whenever she says Edwin it sounds a great deal like Father.

They don’t say it.

But they both know it’s true.

~~~

But, with twenty-one also comes SI and all that it entails.

Including the board of director’s obvious doubt that she has what it takes to run a company of SI’s magnitude and reach.

Toni just smiles, a glint of too sharp teeth and too red lips as she twirls her now iconic parasol in one hand and lays out to a slightly terrified board exactly why they won’t be trying to replace her.

The thick stack of patents and schematics on the table in front of her as well as the growing gloom in the room only serves to back up her point nicely.

Toni’s less than surprised when not a single one of them attempts to vote her out in the end, not even a sour faced Obadiah.

Of course the way his hands still shake just a bit every time he sees her might have something to do with that as well.

~~~

The press starts to call Toni ridiculous nicknames like The Red Queen and the ever popular The Scarlet Stark Heiress.

Toni grabs both nicknames gleefully and runs with them.

She drives SI higher than it has ever been before, expanding its reach and range of products, spitting out phones and tablets and anything and everything she can think of.

All of the things she’s been creating for years and only waiting for the right moment to unleash upon the world.

It’s rather nice to see her various names dominating in so many different areas.

~~~

Toni’s twenty-two when someone starts sending her roses, blood red and disappointingly thorn less.

They smell sickly sweet in a way that makes her nose wrinkle when she signs for each bouquet.

She throws each of them away, unable to stand the scent.

The notes, handwritten and smelling of a malicious sort of desperation, wax on inelegantly about her beauty and how the sender would treat her as she deserves to be treated.

They go in the trash as well.

A few weeks after the first bouquet she gets a package and, with Edwin is out running a few personal errands, that she carries it into the kitchen and pries it open alone.

Staring down into the box Toni’s mind begins to whirl as her mood darkens just a bit.

The black cat she finds inside of the box, great yellow eyes glassy and blood matted fur still warm, that alone is enough to make her eyes narrow sharply.  She’s not opposed to a bloody gift or two but this is tasteless and not at all something she would ever enjoy.

But the picture of her and Rhodey out on the town, his face marked out and the picture as a whole defaced with thick red ink and the vicious scribbling that accompanies it, is enough to make her snarl.

Toni huffs out a displeased breath before she brings her hands up to run one sharp black nail across the palm of her right hand.  Even as the blood wells up Toni reaches out and runs her now wet fingers gently across the cat’s thick matted fur.

“Wake up, sweetheart,” Toni says softly as the shadows in the kitchen flex and writhe.  “Come on now, darling, rise and shine. Or at least just rise.”

In the box the cat’s eyes blink, the glassy look fading even as Toni watches.  After a few second the cat wobbles up onto its feet, takes a moment to stare up at her, and then leaps.

The cat lands on her shoulder with pinpoint precision and then leans to the side to butt its blood covered head against her cheek as it purrs.

“You need a bath, my blood splattered little love,” Toni laughs as she turns to head towards the bathroom.  “Need to make a good impression on Edwin and the bots after all.”

On her shoulder the cat yowls in agreement.

~~~

“Edwin,” Toni greets him with a hug and a delighted smile when he comes back to the apartment.

“Young miss,” the kiss he presses against her temple is as loving as it always is.

“Did you have a good day out?” Toni asks as she snags the bags from his hands and turns to move towards the kitchen.

“Of course,” he answers as he follows behind her, moving automatically towards the stove and the kettle to put on their afternoon tea.

Toni bustles around the kitchen putting things away as he gets things together before she finally settles down on one of the bar stools.

“Now,” Edwin says as he finally turns, two cups of tea in hand, “are you going to introduce me to our new roommate?”

“Ah,” Toni gives him a slightly sheepish grin as she brings a hand up to pet lightly at the cat’s head from where he’s draped across the line of her shoulders like a large, thick furred stole.  “This is Splatter, he was a … gift.”

“From a suitor?” Edwin asks idly as he reaches out to scratch Splatter beneath the chin.

“Well I’m sure that’s what they’re hoping,” Toni admits with a small sneer.  “But it’s not going to happen. They were very very rude, Edwin.”

“Should I be worried?” Edwin asks lightly, that same light of concern in his eyes that he’d had on the night Toni had told him not to drive Howard and Maria to the gala.

“No,” Toni says with a grin, teeth bright and oh so sharp.  “I’ll take care of it. Promise.”

“As you say, young miss,” Edwin agrees.  “As you say.”

Laid out across her shoulders, the newly named Splatter just hisses in agreement.

~~~

A week later, during Edwin’s weekly trip to the park for fresh air, there’s a knock on the apartment door despite the fact that Toni never buzzed anyone up passed the supposedly secure lobby.

Splatter, laid out across the back of Toni’s chair like a line of shadow, hisses, loud and vicious.

Toni, brow arched high in interest, pets the cat lovingly on the head, and then makes her way towards the door.  Splatter pads along behind her a few seconds later, the black leather and ruby studded collar she bought for him shining handsomely against his fur.

The man on the other side is wearing a familiar delivery uniform with a hat pulled down low over his eyes.

When Toni pulls the door open he stinks like a fetid sort of malicious desperation and sickly sweet roses.

At Toni’s ankles Splatter yowls and hisses with rage and hate.

Toni smiles and pulls the door open wider.

~~~

“How was your day, young miss?” Edwin asks as he bustles around the kitchen later that evening.

“Perfectly fine,” Toni tells him as she tosses the hat in her hand over to DUM-E to play with.  “Did some work, killed some time. Nothing too exciting.”

~~~

The headlines read:  Unidentified Body Found Behind Affluent Highrise: Suicide Suspected.

~~~

A few months later finds Toni more than a bit bored.

With Edwin’s input and Rhodey’s less than subtle hints about beaches, Toni decides it’s time to move again, to build a bigger, better home for all of them.

So she turns her mind towards designing a house from the underground up.  Something utterly and uniquely theirs.

She even finds a little spot in Malibu to build it on, a sprawling swath of land far from the bustle of the city and complete with a deadly drop off a jagged cliff-side.

Perfect.

~~~

Toni oversees the building of the mansion with a grin and an eagle’s eye.  The construction crew becomes used to her hovering around the edges of the site or even, sometimes, joining in on the building, quickly enough.

Toni is meticulous with its construction and has it decorated with imposing black stone surfaces both inside and out.  She gives it windows that sit like giant eyes staring out over the long, dangerously winding driveway that leads to the daunting wrought iron gates.  She even adds a huge glass hot house to the side of it and a rail-less balcony that extends over the cliff-side to hang in the open air above the raging sea.

The balcony is a source of irritation for Edwin who despairs over sweeping it. Toni makes up for it by cobbling together a few extra sweeping bots and then giving him the hot house to do with as he will.  Edwin had, after all, grown fond of the various strangle vines and thorny dark flowers that had covered the manor’s lawn before they’d moved.

Splatter enjoys the various hiding place and in built shelves Toni had put in for him to lounge on while the bots enjoy the wide open workshop with plenty of room to move about it.

In the end, when it’s finished, the mansion doesn’t so much sit on the cliff-side as it does lay in wait.

It really does seem perfect.

~~~

The mansion, as it turns out, is actually missing something, something Toni has a hard time naming.

All she knows is that there’s a yearning inside of her for some missing piece she doesn’t yet know how to identify.

A longing that goes bone deep and soul wide.

Then, one beautiful night long after Edwin has retired for the evening, Toni sits out on the balcony, the silk skirt of her nightgown pooling over the edge like a dripping shadow and Splatter curled up on her lap, and just stares up at the sky.

It’s while she’s sitting there, the wind howling up the cliff-side and the moon hanging bright and heavy in the sky, that Toni realizes exactly what it is that she’s missing.

She isn’t sure, exactly, how she knows only that she does.

And that, in the end, is enough to get her started down the path.

~~~

Toni sets herself to work at a feverish, blistering pace, hands sliding over the holographic interface she built herself like a woman possessed.  Strings of code all made up of the runes and symbols of the language she’d created to encrypt her systems flow from her like an already finished song.

She barely eats or sleeps, barely even leaves the workshop, stretching even her endurance to its absolute limits.

Edwin is with her the entire time though, corralling the bots and forcing cup after cup of tea or soup into her hands whenever she pauses.

He stays with her and cares for her in that same attentive way that he always has.

In that way that she cherishes.

In that way that she knows is his own expression of love.

So, bolstered by his love and care, Toni codes and codes and codes some more.

And then, a handful of long, grueling, months later, JARVIS is born.

Her brightest and most brilliant son, named for the father she has always adored.

~~~

JARVIS grows quickly and in ways that not even Toni could have anticipated.

It’s as if she blinks and he has developed in leaps and bounds, choosing a voice pattern similar to Edwin himself and a personality that fits somewhere between Toni’s cutting wit, Rhodey’s vicious over-protectiveness, and Edwin’s dry humor.

He becomes a person instead of a program with breathless ease, as if he was always there inside of her, just waiting to be born.

Toni loves him with an instant and fierce kind of devotion she’s only felt a handful of times before.

A love that seems to be, for all intents and purposes, fully returned.

But what truly delights Toni the most is the way that, after a brief adjustment period, Edwin and his namesake get on blindingly well.

They seem to enjoy teaming up with Rhodey to manage Toni’s worst habits and to prod or snark her into and out of various situations as they desire.

Toni absolutely adores each and every one of them.

~~~

Butterfingers with his vicious temper and deep appreciate for fire comes not too long after JARVIS.

Toni hadn’t been able to resist the way DUM-E and U kept trying to saw parts of her off to build themselves a little brother while she was sleeping.

So cute.

~~~

Happy and then, eventually, Pepper come along not too long after that as well.

Happy seems rather taken with Edwin while Pepper and JARVIS strike up a commiserating friendship that threatens to destroy them all.

They both get along famously with Rhodey as well but then, really, who doesn’t?  Rhodey is Rhodey and that, in Toni’s opinion, is reason enough to get along with him.

They slot into Toni’s little makeshift family like cogs that were simply misplaced until now and are finally right where they were always meant to be.

Happy wears the crocodile skin boots Toni bought him so often that she gets him a half dozen more pairs.  He’s also remarkably fond of Faye Dunaway, the California condor that’s unexpectedly taken up residence on the mansion’s roof.  Toni’s caught him throwing her bits of raw chicken on more than one occasion.

Pepper coos over Splatter and takes the carved onyx skeleton hand barrette Toni commissions for her with what looks like amused indulgence.  There’s rarely a day that goes by where it doesn’t gleam darkly from where it’s nestled in the up-sweep of her flaming hair.

Something dark and possessive purrs in delight deep inside of Toni’s chest every time she has all of them gathered together in one space.

Her family, gathered in the house she built, safe under one roof where no one can take them from her.

Now everything really is perfect.

~~~

Twenty-five and Toni is The Merchant of Death, is the Red Queen, is the Stark in Stark Industries.

Twenty-six and she’s watching the way the shadows writhe out of the corner of her eye with an undeniable amount of curiosity.

Twenty-six and happy and feeling as strong and powerful as she ever has.

Twenty-six and feeling, once again, as if something is waiting for her, just around the corner.

~~~

Toni slinks into twenty-seven like a particularly smug cat.

According to JARVIS the resemblance between her and Splatter is uncanny.

“Come away with me, Edwin,” Toni pouts at him from where she’s laid out across the top of the piano as he plays.  Her hair is down for once, spilling down the side of the piano and across the keys like a ribbons of blue-black ink.  All the while Edwin carefully picks out a melody, fingers sliding under or around her curls, careful not to pull.

“I’m content to stay here, young miss,” Edwin tells her softly over the quiet swell of his music.  “Someone must look after the children.”

“Pepper’s already agreed to take Splatter for a while and JARVIS can keep the bots in line,” Toni waves his protests away idly with one hand, the glossy black of her sharp, pointed nails glinting in the low light.  “Can’t you baby boy?”

“I will endeavor to keep the three of them in line,” JARVIS agrees dryly.  “Though how successful I’ll be given their tendencies is still to be determined.  They do, after all, take far too much after you to be truly manageable.”

“See?”  Toni tilts her head further back until she’s looking at Edwin upside down.  “J’s got it.”

“I had planned to do a new inventory and maintenance in the sun-room,” Edwin admits.  “I’m afraid that monster of a Venus flytrap you’re so fond of is getting rather out of hand again.”

“Audrey can wait a few weeks, or you could ask Happy to do it.  He actually likes Audrey, unlike Pepper. Either way you need a vacation now,” Toni insists lightly.  “It’s been over a year since I whisked you off somewhere and you only stayed that one week in Milan before you came home.”

“I’m not one suited for idleness, sweet girl, as you well know.”  Edwin tells her.

“You’re a workaholic,” Toni teases, “I’m pretty sure that’s where I get it from.  Besides, you can consider this a working vacation if you want. We make a quick stop for some SI business, you get to watch me work up close and personal, and then I’ll kidnap Rhodey for a while and fly us all to Transylvania.  I’m thinking about buying a castle, something … atmospheric.  You two can help me shop around from the list J compiled.  Sound good?”

“As you like, young miss,” Edwin’s sigh is warm and full of affection as he leans forward and presses a kiss against her forehead.

Toni grins, teeth gleaming in the low light, and takes it for the victory that it is.

~~~

Afghanistan is hot and bright.

Toni enjoys the absolute desolation of the desert but she could do without the sun beating down on her like it has a personal grudge.

Thankfully Edwin is with her, standing tall and proud at her side, a black lace parasol in hand as he shades the two of them from the worst of it.

Toni plays fast and sharp with the men she’s selling the Jericho to, turning her cutting, icy charm up a handful of notches.  She does it in an obvious bid to impress Edwin with just how quickly they all fall over themselves to buy from SI, from her.

Edwin just smiles softly at her, love and indulgence shining in his eyes.

Toni just grins up at him widely, teeth and eyes a bright glow even in the shadow of the parasol.

Across the way Rhodey rolls bright amber eyes at her playfully.  Then he has to bite back an obvious grin at the way one of the troopers fumbles their gun when Toni laughs, sharp teeth flashing and voice low and husky like curling smoke.

~~~

Settled back into the shadowed corner of the humvee Toni can’t help but grin as Edwin chats at the adorably nervous soldier sitting across from them.

The way he keeps trying and failing not to reach up and touch the cheek Toni had kissed earlier is beyond amusing.

Hand curled around the handle of her closed parasol Toni goes to speak, goes to tease, only to feel a shiver slice down her spine.

Her head snaps up and to the side, the shadows inside the Humvee flexing as her eyes search the brightly lit window for the source of the foreboding she can feel bearing down on her.

But then it’s too late.

There’s an explosion and suddenly they’re lurching to a stop, the soldiers riding with them spilling out of the vehicle.

There’s gunfire, bullets slamming into the armored sides of the car.

Outside there are screams.

Toni reaches over and curls her hand in the back of Edwin’s coat, tugging him down and behind her with a sharp jerk as she heads for the door despite the way he screams at her to stay down, to stay inside.

Toni won’t.

Can’t.

Not when Rhodey is out there, riding in the front vehicle of the convoy so he could spend some time talking with an old friend.

Not when Edwin is in the Humvee with her, vulnerable to who or whatever it is that’s obviously attacked them.

She has to do what she can to protect both of them.

Has to at least try.

She spills out into the sun with an absent hiss and an instinctive baring of teeth.  Her closed parasol stays clenched in one hand as she ducks behind the truck, eyes locked on the gun she can see laying on the ground amongst half a dozen still bodies.

Edwin is there in the next second, hands scrambling for a gun as well as he practically plasters himself to her side.

“Side by side, young miss,” Edwin tells her stoically, obviously falling back on training from a time long since gone by.  “I will see you safe.”

“We’ll see each other safe,” Toni counters even as the gun in her hand jams and she throws it aside in disgust.  “And Rhodey too.”

“Of cour-”

Edwin’s reassurance is interrupted by an explosion and then the loud thunk of an impact beside them.

Toni turns, has enough time to see the bomb, to see her name stamped on the side of it.

Panic arching through her Toni snaps a hand out towards Edwin and shoves with all of her might.

And then …

Pain.

The last thing she remembers seeing as the black closes in around the edges is Edwin.

He’s above her, back lit by the sun, light spilling out around his head like a golden crown and a cut weeping blood on his temple.

“Stay with me,” Edwin begs her, fear and desperation plain on his face.  “Toni, love, stay with me.”

Toni tries to smile up at him around the blood in her mouth, tries her best to reassure him despite the way she can’t breathe.

But the shadows reach up and pull her down and away from him.

~~~

Toni wakes to pain.

To hands on her chest.

To hands in her chest.

She lashes out, fingers splayed wide and nails sharp.

There’s a yelp, screams, and then hands are on her wrists and shoulders holding her down.

There’s the rough scratch of a cloth against her face.

Toni fades.

~~~

Light blinds her the next time she wakes.  It takes her a moment to focus, her chest is a blaze of searing pain but she’s awake and the agony sharpens her mind for a brief moment.

Those voices from before are back, guttural and rough, and she still doesn’t recognize what they’re saying.

But she knows it’s nothing good.

She sees the video camera, smells gunpowder and oil, the stink of sweat and blood and malice hanging heavy in the air around her.

Toni is a genius.

‘Great,’ she thinks as the darkness reaches up for her again with hooked hands, ‘kidnapped.’

~~~

There is shrapnel in her chest and a doctor in the room with her.

Toni ignores both of those things, pushes the pain down and away as best she can.

Instead all she can focus on is …

“Edwin,” Toni croaks out.  “Rhodey. What happened to them?”

“I don’t know, Dr. Stark,” the man tells her.  “I do not know.”

~~~

Toni isn’t sure how long passes before she’s clear headed enough to really and truly focus.

But when she finally can a burst of relief wells up inside of her.

Because in her chest she can feel the echo of Rhodey’s heart beating, fast and hard but full of life.

But that still leaves Edwin unaccounted for.

And the not knowing is one of the worst things Toni has ever felt.

~~~

And then the man comes.

~~~

“He says, ‘welcome Toni Stark.  The most famous mass murdering whore in the history of America.’”  There’s a quaver in his voice but Doc, as she’s taken to calling him in the back of her mind, translates quickly enough all the same.  “He’s honored.”

Toni feels her eyes narrow again but she struggles to keep her face impassive.  She’s smart enough to know that being antagonistic right off the bat would be a bad idea in this situation.

“He wants you to build the missile.  The Jericho missile that you demonstrated.”  Toni feels ice trace down her spine as the Doc holds out a photo of her bomb.  “This one.”

Toni doesn’t even have to think about it.  Her shoulders shake, her mouth curls up into the sneer she’s grown so famous for, and a harsh bark of laughter escapes from her throat.  Doc sucks in a horrified breath but Toni doesn’t care.

There’s only one answer to that question and Toni already knows exactly how this is going to go so she might as well get her money’s worth.

“Fuck you.”  Toni says, almost sweetly, almost lovingly, teeth flashing in the low light of the cave as the shadows try to writhe and rise but fade weakly into stillness instead.  “I refuse.”

~~~

The water is cold when it closes over her head but Toni keeps her hands tight around the battery attached to her chest.

All the while her mind whirls.

~~~

The man in charge comes for her again, drags her out into the sun and shows her his camp.

Shows her the stockpile he has of her weapons.

A cold sort of rage and fury claws its way to life inside of Toni’s chest.

That dark, shadowy thing that’s always lived inside of her snarls in rage and begs to be let free.

But Toni already knows that she’s too weak, energy drained like never before.

In the harsh sun of the desert there are no shadows left to hide in.

With chunks of her ripped away and the electromagnet in her chest and the battery in her hands she’s not healing fast enough.

But it doesn’t matter.

Toni will just have to do what she does best.

She’ll have to build her way forwards.

And then she’ll have to devour anything or anyone who stands in the way of her goal.

‘Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc’, Toni thinks to herself with no small amount of viciousness.

She will gladly feast on those who would subdue her.

~~~

The arc reactor comes together quickly enough despite the way Toni’s thoughts constantly stray toward Edwin, towards Rhodey, towards justice and vengeance alike for those soldiers who’d obviously died in the attack.

When she finishes it the reactor glows a glorious electric blue.

Like lightning, like a star, trapped behind glass just for her.

Having it slotted into her chest feels right somehow, no matter how much it aches.

~~~

Toni has more energy now, her chest healing around the reactor with impressive speed.

But still the shadows won’t come, do not writhe around her feet like they normally do.

It is as if a pane of glass stands between her and them.

Toni just has to find a way to break it.

But for now ...

~~~

The plans for the armor come to her like the breaking of the dawn.

Like the cresting of a wave.

This, this is their way out, the way to safety.

The way home.

Her means by which to carve a bloody path through those who dared to try and subdue her.

Toni just has to make it.

~~~

They come for her again, the man in charge smirking as he threatens Yinsen with hot coals and a fiery, painful death.

It’s only after she speaks up that he lets the older man go.

But then …

“Such a pretty thing you are.”  A rough hand reaches up and grabs her by the chin hard enough to bruise.  Toni keeps her eyes level, keeps the rage that’s eating away at her as hidden as possible.  She can tell from the way he smiles that she doesn’t quite succeed. “Beautiful but treacherous I think, a little snake with pretty scales and sharper fangs.  No wonder your servant begged so desperately for your life before we shot him.”

Everything inside of Toni goes still.

Frozen.

With Rhodey’s heart still beating in her chest Toni knows just who the man is talking about.

Edwin.

Her father.

They have taken him from her.

“You killed him,” Toni manages to rasp, the emotions she’s been trying to stamp down the entire time welling back up.  It’s one of her worst fears recognized, a terrible idea she’s been trying to push away since this all began now validated.

“Oh yes,” there’s a sick sort of smugness in his voice.  “I had him put down like the dog he was.”

Deep inside of Toni something shatters, that glass pane falling as a dark yawning abyss cracks open and something shadowed and terrible comes spilling out.

In her chest the arc reactor flares just a bit brighter than before.

And Toni…

Toni laughs.

There’s a moment of disbelief on his face but Toni doesn’t care.

“You’re dead men,” Toni laughs again, dark and bitter and vicious.

Bitch,” he sneers.  “Be silent.”

“I don’t take orders from dead men,” Toni says as she lowers her hands back down to her side, something wild and crazed sparking to life inside of her.  Around her the shadows flex and grow.  “And that’s all you are.  Dead men. Every single one of you.”

The men in the room look panicked now, guns up and faces pale.

Yinsen looks terrified, eyes wide as he backs towards the corner of the room where they normally sleep.

“You,” Toni rasps as the lights that line the walls begin to flicker, “are all going to die screaming.”

And then there is darkness.

Gunshots.

Screams.

And, undercutting it all, is the loud cackle of Toni’s mad laughter.

Chapter Text

Eventually the screaming stops and all that’s left is the soft sound of whimpering and a quiet dripping noise that echoes in the dark.

Then, somehow, the lights flicker back on.

Toni stands, unphased, in the midst of a sea of what most people might consider horror.

Toni thinks it looks rather appropriate, all things considered.

A quick glance around the room shows her Yinsen, expression drawn tight in terror, sitting curled in a ball behind the cots they’ve been sleeping on.  His face is bloodless, his eyes are wide, and he stares up at her with a combination of horror and awe while he rocks back and forth.

Reassured that he’s alive Toni turns her attention back to the rest of the room.

It is awash in red, the work tables and floor awash with blood and littered with jagged shards of bone and thick steaming clumps of viscera.

What’s left of the men who’d been in the room is laid out in a great arch, limbs and bits and pieces scattered in a haphazard half circle.

And in the middle of the fan of what can only be loosely still described as bodies, is the ringleader.  He’s kneeling there, blood dripping from his skin and his clothes, the crotch and one leg of his pants stained dark with what may or may not be urine.

He’s a pitiful sight, the one who’d dared to taunt her with what he’d stolen from her, but Toni has plans to make it so much worse.

After she gets what she needs from him of course.

Toni picks her way delicately through the mess of limbs and scattered parts, uncaring of the way the slippers they’d given her squish and squelch as she goes.  They don’t stay wet after all, the shadows that twine and pool around her feet eat the blood away as she moves, seemingly unwilling to let it taint her.

She doesn’t stop until she’s standing directly in front of him, staring down into his blood splattered face.

Shaytan,” he mumbles the word as he stares at her with eyes blown wide with horror and what looks almost like a twisted form of awe.  “Shaytan.”

“Yinsen,” Toni calls, ignoring the way the doctor jumps in shock and fear when she says his name.  “What’s he saying?

Shaytan,” the word is mumbled again, this time almost fervently.

“He …” Yinsen pauses to clear his throat, but makes no move to leave his place huddled by the wall.  “He’s calling you a … a devil.”

Toni takes a moment to let that sink in.

“A devil am I?” Toni murmurs as she stares down at the man.  “Maybe. Maybe not. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see won’t we?”

Either way it’s something to think about later, when she doesn’t have more important things to deal with.

Because, for now, there’s is nothing more important than this.

“What’s your name?”  Toni asks softly as she grabs his chin in one hand, tilting his face upwards as she runs the sharp nails of the other down the side of the face of the man kneeling at her feet, careful to press harshly against the cuts and bruising she finds there.  He might’ve been the only one besides her and Yinsen to survive the dark but he hadn’t come out of it unscathed.

“Raza,” he rasps, terror and awe warring for dominance in his eyes.  His earlier cruelty and smugness is long gone now. “Raza Hamidmi Al-Wazar.”

“Hm, Raza,” Toni practically purrs his name as she digs her index nail into the cut on his temple just to see him flinch.  Slowly, delicately, she cuts into him a little more, a thin straight horizontal line stretching back towards his scalp.  “The man you killed, the one who begged for me. How did it happen?”

“You … you were bleeding,” Raza swallows harshly, eyes tight with pain as Toni traces a vertical line down.  “He was trying to stop the blood with his jacket when we came for you. He wouldn’t move and you were … we took him with us, back here.”

“And then?”  Toni asks as she cuts another horizontal line, fingers trailing up to carve a third directly between the first two.

E.

“He tried to fight us when we took you from him,” Raza admits shakily, as if the words are being torn from him against his will.  “Broke one of my men’s neck, another’s leg before they stopped him. He only stopped fighting when I threatened to kill you.”

Another horizontal line then, right below the e, curving into a sharp half circle when he flinches.

Edwin had fought for her, killed for her.

D.

“Is that when he begged you?”  Toni asks softly, almost sweetly, eyes on his even as her hand works down the side of his face.

The next letter is jagged and sharp on the sensitive skin by his eye socket.

W.

Yes.”  Raza whispers.

She draws another line, only taking a moment to swipe the blood from his face so as not to throw off her work.

I.

“And that’s when you shot him isn’t it?”  Toni murmurs. “While he begged for my life instead of his?  That’s when you did it, isn’t it?”

Yes,” it’s almost a sob and Toni’s sure the salt from his tears stings when they roll down the side of his face.

“Raza, darling, what did you do with his body?”  Toni whispers sweetly even as she feels that mad cackling thing from before writhe inside of her right where it’s hiding beneath the surface of her placid expression.

“I can show you,” Raza swears.  “Please, Shaytan.  I can show you where he is.”

“Good boy,” Toni smiles, a wide, vicious bearing of teeth even as her nail digs viciously into the tender flesh of his jaw one final time.

N.

“Now get up and take me there,” Toni orders as she lets him go and steps back.  The shadows curl around her wrist and almost delicately lick the blood from her hand away.

Raza practically throws himself to his feet and backs away from her, back bent forwards in a deep bow and one hand clamped against the side of his face and the name carved there.

“Yinsen,” Toni calls as she moves to follow him.  “Come along.”

Behind her there’s a scrambling noise but Toni doesn’t bother to turn around and check.

Yinsen is smart.

So she knows he’s following her.

~~~

Following along behind Raza at a steady pace Toni does her best to breathe, fingers twinning with the shadows that nudges at her hands.

They seem eager for her touch, begging to be petted much like the bots and Splatter tend to.  Toni indulges them out one part genuine affection and thanks and one part in an effort to maintain her already tenuous hold on her emotions.

It’s not time, yet, for what she wants to do.

What she’s going to do.

Turning the corner Toni is surprised to find her parasol leaning against the cave wall at one of the guard outposts at the cave’s entrance.  She scoops it up, hands careful on the carved ebony wood handle.

Up ahead, just past the cave’s opening, Toni can hear the sound of voices.

A lot of them.

“Stop,” Toni tells Raza quietly, almost amused when he freezes in place, barely even breathing.

A thick tentacle of shadow curls around her free hand and Toni brings it up to press a tender kiss against the mass.  It almost seems to trill and for a split second Toni’s sure she sees the glow of vibrant red eyes.

“Take care of this for me, won’t you?” Toni whispers to it.  The shadow twines between her fingers in answer, squeezing her wrist in what seems like affection, and then flows back down her body and into the pool of darkness around her feet.

There’s a moment of stillness and then the shadows around Toni’s feet lunge forward and out the cave opening despite the glow of sunlight she can see in the distance.

For a moment everything continues as it was.

And then, just like before, the screaming starts.

Toni ignores it and the way Yinsen trembles behind her and Raza goes even paler.

Instead she carefully inspects her parasol.  It’s battered but looks still functional. When she carefully opens it she finds that the lace is torn in more than one spot but it is, somehow, still serviceable.

She makes a small noise of pleasure in the back of her throat because it’s not perfect but Edwin had bought it for her and, damaged or not, that means it is precious.

Plus even a torn lace barrier is a pleasant alternative to stepping out into the full sunlight.

The screaming and gunshot from outside fade, only the small sound of a sob and a tell tale gurgle here or there puncturing the silence.

And then, even those fade away into nothing.

A moment more and a familiar thick tendril of shadow slithers back into the cave and twines its way around her ankles and then up her legs.  It’s fatter than it was before and almost seems to slosh as it moves up the rough fabric of the pants she’d been given and around her torso until it’s draped like a stole across the crooks of her arms.

This time when Toni looks down at it, one brow arched high, she swears she can see a glint of sharp white teeth somewhere in the depths of its darkness.

The shadow draped over her arms and her parasol held lightly in one hand, Toni turns back towards Raza.

“Shall we?”  She asks, a brow arched high in expectation.

The way he falls over himself to get to the cave entrance makes her grin, wide and vicious.

~~~

The scene outside is just as gruesome as the one in the workshop, the open air and sunlight doing little to clear the heavy scent of death and misery from the air.

Toni ignores it, picking her way over and around clumps and shreds of this or that.  She keeps one eye on Raza’s hunched back even as she takes a moment to once again look at the amount of her weapons he’s in possession of for some reason.

Something, Toni has suspected from the very beginning, is far from right here.

And she means to get to the bottom of it.

One way or another.

~~~

“Here,” Raza points to a gaping hole a few feet ahead and Toni stops in her tracks, goes dangerously still.

A hole in the ground, not even covered, not even given that smallest shred of dignity.

That’s what they’d done to Edwin.

To her-

“You’ll want to be very, very careful when you bring him out of that hole,” Toni tells Raza quietly.

Raza doesn’t even protest, just moves towards the hole and the task she’s given him.

It takes him a hand full of minutes to do it and then Toni finds herself staring down at Edwin.

He’s … weathered, to put it kindly.  His jacket is gone completely and his normally immaculate suit is blood covered and ripped in places.

That, somehow, seems particularly sacrilegious to Toni.

Things are also parts of him … missing.  Gaps and patches worn away in his skin by the weather and whatever scavengers had undoubtedly crept upon his body.

Toni bites back the urge to keen, high and wounded, in the back of her throat.

Instead she moves, gliding around Edwin and across the desert sands to hover just beside Raza.

“Do you know who this man was?” She asks him as she strokes an idle hand down the shadow’s length.

“A loyal servant to you, Shaytan,” Raza says quietly.

“Oh yes,” Toni agrees, once again overlooking his determination to label her a devil.  “And so much more. But we’ll get to that. I have another question for you, Raza. How do you have so many of my weapons?  And why did you attack my convoy?”

“Stark weapons are the pinnacle of warfare,” Raza answers shakily.  “To have Stark weapons is to control the battlefield. And we attacked before we knew you were there.  We were only paid to attack the convoy and kill everyone within. It wasn’t until we saw you that we realized what had happened.  That we’d been paid in trinkets, to kill a queen.”

“And who, exactly, paid you those trinkets?”  Toni breathes the question out as she raises a hand up and strokes the sharp tips of her nails down the side of his face, careful to trace each letter she’d given him.

E. D. W. I. N.

“It was Stane,” Raza chokes out.  “Obadiah Stane.”

Oh.

Everything inside of Toni goes still, silent and sharp, but she can feel that same dark abyss begin to well up within her once more, that icy cold rage rearing its head.

Across her arms the shadow writhes and twists in rage.

He dared.

Raza cries out when Toni digs her nails into the side of his face, blood streaming down her wrist only to be gulped away, greedily, by the shadow twined around her wrist.

“Get on your knees,” Toni orders, tone vicious and demanding.

Raza collapses down into the sand beside Edwin like a puppet with his strings cut.

She circles around behind him until she’s standing between his spread legs, the parasol shading both of them as she looms over him.

“Do you know who this man is?”  Toni asks again as leans down enough to whisper in his ear, her free hand coming up to grip at his throat, nails pressing in sharply.

No.”  Raza manages to gasp.

“He is my father,” Toni hisses, lips pressed against the shell of his ear.  “You took him from me, Raza. Now you’re going to give him back.”

Her hand clenches viciously, nails biting in deep.  Raza chokes and then jerks wildly in her grip as his throat bursts like a ripe fruit, blood spilling out over him and Edwin’s prone form.

He fights her, fights to get away, to live, but it’s no use.

No matter how hard he flails, Toni holds him in place with strength honed over years of mechanical and metal work alongside her normal, higher than average levels.

And then, when there’s nothing left for him to give, when he’s gone pale and still, she tosses him away like the empty husk he is.

She steps closer to Edwin’s body then and shuffles her parasol around until it’s resting beside the shadow in the crook of one arm.

Eyes intent on his body Toni brings her hand up and rakes sharp nails across the line of her opposite wrist.

Her blood is a dark, rich red as she gathers it in the palm of her hand.

“Wake up, Edwin,” Toni whispers as she bends down and presses her bloody palm gently against one ravaged and ruined cheek.  “You have to come back to me, because I still need you. Please.”

Above her the previously bright sky rumbles, clouds moving in from seemingly nowhere.  The wind whips around her, sand and grit coarse against her skin.

Toni doesn’t care.

All she has eyes for is the way the skin on Edwin’s cheek has slowly begun to knit together, gaps filling in and tissue re-knitting.

“Yes,” Toni hisses out on a triumphant breath, eyes eager as she watches his body begin to heal.

But then everything seems to go sideways and, all at once, horribly wrong.

The skin beneath her hand blackens and cracks like something left too long in the heat of a fire.  Toni yanks her hand away, palm dry and clean of blood.

She brings her free hand up and slices open her wrist again.

She presses her hand back against his cheek and watches as the blackened skin turns soft and pink again.

But then, after a few moment, it happens again.

His skin goes black and cracks like a worn mirror.

She slices her wrist open again, gathers more blood, presses it onto him as desperation rises sharp and hot in her throat.

Black.

Slice.

“Edwin,” Toni whispers.  “Please.”

Black.

Slice.

Father.”  A desperate plea.

Black.

Slice.

Black.

Give him back to me,” Toni screams, parasol dropping to the ground, uncaring of the way the sun burns as she drops to her knees beside him, hands coming up to claw her arms open, spilling thick rivulets of blood down onto his body.

Stark,” Yinsen’s voice is a reed thin whisper from behind her.  “Stark, Toni, you have … you have to stop.”

“I need him back,” Toni hisses viciously as she turns enough to glare at Yinsen.

He flinches but, somehow, gathers the courage to step forward just a bit.

“Not like this …” Yinsen manages to say.  “Look at yourself, Stark. You’re … you’re killing yourself.  You have to stop.  Let him go.  Please.  He … no father would want this for their daughter.  You have to let him go.”

Toni doesn’t listen, just turns back towards Edwin’s body and tears her sharp black nails down the already shredded flesh of her arms.

She feels lightheaded, dizzy, but she can’t, won’t, stop.

He’d never abandon her.

Toni is not about to abandon him.

Hands shaking from the drain of giving so much blood at once, Toni raises them up again, this time towards her own throat, intent on going for a larger vein.

Anything, everything, to bring him back.

The shadow gets to her first, surging up from where it had twined around her waist to wrap around her arms instead.  Binding her tightly enough that she can’t follow through on her plan.

No,” Toni sobs as she struggles weakly against the hold on her.  “Let me go.  I have to … I have to.  Edwin.”

In the end she’s too weak to fight the shadows off.

Instead all she can do is collapse forward onto Edwin’s chest, solid and familiar once more beneath her ear but oh so still.

Empty.

Dead.

There, arms bound and face pressed against Edwin’s shirt, Toni screams, a thin, high sound of pure grief and rage.

Grief for the father she’s lost.

Rage for the ones who’d taken him from her.

At herself for asking him to come with her in the first place.

Pressed against the chest of the man who was never supposed to leave her, Toni howls her agony to the desert around her.

Sky gone dark and wind whipping violently around her, the desert howls back.

It’s not enough.

It will never be enough.

~~~

Toni isn’t sure how much time passes before she finally moves, the shadow slowly unwinding from around her.

When she finally looks up she’s alone.  Yinsen is gone and only Edwin’s body and the shadows are left behind to keep her company as Raza’s grey corpse hardly counts.

The desert is silent around her.

Toni forces herself to move, forces herself to press one last, trembling kiss to Edwin’s cheek, and then to push her way up onto her feet.

Her wounds are gone, the blood she’d shed whisked away from her skin by the shadows no doubt, as greedy and gluttonous as they always seem to be.  She picks her parasol up from the ground, shakes the sand from the lace with gentle hands, and then turns on her heel to move back towards the decimated camp.

It’s a silent and blood soaked as it had been before, the one difference being one of the trucks is obviously gone and there’s a folded canvas tarp topped by a note weighed down by what looks like a satellite phone placed deliberately in front of the cave entrance.

A tendril of shadow moves the note up into her hand and Toni flicks the folded paper open.

‘I am sorry for your loss, Dr. Stark.  And I thank you for my life. Know that my silence is yours, for eternity.  My blessings unto you and your house, Ho Yinsen.’

Toni hums, numb deep down in her center, gives the note back to the shadow, and reaches down to pick up the tarp herself, setting the phone aside for the moment.

This is something that must come first.

~~~

She wraps Edwin’s body in the tarp with all of the exquisite gentleness and love she can muster, covering him from the damaging sun and wind.

She won’t abandon his body here in this place.

Won’t leave him behind in the middle of all of this sun and wind and heat to rot and decay alone and forgotten.

She’s going to take him home.

~~~

“JARVIS,” Toni breathes the name into the satellite phone’s receiver.

“Miss,” JARVIS sounds almost gutted, desperate to believe it’s truly her.  “Miss, please, are you alright? Are you and Master Edwin well? Where are you?  I will send help. We have been desperate to find you.”

“J,” Toni cuts him off gently, softly.  “I’m alright. I need you to do me a favor, baby boy.”

“For you Miss?” JARVIS says, “anything.  Especially if it will bring you home all the quicker.”

“I need you to watch Stane,” Toni tells him.  “I need to know his every move, his every thought.  Get everything for as far back as you can.  And don’t let anyone else know what you’re doing.  Especially not him.”

“Miss?”  JARVIS sounds almost confused.

“He’s been a very very bad boy, JARVIS,” Toni whispers.

I see,” there’s something dark and vicious in JARVIS’ voice then.

“Don’t worry,” Toni soothes him.  “I let you help, when the time comes.  But for now, just watch him.”

“My pleasure, Miss,” JARVIS agrees darkly.  “And you and Master Edwin? Shall I alert Lt. Colonel Rhodes?  He has been most distraught, as have all of us.”

“JARVIS, sweetheart,” Toni sighs raggedly.  “I have … there’s something you need to know.”

“Miss?”  JARVIS sounds almost uneasy then.

“It’s … it’s Edwin,” Toni whispers, unsure exactly how to tell her brightest boy that his grandfather is gone.  “He didn’t … I’m bringing him home, J, but …”

JARVIS is smart, is gloriously brilliant, and from the almost icy silence on the other end of the line she knows he understands what she is and is not saying.

“Did you make them suffer?”  JARVIS practically whispers.

“They died screaming,” Toni reassures him.  “Each and every one of them.”

“Obadiah Stane will not be able to breathe without me watching,” JARVIS vows.  “So come home, Miss. So that this loss can be … fully avenged.”

“Tell Rhodey to look for the explosion,” Toni says as she leans back against the hood of the truck she’d claimed.  Inside Edwin’s body and the framework of the armor she’d been building is stored safely away. “No one is going to be able to miss this.”

“I do hope it’s magnificent, Miss,” JARVIS tells her.  “A proper spectacle to celebrate your return to us. And to signal what is to come.”

“Oh JARVIS,” Toni sighs softly.  “No one is going to see this coming.”

~~~

A handful of hours later the sound of a helicopter grabs Toni’s attention from where she’s once again sitting on the hood of the truck, parasol protecting her from the sun.

She’d driven some distance from the cave before she’d stopped, content to wait for Rhodey to find her.

The thick tentacle of shadow that’s been lingering with her chooses that moment to slither up her sleeve and wind around her bare torso beneath her clothes, one end resting just beneath the arc reactor.  It goes still once it’s settled, almost as if it’s asleep, the thick length of it warm against her skin in a comforting sort of way.

“Toni!” Her name is screamed across the sands, desperation clear in the tone even over the whirling of the helicopter blades.

Toni hops down from the hood of the truck, parasol clutched in one hand, and breaks out into a run.

Rhodey, eyes a bright and wild amber, face thinner, and expression almost feral, meets her half way, arms wrapped around her tightly as he pulls her close to his chest.

Because of course he does.

“I’ve missed you,” Toni whispers against his chest.

Oh god,” Rhodey clutches her closer.  “Toni, baby, oh god I knew you were alive.  I knew it. I could feel you. I knew I’d get you back.  I knew you’d find your way home.”

“Rhodey,” Toni half sobs, free hand coming up to clutch at his shoulder.  “Rhodey.”

And there, uncaring of the sun and the heat, Toni presses closer to Rhodey’s chest, and feels safe for the first time in months.

~~~

Rhodey goes rigid with rage when she leads him to Edwin’s body.

“Did you kill them all?” He rasps quietly against her hair because he knows her, knows that this is a loss she would never let stand without blood in return.

“I ripped them apart,” Toni promises.  “All of them, except for one. But he’ll get what’s coming to him, Rhodey.  It’s just a matter of time.”

“Who?”  There’s a matching rage on Rhodey’s face then, a twin sort of viciousness to her own.

Toni goes up onto her tiptoes, lips pressed against his ear, because this is a secret she intends to keep until the right moment.

Stane,” Toni breathes the name like the curse it is.

Rhodey sucks in a sharp, harsh breath.

“I’m going to make him pay, Rhodey,” Toni whispers.  “I’m going to make him scream.”

~~~

It takes surprisingly little to get back to the US with Edwin’s body and the armor’s skeleton.

A quick flash of teeth, Rhodey’s glowering from behind her, claims of SI intellectual property, and JARVIS’ sly hand here or there ends up being all she needs.

Pepper and Happy are both red eyed when they meet her and Rhodey at the airport but the hugs they wrap her in are warm and full of love.

~~~

It takes all of the self control Toni has in her to not lunge for Stane’s throat with her teeth when he meets her outside the press conference she called for.

And, if the way Rhodey stiffens at her side, she isn’t the only one having issues holding back.

It isn’t time yet, for what Stane has coming to him.

Soon, but not yet.

~~~

The first few days after the press conference are hectic.

Toni builds a new arc reactor, something more elegant and streamlined, and then builds one more for a spare at JARVIS' insistence.

The one Yinsen had helped her build is set to the side.

She also takes the time to have JARVIS hunt down Yinsen himself.

JARVIS finds him back in Gulmira and, at Toni’s request, sends him a phone that’ll be able to reach her and a new set of papers and cards.

Yinsen will never want for anything ever again in his life.

Toni’s more than willing to give him that at least, for the kindness he'd shown her even in his fear.

~~~

The thick tendril of shadow that had come to Toni in the cave stays with her.

It spends most of its time either wrapped around her waist seemingly resting or poking idly at the bots or teasing Mother, the three legged komodo dragon JARVIS had apparently adopted for the bots while she was gone.

Splatter seems fond of it as well, stopping often to run a raspy tongue over the end that Toni’s decided must be its head.

And, with every day that passes, it grows bigger.  Those hints of teeth and red eyes more and more prominent.

She’s pretty sure it’s evolving.

Toni turns her attention back towards her work even though she’s more than a bit curious as to what it will become.

What will be, will be.

She's content, in this moment, to wait and see.

She has more pressing and delicate plans to oversee for now.

~~~

A week or so later Toni has Edwin entombed at home.

With their family gathered around, Toni lays him to rest inside of the grand black marble tomb JARVIS had commissioned and built on her orders in the center of the hothouse.  The angel that tops the tomb, wings laid out flat and hair streaming down the sides in thick curls from where she's laid in mourning, looks far too familiar to be coincidence.

Clean and dressed once more in one of his fine suits Edwin looks almost as if he’s sleeping.

But his skin is cold when Toni takes his hands and folds them gently around the first arc reactor, the blue glow of it spilling out over his hands.

It is, in a way, only appropriate to put him to rest with a part of her heart in his hands.

~~~

She distracts herself with building a new version of the armor.  With perfecting the rough sketch she’d had in the cave.

The Mark II is a beautiful silver beast even with the small icing problem.

But the Mark III?

Oh it’s going to be so much more.

~~~

Toni misses Edwin with an ache she can barely describe in the midst of it all.

At night when she can’t sleep she creeps into his room and folds herself beneath the covers of his bed, desperate to catch the lingering scent of him.

It’s a special sort of agony that Toni knows will never fade.

Not even once she takes the vengeance that is due to her.

His loss is a hole in her soul that will never heal.

A yawning black chasm of a wound that will never close.

~~~

And then, finally, it’s time.

There’s a gala scheduled in a day or two that Toni intends on going to for a number of reasons.

And when Toni calls him to say she has something new she wants to show him, Stane is already in high spirits.  He always is a day or so before an event, high on the acclaim and the attention that comes with such events.

He agrees to come to the mansion the night before the gala easily, eagerly.

Unknowing of all of the sins JARVIS had unearthed to lay directly at his doorstep.

But he’ll know soon.

Oh will he know.

~~~

“I need a date for tonight, coffee-crunch,” Toni tells Rhodey after she hangs up with Stane.  “And an alibi. If you’re willing.”

“JARVIS already called,” Rhodey informs her smugly.  “I’m wearing that tux you like and I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“Good,” Toni grins, bright and sharp and vicious.  “Stane will be here in twenty.”

~~~

With Rhodey at her side with a tumbler of whiskey in his hand, Toni waits for Stane to show up with an icy sort of impatient rage.

She’s dressed to the nines in a sweeping black gown, arc reactor covered and hair pulled up in a tumble of curls and decorated with blood red rose buds and the wing barrettes Edwin had given her so long ago.

She’s sitting sprawled on the lounging sofa beside Rhodey, her tendril of shadow curled tightly around her feet, when he finally arrives.

JARVIS lets him in, smooth tone guiding him through the house to where Toni and Rhodey are laying in wait.  Toni’s sure only she and Rhodey can hear the sheer rage in JARVIS' voice.

“Toni, my girl,” Stane booms as he steps into the study Toni had chosen as her stage through the front facing door.  The only other exit is firmly behind Toni and Rhodey’s chosen seat. “It’s good to see you, and looking as beautiful as ever.  Now what’s this new wonder you wanted to show me so badly?”

The door to the study slides closed, the locks engaging with a loud and ominous click even as the lights in the room dim just a bit.

There’s a heaviness in the air then, like Toni, Rhodey, and JARVIS’ rage has actively begun to manifest.

“You know,” Toni says softly, slowly, “I made you a promise.  Years ago after Howard and Maria died. Do you remember what it was?”

Stane’s brows furrow even as Toni gets to her feet, her fat little shadow moving with her.  Behind her Rhodey just sprawls down deeper into the sofa. He hadn’t liked the idea of sitting back and watching, filled to the brim with rage as he is, but he’d finally agreed.

After all he’d gotten her back, in the end.

Toni hadn’t been able to bring more than Edwin’s body home.

“Toni?”  Stane questions softly, warily.  “What’re you talking about?”

“I told you then,” Toni says as she moves forwards across the carpet in his direction, “if you ever hit me again, I’d feed you your hands. Finger by finger. Do you remember that?”

Stane takes a step back from her, fear flickering across his expression.

“Raza was very helpful in the end, very talkative,” Toni tells him just for the pleasure of seeing the way he abruptly goes pale.

“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stane rasps shakily.

“Oh but I think you do.”  Toni smiles as the shadows in the room flicker and flex, the fat tendril at her feet rising up from the floor in a solid black mass until its back brushes against her hand.  It’s covered in what feels like warm, thick fur beneath her hand. “Trinkets right? To kill a queen?  I think that was the phrase wasn’t it?”

From her side a wicked, almost cackling sound rings out then.

When Toni looks down the black mass has solidified, taken a shape.

The thing has thick black fur with deep red rosettes scattered about it’s thickset body.  With tall pointed ears, ominous red eyes, and a heavy jaw filled with sharp, brilliantly white teeth, it looks like some strange mix between a jackal and a hyena.

It’s gorgeous.

“But,” Toni continues, turning her attention back toward Stane even as she scratches the beast idly behind an ear, “I didn’t die, did I?  Only Edwin did.”

“Toni, come on now, whatever you’re thinking about doing, don’t.” Stane’s backed up against the door he’d come through, hands scrambling for the handle.  “Please.”

It’s no use of course.  JARVIS has control of the doors of the mansion.

Stane has no way out.  He just hasn’t realized it yet.

"Edwin begged too, you know," Toni tells him with a vicious sort of hiss.  "He begged for my life and they shot him for it."

"Toni," Stane rasps, "Toni please.  I'm sorry."

“You cost me my father, Obie.”  Toni sneers as she moves even closer, the beast slinking forward beside her.  “I think that counts as much more than a hit.”

And then, between one breathe and the next, she lunges, the beast lunging right along with her.

Stane screams.

And then …

He keeps on screaming.

~~~

“Messy,” Rhodey grimaces as he wipes at her face with a handkerchief.  “How in the hell you always manage to turn simple shit into such a mess I’ll never know.”

“You know me, sugar cube,” Toni grins up at him, teeth sharp and bright against crimson painted lips, “I’m all about the drama.”

“God don’t I know it,” Rhodey mumbles even as he narrows his eyes at the way the shadows well up and seem to lick the blood from her skin, leaving her and her gown immaculate in their wake.  “That is still the strangest shit ever.”

“Again,” Toni teases, “you’d be bored to death without me.”

“True,” Rhodey shrugs easily.

A wet nose nuzzling against her hand draws Toni’s attention down to her newest companion.

“Did you have fun playing with your food?”  Toni coos just a bit as she leans down to tug a crap of black fabric from its teeth.  It cackles at her and tugs the fabric from her hand with surprising gentleness and swallows it down.

“You have the strangest fucking pets,” Rhodey mumbles.

“I think I’ll call him Smudge,” Toni says cheerfully as she scratches Smudge behind one pointed ear and down the thick line of his jaw.  “My fat little shadow’s a very good boy, isn’t he?”

Smudge looks up at her, red eyes gleaming up at her and pink and black spotted tongue lolling from the side of his mouth in apparent bliss.

“We’re going to be unacceptably late if we don’t leave soon,” Rhodey points out then.  “Pepper’ll be pissed.”

“Spoilsport,” Toni grumbles as she pats Smudge one last time.  “J, baby boy, you’ll handle everything here won’t you?”

“If what is left of Mr. Stane can be transported to the driver’s seat of his car I would be more than glad to handle the rest, Miss.”  JARVIS promptly agrees. “I’ve already begun to falsify the necessary data showing him in a variety of places after leaving the mansion.  I’ll make sure the crash is … suitably destructive to handle any possible remaining evidence.”

“You’re the light of my life, JARVIS,” Toni grins up at the nearest camera.  “And Smudge’ll help you out, won’t you boy?”

Smudge just cackles agreeably, licks Toni’s hand and then headbutts Rhodey fondly, before moving towards the lump in the corner of the room.

Toni watches as he sinks his teeth into what remains of Stane and begins to drag it out of the room.  The little cleaning bots Toni had once made for Edwin following along behind him as he goes.  Thankfully the shadows had taken care of the mess Toni had left on the walls already.

“Alright then,” Toni claps her hands together, straightens her elbow length gloves, and then links her arm with Rhodey’s.  “Let’s be off, honey bear. We shouldn’t keep the public waiting. Got any bets for the night? Stane did a lot of the guest list with Pepper so there’s sure to be a number of … interesting people there tonight.”

“A pedicure says I can make Hammer run away in the first thirty minutes,” Rhodey teases easily, voice light and amber eyes bright as he grins down at her.

“The only person Justin’s more terrified of than you is me,” Toni reminds him cheerfully.  “I’ll raise you a scalp massage that I can make him cry in ten.”

“You’re on baby girl,” Rhodey laughs.  “You’re on.”

Chapter Text

The gala goes well in Toni’s opinion.

Though judging by Pepper’s unimpressed stare about nine minutes in, she’s probably going to have to buy a few new pairs of shoes sometime in the future.  Mainly to make up for the disruption Hammer had made when, face pale and eyes teary, he’d plowed into a waiter on the way out. Rhodey’s loud bark of laughter hadn’t helped either.

But given the fact that Rhodey now owes her a scalp massage, Toni’s still willing to call it a success regardless.

It’s not until forty-five minutes or so into the entire event that things get far more ... interesting.

Toni’s in the middle of cutting an impressive swathe through the dance floor with Rhodey when her phone begins to vibrate in a familiar, heartbeat like rhythm.

JARVIS is calling her.

“Darling,” Toni grins up at Rhodey as they spin across the floor together, “JARVIS is calling.  Do you mind?”

Rhodey rolls his eyes fondly but moves all the same, pulling her in close so he can dip her back over his arm.  Toni brings her left leg up high against his side, the black silk of her gown slithering across her skin and falling away thanks to the hip high slit in the side.  Her left hand skims down her side, trailing across the skin of her thigh and over the top of her black silk stocking until she can reach the phone she’d stashed in the small lace holster she always wears to events like this.

A clutch is rather irritating to keep a track of after all.

Phone now in hand Toni lowers her leg and lets Rhodey straighten up and then spin her out one more time before he pulls her back to his side and heads for the edge of the dance floor with an arm around her waist.

“J, baby boy,” Toni says as she brings the phone to her ear.  “Everything alright or did you just miss me?”

“Always, Miss,” JARVIS snarks back lovingly.  “However, my eternal longing for your presence aside, that is not why I interrupted your night out I’m afraid.”

“Do tell,” Toni smiles even as Rhodey presses a kiss against her temple and moves towards the bar to get the both of them another drink.  Eyes scanning the area Toni clocks the quietly office like handsome man staring at her from the bar but ignores him in favor of winking at Happy who’s finally plucked up the nerves to ask Pepper for a dance.

Seeing her willing to waltz with Toni earlier must have helped him get over his slight bit of nerves.

“You are aware that I was able to uncover the majority of the more distasteful dealings the former Mr. Stane was involved, including the shipment that would have been dispatched for Gulmira, correct?”  JARVIS sounds almost defensive and Toni does not like that at all.

“J, sweetheart, you’ve worked very hard for me,” Toni tells him softly.  “I’m proud of you, baby boy, so whatever’s wrong, just tell me. We’ll work it out together, like we always do.”

“Of course, Miss,”  JARVIS almost sighs.  “In that case I regret to inform you that in my attempts to search out and destroy all of Mr. Stane’s less than legal dealings still in the works it seems as if I may have,” JARVIS pauses then for a split second before he continues, tone almost sour, “missed one.”

Oh?”  Toni asks softly as she goes still, a brow arched high in surprise.  It’s not often JARVIS makes what might be considered a mistakes after all.  Especially not when in regards to something so important.

“It seems as if he was in the possession of what you might call a burner phone,” JARVIS tells her, that sour note in his voice growing even stronger.  “Your newest companion returned to the mansion with it in his mouth and rather happily relinquished it to U who enabled the internet connection so that I could investigate its contents myself.”

“And what, exactly, did you find?” Toni practically purrs the question, something slick and dark rising in her even as she looks up to catch Rhodey’s eye from where he’s standing at the bar.  Something must show in her expression because his eyes narrow and he immediately heads in her direction, the bartender forgotten behind him.

“He had contact with what appears to be yet another currently unnamed organization, Miss,” JARVIS tells her.  “I do believe he had plans in place to try and have you assassinated. Again.”

“Persistent wasn’t he?” Toni muses as she leans into the arm Rhodey wraps around her waist when he finally makes it back to her side.  “Any idea as to when this assassination attempt is scheduled J? I’d like to make sure my schedule’s clear.”

What?” Rhodey goes stiff and still beside her, body ridged and tense as his breath escapes him in a ragged hiss.  The hand on her waist flexes but very deliberately doesn’t squeeze.

In her chest Toni can feel the way his heart’s begun to beat hard and heavy in what she’s sure is rage.

“If the messages that have been exchanged and the localized blackout of security equipment on one of the buildings less than a block away is anything to go by,” JARVIS continues, “then I would say the assassin may already be in place, Miss.”

Really?”  Toni breathes, aware of the way the shadows writhe at her feet for a moment before she wills them to still.  “How … interesting.”

“I have already infiltrated said building’s systems,” JARVIS says then, something dark and silky sliding into his voice.  “Including their natural gas supply and the various pieces of office equipment. A large scale explosion would be simple. Shall I kill them for you, Miss?”

“Maybe later,” Toni dismisses the offer, mind whirling, “but thanks anyway J, it was very sweet of you to offer.”

“I will not allow you to be separated from us again, Miss,” JARVIS warns softly.  “A little death here or there to make sure that I achieve that goal is neither important or a hardship as far as I’m concerned.”

“My baby boy,” Toni practically croons, love welling up inside of her like the rising moon.  “All grown up and prepared to slaughter people for me. I love you too, J, but I think I’ll handle this one myself if you don’t mind.  You can have the next one.”

“As you say Miss,” JARVIS sounds less than pleased but still accepting.  “I shall keep my eye on the building of course. Just in case.”

“Of course,” Toni agrees.  “Feel free to worm your way into whatever you’d like JARVIS.  You know I don’t mind.”

“Indeed Miss,” JARVIS says.  “Please do be more careful than you normally are.”

“Bye J,” Toni says with a laugh, the call ending.  She takes a second to slip her phone back beneath her skirt before she turns just a bit to look up into Rhodey’s face.

“Don’t even think about it,” Rhodey warns her.

“Too late,” Toni tells him with a wide, toothy grin.

“You’re not going alone,” Rhodey insists.

“Someone needs to stay here and protect Pepper and Happy,” Toni points out.  “And the other guests, just in case.”

“Alternately we tell Pepper and Happy about what’s going on and they can keep an eye on the guests while JARVIS keeps an eye on the entire building.”  Rhodey counters easily. “Which we both know he’s already doing.”

Pressed up against his chest and wrapped safely in both of his arms now, Toni pouts up at Rhodey just a bit, eyes wide and pleading.

“That’s not gonna work on me, baby girl,” Rhodey says mercilessly.  “And I’m not above calling JARVIS back myself and telling him to go ahead and blow that office building straight to hell, Toni.  Don’t think I won’t do it.”

“But Rhodey,” Toni whines, a hand coming up to tug pleadingly on his tie, uncaring of who might be staring at them.

“I said no,” Rhodey stands firm.  “I sat back and let you have fun earlier because as much as I wanted to rip him apart myself I understood why you needed to.  I’m even willing to let you take the lead on this again. But there’s no way in hell I’m letting you walk into whatever this is alone.  Don’t ask me to do that, Toni.  Not again.”

Toni immediately softens, hands coming up to cup his face in her palms, sharp black nails gentle against his skin.

Afghanistan and what had happened there, Toni knows, will always be an open wound for the both of them.

“You’re right,” she whispers, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t have to apologize,” Rhodey tells her as he leans down enough to press a kiss to her forehead.  “Just stop trying to leave me behind for stuff like this.”

“Of course,” Toni agrees easily enough.  “Now how about we give Happy and Pepper a heads up and then me and you slip out the back way and see just what kind of surprise party Stane tried to arrange for me?”

“Sometimes,” Rhodey tells her wryly as he steers them towards Pepper and Happy, “I think you have the worst idea of what a party is that I’ve ever seen.”

“I have excellent taste in parties and I maintain that Delaware was your fault,” Toni tells him sweetly.  “If it had been mine we’d have spent a lot longer than one weekend in jail.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about because Delaware isn’t a real place.  But,” Rhodey sighs fondly. “I also know that’s very, very true.”

~~~

“How you convince me to do this shit I’ll never know,” Rhodey hisses lowly as he climbs the ladder with impressive speed, not even remotely slowed down by her weight on his back.

“Don’t front honey bunch, you know you adore this kind of thing,” Toni whispers in her ear from where her chin is propped on his shoulder.  Her gown’s been strategically arranged and her legs are wrapped securely around his waist. “Plus you’re the one who insisted on coming but then couldn’t agree to letting me go first or last.  I’m perfectly capable of climbing a ladder in a gown and heels as you well know.”

Rhodey’s silence is just a touch sullen and all Toni can do is grin because they both know she’s right.

Just then Rhodey finally tops the edge of the roof on the far side of the building that JARVIS had directed them to.

Toni wastes no time in hoping down from his back.  She lands cat soft in her stocking feet, heels in one hand and shadows pooling around her ankles in preparation for what’s to come.

She’s feeling less than forgiving and anyone stupid enough to take Stane up on his offer deserves to be ripped to pieces.

Rhodey at her side, the gun he’s never without these days in his hand, Toni turns the corner towards the side of the building with the clear sight line to the gala’s entrance.

She has just enough time to feel the shift in the air before the shadows writhe at her feet, a warning tingling down her spine.

Toni drops her shoes and whirls, a hand striking out to shove Rhodey out of the way, just as a knife slices down through the air right where he’d been standing.

For a split second Toni feels a terrible sense of deja vu and then she blinks and finds herself staring into dull, cold blue eyes.

The man they belong to is big, far bigger than Toni is, but beyond a wild tangle of hair his eyes are the only things visible at the moment where he’s crouched on the gravel in front of her.

She sees it, feels it, the moment he decides his next course of attack.

Eyes narrowed, Toni bares her teeth in a hiss and steps in between Rhodey’s unprotected back and the hulking shadow of a man who had just tried to take him from her.

The man lunges, the dark blade of a military grade k-bar cutting through the air between them.  Toni ducks, a hand automatically coming up to ward off the blow as she moves.

The knife cuts right through the center of her palm but Toni doesn’t care, swipes the pain down and away with long practice without faltering.

Instead, the black blade glinting darkly with her blood in the low light, Toni pushes her hand forwards far enough down the blade to grab at the handle.  She jerks the knife away from the hand holding it, the claws of her free hand coming up to swipe at the man in front of her.

The man dodges, leaning back in a single fluid motion, before he jumps back and away from her, hand already reaching for what’s she’s sure is a gun on his back.

Toni doesn’t let him follow through with the move though.

Ignoring the knife for now and with her free hand at the ready, Toni darts forwards again.  She aims her claws at what she can now see is some kind of dark muzzle like mask covering the lower half of his face and protecting his neck.

He knocks her hand away with a bone jarring blow, leg snapping out in a kick that Toni has to drop to the ground and roll to avoid as he transitions the move flawlessly into a vicious stomp.  She swears it lands hard enough to shatter the concrete beneath his boot.

Toni doesn’t waste time speculating though, she’s back up on her feet and crouched on the ground like a cat as she calculates her next approach.

Those dull blue eyes are brighter now, something almost like interest slithering across that piercing gaze.

Toni grins, wide and sharp and feral, and sees that spark of interest grow.

The bark of Rhodey’s pistol interrupts the moment though, the first shot hitting the ground between them in warning even as Rhodey aims and fires again a split second later.

Rhodey’s grim faced and snarling, bright amber eyes glowing with rage as he advances, gun in hand, determined, Toni is sure, to get back to her side.  

But the assassin whirls toward Rhodey in one easy motion, left arm coming up in front of him, the silver armor he’s wearing glinting in the low light.

The bullets ricochet off of his palm and Toni feels her eyes widen in interest before they narrow again at the way he’s obviously focused in on Rhodey this time around.

Now that just won’t do at all.

Playing knife games with her is one thing, stalking toward her Rhodey with an obvious intent to kill is an entirely different matter altogether.

“Now now,” Toni hisses as the shadows rise around her feet and a now familiar cackling laugh sounds in the dark of the rooftop, “none of that.”

Then, as one, the shadows and the newly arrived Smudge, lunge.

The assassin fights of course, arms and legs flashing out with impressive speed and obvious strength, but the shadows are faster, stronger, able to dodge every hit he might throw and keep coming.

It takes longer than Toni thought it would to take him down but eventually he goes, forced down onto his knees and bound by thick bands of shadow, Smudge standing poised to lunge for his throat at Toni’s gesture.

Even in the low light, even with the leather combat top he’s wearing, Toni can see the way his muscles bulge and shift as he tests his restraints.  She has to admit that his persistence is admirable if nothing else.

“You okay?” Rhodey rasps as he comes to her side, eyes automatically tracking over her even as he keeps the gun trained firmly on the assassin.

“Perfect, darling,” Toni hums easily as she stares at her new captive.  “My gown’s ruined though.”

“Tragic,” Rhodey agrees dryly.  “I need to sweep the rest of the rooftop, you got him?”

“Oh he’s all tied up and not going anywhere,” Toni reassures him.  “And if he does, well … Smudge is always hungry, aren’t you darling?”

Across from her, teeth gleaming so very close the would be assassin’s throat, Smudge cackles in agreement.

“Alright,” Rhodey agrees.  “I’m gonna go sweep, see if I can find whatever it is he put up to disable the cameras.  Try not to do anything too reckless while I’m gone, okay?”

“Why, crumb cake, it’s almost as if you don’t trust me to behave,” Toni pouts at him absently.

“I don’t,” Rhodey tells her even as he steps away.  “Mainly because I know you.”

“Rude,” Toni calls softly as watches him move away.  She only stares after Rhodey for a second though before she turns her attention back towards the assassin, a thought assuring that Rhodey won’t be alone as he moves, a pool of shadows honing in on him easily enough.

He shares her blood after all, is hers in a way so few would ever understand.  She’ll never leave him without backup of some sort if she can help it.

“You know,” Toni starts as she moves forward a bit until she’s standing directly in front of the man, “it’s rude to switch dance partners in the middle of a song like you did.  I might start to think you like Rhodey more than me. And what can I say, I’ve always been a bit jealous.”

The assassin just stares up at her, blue eyes bright still and sharp as a blade.

Which reminds her...

Toni brings the hand with the knife in it up so that she can get a good look at it.  The blade’s sticking out of the back of her hand, the guard pressed firmly against the center of her palm.  Blood drips off of it like thick, dark syrup.

Her gloves, specially tailored as they are to expose her sharp black nails, are absolutely ruined.

With a bitten down grimace Toni reaches her other hand up and tugs the knife from her palm with one swift, firm jerk and then peels her gloves off.

Lips pursed Toni drops her ruined gloves at her feet and then takes a moment to turn her wounded hand back and forth.  She keeps one eye on the assassin and the other on the way the hole in her hand is already beginning to heal.

She really does need to do some of that research she’s been putting off so far.

“This is a pretty nice knife,” Toni finally informs him as she turns her attention towards studying the knife, admiring the balance and weight of it in her hand.  Then she shifts, brings a leg up to prop her foot on the assassin’s shoulder, gown sliding out of the away as she slides the knife into the band of her holster beside her phone, uncaring of the way blood smears against her thigh.  “I think I’ll keep it. Hope you don’t mind.”

The assassin just stares up at her, eyes watchful but body still, muscles no longer flexing like he’s testing the shadows for weaknesses she knows he won’t find.

“Now,” Toni says as she brings her foot back down off of his shoulder, “I think it’s time I get a look at that arm of yours.”

A flicker of something she can’t quite identify slithers across his eyes but is gone between one second and the next.

Toni circles around behind him, intent on getting a better look at the armor he’s obviously wearing on his left side.  Whatever it is, however it works, it’s strong enough to block bullets and flexible enough to let him move unencumbered.

Her armor is better of course, even if she hasn’t taken the Mark III on a completed test flight yet, but that doesn’t make Toni any less interested in what he’s obviously been equipped with.

Standing behind him, Toni stares down at the silver covered left arm that’s bound behind his back with interest.  She bends down and runs the tips of her claws down the bicep curiously only to freeze when the plates shift, vents opening and closing just a bit as he obviously attempts to break free again.

“Stop,” Toni tells him softly, mind whirling as she stares down at his arm.

To Toni’s surprised he immediately does, going still as a statue between one breath and the next.

Not armor,” Toni whispers more to herself than to him even as she brings a hand up to hover near his shoulder.  She has her suspicions but she also wants to know.

The thick leather of the left shoulder of his armor parts like butter beneath the deliberate pressure of her nails.

Toni watches, breathless, as it sags just a bit, falling away from his body until she can see the warm bronze skin of the side of his neck and shoulder.

A left shoulder covered in a network of thick, angry scar tissue from where the arm is fused into his skin.  Not armor, like she’d initially thought, but a fully functional cybernetic arm.

It looks painful, looks agonizing in a way Toni can intimately relate to.

It’s also …

Beautiful,” Toni’s voice is a hushed whisper as she circles back around him, going down onto her knees in front of where he’s still trapped to stare avidly at the joint where his arm connects to his body.  He doesn’t fight her when she eases the leather down and off of his chest, just lets her pull it all the way off, the shadows letting it pass through with no complaints, and toss it down onto the ground beside her bloody gloves.

He’s bigger than her of course but he also looks smaller somehow without the leather and kevlar vest.  Almost vulnerable somehow even with the way his chest and the arm that’s his are thick with muscle.

With his top gone, forced down onto his knees with his metal arm gleaming and thick bands of black shadows keeping him secure, he looks feral and wild and beautiful.

Like a wolf brought to heel just for her.

She likes it far more than she probably should.

But then, when has Toni ever conformed to what she should or should not do?

When Toni brings her now healed hand up to smooth over the wide plane of his chest she can feel the way his heart beats a hard and heavy rhythm beneath her palm.  Can feel the way he sucks in a silent but deep breath, skin hot against her blood covered palm.

When she pulls back her palm print is there on his chest, her hand just faintly outlined on his skin in half dried blood thanks to the wound that’s already fully healed.

It disappears even as she watches, the last traces of her blood fading away into his skin.

This time the shudder he gives off is strong enough for her to see it.

“I think,” Toni says lowly, intently, “I want to get a look at just what’s beneath that muzzle.”

To her surprise the assassin dips his head down, hair falling forward into his face as he offers the back of his head and the various buckles for the mask up to her.

Toni feels oddly breathless, something impatient and eager swirling and churning in the pit of her stomach, as she reaches forwards to undo the column of cruel looking straps.

The muzzle falls away into her hands and Toni pulls back to drop it down beside her.

He raises his head then and looks her directly in the eyes again and Toni feels her heart skip a beat beside the reactor.

Because ...

Her hands come up to cup his face in her palms, nails trailing lightly through the scruff on his cheeks and up into the hair at his temples.

He shudders, eyes fluttering closed for a split second, and when they open the look he levers at her is hot and dark and filled with something that looks a lot like hunger.

“I know your face,” Toni whispers softly, mind thrown back to days spent at Aunt Peggy’s side as she told her story after story, old photographs and war reels playing in the background.

Remembers the way she’d always appreciated a dark glint and a cocky smirk over a wholesome bright grin.

James Barnes.”  Toni breathes the name out into the quiet around them, disbelief, confusion, and a dark sort of almost glee arcing through her.

There’s a moment of thick silence and then everything abruptly goes straight to hell.

Something like confusion and then pain slices across his face and he abruptly begins to fight his bonds again.  This time with a viciousness that hadn’t been present before, a feral sort of strength that makes the cords of his neck standing out in stark relief as he thrashes.

The shadows are unyielding, too strong even for him, and Toni knows that if she doesn’t do something, anything, he’s going to hurt himself.

And she rather abruptly doesn’t like the idea of anyone hurting him but her.

Toni, unable to help herself, lashes a hand out to grab him by the chin and jerk his head back around to face her even as she lets the shadows fall down and away.

Crouched there for a moment, his chin in her hand, their faces only a handful of inches apart, they just stare at each other.  He’s so close that Toni can feel the hot, jagged pants of his breath on her lips.

And then Barnes, because Toni knows that’s who he is, is gone, disappearing over the side of the building as quick as a flash, seemingly uncaring of the drop.

Toni stares after him, one hand coming up pat Smudge reassuringly on the head.

“All clear, found his rifle though,” Rhodey’s voice breaks through her daze, “thing’s a fucking monst- what the fuck?”

Toni blinks, pushes her way up onto her feet, and turns to look at Rhodey, a sheepish smile already spreading across her face.

“Oops?”  She tries.

“No oops,” Rhodey denies as he holsters his gun at the small of his back and stalks over to her side.  “Really, seriously, no fucking oops.  I leave you alone for two seconds and what’d you do?  You actually let your hell-hound eat him before we could get any answers.  Couldn’t you wait a bit?”

“Smudge didn’t eat him,” Toni pats Smudge again before she shoos him away, content to let him fade away into the shadows as she bends down and picks up the muzzle, the vest, and bloody gloves still resting at her feet.  “I let him go.”

What?” Rhodey barks.  “Toni, that’s worse.  He could come back, try to finish the job.  And this time JARVIS might not be able to catch the warnings in time.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Toni admits as she holds the muzzle up in his direction.  “But either way sugar-cake you’re not going to believe what I found out in the meantime.”

“Is … is that his shirt?” Rhodey squints down at the vest Toni’s already folding over her arm.  “Did you strip him?”

“Only a bit,” Toni admits easily enough as she turns to head towards the staging area and the rifle Rhodey had been talking about.  “But oh was it worth it.”

“That just sounds about eleven shades of inappropriate,” Rhodey grouses.  “Did you bad touch the assassin Toni?  Do I need to have the boundaries talk with you about assassins now?  Is that what we’ve come to?  Is it?”

“Oops?” Toni offers again with a large, gleaming grin tossed back over her shoulder at him.

“For the last time,” Rhodey sighs as he follows along behind her, “no more fucking oops.”

~~~

It takes a little bit of convincing to get Rhodey to believe her, but believe her he eventually does, despite how fantastical as it all seems.

By the time they’ve made it back to the mansion, Barnes’ rifle and the various effects Toni had stripped off of him in tow, Rhodey’s almost comfortable with the idea.

In fact he’s so close to comfortable all he does is sigh, press a kiss to her forehead, and tell her to be careful when she inevitably hunts Barnes down.

And as for Toni?  Well, sitting in the workshop with that muzzle in her hand as she presses it absently against her own face, she can’t help the way her mind whirls.

JARVIS hadn’t been able to track Barnes thanks to the jammers in place on the surrounding buildings.  He’d also never appeared on any camera JARVIS had been able to touch after that either.

His skill at staying hidden from any electronic eyes is more than a bit impressive.

Not that either JARVIS or Toni are content to stop there of course.

No, JARVIS would be on the lookout for Barnes based on Toni’s description and a variety of old WWII footage to pull from.

So, Toni knows, it’s only a matter of time.

In the end, James Buchanan Barnes of all people popping up the way he had has just made things infinitely more interesting for Toni.

She rather likes it, truth be told.

~~~

The headlines read:  Fiery Crash Claims Life Of Fortune 500 CFO.

Next time, Toni thinks idly, she might have to try something besides a car crash to cover up one of her more personally connected indiscretions.

Three times might not be as subtle as two.

It wouldn’t do for people to start connecting dots she’d rather leave unconnected for the moment.

~~~

Two days later finds Toni laid out on top of Edwin’s tomb in the hot house telling him about her day and about Barnes.  She’s on her stomach, ankles crossed and fingers busy tracing over the letters carved into the stone.

E. D. W. I. N.

“Miss,” JARVIS calls softly to get her attention.

“Yeah J?” Toni asks as she rolls over onto her back, head tilted back to but up against the weeping angle and curls spilling out across the marble beneath her.

“There is a call for you,” JARVIS tells her softly.  “One Dr. Ho Yinsen.”

For a split second Toni goes still and then she abruptly sits up.

“Patch him through,” Toni orders.

“Dr. Stark?” Yinsen’s voice is hesitant, low and gruff and layered in exhaustion.  “Dr. Stark are you there?”

“Yinsen,” Toni answers him easily.  “I’m here.”

“I …” Yinsen clears his throat roughly.  “I was not sure who to call but …”

“You called the right person, doctor,” Toni jokes lightly.  “Not sure what you’re calling for but I’m sure I can do something about it regardless.  As you should know by now.”

“Yes,” Yinsen sighs shakily.  “I know. I have … I have seen the things you can do.  And my silence is yours. But Stark … I called because I wanted to know if what you said, back in the cave, about making those who have your weapons pay was true.”

“It was,” Toni agrees instantly.  “It is.”

“Then I,” Yinsen huffs, “and my people, and so many like us, we need your help.”

Around her the world seems to slow down, everything in and around her going still.

“I’m listening.”

~~~

The Mark III is a thing of beauty, all gleaming crimson and black lines with golden edging and scroll work here and there.

Sliding it on feels comfortable.

Feels right.

Using it to set those who dared to lay hands on weapons that never belonged to them on fire feels even better.

This was always what she intended to do with the armor.

Yinsen’s information just gave her a more concrete starting point.

~~~

From the depths of the Ten Ring’s cruelty, from the ashes of Stane’s betrayal, from the shadows of Toni’s own mind and the abyss of Edwin’s loss, the Iron Queen rises.

And rises.

And behind her Toni leaves fire and shadow and the bodies of all those who had once dared.

~~~

The world isn’t sure, exactly, what to do with Toni’s newest innovation, with the rise of the Iron Queen.

Half of them call her a hero, praise her for how her actions are helping to stabilize things the world over.

The other half call her a monster, a warmonger, and, as always, a whore.

It’s more of the same really, in Toni’s opinion.

Because honestly, when has the world ever known what to do with Toni?

~~

Yinsen truly is, as it turns out, an invaluable source of information.

With his multitude of languages and his connections both in his home village and the surrounding areas he’s able to gather information about weapons caches almost as quickly as JARVIS is.  Especially in the more remote and disconnected areas.

A working sort of relationship develops between them although Toni can practically taste the fear and awe in Yinsen every time they so much as speak.  Which, given what he’s seen her do, might be more than fair.

But she has to admire his determination because even with all of that and with everything he’s so obviously lost in the past, he doesn’t stop.

So with Toni’s protection and funds and Yinsen’s determination, Gulmira becomes a safe haven, a place where refugees in the area can find food, medical care, and most of all, safety.

It’s not a fix for what her inattention has allowed to happen, but it’s a start.

~~~

Somewhere in the middle of it all Toni takes a moment or two to do some research, to try and find a few answers.

To look into her own origins.

Toni ignores Howard’s side of her genetic makeup.  His family isn’t the one who interests her.

Instead it’s Maria’s family line that Toni wants to know more about.

Maria who’d run from her family and straight into Howard’s arms.

Maria who’d given Toni a set of words to live by.

Maria who’d been terrified and disgusted in turns by the daughter she’d given birth to.

Maria who had died because she’d been complicit in Howard’s constant attempts to dominate and subdue Toni.

Maria who should have known better.

Maria Stark becomes Maria Carbonell but Toni doesn’t stop there.

She traces it back further.

Eventually, after Toni rips through an impressive amount of false paperwork, Maria Carbonell becomes Mariella Scuro.

With Maria’s true maiden name in hand Toni traces the family line back again, back another generation, and then another, and another.

Traces it back far further than Toni had ever imagined it would go.

Scuro becomes Umbra, becomes Amor, becomes …

Addams.

Toni stops on the name, attention transfixed.

It beats in her head and in her chest like yet another heartbeat.

Addams. Addams. Addams.

It feels … right somehow.

True.

Like below the Stark she’s always been, past the Stark name Howard had given her but she’d taken and made into her own through sheer force of will, that is what lingers inside of her.

That’s what twines its way around her bones and through her veins.

Addams.

With the taste of almonds and blood heavy and delicious on the back of her tongue, Toni delves into the ancient and often times macabre history of the family line.

She comes out the other side with a great deal more knowledge and the fact that Maria had a rather … extensive extended family.

A family that is still alive and well and, by all accounts, thriving.

Toni isn’t sure if she’ll ever reach out to them, her experiences with blood relations being what they are, but it’s … soothing somehow to know they’re there if she ever changes her mind.

Beyond that, Toni decides as a wide, tooth filled smile slithers its way across her face, she’ll just have to do what she always does.

She’ll take this aspect of herself she’s just discovered and she’ll make it her own.

~~~

Palladium, Toni knows, is poisonous to humans on an extended basis.  Heavy metal poisoning of the worst kind, promising a sick and painful death.

The arc reactor with its palladium core should be killing her slowly.

But then, Toni can’t help but think as she taps her nails against the front of the reactor, she’s far from normal after all.

She has her darker, far more ancient, heritage and bloodline to thank for that.

And for the fact that poison is, apparently, not something she'll ever have to worry about.

Which honestly explains a lot considering the fact that she’s survived so far through every single one of DUM-E attempts at cooking.

But that doesn’t mean Toni can’t look into perfecting the reactor.

Things should be improved upon when and where they can after all.

The future and Toni both demands it.

~~~

Pepper seems excited about the Stark Expo when Toni mentions it to her and agrees to start the planning.

Toni just grins and watches her go.

~~~

JARVIS gets a ping on Barnes at the Smithsonian of all places.

But then perhaps that’s not too much of a surprise.

The Captain America and Howling Commando exhibit is rather extensive after all.

In the days that follows Toni watches the footage of him more times than she cares to admit.

~~~

Time skips forwards as it is want to do, but Toni hardly pays it any mind.

At least, not until Pepper mentions the agency that still seems rather desperate to get an audience with her.

SHIELD, Toni knows, might be a gold mine worth turning JARVIS’ attention towards.

~~~

That, as it turns out, is a bit of an understatement.

~~~

SHIELD is a treasure trove of information.

The agency’s had their thumb in more pies than Toni can shake a digital stick at for longer than she’s been alive.

And they’ve also been trying to dip their fingers into Toni’s very own personal bakery, which cannot and will not, of course, be allowed.

“JARVIS, darling,” Toni practically sings as she leans back in her chair, Barnes’ rifle spread out on the desk in front of her from where she’s been customizing it.

“Yes, Miss?” JARVIS answers as promptly as he always does.

“SHIELD’s been very very naughty with trying to get into SI and our private servers, wouldn’t you say?” Toni asks him lightly.

“Yes, Miss,” JARVIS says, tone sour, “indeed they have.”

“And you know what we do to people who’ve been naughty, don’t you J?”  Toni’s smiles is all teeth. Laid out on the floor at her side Smudge cackles loudly even as Splatter stretches out further across his back, lamp like eyes wide and almost glowing.

“Indeed I do,” JARVIS sounds almost darkly smug then.

“Pick them apart, baby boy,” Toni says.  “I want to know all of their secrets. That’ll make it easier to decide whether or not we’re going to have to gut them like a fish later on.”

“It would be my genuine pleasure, Miss,” JARVIS agrees.  “There will be nothing they can hide from my eyes, no matter how hard they try.  I will endeavour to make you proud with my thoroughness.”

“That’s exactly what I’m aiming for J,” Toni tells him.  “And you always make me proud.”

~~~

Pepper cries when Toni, busier than ever with her self appointed missions as Iron Queen, makes her CEO.

She doesn’t cry when Toni presses their slashed palms together.

Instead she just smiles, wide and delighted, with eyes that have already begun to brighten to a vibrant, poisonous green.

Toni presses a kiss to her cheek and sends her one her way, eyes drawn to the way Pepper’s hair has already begun to darken from it’s brighter orangish sheen towards a decadent wine red.

The bloody color looks good on her.

If the way Happy, eyes already a familiar bright amber, stares at her is anything to go by he thinks so too.

Toni watches them go and marvels at the fact that there’s not two more heartbeats pounding in her chest.

Instead there’s only one.

Two halves of a whole had, apparently, come together in her chest.

Now Pepper and Happy just need to catch up on what their heartbeats have already told Toni.

And, Toni knows, they will.

It's only a matter of time.

~~~

Pepper hires a new assistant and Toni takes one look at the beautiful and competent woman and grins, wide and delighted.

Over her shoulder Pepper’s eyes immediately narrow.

“Hello, gorgeous,” Toni purrs as she slides up out of the shadows and directly into her personal space the first time she turns her back on her.

“Ms. Stark,” there’s a barely noticeable hint of surprise in her voice before she wipes it away.

“Answer a question for me?”  Toni asks softly.

“Of course.”

“Does Director Fury know what happens to little creepy crawlers who show up where they’re not wanted?”  Toni cocks her head to the side as she asks the question, teeth bright and sharp.

“E-Excuse me?”

“I’ve always liked spiders,” Toni presses as she leans just a hair closer, the shadows of the room flexing oh so subtly as the lights dim just a bit, “but only if they’re mine.  I don’t appreciate Black Widows who coming calling uninvited.  You might want to tell him that for me.”

From the corner of the room Smudge laughs, eyes bright and teeth on display as his tongue lolls out of his mouth.  The thick gold and ruby collar and chest piece Toni made for him makes him look all the more fearsome and intimidating.

Natasha Romanov looks taken aback, shocked and startled before she smooths it away, nods sharply, and turns to stride away.

~~~

The next day Pepper’s on the lookout for a new assistant since, apparently, the other one just wasn't a good fit.

Happy and JARVIS both volunteer to step up until they can all find someone a little less … compromised for the position.

~~~

The trip to Monaco is a last minute decision brought on by Rhodey’s nagging but loving worry over her.  Ever since she created the Iron Queen he’s been worried she’ll burn herself out somehow.

Toni can’t help but wonder how he’ll feel when she hands him his own armor.

The silver and black beast of an armor she’s been working on will be done soon and Rhodey will be able to fight by her side as they’ve both been longing for him to.

War Machine, Toni knows, will suit him well.

Either way she’s not against a small vacation with her family.

Plus she’s always wanted to be the first woman to drive in the Grand Prix.

The look on Rhodey’s face when she tells him what she has planned for her supposedly relaxing vacation is priceless.

~~~

The attack comes hard and out of nowhere, the prickling of the shadows the only warning Toni gets before the entire race goes to hell.

She puts Vanko down with vicious intent and brute strength of the suitcase armor.

He is not, after all, worth the trouble outing her more … unique abilities would likely bring her at this time.

Plus there’ll always be plenty of time to take care of Vanko when no one else is looking.

He’ll have to pay for the lives of the other drivers he took as well as daring to threaten her family.

~~~

That night Ivan Vanko is found murdered in his cell.

He's been ripped apart with vicious intent, pieces scattered in an uncaring mess around the room.

But that isn't really all that unusual or that interesting in Toni's opinion.

The unusual part is the fact that Toni isn't the one who killed him.

The interesting part is the fact that who or whatever did took the time to write her name on the wall in surprisingly neat script.

Well that and the fact that the ‘i’ in Toni was dotted with a small wonky heart.

The surveillance equipment monitoring Vanko’s cell picks up nothing of course, the footage looped and no trace of entrance left behind.

Toni’s warned that there might, possibly, be a threat on her life given the circumstances.

But Toni, mind whirling over the small flash of a silver hand and a familiar face JARVIS had been able to find in the crowd at the racetrack, is more than a bit delighted.

~~~

“I doubt that’s what Barnes had in mind,” Rhodey tells her, something like resignation already seeping into his voice once they’re all back in the plane and heading back towards Malibu.  “If it even was him who took out Vanko.”

“It was him alright,” Toni says with certainty.  She knows it was. “And I’d say that bit of wall art counts.”

“Assassination attempts, murder, and finger painting your name on a wall with the blood of your enemies isn’t flirting, Toni,” Rhodey points out calmly.  “It’s … something, but I wouldn’t call it flirting.”

“But Rhodey,” Toni whines softly from her place sprawled across his lap, “what if they are?  What if he is?”

"I don't know Jim," Happy's the one who speaks up then.  "You've got to admit it's something she'd probably like."

"Don't encourage her," Rhodey's glare is cold as ice and Happy puts his hands up in surrender only a second or so later.

"Too late," Pepper quips from Happy's other side.  Rhodey doesn't even bother to glare at her as they all know she's immune.

“Toni,” Rhodey finally sighs as he turns his attention back towards her, “no.”

Rhodey,” Toni sing songs back up at him, “yes.”

In the end Rhodey and the others just collectively sigh and roll their eyes when she saves that particular crime scene photo as her phone's background.

This gift, in Toni’s opinion, is much better than roses.

~~~

The leather vest she’d cut off of Barnes and kept for herself is easy enough to repair when Toni gets the inclination too.

It’s heavy too, what with the thickness of the leather and the thin layer of kevlar tucked away inside of it.

It’s huge on her as well, Toni discovers one night in the workshop when she tugs it on and does up the straps.

But it also still smells like Barnes, like leather and gun oil and the faintest hint of blood.

Toni finds it more than a bit delightful.

She might, Toni is willing to admit even if only to herself, be more than a bit fixated.

But that too is in her blood.

Both sides of it.

Obsession is a blessing and a curse that Starks and Addams alike seem to carry.

And Toni is, in many ways, the epitome of both.

~~~

“I have found some rather interesting notes that have been scanned into SHIELD’s systems, Miss,” JARVIS tells her.  “I do believe they might have once belonged to Howard Stark.”

“Put them up, J,” Toni tells him as she leans back in her chair.

Around her the workshop is alight with holograms, everything from notes dealing with something called the Cube to what appears to be a scans of the old Stark Expo staging fields.

Toni stares at it for a long moment before she tosses her head back in a laugh.

“J,” Toni practically croons, “fire up the credit cards, find me a large warehouse out of the way, and get ready to take in a few orders.  We’ve got work to do.”

There’s no rush after all, and she’s loath to destroy any of the mansion that had once been Edwin’s home with her.

Plus having a particle accelerator at her disposal will, inevitably, come in handy.

So she might as well build one to last.

~~~

Toni’s flipping the knife she took from Barnes in one hand while she plays idly with the designs she’s been contemplating for a new location in New York as she waits eagerly for DUM-E plate a rather special batch of cookies that he’d made for her to hit the craving she’s been having.

The perfected reactor has a small side effect of making her hungry most of the time.  And her cravings for a few more … unique ingredients have only gotten worse.

On the bright side DUM-E’s smoothies and food have never tasted better.

“Miss,” there’s something dark and vicious in JARVIS’ voice then, “I believe this is something you should see.”

“Something interesting J?”  Toni perks up slightly even as she takes a still warm cookie from DUM-E’s claw.

“It is in regards to James Barnes as well as our investigation into the finer points of SHIELD,” JARVIS answers, “so yes, I suppose you might consider it as such.”

“Oh,” Toni’s attention is fully captured then, “do tell, baby boy.”

“It would, perhaps,” JARVIS starts off, “be far simpler to show you, Miss.”

And then the workshop explodes into a mess of holograms.

At first Toni can scarcely believe what she’s seeing, what JARVIS has obviously stumbled upon.

But the longer she looks, the more JARVIS shows her, the easier it is to believe.

A wicked, gleaming grin unfurls itself across her mouth.

“JARVIS,” Toni practically purrs, shadows flexing and writhing even as she licks the crumbs from her fingertips, the sweet taste of arsenic mixing with almond flavored cyanide heavy on her tongue, “you always give me the very best presents.”

“I do try, Miss,” JARVIS says to her, voice loving.

“I’ve always wanted to kill a HYDRA, JARVIS,” Toni tells him darkly.  “This is going to be so much fun.”

Chapter Text

Toni hums along under her breath to the heavy, dark bass JARVIS is kind enough to pipe down her newly installed ear piece as she glides around the room making sure everything is absolutely perfect.

Setting the mood is important after all and beyond that Toni’s feeling particularly playful at the moment.

“Miss,” JARVIS interrupts the music, “your guest has almost arrived.”

“Wonderful,” Toni hums as she pats Smudge on the head fondly and moves towards the table for one more last minute inspection.

The table is a rich black wood and the place settings are a tasteful mix of crimson and gold.  The two black high back chairs settled opposite of each other are imposing but almost sinfully comfortable with their thick crimson cushions.  Finally the low burning fat black candles floating in the shallow crystal bowl in the center of the table gives the entire setting just the right kind of atmosphere for what Toni has in mind.

“What do you think J?” Toni asks even as she steps back to grab the bottle of wine she’d opened to breathe a while back.  It’s a dark, rich red of course. A specially crafted bloodwine from the vineyard she’d bought Rhodey for Valentine’s a few years back.  It looks stunningly dark in the goblets once she pours it with a deft hand.

“As elegant and dramatic as always, Miss,” JARVIS reassures her.  “A noticeable effort without it seeming as if you’ve over extended yourself.  Your guest should be pleased.”

“Good,” Toni nods as she sets the bottle back down and pulls the covers from both plates, setting them to the side on the wrought iron dining cart.  The wine is poured, the sushi is fresh, and the main course is a pair of thick Kobe steaks, blue for her of course, and medium rare for her dinner guest.  She even has a delightful selection of blood orange delicacies waiting for dessert if things work out in that direction.

Everything’s settled and done, all that’s missing is the guest of honor.

“And speaking of your guest, I believe they have arrived,” JARVIS announces then.

“Right on time,” Toni grins, wide and delighted, as she moves around the table and takes her seat.  Wine glass in hand she hooks one leg over the arm of the chair as she sprawls in it, skirt slithering down the smooth line of her leg and bearing an almost flirtatious amount of skin by Toni’s standards.

Now, all she has to do is wait.

It doesn’t take long.

The front door opens and Smudge perks up just a bit only to settle with a small, absent gesture from Toni.

There’s a pause and then steady, quiet footsteps come down the hall.

“You’re late,” Toni grins sharply.

“Sorry,” Nick Fury says as he steps around the corner, gun in hand and single eye focused directly on her.  “Traffic was a bitch.”

“It’s rude to keep a lady waiting, Nick-knack,” Toni mock scolds as she sips at her wine.  “Especially since I went through the trouble of getting dinner ready and everything.”

Fury’s attention tracks over the layout, brow arching high as he takes in what she’s done.  And then, after a moment’s hesitation, he holsters his gun on his hip and shrugs off his long leather trench coat.

Toni watches silently from over the rim of her goblet as he makes his way to his chair, puts the coat across the back of it, and then finally sits down.

“I’ve got a few questions for you, Stark,” Fury announces as he leans back, elbows resting on the chair’s arms and hands steepled in front of him.

“Dinner first,” Toni chides as she straightens in her seat, leg coming down off the chair’s arm so that she can set her goblet down and lean forwards enough to pick up her ebony chopsticks.  “Business afterwards, Nick-at-Night.”

Fury stares at her for a long moment and then leans forwards to pick up his own utensils.

They make it through the first course in relative silence before Fury can’t seem to help himself.

“You going to tell me what in the hell that thing in the corner is or am I supposed to guess?” Fury nods towards the corner behind her.

“That’s Smudge,” Toni says carelessly even as Smudge takes that as his cue to unfurl himself with a low cackle and slink to her side.  She takes a moment to reach down and shift her claws lovingly through his fur. Smudge preens just a bit at her affectionate ear scritches, head back and tongue lolling.  “Isn’t he a handsome boy?”

“That is not a normal dog,” Fury announces, voice just a bit tight as Smudge yawns widely, teeth gleaming.  “So, again, what in the hell is it?”

“And now you’re just being rude again,” Toni chides lightly.  “He’s my emotional support animal, Nicky.”

Fury gives her a look that could, generously, be described as mildly disbelieving.

“I was kidnapped you know,” Toni reminds him evenly, in much too good a mood to be offended at the moment.  “It was very stressful.  Besides, he even wore his formal collar to meet you and everything.”

It’s true too.  The expertly crafted crimson and gold gorget style neck and chest piece is modeled after the armor and looks absolutely dashing on Smudge if Toni does say so herself.

And since she’s the one who made it for him she does.

Fury finally just sighs and goes back to eating.

This time, at Toni’s prompting, they chat lightly about everything from the weather to Rhodey to chess, though Fury does keep on eye on Smudge at all times.

Finally, when the wine is half gone and Fury’s helpfully retrieved dessert from the refrigerator, Toni allows him to turn the conversation towards the direction he’s obviously been itching to take it in.

So,” Fury practically huffs as he sits back is chair, wine in hand.

Toni just arches a brow in his direction expectantly.

“First things first,” Fury says.  “How in the fuck did you get inside my house without me being alerted?”

“Was it supposed to be hard?”  Toni asks, head tilted slightly to the side in genuine curiosity.

“I live in a top secret black site, Stark,” Fury tells her sourly.  “You shouldn’t have been able to find this place at all, not to mention get inside without me being alerted.”

Toni laughs, loud and honestly delighted.

Fury just stares at her.

“Oh you were serious?  It’s adorable that you think that any of that applies to me,” Toni informs him.  “Honestly it is.”

Another moment of silence at Fury stares at her, hand clenched around his spoon before he seems to take a deep breath and force himself to calm down just a bit.

“Did you re-decorate anything besides my dining room while you were here?”  Fury grits out as he digs his spoon into his blood orange panna cotta with vicious intent.

“Of course I did,” Toni tells him, actually mildly insulted this time.  Because, again, rude.  “What do you think I am?  Some kind of savage?  Wait until you see the sheets I bought you.  Egyptian cotton, you’ll love them. Much better than flannel, Patchy.  Also new bath towels, because, and let’s be real here, yours were more than a bit raggedy.”

There’s yet another moment of tense silence as Toni hums happily around her own spoonful of pavlova while Fury stares at her.

“You have a breathtaking lack of boundaries,” Fury says then, something like exasperation in his voice.  “I’m honestly not sure if I should be impressed or regretful that I didn’t go with my first instinct.”

“And that was?”  Toni asks as she lets her spoon dangle from her fingertips.

“Shooting you on sight,” Fury admits evenly.

“Well,” Toni grins, teeth sharp and gleaming in the candle light, “it’s a good thing you thought twice about that then isn’t it?  I’d have hated to have this little get together start off on the wrong foot. It wouldn’t have ended well. For you.”

“Yeah,” Fury nods slowly.  “I’m starting to get that.”

“Good,” Toni agrees.  “Now then, shall we get down to business?”

“Oh trust me I’ve been all ears this entire time,” Fury points out.  “Let me know what’s so important you had to pull this little B&E.”

“Consider it payback for trying to send your little spider into my house, Fury,” Toni tells him sharply, playfulness dimmed for a split second.

“Fair,” Fury admits after a second.

“Glad we can agree,” Toni says.  “Especially since I came here to do you a favor.  A favor I didn’t actually have to do at all, all things considered.”

“What kind of favor?” Fury seems wary now.  “Because I’m getting a very Faustian vibe from this entire conversation.”

“What is it with everyone calling me the devil?” Toni asks as she leans forward, attention focused on Fury’s one good eye.  “I’m starting to think I should be insulted.”

“Have you ever actually spent any kind of quality time with yourself, Stark?”  Fury asks dryly.

“Careful Fast and Furious,” Toni taps a sharp black nail against the side of her goblet just to hear it chime.  “You’ve been flirting with being rude all night but a girl might really take offense to something like that.”

“You’re creepy as fuck and we both know it, Stark,” Fury tells her unrepentantly.  “Doesn’t mean I necessarily meant it as an insult.”

“You know you’re being a lot more honest right now than I was expecting for a spy,” Toni admits.  “But I guess that’s a good thing, too much prevaricating might make things go badly for you. Especially since I only stopped in because I thought you might like to know that you’ve got a bit of a pest problem.  And since I’m only going to give you a very limited amount of time to pick up the toys you want to keep before I do a little bit of exterminating.”

“Explain,” Fury’s all business then, voice sharp and eye narrowed as he leans forwards too.

“You know what the old legends say don’t you?” Toni asks him, grin gone dark and sharp around the edges.  “There’s a million ways to skin a cat, Fury, but only one way to make sure a HYDRA stays dead. Lucky for you I'm an expert at controlled burns.”

~~~

“You know,” Toni says absently as she spins the armor in a tight twirl and breaks through the cloud cover, the stars shining down on her from above, “I think that went rather well.”

“Indeed, Miss,” JARVIS agrees.  “I have successfully spread myself through the closed network we weren’t previously able to access and Director Fury’s only found half of the cameras you installed in his home as well.  So, overall, I too would count it as a rousing success.”

“I’ll give him a week to get his minions in line and out of our way,” Toni decides then.  “That’s more than generous. And then, baby boy, all bets are off and we get to play .”

“I find that I am rather looking forwards to it Miss,” JARVIS’ tone is more than a bit dark.  “HYDRA deserves their place on the ash heap of history. I will enjoy aiding you in once again consigning them there.  This time, permanently.”

“Sounds like a plan to me J,” Toni agrees.  “Do you think Barnes would be up for playing with me once this all starts?  Because I’ve got to say, if Vanko’s anything to go by, I love his style.”

“Given his actions in Monaco and the files we’ve retrieved on his past treatment at HYDRA’s hands, something tells me he will not be able to resist,” JARVIS tells her dryly.  “Also he did seem rather taken with you, after all.”

“Good,” Toni grins, bright and pleased.  The thought of seeing Barnes again, of getting another gift like the last one he’d left her, makes Toni want to shiver just a bit in delight.  “But maybe we should roll out the welcome mat for him anyways. Just in case.”

“As you wish, Miss,” JARVIS says.

~~~

Toni gives Fury a week just like she said she would.

She uses the time to tinker with the armor some more, the Mark VII coming along nicely.  She even drops in on Yinsen once and spends an afternoon having tea and braiding hair with a few of the little wide eyed village girls.

But the most important thing she does is finally hand her gift over to Rhodey.

Rhodey who stares at the War Machine armor with awe, hands running over over the brutal gunmetal grey and black lines of it with reverence.

“Tones,” Rhodey breathes out her name as he spins around to face her, amber eyes bright and delighted.  “Are you sure?”

“Rhodey, darling, of course I am,” Toni grins up at him as she reaches up and cups his face in her palms.  “So what do you say to helping me take out HYDRA once and for all?”

“We’re going to burn them alive,” there’s a dark sort of delight in Rhodey’s eyes then.

“Oh, sugar cube,” Toni says wickedly, “that’s my entire plan.”

~~~

Toni had given a brief thought to dumping all of the files JARVIS had compiled on HYDRA out into the open for the world to see.

The chaos it would have caused would have been glorious.

But she’d reigned that thought in and tamped it down because the collateral damage …

Well Toni might play fast and loose with anything that smacks of morals but even she has lines she tries her best not to cross too often.

The absolute slaughter of innocents that likely would have resulted in such a short sighted move just happens to be one of them.

Balance is key in this, as it is in all things.

~~~

Standing in the middle of the workshop, holographic files spread out like an ocean around her, Toni debates on where, exactly, she should start.

Some would say that the only way to tackle a problem like this would be from the bottom up.  Destroy the roots of the tree to make sure it never grows back.

But this new project of hers is a beast of an entire different nature, as Toni well knows.

So.

“Heads first then,” Toni muses aloud as she reaches out to pluck one particular file from the mass, the profile picture hovering over her palm as the electric blue glow of the hologram turns a dark crimson instead.

Target acquired.

Someone is about to have a very, very bad day.

And Toni a very, very good one.

Which, in the end, is all that matters here.

~~~

“Ms. Stark,” Pierce blinks once at her in shock as he pulls the door to his rather tasteful home open.  “This is a surprise. I wasn’t expecting a personal visit from the Iron Queen today.”

“Do you mind if I come inside, Director Pierce?”  Toni smiles up at him, teeth gleaming. “I’ve come on the behalf of a … mutual acquaintance of ours.  And don’t worry, I left the armor at home today. This is about something a great deal more … under the radar if you get my meaning.”

“Ah, of course,” Pierce hums knowingly as he steps aside and ushers her inside, his older but still handsome face creased in a welcoming smile.  Toni had practically smell the faint hint of curiosity and unease that wafts off of him though. “Can I get you anything to drink while we talk? Coffee?  Milk? Anything at all?”

“Oh no,” Toni says softly as she steps inside, closing her parasol and hanging it carefully on the coat rack by the door.  “I’m perfectly fine, thank you.”

“If you’re sure,” Pierce says as he leads her down the hall and towards the plush looking sitting area just past the kitchen and dining room.

Toni settles down on a soft black leather chair and takes a moment to adjust her delicate crimson lace gloves.  They’re a rather pleasant contrast to the tight, form fitting black gown she’d chosen for the day. Plus they match her parasol and shoes as well.

“Now you said Nick sent you?” Pierce asks as he settles down across from her and leans forwards intently, elbows propped on his knees.

“No,” the smile Toni cuts up at him is sharp and dark.  “I didn’t.”

“The WSC then?”  Pierce asks.

“Try again,” Toni encourages him, teeth gleaming.

Pierce’s eyes abruptly narrow.

Toni just keeps smiling.

“I think you’d better tell me what it is, exactly, you’re doing here, Stark,” Pierce demands, all traces of charm draining away.

“And I think HYDRA scum better be careful who they order around,” Toni cuts back.

Pierce surges to his feet, outrage on his face, his right hand reaching for the small of his back and the gun he undoubtedly keeps there.

“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” Toni chides even as she leans back in her chair and crosses her legs.  “It’ll only make what’s about to happen all the more painful for you if you do.”

The gun’s in Pierce’s hand then.

Men.

So many of them never seem to want to listen to reason.

Until Toni makes them of course.

“Only thing that’s going to happen here is an arrogant, spoiled little princess is going to finally realize not everything goes her way,” Pierce sneers as he levels the gun in her direction.  “HYDRA’s going to get a lot of work out of you, sweetheart.”

“Well,” Toni shrugs as she uncrosses her legs and leans forwards just a bit, “don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Not that you deserve it of course.”

The shadows of the room flex and shiver.

Behind Pierce familiar red eyes stare at Toni with a mix of anticipation and adoration.

Toni just leans to the side a bit and wiggles her fingers in a welcoming wave.

Pierce swings around, gun up, to see who she’s waving at.

In the process he leaves his back open and exposed to the biggest threat in the room.

It’s the last mistake he’ll ever make.

Toni will take great pleasure in making sure of that.

~~~

“What in the hell are you?” Pierce rasps around the blood in his mouth, horror in his eyes and terror practically wafting off of him.

Toni can’t help the way her nose wrinkles just a bit in disgust as she stares down at him.

“Someone who has no use for Nazi trash.  And someone who doesn’t like it when people touch her stuff,” Toni tells him pleasantly as she presses the blade sharp end of her heel against the soft, giving flesh of his throat.  “You should have never put your hands on James Barnes, Pierce.  Otherwise I might have been willing to be a bit less … vengeful.”

Pierce’s eyes go wide as he gurgles, struggling to breathe around the blood in his throat and her heel pressing down on him.  She imagines it feels a lot like he’s drowning in his own blood.

Good.

“Now, Smudge darling,” Toni croons to her shadowy companion even as she takes a moment to flick the blood from her gloves.  Around her feet the shadow’s writhe and the room goes just a bit dimmer. Just a bit colder. “How about we start with his arms?  I’m thinking the left one first, for poetry's sake of course.”

Smudge steps forwards with a loud cackle, tongue lolling.

His teeth flash.

There’s a wet, meaty sort of tearing noise.

Crimson arcs across the room, a warm sprinkle splashing up to dot Toni’s face like freckles or sea spray.

Pierce screams.

And then he keeps on screaming.

~~~

“What do you think Smudge?  J?” Toni asks as she steps back to admire her handywork.  “Am I talented or am I talented?”

“Nicely done Miss,” JARVIS agrees, long since in control of the cameras scattered through Pierce’s house.  “And very unsubtle.”

From the corner Smudge cackles his agreement before turning his attention back towards the bone in his mouth.  He bites it in half with one quick, easy snap of his jaws and swallows it down with a happy sort of huff before he lopes over to her side.  He leans his head against her hip and Toni rewards him with a loving pat between the ears.

“Just returning the favor, baby boy,” Toni tells JARVIS happily even as the shadows well up and sip the blood from her skin.

Toni snaps a quick picture to show Rhodey later, secure in the knowledge that JARVIS will keep it safe for her no matter what.  Plus she doesn’t want to miss a page in the digital scrapbook JARVIS has already started.

The large bloody crimson star she’d drawn on Pierce’s pristine kitchen wall should be the perfect thing to get Barnes’ attention.

It’s no heart but it does match the star on that gorgeous arm of his after all.

Toni’s pretty sure that will count for something.

~~~

Toni finds that there’s few things more enjoyable than sitting back in the armor and watching Rhodey absolutely demolish a no longer secret HYDRA base that had been operating under the guise of a separate terrorist organization.

Her honey bear has a flare for explosions that he so seldom gets to indulge and the sound of his half mad laughter warms her heart.

She’s happy to have given him ample opportunity to do so in between his government sanctioned missions.

~~~

There’s no headlines about Pierce’s death, but then Toni wasn’t expecting there to be.

SHIELD and HYDRA both wouldn’t allow that kind of information to slip out.

She’s sure his passing will be noted in a mysterious car accident or a convenient house fire in a few days time.  Something simple and easy to pull off without anyone asking any pressing questions.

So the lack of news coverage doesn’t bother Toni in the slightest.

Because while there might not be the kind of coverage Vanko’s death had received what there is though is a significant uptick in online chatter in certain circles.

Chatter that she’s sure Barnes will be more than capable to hearing on his own.

~~~

Business calls Toni to SI’s New York office.

Well, the office until the Tower is finally finished that is.

The Tower that she will be putting a arc reactor in no matter what the board tries to say.

Working in tandem with a particularly vicious Pepper is always a joy for her.

She gives it another six months and the last few holdout on the board from Howard and Stane’s days should be terrified enough to finally sell out to her.

That or they’ll die of old age.

Either works for her.

So not even a few hours spent passive aggressively terrifying them into submission can dampen Toni’s spirits.

Especially when the board finally flees the room and she sees the way Pepper’s eyeing Happy like a particularly tasty treat.  It’s a predatory look matched only by the love drunk expression he’s sporting on his face in return.

Deciding to give them a bit of privacy Toni glides out of the meeting room, the door locking behind her.

She laughs, low and fond, at the sound of shattering crystal behind her and the heavy thump of what she’s sure is a body slamming into the wall.

Ah, love.

She knew they’d catch on eventually.

“Come along, darling,” Toni coos down at Smudge as she reaches down to take the length of golden chain from his mouth and loop it around her wrist.  Leash laws are a bitch in New York but at least Toni can do it in style like always. “Let’s give the love birds some time on their own shall we?”

Smudge chuffs up at her agreeably.

“It’s getting a bit late so I’m thinking we go for a walk,” Toni tells him as they move towards the elevator, the door sliding open automatically thanks to JARVIS.  “Maybe we can do some shopping and then we can hit a few back alleyways and find you a nice rapist to snack on. How’s that sound hmm?”

Smudge cackles delightedly and follows along beside her at an easy lope.

~~~

Toni’s moving down another back alley when she finally feels unfamiliar eyes focusing in on her.

Well, more focused eyes than normal that is.

She does tend to draw a bit of attention wherever she goes unless she’s actively trying not to.

“It seems as if you have acquired a tail, Miss,” JARVIS murmurs into her ear.

“Well,” Toni hums lightly, “that is unfortunate.  For them.”

She leans down and unclips Smudge’s chain.

“Be a good boy and keep whoever that is occupied won’t you dear?”  Toni whispers to him lightly as she scratches at his chin. “No actual damage though, not yet.”

Smudge just cackles and then he’s gone.

Toni waits a second, two, and then …

A loud, high pitched scream rings out from around the corner along with Smudge’s loud cackle.

Parasol in hand and chain looped around her wrist, Toni takes her time rounding the corner.

The man on top of the dumpster is attractive in a scruffy sort of way, a bandage on the lower part of his jaw and blond hair in obvious disarray.

What catches her attention most of all though is the way he’s swinging the bow he’s carrying at Smudge in an effort to ward him off instead of attempting to really fight back.

Not that he’d be able to do much in the way of hurting Smudge of course, but that’s not the point at the moment.

“Take the mission Barton,” he’s muttering to himself when Toni gets close enough to hear him, “it’ll be easy.  Watching’s what you do and she’s a civilian.  It’ll be like a vacation.  Bull-fucking-shit.  I should’ve stayed in the fucking circus.  Me and Coulson are gonna have goddamn words.  No, no I’m gonna make Natasha have words with him, that’ll work better.”

“You always talk to yourself like this when you’re supposed to be spying on someone, Hawkeye?”  Toni asks idly even as JARVIS rattles off Clint Barton’s information in her ear.

He has a very, very interesting file.

“What?”  Barton freezes, looks up at Toni with wide eyes and then jolts and stares back down at Smudge when he lunges playfully at the side of the dumpster.  “Shit, thank fuck my cover’s blown. Now lady, please get your dog.”

“He doesn’t bite,” Toni tells him evenly as she eyes the quiver on Barton’s back and the hearing aids hiding subtly in both of his ears.

Smudge cackles and lunges again, jaws snapping at the edge of Barton’s boot.  He’s obviously playing with Barton, Toni knows. Which means Barton’s not an actual threat to Toni at the moment, one of Fury’s little toys or not.

Barton, of course, doesn’t know that which makes this all the more amusing for Toni.

Yes the fuck he does.”  Barton practically squeals as he backs up further against the wall to escape Smudge’s next snap.  “Oh my god please don’t let it eat me, my health insurance isn’t good enough to get eaten.”

“Well, he doesn’t bite unless I ask him to,” Toni amends easily.  “But he is hungry.”

“Stark I live off of pizza and bad decisions,” Barton tells her just a touch desperately, “I’m pretty sure I qualify as junk food by this point which is bad for … whatever the fuck kind of dog that is.”

Toni just tilts her head and watches as Smudge lunges a few more times until Barton’s practically clinging to the brick face behind him.

“That’s enough, Smudge” Toni finally calls as she unwinds the chain from her wrist.  “You can play some more later.”

Smudge lunges one last time and the trots back to Toni’s side, tongue lolling happily.  Toni scratches his ear and then clips the chain back into place.

Then she straightens up and stares directly at Barton.

“You let Fury know that if he ever has me followed again I’ll send you back to him plucked and stuffed,” Toni warns him with a wide, toothy grin.

Kinky,” Barton mutters as he stares at her from on top of the dumpster with wide eyes.

“Well, it would be for one of us,” Toni acknowledges before she turns on her heel and begins to walk away.  “And by that I mean me, not you.”

There’s a moment of silence and then.

“It was nice to meet you, Scary Lady,” Barton calls out from behind her.

Toni just laughs and keeps on moving.

She thinks she might just like him, at least a little bit.

But she was also serious.

This is the second time Fury’s tried to have her followed and spied upon, and the second time she’s let one of his little minion slip away unharmed.

If he does it a third then all bets are going to be off.

~~~

It’s late, the moon is high and full, and Central Park is quiet and still.

Toni finds it peaceful as she meanders down one of the paths.

She always has enjoyed the night time, especially when the moon is red and huge like it is right now.  There’s something calming about it, welcoming almost.

Plus it’s not like there’s anyone in this park who could do much in the way of actual damage to her.

She feels him before she sees him, a shiver of delicious awareness slicing down her spine as if her thoughts had summoned him into being.

“You know,” Toni says without turning around, “lurking in the shadows might give a girl the wrong impression.  Unless you’re just shy all of a sudden?”

There’s no answer but then, between one breath and the next, there’s a line of heat pressed against her back and a silver hand comes around her to rest almost delicately against her throat.

Toni breathes in the scent of gun oil and the faint tinge of blood and then she tips her head back against the wide chest behind her so she can stare up into Barnes’ face.

“We really should stop meeting like this,” Toni tells him softly, attention focused on the thin ring of icy blue staring down at her.  “But I suppose this is better than a rooftop.”

Barnes doesn’t answer her.  Instead he presses his thumb to her chin, a small nudge that feels more like a request than a demand.

Toni obligingly tips her head to the side.

Barnes’ stubble rasps gently against her skin as he leans down and presses his face against the side of her neck.  His lips trail softly against her skin as he inhales, catching her scent like a wolf.

Toni doesn’t bother to bite back the shiver that arcs through her at the slight scrap of his teeth against her jugular or the quick hot rasp of his tongue as he tastes her.

Barnes’ other arm comes up then and he settles his wide palm low on her stomach, fingers sliding across the silk of her gown.

When he presses her back further into the line of his body Toni goes without complaint.

Toni Stark,” Barnes rasps into her ear, voice dark and heavily accented as it almost curls around her name.  “You were my mission.”

“I was,” Toni agrees.  “But I’m not anymore. You’re a free murder-elf now, darling.”

“HYDRA will send another,” Barnes warns, teeth closing down sharply on the lobe of her ear.

“HYDRA’s already begun to burn,” Toni answers, eyes fluttering shut for a split second.  “Besides, you were their best, even if you didn’t want to be. They’ll pay for that too, by the way.  I promise.”

“You killed Alexander Pierce,” Barnes states more than asks as his silver hand shifts, thumb moving to press against the swell of her bottom lip.

“I did,” Toni acknowledges.  “I hope you liked the star. Especially since you gave me such a lovely gift with Vanko.”

“Did it hurt?”  There’s a dark sort of interest in Barnes’ voice then.  “Did you make him suffer? I made Vanko beg for forgiveness before I ripped him to pieces.  For you.”

“I took his left arm off first,” Toni whispers, tongue flicking out against the metal of his thumb.  “He cried when I showed it to him. And then he died, screaming.  Just like the rest of HYDRA will too if I have anything to say about it.  And I do.”

Against her back Barnes shudders as he tucks his face against the side of her throat again, hips grinding forward against the swell of her ass for a split second before he stills.

“They took me apart,” Barnes rasps against her skin.  “Over and over again. Hollowed me out. For so long there was only pain.  Only the mission. Always the mission.  And then … then there was you.”

His mouth is hot and wet against her skin and Toni hisses out a tiny breath and shudders when he bites down, teeth blunter than her own but still sharp.

Toni feels blood well up, a bead sliding past his lips and down the side of her throat to pool in the hollow of her collar bone.

For a split second she wishes he could leave a mark that her healing wouldn’t wipe away in seconds.

It would be one scar Toni knows she would be more than happy to wear.

“You taste as good as you smell,” Barnes rumbles when he finally pulls his mouth away.  “Better even.”

Flatterer,” Toni breathes.  “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“No,” Barnes disagrees.  “Only you, красавица.”

Beauty.

Something hot and wanton clenches low in Toni’s gut at the nickname, right beneath the heavy press of his palm as he flexes his fingers against the silk of her gown.

Toni closes her mouth around the tip of his metal thumb, scraps her teeth across the surface just a bit and then sucks.

Barnes shudders again and the hand on her stomach slides further down, fingers dipping into the slit of her dress to press against the cut of her hip.  Toni doesn’t protest, just relaxes back into his hold as his hand slides even lower.

He presses the heel of his palm against the apex of her thighs, fingers pointed down and curled inwards.  For a split second Toni can feel him pressing up and in against the fabric of her panties.

It’s not enough.

Glutton that she is, Toni wants more.

Barnes,” Toni hisses hs name out on a ragged breath, hips shifting to lift up into the heat of his hand.

“James,” he answers back as his fingers press in harder than before.

James,” Toni agrees, breathless and already beginning to ache.

His hand shifts, fingers sliding the fabric of her panties to the side, and for a glorious moment he’s touching her skin to skin.

And then he shifts again, there’s a pinch against both of her hips, and he’s pulling back and away from her.

Toni doesn’t stumble without his support but it’s a close thing.

When she whirls around he’s already a few feet away from her, a familiar scrape of black lace balled up in his hand even as he raises it up and presses his middle finger against his mouth.  He flicks his tongue out, obviously tasting her on his skin, and almost seems to rumble in pleasure.

The smile he quirks at her as he drops his hand and tucks her panties into the pocket of the jeans he’s wearing and then steps back into the trees off the side of the path, is as sharp as her own.

Left alone on the path all Toni can do is tilt her head back and laugh.

~~~

Two days later the same Senator Stern who had once called her a cunt on CSPAN, and who Toni’s now knows is a HYDRA operative, is found ripped to pieces in the quiet of his Washington townhouse.

On the wall of the living room, written in blood and surrounded by yet another slightly wonky heart, is a single word.

красавица.

Toni’s heart skips a beat.

Beauty indeed.

~~~

The headlines read:  "Sweetheart ” Killer Still At Large.

That’s another one for the scrapbook.

~~~

A day later and a new background in place on her phone, Toni blinks in surprise when Happy brings her a thick padded envelope with her name scrawled across the front in now familiar handwriting.

She rips it open, an eager sort of curiosity eating at her.

A small, black lacquered ring box tumbles out into her hand.

Toni pops it open only to stare down at the single bloody HYDRA pin it contains.

It’s still attached to a small bit of fabric that Toni knows matches the suit Stern had last been seen alive in.

And in that moment Toni falls just a little bit more in love.

Chapter Text

The above ground levels of the mansion and the hot house itself are dark.  JARVIS had helpfully cut all above ground lights to the estate for the moment so that the only light provided comes from the full moon and stars shining brilliantly through the glass.

Laid out across the marble of Edwin’s tomb, her gown spread around her and her hair left long and loose, Toni feels almost as if she’s floating in space.

“I miss you,” Toni whispers.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been by much lately.  Been busy, you know how I am. Still, there’s so much I want to tell you.  So much you should still be here to see.”

The only she gets is the echo of her own breathing and the rustling noises that come every so often from the thick tangle of plants that live and grow throughout the hot house.

That and the almost silent rasping noise of something sliding through the grass like a snake.  Audrey stretching his vines again, no doubt.

“I’ve met someone,” Toni tells the body of the only father she’s ever known.  “James Barnes, alive and in the delicious flesh, if you can believe it. And he … he’s just like in the stories Aunt Peggy used to tell me, Edwin.  Strong, smart, handsome. And he gives me such lovely, thoughtful gifts. He said he made Vanko beg for forgiveness before he killed him. Isn’t that sweet?  He even took out Stern and we both know how much you hated that pig. He’s … perfect. ”

Toni sighs, stretches her arms up above her head, and then brings them down to rest them on her stomach.

“I think you would have like him,” Toni announces as stares up at the stars.  “Or at least I hope you would have, since I plan on keeping him.”

~~~

Toni doesn’t allow her hobby of ripping HYDRA to pieces to stop her from doing other equally important things of course.

She still takes the armor out to hunt down her weapons, still goes to see Yinsen and the children.

Still does what must be done to undo all of the damage Stane had caused.

Occasionally the two even intersect.

Which just means that Toni has even more fun than normal on those days.

~~~

Toni sets a cache of her weapons aflame in a seemingly abandoned warehouse out in a rather remote area of Sokovian wilderness.

Two days later, when the records show her back in New York, Wolfgang von Strucker dies in the bathroom of his penthouse, life ripped away from him in a spray of blood and flesh.

It isn’t quick.

It isn’t easy.

Not for him.

He, after all, deserves neither of those things from Toni.

Humming lightly under her breath Toni draws another red star on the wall and then snaps another photo for JARVIS’ scrapbook.

JARVIS makes sure to drop an anonymous hint about the body and a few other choice issues at a local news station by the time she’s actually back in the US.

There’s more than a little bit of corruption in Sokovia after all and having HYDRA cover this up would just be annoying in the long run.

~~~

A week later there’s another wonky heart waiting for Toni.

Another sweetly written Kрасавица that makes her heart flutter just a bit.

Another pin in yet another box, delivered by a bemused Happy who laughs when Toni makes grabby hands at the package and rips into it gleefully.

JARVIS’ helpfully mined gossip sources say that they had to scrape pieces of Jasper Sitwell off of the ceiling of his brownstone’s living room.

Toni can’t help the way she sighs dreamily at the news, more than a bit smitten and impressed.

The next time she sees James she’s going to show him just how much.

Plus, Toni thinks with a wicked grin, it’s her turn to get a taste of him.

The thought is enough to have her stomach clench in thick, hot want.

~~~

Toni sets out a selection of dark jam filled pastries on the table and moves towards the kitchen and the espresso machine.

She’s on her second when she hears near silent footsteps heading in her direction.

“Hope you like raspberries,” Toni says without turning, attention on the machine.

“Seeing you first thing in the morning almost makes me wish I’d lost both eyes instead of just the one,” Fury grumbles as he puts his gun down on the table and practically collapses into a chair.

“Rude,” Toni pouts as she turns, two cups in hand, to glide back towards the table.

Fury picks up the one she sits in front of him with relatively little grumbling.

“You going to make this a habit?” He asks after a he tosses his espresso back like a shot.

“You going to move every time I decide to visit?” Toni asks lightly.

“Probably,” Fury says with a baleful look.

“You’re going to run out of safe houses a lot faster than I’ll run out of the ability to find you,” Toni points out.  “Though I see you kept the dining room set.”

“The chairs are comfortable and I’m hoping you’ll get bored eventually,” Fury admits.  “Or you’ll get distracted with whatever fucked up courtship or stalking bullshit you and the goddamn Winter Soldier seem to have going on.”

Toni wonders just how aware of what, exactly, Toni’s been doing Fury is.  If he has any real inclination that Toni’s doing her fair share of courting right back.  If he knows that every bloody star being drawn was done by her hand instead of James’.

JARVIS’ scans and monitoring of the various information networks they’re tapped into says her name’s not even being whispered as a perpetrator yet.

No, beyond making note of her more obvious targeting of HYDRA bases, Toni’s only being mentioned as an obvious source of fixation where the more personal and bloody deaths are concerned.  Even the red stars she’s been leaving are being seen as a calling card instead of the work a second killer.

But then that doesn’t tell her what Fury thinks, only what he’s told others.

But, Toni supposes, it doesn’t really matter if Fury knows she’s getting a bit more … up close and personal than he’d probably thought she would.

HYDRA is, after all, burning.

And, in the end, Tony knows that will be all that really matters to Fury.

It’s one of the few things she almost admires about him.

Almost.

“Your little spider’s been spinning stories for you huh?” Toni asks.  She’d had to tamp down the surge of jealousy that had flared to life inside of her when she’d found that little tid bit out when reviewing James’ rather extensive files.

Knowing that Romanov had once been trained by James had been enough to have Toni almost wishing she hadn’t let the Widow off so easily when she’d tried to crawl her way into Toni’s life.

“Romanov didn’t have to tell me shit,” Fury tells her flatly.  “SHIELD might not be running at full capacity thanks to this purge but if someone draws Toni Stark’s name on a wall in blood people tend to take notice.  Especially when the graffiti shtick isn’t a one off. All those hearts and red stars have been getting a lot of attention in a lot of circles.”

“Where’s your sense of romance, Fury?” Toni asks with a sharp smile.  “I think it’s sweet. He obviously has good taste.”

“You would,” Fury scrubs his hand over his face, sighs, and reaches for the pastry box.  “There’s not much to tell, beyond that though. Man’s a ghost story for most circles but there’s been … rumors.  Whispers that the Asset has gone rogue, that he’s killing the leadership.  Things like that. Nothing concrete. Between you going after them in the open with the armor and him in the shadow’s there’s enough chaos for me to know that HYDRA’s higher ups are running scared across the globe.  All of them are certain they’re next.”

“Good,” Toni reaches out to swipe her finger through the raspberry filing of Fury’s pastry.  “They should all be terrified.”

“And you need to be extra careful with watching your back,” Fury cautions then even as he scowls and tugs his plate further away from her.  “If they think taking you out will also damage the Winter Soldier they’ll target you more than they already are. Two birds with one murder.”

“Oh I hope so,” Toni grins, slow and wide and filled with teeth.  “If they make that mistake it’s going to end very very badly for whoever they send after me.”

Especially since their ignorance just means that none of them will ever see Toni coming.

Not that they would anyways of course.

Just like James Toni has a rather unique skill set that ensures that.

~~~

Nostalgia and and a certain sort of achy longing takes Toni back to New York and back to Central Park the next time the moon is bright and full in the sky.

She strolls down the paths, Smudge at her side this time, and eventually picks a secluded bench near the treeline to sit down on.  For a while she just sits there, Smudge at her feet, and enjoys a rare moment of peace and the memory of what had happened the last time she’d been in this park.

She doesn’t expect to see James again of course, that’d be asking for too much.

Toni knows that.

But that doesn’t mean she can’t still hope.

Toni shivers then, a thrill tracing down her spine.  At her side Smudge goes still and watchful, ears pointed and eyes bright as he stares at the tree line Toni’s already twisted in her seat to face.

Kрасавица,” James rasps as he melts out of the edge of the trees.

James,” Toni breathes his name, a hand reaching down to absently pat Smudge on the head in reassurance before he melts away into the shadows and leaves her alone with James.  She’s unable, unwilling really, to tear her eyes away from James as he moves, leaving the trees behind to close the distance between them.

He only stops when he’s standing directly in front of her, staring down at her with bright blue-grey eyes.

Toni looks at him for a moment and then crooks a finger meaningfully, testingly.

James doesn’t even hesitate, just drops down onto the gravel to kneel at her feet with a kind of eager fluidity that leaves her breathless.

This time it’s Toni who reaches out to touch him first.  She leans forwards on the bench and brings her hand up to carefully run the tips of her claws across the side of his face.

She feels the way he shivers just a bit when they scrape against his stubble.

“I got your gifts,” Toni tells him softly as she steps closer, hand drifting down the side of his face to trail her claws across the vulnerable curve of his throat.

He lets her, tilts his head to the side and watches her from underneath half lidded eyes, a show of trust just like the one she’d given him the last time they’d met.

“Did you like them?”  He asks, voice still low and rough but a bit more even than the last time they’d spoke.  Like he’s slowly getting used to talking again.

Oh yes,” Toni breathes as she brings her other hand up to cup his chin, more than a little bit in love with the way he lets her tilt his head back and to the side.  “You’re so good to me, James. So sweet.”

He doesn’t even flinch when she brushes a clawed thumb against the hollow of his throat and presses down hard enough to make a bead of blood well up.

Staring at him, head tilted back and throat exposed, Toni can’t resist the urge to lean forwards and lick it off.

He shudders in her hold but doesn’t try to move away as Toni’s eyes flutter closed for a split second, luxuriating in the way the taste of him washes across her senses.

He tastes different, better, than anything she’s ever tasted before in her life.  Tastes like heat and something almost spicy that makes her tongue tingle pleasantly.

Exquisite.

Just like the rest of him.

Toni wants more, has to resist the urge to sink her teeth in deep and drink.

There will, hopefully, be time for that later.  Time for her to get more than the taste she’d promised herself.

She wants James with an ache she’s never felt before, a molten hot sort of longing that threatens to set her aflame from the inside out.

She wants to devour him in all of the best sort of ways.

Wants to be devoured in return.

But, above all else, she wants to keep him.

“You should come home with me,” Toni whispers as she trails her mouth up the side of his throat, one hand sliding around his shoulder as the hand on his chin slides back to fist itself in the surprisingly silky fall of his hair.

Toni pulls him closer.

James comes willingly.

“Either to Malibu or New York when the Tower’s done,” Toni whispers to him, just a bit coaxing as she nips lightly at his jaw line.  “I want you in my bed, James.  In my house, my life.  Mine to keep.”

James shudders, his hands coming up to settle on her thighs, fingers flexing against the lace of her skirt.

“Think about it.  All of the blood, the heat,” Toni breathes.  “All of the things you’ll let me do to you.  All of the things I’ll let you do to me. Imagine it.  Remember how good I taste? Think about how much better I’ll feel.  About how good I’ll make you feel.”

Kрасавица,” James groans, hands clenching in her skirt for a split second before he forces them to relax.

“Don’t you want it too, James?” Toni asks as she pulls him even closer, legs spreading to welcome him into her space as his hands shift up to grip at the back of the bench.  “Don’t you want me?”

Да,” he agrees roughly.  “I want.”

“You could have it all,” Toni promises as she shifts until they’re staring at each other head on again, her mouth hovering just above his own.  “I’ll give it to you and no one will ever take it away. Come home with me and it’s yours.”

I can’t,” he sounds agonized, almost as if the words themselves have been ripped from his chest.  “HYDRA …”

“Can’t hurt either one of us,” Toni disagrees, feeling every inch the devil she’s been accused of being as she whispers the words against the swell of his mouth and wills him to agree.  “They can’t touch me. And you? You’re so strong, James.  Imagine what we could do to them if we worked together.  We could have all of those things we want and the two of us ripping HYDRA to shreds together.  All you have to do is say yes.  All you have to do is let me keep you.”

Soon,” James promises desperately.  “Not yet but soon. I swear. Just … wait for me, Kрасавица.  Please.”

It’s not the answer she’d hoped for but it’s a promise that she’ll take.  That she’ll hold close to her chest and guard like a jealous sort of dragon.

Soon,” Toni accepts, agrees.

And then she leans forwards and kisses him, presses their mouths together firmly, teeth nipping sharply at his bottom lip even as he opens to her eagerly.

His tongue presses against one sharp fang and the taste of blood is mixed into the heat of the kiss.  Toni moans harshly at the taste of him and pulls him closer, both hands clenched in his hair.

Behind her the wood of the bench groans harshly and then splinters in his hands as he shudders.

James breaks the kiss, panting, and stares up at her with eyes blown wide with want.

“Let me, Kрасавица,” he begs as he shifts to bring his hands back around, wide palms smoothing up the lines of her stockings from where her dress had ridden up when she’d spread her legs and pulled him closer.  “Toni, please.  Let me.”

“Yes,” Toni breathes her agreement out into the still night air.

His hands shift, slide higher.  She feels warm skin and metal against her inner thighs as he presses them apart.  A familiar pinch at both hips as her panties disappear.

And then there’s only heat as he closes his mouth around her.

Yes,” Toni hisses again, hands buried in his hair as her back arches, eyes glued to the moon that watches over them.

A witness to this covenant of sorts between them.

~~~

Days pass and Toni manages to get her hands on one Daniel Whitehall, yet another prominent HYDRA official on the list that’s rapidly dwindling.

Smudge eats well, enjoying the bits and pieces she idly tosses to him as she takes Whitehall apart slowly with an almost clinical sort of precision.  It’s the least of what he deserves after all that he’s had a hand in, this old man who should have died so very long ago.

Toni draws another star and hopes it’ll be enough to draw James back to her side again.

She aches for him more now than she ever had before.

Thoughts of him linger in the back of her mind, the memory of his touch, his taste, the quiet rasp of his voice, all refuse to leave her in peace.

She doesn’t really want them to.

In the shadows of Toni’s mind James is every inch the merciless phantom his legend has made him out to be.

It’s a strange sort of haunting of the heart, this yearning she has for him.

It’s one of the sweetest things she’s ever felt.

~~~

What’s left of the majority of SHIELD’s former STRIKE team is found strung up in Central Park, not too far from the bench where Toni and James had last met.

Their blood drips down and fills the shallow, heart shaped channel that’s been dug into the ground below.

Toni gets a small box filled with blood covered HYDRA pins and she smiles for days, heart aflutter.

~~~

JARVIS helps her with her next gift.

Takes to the task with a particularly gleeful sort of viciousness.

Armin Zola disgusts him as much as he does Toni herself.

They both enjoy the way he screams, trapped in the closed off network JARVIS had corralled him into, as JARVIS flays his code apart bit by bit.

He helps her make it as slow as possible, draws it out until Zola is a begging mess as he pleads with both of them.

Neither of them listen of course.

~~~

Two weeks go by and Toni actually crawls into her bed after a night of listening to JARVIS relay chatter to her about a massive explosion that had ripped through a remote area of Siberia a earlier in the week.

She wakes, rested and relaxed, a handful of hours later to a rare but gorgeous rainy day.

Sliding out of her bed, the silk of her nightgown flowing across her skin as she stretches, Toni heads out of her room and towards the kitchen.

It’s dark and gloomy outside and Toni can already smell the coffee JARVIS has already set to brew for her and the faintest hint of fresh blood.

It’s a glorious combination of things to wake up to.

She stops and stares at the large, long black box on the counter in surprise.

“J, baby boy,” Toni asks slowly, “did I sleepwalk and order stuff to be delivered again last night?”

“No, Miss,” JARVIS answers promptly.  “But you did have a visitor who I saw no harm allowing inside, all things considered.”

From the corner of the kitchen there’s a loud crunching sound then that captures Toni’s attention.

When she turns to look she catches sight of Smudge.

His jaws are clamped down around what appears to be relatively fresh severed leg.  Instead of jumping up to greet her like he normally does all Smudge does instead is stare up at her happily, body practically vibrating with joy as he gnaws on his treat.

A treat that Toni most certainly did not get for him.

Heart jumping in anticipation Toni heads for the box on the counter, eager now to see what’s inside.

The closer she gets to the counter the thicker the scent of blood becomes.

Finally Toni pries the top off of the box and stares down in awe at what she finds.

Nestled inside of the box on a bed of ice is a circle of five bloody but perfectly intact human hearts.

And in the center of the hearts is folded note resting on top of a thin, red leather notebook with a black star embossed on the front.

Toni picks the thick, blood smeared note up and flips it open, already more than a bit breathless in anticipation.

No more handlers.  No more strings.

You’re so beautiful in your sleep, Kрасавицa.

You can keep me, if you want.  Soon.

Toni’s heart skips a beat.

James.

It’s his handwriting, his word for her, his type of gift.

His promise.

He was here.

He came.

Now all Toni has to do is find a way to make him stay.

Because the next time he comes she’s not sure she’ll be able to let him go.

~~~

The book goes into the safe until Toni has the chance to read it through in its entirety.

Toni puts the note in a frame and hangs it, place of pride, in the workshop.

She catches herself staring at it more than once, mind whirling through day dream after day dream, a small but undeniably giddy smile on her face.

~~~

“So,” Rhodey drawls the word out from where he’s laid out on the couch in the workshop with her.  His head’s in her lap and one of Toni’s hands is splayed out on his chest, palm covering his heart.

Feeling his heartbeat from two different sources at the same time is something that will always fascinate Toni.

“Yes, dear?” Toni asks as she looks down at him with smile.

“You know I love you right?” Rhodey asks, expression serious but tender.  “That I’ve got your back through anything and everything. That it’s me and you, until the day we die.”

“I love you too, Rhodey,” Toni says as she leans down to press a soft kiss against his forehead.  “Now tell me what’s on your mind. There someone we need to kill that’s got you worried?”

“No, not that I can think of,” Rhodey waves that issue aside as he grabs the hand on his chest and laces their fingers together.  “Guess I’m just a bit worried about you and Barnes and whatever this is between you two. Don’t think I didn’t see that wall art you’ve got hanging up now.”

“Doesn’t he have nice handwriting?” Toni can’t help but asks as she looks over towards the note.

“He’s ancient Toni,” Rhodey deadpans but Toni can see the light of teasing in his eyes easily enough.  “He’s got good handwriting because he probably used to write with a quill.  You’re practically a grave-robber, baby girl, going after a senior citizen like this.  If you two do end up together and you’ll have to spoon feed him and give him sponge baths before too long.”

“He’s not that old,” Toni swats at him with her free hand.  “But the sponge baths do sound like a good idea, thanks for thinking of that sugar crunch.”

“And there you go, putting thoughts in my head I don’t want,” Rhodey groans.

“You walked right into that one, honey bear,” Toni informs him sagely.  “Don’t blame me for that.”

Rhodey just rolls his eyes and groans as he rolls a bit and buries his face in her stomach.

For a moment they don’t say anything, just bask in each other’s company as she strokes her free hand over the top of his head.

Finally Rhodey rolls back onto his back, gets settled, and then stares up at her again.

“In all seriousness though Tones, it’s just,” Rhodey pauses, seems to search for the right words for a moment, and then plows on, “I’ve never seen you fixate on anyone like this before.  Not romantically. And all of the murder aside it’s gone … pretty quickly.  I mean a few months ago you met the guy when he was trying to assassinate you, Toni.”

“I know,” Toni sighs more than a bit longingly.  “I wish I’d had a little more time to play with him that night.  Things were just getting good when he left.”

“You being a freak ass white girl aside,” Rhodey says more than a bit judgingly, “the next thing I know he’s taking vengeance in your name, you two are murder sexting or something, and he’s sending you trophies and watching you sleep.  I guess just don’t want to see you get your heart broken if this doesn’t work out for some reason.”

“James is … definitely a special case,” Toni admits, honest and open because she has no real secrets from Rhodey.  Never has and never will. “I know we haven’t spent a lot of time actually together but … there’s just something about him.  I want him, Rhodey. More than I’ve ever wanted anyone else.  In more ways than one.”

Rhodey stares up at her for a moment, eyes searching her face, before he huffs out a small sigh.  He brings the hand holding hers up and presses a kiss against her knuckles.

“Figures it’d take a hundred year old master assassin and more than a few dead bodies to make you fall in love,” Rhodey teases gently, lovingly.  “Winter Soldier or not though I hope Barnes knows that I’ll rip his spine out if he hurts you. And I won’t even need the armor to do it either.”

~~~

Toni read the book from cover to cover.

Rage, sharp and cold, coils to life inside of her.

A half an hour later she burns it and lets the wind carry the ashes out to sea.

She wants James.

Wants to keep him.

To own him.

Even to control him sometimes if he agrees.

But not like that.

Never like that.

She wants James, wants the man, the weapon, the soldier that he is.

Not a will-less husk just waiting to be filled up.

Toni might be any number of monsters rolled up into one.

But that has never been a sin she’s been partial to.

~~~

The Tower is finally finished in New York.

Toni sets about getting the mansion packed up for the move.

It feels right somehow to being going back to the east coast.

Like fate somehow.

Toni’s eager to start this new chapter of her life.

A chapter in her life that she will, if everything goes according to plan, share with James someday.

~~~

James, just like Fury, Toni discovers, was right when he said HYDRA would send someone else after her.

Toni had known it when he’d said it just as surely as she knows it know.

HYDRA is nothing if not persistent and dedicated.  There is, after all, a reason why they’d meshed so well with SHIELD.

The people who work for and with both organizations are so alike it’s almost funny, filled up to the brim with the same character traits focused on vastly different but sometimes parallel goals.

So of course HYDRA couldn’t, wouldn’t, stop at only one attempt on her life, even if Stane had been the one who’d enabled them to try the first time around.  Even if their leadership has been dwindled down to practically nothing.

Toni’s actually rather pleased, all things considered.

It just means she won’t have to go out looking for her next offering in this little love game that’s sprung up between her and James.

~~~

Her next would be assassin picks his time well, Toni admits.

She comes back to the penthouse of the Tower and finds the penthouse dark and a guest waiting for her on the sofa.

JARVIS says nothing over the speakers, but he whispers in her ear all the same.

“I almost killed him for you, Miss,” JARVIS says darkly.  “But I thought, perhaps, you’d like to do it yourself. A gift from me to you and, perhaps, another page for the scrapbook all at the same time.”

Toni just hums low in her throat in amusement because her boy knows her so well.

“Stark,” Rumlow grins at her mockingly from where he’s settled on her couch, a long, black bladed knife resting on his knee and one of her black stemmed goblets in his hand.

If she were anyone else it might have even been enough to catch her off guard, him being inside her home.  Might have been enough to make her vulnerable.

Unfortunately for him, and HYDRA in general, she’s has never been anywhere close to normal.

And Toni’s honestly more irritated that he’d opened the bottle of wine she’d been saving for Pepper’s birthday.

“Rumlow,” Toni answers with a small nod as she sheds her wrap and lays it across the back of the chair to her left.  “What an unpleasant surprise.”

“For you, maybe,” Rumlow nods as he toasts her with the goblet and then gulps down the wine like the savage he is.  “For me? I’m thinking this is about to be a lot of fun.”

“Darling,” Toni purrs as she moves further into the room, eyes catching and holding on dark patch of shadows in the far corner before she turns them back to Rumlow.  “Fun is going to be the last thing this is. For you, of course.”

“Don’t see your fancy suit of armor anywhere, little girl,” Rumlow mocks as he puts the goblet down and pushes himself up onto his feet to make a show of looking around her living room.  “So I’m thinking this goes exactly how I want it to.”

“Really now, is that what you think?”  Toni tilts her head to the side and stares at him in genuine curiosity as he makes his way across the room.  He’s taller than her of course, stacked with heavy muscle and an angular but still handsome face. She’s seen his file, knows he’s skilled and dedicated and loyal.  She can practically smell the darkness in and on him.

It’s almost a pity that Toni’s going to have to slaughter him.  In another life with different choices she might have enjoyed his company.

But then none of that matters because, when given the chance, he’d chosen the wrong path long before they’d ever met.  Had chosen to give himself over to a sickness that Toni can not, will not, forgive.

“Oh I know it,” Rumlow smirks as he comes to a stop in front of her, knife tapping out a rhythm against his thigh as he brings his free hand up cup her chin in his hand.  “Gorgeous thing like you? Might end up being my favorite assignment. One I won’t ever forget.”

“I’m sure of that,” Toni grins, wide and sharp, as she steps closer to him, one hand coming up to rest against the fabric of his black shirt and the hard ridge of his abs.  “I’ve been told I’m … memorable.”

“You’ve got to be if you’ve got that empty headed fucking Asset all tangled up about you,” Rumlow sneers then, rage and lust twisting in his features.  “Just means I’m gonna like this even more, knowing I’m getting one over on the Winter Soldier.”

“That’s cute,” Toni laughs as her hand trails down.  “I’d almost be impressed with your imagination if it wasn’t so misguided.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Rumlow’s hand tightens on her chin.  “We’ll see who’s laughing at the end.  And I’ve got all night, baby, so I’m gonna take my time.  Hell you might even end up liking it too before I’m done with you.”

From the corner of the living room, in that dark alcove, comes a furious sort of growling noise.

Rumlow goes to turn towards it only to freeze, face going pale and eyes blowing wide as he stares down at Toni in shock.

What?” Rumlow rasps even as he staggers back, body hunching over in agony and knife falling to the ground with clatter as his hands come up to clutch at the blood soaked front of his pants.  Toni just grins and raises a blood drenched hand up in front of her to show him exactly what part she’d ripped away from him so easily.  “You fucking bitch.

James is there in the next second, one hand wrapped around his throat.

“Watch your tongue, trash,” James rasps, features twisted in rage.

At his feet Smudge cackles, red eyes gleaming and tongue lolling out.  Toni tosses him the bloody flesh in her hand and watches as he snaps it up greedily.

Fuck you and your w-whore,” Rumlow manages to gurgle, feet kicking as James raises him up off of the ground.

James doesn’t say anything else, just brings his free hand up to slam it into Rumlow’s face, the metal of his knuckles shattering his teeth with ease.  In James’ hold Rumlow keens, high and desperate, in agony.

“Warned you,” James rumbles as he reaches for Rumlow’s mouth, finger sliding inside.

Rumlow flails, tries to fight, but he’s already weak from blood loss and pain and a lack of air.

Toni can only watch in a breathless sort of awe as James grabs his tongue between two silver fingers.

He jerks his hand back.

There’s a wet, meaty sort of tearing noise, a gurgle of pure agony.

James drops Rumlow at his feet and then tosses Smudge yet another gift.

For a moment there’s silence as Rumlow bleeds out on the ground at their feet.

Kрасавица,” James whispers as he turns towards her, blood slick on his hands.

James,” Toni breathes back.

His hands come up to cup her face in his palms and Toni leans into the move, uncaring of the warm and sticky blood that smears across her face.

His kiss is slow, biting and deep.

More worshipful than gentle.

“Is it soon now, James?” Toni can’t help but ask when they pull away from each other, blood smeared across both of their faces even as the shadows pulse and slink upwards to sip it away from both of their skin.  “Will you stay?”

Beside them Smudge cackles and grabs Rumlow by the arm, obviously intent on hiding away with his snack.

“I …” James trails off, swallows hard, and stares down at her, hesitation and longing writ large across his face.

“HYDRA’s in its death throes now,” Toni tells him then, a smattering of desperation curling to life inside of her.  She’s never felt like this before towards anyone outside of her family and even then it’s different. She wants to keep it, to keep him, to see where all of this will go.  To see this seed of love and want burst into life between them, nurtured by their heat and the blood of all those who might stand in their way. “How long do we have to wait?  What’s left to stand between us and what we both know we want?”

Toni,” there’s a naked kind of desperation in his face then and the tiniest flicker of what might be fear of some kind.

And then Toni knows exactly what she needs to say.

Knows the final string to cut, the final chain to break to free them both.

“I burnt the book, James,” Toni whispers, hands cupping his face in her palms.  He goes still beneath her touch, eyes blown wide as he stares at her in what looks like awe.  “It’s gone. The process, the instructions, the words. All of it. No one will ever control you like that again.  You’re free. Free to choose.”

James sighs, a shuddering almost sob and some sort of tension seems to slip down and away from the broad width of his shoulders.

Please,” James rasps, silver arm coming down to wrap around her waist so he can lift her up to wrap her legs around his waist.  He buries his face in her neck, mouth hot and wet and biting against her throat. “I choose this. You, us.  Toni, Kрасавица, keep me.  If you still want to.”

“Always,” Toni swears it to him then, hands buried in his hair and shadows dancing around the both of them in joy at this new beginning that’s blossoming to life before her.  She vows it to him and knows it for the truth that it is. Whatever this is between them is a thing made out of and for eternity. She can feel it. “Always, James. We’ll keep each other, forever.”

And they will.

Toni knows it.

After all, there’s no one on this earth who could pry them apart against their will.

Toni would fight the gods themselves to keep what is hers.

And that includes James.

~~~

“Oh god really?” Rhodey’s loud grumble draws Toni’s attention from where she’s sprawled out on the couch, Splatter purring on the arm rest beside her and James’ head in her lap.

“What’s wrong now gumdrop?” Toni calls.

“What’s wrong is that you’re nasty,” Rhodey grouses.  “Leaving body parts just laying like that.”

“Smudge’s saving that arm for later,” Toni reasons, which is true.  Smudge is always hungry but sometimes he likes to keep a piece for a midnight snack.

“Then he needs to save it in his corner of the kitchen, not right by the elevator door,” Rhodey huffs.  “That’s why I bought him that mat and everything so I’m not tripping over severed limbs every time I turn around.”

“He always bitch this much?” James asks softly.

“He’s high maintenance but I love him,” Toni answers, nails scratching across James’ scalp.

“High maintenance my ass,” Rhodey protests as he comes to a stop before the couch, hands on his hips as he stares down at the two of them.  “I just have standards when it comes to dead bodies and sentient shadow dogs with messy eating habits.”

“Like I said,” Toni teases with a light shrug.  “High maintenance.”

“You’re a pain in my ass and you’re lucky I can’t live without you,” Rhodey finally tells her before he turns his attention towards James, eyes narrowing abruptly.  “I see you finally got your boy toy to stay huh?”

In her lap James stiffens a bit and then shifts, rolling off of the couch and onto his feet to stand across from Rhodey.

Toni just watches them posture for a moment, fondness and humor welling up inside of her.

James doesn’t know Rhodey after all so he can’t see the spark of mischief in his eyes as well as Toni can.

“James Rhodes,” Rhodey says as he holds out a hand, amber eyes bright.

“James Barnes,” James answers as he shakes the offered hand, too sharp teeth flashing as he grins.

Rhodey pauses, studies him for a second, and then sighs and rolls his eyes.

“Great, another one,” he huffs.  “At least you’ll be able to handle her.  And the ass kicking you’ll carry if you ever hurt her.”

Then, in a move James obviously wasn’t expecting, Rhodey drops his hand, ducks around him, and throws himself down onto the couch, head in Toni’s lap.

“Dibs,” Rhodey announces just a touch smugly.  “Also I knew her first so she loves me more.”

For a long second James just blinks in shock and stares down at the two of them.

Then he smiles.

“For now,” he agrees before he folds himself down to sit on the floor at Toni’s feet.

Toni, Rhodey’s head in her lap and James’ head leaned back against her knee, just throws her head back and laughs.

This really is the beginning of something utterly beautiful.