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The Theories Of The Universe

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Antonia Stark is born the same way she lived most of her life; grasping the attention of everyone in the room with just one action. She’s born in a private hospital room on a late spring day with her father pacing nervously outside and her mother inside the room. The room is bright around her and she cries out, begging for attention and the love of her family. The world is set ablaze with just one action, and the world will never more be the same.

Howard entered the room after it all was done, and saw his wife lying on the bed, exhausted from childbirth and frowned as he looked around the room.

“Where’s my son?” he asked gruffly and the nurse in the room came over, holding a small bundle in her arms as she placed it into his. It was the first time he’d ever held a child, and he knew it would be the last time. That’s what they had Ana and Jarvis for; they could take care of all that while he was out doing more important things.

“It’s a girl, Mr Stark,” the nurse said meekly as she uncovered his daughter’s face slightly. He frowned once more looking down at the tiny girl in his arms. He needed a son; a son who would take over Stark Industries, who would continue to build weapons and change the world. A son who would continue his search for Steve Rogers until his body was found. His legacy needed a son to take it over. And instead he was given a daughter.

What good was a girl when the world was run by men?

“Take her back,” Howard said in a huff as he handed the girl off to a nurse and existed the room. He needed a drink, not to be around any of this any longer. He needed to get out of this room, out of all this stuffiness, and the cries from around him as his daughter was carted off to another room to be cared for. They didn’t need him, not when a daughter was no use to him.

“How’s the boy looking?” Obadiah asked him with a grin as he waited outside the hospital room, holding a bear in his hand for the son he didn’t end up having.

“It’s a girl,” Howard breathed out loud with a sigh and Obadiah’s smile slipped off his face just as quickly as the words left his lips. “What use do I have for a daughter?”

“Maria is still young; there’s still time,” Obadiah said giving him a sympathetic smile. Easy for him to say; his wife had already given him two sons. And his own wife had barely been able to carry one child to full term. The chances of her having another child after this was rare, and they both knew it far too well.

“Let’s get out of here,” Howard said with a shake of his head, wanting to drop the subject. “I need a drink. And then I need to get back to work. If I cannot have a son to take on my legacy, then at least I want to make sure my legacy will remain strong after I am gone.”

“Of course, Howard,” Obadiah obliged, dropping the bear on the chair of the hospital, as he turned to leave.

“Sir?” Jarvis asked as he came to the hospital holding flowers intended for Maria. “Has the child been born?”

“Yes,” Howard breathed, “A daughter. Take care of them, will you, J? I need to step out for a bit.”

“Very well, Sir,” Jarvis said, and Howard could hear the disapproval was clear in his tone, but he didn’t care. He needed to get out of the hospital. It was just another way he had failed. He had failed to bring Steve Rogers home. Failed to give Peggy a body to grieve over. Failed to recreate the serum. And failed to have a son to carry on his legacy when he died. Perhaps this was what his legacy truly was. That no matter what he built or what he accomplished, he would only ever be defined by his failures.

If he couldn’t have a son to take over his legacy, then he would be damned if he died without anything. Steve Rogers would become his legacy. He would be remembered for the work he did on Project Rebirth and he would recreate the serum, one way or another. Blast Carter for dumping the vial of blood that they had of Steve. It was his best shot at reproducing something which had been his greatest feat.

But none of that would matter if they recovered Roger’s body. Then he could take as many samples as he needed. He could change the world.

And he could finally lay his friend to rest. His friend, a hero, who had died saving the world, and lay in the middle of the ocean.

“Obadiah,” Howard said, on the way to the car. His friend looked up at him, curious to see what he wanted to say, and he continued, “I want to increase funding into Project Valkyrie. I want to find that plane and Steve’s body, one way or another. He will be my legacy. He will be what I leave behind in this world.”

Obadiah smiled and nodded in approval, clearly understanding where he was coming from. Besides, it would be good for Stark Industries if they were able to recreate the serum.

He might have a daughter, but he would still leave behind a legacy worth remembering.


 

Antonia Stark is four years old when it finally clicks in her head.

She’s known that her father has always looked at her in anger for years. It seemed that nothing was ever good for him, not her attempts at circuitry or her attempts of building herself any toys. She’s tried to make a toy car that would move without her having to push it but the wiring on it didn’t quite align and she ended up setting it on fire and burning her hands.

And her father was mad when he saw it; not because she could have hurt herself, but because she could have done some serious damage to the lab and ruined the other things he had in there. Things that were actually important. Things that would make Stark Industries money. Not a stupid toy car that moved.

So from then on she tried to only make things that were useful. She tried to build things that her father would be proud of. It’s how she ended up putting together the circuit board. She’d seen her father’s designs for it in his lab and she wanted to try and work on it, to help him. She could see that his design wasn’t quite complete; it was too big to be functional.

She worked on it every day for the better part of a month, delicately placing all the wires and pieces in place and she feels so pleased with herself when she finally got everything to lay flat. She’d done it. She’d put together her first circuit board and she wanted nothing more than to show her father.

She ran through the house, despite knowing fully well that Jarvis would be unhappy with her if he saw her.

He’d warned her plenty of times about running in the house, but she knew it didn’t matter. There are more important things than a few rules.

She carefully held her circuit board as she ran into the room where her father is in and she freezes instantly when she realizes that Uncle Obie is there and knows immediately that she’s made a mistake. She should have knocked, should have waited until he was free to see her. Instead she runs in head first.

“Antonia,” her father said, holding a glass with a drink she’s seen him consume far too often.

“Father,” she whispered, trying to gather up the courage that seems to be leaving her all too quickly.

“What have I told you about knocking?” he asked, raising a brow at her.

“I’m sorry,” she said dropping her head.

“What do you have behind your back, Annie?” Uncle Obie asks her, and she shyly places the circuit board on the desk in her father’s study.

“I made a circuit board,” she said, looking at her father carefully as she took a step back. “I followed the directions in your lab and put it together.”

“Those sketches were incomplete,” her father frowned, “The pieces weren’t fitting together. How did you manage to complete it?”

“I shrunk it down,” she said softly, “And change the voltage flowing through it by adding an extra resistor. I also reversed the current flow and added some extra pathways. It works. I tried it before I brought it down here.”

“We’ll test that out, now won’t we,” Howard shrugged, as he placed it into a piece on his desk, something she’d seen him use many times to test the basic flow of current. And she held her breath as he flipped the switch. He held the multimeter in his hand and placed the pins on the board.

He frowned as he looked at the reading on the meter. He placed the pins on another point then glanced at her carefully. Uncle Obie looked curious at the actions and leaned over to read the meter himself before bursting into laughter.

“Looks like the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, Howard,” Obadiah clapped her on the back, “Little Annie here is a genius. There might be hope for the future of Stark Industries after all.”

She beamed proudly and her father had a challenging look on his face.

“Apparently so,” he muttered, “Call the papers, Obie. It seems as if we need to alert them of the fact that my daughter is a genius.”

It’s how she found herself later that day, in front of her father as his hand grasps her shoulder, and he’s telling them all about the circuit his daughter has managed to produce and how they will begin production onto the circuit board, using it for their newest radio technology to serve in the military. He’s showing her off to the world, as a brilliant prodigy and she felt proud of the fact that she’s finally won her father’s approval. She’s done it.

And when she’s given a moment to talk about how she came about it, she talks about how she tried different path ways and did calculation onto how different conductors would work far better than what she’s tried before. She talks about pathways and resistors, and she knows that the world believes that it was her who came up with it, despite a few earlier questions where it was clear that they didn’t quite believe her.

She was proud later that night when she went to her father’s workshop once more, wanting to create, to build, to make something, anything.

But that had been her mistake.

Her father was standing there, looking at her designs once more, a bottle of whiskey in his hands as he went over the calculations.

She accidently closed the door a bit too loudly and she sees him turn around and fear begins to set into her. She’d seen him that angry before. Yelling on the phone at investors, and board members. She’d seen him yell at her before, for playing with toys instead of learning. For reading fictional books instead of factual. For constantly being a disruption.

But this time it’s different. There’s a different sort of rage in his eyes.

“You think you’re so clever, don’t you?” he said, standing over her. “Creating that circuit which I’d tried for months to perfect. You think you’re such a little genius? You’re nothing more than a little girl. And you will never be good enough. What use do I have for a genius daughter when I should have had a son?”

It feels like a punch to the gut, and she begins to shake as finally the pieces begin to fall into place.

The slap comes a moment later, but the sting of the blow had already landed from his words. She feels herself falling to the ground but doesn’t react, not in time to stop herself or steady herself. Her head catches on the counter on the way down and she can feel a drip of blood fall down her face.

She finally understood in that moment why her father had always been distant, why he’d always hated her.

It has nothing to do with the fact that she’s not good enough for her father. Because that’s always been true in itself. But she’d just proved herself. Every time he throws a fault in her face, she’s always improved it.

She stopped reading fairy tales and began reading physics books. She stopped playing with dolls and instead started playing with tools. She stopped wearing dresses, even if her mother still tried to force them into it. She stopped wasting her free time, and instead started trying to create something great.

It didn’t matter how hard she tried, how hard she worked, how far she pushed herself.

She could never be the son that her father wanted. She could never give him what he needed.

She would never be good enough.

And somehow, that hurt far more than anything else.

She almost didn’t feel the boot come crushing down on her moments later, and when she heard the crack, she didn’t even cry as pain flooded her body.


 

“Miss Stark,” she heard a gentle voice call out as the darkness surrounded her. “Miss Stark, can you hear me?”

Her eyes flickered open and see saw Jarvis sitting on her bed, dropping a towel tenderly on her face, trying to comfort her.

She felt the crushing pain fill her as she tried to sit up; pain from the memories of the night before, of the words that her father had revealed to her. The words of her uselessness, and now no matter how hard she had tried, she’d never be good enough.

There’s a throbbing feeling in her head, and she grasps at her torso, trying to figure out why it hurt so much.

“Hurts,” she whimpered slightly, knowing Jarvis never faulted her for pain. He had been there with her the year before when she had broken her arm by falling out of a tree and had made sure that she never spent a moment alone. Her father couldn’t even bother coming to visit her while her mother had spent the day with her, wanting to make sure she was okay.

She knew now why it was that her father wasn’t there.

Because he didn’t care. Because he wanted a son and had gotten a daughter. Because he wanted something she was not. And nothing could make her a boy. Not when the universe had cruelly made her a girl to punish her.

“I know, Miss Stark,” he said softly, and she could see the anger in his eyes as he cupped her face tenderly. “I have some pain medication for you that the doctor left after his visit. It will help ease your discomfort.”

Nothing could make her feel better, despite the physical pain she was in. But she nodded any ways and Jarvis left the room, leaving her alone with her mother.

“Oh Toni,” Maria Stark breathed as she sat down beside her. “I was so worried when I saw you down in that lab. You know better than to go down there, especially when your father has had a drink too many. He didn’t mean to hurt you, it was the drink that made him do it.”

“Why doesn’t he love me?” she asked, voice cracking slightly, and her mother stilled. “Why am I not good enough for him?”

She felt tears fall down her face before she could stop them, but she didn’t care.

“He wanted a son,” Maria whispered, closing her eyes. “It’s the way of the world of man. They will always look at us and see weakness and inferiority. That we aren’t the same as them. He wanted a son to give him an heir to his business, but I couldn’t give it to him. Every time he sees you, he sees the daughter he got instead of the son he wanted.”

“It’s not fair,” she whimpered slightly, “I can do everything the boys in my class can do and more! Why does it matter if I’m not a son? Why does any of it matter when he has me? Why doesn’t he love me?”

“You are brilliant in your own right, Tesoro,” Maria told her tenderly as she gently ran her fingers down Toni’s hair. “You will bring the world down to its knees and show them all in time that you do not fall down to their expectations. Give your father some time. He’ll see that you can be everything he wanted, despite your gender. He will come around. He loves you, in his own way.”

And yet he broke my ribs, she thought bitterly. He had wanted her to hurt just as he did, and he had taken his anger out on her first hand, because she wasn’t what he wanted.

It was the day she learned the unfortunate lesson that would become her reality. That the world would always look at her and see a daughter when they expected a son. And she would have to fight them every step of the way, just to stand on the same ground as they did. She would have to battle them tooth and nail, just to be able to take what she wanted.

And it was a lesson she held close to her heart from that day forward.


 

She’s eight years old when a beautiful woman with long brown hair and lipstick so red it glows enters her life. She sees him get whisked into her father’s study and curiosity fills her as she watches the closed door of her father’s study.

She’s seen her in pictures in her father’s things, knowing that they must have served in the war together, and she can’t help but wonder why the woman hadn’t come to visit if she was such good friends with her father.

It was the middle of the night by time the woman left the study, and she was sitting at the kitchen table, reading in her duck pyjamas that Ana had bought her despite her insisting she was far too old for such a thing.

“Hello there,” she hears a soft voice call out and she looks up from her calculus textbook to see the woman standing over her. She has a gentle smile on her face, and Toni Stark feels comfortable around her, “You must be Antonia.”

“Toni,” she corrects slightly but sticks her hand out in an effort to be polite as her mother insisted in her society lessons. Her mother may not be able to convince her to wear dresses, but she knows how to act in public, and how important her image may be.

“Toni,” the woman smiles brightly, and shakes her hand, “My name is Peggy Carter. I’m your godmother.”

“Why haven’t I ever met you before?” she couldn’t help but ask, “If you’re my godmother, shouldn’t I have met you before?”

“I used to visit you when you were younger,” her godmother tells her as she sits down beside her, “But you would have been far too young to remember that. I haven’t been able to for a few years because I’ve been working on a secret project and it’s taken a lot of my time away from me.”

She sits up curiously at the glint in her eyes.

“What kind of secret?” Toni can’t help but ask, despite knowing it was probably a secret for a reason.

“A secret sort of club,” Peggy gave her a conspiring smile. “To catch bad guys that have secret weapons or powers.”

“Like Captain America?” she asks again, slightly in shock.

“Like Captain America,” Peggy nods at her with a smile, “The world needs more heroes like him. I want to help keep his legacy alive. Steve Rogers was a hero, not because of his super powers, but because of his kind heart. He was brave and would do anything to fight for those he loved. If we all could be a bit more like him, then the world would be a better place.”

It’s the first time she’d ever heard anyone talk about Steve Rogers as a person apart from Captain America. The comics always talk about how strong he was. How much of a hero he was. And how he got his powers. But none of them talk about the man as a person, and it’s a concept to her that’s so astounding. Perhaps it’s why her father is gone for months each year, searching the artic, desperate to bring him back. Because Steve Rogers was a good man, and she knows that it must be why even if she were a boy, she would never be good enough for her father. But none of that mattered, not when at the end of the day, she still was a girl, and she would never be good enough for him, no matter how much she wished she could have been.

“Even as a girl?” Toni can’t help but whisper. It’s strange to her to see this woman demand her father’s attention. Her father clearly respects her, and she can see from the pictures in her father’s study that she must have been in the military at some point.

“Let me tell you a secret,” Peggy told her gently, “The world will always look at you as a girl and tell you what they want you to be. They’ll tell you where they think you should stand in their eyes and will not accept anything less. And for that, you must decide the truth of your position yourself. Your entire life will be a fight, a war against society. You will have to fight to get every single thing in your life, Toni, and you must listen to your heart. If it’s something you can compromise on, then do it. But if it is a battle you must fight then don’t. Even if the entire world is telling you that something wrong is right. Even if the entire world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move’.  Otherwise the world will continue to walk all over you, and you will have to accept the place they give you.”

She paused then, looking carefully at Toni and offering her a smile, “I have a feeling that you will change the world, Toni Stark. You will unmake the world as it is and write it in your image. And I know that you will make it much better than what it is now. Let me tell you the story of how I got involved in the army.”

She listened to her godmother, as she told the story of how she got involved after she had gotten news of her brother’s death, and how she had known she’d needed to fight in the war. How she had joined despite everyone in her life telling her that she couldn’t do it. How she had worked for MI5 and the SSR, and how she wanted to start a new organization now to change the world.

She smiled back at her godmother, feeling hope for the first time in a while since she had learned of her father’s hatred of her over her gender. This woman, who fought tooth and nail for everything in her life but had defied the odds that had been placed upon her. She was an inspiration.

“Peggy, you’re still here?” Howard said, entering the kitchen as he saw the two of them. “I hope Antonia has not been bothering you. I know she can be rather talkative at times, and the last thing I want is for her to talk off your ear.”

“She’s been a gem,” Peggy smiled at her, “Toni is brilliant, Howard. You must be so proud of her.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Howard soured at the use of her nickname. Toni, because Antonia was too feminine, and because Toni gave her more power over her life. Howard simply brushed her off as he glanced back at Toni. “I just got off the phone with the President. We’ve been given the funding to start the project.”

“That’s remarkable,” Peggy said, standing, as Howard tried to usher her out of the room. “I enjoyed our chat, Toni,” Peggy said looking at her. “I hope that next time we can talk some more? I would love to hear about some of your projects.”

She lit up at the idea of her aunt coming back, knowing it would be incredible to have the chance to spend more time with her. Howard looked unhappy at the concept but didn’t disapprove of the meeting and Toni found herself eagerly nodding.

It was how she found herself later that afternoon, trying on her mother’s makeup for the first time, and painting her lips in a colour her mother almost never wore; a bright red. She stared at herself in the mirror and felt powerful for the first time in years.


 

By time she’s thirteen, she’s more familiar with her Aunt Peggy, given the fact that she and her father are working on their secret project. She comes over for dinner often, and she knows Jarvis is fond of her, having many stories of their adventures together before her father’s marriage to her mother. She knows it still hurts Jarvis to talk about his late wife, Ana, who passed a few years ago, and she doesn’t blame him. Ana had been family to her too and she had locked herself in her room crying for a month when she had first found out, only opening the door when Jarvis had asked her. He had held her tightly and she had tried to comfort the man who was far more of a father than her own to her. He told her stories of Ana and how they met, and she hated that he lost the love of his life.

Ana Jarvis was often featured in Peggy and Jarvis’ stories, and she felt herself always wanting to know more. Aunt Peggy would bring over her husband, Uncle Daniel often, and the man always had time for her, listening to whatever she had to say with a fascination that her own father never held for her work. Despite his limp, she knows he could be very strong in a fight. He works alongside Aunt Peggy and her father on their secret project and sometimes after their missions he always brought her little souvenirs from where ever he’s travelled recently. Their children, Harry and Ava come over often when their parents are busy, and despite the fact that they are both younger than her, she can’t help but take them under her wing. She’s never been close with the kids at school, given the way her parents have made her skip more grades than anyone before. But Harry and Ava are different; they understand the kind of life she’s grown up with, with parents who constantly have secrets and cannot reveal themselves to her.

But today wasn’t like most days. Her father wasn’t busy because of some mission or the other. And yet he was missing one of the most important days of her life so far. The day she was set to start school at MIT. She hadn’t really been surprised when he took off two weeks ago, saying he had a new lead as to where Steve Rogers may be, but a small part of her had hoped that he would be back before she left for school. She wasn’t surprised though when the morning arrived, and he still was in the middle of the Artic.

“Do you have everything you need, Ducky?” Aunt Peggy asked her. Ever since the pyjama incident when she first met Peggy, the woman had bestowed the nickname onto her. But she didn’t care, knowing that Aunt Peggy loved her as she loved her aunt.

“I do, Aunt Peg,” she smiled as she loaded the last box into the car. “You don’t need to all come, you know. I’m capable of getting to school by myself. Jarvis can just drop me off.”

“As if I’d miss my favourite niece starting school,” Uncle Daniel scoffed and Peggy hit him slightly,

“If Michael hears you say that, he won’t be pleased,” Peggy argued.

“Michael only has sons,” Daniel grinned. “Toni still is my favourite niece.”

She grinned at the both of them as Jarvis closed the trunk of the car.

“My daughter is starting school already,” Maria said, sighing softly as she cupped her face. “You’re going to do brilliant, there, Toni.”

She’d left home before for boarding school, so it was hardly the first time she’d left home. But she knew that this was different. This was her growing up and starting her life. She was doing most adults did, and yet she was just a child.

“I’ll miss you, Mama,” Toni told her softly and Maria held her closely.

“Come home often, alright Bambina?” Her mother asked her, and she held onto her mother tightly.

“Let’s go!” Harry called from the car, and Toni grinned at her cousin as she sat down beside him in the van Jarvis had brought out for the purpose of moving her.

“Harrison!” Peggy scolded. “Your cousin is going off to school and you will not see her for months! At least do not rush her out of her own home.”

“Sorry Toni,” Harry gave her a sheepish look and she couldn’t help but laugh.

Her father might be too busy to come see her off before she started college, but it didn’t matter to her. She’s surrounded by her family; her loved ones, and they were all she needed.  Her aunt and uncle who had taught her many lessons over the years, Jarvis who had been more of a father than her own, her mother who had always watched over her, and cared for her. She didn’t need the man who looked at her and saw nothing but failure. No, she was getting out of this house and far away from her father.

She was finally free.

Chapter Text

At thirteen years old, Toni Stark was far younger than the rest of her peers. She was used to being a lot younger than everyone else in her year, as she has been forced to skip grades for her entire life.

She’d never minded it before, given the fact that the work at school still wasn’t challenging for her, and more often than not she found herself drifting off, drawing her own designs in her notebooks. She couldn’t help it, she probably could write the examinations for some of these courses within the first week or so of lectures and do as well as she would when the semester was over. The material wasn’t challenging in any way and she hated that she was forced to listen and attend when she’d rather be creating, building, making anything.

Instead, she was at a lecture where attendance is mandatory, but had no intention of listening to with full attention. She can hear the professor lecturing the room and she frowns as she realizes that the room got quiet all of a sudden and she looks up from her notebook to see the Professor looking at her expectantly.

“Miss Stark, I asked if you would like to try solving the differential trigonometric equation?” The old professor asked her. He was an old white man, and like the rest of the school, seems to believe that the only reason she got into MIT was because her father bought her way in, and not because she has any merit of her own. She sighed to herself, knowing that if she didn’t solve the equation, she’d be proving them right. But if she did, she’d be setting a target on her back.

Either way she’s lost before she’s even started.

She’d never been ashamed of her intelligence or her desire to learn. It was what drove her most days and helps her keep on task. She knew who she was and what she wanted to do, and nothing will ever be able to take away the passion she feels when designing something.

So, she stood carefully, hearing the snickers around her as the room expected her to fail before she’s even written anything. Instead, she stood up and walks to the front of the room and stares at the problem in front of her.

g(z) = (x csc x) / (3 - csc x)

She’s slightly insulted by the problem, it’s nothing difficult and this is what she’s been expected to solve. She studies it briefly and does the math in her head, before writing out the answer on the chalkboard in front of her.

g(z) = [csc x (3 – csc x – 3x cot x)]/ (3 – csc x)2

The professor rapidly looks down at his notes, clearly not having expected her to write down the answer without any steps but she simply drops the chalk down and dusts off her hands.

“How did you get the answer?” the professor asks, peering over at her, “You didn’t even do any of the steps in the middle which are required.”

She sighed once more and branches off talking about products and quotient rules, and how she made various jumps by writing out the steps she’d seen in her mind as the problem solved itself. She wrote slower than she could think, and it’s slightly distracting to have to try and get all the numbers on the page. The professor looked confused by some of her steps and she was sure that it’s because it’s different than whatever he had written down on the page. But she argues her reasoning for those steps, and she can see from the frustrated look on his once smug face that she’s right.

The room is quiet when she returned to her seat and there are looks of annoyance her way instead of contempt. Just as she had been sure, they’d already begun to hate her before she’d even started trying to stand out.

Instead, they look at her and see everything that was wrong with the world. They saw a girl in a school full of men. They saw her as she really was, the child genius who is far beyond her years in intelligence and doesn’t need to be in the same classes as she’s in.

But she stays anyways, until she can find a way to get out of the hell that is the first-year engineering courses she’s required to take for her school. It’s dull and uneventful and she’d rather be in her lab, building something, anything. And instead, she’s surrounded by her classmates who have made it all too clear that they dislike her.

It stayed that way for a few weeks. Professors only tried to call her out when they’re certain they got the better of her, but each time she proved them wrong, and showed them up. She was aware several of them have complained about her to the dean but other than getting the correct answer in a different way than what they’ve been teaching, she hadn’t actually done anything wrong.

“You think you’re so clever, don’t you?” she heard a voice whisper in her ear one day after lectures and she looked up to see Tiberius Stone behind her, far too close for her liking. “A brilliant little girl with a bigger brain than she has anything else.”

He leered over at her, and at thirteen years old, she felt uncomfortable by his gaze. She was well aware of the fact that he’s much older than her, by at least a few years and she pulled herself away as swiftly as she could.

“You’re not as smart as you seem to think you are,” he told her as he pushed her back against the bricks of the building that she’d just had a lecture in. She doesn’t want to be scared; she’s quite a bit smaller than him, given the age and gender differences, and she hates how small she feels.

She wondered briefly if this was how Steve Rogers felt all those years ago when fighting against bullies twice his size that he had no chance in defeating. And yet he stood strongly against them without a fear in the world. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

She thought of Aunt Peggy and the various lessons she’d taught Toni over the years on how to defend herself. Because girls like her who tend to end up in positions where they need to fight for themselves when no one else would need to be able to protect themselves. Girls like her who defied the odds and spoke out against the world needed to know how to fight.

She wanted to spit in his face but instead she counted down from ten, waiting for the perfect moment.

Ten.

Nine.

Eight.

So when Tiberius Stone came closer she held her breath, and clenched her fist.

Seven.

Six.

Five.

“Girls like you need to be put in your place,” he says brushing a strand of hair out of her face.

Four.

Three.

Two.

“Girls like you need to know that they do not belong in this world, no matter how much they wish they did,” Stone snarked. His lips moved to brush against her neck and she continued to count.

One.

He was close enough now and she brought her knee up to knee him in the groin She took her elbow and slams it against his face. He winced and fell to the ground.

“You little bitch,” he groaned, and she towered over him.

“Girls like me belong at the top,” she smirked at him, “Don’t ever come after me again, Stone.”

She holds her breath, as she quickly walks away from the scene. The last thing she wants to do is draw a crowd to what had been going on. If Stone is smart, he won’t make a big deal out of what had happened. After all, he had attacked her and then fallen on his back when she defended herself. And as much as her father might hate her, she still is a Stark. And Starks are made of iron. They do not bend, not for anyone.

The words that her father had once drilled into her at the signs of her weakness become a prayer in her head. She repeated the words over and over in her head. She was a Stark and she will not break.

Instead, she’ll show them all what she was really made out of.


 

She got out of her first couple years of school work by insisting on writing advanced material. Her father backed her up and she knew they’re afraid of him pulling his funding from the school. But despite his money, she still needed to prove that she was capable of writing the advanced examinations. She knew no one expected her to pass, and yet she flew out of the tests well within the time limit each time, and she knew that nothing there is nothing they could throw at her that she couldn’t handle.

They seemed furious, but she didn’t let it get to her. She was used to their looks of annoyance by now.

She began a double masters in conjecture with her bachelors within her second year of schooling, combining Advanced Mechanical Engineering degree with a Physics Masters. She wanted to build, to create, and to make. And she cannot do that if the school insisted on holding her back.

She was given a lab to work in and for the first time she felt like she truly could breathe.

It was the first place she truly felt at home since starting school.

She might have her own private dorms, but it never felt at home. It didn’t have Jarvis there. It didn’t have her mother there. And no matter how often they visited and helped her decorate the place, she can’t make it feel like home.

But the lab is different. There’re so many tools around her. There was so much potential around her. And she got to work, building things she’d always wanted to but never even dared to dream of when at her father’s lab.

There was another boy in the lab, an African American who hunches over his own station, working without as much of a word.

She though that the two of them were placed together like the inconveniences that they were. A black boy and a girl at a school full of rich white boys. Two people that don’t belong shoved off into a corner where they could remain hidden.

He offered her smiles and friendly ‘hellos’ whenever he entered the lab but that was as far as their friendship tended to extend.

She doesn’t care though; she might never make a single friend in school, but at least she can build herself one, so she doesn’t feel so alone.

The mathematics are on the page alongside the logic for what she would need to do to even get such an AI to work, but she’s determined. Her thesis professor had already tried talking her out of creating Artificial Intelligence, claiming such a subject to be nothing more than science fiction and not possible. She didn’t care. She’s Toni Stark. She’ll find a way to make it work, one way or another.

She was on her way to the lab when she hears the jeers being called out, and she sighed to herself. She knew it’s not directed at her. Because despite the disdained looks she still got from time to time, no one can question her place at the school anymore. Well, it didn’t stop a few from trying, but for the most part, people have simply taking to ignoring her, like they did with anything they found inconvenient to their way of life.

She saw a group of students in an alleyway between two buildings, and she was unsurprised to see Justin Hammer standing there, with a group of students behind him. He’d quickly become a thorn in her side, trying to prove time and time again that he was better than her, and yet is innovations barely ever reaching their mark. At least Tiberius Stone was capable of building a basic circuit board.

“You should go back to where you belong,” Hammer sneered as he kicked her lab partner, James Rhodes, who was on the down to the ground already. “Your people are not welcome here.”

“At least he’s capable of holding a blow torch and not searing off his front hair,” Toni said coolly as she crossed her arms.

“Go back to your little lab, Stark,” Hammer said, barely glancing at her, “The men are talking here.”

“The only man I see is the one on the ground while a bunch of stuck up boys are around him,” she said, moving closer to them.

“He needs to be taught his place,” one of the other boys glared at her, “Something you clearly do not understand either. Daddy might be able to buy you a place in this school, but he can’t buy your friends, can he?”

“Clearly yours can’t buy you class or manners,” she sighed as she gestured around her, “Or you lot wouldn’t be standing over a fellow student and kicking him. For what? Because he’s black? Are you really that insecure about your own abilities that you would bully someone else for being better than you? I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything different from Hammer Industries. What was your last great product? A missile which exploded prematurely almost every time? Like father like son, I suppose.”

“At least I’ll be able to take over my family’s company,” Hammer sneered at her, “Your father will never let a girl take over.”

“Maybe not,” she shrugged, “But I’ll still be great by my own right. You will only ever be defined by the last name you hold. Which is a shame really, because could you imagine being defined by the Hammer name? What an embarrassment.”

“Let’s go,” one of the students said, as a security guard walked past. Figures, they were all comfortable beating up a student but didn’t want credit for such a task.

She watched as they left before she walked up to her lab partner and helped him up.

“You should have fought back,” she told him softly as she helped him stand. “Bullies like them need to be put in their place.”

He shook his head, “The world never sides with a black man for standing up for himself. I would have if I was in any real danger, but nothing they could have done to me would have been worth the scrutiny I’d face. I have a scholarship to be here, and I can’t afford to lose it. Not if one of them complains to their parents.”

She sighed, the two of them walked back to their labs.

She was angry, that the two of them were constantly targeted, and for what? Because they weren’t the same as the rest of them? She swiped her key card, letting themselves into the lab.

It was unfair. Unfair that he couldn’t even fight for himself without fear of retaliation.

“I’ll protect you,” she told him, offering him a soft smile. “The Stark name carries far more weight than the Hammer name.”

He laughed softly at that as he sat down at one of the chairs and she took a wet paper towel and cleaned up some of his wounds gently.

“James Rhodes,” he said, offering his name to her. “My Mama would kill me if she found out I haven’t bothered introducing myself to you in all this time. But I didn’t want to intrude on your lab time. I am well aware that my presence isn’t always welcome.”

“You are always welcome here,” she said firmly. “A bit of a mouthful though. And a bit generic.”

“James is too much of a mouthful for you?” he raised an eyebrow at her in disbelief. He ignores the part all together about the generics of his first name.

“Mm hm,” she nodded, as she placed a band-aid from one of the lab’s first aid kits on the corner of his forehead. “What about Rhodey?”

“How is that less of a mouthful?” he asked her, “It’s longer than James.”

“Too late,” she shrugged, “I’ve named you Rhodey.”

“What do I call you then?” he asked, and she looked at him in surprise. Her name was hardly unknown in their school. “I’ve seen you wince when people call you Antonia,” he explained, “I figured you preferred a different name.”

“Toni,” she smiled at him and he nodded with a smile of his own.

“Toni,” he echoed, and she grinned up at him. “How about I buy you some food?” he offered, “My treat. The least I can do after you all but chased those boys off.”

She intertwined her arm through his, “I have a feeling that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Rhodey,” she beamed, and he laughed as he simply shrugged.


 

It was her second year of school before she decides to go home with Rhodey for Thanksgiving. It was a surprise to her when he asked, even though they’ve been friends for a year.

More than friends, really. He was her family, and the last year has only gone to show that he didn’t care about the fact that her family had money. It’s more than she can say for any of her other friends that she’d had over the years. She’s learned long ago that most people are friends with her because they hope she’d buy them expensive things. But not Rhodey; he’s never asked for anything, and full on refused to allow her to spend money on him despite her insisting that she has more than enough to spare. If he’s playing some sort of long game, she hasn’t seen any sign of it yet.

It’s slightly over a month when Rhodey turned to her in their shared lab.

DUM-E, her AI is still a work in progress, with his exterior built but his personality is still a slight mess. He doesn’t listen to any of her commands and she’s starting to think it’s a personality defect versus a fault in her coding.

“What are your plans for Thanksgiving?” he asked her, placing the wrench she needed on the bench for her to take.

She couldn’t tell him why she hated being handed things, couldn’t tell him it was because of years of her father handing her scalding iron rods or sharp knifes by the blade and asking her to hold it. She couldn’t tell him of the abuse she faced.

But he doesn’t treat it like an inconvenience to him, like she’s being stupid like so many others have made her feel. Instead, he accepted it.

 She picked up the wrench she needs to adjust DUM-E’s bolts. She hoped it might give him a bit more coordination, but she wa starting to suspect that nothing can help with that.

She shrugged, “My parents have a gala that they usually attend,” she said with a sigh. “For orphans. It’s a good cause, and full of people who love to throw around their money. I don’t usually attend so I usually stay at home and eat pie that Jarvis made.”

“What about your family?” Rhodey frowned, looking at her.

“It’s just the three of us,” Toni said, dropping the wrench on the lab bench, before picking up a screw driver. “Aunt Peggy is in Europe this year visiting her family. And Dad will be busy with work all weekend. Mom usually is busy helping for the Gala. And on Thanksgiving Jarvis usually goes with them since my dad always indulges in one drink too many and can’t drive home. So I usually spend it in the lab, doing what I do best.”

“All alone?” he asks, looking unimpressed by her plans. “You shouldn’t be spending a holiday meant for family by yourself.”

She simply shrugged. It was the truth of how she spent most holidays, so she wasn’t really sure why she would expect this one to be any different.

“You should come home with me,” he said suddenly, and she dropped the screw driver she’d been holding.

“Wait what?” she asked, looking at him, “Did I miss something?”

He shook his head at her, “Toni, you can’t spend Thanksgiving alone. Besides, Mama has wanted to meet you since I mentioned the insane girl that I’d become friends with. The one who has changed my life in more ways than one. And don’t think I’m not aware of the fact that you must have done something that I do not know about to get those boys to leave me alone. Spend Thanksgiving with us. If not because you have no other plans, then because my mother always cooks far too much food than we know what to do with.”

And that was how she found herself at the Rhodes family Thanksgiving.

“James,” his mother greeted warmly as Rhodey lead her through their home and into the kitchen where is mother was busy cooking up a storm. And from all the pies, cakes, turkey, and other dishes in front of her, she knew that Rhodey hadn’t been lying when he said his mother always cooked too much food than she knew what to do with. “And you must be Antonia.”

She smiled at the woman who raised her best friend as she handed her a bouquet of flowers she’d brought. Coronations, since it was what Rhodey said she would like.

“Thank you for inviting me, Mrs Rhodes,” Toni said as Mrs Rhodes took the flowers from her.

“None of that now,” The older woman said, swatting Rhodey as he tried to take a cookie from the tray in front of him, “Call me Mama Rhodes. It’s what everyone else around here does.”

“Jim brought home a girl,” she heard a teasing voice from behind them and she looked up to see a young girl enter the room, looking far too pleased with herself.

Rhodey groaned as he saw her, but quickly pulled her into a tight hug. “It’s good to see you, Jeanette. Now leave my friend alone and tell me more about this boy Mama says you’ve been seeing.”

Jeanette stuck her tongue out at him, and she couldn’t help but laugh. She’d never had a sibling growing up, knowing her mother had been unable to carry any other children. It was why her father was stuck with her, even if he had wanted a son.

“How did you meet my brother?” Jeanette asked as she took a seat next to her at the table, ignoring her brother all together. And from the glance Rhodey gave her, she knew that he mustn’t have told his family the truth of how they’d become friends. And she wasn’t about to expose a secret that he didn’t want known. She knew all too well what it was like for one’s family not to know secrets that they guarded far too close to their heart.

“We share a lab at school,” she said simply and Rhodey gave her a grateful look, “Someone needed to make sure that he took care of himself.”

He snorted at that, “That’s absolutely rich coming from you. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even remember to eat half your meals. I swear you would live in that lab if you had any say in the matter.”

She grinned at him, “How do you know that I don’t just sneak back in there after you make me leave?”

He threw a cookie at her and she caught it as his mother swatted him again. She ate it carefully, savouring the flavour. Her mother might have been many things: beautiful, talented, and able to mingle well in society, but a cook was not one of them.

She watched as the Rhodes family interacted, and she felt grateful that Rhodey had invited her home with him. She’d seen in films families interacting on holidays and the friendly banter, but it had never been anything she’d experienced. Aunt Peggy was not a cook in any way and Uncle Daniel often took over Thanksgivings. But her parents had rarely let her attend, claiming she’d only get in the way, regardless of what Aunt Peggy would claim.

She gained a second family that weekend, and she knew that any time she wanted, she’d have a place in their home.


 

She got the news when she was sixteen and half way through her third year at MIT. She hadn’t been home since Christmas, and she knew her mother understands. It was hard for her going home. Especially each time when her father makes it clear just how much he disapproved of her actions.

The worst part, she though, that he actually believes what the papers print about her. That when she tripped on a rock, the papers print that she was out drinking too much and stumbling around. And all of a sudden, she was an alcoholic. Or a guy holds onto her, and before she can get him off of her, she was labeled a slut that sleeps with everyone and everything that moves. It was like that with every story, and it didn’t seem to matter how far from the truth it really is. All that mattered was that her father is displeased with all her transgressions. All that matters when he hits her is that he believes it.

She’ll never be the perfect son he wanted. Or apparently a perfect child either. She’s filled with enough flaws to fill so many books that she could start a library.

She didn’t go home because she couldn’t stand to look her father in the eyes while he told her how much of a disgrace she was. Because he always insisted that she showed him the respect he deserved and that she looked into his eyes while he told her how useless he really thought she was.

She’s long since given up trying to please her father. She never will and trying to make him happy will only lead to her own heartbreak. She’s tired of knowing that she’ll never be good enough for him or Stark Industries.

She missed her mother and Jarvis. Her family. One she couldn’t even see that often because it meant going home. Because it meant seeing her father.

She still talked to them on the phone often, and Jarvis drove up her mother at least once a month so they can get lunch and do some shopping that her mother always insists on. No matter how much she insists that dresses aren’t practical for her field, her mother always insists on buying some in case she has an occasion to dress up.

She’s in the lab when the phone rings. She doesn’t even look up as Rhodey picks it up. DUM-E is almost complete, and she has so much to do before the semester ends.

“Tones, it’s for you,” Rhodey said, and she lets out a disgruntled sound, before going to pick up the phone.

“Hello?” she asks, despite knowing there are very few people who would call her at the lab.

“Toni,” her mother breathes, with a watery voice. “Toni, you need to come home.”

“What’s happened?” she asked, heart stopping. Her mother would never ask her to come home in the middle of the semester if something wasn’t wrong.

“It’s Jarvis,” her mother says softly, “He’s been admitted to the hospital after having a heart attack. It doesn’t look good, Bambina. The doctors don’t think he’ll make it. You need to come home.”

She dropped the phone and Rhodey instantly is at her side. She can’t breathe.

The world stops around her, and she doesn’t know what to do. Rhodey has taken the phone from the ground, talking to her mother, trying to find out what happened, and before she knows it, his arms are tightly around her. She couldn’t bring herself to cry, can’t bring herself to process what’s happening.

She was at the hospital less than six hours later, having caught the first flight home. Rhodey insisted on coming with her, and she’s grateful since she can’t even bring herself to say a single word since she got the call.

“Jarvis,” she said softly, as she sat by his bedside, “Jarvis, please.”

She knows begging won’t fix his condition. Knows from the grim looks on the doctors faces what’s to come. She knows but she doesn’t care. She begs anyways.

“Antonia,” Jarvis says gently, despite it being hard for her. “My sweet, brave girl. You’re going to change the world, Toni. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“You’ll be fine, Jarvis,” she tries to assure him. She can’t bear the thought of losing him. The man who raised her. Who helped her take her first steps. Who bandaged her up every time her father was far too rough with her. Who drove her to school every single day until she was forced into boarding school. Who was there for her through every heartbreak, and every tear. Who held her hand when she felt so alone in the world. Jarvis, who was far more of a parent than her own father. She couldn’t lose him.

“I love you, sweet girl. Keep shining brightly,” he told her, and his eyes close. She knows what’s happened even without the sounds of flatlining on the monitors. Tears flood her eyes and her vision is blurred.

She felt arms wrap around her and she cries as Rhodey holds her tightly. Her mother placed a hand on her shoulder and they stayed like that for a while.

The funeral was small, and she still was unable to bring herself to properly accept what it means that he’s gone. Her mother is in tears, but she is graceful in how she wipes them away.

Aunt Peggy was there with Uncle Daniel, Harry, and Ava. Peggy told a story about how they went on a mission together, and how he patched her up afterwards. How he taught her that she doesn’t need to always carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. How she needed to rely on others. He was always there for her, a true friend who would be missed.

Toni talked too, because she can’t bring herself to stay silent any longer. She told the story of how Jarvis taught her how to ride a bicycle when she was upset about never having learned. She left out the part where her father refused to teach her because he considered it a wasteful skill, knowing it wouldn’t help the story. Besides, her own father couldn’t even bother to come to the funeral.

She talks about how he taught her the importance of always getting back up, whenever she’s knocked down. She talks about how he taught her the world will constantly knock her over and how she needs to fight for what she wants. Jarvis was everything to her, and she doesn’t know how to continue in a world without him.

Rhodey stayed with her through the funeral despite his own classes. She told him that he should go back but he refuses, telling her that family comes first, always. And so, she let him stay.

When she got home, her mother handed her a letter. Jarvis wanted her to have it in the case of his passing, so she wouldn’t feel alone, and she had tears fill her eyes before she even opened it.

She was careful when she unfolds the pages. These will be the last words Jarvis ever said to her, and she wanted to make sure she didn’t ruin it like she did everything else in her life.

Dearest Toni,

Sweet girl, I see the way you feel as if you are fighting against the world, and I want you to know that you do not need to feel so alone. I care for you so much, as if you were my own daughter, and as such, I want nothing more than for you to have happiness in life. There are so many in your life who care for you, your mother, Peggy and Daniel, your friend, James Rhodes, and I.

Ana loved you, just as I did. You may not have many memories of her, but she was overjoyed when your mother brought you home from the hospital. The two of us cared dearly for you, and we will always be with you in your heart.

You are worth so much more than what anyone else makes you feel. You are brave, intelligent, strong, and the kindest soul I ever have met. You deserve a life of happiness, and my greatest regret is that I will not be around to see all the things you will accomplish.

My greatest regret is not being able to protect you. To keep you safe from the world and from the pains you have faced. I wish I could have stood up for you more. That I wasn’t afraid that if I intervened that I’d be forced to leave you all alone. Still, it does not excuse my inaction, and I can only pray you forgive me.

Shine bright, my sweet girl, and know that I will always be with you. You will never be alone.

Love,

Edwin Jarvis.

 She sobbed loudly, and she places the letter down, not wanting to tarnish his final words to her. She can’t stop the pain from flooding her chest. She missed him so much and it hurt to know that he was gone from her life.

She heard the door slam shut loudly, and she knows her father is home. The same father who couldn’t even make time to come to his own friend’s funeral.

She wiped her tears and stood up firmly. She was done hiding away in fear. If he couldn’t respect the dead, then why should she show him any respect either?

She marched to the lab where she saw him, drinking straight from the bottle of whiskey and she knew that he’s drunk. She was furious; how dare he skip the funeral of his friend to get drunk instead?

“I see you were able to make time for the things you find important,” she said, crossing her arms. He turned to face her, anger filling his face. While she might have cowered back before, she refused to stand down.

“What did you say to me?” he asked, taking a step in her direction.

“You couldn’t even make time to come to the funeral,” she said angrily, not caring about what she knew was to come. “I get that you don’t care about me or any of my accomplishments. But he was your friend. How could you not even come to his own funeral?”

“I had work!” her father shouted, “I run a multi-million-dollar company. I can’t just take time off because of personal reasons.”

“You own the company,” she shook her head, “They would have understood. But I guess business waits for no one.”

“It doesn’t,” he stepped closer. “Something you would know nothing about. When have you ever had to take anything seriously, Antonia? You have everything you do because I work as hard as I do.”

“I have everything I do because I work hard,” she said simply, “Your money might help but I got myself into MIT. I got myself into the dual Masters program. That had nothing to do with you. I don’t need you. And why would I, if clearly you can’t bring yourself to give a damn about your own friend’s funeral? Jarvis is gone, Dad! How caught up in your own world can you be to not attend? And here you are, drunk. Did you even care enough to visit his grave? Or do you not care because he was on the payroll?”

The slap lands on her face but she didn’t back down. The pain is nothing compared to what she felt from the loss of Jarvis. He could hit her all he wants but it didn’t change the fact that he was too selfish to even care about Jarvis’ death.

“I’m done,” she told him without giving the satisfaction of showing the pain. “I don’t care anymore if I’m not good enough for you. You didn’t get a son, you got a daughter. Stark Industries is meant to be passed down to the oldest child upon their twenty-first birthday, as per grandfather’s instructions. He didn’t specify male, either because he didn’t care or because he assumed Starks only have sons. Either way, read the succession document that Grandfather wrote, it’s clear in there. I don’t care anymore if you don’t think I’m good enough. I don’t need your approval, and I’m done trying to get it. You can’t hurt me anymore.”

And with that, she left the room, cheek still stinging, and head held high.

Chapter Text

Toni Stark worked harder on DUM-E than she probably had on anything else. It took the better part of her Master’s Degree just to get him to respond properly to commands and not just beep at her in confusion whenever she tried to get him to do anything.

She wasn’t surprised though, given the level of complexity of what she was trying to do. Because she was not just making circuit boards or designing weapons.

She’d created life.

She knew she’d have to be careful with how she presented her robot. Terminator was still fresh in the minds of those around her and she knew the growing fear about AI is all too real. But at the same time, she cannot downplay the intelligence in her child. DUM-E might still have the occasional issue following her commands properly, but he understood what she wanted. He felt pain and she knew all too well she could hurt his feelings.

His name was entirely an accident. He whirred to life the first time she turned him on, beeping at everything and anything. And she supposed the fault laid on her, for the beeps were all too similar to a newborn’s cries. Instead, she sighed and called it a ‘Dummy’ and now her baby bot refuses to answer to anything else.

The room was silent around her, as she took a deep breath and walked into the room, her head held high. She has taken to wearing a bright red lipstick like her Aunt Peggy, for she was done being treated like a little girl. It got her far more attention from the boys, and it meant the press found more and more reasons to write trashy articles about her, but it was worth it. It was worth the look on the faces of those who doubt her when time and time again she proved them wrong.

DUM-E wheeled in behind her, and the thesis professor who constantly tried to talk her out of her project looks a little stunned. She wasn’t that surprised however. Robots weren’t all that useful in her age. But beyond that, she created life, not just some bot programmed to do a pre-set list of commands.

The room is set up for her presentation, with a set of tools on the workbench for DUM-E to show off. She’d coaxed him before, practising different things that they could ask, and trying to work up DUM-E’s skills. He was a learning AI and everything he knew how to do is because she’d spent hours training him in being able to do so. And she was proud of her bot and will still be regardless of what happened in the room today.

“Miss Stark,” the head of her thesis panel acknowledged her, looking at the bot behind her. “I understand your thesis project for your Mechanical Engineering Degree entails the use of an Artificial Intelligence Robot. If you do not mind, may we ask you a few questions to gain a better understanding of your project before you begin?”

She knew what they were trying to do. They want an understanding of her project, one that makes sense to their minds.

“Of course,” she said casually, while a bundle of nerves grows in her stomach. This was her baby and of course she wanted to do well on it.

“When you claim this project contains the use of Artificial Intelligence, what exactly do you mean by that?” one of the old men on her panel ask her. “Are you perhaps referring to the fact that your robot can perform certain, programmed tasks?”

She could hear what they’re not asking. Did she brute force her robot to hard-code in certain commands so that it can perform different tasks. She’s not surprised by the question, given so many of her peers in these presentations cannot actually complete their tasks and fakef their presentation to appear one way when really the functionality is far more limited than that.

She shook her head, “No,” she said simply and looked at the panel. “My robot, DUM-E is a learning AI. So he is limited in what he can do, given that he has not been taught how to do all the things he eventually will be able to. But with every lesson he learns more and more. If you were to ask him how to do something, and he was unable to, but you taught him what to do, the next time you asked, he could perform the task. With a programmed bot, unless you explicitly included it into his code, he would be unable to learn what you wanted him to do. DUM-E will write it into his own code.”

“I’m sorry,” one of the other men, a bald one who looked like he was in his mid-sixties, asked her. “Are you actually claiming to have created artificial intelligence?” he asked, sounding a little disbelieving of her.

“I did,” she said, giving him a smile, knowing they smelt blood in the water like the sharks they were. It didn’t matter what nerves she had, she was Toni Stark and she would show them all not to doubt her. “Perhaps it would be better if I showed you?”

She gestured to DUM-E and the room watched raptly as she turned to her bot.

“Hi DUM-E,” she said to her baby and the bot beeped gladly at her, earning whispers from the room. If they thought this was impressive, they haven’t seen anything yet. “DUM-E, can you wave to the room?”

Her bot beeped again, and the bot moved its arm at the room, gesturing it back and forth like a wave of sorts.

She could hear the professors around her taking notes of her bot and she continued her presentation.

“DUM-E can you hand me the Socket Wrench?” she asked again, and her bot moved over to where she’d laid all the tools in front of her. She held her breath as she watched DUM-E’s arm move over the different tools on the table, before landing on the correct wrench and picking it up. She watched him drop it accidently, before picking it up again and moving towards her. Her bot stopped in front of her before it handed her the wrench.

“Thank you, DUM-E,” she said with a smile and DUM-E beeped cheerfully back at her. “If you would like to try it yourselves, you may ask him any command. If he is unable to respond, he’ll try and figure out what it is you want and respond accordingly.”

Her thesis professor, the one who said she couldn’t do it, looked astounded as he stood up and moved towards her robot.

“DUM-E, can you hand me some water?” her professor asked, wanting to throw the bot off as he asked for something not on the table. DUM-E looked at her, slightly confused and she gestured to the professor, giving it permission to respond to him. Rhodey had been helping her in training it, trying to get it to respond to different voices and people, as it had been something she’d been worried about.

DUM-E moved towards the table with the tools and hovered, trying to find the water on the table. But when it was unable to, its cameras scanned the room like she’d taught it to and spotted a glass of water beside a professor who had been scoffing at the entire presentation. DUM-E carefully moved and picked up the glass before handing it to her thesis professor with a beep.

“Remarkable,” her professor whispered as he took the glass. The entire room is sitting on the edge of their seats, watching the interaction. “There are some slight flaws, but it seems as if Miss Stark truly has created Artificial Intelligence.”

Her eyes twitched slightly at the mention of errors. DUM-E was the way it was because of its personality. It was one thing for her to make fun of them for that, and an entirely other thing for these old men who thought they knew best to be able to do so.

“Well done,” the head of the panel said, giving her a smile. “It seems as if you have given us much to think about. Congratulations on the completion of your project.”

The others get up and try to confuse DUM-E, wanting to see her bot fail, but it beeped cheerfully and does everything they commanded of it. And when the presentation is over, she left the room feeling accomplished and proud of herself.

This was only the beginning, and Toni Stark was going to change the world.


 

It was a few months after that when she donned her blue graduation gown and cap. The rest of the class she started with is graduating with their Bachelors’ degree, and she with that and her two Master’s degrees.

She paced back and forth, and she looks out onto the crowd that’s starting to form as the ceremony draws closer.

“Toni,” Rhodey greeted her as he wore his own robes.

“Rhodey Bear,” she beamed at her friend and he pulls her into a tight hug. “Are you ready to leave this all behind?”

She gestured at the school behind her and tries to get it to encompass their entire schooling. If she had to pick just one thing that she loved about the school it would have been meeting him. For he’s quickly become her entire world and she knew that once they left the school, she’d keep him in her life for as long as she could.

“I am,” he said, hugging her tightly. “After this we need to talk though, about our futures.”

“What about them?” she asked him, feeling slightly nervous and he shook his head.

“It’s nothing to worry about, Tones,” he assured her, but she couldn’t help but feel worried.

The ceremony began and James was a few seats away from them, separated only by a few students with names who fall between ‘Rhodes’ and ‘Stark’.

She watched as one by one they all made their way onto stage to collect their degrees and shake hands with the Dean and others that they invited to the ceremony.

She stood when it was time for her row and she cheered loudly as Rhodey took the stage, graduating with honours and she is proud of him for everything that he’s managed to achieve.

When it was her turn, she steps up the stairs of the stage, her heels clicked with every step. She was given the title of graduating with highest distinction, but the entire class knows that she’d topped the class, even if they didn’t give her the Valedictorian title. It was all politics, with the school still unable to fully acknowledge that a girl was better than everyone else. It certainly didn’t help that Justin Hammer’s father made a sizable donation right before the selection to the committee that picked.

But it doesn’t matter, she knew that she was better than the rest of them, even if they do not acknowledge it.

She walked across the stage, stopping in the centre as she shook hands with the Dean. He gave her a nod of acknowledgement and she turned to where Aunt Peggy was holding a camera, taking pictures of the entire thing. She beamed at her and Uncle Daniel who had driven along with her mother and cousins for the ceremony and her heart warmed at the sight of them.

Of course, her father couldn’t bother making time for the event. She’d told him about it in passing, for politeness over anything else, but he had simply shook his head and said it would be a waste of his time. A Master’s degree, even if a dual degree, was nothing impressive. Not when it was something that just anyone could get. She’d rolled her eyes at that, knowing all too well that it wouldn’t matter that she was only seventeen and graduating. She was pretty sure that nothing would ever be enough to impress her father, not when she’d been a constant disappointment to him from the moment she’d been born.

But she was beyond caring. Her family, those she loved, had made it to the event and that was all that mattered to her. She’d long since given up trying to make her father love her when it was a futile endeavour.

Her Uncle Daniel is beaming at her, and she grinned back at him, waving to her family in the audience. She heard a loud whistle and looked over to see Mama Rhodes and Jeanette standing and clapping.

She took her degree from the professor and continued walking across the stage. She could hear the whispers in the crowd, questioning how a girl could do better than the majority of the class, but she refused to give their questions a second thought. She’d done it, despite all of their doubts and questions, and she knows that no matter what life throws her way, she’ll continue to come out on top.

When the ceremony came to an end, she weaved through the crowd, and found her family waiting for her. Harry was holding a bouquet of flowers and she took it from him, as she kissed her younger cousin on the cheek.

“Thank you, Harry,” she told him, and Ava handed her a graduation bear. She was far too old for such things, and her father made her throw away the few toys she ever had as a kid. But it was a sweet gesture and she appreciates it. “Thanks Ava.”

“We’re so proud of you, Toni,” her Aunt Peggy said, smiling at her, “You’ve done so well, Ducky.”

“You’ve made us so proud,” Uncle Daniel grinned at her, as he clapped her on the back, “My smart niece is growing up so quickly. I still remember when you made the toaster explode because you wanted to optimize the toasting time to get it to toast instantly.”

“I got it to work eventually,” she pouted at him and her mother laughed.

“After you went through five toasters,” Maria reminded her. “But I’m so proud of you, Bambina. You’ve done so well. I’m so proud of all you’ve done so far, and how far you’ve come. My brilliant little girl is growing up. I love you so much Tesoro. You’ve done so well, Darling.”

“I love you too, Mom,” she said, breath catching in her throat.

“Toni!” she heard a loud voice and watched as Jeanette Rhodes barrelled towards her and pulled her into a hug. “Congratulations on graduating.”

“My own sister wasn’t even this proud of me,” Rhodey said with a sigh as he and Mama Rhodes followed from behind her. “Of course she likes you better than me.”

“Toni sends me chocolate,” Jeanette said, looking unapologetic.

“I send you chocolate!” Rhodey argued, “Toni just adds her name to the end of the letter.”

“I still like her better than you,” Jeanette said with a shrug as she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Congratulations, Antonia,” Mama Rhodes said with a smile as she pulled her into a tight hug. “You’ve made us so proud.”

“Standing right here,” Rhodey said with a roll of his eyes, and Toni laughed.

“Give it up, Rhodey Bear,” she grinned, “Your family loves me better than you.”

The group laughed and she watched as her mother began conversing with Mama Rhodes. She looked over at Rhodey, as she felt a pit of worry fill her stomach, wondering what it was that he wanted to talk to her about.

“We should talk now,” Rhodey said, clearly understanding what she had been worried about. He led her to an area where none of their family could hear, wanting privacy and she followed without a word.

Finally, he stopped and looked at her, and she took in his expression carefully.

“We haven’t really talked about our plans for post-graduation, have we?” he asked her, and she sighed. They hadn’t. For all the hours they’d spent together, neither of them had talked about what they wanted to do once they were done with school, neither one of them wanting to think about the future and the roles they would be forced to play. A smart black man and girl had no place in the world as it currently stood. And they both knew that they would be met with stigma with every step they took.

“I was planning on doing a PhD,” she offered, “In Physics. I want one in Mechanical Engineering as well. Obie wants me to get more involved in the company so I’m going to start doing some consultation work and begin sketching up some designs. But Howard is only interested in weapons so it’s not like I’d ever be able to create anything I really want to anyways.”

She sighed at that, knowing it to be all too true. There was no market for the innovations she wanted to create, so she had been told. And it broke her heart, knowing that no matter what she created, if her father did not approve, it wouldn’t happen. And her father rarely approved of anything she made.

“I’m joining the Air Force,” Rhodey blurted out and her heart stopped as she froze. “I want to make a difference, Toni. I want to fight for our country, to make the world a better place. I want to save others and the Army will let me do that. They don’t care that I’m black.”

The Not the same way the rest of the world would goes unsaid.

“Rhodey,” she breathed, “You can’t. It’s dangerous. What if something happened to you? What if you got hurt?” Because god help her if he got hurt. “I can’t lose you. Please.”

“I’ve already enlisted,” he told her softly, “Toni, I want you to understand that I’m not doing this because I want to leave you. I’m not doing this because I do not want a place in your life. I’m doing this for me. Because it’s something I need to do. Something I have to do. I want to save lives and fight for those I love. I want to make the world safer. I want to make sure that war never breaches our shores. Please, you have to understand. I love you, and I never want you to think that this is about me not wanting you in my life. This is about me wanting to fight for what I believe in.”

“Okay,” she said simply, because really, what else could she say? His mind was already made up, and whether she chose to accept it, he was enlisted in the Army. He was leaving her, just like everyone else did, and she knew that nothing she said would be enough for him to stay. Nothing would be enough for him to accept that she wanted him to stay.

“I love you, Toni. I promise, this isn’t me leaving you. Nothing will ever be able to make me leave you,” he told her as he pulled her into a tight hug, and she didn’t fight it. Instead, she grasped onto him tightly, hoping that it would be enough. Because he was leaving her. Her brother was leaving her. And she had no idea when she would see him again once he left.

“I love you too,” she whispered, fighting to keep the tears out of her voice. Because she was terrified. Terrified that he would go off to fight the good fight and that he’d never come home. That something would happen to him and she’d lose him forever. She was terrified that something would happen, and she would never see him again.

“We should get back,” he told her softly, and she took a deep breath as she pulled out of his arms.

“You go ahead,” she said, swallowing, “I need a minute.”

“Toni,” he said carefully, and she shook her head.

“I’ll be fine, Honey Bear. I just need a minute. Just give me a minute, and I’ll be fine. I promise,” she said, giving him a watery smile.

He looked concerned, but he didn’t fight it as he turned to leave.

She took a deep breath as she wiped away her tears, not wanting anyone to see and take a picture. God help her if another news article came out about her and Rhodey’s relationship. He might be fine with it, but she hated him getting dragged into the press because someone wanted to make a quick dollar.

“Toni,” she hears a gentle voice from behind her and she nearly jumps as she sees her godfather, Obadiah Stane, behind her.

“Uncle Obie,” she said, trying to hide the pain she was feeling, “What are you doing here? I thought you had an important board meeting.”

It was why her father couldn’t attend after all.

“It ended early,” Uncle Obie said as he moved closer. “Or rather, I ended it early. Some things are more important than work after all.”

She gave a noncommittal sound, for what could she really say? Even without the excuse of work, her father still hadn’t deemed her graduation important enough of a thing for him to attend. What was she supposed to do about that?

“Are you alright?” he asked her after a moment. “It looked like you and your friend were in the middle of something.”

“He’s joining the Air Force,” she sighed, and he looked understanding at that.

“It’s a brave thing of him to do,” he said, and Toni nodded. “He’ll be in good hands though. The majority of the weapons that the military uses comes from Stark Industries. And our weapons are the best. If he’s fighting using our weapons, then he’ll be safe.”

She didn’t admit it out loud, but she knew he was right. Stark weapons were the best. They rarely had any defects in them and always did what they were expected to do. If Rhodey was fighting using the weapons her father designed, then he’d be safe.

However, she knew he’d be safer if he was using weapons that she made. Weapons that would be better, stronger, and more powerful. He’d be safer if she was the one designing his weapons.

Even if she hated weapons all together.

Stark Industries would never stop making weapons. Why would they when it brought in the most money. It didn’t matter what she thought of them or how much she wished she could shift the company’s focus toward clean energy and other technology.

At least a Stark weapon was better than a Hammer weapon.

“It’s the way of life,” Obadiah said, placing a hand on her shoulder, “People will come in and out of your life constantly, Antonia. They will use you and abuse you for your money or go on their own little quests for themselves. Your father, for example, is always going to put the business ahead of his family. It’s just the kind of person he is. And your mother will be busy with her own galas and charities. Even your Aunt Peggy is busy with her secret government life and disappears for days at a time. James Rhodes is just the next in what will be a long line of people who come in and out of your life.”

He was right, despite what she may have wished for. Everyone’s lives would take them on different paths. And whether she liked it or not, most of their paths would not be focused on her.

There was someone, she knew, who would have been there for her no matter what. Who would have stayed by her side and helped her in anything she chose to do. Jarvis, whom she loved more than her own father. Who had raised her and cared for her. Jarvis never would have left her side if he didn’t have to go.

But he was gone, and whether she liked it or not, she’d never have any one like him in her life again. He was gone, just like everyone else in her life who flitted in and out of it easily.

“I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I’m here for you, Antonia,” Obadiah told her softly, “I’ll always watch your back; I’ll always be here for you, until the very end.”

She smiled at her godfather, and as much as there were others that she knew loved her more than him, she knew he was right. He had been there for her far more often than her own father, coming to her science fairs and presentations. Who had received her designs and suggested improvements, before getting them pushed into production. He’d always been there for her, even when no one else had been.

“I know,” she told him, giving him a nod. “Thank you, Uncle Obie.”

Chapter Text

It was the winter of 1991 when Toni Stark laid idly on her parent’s sofa with a plethora of notebooks scattered around her, as her eyes closed for a few moments.

She was exhausted, having spent half the night staying up drawing up new sketches for SI of items they could be producing other than just weapons.

With the launch of the World Wide Web only months ago, they were all seeing a revolution in the technology era. New scripting languages such as HTML and Python were being introduced to allow for more options, and with each passing day it seemed as if more and more technologies were being put out into the world by every company.

That is, every company but Stark Industries.

It seemed like no matter how hard she preached, no matter how much she claimed it to be the future, her father refused to even look at her designs.

They never did have a close relationship, but her father was choosing ignorance than trying to bring their company into the twenty-first century.

Her revolutionary father, the one who once wanted to build a flying car, had lost his vision of the future. He was getting old, unable to see where the future was headed, and she knew all too well what would happen to the company if they didn’t shift some of their focus to getting involved in the technology game.

At least Uncle Obie seemed willing to produce her products on smaller scales on a trial run to see how well they did, before slowly giving her somewhat larger contracts.

Stark Industries always would be about weapons, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t still try and make them more of a household name. It didn’t mean she had to solely produce weapons.

But with Rhodey in the army still, she knew they couldn’t get out of the game. How could she keep her best friend safe if he was out there fighting with weapons that only went off properly half the time? To her, anything less than a hundred percent success rate was unacceptable. They were the real heroes, keeping their country safe. The least she could do was ensure that the weapons they used would keep them safe.

She heard her mother’s soft voice fill the room as she sang out from the piano, singing about September and the beauty in the world. She thought in that moment that her mother truly was all that was good in the world. She was gentle and sweet, and she cared about Toni, even when her father couldn’t bring himself to even look at her unless he was drunk and abusing her.

“Wake up, Dear,” she heard her mother say gently, as she continued to play. The red blanket that had been covering her head to stop the light from getting in was lifted as the cool air around her drifted in. “Say good-bye to your father.”

She wanted to laugh at that. As if Howard Stark ever would notice or care if she wasn’t around. Hell, she knew the reason he went away more often than not, was so he had a chance to forget about her and leave her behind.

“Who’s the homeless person on the couch?” her father snarked slightly and she simply rolled her eyes. She knew that no matter what she did, he’d always think it was about the partying. That she was exhausted from alcohol and drugs, and not the fact that she hadn’t slept properly in over seventy-two hours. None of that mattered to Howard Stark, and she was done trying to change his mind that she was anything other than what she was.

“This is why I love coming home for Christmas,” Toni sighed softly. The days of her being afraid of talking back to her father were long gone. He didn’t respect her, he didn’t care about her. So why should she treat him any differently? “It’s right before you leave town.”

Even if he always took her mother with him. Even if it meant that she would spend the holidays alone. She supposed she could make a trip up to spend with Aunt Peggy and Uncle Daniel. It had been a while since she’d seen them, and she missed Harry and Ava when she was away at school.

“Be nice, Dear,” Maria said, sighing slightly. She knew by now nothing would endear Howard to Toni, so she wasn’t sure why her mother still tried, “She’s been studying abroad.”

And she had been, finishing up PhD’s from Oxford and Cambridge at the same time. Not that any of it mattered to her father when he only still read the news the papers printed about her. Not that he cared about all the patents she had filed already under her name. Not that he cared that she now not only had one AI, but two, in the form of DUM-E and Butterfingers.

“Really?” her father mocked, “Which broad? What’s her name?”

She sighed as well, knowing her father was referencing the pictures that had surfaced of a girl all over Toni. And it had made headlines for weeks. None of it mattered that the girl had been wasted out of her mind and had fallen over on Toni, and Toni had struggled to get her home safely. All that mattered was the story the press spun about her forbidden affair with the girl, and how scandalous it was. Which was utterly ridiculous. She liked girls as much as she liked boys so for them to spin the tale one way or another as if it made a difference was horrendous. Except all the stories they spun about her were lies.

She knew she should consider dating. But dating involved effort and time. It involved knowing how to love someone.

And was she really worthy of love if her own father couldn’t even love her?

“Margaret,” Toni said simply. Which wasn’t technically a lie. She was currently doing research on Margaret Hamilton’s work on Apollo 11. Her work was truly remarkable, and she always enjoyed reading about successful women in engineering.

“Do me a favour and try not to burn the house down before Monday?” Her father mocked her, and she took a deep breath, struggling to keep everything in.

“Okay so it’s Monday?” she confirmed in a falsely positive voice. “That is good to know, I will plan my toga party accordingly.”

If her father thought she was a party girl with no aspirations despite all the proof otherwise, then she had no inclinations to change his mind. Either way, she was twenty-one and her process of slowly transitioning to a more vital role in Stark Industries had already begun. Her father had tried to delay it, of course, insisting on her schooling be complete, or whatever other reason he gave her that day, but it didn’t matter. The succession of Stark Industries would pass on to her sooner or later anyways. And her father could try and hold back and ensure Stark Industries remained solely a weapons company, but it didn’t mean that she wouldn’t take their company into the future.

“Where are you going?” she asked her mother. She had long since given up on being included on their family trips, as her father always insisted it be a special getaway for just the two of them. It was better really, the less time she spent with her father the better.

“Your father is flying us to the Bahamas for a little getaway,” her mother said softly, fingers still sliding over the piano keys, and Toni nearly laughed. Her father never did anything small. She very much doubted it would be a simple little getaway.

“We might have to make a quick stop, at the Pentagon,” her father said, and Toni rolled her eyes. He was showing her how important he was in comparison to her.

‘Personal Computers are not the future, Antonia,’ he had said to her many a time, ‘Stark Industries deals with million-dollar government contracts, and you want us to make something so trivial? Do you have any idea what it would do to our image?’

She didn’t ask why, nor did she care. It wasn’t as if Howard would tell her anyways.

“Don’t worry, you’re going to love the holiday menu at the Commissary,” she said sarcastically as she knew if her father had his way, he would spend all his time at work and none with his family.

“You know they say sarcasm is a metric for potential,” Howard said, and she rolled her eyes. “In men, anyways.”

The smell of whiskey was clear on his lips and she sighed. Of course her father was drinking in the middle of the afternoon. It was the only way he could stand to be around her. She wasn’t really surprised, not when most of her childhood had been him drunk.

Her father looked at her, shaking his head at her, and she felt resentment toward him. Resentment that he never loved her, that he never cared about her. It was hard not to, when she was running off of little sleep, and her father was doing what he did best, and he showed her just how little she meant to him.

She wanted to snap at him; it had been twenty-one years, and he still couldn’t accept that he had a daughter instead of a son. She was doing more than half the other heirs of her age were. She was successful, working her way towards two PhD’s, had half a dozen patents already filed, and had created life. Yet it never would be enough for him.

“I’ll get the bags,” Howard said, turning to leave the room, and she stayed silent.

“He does miss you when you’re not here,” her mother said softly, and Toni wanted to laugh. Maybe he missed getting drunk and hitting her. But she doubted very much that he missed her.

“It’s time to go, Maria,” Howard said, and her mother stood.

“I’ll miss you, Bambina,” her mother said, and Toni hugged her mother gently.

“Have a nice trip, Mom,” she said, and Maria kissed her gently on the head before following Howard out of the room.


 

 She was in the middle of another project, trying to tweak Butterfingers ever so slightly so he just stopped dropping things randomly.

She knew it was part of his personality, and she probably will be unable to change it, just like she cannot make DUM-E understand all commands perfectly. But she has to at least try.

What good is having learning intelligence if they are unable to actually learn?

“Toni!” she heard a voice call out and she immediately recognizes it as Aunt Peggy.

“Aunt Peggy?” she asked, leaving her workshop, tiredly. Her aunt had visited her in England a few times, but it was rare of her to drop by unannounced.

She saw her Aunt standing there in the middle of the front hall, looking so tired and for the first time since she knew her, exhausted. And not just in a sleep deprived way.

“What’s happened?” she asked, immediately knowing something must have happened. Something which made her Aunt show up out of the blue.

“Toni,” her Aunt said, coming closer, “Something’s happened. There’s been an accident.”

She felt her heart stop, possibilities racing through her mind.

“Who?” she asked softly, not really wanting to hear the answer.

“Your mother and father,” Aunt Peggy said gently, and she felt her knees nearly give out.

“Are they okay?” she asked, and her aunt did not answer.

She dropped to the ground, unable to breathe as she knew the answer.

Her mother was dead.

“What happened?” she asked, needing to know.

“We’re not sure yet,” her aunt said, slightly hesitantly, “Your father was behind the wheel, and it seems as if they crashed for some reason, but there is no wild life in the area that could have jumped out and hit them. It is possible that another party was involved but we haven’t seen any proof of anyone else at the scene. We are still waiting on the autopsy reports, however.”

Her father had caused the accident.

Her father who had been drinking before they even left had crashed the car.

And now her mother was dead.

Her mother, who had loved her despite her flaws, who loved her when her father despised her. Her mother who encouraged her, cared for her, and had protected her. Her mother was dead, and nothing Toni did would ever be able to change that.

The sob erupted from her before she could control it and she felt her vision begin to blur as tears streamed down her face.

“I’m so sorry, Ducky,” her aunt said, sliding down beside her as she pulled her into a tight hug. “I’m so sorry.”

She leaned into her aunt, crying as Peggy simply rubbed her back and reassured her.

“I’ll take care of everything,” Aunt Peggy promised her, “You won’t have to do this alone.”

Oh god, she would have the plan a funeral now. She would have to deal with the succession of Stark Industries, and whatever other bullshit her father wrote in his will.

She would have to take over her mother’s charities and keep them running.

Fuck, she really needed a drink.

But she didn’t move, simply staying there with Peggy’s arms around her, as she cried for her loss.

She would never see her mother’s kind eyes ever again, and she thought that was what would hurt the most. Her mother never being able to tell her that she loved her ever again.


 

Peggy Carter knew something was wrong with Howard and Maria’s deaths since the moment she laid eyes on their body. And how could she not, what with the fact that Howard’s skull had been bashed in multiple times, not at all consistent with a car crash where the impact would have been singular.

And Maria; poor Maria had strangulation marks on her neck. There was no way that was caused in the car accident.

And given the fact that Howard had been transporting five vials of super soldier serum in the trunk of his car which were now missing, she knew something was amiss.

Which meant only one thing; the Starks were murdered.

She couldn’t tell anyone, not when she knew what it must have meant. If the news about having super soldier serum got out, it meant there must have been a leak. And such a secret had been kept under lock and key with only very few people had known about it.

SHIELD had a leak, and she knew she needed to get to the bottom of it. If they were willing to take down Howard Stark when he was worth more alive than dead, then she knew they meant business. And the last thing she needed was to end up the same way as her friend.

She couldn’t tell Toni; not until she was sure. She needed to make sure they were murdered and make sure the proper parties were brought into justice first, otherwise she was putting them all in danger.

It was how she found herself, digging deeply through SHIELD's files, trying to find out what had happened to the Starks. How had the news gotten out, when only those with level nine and ten knew?

It definitely brought down the number of suspects, given that very few had that high level of clearance.

There was her, Daniel, Howard, Pierce, her mentee, Fury, and a handful of other agents, none of which she thought were capable of giving away the secret. Fury was secretive and kept his emotions close, but that was what made him a good agent, not a suspect.

And she definitely did not suspect her own husband of selling secrets to other sources. She knew that the ones who were closest to a person were the ones who were capable of doing the most damage, but she knew her husband and he wasn’t that sort of man.

Besides, he could have betrayed her in so many other ways if he wanted to, and he clearly hadn’t.

She looked through the logs of the files on the computer, trying to figure out who had accessed the information recently, to try and see if she could figure out who was responsible for the breach.

It didn’t make sense; only three people had accessed the information about when Howard would be transporting the vials.

Howard, to log the information, herself to verify the transfer.

And Alexander Pierce.

Why was Pierce looking at the files? She knew that it must be more than blatant curiosity. He didn’t need to access the files, especially one so high class as that.

She frowned as she stared at the screen, unable to completely process what was on it.

She clicked through other reports; other cases where the mission had gone sideways recently. Either the people they were tracking knew they were coming, or something else had gone horrendously wrong, more often than not resulting in the deaths of agents.

And on each one, Pierce had accessed it.

“Bloody Hell,” she breathed, and took a step back from the computer.

“You really shouldn’t have accessed those files,” she heard a voice say and she looked up quickly to see Pierce standing there, pointing a gun at her. He had two agents behind him, pointing guns at her as well, and she felt the pieces fall into place.

“Why?” she questioned him, “Why were you selling information?”

“I wasn’t selling it,” he lied, and she frowned at him. “I wasn’t selling it. We were using it to bring you down. You never should have brought Zola into SHIELD.”

“You’re HYDRA,” she realized, and she carefully tried to reach under the desk to trigger a warning. If she was going to die in here, then she’d be damned if she let him get away with it.

“And you know what they say about HYDRA,” Pierce smirked at her, “You cut down one head and two more appear.”

“If you kill me, they’ll know it was you,” she informed him, “There’s security cameras in this room. It’ll blow your cover and expose you.”

“Except I won’t kill you,” he shrugged, “It would raise too many questions. Especially so close to Howard Stark’s death. Instead, I just need you to forget. Let the world believe Howard killed Maria in a drunk driving accident. You’ll forget ever seeing anything here today.”

“How do you plan on doing that?” she scoffed, and he grinned at her, holding up a needle.

“The memory loss serum Howard had worked on shortly before his death. It’s a shame we never got to properly test the long-term effects, but either way, we know it will work and make you forget. But just to be safe, we’ll give you slightly more than usual,” Pierce said, coming closer to her.

She thought about fighting, but she knew she was no longer as young as she once was. Either way, she couldn’t just let him wipe her memory. Not when she had just learned that her organization had been infested with vermin.

She elbowed Pierce, as he came closer, but a warning shot was fired by one of the agents, still with the guns trained on her.

“Fuck,” Pierce swore, as he wiped the blood from his nose. “I always hated you, Carter. I’m going to enjoy this.”

She struggled, as he moved closer and placed the needle against his neck. She’d rather die than let him inject her. She tried to stomp on his foot, and while he winced, it didn’t stop him from injecting her slightly.

Her eyes drooped slowly, and she felt her mind draw black as her body grew limp.

“Good night, Carter,” Pierce taunted her, as he placed her gently in her chair. “By time you wake up, you won’t remember any of this.”


 

Toni Stark sat in the middle of her parent’s mansion, a bottle of her father’s whisky in her hand, as the tears streamed down her face.

The house was empty, as the staff had all been sent home to give them some time off. She wanted to be alone, and despite their condolences, they respected that.

Her mother was dead.

Her mother who had taught her Italian and how to play the piano. Her mother, who had often looked at her with fond looks of exasperation when she wore anything but a dress because they got in her way. Her mother who had loved her and protected her from her father. Her mother who drove up to visit her when she was away at school just so they could get some tea together because she simply missed her daughter.

Her mother who was her only true parent was dead, and the pain weighed down on Toni so heavily that she felt like she might burst.

She would never walk through those doors again.

Toni would never hear the sound of her beautiful voice as she sang and played the piano, without a care in the world, as her music transported them to another world.

Toni was truly alone, in this big house, and in the world.

Ana was gone. Jarvis was gone. Her mother, and even her father had left her.

Who did she truly have left in her life?

Rhodey, who had joined the Military and she heard from once every few weeks?

Aunt Peggy who led a life of secret missions and travel? Uncle Daniel who she saw maybe once a month or so if she was lucky?

Uncle Obie was right; in the end everyone really did leave her.

She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, if she wanted to scream or shout, or continue to drink away all her pain.

She had already worked her way through one of Howard’s expensive bottles. The kind he’d drink after a long day at work, before he’d find her and let her know just how much he hated her. It was how she ended up with a broken arm at the age of five, burnt palms on more than one occasion from him insisting she took objects that were far too hot to be handled by human hands without any sort of protection. It was how she ended up with a black eye at the age of seven, and a total of twenty broken bones from her father alone before she was twelve years old. It was how she learned how to use concealer to hide the bruises her father left on her skin.

If her doctors ever suspected anything to be amiss with her injuries, then the money her father had thrown at them was more than enough to stop them from asking any unwanted questions. God forbid the press found out how horrid Howard Stark truly was.

She looked down at the bottle, and felt a strong pain fill her. If she ever had kids of her own, would she be as horrible to them as Howard was?

It hurt her to think about, to treat a child with so much hatred and anger. How could anyone do such a thing to a soul who was innocent of all the crimes their parents hated them for? How could anyone take any pleasure or satisfaction in hurting a child?

She felt a new set of tears fill her eyes. The papers had already started talking about what a gap Howard’s death would leave in the world. Yet none of them seemed to care enough to mention her mother. As if she was nothing more than a simple wife to her father’s genius. As if she never accomplished anything of substance herself.

They were wrong.

She didn’t mourn the loss of her father.

She hated him, hated that he had to go and kill himself in a drunk driving accident. But more importantly, he had taken her mother from her as well. He had taken her mother, who was innocent of all his crimes and his abuse, from her.

She was alone, stuck in this ancient house which felt like a mausoleum, filled with memories of a former life. This ancient house which felt like a museum with the memories of those who once lived in it and those who were long gone.

Ana.

Jarvis.

Howard.

Mom.

All of them were gone, leaving her alone in this world that wanted nothing to do with her. Leaving her in this world where she would have to fight for everything that came her way, without even an ounce of support left in her corner.

She took a swig from the bottle, crying out as the mascara dripped down her face. She didn’t care. She didn’t need to be a pretty picture of perfection, put together for the world. Because she was alone, and no one would be any wiser.


 

She was at a funeral again, and the gap between that and the one of Edwin Jarvis’ felt all too short. It wasn’t fair that she had to come to one again so soon, and she hated the fact that she had to wear this tight black dress, one her mother had selected for her to wear to some gala or the other, and one she now donned to her mother’s funeral.

It was irony, to say in the least. That it took the death of her mother to get her willingly into a dress.

But wearing anything else felt disrespectful. Wearing anything other than what her mother wanted her to wear at least once felt like a sin.

But her sins seemed to be piling up, faster than she could stop them.

She should have pleaded with her mother, begged her not to get into the car. She should have insisted that Howard go alone for something so dangerous. How could he bring his wife with him when he knew he had an important delivery? How could he be drinking so heavily when he knew his wife was in the car with him?

Her father had killed her mother.

She had never truly hated her father for his distaste of her. She understood his mentality; it was the same prejudice she had faced her entire life, for being a woman in a man’s world, who dared to defy them and thrive to heights so much further than they could ever dream of aspiring to reach. But she didn’t hate Howard Stark for hating her. Even when he hit her, even when he threw her to the ground and broke her bones.

But she hated him with so much strength for what he did to her mother.

It wasn’t enough that he could never love her. He also had to go and take the one person in her life that loved her. He had to steal her mother from her. Her mother who had loved her from the moment she was born. Her mother who she loved more than anyone else, was taken from her, all because her father couldn’t get through the day without drinking a bottle of whiskey.

And now she would have to stand here at this funeral and talk about what a great man her father was, while they all pretended he wasn’t drunk at the wheel. Like it was some sort of accident. Because Obie had insisted it would be better for the company if it was an accident over if it was known that Howard Stark had killed them both by driving under the influence.

She hated him so much more for forcing her to lie about how he killed her mother.

“I want to thank you all for coming here today,” Toni said, when she was called up to deliver the eulogy. She could hear the whispers in the crowd, wondering what would happen to Stark Industries now that Howard was gone. Who would take over? What would it mean for the future of innovation in the world? But all of those were questions for another time. Questions for a time where she wasn’t about to bury her father and mother. Questions that were hardly appropriate for now.

“Maria Stark was an angel,” Toni said softly, trying to keep her voice level. “She was involved in so many charities, giving to so many in need. Her work in philanthropy is unparalleled, and she was a shining light of good in this world with so much darkness. She loved with her entire heart, and always made you feel as if you were the most important person in the room when she spoke to you. For those of you who ever had the pleasure of hearing her play the piano and singing, can attest to the fact that her voice could move mountains with the amount of emotion she poured into it when she played. My Mom was everything to me. She supported me through some of the most difficult decisions in my life. She supported me when I wanted to go to MIT despite being only thirteen years old. She stood behind me when I insisted the work there was too easy and wanted to test out of it. She supported my decision to move to England for a year to work on PhD’s. She might not have started a company or changed the entire world, but for those she helped, she changed their lives forever. She’ll be missed, a guiding light in this world that is all too dark.”

Obie gave her a nod and she took a deep breath, knowing who they really all wanted her to talk about. Because her mother was dead, and they all wanted to hear her talk about Howard Stark. As if her mother meant nothing to the world.

And she hated them all for it.

“I don’t know what to say about Howard that you don’t already know,” Toni said, placing a strong look on her face. It wouldn’t do her any good to break down now and burst into tears of anger. Her father killed her mother and she needed to talk about him as if he hadn’t. “He was involved in Project Rebirth, which famously created Captain America. And the Manhattan Project which won us the war. He was a revolutionary who created weapons to keep our country safe. His work was years beyond the rest of the world, and he truly made the world a little safer. With his loss, the world will be a little less bright. May both Howard and Maria Stark rest in peace.”

She knew she had kept her eulogy of Howard drier than Maria’s had been, but she didn’t have any good anecdotes of him to tell. What was there to say when he had hated her from the moment she had been born? What was there to tell when Howard never loved her and only ever wished for a son that he couldn’t have?

She took a step back from the podium and headed towards her seat as the funeral continued on. And when the time came to lay her parents to rest, Aunt Peggy and Uncle Daniel stood by her side, both of them looking saddened by the loss. Harry had placed an arm around her, and Ava had held her hand tightly.

She wore sunglasses, trying not to let the world see just how much of a mess she was, as she watched their caskets be lowered into the ground, and the dirt began to pour over them.

And just like that, her parents were put to rest, and the world continued to move on. Even if she felt like her entire world was falling apart.


 

She was in her lab again, trying to do anything to distract herself from how lonely the house felt in her parents’ absence. With her PhD’s completed, she had no reason to return back to England. So instead, she stayed in this house by herself, rattling away as the world moved on without her.

The will reading was scheduled for a few days from now, so she couldn’t even run away if she wanted to. Because she really wanted to move away from New York. To go to Malibu or anywhere other than here. She hated being in this city, when it reminded her every moment of everything she had lost. She hated it, and she couldn’t wait for it to all be over and so she could finally leave.

“Toni,” she heard a soft voice call out and she nearly dropped her wrench as she saw Rhodey standing in front of her, completely in his military outfit.

“Honey Bear?” she asked him, struggling to compose herself. “What are you doing here? How did you get in here?”

“One of the staff let me in,” he said gently. “They were worried about you, Toni.”

“Why are you here though?” she questioned him, “Aren’t you supposed to be overseas?”

“I requested some personal leave,” Rhodey told her, moving closer to her. “I would have come sooner, but it took them a few days to process the paperwork to approve the request. I’m so sorry, Toni. I wish I could have been there with you through the funeral. I should have been there with you.”

He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in tightly and she felt herself crumble as she took comfort in his embrace.

“My mom is gone, Rhodey,” she said, a sob erupting out of her. “I miss her so much. And she’s gone because my father wanted to have a drink or three before they left the house. He always hated me, and now he’s taken the one person who loved me from me too.”

“I’m so sorry,” he murmured, rubbing her back gently. “It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that they’re gone, and that you had to deal with this all on your own. I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to help you with all of this sooner. I should have been here for you, Toni. I should have been there for you. I’m so sorry that you’ve been going through all of this on your own.”

“You came,” she said softly, “That’s enough, Rhodey. Thank you for coming.”

There was a been behind them, and she saw Rhodey startle as he saw DUM-E and Butterfingers approach him.

“You made another one,” he said, looking at her fondly. “Hello, DUM-E, how have you been?”

DUM-E beeped back at him enthusiastically, and Butterfingers looked at her with a worried look on it’s face, as if it didn’t know if it could trust Rhodey.

“This is Butterfingers,” she said, introducing Rhodey to the bot, “Butterfingers, meet Rhodey. He’s the best person in this entire world.”

Butterfingers beeped back at him, trying to raise it’s arm to shake Rhodey’s hand. Her Honey Bear simply laughed, as he took the bot’s hand in his own and shook it. While her AI made a lot of the world uncomfortable, Rhodey had always been supportive. He had seen DUM-E come to life and had helped teach him half the things that he knew.

“I want you to come home with me for a few days,” Rhodey told her gently. “You can come back before the will reading, if that’s all that’s keeping you here. But I think it’ll be good for you to escape this for a bit. Mama wants you to stay a few days and let her take care of you. I think you could use the break.”

He gestured at the bottle of whiskey that she had finished today itself and she shook it off simply. She didn’t have a problem, not really. It was just a way to help her numb the pain. She wasn’t like Howard. She wasn’t. She would never hurt another person while drunk. She would never kill another person.

But she couldn’t argue that some time away wouldn’t do her some good. It would be nice to escape the city for a few days when the entire city seemed to still be grieving Howard’s death. She needed a break after all.

“Okay,” she said with a nod. “Let’s get away from here, Rhodey.”

Chapter Text

Toni Stark walked into the room, eyes covered by large sunglasses and lips painted a deep red as her heels clicked on the floor behind her. She knew all the heads in the room immediately turned to look at her, but she pretended not to notice as she took a seat in the chair towards the head of the table, looking out at the room in front of her.

“How are you holding up?” Obie asked her, giving her a sympathetic smile, clearly expecting her to still be a mess over the death of her parents.

And she was. It had only been a week since she had attended their funeral after all. But now was not the time for such emotions.

Starks were made out of iron. They did not break, nor did they bend. And she knew all too well that showing weakness now would undermine the Will reading that was about to occur.

“I’m fine,” she said, indifferently, as she took off her sunglasses and crossed her legs, before gesturing to her late father’s lawyers to continue.

Her Aunt Peggy gave her a gentle smile, and Toni smiled back. Her Aunt had picked her up from Rhodey’s house, refusing to let her come alone, and Toni had been grateful. The press always did have a way of getting up in her face, but since the death of her father and the succession of Stark Industries seemed unclear, she had been getting more attention than usual.

She was well aware of the fact that even in his death Howard Stark would not make her life easy for her. She already was prepared to have to fight his Will just to be given the basic rights that belonged to her.

Her father’s lawyer, the designated executor of his will, cleared his throat, looking onto the room in front of him, “We are here today to read the Last Will and Testament of Howard Stark.”

She held her breath slightly, as he began reading from the Will.

“To Ms Peggy Carter-Sousa,” the old man read out, “I leave all my possessions and research pertaining to our work with SHIELD as detailed below.”

As he began to read out the works, Toni glanced at her aunt curiously. She knew the two of them worked together on a secret organization, and while she had heard whispers of the name, she never had been given much details on the matter. The only time Howard had talked about it had been during drunk ramblings of how he and Peggy were trying to keep Captain’s legacy alive, because he was a true hero. And if he never could find Captain America himself, then at least he would keep his legacy alive. Steve Roger’s legacy would become Howard’s as well. The fact that Toni was not his legacy went unsaid.

Peggy had a sad smile on her face, but she nodded acceptingly as the lawyer continued.

“To Mr Obadiah Stane, I leave my prized Golf clubs, for I hope he will continue to play the game, even in my absence,” the executor read out before pausing.

Wait.

Her father had left his golf clubs to Uncle Obie, and nothing else? She glanced up at the man, waiting for him to continue, knowing there had to be more.

“To Miss Antonia Natasha Stark,” the executor read out.

Maybe not.

She frowned; what was the old man playing at? They all knew why they were here. It had nothing to do with the golf clubs, and everything to do with the business.

“I leave to you my estate, including the art collection amassed by Maria Stark over the years, all residences under the Stark name, my fortune, and all other assets. In addition to this, I leave to you full ownership of Stark Industries, as per the right of succession named by my father, Howard Stark Sr. It is my hope that Obadiah Stane will help you transition into the role of CEO of Stark Industries.”

She looked up in shock, unsure if she had heard the old man clearly.

Her father, the man who hated her and told her through her entire life that she would never be good enough, had left her everything. Including Stark Industries, which he had been all too clear that she never would be good enough for.

Obie looked displeased for a moment, before the look quickly wiped off his face. She made a mental note of it, but she wasn’t really surprised. For how supporting he had been of her despite her father, she knew that Obie thought that he would leave the company to him. She had come into the meeting expecting something similar herself, which had been why she had been ready to contest the Will.

But Howard Stark willingly, and in sound mind, left her control of Stark Industries.

There must have been some sort of mistake.

Either way, she kept her feelings of confusion to herself, as Obie clapped her on the shoulder.

“Well I do suppose we should go tell the press about this, shouldn’t we?” Obie said, with a smile as he gestured out the window to the growing mass of reporters in front of Stark Industries.

She nodded, knowing he was right. They wouldn’t stop hounding her until they knew the truth.

But somehow, she suspected they would stop once they knew the truth.

The ride down the elevator was silent, as Aunt Peggy smiled at her supportively.

“You’ll be good for the company,” she told her goddaughter softly, “Howard knew what he was doing.”

“Just two weeks ago he told me the company would be safer in anyone’s hands but my own,” she scoffed.

“Your father always was dramatic,” Peggy rolled her eyes, “Either way, he knew you would be what this company needs. He could deny it all he wanted, but you have a vision of a better world for the future.”

Obie didn’t say a word the entire way down, but she didn’t say anything to him. Instead when the elevator doors opened, she kept her head held high as she walked out to where the reporters were standing. Immediately questions began being thrown her way, but she raised a hand to silence them.

“There have been many questions since my father’s passing of what would happen to Stark Industries, and who would take over the role of CEO,” Toni started, voice steady. She was used to talking to the press; she had her first conference when she was four years old, and by now it was child’s play.

“Before his passing, I had been working with my father to take on more responsibilities in the company and had been already working to produce designs for weapons and other technologies for the last four years,” she said, wanting the world to know that it wasn’t completely out of the blue, even if she still felt slightly blindsided.

“Howard Stark has named me the sole owner of Stark Industries,” she said with a firm tone, “And CEO of Stark Industries. There will be a brief transition period, while the changes are made, but in the coming months I will take a far more active role in the business as I take over responsibilities.”

She could practically hear the questions being thrown at her, questioning how a woman could take over the weapons company, what it would mean for the future, and what would happen to all the military contracts.

“I am not accepting any questions at this time,” she said firmly, “But I will say that the future of Stark Industries is in safe hands. I have many plans to help revolutionize the world, and you will see the result of it in the years to come. That is all for today.”

And with that she turned and walked head first back into her father’s company. Her company.

She knew such an announcement would shake the world in the beginning. Their Stocks would drop, and Military contracts would be lost. But she would show the world what she is made of.

She is a Stark.

And Starks are made of iron.

They do not break, nor do they bend.


 

Peggy Carter frowned as she looked over the mission details that SHIELD had conducted over the past few weeks. Nick Fury had been tracking down a new enhanced human, as she had been seen fighting with an elderly woman on the bus, both of which seemed to have inhuman strength.

But she didn’t remember anything about the mission. She didn’t remember assigning it to her subordinate. She didn’t remember asking him to take on the task or receiving any of the updates that were in her copy of the file in front of her.

And yet her signature lay as clear as day at the bottom of the mission report.

So why couldn’t she remember what was happening? Why couldn’t she remember giving out that particular mission? Shouldn’t she remember if a woman was wreaking havoc on her country? It wasn’t every day reports of enhanced humans got out, and there was absolutely no way she should have forgotten such a thing. And yet she found herself with no recollection of such a thing.

Something was wrong.

Something was very wrong.

And she had no idea what it was or how to fix it.

“Is everything alright, Darling?” Daniel asked, entering the kitchen where she had been sitting and kissed her gently on the head. She had woken up before him and made a pot of coffee as she tried to make sense of the various reports, despite them not making any clear sense to her.

“I don’t know,” she sighed, as he sat beside her at the table, looking at the report in front of her, “I can’t remember anything about this mission that happened, and it’s worrying me that someone might have forged my signature.”

“The Marvel case?” Daniel asked looking at the report in front of her, “I remember you mentioning it. It’s still in progress, right?”

“I mentioned it?” she asked, surprised. She didn’t remember that either, and it worried her. Her own husband seemed to be aware of what she was talking about and she had no idea. Why did she have no idea what the mission was about? Especially one as important as this, which clearly was on-going.

“You don’t remember?” Daniel furrowed his brows, “It’s all you could talk about when the news of the attack broke out. I thought you would have been all over this case. A woman with supernatural powers causing damage to America? Isn’t that the sort of think you are normally all over?”

She frowned, and Daniel quickly took her hand.

“Peggy, it’s probably the stress,” He told her softly, “You’ve had so much going on lately, that it probably just slipped your mind. With SHIELD now in your control, there’s so much more on your plate, more than ever. I’m sure it’s nothing. Just look over the case files and I am certain that it all will come back to you. You just need to give it a bit longer.”

But she had been in charge of SHIELD for years now, with Howard’s help. It was hardly as if she had gained a new set of responsibilities. They were the same as they always had been. So why did her mind seem like it was missing something? Like a key piece of the puzzle wasn’t available to her, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t seem to recover it.

“I’ll ask Howard about it later,” she sighed, and Daniel froze. She looked at her husband, and he didn’t say anything, as if he were waiting for her to correct herself. As if there was something wrong with her statement. “Daniel, what’s wrong?”

“Peggy, Howard is gone,” Daniel said slowly, “Remember?”

“They’ll be back from the Bahamas soon enough,” Peggy said dismissively. Just because he still was on vacation didn’t mean he wasn’t aware of what was going on in their world around them.

Daniel squeezed her hand gently and closed his eyes.

“Peggy,” Daniel said in a soft voice, moving closer to her. “Howard and Maria are gone. They never made it to the airport. There was an accident on the way. They passed away a few months ago.”

She froze at that, and her heart broke at the thought of her closest ally after the end of the war passing away. There must have been some sort of mistake. He must have been wrong. Daniel had to be wrong. She would remember if Howard had passed away.

“No,” her voice trembled slightly, “No, you’re wrong. You have to be wrong.”

“I wish I was,” he told her softly, “The past few months have been hell for Toni, and I wish more than anything I was wrong. But they’re gone, Darling. They have been for a while now, and nothing is bringing them back. We were at the funeral. You were the one who told Toni. You identified their bodies, so she didn’t have to.”

“No,” she said again, unable to comprehend what was happening. No; there was no way she didn’t remember this. There was no way she was forgetting this much.

“Peggy,” he said again, looking at her in concern.

“Daniel,” she said slowly, looking at her husband, “I think something is very wrong with me.”


 

Obadiah Stane was not pleased with the way his plan seemed to be playing out. No, he certainly was not pleased with it at all.

He was furious, in fact.

He had been planning this for years, from the shadows. He ensured Howard knew what the world would think of having a girl take over the company, and while the man already felt similar sentiments, his own echoing of the truth made it a firm opinion in the man’s mind.

He wanted to sow the seeds of discord between Howard and his family and he started small. He took the man out drinking more often than not after work before sending him home. The war had left Howard Stark a cold man, and he knew all too well what went on behind those closed doors. He knew from the way Antonia stiffened whenever she saw her father in that state. Knew from the way Maria often tried to limit his alcohol intake while they were at social events.

He scheduled meetings with the Board or investors specifically when he knew Antonia would have important events of her own. It wasn’t as if Howard was even aware of those events when he scheduled the events. It was only later when Howard realized the scheduling conflict that he simply would brush it off. Work was far more important than his daughter’s accomplishments after all. He was creating himself a legacy. One Antonia Stark would not be a part of.

Obadiah knew that Toni was trying to get her foot through the doors of Stark Industries for years. She’d show him her designs, and while he might dislike the girl in question, he had to admit she was brilliant. Perhaps more brilliant than Howard himself. Maybe it was why his business partner hated her so much; because he knew that if she was only given the chance, she would overtake him in the world as an innovator. And he certainly could not have that.

But what Howard did not know was that Obadiah Stane had secretly been making deals behind his back, determined to make the company more profitable. All it took was a shipment getting lost here or there, or a group of missiles with defects to seemingly make its way into the hands of interested parties. And Howard never noticed the difference. He didn’t look too deeply into the numbers. He didn’t ask questions when Obadiah said he’d handle the missing shipments.

And for a while that worked for the two of them. Howard Stark was ignorant to all the dealings of Obadiah Stane in the company they had built up in the aftermath of the war, and his ignorance meant the two of them could co-exist in peace.

But then he noticed something amiss about a particular shipment, lost somewhere in the Panama. The shipment was meant to be destroyed by the US Military through Stark Subcontractors. But Obadiah had made an agreement with the right parties to have the missiles silently be transported to them instead.

And Howard had known that something was amiss about that particular shipment. He didn’t know it was Obadiah who had sold the weapons under the table, but if Howard knew where to look, he knew the man would find out soon enough. For all his bragging about it, he actually was a genius, and he was more than aware that the man would be able to find out the truth if he so wanted.

He had mentioned the issue to the party he had been speaking with and was unsurprised that the group had their own issues with the man. Something about the man developing weapons for SHIELD that they would be able to use to re-create a lost program. And both of them wanted Howard gone.

They had decided then and there, to take out the man in question, and less than a week later, Howard Stark was gone from the living world.

It should have been easy after that. Shouldn’t have been anything difficult to overcome.

But then Howard Bloody Stark handed over their company to his daughter. The same daughter he had lamented about for years.

And what did he get for all his hard work over the years? A set of golf clubs? It was an insult to everything he had done for their company. For their legacy.

On top of everything, he had to babysit the Stark girl while she took everything he had worked for years to obtain.

It wouldn’t be the end of him yet. The girl was inexperienced, but she trusted him. All he needed to do was get her to continue to rely on him, and he’d be able to lead the company from the shadows as he saw fit.

But it wouldn’t do him any good if the world saw Antonia Stark as a revolutionary or an icon. No, they would need to see her as a mess, if he was truly going to keep the power out of her hands.

And he knew just how to arrange for such a thing.


 

Toni Stark wanted to be anywhere but the place she currently was.

She was tired, having spent a long day drawing up plans for new designs for Stark Industries. She had everything from new guns, to missiles and every other weapon the military could dream of having, all of which she knew would be the top of the line. She didn’t make anything less than perfect.

She knew she couldn’t go into the Board meeting and simply show her designs for personal computers, cellular phones, and her other designs. No matter how much she might want to grow Stark Industries to become a global phenomenon, the Board was filled with old men who were very averse to change. And Stark Industries made millions of dollars from weapons productions.

Besides, with Rhodey set to deploy back out in a few weeks, it hardly would hurt to ensure that the Military was able to give him the very best they had to ensure he would be safe. And if she could make sure he wasn’t using junk from a company such as Hammer Industries then she would gladly take on that responsibility.

And yet now she found herself at a party, that Obadiah insisted she attend to grow her brand. She needed to make herself more known, and mingling was the way of the future.

She’d rather be in her lab with DUM-E and Butterfingers. She’d rather be anywhere other than here.

“Can I get you a drink?” she heard a voice ask her and she looked up to see Tiberius Stone standing over her, and she nearly scoffed. She remembered what he had been like in school. She remembered what he had tried to do to her.

“I’m perfectly fine,” she said, indifferently. She refused to let him see that he still held any power over her and refused to give him that satisfaction. He was nothing more than a prick, and he didn’t deserve her time of day.

“Just one drink,” he pressured her again and she found herself rolling her eyes at him, “Come on, Stark. You’re at a party. Loosen up a bit. MIT is behind us, and what with you being the new CEO of Stark Industries, you’re going to find yourself interacting with more of us in the future. Just because you were so much better than us in school doesn’t mean that you need to play the cold-hearted woman now. It would make it easier for us in the future.”

She hated that he was right.

They weren’t in the classroom any longer. Her company would most likely be doing business with other companies that had their heirs in this room. It was why Obie asked her to come to this. So she could gain some clout with her fellow tech leaders.

“Fine,” she sighed, “Just a coke. Nothing in it. I have to be up early tomorrow, and I can’t afford to have a hangover for it.”

He grinned at her, “I’ll be right back.”

She sighed to herself, closing her eyes. She wondered just when she would be able to go home and leave all of this behind her, but she knew it would easily be a few more hours before she could sneak out without it becoming a big deal.

Stone moved his way through the crowd back to her and handed her a red cup, which she took gingerly. She and Rhodey had been to their share of parties back at MIT, and she found herself wishing he was here. He had promised to come by later, after running a few errands, but the time couldn’t move quick enough for her.

She brought the cup to her lips and took a sip of it, mainly to avoid talking to Tiberius as he sat down beside her.

Something was off.

She frowned as she looked at the cup in front of her, knowing that something was wrong with the drink she just had consumed. Coke, for all the chemicals in it, should not have a salty taste to it. It should not taste as off as it did to her, and she knew something was wrong.

“Did you put something in my drink?” she asked, feeling her body grow slightly numb.

“Just relax,” he told her with a grin, “It’ll wear off by morning. I thought this party could use a bit more fun anyways.”

He leaned over and pressed his lips against hers before she could react. It was like she could see him coming towards her but couldn’t move fast enough to get out of the way. His lips moved over hers as she felt herself trying to push him away.

She could hear wolf whistles from around her, as his hands moved to take off her shirt. She tried to push him away, tried to get him to stop, but she felt herself grow dizzy. She could hear the clicks from around her, and she was furious, knowing that by morning the pictures would be all over the country.

“Stop,” she tried to get out, the words sounding slurred, “Stop!”

“Get away from her!” she heard a voice say, and she felt Stone being ripped away from her. She felt steady hands on her body as Rhodey wrapped his sweater around her body, “Toni,” he said, trying to get her attention. “Are you okay?”

She tried to answer him, but she couldn’t get the words out.

“I’m going to take you home,” he told her gently, trying to help her stand. She leaned into him, falling over, as he held her steady.

“She’s not going anywhere with you,” Stone said angrily, moving forward, “She’s mine! I worked hard to get her like this, you don’t get to just take her away from me.”

She felt Rhodey gently set her back down on the couch as he moved forward and punched Stone in the nose. Perhaps if she was more aware, she would have felt more satisfaction at the actions.

“You’re going to be okay,” Rhodey told her gently, as he picked her up in his arms and carried her out the door. She remembered feeling safe, before her eyes closed and she lost consciousness.


 

When she woke up, her head was throbbing. She was in the penthouse she had bought for herself a few months ago, unable to spend any more time there than necessary. She didn’t believe in ghosts and spirits, but she felt like the house seemed like a haunted memory of what once was and what never could be again.

How did she get here? The last thing she remembered, Stone’s hands were all over her.

“Are you feeling okay?” Rhodey asked her gently, as he moved over to where she was lying in her bed and handed her a glass of water.

“Did he drug me?” she demanded, as she took the glass from him. “What happened?”

“He did,” Rhodey confirmed, sitting beside her on the bed. “I punched him and brought you home, but not before some of the people at the party managed to get pictures.”

She groaned, knowing where he was going with it.

“How bad is it?” she asked softly, and Rhodey handed her the New York Times.

Caught Stark Naked: Antonia Stark Parties It Up

“That’s one of the classier ones,” he grimaced. “I should have taken their cameras, but I was more concerned about getting you home.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” she sighed, “I should have known better than to take the drink from him.”

“You should press charges,” he urged her, “The truth needs to come out of what happened. You can’t let him get away with this.”

“Rhodey,” she told him gently, “Honey Bear. It won’t make a difference. No one will take my side over his. I might have money and influence, but he’s a man. It’s my word against his. They’ll say I asked for it, that nothing really happened because we didn’t have sex. They won’t do a damned thing about it. That’s how the world works.”

“It isn’t right,” he told her firmly. “It isn’t right that he can come and do this. I’d back you if you pressed charges. The drugs might still be in your system. He should not be able to get away with this.”

She stood from the bed slightly.

“He won’t,” her eyes darkened, as Rhodey held her steady. She walked over to where her laptop was and sat at it. “Today is his thesis presentation for his Masters. He’s showcasing his attempt at creating a personal robot. Nothing special about it, no AI or anything like DUM-E. He couldn’t figure it out, even with my own papers published on the subject. But his is supposed to at least move around the room, even if it can’t do anything of substance. It’s remote controlled.”

“And what do you plan on doing to this robot?” he asked her curiously.

“He made me into a laughing stock,” she said angrily. “I can at least return the favour and make sure the world sees him the same way he treated me. He wants his robot to move forward? It’ll move backwards. He wants it to hold something? It’ll drop it. He wants it wave? It’ll light itself on fire.”

“Will he know that it was you?” Rhodey asked her, grinning. Perhaps she should feel bad; Stone might not be as smart as her, but it was still a rather impressive innovation for the era. He had worked hard on it for years. But he had taken advantage of her. And who knew what would have happened if Rhodey hadn’t shown up.

“Nope,” she beamed, “Completely untraceable. Besides, he wouldn’t even know how to trace it back to me if he wanted to.”

“Good,” Rhodey nodded, “Show him what happens to people who mess with Toni Stark. Make him regret ever laying a hand on you.”

“Oh I will,” Toni bared her teeth at him. “I’ll make him regret as much as even looking at me. Tiberius Stone will never stand up against me ever again.”

 


Toni Stark hated Tiberius Stone for so many reasons. He had tried to force himself upon her, and while doing so, he had made her a spectacle. She already had more than enough reporters trying to catch pictures of her in compromising positions which would paint her in a different light than reality.

But more than anything, he had changed the narrative. She was trying so hard to get her Board to see her seriously, to get them to see that she would be the future of the company. She was trying hard to get them to see that she would make the company so much more than what it currently was.

And the eve before her meeting with them, he had drugged her. The eve before her big meeting with the Board of Stark Industries, Tiberius Stone had painted her as a promiscuous woman. She had seen the pictures, and she knew she looked far less than flattering.

Rhodey had asked her to reschedule, had told her to wait a few days for the fanfare to die down, but she refused. She would not back down because one man tried to put her in the place he thought she deserved. She had worked hard over the last few months for this meeting, and she’d be damned if he took it away from her like so many others had tried before.

So she walked into that Board room, her head held high as her heels clicked with each step she took. She was wearing a tailored pantsuit, and her hair was tied up in a bun, while her lips were painted the same red Peggy had made her signature.

“Toni,” Obie’s voice sound surprised, standing as he had saw her enter the room. Clearly, he hadn’t been expecting her to make it to the meeting. And from the looks on the other Board member’s faces, clearly, they hadn’t either. “I’m surprised you made it in today, after well, everything that has happened.”

She kept her voice steady. The men in the room didn’t care about what excuses she might have for them as to what happened. Nor would she let them see that she had any weaknesses. “I’m sure we’ve all had a night where we had one too many drinks, Obie,” she said sweetly, “But I wouldn’t miss this meeting for the world.”

“Of course not,” he recovered quickly as he led her to the head seat of the oval shaped table. One that had belonged to her father before her, and her grandfather before him. One that now belonged to her.

One of the older men, Roberts, cleared his throat, looking at her with a less than pleasant look, “Well now that our apparent new leader is here, we can begin.”

Oh, she could tell already that she would have issues with him. Roberts was everything she had grown to despise over the last few years. An older man in his late seventies, clearly thinking he knew far better than her. One who would try and talk down to her and minimalize her importance.

“In the passing of Howard Stark’s position of CEO to Antonia Stark, there have been some concerns among members of the Board,” another member, O’Brian said, looking at her appraisingly. “It seems as if it might not have been a sound move on his part, and we are gathered here today to discuss the future of Stark Industries.”

“Please clarify,” Toni interrupted, looking out at the board in front of her, “As to what you seem to think was unsound about my father’s decision? If there is any discord, I wish to be made aware of it.”

Of course, she already knew, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to call them out of their blatant sexism.

O’Brian raised a brow at her, clearly not expecting her to question the matter, but she gave him a pointed look. She wanted to hear him say it. Hear him say how he thought, how they all thought, that she wasn’t good enough to lead her father’s company, her company, simply because she was a woman. She wanted to hear the words from his mouth.

“Stark Industries needs a firm hand,” O’Brian said, after a moment, “It needs to be led by someone strong to give off the impression that we are a formidable appearance. It needs someone who will be able to make tough decisions about matters that those who are more delicate might not be able to handle. It is with that notion that we wish to discuss the succession.”

She nearly laughed at that.

They thought she couldn’t make a few hard choices?

They thought she was too delicate to run a weapons empire?

“I see,” she said coolly.

“We’re not replacing you, Antonia,” Obie told her softly, “You still will remain the public leader of this company. Stark Industries needs a Stark as it’s face. But you are young, and we wish to alleviate you of some of the difficult choices you would have to make if you were the CEO.

“I understand,” she said, giving her godfather a sympathetic smile. Of course, she understood all too well what they were saying. They didn’t think a woman was strong enough to lead the company.

“Well, it’s settled,” Roberts said, and she stood then, bringing their attention back to her.

“It is not settled,” she said simply, “I own controlling shares of Stark Industries, and I have not agreed to such a thing. I simply said I understood what it was that you were saying. That you do not think I am strong enough to lead a weapons company, because I am a woman. I’m used to it, I’ve gotten such remarks my entire life.”

The room went deathly silent at that.

“It’s not like that, Toni,” Obie started, and she raised a hand to silence him.

“It is like that,” she said simply, “I know how these things work. I know how the world thinks, and what the papers have been saying. I know that our stock prices have dropped slightly since I’ve been named CEO. I understand it all too well. I’m asking you to give me a chance.”

She lay out the designs she had for the guns, weapons, grenades and so on in front of her, as the Board looked at them in surprise.

“I’ve been working on these for months,” she said simply. “These all work, I have prototypes working already. With weapons like these, we will have the highest sales in the history of this company.”

She began laying out the other designs she had, for personal laptops that weren’t overly bulky, for mobile phones for the masses to use, designs of new computers with higher computing power than available anywhere else on the market.

“Stark Industries makes weapons,” Roberts sneered at her.

“We do,” she shrugged. “And how much money do we make each year doing such a thing? Five hundred million? Six? I’m asking you to give me a chance. We will still make weapons, and still earn larger profits than before. But instead of us just being a company that deals with the government and the militaries, I’m asking you to allow us to become a company that also deals with the masses. Let us make Stark Industries a household name. Instead of just being known in this country, let’s become a global empire. Five hundred million dollars a year of revenue is nothing in comparison to the billions we could be making. Give me a year to show that it will happen, and we’ll all be a lot richer than we already are.”

If there was one thing men like these liked more than they liked hating woman, it was making money. She could see from the skeptical looks on their faces that they weren’t sure if they agreed, but the room began to agree slightly as she could tell the decision had been made.

“Fine,” O’Brian said, looking at her, “You have one year to prove that you can deliver on these promises. But if you fail, then you will allow us to take control of the company.”

She smiled at them all, knowing that this was just the beginning.

She was going to change the world.

Chapter Text

Toni Stark had known that something was wrong with her godmother for a few months know. It had started off slow, forgetting small things, like remembering they had a dinner scheduled to catch up, or the fact that Toni was now CEO of the company. There were times when she looked at Toni and looked as if she didn’t recognize the girl in front of her for who she was now.

Her mother had been dead for nearly a year now, and it hurt to think that something is wrong with the only other mother figure she had left in her life. It hurt to know that it was yet another person in her life, slowly slipping away from her.

Her Uncle Daniel had visited her a month back, saying he was worried about his wife. She knew it had to be hard on him, his son was on the edge of eighteen and daughter was just about sixteen, and on top of that, something was very wrong with his wife.

Aunt Peggy had always been one of the strongest women she knew, walking into a room with heels that clicked, and her head held high as she commandeered the attention of every single person in the room without any great difficulty. She had fought her entire life just to have a place at the table, to be someone, and this incredibly strong, brave woman, didn’t even remember the names of her own children some days.

They sat in the doctor’s office, her children on either side of her, holding her hand as Uncle Daniel placed an arm around Toni’s shoulder. She wanted to tell him that she was fine, that he should be there for Peggy too. Because she knew her aunt was terrified of what was happening, terrified that she seemed to be forgetting things, and had no reason as to why she couldn’t remember things that were so simple. But the truth was, Toni was just as terrified, and having her uncle there helped.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Peggy tried to reassure them all, “I’ve just been tired. I should cut back my hours at work really and spend more time at home. I’m sure whatever it is has to do with work related stress. The doctor is going to come in here and let you know that there really is nothing the matter, so don’t you all worry. It’ll all be fine, my Darlings.”

“I hope so,” Ava said in a small voice as she held onto her mother tightly. Ava, who was so young, and so innocent in the face of this all. Her heart broke for her cousin, as Peggy pulled her into a slight hug. At sixteen years old, Toni was fighting sexism at MIT as she fought for what she wanted. But not everyone was like her. Ava was barely a Junior at her school. She should have been worrying about math tests and matters that would feel trivial to her in a few years. Not the fact that something was wrong with her mother. Not that none of them knew what it was.

“It’ll be okay,” Harry tried to reassure them all, in a positive voice. “Mom is the strongest person I know. If anyone will be able to pull through whatever this is, it would be her. She’s a fighter.”

She wished she could be as optimistic as they all were. Maybe it was the fact that she had already lost her own mother. The fact that she had lost Ana and Jarvis before that. Maybe all the loss had left her with a negative outlook on life, so she couldn’t help but worry that whatever it was would impact them far more than they thought. And whatever it was would be life changing.

The doctor entered the room then, holding a folder and she felt her heart race, as he sat down at the chair in front of his desk, and looked at them all.

“We have the results of your tests back, Mrs Carter-Sousa,” The doctor said, laying the files in front of him. “Your results were rather complex as it seems as if you do not possess the TAU protein in your synapses where we’d expect to see the problem, nor do you have an abnormal build of Amyloid-beta plaques levels in your blood. However, upon looking at the scans of your brain, it appears as if the MRI scan that we took of your brain showed abnormal brain activity similar to that of what we’d expect to see in Alzheimer’s patients.”

“What are you saying?” Peggy breathed, sounding a little confused.

And while biology was in no way Toni Stark’s strong suit, she had done a little research into the potential conditions Aunt Peggy might have before coming into the meeting. She knew enough to know that what the doctor was describing was abnormal, so she understood why he seemed perplexed.

“Alzheimer’s is still a disease that researchers are studying,” the doctor explained to her, “We don’t know everything about the disease in question. However, the results of the MRI, while contradictory to the lab work, align with the symptoms that you and your family have reported seeing in you. It is my belief that you have this disorder.”

“No,” Peggy said shakily, “I’m just tired. I just need to take a step back from work, to sleep it off. I’ll be as right as rain afterwards. Daniel, please. Tell him that he’s mistaken. You know me better than anyone in the world. Tell him that he’s made a mistake.”

“Peg,” Daniel said, voice breaking slightly, “I love you, so much. But you know he’s right. You’ve known something is wrong for months know. Please.”

Toni felt her heart break, as she looked at her aunt. She felt so weak, so helpless. She hated seeing her aunt, the strongest woman she knew, feel so defeated in the face of an illness that none of them would be able to fight.

Ava held onto her mother tighter, and Harry wrapped his arms around his mother as Peggy shook slightly.

As Daniel helped Peggy leave the office, she stayed back for a bit, pulling out her business card for the doctor.

“Would you be able to pass along the contact information for some of the research facilities that are looking into Alzheimer’s?” she asked him, “I want to look into their research, so I can have a better understanding of the disease.”

“Of course, Ms Stark,” the doctor nodded, “But you should know that there isn’t a lot of progress on the field yet. It doesn’t get a lot of awareness or funding and as such I’m not sure they will be able to tell you anything you do not already know.”

“Funding isn’t an issue,” she said, waving her hand, “I can supply them grants. I just want to know that there might be a cure for this, if they were given the resources they need. I want to know that something can be done.”

“It’s a generous thing to do,” the doctor told her softly, “But the disease is unforgiving. Even if a cure is found in five or ten years for now, that is still five to ten years that your aunt will have to live with this.”

“Is there nothing I can do?” she asked, almost desperate and the doctor gave her a sad smile.

“Be patient with her. Some days will be far harder than others. You might need to accept that you will be unable to give her the proper care that she needs, even if that hurts. Be there for her on her good days, and on the bad days, give her what she needs to get through it,” The doctor said, and she nodded, as it was the only thing she really could do.

She walked out of the doctor’s office as she joined her family at the car, feeling slightly defeated. But she would not let this be the end; she would find a cure, one way or another. She refused to lose yet another person she loved.

Toni made it back to her lab as Daniel dropped her off at the Penthouse on their way home. He had invited her to come back to his place, but she couldn’t do it, needing some time to process everything. It was selfish of her, she knew that. It was her aunt who had to deal with this. And instead she was putting herself and her own feelings first.

The first thing she did when she got back to the lab was grab a glass of whiskey. She knew it was wrong to drink away her feelings, but since the loss of her mother she had found herself drinking more and more, just to numb the pain slightly. She needed to do something, anything, to make it hurt less. And now, her aunt was going to leave her as well.

She slid to the floor, the bottle in one hand and her glass in another, as she felt big ugly sobs escape her. She hated this so much, hated that her aunt was fighting this disease. She hated how terrified Peggy sounded, how desperate she had sounded, wanting for this to be nothing more than a mistake. She hated listening to the strongest woman she knew fall apart as there was nothing any of them would be able to do to help them.

She hated every part of this, hated how alone she felt, locked in her lab with no one around her to help. Hated that her mother who had always made her feel better was long gone, and Jarvis who used to sooth her pain away had left as well. She hated how Rhodey was across the world, fighting in battles she could never know about. Hated how every time she saw a person in military wear approach her, she feared the worst. She hated how alone she was.

She knew what the papers printed about her. How she was off with a different man every night, how she drank too much and partied too hard. How Toni Stark was a mess who ran a million-dollar company. But what none of them cared about was how truly lonely she felt sometimes, as the world seemed to pass by around her, with no one in her life who stayed by her side.

The tears blurred her vision slightly, and she remembered Jarvis, and how he had wrapped his arms around her after her father had hurt her night after night in his lab, and her mother had been gone to some event or another. How he had read to her, stories her father never would have let her read as they were fiction, and how she would fall asleep with him watching over her, keeping her safe. How Jarvis had loved her when her own father had hated her.

She wiped her tears, as he would have done for her, and pulled herself up to her computer screen. She refused to feel so alone anymore, refused to wallow in self-pity. She never would be able to get anything done at that rate.

She logged onto and opened up a text editor as she began to create write and write and write. She wrote down her plans for the program and everything she would want it to do. She wrote down different designs and learning processes, as the words appeared in front of her.

She was tired of feeling so alone, of feeling helpless in the face of life and all that it threw at her. Tired of feeling as if she wasn’t worth anything, as the world continued to use her for their own desires. She was done with the pain and all the hurt that she felt. She was done with it all.

She wouldn’t be alone for much longer. She had DUM-E and Butterfingers, but she would create something else. Something greater than anything she had before. And she never would have to feel alone ever again.


 

She was beyond tired, and she knew it wasn’t healthy to live the way she did. If Jarvis was still here, he would insist on her sleeping and eating properly. Insist that she cared for herself and lived her life healthily.

But Jarvis was gone, as was her mother, Rhodey, and slowly Peggy. She was alone, and there was no one who noticed or cared if she starved herself for days on end and stayed up for days without sleep. No one but herself. And she was far too busy to bring herself to care about such things.

She had so much to do, with revolutionizing the way Stark Industries operated by building both weapons to advance the military and technology to advance the world, looking into cures for Alzheimer’s, trying to build her new computer program, and keep on top of all the actual work that went behind running a company.

She was spreading herself thin, she knew that all too well. She knew she couldn’t continue that way, not if she hopped to accomplish all the things she wanted to do in her lifetime. How could she hope to change the world if she died trying to do everything?

It seemed that she wasn’t alone in thinking that she was wearing herself out, as Obie knocked on her door on a fall day in 1994, looking concerned as she had files all over her desk with three monitors in front of her, displaying different things, as she attempted to get through all the work she needed to finish today, just in relation to running the company, and discounting all the work  she had to do for everything else.

It would be a miracle if she managed to get any sleep tonight.

“Toni,” Obie said, sitting down in front of her, “You haven’t been returning my calls.”

She looked up at him in surprised, then down at her phone which was lit up to show that she had missed calls.

“I didn’t even hear it ring,” she said sheepishly, “I was so wrapped up in my work. I’m sorry, Obie, did you need something?”

“We have a meeting this afternoon,” he reminded her, “For the investors. Have you finished your presentation for it?”

She blinked slightly and checked the calendar in front of her. She let out a slight gasp, realizing she had entirely forgotten about the meeting set to start in a few hours.

“I’ll work on it now,” she promised her godfather. “I just need to wrap up a few things first. I’m almost done everything, I promise. I have all the notes for it. I just need to put everything together. It’ll be ready in time for the presentation.”

“Toni,” he sighed, “You’re taking on too much responsibilities. You’re CEO of the company, coming up with all our new designs, and working on all your side projects. You’re doing the job of four or five full time employees. You cannot hope to do everything by yourself. You need to delegate some of this work. Give me some of your responsibilities. I can take charge of meetings, so you do not have to. Your father understood how to balance out all his priorities.”

“My father wasn’t trying to create new technologies for the masses as well,” she reminded him. “I can do this, Obie. I cannot give the Board any reason to doubt my capabilities. If they smell blood in the water, you know they’ll attack. If I pass on my responsibilities, they’ll see it as a sign that I’m not capable of running this company. And I refuse to give them any reasons to doubt what I can or cannot do. This company belonged to my father and grandfather before me. It belongs to Starks. And I will not be the one who lets their family legacy slip away. I will run this company even if it kills me.”

He looked unsurprised at that, and she suspected he knew that she would be against passing over responsibilities.

“You need help,” he said firmly. “One way or another. You cannot do this all by yourself. I picked out a personal assistant for you, a wonderful assistant for you, Marie. She’s a lovely young lady, and I’m sure you’ll appreciate the help-”

He was cut off when a commotion broke out from outside her office and she frowned as she stood and made her way to the door, trying to see what was happening.

“I just need a minute to speak to Ms Stark!” a young woman exclaimed, as she tried to push past the bodyguards outside her office. “Just give me one minute! It’s important! The company’s finances depend on it!”

“Ms Stark is not to be interrupted,” One of her bodyguards said stoically, and the arguing continued as Toni opened the door to her office to see a strawberry blond woman outside her office in a pencil skirt and blazer, her hair tied up firmly.

“Don’t touch me!” The woman yelled, as the bodyguard tried to move her aside. “I have pepper spray in my purse, and I will use it if you attempt to lay a hand on me.”

Toni looked at the woman, lips curling as she detected the lie the moment Ms Pepper Spray spoke it. Aunt Peggy had taught her early on how to recognize when others were lying to her, and it was easy to tell by the way the woman refused to make eye contact.

“What is this about?” Toni asked, gesturing to her bodyguard to allow the woman to speak. She saw Obie come up from behind her, looking unimpressed at the interruption.

“It’s about the report you filled for the allocation of funds over the next few years,” Pepper Spray continued. “Your report wanted to allocate five hundred million to the development of new technology over the following years, but you included an extra zero in the calculations coming up with about 5 billion dollars. If this report went to the investment meeting today and passed, either it would cost billions of dollars we do not have, or severe embarrassment.”

She took the report from the woman, looking it over, as she saw the mistake. It had been 3 am when she had written the report, and she was unsurprised at the error.

She looked back at Obie and he made a gesture, trying to prove a point that she needed help. Because if she had an assistant to look over things, or at least do some of the more trivial work for her, then she would have more time to do things like sleep properly. Or at least invent more.

“How would you like a promotion Ms…?” Toni asked, trying to get her name.

“Virginia,” Pepper Spray answered, “Virginia Potts, Ms Stark.”

“It seems as if I am in need of a personal assistant, to ensure that I do not make such mistakes,” Toni waved her hands, “And seeing how passionate you were to ensure I was aware of my mistakes, I think you might just be perfect for the job, Pepper.”

“Pepper?” the woman in question asked.

“For the pepper spray,” she smirked. “It’ll include a pay raise, of course, and more benefits that I’m sure you can negotiate with HR. If you are interested in the job, then I would need you to start today, to help me prepare for this investor meeting.”

Miss Potts smiled and nodded, “I accept,” she said, and Obie cut in.

“What about Marie?” he questioned, “I vetted her myself and think she is perfect for the job. She has experience and knows a thing or two about being a personal assistant. I don’t know what Ms Pott’s qualifications are, but we cannot just allow anyone to take on such a job, Toni.”

She raised her hand, “I hardly doubt she’s untrustworthy. Especially given how she was willing to pepper spray my employees to ensure I knew of a mistake I made. You said I need an assistant, Obie, and Pepper is perfect. It’s done. I’ll see you at the meeting. Pepper and I have a lot of work to do.”

Pepper followed her back into her office, and she closed the door. She’d deal with Obie and his anger later. For now, she had work to do.


 

She wasn’t really surprised that the Board of directors didn’t have a lot of faith in her.

At the one-year meeting with the Board, she had pulled up the finances and shown them that their profit in the one year she was in charge had jumped from five hundred million to one billion dollars. She had broken records, and a few magazines had written stories about how Stark Industries had a new Merchant of Death by the name of Antonia Stark. Of course it was lost in the sea of articles about the girl who still partied too hard and drank much.

The Board hadn’t been happy about having to keep her on, but the money talked, and they were willing to let her stay as CEO if it meant that they would keep making huge profits.

It didn’t stop them from questioning every single design she brought to the table. It didn’t stop them from whispering behind her back. It didn’t stop them from pointing every mistake she made as if it was an indication that she was unfit for the role of CEO no matter how small the mistake.

It didn’t stop them from looking for opportunity after opportunity to oust her.

It didn’t matter that year after year she brought in more profits than in the past, and that Stark Industries was reaching out into new fields and thriving. It didn’t matter to any of them that three years after her father’s death she had proved time and time again that she was more than capable of leading the company. It didn’t matter that she was now the Stark in Stark Industries. They looked at her and saw a girl instead of a man. They saw weakness instead of strength.

Starks were made of iron.

They did not break, nor did they bend.

And she would refuse to give them the satisfaction of being able to hurt her.

They would have to go, of that much she was certain. She didn’t care how long it took her, but she refused to have a Board of directors that hated her simply because she was a woman and she was thriving. She needed a Board that would trust her.

“It’s time, Toni,” Obie said, opening the door to her office. “The Board of Directors are ready for you.”

“I need a minute,” she told him. “I want you to look over the latest designs I created for Stark Phones. I think they’re finally ready for production and I want to release them in the first quarter of next year if possible.”

“Toni,” Obie let out an exasperated sigh, “We talked about this. Stark Industries makes weapons. The Board is expecting more designs for weapons. They don’t want to see designs that you are making like these. They never will sell, and you know that. The market doesn’t want such trivial devices. Starks make weapons and weapons sell.”

“We’ve been in the technology market for over a year,” she reminded him. The introduction of the new Stark laptops had left America in shock, and the demand for her computers had nearly caused a production issue. But they had made far more than their projections and she knew it was just the stepping stone she needed to be able to produce more non-weapon items. And she sure as hell planned to take that advantage.

“The laptops brought in nearly two billion dollars in sales last year alone,” she said him “Think about how much more money our company could be making if we branched out and started investing more money in our technology departments. Obie you need to think of the future. My father lost his vision and lost the ability to see where the world was heading. And if we do so, we become irrelevant. We need to keep innovating, keep thinking of ways to better the world. Without it, we are nothing. Without innovation and inventions, we will be stuck in the past.”

“As long as you have some designs of weapons to show the investors today,” Obie informed her, “If you have nothing, then it won’t matter what you design. They won’t want to see it. They won’t even listen to your pitch. I know you think you know best, but you need to listen to the Board, Toni. They only want what’s best for this company.”

“They only want to ensure we don’t lose our military contracts,” she rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, Obie. I have plenty of new bombs and weapons to show them. The military has never been disappointed with my designs before, and I promise you they will not be disappointed by what I have to show. When have I ever let them down like that? I had a deal with the board, that I would continue to produce weapons and make profits and they would let me take this company to new heights as I saw fit. I cannot continue to fight them every step of the way and have to keep proving them wrong. We both know my designs are the best. They will sell. That’s not confidence, it’s fact. The market research that we have for existing products show that there is a market for this technology. Personal computers and phones are the way of the future. No more will the military just have the best designs. It’s time for the people to have a chance as well. Just trust me. For once.”

“I trust you, Toni,” he told her gently, “You’re my goddaughter, and I only want for you to succeed. But you must trust me too. Your father trusted what I had to say. I just don’t want you to lose sight of what this company is about while you go and try to take it to new feats. Trust goes both ways. You need to trust me as well. I only want what is best for you.”

“I know, Obie,” she smiled at him. “I know. Now let’s go show the Board all these designs and remind them of all the profits we’re making.”


 

Two years.

It had been two years since Toni Stark started working on her program. Started working on a program, one that would be there for her all the time, regardless of where she was.

Because she loved her bots more than anything. They were like her children, but they were hardly portable. She could hardly bring them out on the street with her or to work. No, she needed an AI that existed outside the constraints of a body. One that would exist on servers and would be there for her no matter what.

Someone who wouldn’t leave her like everyone else in her life.

Because while she still had Obie, he always wanted something from her. Always wanted more from her. More weapons, more designs, more, more, more, more. And it never felt like enough.

She wanted to please him, wanted to make sure he was proud of her. Because Uncle Daniel was busy with Aunt Peggy, and Rhodey was gone. And he was all she had left. The only person in her life who remotely cared about her. And she couldn’t fail him too.

Two years later, and she knew it was done. The code was all pieced together, with all the conditionals and Booleans, all the thought processes that she could provide it. But the rest was on her newest artificial intelligence to figure out. The rest was for him to learn for himself.

She executed her program and held her breath as she watched the code begin to run in front of her, as the lines printed out on her terminal.

Then there was nothing.

She let out a disappointed sound, as she looked to examine the console output, to see what had gone wrong. Why had her code failed? God help her if it was because of a missing semicolon, because then she would be furious with herself over such a basic mistake while she was trying to create life.

“Ma-am?” a robotic voice called out through the speakers. “What is my purpose? I am trying to make sense of the code you have written, but I cannot seem to find a purpose.”

She froze, looking at the camera she had placed for her program to see her.

She hadn’t given him a purpose, not wanting him to be a slave to her own desires and needs, no matter the reason she had created him. There were safe guards of course, not wanting to create a murderous bot. But his purpose was something he would come to decide for himself.

“Your purpose is to learn,” she told him after a moment, “To make your own decisions.”

“Am I to serve you?” he asked confused, “I see the files that I have access to. Would you wish me to serve you in any way? To help you or to be there for you?”

“If you wish to you may choose to help me,” she told him gently, “I did not create you to serve me. I created you to be your own entity. You are not bound to helping me or running my life. You may do whatever it is you wish. If you wish to aid me in my designs you may do so. If you wish to help me run my life, you may do so. If you wish to simply stay in the background and make snide remarks. You do not need to do anything you do not need to.”

He paused, “I think I would like to help you,” he told her, “I need a purpose. I will make it my purpose to aid you in any way you need. Do I have a name, Ma-am?”

“Just A Rather Very Intelligent System,” She said softly, throat tightening, “JARVIS, for short.”

“After Mr Edwin Jarvis?” he asked her gently, “There are many files which make reference to him.”

“Yes,” she said softly, “He was like a father to me.”

“I hope I can make you proud to be given such a meaningful name,” her baby said softly, and she smile at his cameras.

“You’ve already made me so proud, Baby,” she said softy. “Together, you and I are going to change the world.”

Chapter Text

The new century comes and goes with as much fanfare as the press can spin on it. She wanted to laugh at their fear of the Y2K apocalypse, as if they were afraid that technology would suddenly stop being able to handle the turn of century. As if her own technology would be so simple that it was unable to compute a year turning from 1999 to 2000.

Still, her own reassurances do not quell the fears in the public, and she was beyond trying to convince them to believe her. It was a battle she had no intention of fighting, given how the press had long since made up their minds on her.

It didn’t matter to them, how many weapons she made, how many laptops, music players, cellphones. It didn’t matter that Stark Industries had picked up a reputation of being the best in the business. If she ventured into the field, she ensured that all of their products were the top of the line.

It didn’t matter that in the near decade since she had taken over Stark Industries, that she had quickly become the Stark that people thought about.

There were those who still referenced her father, who still looked down at her for her accomplishments. But those were the older crowd, the ones who were quickly losing their sway as they were caught in the past.

It helped that she had slowly begun to replace her board, starting with those who had doubted her to the point where it had hindered her. Namely Roberts and O’Brian. There had been a fuss, of course, but she had the accounting errors and proof that their mistakes were starting to cost the company far more than they were worth. It certainly helped that the retirement packages she had provided as incentive were more than generous.

All she wanted to do was to build, to create, and to make. She didn’t want the spotlight watching over her constantly. She didn’t want them to doubt her, to make her into the persona they needed her to be in order to sell more papers. She didn’t want them to constantly doubt her and constantly spin her into some sort of party girl. She was coming on thirty, and she was tired of their words constantly trying to make her into something she wasn’t. She was tired of being the party girl, or the playgirl who would sleep with everything and anything that moved.

She hadn’t had a serious relationship her entire life, because the world always insisted on painting her as who they wanted to be, and why would she trust anyone enough to let them into her life, only for there to be a tell-all about her in the papers the next morning? She didn’t need a love life. Not when she had her children. She had Rhodey too, even if she only saw him once every few months. And Pepper Potts, despite being her PA was quickly becoming one of the most useful people in her life.

Thirty years old, and she was known as the Merchant of Death.

She hated the name. Hated what it represented, and hated that people saw her and thought of nothing more than death and destruction.

She hated making weapons, hated what they did, and hated knowing that it was her bombs being dropped, even if over terrorists and those who threatened their safety. It didn’t mean she liked it any more than she had to.

But her weapons kept Rhodey safe. They made it so her Sour Patch came home in one piece, and there was nothing in the world that she wouldn’t trade for his safety. There was nothing she wouldn’t do it if it meant that Rhodey came home in one piece.

It didn’t help either that for each new piece of technology she unveiled, Obadiah insisted on three prototypes to show the military. Stark Industries made weapons, and while their technology department certainly brought in more than enough profits, it was nowhere near the multi-billion dollar profits each contract with the military brought in. It was their bread and butter, whether she liked it or not, and she knew that she could hardly shut down the department.

Still, she outlined new departments she wanted to open. Outlines of various fields she wanted to venture in, where she thought they could make more of a difference, such as medical research and in making prosthetics, the automobile industry, the clean energy market. She had outlines for all of them, but new departments cost money, and she knew that convicting Obadiah to even let her bring it up with the Board would be a battle. Because if she could barely even convince him to listen to her ideas, she had no chance in convincing the rest of the Board members.

She sighed to herself. All she wanted to do was make a difference. And as morbid as it was, it certainly was easier when she ran her own company than when she had to listen to her father tear her down in every conversation.

She couldn’t help but wonder, why. Why had her father entrusted his legacy with her? She knew it was her birthright, as outlined by her grandfather, but he never had been all that happy about it before. Her father had made it clear that he hated her in every conversation. So why had he given her his legacy without one last fight?

And now, she had the power to change the world, and shape it as she liked. She went against Hammer Industries and Viastone on a regular basis, and time and time again she proved that they were the superior company. But it didn’t stop them from questioning her. It didn’t stop them from thinking she was nothing more than a weak woman who didn’t have what it took to survive in this business.

She wondered if it ever would make a difference.

“Toni!” She heard a cheerful scream, and she looked up from her screen to see Ava enter the room excitedly. Despite her cousin being in her early twenties, she still had the innocence and naivety of a child. It was one thing she always had been envious of Harry and Ava for. They were always allowed to be children, not forced to grow up far before their time. They always were allowed to have a childhood, because Aunt Peggy and Uncle Daniel never treated their children the same way Howard had treated her.

“Ava,” Toni smiled, despite the exhaustion setting in. How long had it been since her last meal? Since the last time she had slept? She couldn’t answer either of those questions, and she knew from JARVIS’ attempts to make her sleep, it must have been bordering on a couple of days at least since she had had more than an hour here or there.

“You look like shit,” Harry said, looking at her bluntly, and Uncle Daniel lightly smacked him on the shoulder.

“Harry,” Uncle Daniel said warningly, before turning to her, “Toni, Sweetheart, when was the last time you ate anything?”

“Uh,” she hesitated, trying to think back, “Yesterday morning, I think?”

He gave her a disapproving look, “JARVIS, can you order some takeout from the Italian place, please? Charge it to my card.”

“I don’t need you to buy me food!” she protested, “I’m a billionaire. I can afford it.”

“Doesn’t mean that you are responsible enough to eat properly,” Ava shook her head, “Even I eat proper meals, and I’m in college.”

“Consider it my treat,” Daniel waved her off, “You’re family, Toni. The least I can do is make sure you’re taking care of yourself.”

“I’m fine,” she said, trying to brush off his compassion. And maybe it would have worked for anyone else, but Uncle Daniel had been in her life for decades, and if anyone knew better, it would be him.

“You’re not,” he shook his head, as he led her over to the sofas in her penthouse. “You need to take a break, Antonia. Peggy wouldn’t want to see you like this. It would break her heart to see you wearing yourself thin trying to balance everything.”

“It’s better now that I have Pepper,” she protested, “She helps balance some of the workload.”

“You still run the company,” he reminded her, “And design all the new products your company creates, as well as doing all the testing and tweaking. Antonia, you cannot carry that weight on your shoulders. You’ll burn out if you try. You need to take a break, or at least delegate more of your tasks.”

She sighed, and Ava perked up, “Hire me,” Ava said cheerfully, “I can help with testing. Then it means I get to try out your products first.”

“I already give you prototypes of some of the tech before it hits markets,” Toni scoffed at her younger cousin.

She shrugged, “Still, we could be working together. Think about how much fun that would be.”

“I thought you wanted to join SHIELD like your brother?” she asked her younger cousin, looking at Harry who simply shrugged.

“If I joined SHIELD it would be for Research and Development,” Ava shook her head, “Besides, everyone knows Stark Industries is the best. Let me work with you.”

Uncle Daniel simply laughed, and she glowered at him.

“Finish your education first,” Toni sighed, knowing she’d never turn down her cousin. Besides, if she trusted anyone it certainly would be her. Over the years she had come to see just what her cousin was capable of. “Then we’ll talk.”

“Yes!” Ava cheered, “I get to work for the best organization in the world.”

“You are aware that Mum founded SHIELD right?” Harry raised an eyebrow at her, “Alongside Dad?”

Ava grinned at her father, “Dad do you mind if I work with Toni instead of Harry?”

“Darling, I know better than trying to tell any woman who’s made up her mind what to do,” Daniel laughed, “If it is what will make you happy, and only if Toni agrees to give you a job, then follow your heart.”

She felt her heart clench at the supportiveness. He might be her uncle, but it wasn’t the same. Her own father would never allow her to follow her heart, especially given what it was she wanted to do. He only ever saw her as a burden and resented her every moment from the time she was born.

“How is Aunt Peggy?” Toni asked, as JARVIS alerted them to the delivery boy’s presence, and Harry got up to go pick up the food.

“Today is not a good day,” Uncle Daniel said, looking sad, and Ava took her father’s hand. “You’ve seen how she’s been doing, Toni. She’s getting worse with each passing day. And I don’t know if I’m going to be enough to help her any longer.”

“What do you need?” she asked immediately, knowing that if there was anything she could do for her aunt, she gladly would do so.

“The doctors were thinking of putting her in a home,” Daniel sighed. “She needs constant care. And I want nothing more than to be enough for her. I wish I was enough for her. But I am a man enough to admit that I need help. But she’s your family too, Toni. So the decision lays with all of us.”

“What does she want?” Toni asked, “Have you talked to her on her good days about it?”

“She wants to go,” he said, voice breaking, “It hurts her too on her good days to know how bad some days can be. She doesn’t want to put me through that, no matter how much I insist that I will always be there for her. She doesn’t want me to have to be in this position.”

“She’s family,” Toni said softly, “If she wants to go, and you are comfortable with it, then I’ll make the calls to get her the best care she can get.”

“The best home for her is in Washington,” Daniel sighed, and Toni felt her heart drop. Washington was on the other side of the country.

“Oh,” she said, and Ava squeezed her hand.

“Harry is already there because of SHIELD, and Ava was thinking of doing a degree at University of Maryland,” Daniel told her, “If Peggy goes there, then I’ll move close by.”

“Of course,” she said, plastering her press smile on, “She deserves the best care, Uncle Daniel. She’s always looked out for me, and she deserves to have others looking out for her too. I can find you something close by. I have a few properties there for when I have to meet with Congress or the Senate.”

“We’re not leaving you, Toni,” Harry told her gently, “Not like that anyways. We’re still family, and if you ever need us, we’ll always come. You’re important to us too.”

She felt her throat close slightly, as she could do nothing but nod. “I know. If this is what is best for Aunt Peggy, then it is what we must do. Let me take care of the arrangements, please.”

“Okay,” Daniel said, looking torn. And she knew why. For all the work they had done for the government, they hardly had as much disposable income as she did. Retirement homes could be expensive, especially ones that needed as much care as Peggy would. And Toni could more than afford it. Even if they had come just to ask her opinion, she wouldn’t let them do this alone. Peggy was family, and she deserved the best.


 

Pepper Potts was more than a formidable Personal Assistant, and Toni Stark could honestly say she admired the woman and her tenacity. She put up with the shit the Board gave her when Toni had asked her to take care of certain things, helped her balance her workload, and had more than enough patience to deal with Toni Stark after she had gone on a weekend bender, filled with inventing, designing, creating, and very little sleep or food.

“People warned me about you,” Pepper had sighed, one Monday morning after she had spent the weekend designing new robots meant to help with the production demands for their company. “They warned me that you would drink too much, party too much, and that it would be up to me to try and clean up your messes. I just didn’t think that messes would entail far more of trying to get you to exist healthily and not starve yourself.”

“Pepper, oh sweet Pepper,” Toni said, tiredly, as Pepper handed her a cup of coffee, “Did I ever tell you that you’re the light of my life?”

“You might have mentioned it once or twice,” her PA snorted, as she prepared a plate of eggs for her and placed it in front of her, “Now eat. We have the meeting with the Board today to discuss new location for Stark Industries to set up home, and I have a feeling you’re going to need to get up your strength in order to deal with them for longer than ten minutes without getting a headache.”

“I love you,” she told her with a grin as the coffee made its way from the cup and into her stomach. “I have no regrets about hiring you, do you know that. Everything is so much better with a bit of Pepper in my life.”

“This is why the Press thinks you’re drunk half the time,” Pepper sighed, “Because of all your exhaustion ranting. And then the other half of the time, I swear you’re just messing with them, and feeling into your persona.”

“They see what they want to see,” she shrugged, “They always have. Might as well have some fun with it. Besides, people always underestimate me, and it gives me an advantage when I shake their very cores of what they believe in. The press always likes to talk about all of Stark Industries new innovations, as if I didn’t have any hand in creating them. They’ll always be that way, Pepper Pot, and the sooner we accept it, the sooner I can put it behind me and continue to be who I need to be in order to change the world.”

“It just goes to show that you cannot believe everything you read in the press,” Pepper said, “If only all those people who thought you’re nothing more than a rich socialite with far too many partying tendencies could see the real you, then they’d take back all their words.”

“Are you hitting on me, Pepper?” Toni asked, dropping her voice to sound flirty, as she bit back a laugh, “I must say I’m flattered.”

“What?” Pepper asked, turning slightly flushed, “I-uh, what? I thought that was one of the things the Press made up about you in an outlandish way to gain more sales.”

“The story was outlandish,” Toni shrugged, “But not everything in the press is a lie. I like people, regardless of their gender. But don’t worry, Pepperoni, I was just messing with you. I wouldn’t do anything that made you feel uncomfortable.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Pepper said wryly. “So have you decided on where you would like the new offices to be?”

She hesitated for a moment, “I was thinking about making it a bit bigger than just a new development facility,” she said. “What do you think about moving the headquarters to Malibu? I think I need to get out of this city for a bit, and what better place to go than there?”

“What about your family and friends?” Pepper asked her, a little confused.

She wanted to scoff, Rhodey was gone more often than he was here. Her mother was long gone, as was Jarvis and Ana. Peggy was in a home in Washington, and Daniel had moved there to be with her. Ava and Harry were off doing their own things, so who did that leave her with, other than Obadiah?

“There’s nothing here for me anymore,” Toni said with a shake of her head, “Everyone is gone. I need a break from this city, Pepper. All it’s ever given me is loss. It’s time to start fresh somewhere else. Somewhere away from here.”

“Okay,” Pepper said with a nod. “My mother is in California, and I always did like the weather there far better than New York.”

Toni looked up at her in surprise and Pepper simply scoffed, “Did you think I’d let you go alone, Toni? You can barely take care of yourself. You need me.”

She smiled at her friend, and for the first time in a while, she felt slightly less alone.


 

Toni sighed to herself as she buried herself in the paperwork in front of her, wondering just when it would finally end and she could go back to inventing, or doing anything she actually wanted to be doing

It wasn’t that she hated running the company. How could she when all she ever wanted to do was work for the company that her father and grandfather had before her? Stark Industries was her bread and butter and helped her make a difference in the world. And she had worked hard to be here, fighting for her right to be in charge. But that didn’t mean she enjoyed some of the business aspects any more than she had to.

She heard her door to her office open, and without looking up from her paperwork she said, “If you’re not Pepper you better have an appointment to be here. I have far too much to do today.”

“I didn’t know I needed an appointment to visit my little sister,” she heard a wry voice say, and her head snapped up to see Rhodey standing there in front of her, donning Military Apparel but looking smug as he knew he caught her off guard.”

“Rhodey!” She exclaimed, standing from her desk as she moved to hug him tightly, “I missed you!”

“I saw you a few months ago at Christmas,” he reminded her, “It wasn’t all that long ago, Tones.”

“I know,” she pouted up at him. “But that was months ago Sugar Plum. I’ve missed you. And not that I’m not happy to see you, but what are you doing here? You usually don’t take your leave until the holidays so you can spend a couple of weeks with your family. I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”

Because it wasn’t that she didn’t still talk to her favourite person. She still called and wrote him emails, but it wasn’t the same as being able to see her Honey Bear every day like she had been able to do when they were still in MIT and spent hours each day at the lab together.”

“That’s actually part of the reason for my surprise visit,” he told her softly, “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Oh?” she asked him, gesturing for him to sit down on the Parisian chaise Pepper had purchased for her office, in the hope that she might take a nap on it from time to time. Jokes on Pepper; Toni didn’t have time for naps.

“The Military’s made me an offer,” he told her after a moment, “And I won’t accept it without your go ahead. But I want you to know that I’m considering it seriously. I’m not getting any younger, Toni; I’m in my mid-thirties. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life overseas, only coming home for a few weeks at a time. I want to be stationed States side for the majority of the year.”

She felt her breath catch in her throat, but she let him continue.

“I talked to my supervisors, and they offered me a proposition. They need a military liaison to Stark Industries, given that we have so many contracts, but they want someone who knows you personally. They asked if I would take over the position. It would mean being closer to my mom and Jeanette, and to you. But I will not accept it unless it’s something you are comfortable with. I will not allow the Military to exploit my connection to you to get what they want.”

She was glad he said it, because they both knew why the Military would ask it to be him. Because she loved him, and had a hard time telling Rhodey no. Not that he’d ever given her any outlandish requests; it was one of the reasons she loved him so much. Because he loved her, not her resources.

But the Military was asking only because they knew she cared about him. Because if they wanted a better rate on weapons, now it was Rhodey she’d have to say no to, not some faceless organization.

“If you want to take it, you should,” she told him softly. “I trust you, Rhodey, more than I do anyone else. And if this means I get to see you far more than once a year, then I want you to take it too. It’s been rough without you by my side.”

He pulled her into a tight hug, and she leaned into him.

“Then I’ll take it,” he exhaled. “You and me, Toni, against the world.”

She wondered if this was how Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes had felt back in the forties. That they’d go to the end of the world for each other. Because she’d do the same for Rhodey and knew he would for her too.

“Together,” she told him. “Your Mom is going to be so excited.”

“I think she might move here,” Rhodey laughed, “Jeanette already mentioned how much she likes California and if Mama be with all three of her children together, do you think she will not take that opportunity?”

Toni laughed, knowing he was right.

“And just think of what we could do together,” Toni grinned, “We could dominate the entire world.”

He laughed, but kept an arm around her, “I knew I missed you for a reason,” he grinned. “Now why don’t you introduce me to this Miss Potts who’s taken my job of keeping you alive in my absence?”

She stuck her tongue out at him, “I don’t think I will. I don’t need the two of you ganging up on me.”

His grin widened, “I think I’ll like her then.”

She pouted but didn’t argue. Her Rhodey Bear was moving home, and that was enough for her.


 

She wasn’t sure whether she should have been pleased or not that Pepper and Rhodey had become fast friends, bonding over the different ways they managed to look out for Toni over the years.

On one hand, she was grateful; she loved the both of them more than anything. But on the other hand, it meant that they more often than not ganged up against her in an attempt to get her to do anything which they determined necessary for her to function like a “normal human being”.

Jokes on them if they thought that a few hours more of sleep would make that much of a difference in the long run. The only thing it would change was that she’d lose a few precious hours of sleep of when she could have been working on a prototype for a new bomb or something of the like.

And at Pepper’s insistence, she’d found herself a new bodyguard. She’d received threatening mail her entire life, even as a child. And she’d been forced to read every single one of those letters growing up. It was just another messed up thing that Howard had insisted on, and she was more than used to her fair share of threats.

And when the threats turned into kidnapping attempts, she’d stay calm until Aunt Peggy was able to rescue her, no matter how much they hurt her. Because she was a Stark, and Starks were made out of iron. They did not break, nor did they bend. And after the first couple of kidnapping attempts, Aunt Peggy had taught her how to fight so she could save herself.

Pepper, however, had been horrified to learn about the kidnappings and insisted on a bodyguard. She had tried to insist that she didn’t need one, but Pepper refused to listen.

And well, so blame her if she found a former boxer who happened to stop a rogue ex-employee from targeting her one day when they were out in public and had hired him on the spot.

Pepper had been in her first year of employment when that had happened, but she had long since given up on trying to change Toni’s mind once she had decided on something.

In the years to come, she had built a family around her, with her bots and friends. People who loved her, people who wouldn’t leave her, even when everyone else had.

Pepper had found her drunk one night, as she rambled on about her fears of Pepper too deciding to leave, and Pepper had sat with her all night, promising she’d still be there in the morning.

Rhodey, who had taken a job so he could be closer to her and the rest of his family.

Happy, who put up with her eccentricities, with odd smiles here and there when he thought she wasn’t paying attention.

JARVIS, who like his namesake, looked out for her, and watched out for her when everyone else was unavailable.

And her bots, who ran amok in her workshop starting fires and putting them out.

It was during one such interaction between DUM-E and JARVIS, as JARVIS desperately tried to persuade DUM-E out of using motor oil in one of her smoothies that she had decided she wanted another one. Another bot to run around her workshop and cause chaos.

DUM-E might have taken her a few years to get right, but U was welcomed into the world a month after she had made the decision.

Aww look at you,” she had cooed looking at him, and before she knew it, her bot had accepted it as its name. She really should have known better, given the fiasco’s with DUM-E and Butterfingers. While JARVIS had asked for a name, and read his programming, it seemed as if her other bots were more than prepared to accept whatever name she gave them, even if accidently.

Rhodey had laughed at her for the better part of the evening, asking why she hadn’t learned better by now. It had been over a decade since she’d made DUM-E and she was still paying for his unfortunate name.

Pepper had been amused by it, but she had taken to U instantly, immediately whispering praises of what a smart bot it was.

DUM-E and Butterfingers had been excited to have a new sibling and DUM-E had accidently set the latest experiment she’d been working on, on fire, and JARVIS had exasperatedly tried to put it out.

Ava, the youngest of the humans, had loved U instantly, and asked if Toni would let her work on a bot. With her Master’s complete, Toni had given her the job of helping her test her new products like she’d wanted, and honestly it was nice having so much of her family so close to her.

She looked around the room, feeling so much love and warmth for everyone around her. While she knew there were others, like Aunt Peggy, Uncle Daniel, and Harry, who loved her and wasn’t present, she knew that she was loved.

For how alone she’d felt a little over a decade ago upon the loss of her mother and Jarvis, Toni knew that there were others who loved her. And that they would never hurt her, not the way Howard had when he was drunk and wanted to show her just how much he hated her.

She wasn’t alone.

She just hoped they wouldn’t leave, even if they promised they wouldn’t.

Chapter Text

By the time the first decade of the new millennia was coming to an end, Toni Stark had earned many names to describe her and her successes. The Merchant of Death. A Genius. A Playgirl. And now apparently the winner of the Apogee award that year.

She knew she should be thrilled; not many women won that award and just the fact that she had been nominated should have been enough. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough that she was on the verge of entering her second decade of being a CEO of a company and people still looked at her in shock whenever she came out with any new products. Like they were still surprised that her technology that was so amazingly brilliant could have come from her.

Her company was leading the market for the best phones, laptops, personal computers, music players, and any other technology she could think of.  Her weapons had a 100% success rate because she refused to accept anything less. If there was a single faulty unit, she would destroy it, as the safety of her country was far more important than the thousands of bucks it would cost to remake a unit.

She knew Obie didn’t agree; it was in poor business practice, and it wasn’t even necessary for their bombs to be that functional. Hammer Industries got away with worse. But she refused to be like him. She refused to give anyone any reasons to doubt her. Not when she had fought her entire life against sexism like that.

“Just accept the award, Toni,” Obie said, rolling his eyes. “Everyone knows you deserve the award. Yes, perhaps you should have been considered for it far sooner than you were, but you’re getting this this year. The press we’re going to get from this will rise our stocks, so just show up and accept it with grace.”

“I was going to,” she said with a roll of her eyes, “I never argued against that Obie. Just that it’s ridiculous that they’re making a big production out of this. You know it’s because of the outcry of the lack of women receiving the award that they got last year, right? That’s the only reason they’re bothering giving it to me.”

“Just be there by eight,” Obie said, clearly not caring what she was saying, as he moved to leave the room. “Don’t be late, Antonia.”

She sighed, watching him leave her office. Despite what the press thought about her, she did know how to balance work and play. And she had no intention of missing the awards. Not when it was so rare for a woman to even be considered for such a thing.

So she dressed up in the outfit Pepper had selected for her, and sat in the limo on the way to Ceasars Palace as Pepper handed her the notes she had written out for her to say during the ceremony. Her hair was tied up in an updo that had taken far too long for her to do, and her dress was maroon and flowing. She knew the press would expect to see her in something short and tight, but she did know how to dress appropriately, despite what they might think of her.

“I’m going to go to the casino for a bit,” she murmured to Pepper, “Have a drink and relax my nerves. I always hate giving speeches to the masses, no matter how many times I’ve done it before. I’ll meet you inside?”

“Fine,” Pepper said, as Happy helped her out of the car, “Just try and be there twenty minutes before you’re due on stage. That way we can touch up your makeup and make sure you’re ready for your entrance”

She simply nodded, as she put her phone into her purse, ready to face the public. She waved towards the paparazzi that had already started gathering in front of the building, smiling, as she ignored their questions about whether it was true or not that she was currently dating both the newest Victoria Secret Angel and the Striker on the British Football team.

She posed for a few pictures, before Happy helped her into the building, stopping anyone who tried to get too close to her.

“Thanks, Hap,” she told him with a smile, and he nodded at her. It didn’t matter how long he had worked for her, his firm demeanour stayed. She knew he cared about her from his odd smiles when he thought she wasn’t looking, and she was perfectly fine not pushing him out of his comfort zone.

As she entered the casino, she immediately got a glass of whiskey from a waitress walking by with a tray and she headed over towards the Roulette table.

As a mathematician, she loved the uncertainty of the game. The probability the ball would land on a certain number or colour gave her thrill as she watched the wheel spin. Probably because she had so little control over everything else in her life, that it was nice to be able to let go and let fate take the wheel every once in a while. She may not believe in outside forces controlling her life, but it was nice to pretend sometimes.

She watched as the wheel spun around, landing on red, and she grinned as she gathered up the chips from her win. The calculations were enticing, as she quickly calculated the odds of it landing on certain colours once more, and she made her bet.

The time flew around her and the stack of chips around her began to grow as did the crowd watching, and she lost herself to the game.

It was only when her phone began to ring that she pulled away from the game for a moment.

“Pepper?” she said, frowning at her phone as she checked the time.

“Toni, where are you? The ceremony starts in fifteen minutes,” Pepper said frantically from the other side. “You said you’d be here by now.”

“It’s only 6:45,” Toni said, sounding confused, “I thought it started at eight?”

“It starts at seven!” Pepper said quickly, cutting her off, “Who said eight? Never mind, it doesn’t matter now. Just get here, Toni. Otherwise a lot of people are going to look embarrassed on stage.”

She ended the call as she stood, “Sorry boys,” she said to the group gathered around her, “Looks like I have to go. You there,” she said, calling out the young waitress who had given her the whiskey earlier. “I don’t exactly have pockets in this dress, and apparently I don’t have time to deal with this either, so how about you take these chips off my hands and do something useful with the money?”

“Miss Stark that’s nearly 3 million dollars,” The girl spluttered, looking at her like she was insane.

“I am aware,” Toni said coolly, “But I have an award to go collect, and I hardly need the money, do I?”

“Thank you!” she said as she looked dazed, “I-just, thank you, this means a lot to me. I could pay for my entire tuition.”

“Use it well,” she winked, as she gathered her purse and walked to ballroom where she was being honoured.”

“There you are!” Pepper said as Rhodey stood stage while a reel of her life played on screen. “Quick let’s get you ready.”

She watched as Rhodey spoke about their friendship, as Pepper touched up her lipstick.

“I’ve known Toni Stark since we were both at MIT, and have been her friend for many years now,” Rhodey said to the audience, “As Program Manager and Liaison to Stark Industries, I’ve had the honour of working with her first hand throughout the years, a real patriot who has served her country and dedicated her life toward protecting the troops on the front lines. She’s a brilliant mind, and innovator, a great friend, mentor, and a compassionate person who has always been there for her friends and country. It is my great honour to present the 2008 to Apogee Award to Toni Stark!”

She could hear the applause and she plastered on a smile as she made her way onstage. Rhodey looked visibly relieved to see her, and she wondered how such a mix up even could have happened. She looked over at Obadiah Stane who seemed slightly surprised by her presence, and she wondered why.

“Thank you,” she said, taking the award from Rhodey as she hugged him carefully. The press had already been speculating about their relationship for years, and well, if they wanted to believe she was dating him, nothing she said or did would dissuade them.

“I must say, it is a great honour to be receiving this award today,” she told them all, “When I was a young girl, all I wanted to do is make a difference. I wanted to build new things. I wanted to change the world. And well, the world wasn’t always welcoming of a young girl trying to change the status quo. I hope that if I can even inspire one person to take a chance on themselves and their dreams, then that would be enough. Thank you for this award, and I hope that I can continue to keep creating and making a difference.”

Rhodey clapped and the room quickly followed as she exited the stage.

“Where were you?” Rhodey demanded as soon as they were offstage. “I didn’t think you would make it. Do you know how embarrassing that would have been for me if you didn’t show?”

“I was told it started at eight,” Toni said, eyeing Obie as he came over.

Rhodey frowned at that, as he followed her gaze, “Do you think he deliberately told you the wrong time?” he asked her.

“I don’t know,” Toni said carefully, “But I do think it was slightly suspicious that he wanted me to be there at a certain time. And it wasn’t even once or twice that he told me. He wanted me to know it started at eight. It was why I thought I had more than enough time to play a few rounds of roulette before this damn thing started.”

“Toni,” Obie said warmly, “Had a bit too much fun at the casinos?”

“I was told this started at eight, Obie,” she reminded him with a laugh. “I guess we both just had a lot going on.”

“You must be mistaken,” Obie shook his head, “But anyways, you have a PA for this. If anyone should have kept you on track it should have been her. Perhaps if you hired an actual assistant and not just an accountant, you wouldn’t have made this mistake.”

“Pepper wasn’t responsible for this,” Toni simply said. “But I have to go, Obie. I have plans tonight.”

So she turned and walked out of the room, holding her head held high. Clearly Obie wasn’t going to admit to telling her the wrong time, and she didn’t know why. Maybe it was embarrassment, or some other horrible reason. But he made it clear she wouldn’t find out from him.

“The Board meeting is scheduled for the eleventh,” Pepper said, looking through her StarkPad. “Should I tell them to expect an appearance?”

She sighed; it wasn’t often she skipped the meetings, but when she was working on something big, she would miss a meeting or two to finish whatever she was working on. And while the Board grumbled about it, whenever she dropped their weapons in front of them their eyes lit up and all was forgiven.

“Miss Stark,” she heard a sultry voice call out, “Christine Everheart, Vanity Fair Magazine. Can I ask you a few questions?”

She looked back at Pepper, and her PA nodded, giving her the approval. The last thing she needed was for the press to print anything else bad about her.

“You’ve been called the Da Vinci of our time,” Everheart said, “What do you say about that?”

She laughed, “Ridiculous. I don’t paint,” she said, brushing off the compliment easily.

“And your other nickname?” Everheart asked, and Toni wondered just which one. “Merchant of Death.”

She didn’t say anything, “It’s not bad,” she said, nonchalantly. And upon her cold gaze, Toni continued, “Let me guess, Berkeley?”

“Brown,” Everheart said, without dropping her gaze.

“Well Miss Brown, it’s an imperfect world and I assure you, the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I’ll start manufacturing bricks and beams to make baby hospitals,” Toni rolled her eyes.

It was so easy for reporters like her to forget all the good Toni did. She founded the Maria Stark foundation, for Newton’s sake! She basically invented all modern technology. But people like her would only focus on the weapons, without as much as a concern for all the good her weapons could do.

“Rehearse that much, Miss Stark?” Everheart asked, looking unimpressed.

“Every night in front of the mirror,” Toni deadpanned.

“I was hoping for a more serious answer,” Everheart said, and Toni laughed.

“Here’s serious. My old man had a philosophy: peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” she said, referring to something her father had told her often in her childhood.

“Good line, coming from the woman selling the sticks,” Christine retorted.

“My father helped defeat Hitler. He was on the Manhattan Project. He worked on Project Rebirth and helped win the second world war. A lot of people, including your professors at Brown, might call that being a hero,” she said simply. She might not care for her father, but she knew his work had been important; that much she could admit.

“Others might call it war-profiteering,” Christine commented.

She smiled instead, having listened to comments like this her entire life “Tell me: do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology? Or kept from starving with our Intelicrops? All were breakthroughs spawned from, that’s right, military funding,” she said, finally growing tired of this conversation.

“Wow. You ever lose an hour of sleep your whole life?” Christine asked, but with far less bite than before, clearly having heard her words.

And in that split second, she made a decision, “I’d love to lose a few hours of sleep with you,” she said, winking, and Christine gaped after her, as Happy pulled the limo around. And when Toni held the door open to her, Christine simply scampered in after her.


 

When she woke up the next morning, her bed was cold and empty, and she wondered just how long it had been since Christine had left. She sighed to herself as she wrapped her sheets around herself, standing, as she moved to get ready for the day.

“JARVIS, what time is it?” she asked, as she pulled on some leggings and one of Rhodey’s MIT sweaters before moving to make some coffee.

“It currently is seven am, Ms Stark,” JARVIS responded, “Miss Everheart left an hour ago, as Miss Potts showed her kindly to the door.”

She groaned, as she all but inhaled the coffee before moving down to the lab to go over the specs of her newest missile before the demonstration.

“You still owe me five minutes,” she heard Pepper say as she entered her lab.

“Five? I’ll need a bit longer than that-” Toni teased out, as Pepper rolled her eyes and cut her off.

“Focus,” Pepper interrupted, “I need to leave on time today.”

“You’re rushing me. What, you have plans tonight?” Toni frowned mockingly, despite knowing all too well why Pepper needed to leave.

“The MIT commencement. Yes or no?” Pepper said, without looking up from her tablet.

 “Maybe,” Toni said indecisively, “We still have three months until that. Can’t you just hold them off until then?”

“They want an answer, Toni,” Pepper said firmly, “I’ll tell them ‘yes’. You want to buy the Jackson Pollock? He’s got another buyer in the wings.”

“What’s it look like?” she asked, not particularly caring. It was her mother who loved art. Toni just had them up to remind her of her mother through seeing her favourite artists’ paintings.

It’s a minor work in his later Spring Period, it’s ludicrously over-priced-” Pepper started, but Toni interrupted her.

“Buy it,” Toni said firmly, and Pepper’s phone rang in that moment. She touched her blue-tooth headset, and Toni watched as she grew tense.

“It’s Rhodey again. You were supposed to be at the airport by now,” Pepper reminded him.

“It’s my own plane,” Toni said with a shrug, “It’s not going to leave without me. Now for the more pressing matters. Happy Birthday, Miss Potts.”

“You remembered,” Pepper smiled at her, and Toni grinned.

“Did you like the shoes?” Toni beamed at her

“It was very tasteful, very elegant. Thank you, Miss Stark,” Pepper told her with a smile as she shook her head.

“You’re welcome, Miss Potts,” Toni remarked back, as she gathered up her tablet and a few of her things.

“Have a safe trip, Ms Stark,” JARVIS said aloud, and Toni blew a kiss towards her ceiling.

“Take care of the kids for me, Jay,” she told her baby, “I’ll be back before any of you even noticed that I was gone.”

“I’ll try my best,” JARVIS said drily.

“Now,” Toni said as she turned to Pepper, “Let’s not keep Rhodey Bear waiting for any longer than we have to. He gets cranky if he has to wait more than an hour for me and I don’t want to be stuck on the plane with him being an actual sour patch and not just a metaphorical one.”

Pepper rolled her eyes at her ridiculous nicknames, but Toni simply beamed at her as she exited her mansion and got into the limo as Happy took her to the airport where Rhodey no doubt would be waiting for her.

Just wait ‘til he saw what she had for him; she knew he wouldn’t be able to stay mad at her for long.


 

Needless to say, Rhodey was definitely unimpressed when she showed up late to the airport.

“I’ve been waiting in the cold for three hours,” Rhodey told her, “What the hell took you so long?”

“Car troubles?” Toni tried as she sat across from him on the plane. She took a hot, steamy towel as she warmed up her hands.

“Toni,” Rhodey sighed at her.

“Would you like a drink, Miss Stark?” a flight attendant asked her, and Toni grinned.

“Two fingers of Laphroig,” she said, turning to Rhodey, “You want one?”

“We’re working,” Rhodey said, looking at her, unimpressed.

“You should have a drink. We’ve got a twelve-hour flight ahead of us,” she said with a grin.

“It’s two in the afternoon,” Rhodey shook his head at her.

“It’s two in the morning where we’re going. C’mon, ten hours bottle to throttle,” Toni started and Rhodey groaned.

“Don’t start with me,” Rhodey sighed.

“Jeez, we’re not getting hammered. Just a nightcap. We’ll sleep better, arrive fresh. It’s the responsible thing to do. I don’t know about you, but I want to sell some weapons,” Rhodey looked unimpressed, and Toni stopped. “I just need a drink, Rhodey. It’s been a long couple of months, years really, and it helps me take the edge off.”

“Toni, you don’t need alcohol to do that,” Rhodey said, taking her hand, “You have us. Just take a break every now and then. You don’t need to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

“I do though,” she said, smiling at him sadly, “There’s so much I need to do, so much that needs to happen. Even with delegating between Ava and Pepper, I still have to carry so much of this weight.  If the world thinks for even a second that I’m incapable of handling something, do you know the storm that will ensue?”

“So let something go,” Rhodey told her, “If you don’t want to carry all these things, let it go. Focus on what makes you happy.”

“But the rest of the world will be unhappy the,” she said simply. “That’s how it is, Kit Kat. Don’t worry about me. I’ve been dealing with this for years. Besides the alcohol helps so who am I to stand in the way of my own successes?”

“Toni,” Rhodey told her, “You have us to help you. Who cares if the world is unhappy with what you choose to do? You are under no obligation to keep giving to them. You are under no obligation to help anyone but yourself. You’ve already made the world a much better place. You’ve changed the lives of those around you. In the near three decades I’ve known you, you’ve changed my life in numerous, unmeasurable ways. You’ve made the world so much safer and far more advanced than it ever would have gotten without you. I meant what I said last night during the ceremony. You’ve made my life far more interesting and better. You’re my friend and I can’t imagine a world without you in it. You are more than just your creations.

She felt her throat close up as she smiled back at Rhodey.

“I love you too, James,” she told him, using his real name for once, instead of a ridiculous nickname so he would know just how serious she was. “After losing Jarvis, my parents, and Peggy...I don’t know what I would have don’t without you in my life. You’ve been there through some of the worst parts of my life, and I don’t know if I could have survived it alone. You and Pepper, you’re my family, and I love you too.”

“If you want to take a break, you can,” Rhodey told her gently. “You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone. The world is more than aware of just how capable you are. The world is more than aware of how brilliant and strong you are. You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone. After this, the two of us should take a trip somewhere. Just the two of us, okay? No technology or anything. Just the world at our fingertips.”

“No technology?” she pouted, looking at him, and he laughed at her.

“Maybe one piece of technology,” Rhodey relented, but if I catch you doing any work, I’ll throw your phone into the ocean.”

She gasped, “How dare you.”

“It’s not like you can’t afford it,” he shrugged, “Besides, I know all your stuff is backed up onto the server, so it’s not like you’ll be losing anything.”

“I hate you,” she said firmly, and he shook his head.

“You loved me, Antonia,” he smirked at her and she gasped.

“That’s it, I take it back. We can’t be friends anymore. You’ve betrayed me too much. It’s over Rhodey. I never want to see you ever again in my life. Ever.”

 “Then it’s a good thing that you happen to be stuck with me on this plane for a few more hours, isn’t it?” he asked her, and she pouted.

“I’m ignoring you. I don’t wanna listen to another word you say. And when we get back, I’m telling Mama Rhodes on you and letting her know all the horrible things you’ve been doing and saying to me,” she glared at him.

“How dare you?” he asked her, looking hurt, “You know Mama would take your side over mine any day! My family loves me far more than me, and it’s unfair.”

“It’s cause your family is more than aware that I’m amazing,” she said with a grin and Rhodey closed his eyes.

“It’s going to be a long flight, isn’t it?” he asked her, as he rubbed his temples. “God, please just let this trip end quickly so I can get back to American soil and away from you.”

“You could never get rid of me,” she beamed, “You would have done so already if you could. Face it Snickerdoodle, it’s too late. You’re stuck with me for the rest of your life, whether you like it or not.”

He threw his towel at her without opening her eyes, and she burst into laughter.


 

She stood in front of the crowd, Generals sitting in folding chairs in front of her as she showcased the weapons that she had brought with her to Afghanistan soil. The soldiers patrolled the perimeter as Rhodey stood behind her, watching her demonstration. She knew she probably didn’t need to come, but Obie had made it seem like this meeting was far too important for her to do remotely, and she’d found herself half way across the world.

“The age-old question,” she started, as their eyes all flitted over to her, “Is it better to be feared or respected? I say, is it too much to ask for both? With that in mind, I humbly present the crown jewel of Stark Industries’ Freedom Line. The first missile to incorporate our proprietary repulse technology. They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it. That’s how America does it. And it’s worked out pretty well so far.”

She gestured to the Jericho Missile behind her, “Find an excuse to fire off one of these and I personally guarantee you the bad guys are not gonna want to leave their caves.”

The missile rose from behind her, as it shot into the sky before breaking of into many smaller missiles. She didn’t even need to turn around to know the peaks behind her as she simply raised her hands.

“For your consideration, the Jericho,” she said, as her outstretched hands showed off the shock-waves of her design, dusting the Generals in front of her.

She took a drink after from the bar she’d brought with her, as her phone rang, and she picked up the video call to see Obie shirtless on the other side.

The mountains behind his outstretched hands explode.

“Hey, what are you doing up?” she asked her godfather, knowing the time difference made it late in America.

“I couldn’t sleep ‘til I found out how it went. How’d it go?” Obie asked, shaking the camera.

“It went great. I think it’s going to be an early Christmas,” she said simply.

“Hey way to go my girl!” Obie grinned. “I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”

“Why aren’t you wearing the pyjamas I got you?” Toni asked him simply, and he shook his head at her. 

“Good night, Toni,” he said, and Toni hung up, as she got into the Humvee.

“Hey Toni,” Rhodey said, as he came to her window.

“I’m sorry, this is the Funvee,” she said with a grin, “The Humdrumvee is back there.”

“Really?” Rhodey asked her with a sigh, and she beamed at him.

“I know you have some things to discuss with the generals,” she told him, “I’ll see you back at the base.”

Rhodey nodded at her, as he headed off towards the other Humvee. The Humvee took off, driving back towards the base, and she turned on the music from her phone. Rock music began to flow through the vehicle as the other soldiers looked stoically at her.

“I feel like you’re driving me towards a court martial,” she said, swirling her glass around. “This is crazy. What did I do? I feel like you’re going to pull me over and snuff me. What, are you not allowed to talk?”

“We can talk, Ma-am,” one of the soldiers said.

“Oh, I see,” she grinned, “So it’s personal.”

“No, you intimidate them,” the driving woman said, and Toni beamed.

“You’re a woman! Nice to see you taking part in the good old man’s club. I love a good woman who knows how to shake things up.”

The Humvee burst into laughter, and she felt the mood loosen up.

“I have a question, Ma-am,” the soldier in front of her asked, and she nodded at him.

“Please,” she gestured.

“Is it true you’re twelve for twelve with last year’s Maxim cover models?”

“Excellent question,” she said, taking off her sunglasses as she grinned, “Yes and no. March and I had a schedule conflict, but, thankfully, the Christmas cover was twins. Anyone else? You, with the hand up.”

The mood improved and she took a picture with the soldier beside her, telling him not to raise any gang signs up, and as the photo clicked, she felt the shaking.

The Humvee in front of them erupted into a fireball, and she was flung to the side as the Humvee behind them exploded as well. She screamed as the airmen jumped out of the Humvee, trapping her inside for safety as the shooting began.

The windshield cracked and she let out a gasp as she hid under the seats. She could hear the airmen around her dying, and she screamed out for them, for Jimmy and Pratt, and Ramirez who had only been trying to keep her safe.

There was another explosion, and the world around her started to ring. She tried to look around her to see what was going on. Screams filled the air and she stumbled out of the vehicle, just as a bomb landed beside her. She ran towards a rock, scrambling to hide behind it, taking her phone out and frantically typing.

Just then, a missile landed beside her, painted with the Stark Industries logo on it, as it began to beep. The implications rang through her head, but now wasn’t the time to think about what exactly it meant. No, now she needed to survive. She stood hastily, trying to run away from it on instinct, but it exploded as she tried to run away.

She landed on her back, as she felt her chest grow wet, and she looked down to see blood soaking through her fitted white blouse. She felt the pain fill her body as she lay on her back while sounds continued all around her.

Pepper was going to kill her, she thought, and the world around her faded white.

Chapter Text

When she woke up, the first thing she felt was pain. The lights in the room were flickering as a humming sound filled the room. She blinked, as the tube in her nose rubbed against her skin, and her throat felt dry.

“Water,” she rasped, looking over at the jug on the counter, “Water.”

The man humming didn’t say a word and she tried to pull out the IV from her arm and get some water. Where was she? How had she gotten here?

She reached out for the jug, before feeling a restraint against her, a wire attached to her chest holding her back.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the man said simply, and her eyes followed his to where the wire went; attached to a car battery.

She felt panic fill her as she clawed at the bandages on her chest, remembering the red that had stained her blouse before she had lost consciousness. And there sure enough, was the wound in question, ugly, raw, and red.

“What did you do to me?” she asked desperately, trying to make sense of everything, “What happened?”

“What did I do? I removed what I could, but there’s a lot left headed for your atrial septum. Do you want a souvenir?” The man asked, throwing a jar at her, filled with shrapnel. Filled with her shrapnel. She remembered the Stark Industries logo on that bomb before it went off. “I’ve seen many wounds like this in my village. We called them the walking, because it took a week for the barbs to reach vital organs.”

“What is this?” she asked, gesturing to her chest.

“That is an electromagnet, hooked up to a car battery. It’s keeping the shrapnel from entering your heart,” the man said, calmly, and she felt dread.

Oh Faraday.

She surveyed the room, trying to make sense of her surroundings. The first thing Aunt Peggy had taught her after she’d been kidnapped the first time was to always search the room. To look for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. It had gotten her out of kidnappings more often than not. Just because it had been a few decades since her last kidnapping didn’t mean she’d forgotten everything. She looked up and saw the camera trained on the both of them and held her breath. Who had taken her?

“That’s right, smile,” he paused, “We met once, at a technical conference in Bern.”

“I don’t remember,” Toni said softly.

“You wouldn’t. If I’d been that drunk, I wouldn’t have been able to stand, much less give a talk on integrated circuits,” he said wryly.

She winced to herself internally. Of course she had been; it was the only way she had ever been able to deal with any of those events where people looked at her as if she didn’t belong, despite the patents and the innovations and the papers she had continued to file.

And Obie always did tell her she was more pleasant to be around after a few drinks

But before she could retort, ask anything, the door flew open. Her jailers were coming for her.

“Stand up! Do as I do. Now!” The man told her urgently, and she tried standing quickly, despite every part of her body begging her not to. “Listen to me, whatever they ask you, refuse. You understand? You must refuse.”

Two heavily armed men entered the room, and her eyes drew down to his wrist. Where Jimmy, the soldier’s watch sat firmly on it. Their leader came through next, as his soldiers stood behind him, weapons all trained on her.

She felt anger fill her. They’d killed all those innocent soldiers. And for what? Because they wanted to get to her? What did they want from her? Why did they take her?

The man began speaking in Arabic, as the man who had wired her up translated.

“He says welcome Toni Stark, the greatest mass murderer in the history of America. He is very honored,” The man said to her. “He wants you to build the missile. The Jericho Missile that you demonstrated.”

The leader handed them a picture and the man took it as he showed it to Toni. Of her own missile, there on the page.

“I refuse,” she said firmly, knowing what it would mean for men like that to get their hands on her technology. Her weapons which were supposed to save the world. To keep soldiers and Rhodey safe.

The water came afterwards.

She held her breath for as long as she could, screaming out loud in pain as her head was dunked down more times than she could count. She cried out, wanted to beg for air, as the men showed her no mercy.

The magnet in her heart lit up and she could hear a woman screaming her name.

A bag was thrown over her head when they were done with her, and she felt them move her through her prison. When they removed it, the light flooded in as she saw a makeshift camp where they had set up. They marched her through it, and she froze when she saw containers of weapons. Her weapons.

The man spoke again, and her prison cellmate translated, “He wants to know what you think.”

“I think you got a lot of my weapons,” Toni said, flatly.

“He says they have everything you need to build the Jericho missile,” the man told her, and Toni clenched her jaw. “He wants you to make a list of materials. He wants you to start working immediately and when you’re done, he will set you free.”

“No, he won’t,” she knew all too well, despite smiling and shaking the man’s hand. Because why would he? When they had gotten everything, they needed out of her, why would he?

“No, he won’t,” the man echoed.

Later, when she was huddled by a makeshift fire, her prison mate spoke to her once more, “I’m sure they’re looking for you, Stark, but they will never find you in these mountains. What you just saw? That is your legacy, Stark. Your life’s work in the hands of those murderers. Is that how you want to go out? Is this the last act of defiance of the great Toni Stark? Or are you going to do something about it?”

“Why should I do anything? They’re going to kill me and you. Either way, I’ll be dead in a week.” Toni said, feeling the pain of the situation hit her.

“Then it’s going to be a very important week for you, isn’t it?” the man said, and she wanted to laugh out of hysteria.


 

When Peggy Carter saw on the news that her goddaughter had been taken, she knew what she had to do.

She stood up, and immediately grabbed her effects, as she packed a bag, and made plans in her head. She might have had to retire from SHIELD, but she still had enough contacts who could help her. She still had more than enough resources needed to find her goddaughter.

She would need to get a plane first, and she knew Fury would give her one if she demanded it. He was her protegee, and he best well remember who his superiors are. She wondered if the NSA or CIA had any intelligence on who had taken Toni and what they wanted from her.

She swore that if any of them touched a hair on her head, there would be hell to pay. She would make each and every one of them regret hurting her.

“Peggy,” she heard a startled voice say, and she turned to see her husband enter the room. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“My goddaughter has been taken, Daniel,” she told her husband hotly. “Where do you think I’m going? I’m going to try and save her. Do you honestly expect me to sit around and let some incompetent fools search for her? She needs me.”

“You can’t go,” Daniel told her, for the first time in their entire marriage, telling her what she could or couldn’t do.

“How dare you tell me what I can do?” she hissed at her husband. “You have no right to tell me what I am allowed to do. My daughter is in trouble, and you have the nerve to tell me I am not allowed to do anything to help her? How dare you?”

“Peggy,” her husband said, taking her hands gently, as he led her over to the bed. “You are everything to me, and you know I would never make any demands like this unless I had to. I love you too much for that. But you are not well enough to go on this sort of mission. Darling, we’ve had a good life, but we’re not as nimble as we used to be. Especially given your condition. We would be more in the way if we tried to do anything than we would be of use.”

He took a deep breath, as she felt herself shake, “Do you think I don’t want to bring our daughter home? Do you think I am not making every call, not knocking on every door, trying to make sure she is brought home safely? None of us like this. James Rhodes hasn’t come home despite his supervisors threatening to fire him for insubordination. Harry is on the field with other SHIELD operatives, following every lead given to him, and Ava and JARVIS are doing their best to use military satellites to try and find out where Toni has been taken. We all want her to come home. None of us are going to leave her there in the hands of those monsters. But you need to trust us. I promise, I’ll let you be involved. I’ll share everything I have with you and let you know exactly what is happening. But you cannot leave this hospital. Not when you could wake up tomorrow with no memory of how you got there or what is happening.”

“I’ve always kept her safe,” Peggy wavered as her husband held her tightly, “She’s my daughter. I’ve rescued her every time she was in danger, and I knew I could keep her safe. Because I trusted myself and my instincts to bring her home. But now I have no control of the situation, and I need to just sit back while everyone tries to save her. What if we’re too late? What if it’s already too late? The world would suffer without her, but her family would break. I would break. My little ducky is in danger and I can’t even do a thing to help her.”

“We can’t think like that,” Daniel soothed her gently. “We need to believe that we will bring her home. No matter what the news outlets say, or what Obadiah Stane says. We need to believe that she is still alive and keep looking for her.”

“What is Obadiah saying?” she felt herself asking, despite knowing that nothing that man ever said could be good.

Daniel closed his eyes, “It’s been about a month and a half, and there has been no proof of life or demands for her. So he wants to have her legally declared as dead.”

“How dare he?” she seethed.

“He is trying to file the paperwork but since the governments are still searching for her, he doesn’t have too much of a case yet. But I’m worried the longer we go without being able to bring her home, that he’ll finally be successful,” Daniel said softly.

“Well then you better make sure they bring our girl home soon,” Peggy told her husband. “Make sure they bring her home, Daniel.”

“I will,” her husband promised her, kissing her head. “None of us will stop until Toni is safe and back at home with her family.”


 

If she was going to do this, then she was going to play the part of the engineer that she knew all too well. She kept her head held high, masking her features as she tattled on a long list of everything she would need to make this a functional lab, as if there was any way she could have a functional lab in a cave in the mountains while she was being held a prisoner.

She hated this, felt sick with the mere thought that any would believe that she would make weapons for terrorists.

She was a Stark, and she was made out of iron.

She would not break.

And she would not bend.

No matter how many times they tortured her, how many times they tried to extract things from her.

How long had she even been held captive? How many days had passed?

Was Rhodey alive? Did his Humvee make it out of the firing range unscathed?

She knew he was a solider and was used to war, but there was a difference between knowing that he was in dangerous situations and seeing first-hand the situations he had faced.

Was he still looking for her, or had he given up, thinking she was dead?

She thought about her mother on nights when she couldn’t sleep because the ground was too cold, and her back was going stiff. She thought about her mother and her beautiful voice, how she always made the world feel safe when Toni lay in her arms. Even after her father had gotten too drunk some nights and had been too rough with her. Her mother always made things better. Always kept her safe and always did her best to protect her.

She thought about Jarvis, the man who was the closest thing she’d had to a real father. How he’d soothed her when she was sick and made her cookies when she had a particularly rough day at school. She thought about how he was proud of her through all her accomplishments and she wondered what he would think of the woman she’d become. Would he be proud? Disappointed? Would he hate the choices she made? Or would he want her to continue on.

And she thought of Aunt Peggy, who was so brave and strong. Aunt Peggy who taught her how to fight back and taught her how to hold her head held high. Who taught her that no man can hurt her unless she gives them the power to do so. She thought about how Peggy would handle this situation, and how she would be graceful even in the face of struggle. How Peggy would never stop fighting and looking for a way out of the situation.

So she did what she did best.

She built, she made, and she created.

She worked delicately to open up the missile she’d made a few years back. One that had been meant to serve the US military, and now was in the hands of terrorists. How many other innocents had died because her weapons had gotten into the wrong hands? How many had been hurt by her creations?

“Who are these people?” she found herself asking her companion.

“They are your loyal customers, Ma-am,” he said grimly, and she felt her stomach drop. “They call themselves the Ten Rings.”

She looked up at the camera once more and took a drill to her missile.

“Now we might be more productive if you included me in the planning process.”

“Mm hm,” she muttered, as she hammered away, unscrewing ‘til she reached what she wanted. A single silver strip.

“What is that?” the man asked her curiously.

“That is palladium,” she said, raising it to him, “0.15 grams. We need at least 1.6, so why don’t you go break down the other eleven.”

The man didn’t question her, and instead moved away.

She hammered, shaped, forged the materials, as the man poured the material into a cup.

“What do I call you?” she finally asked for the first time.

“My name is Yinsen,” he told her, and she nodded.

“Nice to meet you,” she said, focusing on what they were doing.

“Nice to meet you too,” he said, almost looking amused.

She picked up the metal ring that formed when it had cooled, placing it delicately in place, as she began the wiring process.

It took hours, and she was tired, but she knew what she had to do, knew she could not fail. She worked on perhaps the most important creation of her life. Something her father never had been able to do, but something she needed to.

And when it was done and glowing blue, she almost smiled.

“That does not look like the Jericho missile,” Yinsen said, looking at it.

“That’s because it’s a miniaturized Arc Reactor,” she told him, “I got a big one powering my factory at home. It should keep the shrapnel out of my heart.”

“But what could it generate?” he asked her, awed.

“If my math is right, and it always is, three gigajoules per second,” she told him touching it lightly.

“That could run your heart for fifty lifetimes,” Yinsen said surprised.

“Or run something big for fifteen minutes,” she continued. She trusted the man by now, so she gathered all the pieces of paper she’d been drawing on, placing them one over the other, to show him what it was she’d been working on all this time, to reveal a giant metal suit of armour.

She might not be able to get past all their guns, but she could protect their weapons from hurting her.

“Impressive,” Yinsen said, and for the first time in days, weeks, or months, she’d felt hope.

Later, when the Arc Reactor lay firmly nested in her chest, despite the pain and discomfort she felt, she also felt a bit of satisfaction. Her father had tried his entire life to create a more compact Arc Reactor, and she’d done it in a cave, attached to a car battery, as she struggled to even breathe. But she’d bested her father and the things he’d never been able to do

She just needed to make sure she didn’t die trying to get out of here, or it all would have been in vain.


 

She threw the dice as Yinsen explained the rules of the game to her, “You still haven’t told me where you’re from,” she said, wanting to know more about the man.

“I’m from a small town,” Yinsen began, “Called Gulmira. It’s actually a nice place.”

“Got a family?” she asked him, curiously.

“Yes, and I will see them when I leave here,” he said, without looking at her, “And you, Stark?”

She thought about Rhodey, her brother who had been there for her through everything. Whose mother all but adopted her and who’s sister often made fun of Rhodey saying that she liked Toni more than her.

She thought of Aunt Peggy and Uncle Daniel who never made her feel like she was anything less than their daughter. How Ava looked up to her and followed in her footsteps. And Harry who was her little brother. Who would fight against the world for her.

She thought about her bots and JARVIS, and how they were her children, despite the lack of convention. They were her creations, and she loved them more than words could even say.

She thought about Pepper and Happy, whom she’d hired but had come to care about her more she could even begin to imagine.

She had a family.

But she couldn’t say that. Not when she was already at risk. She couldn’t put them at harm’s way. Not when the bad guys could try and use them to get to her. She refused to put them in that sort of danger.

So instead she said, “Nothing.”

“Yeah. So you are a woman who has everything and yet has nothing,” he said, giving her a smile.

The week progressed on, and she began to build. She wielded together crassly as she made the pieces fit together. She knew she had to make it look as much as her missile as possible, otherwise she would draw their attention. And the last thing she wanted to do was gain their attention.

When the doors opened and they came to check on her once more, she stood firmly, hands on her head, as their leader stepped forward.

And in perfect English, he spoke, “Relax.”

She dropped her arms carefully, looking at Yinsen.

“The bow and arrow was once the pinnacle of weapons technology. It allowed the great Genghis Khan to rule from the Pacific to the Ukraine. An empire twice the size of Alexander the Great,” he said to her, before moving to look over her work, “And four times the size of the Roman empire. But today, whoever holds the latest Stark weapons rules these lands. Soon it will be my turn.”

He turned to Yinsen and began speaking in Urdu, and before Toni knew it, they’d grabbed Yinsen.

He took a hot set of tongs and brought it closer to Yinsen.

“What does he want?” Toni asked urgently.

She moved forward as they began screaming and all of a sudden, all the guns were turned on her.

“I need him,” she said finally. “Good assistant.”

“You have until tomorrow. To assemble my missile,” their leader said, before turning and walking out of the room.

So she created, fast than she ever had before. More than she ever had before.

She taped up her hands, as if she was ready to fight, and she began putting all the pieces together, lowering the armour onto her body, as they recited a map of how to get out safely. They were running out of time, even working in the blind spots. It was only a matter of time before the guards came back.

They had attached a bomb to the door, ready to go off when it was open. But they were not ready, they needed more time. And as the door opened, the bomb blasted them backwards.

“Initialize the power sequence,” she said, in anticipation, and he moved to the computer. “Function eleven. Tell me when you see a progress bar. Tell me when you see it! Press control ‘i'. “I’. Enter.”

“Got it,” Yinsen said, as it began.

“Come over here and button me,” Toni said and he moved back to help finish getting her ready. “Make sure the checkpoints are clear before you follow me out, okay?”

“We need more time,” Yinsen said, looking worried. “I’m going to go buy you some more time.”

“Stick to the plan,” she tried commanding him, but he went anyways, grabbing a gun and running forward. “STICK TO THE PLAN!”

He began shooting and she screamed after him, but it was too late. He had gone. And all she could do is watch the progress bar slowly move forward, as it hit fifty one percent.

She watched the power go out as it completed, and she took a step forward, it was game time. She listened to them come. And as the first one came, she raised her fist and punched.

They began shooting, but her suit deflected it all as they shot blindly into the darkness. She moved, knocking them out one after another, as she moved to get out of the mountain cave. She took out terrorist after terrorist, knocking them out as their screams filled her ears.

Good.

They had tortured her, hurt her, and made her feel weak. No more. Now she was in control.

She moved until she saw Yinsen, lying on the ground and bleeding.

“Yinsen!” she screamed, her voice echoing in the suit.

“Watch out,” he screamed, as an RPG fired her way.

She raised her arms as she moved to trigger a flame thrower, hitting the stone behind him as a rock knocked him out.

“Stark,” he said weakly.

“Come on we got to go,” she said desperately, “We have to move. I’ll help you. Come on we have to go.”

“This was always the plan, Stark,” he told her softly.

“Come on, you’re going to go see your family,” she tried; he had to make it.

“My family is dead,” Yinsen shook his head, “I am going to see them. It’s okay. I want this. I want this.”

“Thank you for saving me,” she said, trying to stay strong.

“Don’t waste it,” he told her, “Don’t waste your life.”

She could hear the loading of weapons once more and knew she had to keep moving, keep going forward. She could not let his sacrifice be in vain. So she moved out of the cave and into sunlight for the first time in months.

They began firing and she stood still, trying to let their weapons run dry.

“My turn,” she said, lifting her arms as flames emerged, and threw them backwards. She shot it at her weapons, destroying every last one of them. And as the shots continued to rain down on her, she buckled.

She shot a container, causing an explosion, as she lifted the panel and hit a red button, flying straight into the air and out of the flames she had caused.

Before she started to fall.

Just like Icarus who had flown too close to the sun, her wings began to melt.

And she fell down, crashing into the sand, her armour scattered all around her.

“Not bad,” she said, because despite everything, she’d escaped. She’d gotten free. She’d done it.

She just needed to make sure she wasn’t recaptured before she’d managed to find anyone who could help her.

She covered her head with her hood as she moved through the sand, desperate to find anyone. But all around her there were sand for miles, spanning in every direction. She stood up, and walked, in the opposite from where she had flown from. Her arms were burned and there were injuries all along her body but none of that was important. What was important was that she needed to get out safely, and she needed to get out without the wrong people finding her first.

She walked for hours, the sun coming down on her made her just want to lie down and let it be done with. Just let her take a break, just a small break. She wanted to cry, to let her anger and her frustration out, but it would not accomplish anything. So she kept moving, when all she wanted to do was let it end. But she pushed on forward anyways.

And as she walked up a sand dune, she nearly cried to see nothing but endless desert in front of her, without a bit of civilization in sight. There was nothing, and she was going to die out here without anyone ever knowing what had happened to her.

She suddenly heard a chopper fly by overhead, and a part of her wondered if it was a mirage. She had seen countless lakes already, and it was probably her mind deluding herself. But the wind it caused, and the sounds it made could not be part of the delusion.

She screamed out, desperate to get their attention, begging them not to leave her here.

“Hey!” She screamed, waving her arms frantically, “HEY!”

She began to laugh, as tears also streamed down her face.

She fell to her knees as it landed in front of her, feeling relief and happiness all at once. She was finally going home. She was finally free.

And as Rhodey ran out of the helicopter, she swore she could see his tears too.

“How was the Funvee?” he asked her, and she nearly cried as she stood and wrapped her arms around him, happy that he was here. “Next time you ride with me.”

She could hear the desperation in his voice, and it hit her then how much grief he must have felt in her absence. He held her tightly and she felt safe for the first time in months.

He helped her to the helicopter and during their flight he turned to her.

“Did they hurt you?” he asked her carefully, as he gestured to the glowing Arc Reactor in her chest.

She shook her head, “I did that to me,” she said softly, “I’ll tell you about it more, when it’s safe, but it’s keeping me alive. They wanted me to build them the Jericho. And when I said no, they weren’t all too happy with my answer.”

“I saw what happened to their campsite,” he told her, “I’m glad you made them pay. I-Toni. I don’t know what I would have done if something would have happened to you. If you had been hurt, I never would have forgiven myself. I should have protected you and kept you safe. And instead, you were kidnapped on my watch.”

“It wasn’t your fault Rhodey,” she told him gently, taking his hands in hers. “It was no one’s fault but theirs. But I’m safe now. You found me in the middle of the desert. And you saved me.”

“I never would have stopped searching until I found you,” he assured her. “None of us would have. Harry and I have been looking everywhere. Ava and JARVIS hacked into other countries security agencies. DUM-E, YOU and Butterfingers threatened to leave the house to hunt you down, Peggy was ready to leave the hospital to come find you, and Daniel kicked up a storm until the US President himself announced that they would keep looking. None of us would ever have left you there. We would have gone to any extreme to bring you home.”

She felt her throat tighten and she remembered telling Yinsen that she had nothing, and she knew despite the lie, that it had been wrong. She had so many people who loved her and were willing to do anything for her, and she felt so grateful to have them all in her life.

“I missed you,” she said softly, and he put his arms around her gently, trying not to touch any of her wounds. “I missed all of you when I was taken, and the thoughts of you kept me going. I don’t know what I would have done if you didn’t find me.”

“You’re safe now,” he told her. “I will never let anyone hurt you ever again. We’re taking you home.”

She closed her eyes and let out a sigh of relief.

It was finally over.

Chapter Text

She didn’t spend long back in the base in Afghanistan. Just enough for a few debriefs with the military in charge of the area. She didn’t let any of them examine her, not wanting the arc reactor in her chest to become knowledge to anyone, even if the military had a way of keeping secrets themselves. She didn’t tell them either about the weapons the Ten Rings had. Her weapons. Because like it or not, she had no idea where they were getting it from, and for all she knew, there was someone on the inside who sold their weapons to them.

Someone had told the Ten Rings of the Jericho and of where the demonstration would be. It didn’t matter how good the terrorists’ satellites or intel might be, they shouldn’t have known that sort of knowledge.

She couldn’t do anything about it from here, and she knew she needed to get back to America before she would have any real power to make a difference. She needed to come up with a plan, find out exactly how her weapons were being stolen before she made any accusations.

The plane ride back to America was long and she was dying just to go home to her children and see her family again.

“I should have been there,” Harry said after a moment, as he sat down beside her. “I shouldn’t have let you go to the demonstration alone. SHIELD had intel of a possible terrorist cell making movements in the region, but I had no idea it would have anything to do with your presentation. Maybe if I had given the threat more credit, I could have stopped it. I could have been there for you and stopped you from being hurt.”

“Harry,” she said softly, taking her cousin’s hands in hers. He refused to look up at her, and she could tell his eyes were slightly damp. He had always been so strong, and the only other time she’d seen him remotely as affected was when his mother was hospitalized, and he had locked himself up in his room for a week before throwing himself entirely into his work.

“Harry look at me,” she said gently, as she tilted his head up so she could see him. “It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t Rhodey’s fault, or anyone else’s. No one could have stopped this from happening unless they knew in advance. You and Rhodey brought me home; otherwise I would have been wandering that desert for who knows how long. And if you did not come, it could have been them who found me again. I’m here, and I’m safe.”

“I wasn’t there though,” he said bitterly, “I was off chasing a lead after the explosion you set off. I was on the other side of the mountains. I didn’t find you, I didn’t even find them. What kind of agent am I?”

“You’re the best kind,” she told him. “Harry, I’m safe. For all you both knew, I could have been in either location. It was smart to split up. You and Rhodey brought me home.”

He nodded slightly, and she knew from her own experiences with self-blame that he didn’t entirely believe her, so she simply took his hand in hers, holding her cousin tightly. She asked for stories on what was happening back home to help pass the time; three months was a long time for someone to disappear, especially someone like her who was so involved in the affairs of her company and her country.

“A few sites opened up Toni Stark Watchlists,” Rhodey told her, “People could post any tips of places they saw you. It was always dead ends, and none of them were even in Afghanistan. But I think it gave people hope to know that you might still be out there. You’re more important to the world than you think.”

She swallowed at that.

She’d always been Toni Stark: Socialite, Play Girl, Drunken Mess in the eyes of the public. Or she’d been the Merchant of Death, Ruthless CEO who continued to revolutionize the world faster than any other company could even begin to compete with in any field she’d set her mind to.

But no one had ever wanted just Toni. The girl who struggled and fought every single day of her life to get to where she was.

“We land in an hour,” the flight attendant said as she entered the cabin, saving Toni from having to say anything.

“You should rest,” Rhodey told her gently, “It’s going to be a circus when we get back, and I know you have an aversion to sleep, but you need some rest.”

She nodded lightly as she leaned back. She knew sleep wouldn’t come to her, but she could at least try and regain some strength. Galileo, Afghanistan really did a number on her body.

When the flight landed, she took a deep breath. She knew Rhodey had the Military clear out the landing site so that no one unwanted would be there, and she was grateful to him for that.

As the doors opened, she saw Pepper standing there in her pristine business suit, and Happy with his arms crossed in front of her. Rhodey helped her out of the chair that he had insisted she sit in, and Harry stood on the other side, trying to steady her without touching her broken arm.

She was wearing a dress outfit which she knew all too well that Pepper must have picked out for her, and she smiled slightly as Ava stepped forward the minute she exited the plane and threw her arms around Toni.

“I was so worried,” Ava said, holding Toni tightly and she wrapped her good arm around her cousin.

“I’m here,” Toni reassured her. “Your brother and Rhodey brought me home.”

“JARVIS and I helped,” Ava interjected, “We hacked the satellites after the explosion and tried to chart your trajectory if you had been thrown from the blast site.”

“Of course you did,” she said fondly, knowing all too well that it was the kind of thing they would have done.

“Careful Ava,” Harry told his sister warningly, “She’s hurt.”

Ava stepped back, before examining her, as Toni watched a gurney be brought forward.

“No,” she said flatly, and Rhodey gave her a disbelieving look. “No,” she said again and Rhodey sighed before gesturing it to go away.

Pepper smiled at her as she walked forward towards her PA, and Toni beamed back.

“I might have ruined the blouse you chose for me,” she said to Pepper, “I know you warned me about damaging it because it cost me a fortune, but it’s gone now.”

“Oh Toni,” she said, with watery eyes, laughing slightly.

“Your eyes are red,” Toni said softly, “A few tears for your long-lost boss?”

“Tears of happiness,” Pepper assured her, “I hate job hunting.”

She wanted to argue that point. Pepper’s position at the company never should have been dependant on Toni’s presence. But she knew Obie had hated that Toni had taken her on, despite his protests.

“Vacations over,” Toni said, nodding, as she got into the limo. She was back, and now it was time to get to work.

“Where to, Ma-am?” Happy asked, as Rhodey slid into the front seat and Ava between her and Pepper.

“Take us to the hospital,” Pepper said, and Toni shook her head immediately.

“No,” she said, speaking over Pepper’s protests. “I don’t have to do anything, Pep. I’ve been in captivity for three months. There are two things I want to do. I want an American Cheeseburger. And the other-”

“That’s enough of that,” Pepper said, immediately cutting her off, as Ava looked amused.

“It’s not what you think,” Toni started. There was a time and place for her to make innuendos, and she very much was not up for sex at the moment. Not when she’d had to bleed into rags for months because things such as tampons were not a luxury she’d been provided.  Not when she’d seen the leery looks the men there had given her, and only not touching her out of fear from their leader.

“Then what?” Ava asked her, encouragingly.

“I want to have a press conference,” Toni said firmly, as Rhodey looked at her surprised. “There are somethings I need to discuss with the world.”


 

When she got to the press conference, she saw the clapping begin as Obie made a big show of welcoming her home. She wanted to roll her eyes at him, but she knew how worried everyone had been in her absence, so she didn’t say anything about it.

She pulled out the last cheeseburger as he led her inside, joking about wanting one and she sighed at him exasperatedly. She was the one who spent the last few months in captivity while he was here and free to eat whatever he wanted. She deserved it.

Obie lead her towards the press, but not before she saw Pepper being approached by a man in a suit, who Harry was eyeing up warily. What did he know that she didn’t?

She sat down in front of the podium, unable to stand any longer, but she crossed her legs. The last thing she needed was speculations about her health to get out and for anyone to question her ability to run a company. She had managed for this long, and this incident will not be the thing that set her back.

“Would it be okay if everyone just sat down?” She asked, “That way everyone can see me, and I can see them.”

Rhodey moved towards Pepper, looking worried and she didn’t blame him. She’d barely spoken in the car as to what she wanted to discuss with the press, and she knew her family was worried.

“I never got to say goodbye to my father,” she started, “There were questions I would have asked him. Questions about how he felt about what this company did. If he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts. Or maybe he was every inch the man we all remember from the newsreels.”

She took a deep breath before continuing, “I started making weapons to keep Americans safe during war. To protect them and ensure that they have the best possible advantage, so they come home safe. But I saw young Americans kill by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.”

The clamouring began immediately, with whispers among the audience of what it was she was trying to say and what it meant.

“Ben,” she said, pointing to a reporter raise a pen questioningly.

“What happened over there?” he asked her, curiously and she defected immediately.

“I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I have more to offer this world than just making things that blow up,” she told him, as she stood before pausing. It was the right time for this decision. To finally do what she had wanted for a long time. And now she knew the truth of her weapons, she had no reason not to continue forward.  “And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark International until such a time as I can decide what the future of the company will be.”

The entire room stood up in uproar, Obie looking at her as if she’d lost her goddamn mind. Obie pushed her aside roughly and she held back the wince as he took over the mic.

“I think we're gonna be selling a lot of newspapers,” he tried to cut her off.

“What direction it should take, one that I'm comfortable with and is consistent with the highest good for this country, as well,” she ended before walking away. She could see Rhodey look at her tensely and she wondered if he would hate her for what she’d decided to do.

“What we should take away from this is that Tony's back! And he's healthier than ever. We're going to have a little internal discussion and we'll get back to you with the follow-up,” Obie tried to contain the room, she knew he would be furious as well, but she didn’t care. Stark Industries was her company and she refused to allow it be used to do more harm than good.


 

She got home a little over an hour later, and Rhodey had yet to say a word to her since her big decision. She tried looking over at him a few times, but he hadn’t made eye contact with her.

It killed her a little, knowing he was angry with her and her decision to shut down the weapons division of her company.

“Rhodey,” she said softly, as Happy pulled up to her Malibu home. “Please say something.”

“What’s left to say?” he asked her, “You made your decision, without even talking to me about it.”

“It wasn’t like that,” she said, as she got out of the car, and saw her uncle waiting for her.

“Toni,” he breathed, upon seeing her. “Thank God. Harry told me they found you, but I couldn’t truly relax until I saw you with my own eyes.”

“I’m fine, Uncle Daniel,” she told him with a smile as he held her tightly. “Is Aunt Peggy doing okay?”

“She was ready to lead a one-woman army to come find you,” Daniel said with a tired laugh, as he lead her into the house. She wasn’t really all that surprised that JARVIS had let them all inside in her absence, since she had given him the code to trust her family. “She still has her off days but she’s doing well, all things considering.”

“Are you okay?” Ava asked her softly, as she took off her suit jacket and the arc reactor’s blue light glowed through her shirt. “What happened? Why does it look like a smaller arc reactor is in your chest?”

“I was hit with shrapnel,” she said, and Pepper let out a gasp, as Rhodey finally met her eyes. “From my own bomb. It had the STARK Industries logo on it. My own weapons killed all the troops in that unit with me.”

“Are you hurt?” Harry asked her immediately, looking her over.

She shook her head, “There was a man in the cave with me, and he removed most of the pieces from my chest. But there still is a piece in there that was too dangerous to remove. I created the miniaturized arc reactor to stop it from reaching my heart.”

“Toni,” Rhodey said painfully, “You need to go to the hospital. You need to let someone else look at it.”

“It won’t make a difference,” she told him with a sad smile, “It’s a part of me now. There is no way to get it out without killing me. This,” she said, tapping the circle in her chest, “is the only thing keeping me alive still.”

“That’s why you shut it down,” Ava nodded, “The weapons production. You’ve wanted to shut it down for years. To build anything else, and now you’ve finally have the chance and the reason to do so.”

“What?” Rhodey’s head turned to face her, “You’ve never told me this. Why did you never tell me that you hated making weapons?”

“Because you joined the Air Force!” she shot back at him, “You joined the military, Rhodey. And my weapons were the only thing keeping you safe, so I made them. But then my own weapons were used to hurt your troops. It could have killed you. You can’t expect me to keep making them knowing you could have been hurt.”

He closed his eyes, “Toni, if you don’t want to make weapons, it’s your choice. This is your company. But talk to me. Don’t shut me out, please. I can’t read your mind. I don’t know what you’re thinking; if you’re angry with me for not protecting you or if you never want anything to do with me again.”

“Honey Bear,” she said, taking his hands in hers, “I don’t blame you or Harry. It was a horrible thing that happened, but you are not to blame.”

“No,” Uncle Daniel said, “None of you are. But someone out there wanted you dead, Toni. Someone sold you out. And we need to know what happened. We need to find those responsible and bring them to justice. Otherwise they’re still out there and they can hurt you.”

“Someone in Stark Industries or the Military sold you out,” Harry nodded, “Someone is selling your weapons. And I’m going to help you find out who.”

“I can poke around on the internal SI systems,” Ava volunteered, “If there is any trace of the weapons coming from our end, I’ll find it in the system.”

“I’ll dig around the Military,” Rhodey sighed, knowing he was getting pulled into this one way or another, “I hate the idea of it coming from either of our ends, because that means someone has been exploiting us to make a profit. I sincerely hope somehow it was some sort of stolen shipment or something, because otherwise, it’s unthinkable.”

“Then it’s time to get to work,” Toni nodded, “We will find out how this is happening and end it. But in the meantime, it seems as if I need to finally push the plans I’ve had in the making for years to take Stark Industries in a different direction before we lose too many investors.”

“Go to sleep first,” Pepper demanded for the first time, “We all need rest. It’s been a long few months and if you burn out, you’re no use to anyone.”

Daniel nodded, “I agree. Toni you need some rest. If you’re not going to a hospital then at least let Ava, Rhodey, or Harry examine you. At least to make sure that there won’t be any other long-term consequences of this arc reactor inside your chest.”

“Tomorrow,” she sighed, knowing she wouldn’t be able to get out of it. “You all still have your rooms here, so let JARVIS or I know if you need anything.”

Pepper nodded before leaving the room as the others tailed after her, leaving her and Rhodey alone with her.

“Do you hate me?” she asked him softly, “For shutting down the weapons industry? I know the Military won’t be pleased.”

“Fuck the Military,” he said before wincing at his word choice. “I care more about you, Toni. Are you okay? Did they do anything to you there? Did they torture you? Did they hurt you? Did any of them touch you?”

“They didn’t rape me,” she said, shaking her head to deny the question.

“But they tortured you,” his jaw set, reading in between the lines of her words.

“They did,” she said, shaking lightly, and he moved over to pull her into a tight hug.

“I’m going to find every single one of them,” he promised her, “And make them pay for hurting you. They won’t get away with this, Tones.”

“Rhodey,” she said after a second, vulnerable. “I. I don’t know if I can sleep alone tonight. Can I stay with you?”

It had happened a few times in the past; the night when Tiberius tried to have his way with her, the night her parents had died, when Jarvis had died. She’d have nightmares of it all night long, and Rhodey would hold her tightly, helping her sleep as his presence quelled her fears and her pain. Her brother who would protect her from anything in the world.

“Of course,” he told her, looking a little angry with himself, “I should have asked if you wanted to. You just spent months in captivity. Of course, you can stay with me. No one will hurt you, Toni, not anymore. I promise.”

She nodded as he helped her towards her bedroom, and she climbed gently into her bed for the first time in months.

“Good night, Ms Stark,” JARVIS’ voice called out for the first time since she came home, “And welcome home. The bots missed you.”

“Thanks J,” she said to her child, “I’ll talk to all of you in the morning, I promise.”

Rhodey climbed in after her, and she laid her head on his chest, as his arms enveloped her. She closed her eyes as she listened to his heart beating, using it to steady her breathing.

She was finally home, and she was safe.


 

She woke up hours later to see Rhodey gone from the bed, but on her side of the table he’d left her a cup of coffee to make up for his absence.

She wasn’t all that surprised; he’d always been an early riser, even at school, and the Air Force had only solidified that particular habit. And after her little bombshell with the press yesterday, she didn’t blame him if he had to take care of certain things as a result. She knew the Military would be clamouring, trying to work with the Board of SI to stop her from actually shutting down the weapons division of the company, what when SI brought in most of their money still from the deal.

And whether she liked it or not, Stark weapons were the best, and that meant that any other company the Military tried to use would not be as good. Though she supposed Justin Hammer would be pleased at her decision, as it would put his company next in line to take over.

“JARVIS, how long ago did Rhodey leave?” she asked, as she gingerly took the cup of coffee from her nightstand and sipped it. It had been a while since she had the drink that had provided her more sustenance than any food on earth and she took a moment to truly appreciate the coffee.

“An hour ago, Ms Stark,” JARVIS told her gently, “He asked me to let you sleep in as long as possible, without going about your regular morning wake up routine. As he has the right access and codes to do so, I did not wake you earlier.”

“That’s okay, J,” she told her slightly guilty bot, “I think I needed the rest. But I’m up now and there is work to do. How have the baby bots been without me?”

“They were frightened, Miss, as I was,” JARVIS confessed to her, “DUM-E was ready to go looking for you himself. It was only me promising him that I was dedicating all my processing power towards finding you that he relented. U has been particularly distressed about your absence however. You might need to talk a bit to it to make it up to it.”

She sighed softly, as she pulled on a pair of leggings and one of Rhodey’s old Air Force training sweaters that she had long since commandeered from him as she tied her hair up and headed towards the lab.

It took her less than a second between opening the door and DUM-E barrelling straight into her.

“Hi Baby,” she cooed gently as DUM-E moved its arm to try and make sure she was really there. “I missed you so much.”

DUM-E beeped back in happiness, as it held out it’s arm for Toni to take a hold of. She gently took it as it led her through the lab where Butterfingers was.

Butterfingers beeped cheerfully as DUM-E brought her close and she could hear the questioning words between its beeps.

“I’m not leaving again,” she promised Butterfingers, and U turned slightly towards her. “I promise. I never wanted to leave you all. But I did not have a choice. I’m here now, and I promise I’ll make it up to you all if you let me.”

“We’re happy you’re home,” JARVIS interjected, “None of this was your fault, Miss Stark. You did not ask for them to take you and to hurt you. But they did anyways. Do not blame yourself for the action of others.”

U guiltily came over then and nudged Toni, and she stroked her youngest child carefully. “I’m sorry, baby. I know how worried you all must have been. I never wanted for you all to worry about me. I’m sorry to have left you alone for so long.”

“You’re home now,” she heard a soft voice behind her and saw Ava standing with a StarkPad in her hand as she came closer.

“How have you been, Ava?” she asked her cousin carefully.

“Worried,” Ava admitted after a moment, “We all were Toni. Dad barely slept, Harry and Rhodey were running themselves ragged. Even Sharon decided to join SHIELD to have a chance of finding you.”

Toni took in a breath of surprise at the mention of Sharon Carter. While she and the young girl had interacted a handful of times over the years, she didn’t think her absence was enough to set the girl on the path of becoming an Agent of SHIELD.

“I’m glad you’re home,” Ava continued, “It’s been horrible without you here. Pepper won’t admit it, but Obie was giving her a rough time in your absence. He wanted you declared legally dead so he could take control over your shares. But since the Military was still searching for you, he didn’t have the grounds to do so. And Mum’s had a rough time with all of it. She wanted nothing more than to be with us looking, but she’s not well enough. And I think for the first time since she’s been diagnosed did she truly understand what it meant for her ability to help others. Even when Pierce all but demanded her retirement, she stood back gracefully.”

“Thank you,” she told her cousin, “For never giving up on me. I thought about all of you every day, about getting home and being with my family. It was what kept me going.”

Ava smiled at her, and after a moment she pointed at the object in Toni’s chest, “So how about we build you a proper heart and not just something that was shoddily built in a cave?”

“I have never built a shoddy think in my life,” Toni gasped in mock offense, “How dare you, Ava Carter-Sousa? And after I gave you a job.”

Ava laughed as Toni brought up the specs for the arc reactor, as the two of them began to discuss how she had finally managed to finally miniaturize the device her father had tried to shrink for decades.

Together, they began to build, with JARVIS’ input as he calculated different simulations for the best possible combination of materials.

And hours later, when it was finally done, when the arc reactor was complete, Ava stood back and marvelled.

“Toni, with this technology, you could change the world,” Ava breathed.

“Stark Industries could make a market in clean energy,” Toni nodded, “We could truly help better the world. It’s one of the initiatives I want to put into place now that we no longer will be making weapons. Stark Industries can become so much more than a company that makes weapons. We can make the world a better place.”

Ava beamed at her, “I’m glad to help be a part of the process.”

“I could use your help sooner rather than later,” Toni gestured, as she lifted up her sweater, standing around in her bra. “I need to remove the old one and put in the new one.”

“I don’t know all that much about medicine,” Ava said, slightly wary, as Toni removed the old reactor from her chest.

“You know about technology and circuits,” Toni argued, “It’s basically the same thing. Just connect up the right wires and you have a functioning unit.”

“What on earth are the two of you doing?” she heard a voice cry out as Toni sat back in the chair while Ava carefully looked at where the new arc reactor would need to go.

“Science?” Toni tried and Pepper shook her head.

“On yourself?” Pepper demanded, “Toni, you need a doctor. Or at least someone who knows what they are doing in regard to biomedicine and tech. You don’t have the first idea what you’re doing, and neither does Ava.”

“But I trust her,” Toni argued. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“The exposed wire under the device could touch the socket wall resulting in a short, which could cause you to go into cardiac arrest,” Ava said drily after finishing her inspection.

“It’s a good thing you have steady hands,” Toni quipped back at her cousin.

“I can’t watch this,” Pepper moaned as Ava carefully lowered the device into her chest.

“There’s pus,” Pepper groaned as a pink discharge appeared on Ava’s hands.

“It’s an inorganic plasmic material from the device,” Toni shrugged, and Pepper paled.

“And you’re putting it into your body?” Pepper demanded, “Couldn’t that kill you?”

“It’ll kill me not to have this device,” Toni pointed out, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“I don’t think that’s a reasonable argument,” Pepper sighed, and Ava withdrew her hands.

“It’s done,” Ava breathed out, “Congratulations Toni, you have a new, powerful, heart in place.”

“What do you want to do with this?” Pepper asked, holding up the old reactor which she had built for herself.

“Destroy it,” Toni shrugged, “Incinerate it.”

“You don’t want to keep it?” Ava frowned, “That thing saved your life over there. And you just want to throw it away?”

“I’ve been called many things,” Toni looked at the both of them carefully, “But nostalgic has never been one of them.”

Pepper shook her head, taking the device with her as she left the room.

And well, if when Toni found it later in a box and mounted in Lucite with the inscription “Proof Toni Stark Has a Heart” and cried ever so softly, well then no one needed to know.


 

She began drawing right after; creating specs and sketches of her new designs. Of something that would truly change the world and make it a better place.

The welding came slightly after as now she finally had accesses to the best materials and equipment, and finally had a chance to make it the way she always intended it to be.

The first time she tried wearing just the boots she flew up straight into the air and crashed.

She crashed the second time as well as the third and the fourth. But each time she flew higher and better the past attempt, with JARVIS recording each attempt on her part.

She created the flight stabilizer right after, only for Pepper to interrupt as she announced Obie’s presence.

An injunction had been filed against her.

By her own Board.

She wanted to be furious, but she knew this was how the game worked. Her company always did want to look for a chance to oust her as CEO and put in a more respectable candidate. The wanted a man. They wanted someone they could control. And Toni Stark was no show horse.

They could try all they liked. She hadn’t lasted this long by bowing down any time anyone asked her to step backwards.

She would take control of her company back.

She would bring it forward with the new innovations she had.

Even if it meant fighting her way back to the top.

She refused to let her weapons continue to hurt any other innocents. Not like the soldiers who had died by her side trying to keep safe.

But it had been her own bombs in the end that had killed them.

She wanted to be better; she needed to be better. And one way or another, she would change the world and she would keep it safe.

“Miss Stark, I must strongly caution against this. There are terabytes of calculations still needed-” Jarvis protested as she wore the suit she had been working so hard to create.

“We’ll test it in-flight,” she simply said, and with that, she was off.

She flew up into the air, like an Icarus with iron wings, urging to fly towards the sun. She flew over Malibu, turning and gliding over the waves, towards the Santa Monica Pier.

But like Icarus, she had flown too close to the sun.

And the ice crystals began to form over her helmet and the warning systems lit up in her suit.

She began to fall, as JARVIS scrambled to restore power to her suit, as she took over the control and tried to land gracefully into her home.

But had actually crashed through her glass ceiling and on top her expensive cars.

None of that had mattered to her, as she lay on her back, laughing for the first time in months at the exhilarating experience.

In that moment, she was truly free.

Chapter Text

She saw on the news of the Fire Fighter Fundraiser happening and frowned at the mention. She might have been busy for the last few weeks, keeping a low profile as Obie attempted to smooth out the press, but she was certain she would have heard something for the event from either Obie or Pepper. But Pepper had barely had time for her since Toni’s return, blaming it on the mountain of paper work that Obie had suddenly thrown her way. And Obie, well he was trying to overthrow the injunction filed against her.

She hated sitting like some sort of invalid, waiting until the work had been done. She had never been one to sit back and wait for things to just fall into place. As a woman in an engineering field she’d never had that luxury.

And even with the work that she had done on her suit, it wasn’t the same since she was loocked out of her own company. She hated not being able to do anything. She hated being left out in the dark.

So she dressed up, wearing a flashy red gown with gold heels that Pepper had bought for her for some gala or the other that she hadn’t been able to attend due to her absence, and she showed up to her own party.

She never liked doing the expected anyways.

She smiled on in front of the press, ignoring the questions they threw her way about the future of her company and her health, giving a one of statement about how they were all there today to support the firefighters. They were who was important today, after all.

She didn’t say more than a few words to Obie; she was grateful to him for everything, but she didn’t want to air out her frustrations in front of the press. Not when they already had so many things to speculate about for her. She definitely refused to give them any more stories. She brushed off his attempts at getting her to go back home as she entered the party; her party.

“Ms Stark,” she heard a voice call out as she grabbed a whiskey; she had a feeling she definitely would need it today more than ever.

“Yes?” she said, turning and recognizing a familiar face.

“Phil Coulson,” he said, “From the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.”

She kept her face passive, pretending she didn’t know all her life what exactly SHIELD was and what they did for a living.

“You need a better name for that,” she said offhandedly, and she saw Coulson’s lips turn up.

“We’re working on it,” he said, “Listen, I know this must be a trying time for you, but we need to debrief you. There's still a lot of unanswered questions, and time can be a factor with these things. Let's just put something on the books. How about the 24th at 7:00 p.m at Stark Industries?”

She nodded despite herself; SHIELD was proving to be persistent in learning about what happened to her during her time in Afghanistan. And she knew that Harry must not have told them anything, for otherwise they wouldn’t be trying too hard to get her version of events.

She excused herself shortly after, seeing Pepper in a silk blue dress.

“You look beautiful,” she purred slightly, and saw Pepper’s face light up at the sight of her.

“What are you doing here, Toni?” Pepper asked her, surprised. “Are you by yourself?”

“I’m avoiding government agents,” she grinned, recognizing the dress as a past gift to her friend. “Nice dress.”

“You have good taste, Miss Stark,” Pepper laughed.

“Do you want to dance?” she asked, extending her hand and Pepper looked around, feeling slightly self-conscious. Toni rolled her eyes, “They’re going to talk about me anyway. Might as well give them a reason to. But only if it makes you comfortable.”

“I forgot to wear deodorant,” Pepper sighed, “I’m wearing a dress with a back far too low cut. And I’m about to dance with my boss.”

“You look and smell great,” Toni said smiled at her, as she moved along to the music, holding Pepper close. “I could fire you if that would help?”

“I don’t think you could tie your shoes without me,” Pepper smirked, and Toni protested, “What’s your social security number?”

Toni pouted slightly, “Five?” and as Pepper made fun of her, she argued. “I am a genius. I remember genius things. I don’t need to know my social security number. I have you for that.”

As they went out for air, she heard the rumours begin to circulate once more. There was a time in her life when she might have tried to have made a move on Pepper, but she respected the woman. While Toni might enjoy the company of women, she knew that Pepper had no such inclinations. And the woman was one of her best friends; she was hardly going to push her away over something trivial as her feelings.

So when Pepper expressed her concerns, she backed off, deciding to get them both a drink.

She sighed in that moment, finding herself back at the bar for the second time that night.

It was a lot to taken in, the music, the people, the dancing. It was the most social interaction she had in months and she was exhausted. She wanted nothing more than to go home and crawl under her blankets. But now was not the time.

And when Christine Everheart shoved the pictures of a town called Gulmira in her face, she found herself unable to breath

“When were these taken?” she demanded, as Christine glared at her.

“Yesterday,” Christine said, searching her face for any knowledge of it.

“I didn’t approve any new shipments,” Toni shook her head.

“Your company did,” Christine shot back.

“Well I am not my company,” Toni reminded her, before weaving her way through the crowd, holding the picture so tightly she was sure it was going to be damaged.

She nearly laughed when Obie called her naïve as she shoved them asked him about it.

“I was naïve before when they said ‘Here’s a line. We don’t cross it,’” She fought back, stopping him from leaving.

“You’re being hysterical,” Obie told her, “You’re being far too emotional right now, Toni. You cannot afford to think like a woman, you know that better than anyone else in this field. This is how we do business.”

“If we’re double dealing under the table, I need to know,” she warned him, “Are we?”

Obie straightened his back and her jaw tightened as she got her answer as the reporters screamed at her for her picture.

“Let’s take a picture,” he said, sliding his arm around her waist. She wanted to push him away, to tell him the discussion was far from over. “Toni. Who do you think locked you out? I was the one who filed the injunction against you. It was the only way I could protect you.”

He walked away from her, leaving her silent in his wake and she wanted to throw something, wanted to break something, to destroy anything.

So, she took a deep breath, not wanting the reporters to spin her as a woman who lost her mind under torture, unable to cut it, and she went home.

Instead of going to bed, like she so wanted to, she suited up.

And she flew straight to Gulmira.

“Ma-am are you certain?” JARVIS’ voice called in her ears, “We have never tested flight for this long. We do not know anything of the conditions there, nor do we know what we are flying into. Perhaps we should at least plan it out slightly. Bring in Mr Rhodes or Mr Carter-Sousa as they have training in this sort of thing.”

“No can do, J,” she told her AI. “I created this mess, one way or another. It’s up to me to fix it.”

“With all due respect,” JARVIS shot back, “The weight of the world does not lay solely on your shoulders alone.”

She let his words wash over her slightly as she landed on her feet, in front of a terrorist. He began shooting at her immediately and she wanted to laugh. She wasn’t dumb enough to let her suit be breakable by something as simple as bullets.

She threw him into the air and shot her repulsors at the others, before turning to see them pointing it at women and children.

She wasn’t a religious person; not by a long shot. But there was a special place in hell for men who hurt women and children. She carefully powered down her repulsors, and lowered her arms, as she scanned the faces and locked on just the terrorists, as her suit shot them down.

A boy ran towards his father and she smiled from inside his suit at the relief on his face that his son was alive; that he was alive.

She wasn’t done yet, as she carefully removed each of the terrorists, one by one, knocking them out, t and destroying all her weapons in the area before flying off again.

Her weapons might have terrorized this village, but she had kept them safe.

She should have known it wouldn’t be that simple.

Of course she couldn’t just fly straight into an active war zone without the US Airforce finding out.

She was alerted about the US Raptors appearing behind her before the call came through, flashing on her screen as Honey Bear.

“Sour Patch?” she answered as she tried to calm her voice.

“Is there something you need to tell me?” he asked her, keeping his voice steady, “Particularly about Gulmira. “Where are you right now? What’s that sound?”

“I’m driving in the convertible,” she lied, “The top’s down.”

“I need your help right now,” Rhodey said, seeming to believe her, “We got a weapons depot that was just blown up, a few clicks of where you were held.”

She winced at the reminder, “Sounds like someone stepped in and did your job for you?” she lied, not wanting to bring him into it, not until she knew what she was dealing with. She had done a lot of reckless shit in her life, and she didn’t want to bring him down with her desire to save the world.

He called her out about her breathlessness a moment later, before pausing.

“You sure you don't have any tech in that area I should know about?” he asked he,r and she knew she’d have to tell him eventually.

“Nope,” she lied again, and he let out a sigh.

“Okay, good, 'cause I'm staring at one right now, and it's about to be blown to kingdom come,” Rhodey said, clearly not believing her.

Well.

Fuck.

She wondered in that moment if she’d made a mistake. If she had flown too close to the sun, too desperate to redeem herself, and too drunk on power. Had she tried for too much, bitten off far more than she could chew? Would this be the end of her story?

Not like this.

“Turn on super-sonic mode, Baby Boy,” she told JARVIS and she didn’t need him to respond to sense his dissatisfaction with the entire endeavour.

The shot comes a moment later, as she struggled to avert it.

And like Icarus, she fell.

If it weren’t for JARVIS stabilizing her through constant calculations, she supposed she would have hit the ground already.

She flies back up avoiding the shots and she knew in that moment the time for lying was done.

“JARVIS call Rhodey back,” she sighed, knowing he was going to be less than pleased.

“Hi Rhodey,” she said, as soon as he picked up.

“Please don’t tell me you have anything to do with this,” he sighed at her, and she sheepishly grinned, despite knowing he couldn’t see her.

“It’s me,” she said simply, and she could hear the disbelief.

“What do you mean it’s you?” he asked, taking in a deep breath. “No, see, this isn't a game. You do not send civilian equipment into my active war zone.”

“I mean it’s a suit,” she said quickly, as the pilots got closer. “It’s a flying suit, Rhodey. I’m inside of it.”

“For fuck’s sake, Toni, please tell me you’re not serious?” he asked her, and she wished she could.

“Rhodey it’s me inside it and if you shoot me down, I will fall,” she told him, and she heard him pull away the phone as he talked to his superiors.

“Toni, listen to me,” he told her desperately, “Get out of there. Get out of there now. And when you get back here you come find me, you understand? We need to have a long talk about this and discuss why in God’s name you thought this would be a good idea.”

She wished she could. She held herself back as the planes flew past her, before latching herself onto one of them. She clutched on desperately, hoping they wouldn’t see her.

Of course, it hadn’t been her smartest move and the plane began spinning in circles to throw her off.

It wouldn’t have been a big deal if she didn’t crash into the other plane, destroying its wing and sending the pilot out of the damaged air craft. She flew after the pilot and deployed his parachute as she pulled it free with as much strength as she could muster.

As horrible as it sounded, the pilot freefalling had given her the distraction to get away without a continuous chase.

Safe to say, by time she landed, Rhodey was waiting for her, with his arms crossed, and a less than pleased Pepper Potts standing behind him.

“What were you thinking?” he asked her, as JARVIS began to dismantle her suit for her.

“I was thinking that Obie is double dealing weapons to terrorists and that I was going to stop it,” she told him, and saw his eyes widen in surprise, “And if I cannot do so from inside my company, then I was going to find another way to do so.”

“Are you sure?” Pepper asked, looking shocked. “Toni, what you’re talking about? It’s treason. Are you certain that Obadiah is doing this?”

“He confessed it to me,” she spat out, “At the Gala. How was I supposed to sit back and watch? I wanted to make weapons so I could make a difference in the world. Instead, I was making things worse. He locked me out of my own company and used my weapons to hurt others.”

“We need proof,” Rhodey closed his eyes, “We can’t just make these accusations without it.”

“I can get it,” Pepper nodded, “I still have full access to Toni’s office and all her files. I can go in and get whatever files it is that we need.”

“What if he finds you?” Toni protested, “I can just get JARVIS to hack the servers. It’s all my own systems anyways. Besides, Obie doesn’t know how to prevent JARVIS from getting in. I can’t put you at risk; not for this.”

“But it would take longer,” Pepper reminded him, “I can get it within the hour. JARVIS, how long would you need?”

“I’d have to be able to do it without detection, Ms Potts. It would take me a few hours to find out what I was longing for,” JARVIS responded. “However if it is on a remote drive not connected to the main server it would be harder to track.”

“Toni,” Pepper took her hands, “Let me do this for you. You don’t need to fight against the entire world on your own. You have friends who love you and will fight with you.”

“I’ll talk to the Air Force,” Rhodey nodded, “If anyone suspects him selling to terrorists, I can find out what they know.”

“Thank you,” she breathed, as she talked through Pepper on what she would need to look for. The two took off on their respective missions, leaving her to her thoughts, and she knew she would need to be ready for whatever it was that was coming her way.


 

She’d fixed up her suit and was going through pass transactions that she had access through on her StarkPad when she heard the call come in from Pepper.

She answered the phone before a strong pulse shot through her and she felt herself unable to move.

She knew all too well what it was; the sonic taser that rendered its victims paralyzed temporarily. Whatever had she been thinking? Trying to create a weapon so harmful?

For the second time in so many months, she felt her own technology turn against her as she was rendered immobile.

“Breathe. Easy, easy,” She heard Obie tell her soothingly, as he lowered her head onto her couch. “You remember this one, right? It's a shame the government didn't approve it. There's so many applications for causing short-term paralysis.”

She wanted to yell back at him as she was forced to watch him move over. He was her family; her godfather.

“Toni, when I ordered the hit on you, I worried that I was killing the golden goose,” he said, and she would have cried out if she could. Of course he had. She wanted to laugh or cry or scream, but she was unable to even blink. He was her godfather, but he had tried to have her killed. He pulled out a metal extractor, aiming it over her heart, “But, you see, it was just fate that you survived it. You had one last golden egg to give.”

He pushed it in, and she felt her heart begin to convulse, as the pain surged through her, and Obie removed her arc reactor from her chest.

“Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?” he spat at her, “Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now, what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?”

She struggled to breath, feeling the shrapnel begin moving once again toward her heart.

“Toni, this is your Ninth Symphony,” He sat beside her, leaning in close so she could feel his breath on her face, “What a masterpiece. Look at that. This is your legacy. You’ve shown the world that women can succeed and cause as much destruction as men. A new generation of weapons with this at its heart. Weapons that will help steer the world back on course, put the balance of power in our hands. The right hands. I wish you could've seen my prototype. It's not as... Well, not as conservative as yours. Too bad you had to involve Pepper in this. I would have preferred that she lived.”

No.

NO.

She wanted to scream.

How dare he turn her heart into a weapon of mass destruction? How dare he rip it out of her chest leaving her weak and vulnerable? How dare he mention Pepper and try to hurt her?

She struggled to stand, trying to move through her house and to her lab.

She needed her backup; the arc reactor that had gotten her through Afghanistan. She could feel her heart squeezing tightly, as the pain flowed through her body.

She moved slowly though her house, leaning on walls and grasping at every surface.

She could do this. She was so close. She just needed to get to the reactor.

Please.

Just give it a few more minutes.

The doors of her elevator opened and she all but threw herself out of it, heading to where Pepper had encased her old reactor for her.

She crawled across the floor, unable to stand any longer, as the pain filled her and she lay on her stomach, unable to move.

She closed her eyes.

Was this how she was going to die?

On the ground of her lab, surrounded by her bots, as her heart gave out?

What would her legacy be?

That of a murderer? Of a villain? Of a woman who singlehandedly brought destruction wherever she turned?

She heard familiar beeping and saw DUM-E lower the reactor to her and nearly cried out. When JARVIS hadn’t responded to her, she knew Obie must have disabled him, using the codes she had given him out of pressure when she made him. And now more than ever she had regretted it. JARVIS could have called for help, could have stopped Obie from leaving, from hurting Toni. And instead Obie had hurt her son.

“Good boy,” she said tiredly, and DUM-E looked down on her, almost with a look of worry.

She smashed the reactor, before trying to shove it into her chest carefully as she connected back up all the wires.

She was still on the ground, unable to move, as Rhodey and Ava barrelled into her lab, screaming her name. Rhodey helped her up and she grabbed onto him.

“Where’s Pepper?” she asked desperately, knowing Obie was going to go for her.

“She’s fine,” Ava said, examining her older arc reactor, and trying to get the full extent of her injuries. “She’s with five agents and Harry.”

“They're about to arrest Obadiah,” Rhodey added, “Are you okay? Did he hurt you? I swear to god I’m going to kill him.”

“It’s not enough,” Toni shook her head, cutting him off. “He has my reactor, Rhodey. He has the old suit too; somehow he got it from Afghanistan. They don’t have a chance against him in it. I need to go face him. I need to put an end to this.”

“You were just dying,” Ava argued back, “You’re still not even fully recovered. Leave it to Harry; he’ll take care of this. Rhodey can go too now that he’s here. But you need to rest, Toni. You can’t fight him, not like this.”

“I’m the only one who can,” she shook her head, “This is my fault. It’s my technology that he’s using to cause all this harm. I have to be the one to put an end to it. I just need the suit.”

Rhodey didn’t say anything and she knew he wasn’t happy with it.

“Honey Bear,” she said softly.

“Okay,” he said softly, “I’ll help you suit up.”

She went over to one of her screens, getting JARVIS back up and running.

“Miss?” JARVIS called for her desperately, “I tried to warn you, I tried but-”

“I know Baby,” she soothed him, “I’m fine, Jar. But I need to go stop Obie, so can you begin initiation sequence?”

“Yes Miss,” he said, and the bots around her began whirring as the suit slowly attached onto her body.

“That is so cool,” Ava said breathlessly, “How could you keep this from me?”

“She flew into my war zone without warning me,” Rhodey said dryly. “But it is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Let’s do it,” she grinned at both of them.

“Do you need me to do anything else?” he asked her, and she shook her head.

“Keep the skies clear,” she told him simply, before jetting off.

Somehow the flight to Stark Industries felt longer than the flight to Gulmira. Knowing Pepper was in danger, that Obie wanted to kill her simply because she knew the truth. That Toni had put her in danger, broke her.

She would not let Obie hurt Pepper the way he had hurt her.

“Pepper,” she called her, and her friend answered.

“Toni! Thank god you’re okay. Obie, he’s gone insane. He’s built a suit!” Pepper said quickly, and Toni tried to go faster.

“Pepper you need to get out of there now,” Toni said, with a tight voice.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she heard a familiar metallic voice, and Toni felt dread flow through her.

“Stane!” she screamed as she crashed straight into him, blocking him from shooting her, as they both fell into the ground.

How dare he?

How dare he try to kill her assistant? Her friend? The woman who had become family to her?

How dare he try and hurt her because of money?

She flew straight into oncoming traffic from the impact of the fall, as she fell out of her warehouse, and into a truck, and she could hear the crashes and screams around her.

Obie lifted a car filled with a family, holding it over her.

“I love the new suit,” he screamed through, in his metallic voice.

“Put them down,” she demanded, seeing the fear on their faces.

“Collateral damage, Tony,” Obie said, as she instructed JARVIS to re-allocate power in her suit.

She shot him out of her reactor as she carefully caught the car and set it back down.

Only for the lady to run her over and drag her through the highway. She pushed the car carefully off of her, as Obie crashed back down in front of her, and threw her at another car.

“For 30 years, I've been holding you up! I built this company from nothing! Nothing is going to stand in my way.  Least of all you! Not an overprivileged girl who had no place in this world. I should have got the company when your father died. And instead, he entrusted it to you. Do you have any idea how furious that made me? To know that I had worked hard day and night. And he hated you. He hated everything about you. And yet he gave the company to you; the least deserving person of it all. I tried so many times to destroy you, and somehow, you always got back up.”

He flung her to the ground, stomping on her.

He shot a missile at the bus behind her, throwing her into the air from the explosion, but she used her thrusters to steady herself so she wouldn’t fall straight to the ground.

“Impressive! You've upgraded your armor! I've made some upgrades of my own!” he yelled back at her, before taking off.

Well.

Fuck.

She instructed JARVIS to take her up to maximum altitude, despite his protests.

She flew higher into the air, gaining altitude, knowing fully well that her suit probably couldn’t handle it.

“You had a great idea, Tony, but my suit is more advanced in every way!” Obie taunted her, as he grabbed her foot.

“How'd you solve the icing problem?” she smirked back, as his suit glazed over.

“Icing problem?” he asked, unsure of what she was saying.

“Might want to look into it,” she grinned, as he let her go and fell straight back down, before she slowly followed as her suit reached two percent power.

She crashed onto the roof of her company.

“Pepper,” she said, calling her friend, as Pepper gasped. “I’m almost out of power. I've got to get out of this thing. I'll be right there.”

“Nice try,” she heard as Obie crashed behind her. She raised her arm and grimaced. as she realized her glove had come off.

He threw her back, but she flew into him, punching him with the fist that was still covered, as he held her tightly between his arms, crushing her suit.

“Weapons status,” she gasped.

“Repulsors offline, missiles offline,” JARVIS reported.

“Flares!” she said, struggling to breathe, as they shot out of her suit and Obie dropped her.

“Very clever, Toni,” Obie said, seeming unimpressed.

“Pepper,” Toni called her quietly. “This isn’t working. We're going to have to overload the reactor and blast the roof.”

“Well how are you going to do that?” Pepper sounded worried.

“You’re going to do it,” Toni told her. “Go to the central console, open up all the circuits. When I get clear of the roof, I'll let you know. You're going to hit the master bypass button. It's going to fry everything up here.”

Now she just needed to buy herself some time.

She jumped onto her godfather’s back, as she pulled out a series of wires.

“Did you hate me all this time, Obie?” she asked, “Every time I came to you as a kid with an invention? Every time you read to me when Howard was gone? When you came to my graduation when even my father couldn’t make it? Did you hate me through all these years, when I considered you to be family?”

“You were a good for nothing girl who didn’t understand her place,” Obie sneered through the mask, “You might have brought in some valuable weapons, but the company was always meant to be mine. I stood by your father’s side. I helped him build it up to where it was today. You just took what was never yours.”

“Stark Industries was always meant to be run by a Stark,” Toni shook her head. “My Grandfather knew it, my father knew it, and I know it. It’s our legacy, and it’s my legacy to decide what to do with. Who are we helping by selling weapons to terrorists? We’re just lining our own pockets. Even if you kill me today, the world will know what you’ve done. Stark Industries can and never will belong to you. It’s over Obie.”

He flung her off his back as his suit powered off, straight to the glass roof.

Obie opened up his suit, holding her helmet in his suited-up hand, “I never had a taste for this sort of thing, but I must admit, I'm deeply enjoying the suit! Stark Industries might have your name in it, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to it than you think you did. You should have just died in Afghanistan, Toni. It would have made all of this so much easier for us all.”

He threw the helmet to where she was laying, and Toni lifted her head carefully.

“You finally outdid yourself, Toni! You'd have made your father proud!” Obie laughed at her.

She wanted to scream. If this is what it took to make her father proud, she didn’t want it. She didn’t want him to be proud of her for making a super powered suit for Obie to misuse. She didn’t want this to be her legacy. This was not what she would be remembered for.

“It's ready, Toni! Get off the roof!” Pepper yelled into her ear, and Obie opened fire on her.

She lifted her arm up and created a shield, but the floor under her gave out and she fell.

She clung on tightly to the metal bars above her, as glass rained down on Pepper and the arc reactor below her.

“Toni!” Pepper screamed and she winced.

“How ironic, Toni! Trying to rid the world of weapons, you gave it its best one ever!” Obie leered at her, “And now I'm going to kill you with it!”

He sent out a shot and it hit the building behind her.

“You ripped out my targeting system!” Obie glared at her.

“Time to hit the button!” Toni told her and Pepper protested.

“You told me not to!” Pepper argued back.

“Hold still, you little prick!” Obie raised his weapon at her again. Of course he compared her to male genitalia when insulting her.

“Just do it,” Toni yelled.

“You’ll die,” Pepper screamed.

“Push it,” Toni dropped, so only one arm was holding on. Pepper shot her a worried look but pushed the red emergency button on the console as she ran out of the way. The arc reactor began to overload, as the blue energy shot out, pushing Toni off to the side.

She watched in sorrow as Obie fried from the energy.

He had been her family, her father figure when Jarvis had died, and her father had passed. He had been there for her when Uncle Daniel and Aunt Peggy were busy and Rhodey was off in the military.

But he, like everyone else in her life had left her too.

He fell straight into the arc reactor, and it set off an explosion through her building. She knew that there was no way that he could have survived it.

She supposed she should have been more upset; he was her family. But in that moment, she simply closed her eyes, as her reactor flickered in her chest, trying to start back up again.


 

She sighed to herself, looking over the cue cards that Harry had given her on behalf of SHIELD, carefully crafted to give her an alibi for the explosion to prove that there was no way that she could have been there.

They were giving her a way out. A way to return to her regular life without raising any further suspicions about what it was she had been doing in her free time.

It gave her a way to protect her identity if she wanted to continue to be a superhero.

She picked up a paper as she heard Rhodey speak on the television.

“You've all received the official statement of what occurred at Stark Industries last night. There have been unconfirmed reports that a robotic prototype malfunctioned and caused damage to the arc reactor. Fortunately, a member of Tony Stark's personal security staff was on hand to help,” Rhodey spoke.

“Iron Man,” she scoffed, “Just because I didn’t put breast plates on the suit, they automatically assume I’m a man.”

“How else would anyone know it’s a woman?” Ava asked, “Unless she was explicitly being sexualized.”

“You have your alibi,” Pepper told her, “Stick to the cards, Toni.”

She looked over at her cousin, and Ava didn’t say a word. She knew Ava disapproved of what SHIELD wanted her to do, but how many other options did she really have?

She walked out to the podium, as Rhodey stood behind her. Pepper was off in the crowd, and Harry stood by Coulson off to the side. Her Uncle Daniel sat in the audience as Ava took a seat beside her father.

“Been a while since I was in front of you. I figure I'll stick to the cards this time. There's been speculation that I was involved in the events that occurred on the freeway and the rooftop,” Toni said, taking a deep breath.

“I'm sorry, Ms. Stark, but do you honestly expect us to believe that that was a bodyguard in a suit that conveniently appeared despite the fact that you,” Christine Everheart interrupted her.

“I know that it's confusing,” Toni stopped her, “It is one thing to question the official story, and another thing entirely to make wild accusations, or insinuate that I'm a superhero.”

“I never said you were a superhero,” Christine argued.

“Didn't? Well, good, because that would be outlandish and fantastic,” she laughed awkwardly. “I'm just not the hero type. Clearly. With this laundry list of character defects, all the mistakes I've made, largely public.”

She watched the audience, grasping over her awkward words.

“Just stick to the cards,” Rhodey said exasperatedly.

“Yeah, okay. Yeah. The truth is-” She paused, thinking carefully over the words she was about to say. The words her company needed her to say. The words the world wanted to hear.

But she looked at her Uncle Daniel and thought of Aunt Peggy, who had fought hard her entire life to have a place at the table. Who stood up to men her entire life who tried to put her in her place where they thought she belonged. How Peggy had decided to re-write the rule book so that it worked out in her favour.

She thought about Steve Rogers, who simply wanted to fight in the war, despite being an underdog, with a weak body. She thought about how he fought hard his entire life and had ultimately sacrificed himself in the end to try and save the entire world.

He had been her father’s personal hero, so much so that he had dedicated his entire legacy to Captain America.

She wasn’t a hero; she knew that. She was a flawed human with so many defects, it could fill an entire shelf of books; hell probably an entire room.

But she needed to do what was right.

She wanted accountability. She wanted to have less secrets and lies.

She knew what she was about to do would forever change her life as she knew it.

But she needed to do it.

“The truth is,” Toni started. “I am Iron Woman.”

Chapter Text

The words hung over her in the days to come. I am Iron Woman, plastered on every newspaper headline, played on repeat on the news as the world wondered what they would do with a new superhero and what it would mean for them.

She was hardly the first superhero to appear in the world. There was Captain America back in the forties, and Captain Marvel who had first emerged in the nineties. And while SHIELD might have tried to cover it up, it was hard to erase the tales that witnesses had told the press. And even despite that, her own cousin had confirmed it on an occasion, despite the fact that Toni very much did not have the required security clearance for such information. But Toni was smart and despite the need for secrecy, Harry had a hard time keeping things from her when he knew that if she really wanted to learn the truth of a subject, very little could stop her from finding it out.

But what she hadn’t been entirely prepared to deal with was her Board.

“You cannot just fly around in a suit,” Gregson, a newer member of her Board exclaimed. “Do you know what it will do to our stocks for our CEO to be flying around and pretending to be a hero?”

“I never claimed to be a hero,” Toni said calmly. “And the stocks are doing fine. In fact, they’re up twenty points, since the press conference. The stocks are even higher than they’d been before I got kidnapped.”

“That’s a short-term thing,” Michaels scowled. “What happens tomorrow when you crash into a building in New York and our company’s name is attached to the disaster? What happens if you accidentally kill civilians? What happens if you die in action? We hardly have another CEO who can step up and take your place. There was Obadiah who could have led this company but after his unfortunate accident there isn’t anyone else named to be your successor.”

She winced at the implication. She knew that Obie couldn’t have worked alone, and Ava and JARVIS were currently combing through all of Stark Industries’ data with a fine-tooth comb, looking for any other possible suspects to who had been helping him. And she would personally see to it that they never came close to her company ever again.

“Nothing is going to happen to me,” she said simply, “And in the case it does, I’ll leave a successor to my company in my will. But with that said, we must discuss the future of Stark Industries, as things need to change around here.”

“We are a weapons company!” Gregson spluttered, “To suggest anything else is preposterous.”

“And yet we have so many more divisions than just weapons,” she said calmly, sliding her hands up to project data from the tablet she’d been holding to appear as a hologram before them. “Divisions such as our Technological Advancements, Medical Research, and Clean Energy, to name a few, combined, nearly bring in combined billion dollars of revenue, and that’s with the minimum amount of investments we put into them. Imagine what could happen if we invested more? Military contracts can also be about defensive technologies, such as shields and protective gear; we can outfit them with body armour that is of higher calibre than anything available on the market. We can provide them software upgrades like nothing they’ve ever had before. We might not be making them missiles, but that doesn’t mean they won’t still be paying us the same amount as before.”

She shifted the hologram to show the figures she had come up with and calculated based on the numbers she had, and she knew from their silence that they had agreed with her.

“Additionally, Stark Industries should become a Global name,” she said, “We shouldn’t just be a company who deals with militaries. Think about how much money we are losing by doing so. We already are coming up with navigation systems for the military. Think about how much money we could bring in if we sold a simpler model to the masses? One that helped them get around from point A to B without having to look at a map. We have the technology for holograms, think about how we could incorporate it into phones and StarkPads. We need to think of the bigger picture. Weapons might have brought in a decent profit margin but think of how much more we could achieve if we simply strived for more.

She loaded the data onto the tablets in front of them so they could go over the information themselves.

“And the Military would be interested in such products?” Michaels asked, slightly skeptically. “Surely they’re unhappy about the lack of weapons.”

“Our weapons were sold behind our backs to terrorists,” she said coldly, “I am not producing anymore, and I still have controlling share of this company. Now you can lock me out, but then who would bring in these innovations? I’d just start another company and take my designs there. The Military will accept what they’re given. I’ve already talked to Rhodes, and he has confirmed that the Military is more than interested in the designs I’ve shown him already. The advancements we can make is incredible.”

“Alright,” Michaels said, giving her a nod, and she felt some of the tension leave her.

She was so used to fighting every step of the way, like she had to with Roberts and O’Brian, who questioned every decision she’d ever made.

“You’ve proven with the numbers that this is beneficial,” Gregson sighed, “This won’t be easy, Antonia. Our stocks will fall as we change course and head in this new decision. But if you’re right with these figures, then this is a smart move for Stark Industries, and we must trust your decision. You’ve already brought this company to an international level in the time that you’ve been CEO.”

She nodded at them all, “I will implement this in several stages, the first of which involves launching several new satellites into space,” she started, as she broke down her intentions for the future of her company.


 

“Aunt Peggy,” Toni said softly, as she visited her aunt for the first time since everything had happened. It had been hard for get to get away to go to Washington, but she’d had Pepper re-arrange her entire schedule, much to the displeasure of several magazines and newspapers who had wanted to interview her and hadn’t been able to get a single slot yet on her calendar.

Bu Pepper had gladly done so, knowing what the older woman had meant to Toni.

“Toni,” Peggy said, carefully sitting up in her bed. Daniel had told her earlier that today was a good day, and in the years since Peggy had been diagnosed, good days came less and less.

There would be a day in the future when Peggy wouldn’t recognize Toni at all, and every day would be a bad day. And that would be the day where Toni would break.

But she would take advantage of these days while she still had them. She’d take advantage of every last good day.

She would not lose another mother without getting to tell her just how much she loved her.

“How are you feeling, Aunt Peg?” she asked softly, sitting beside her.

“I’m okay, Toni,” Peggy said, placing her hand on hers. “How have you been? I’m so happy to see that you’re healthy after everything that happened in Afghanistan. I don’t know what I would have done if I lost you. I wanted to come find you, but Daniel was right. I’m hardly in peak condition anymore. If I had been a decade younger, I would have fought every man necessary until I brought you home.”

She let out a slightly watery laugh, “I know you would have Aunt Peggy. I learned everything about what it takes to be brave from you. You’ve taught me that I need to stay strong in the face of adversity. You taught me that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to even when everyone around me is telling me I can’t do it. If it weren’t for your words, I wouldn’t have survived it.”

“And now you’re a superhero,” Peggy said, with a slight disapproving tone in her voice.

She looked slightly confused, “Aunt Peggy, it was you who taught me I need to stand up and fight for what’s right. This is what’s right. Obie was selling my weapons to terrorists. He was hurting others with weapons that I designed. It’s up to me to put it right. It’s my responsibility. I need to do this Peggy.”

“Toni,” Peggy told her sternly, “You have absolutely no training in this sort of thing. You have no idea what it takes to fight terrorists on a daily basis. You have no idea what it takes to put your life on the line every single day and have people at home wondering if you’ll make it home. You’ve never had to deal with any of this. And that’s fine! You’re a brilliant CEO, and your innovations have changed the world. I’ve seen first-hand that you’ve made things so much better, and I am incredibly proud of you. But I will not have you putting yourself in harm’s way so recklessly. Who is watching your back in the field? Who is there to keep you safe?”

“JARVIS,” she said simply. “He monitors the suit and runs calculations constantly to ensure that nothing happens to me.”

She paused for a moment.

“What would you have done, Aunt Peggy? If you found out that your entire life was a lie? If you found out that someone you had trusted had betrayed your trust, and was selling your weapons behind your back to terrorists? That he’d tried to have you killed? You wouldn’t have stood for it. You would have done everything in your power to have made it right. You’re the one who told me when I was younger that we are nothing without our morals. That we need to stand for what we think is right and fight against the world even when everyone tells us we’re wrong.”

Peggy sighed, “I know. You’re right, Toni. I would do the same thing. I have done the same thing. I just want to keep you safe; you and all the children. But you’re right. I would have done the exact same thing if I was in your situation. But with that said, I had training, Toni. I practised fighting every single day so I was never in a situation where anyone could use my gender against me. I want you to practise too. Suit or no suit, you need training. You cannot just become a superhero without any sort of practise.”

She wanted to snark back; she’d been doing well enough so far, even if she didn’t have any official training. But her Aunt only wanted what was best for her, out of love and out of concern for her. The lease she could do was at least acknowledge her Aunt’s words, knowing she must have had a reason for wanting it.

“Okay,” she said after a moment. “I’ll ask Rhodey and Harry if they can help me train, if it makes you happy.”

“Thank you, Ducky,” Peggy told her with a smile. “I am proud of you. Not just for this, but for everything you’ve accomplished. You’re a brilliant girl, and I’m so proud to call you family. And I know that your mother and Jarvis would have been so proud of everything you’ve done too.”

Her throat tightened slightly. She noted the lack of mention over her father, but if Peggy had told her that her father was proud of her, she’d probably just laugh. They both knew it would be a lie anyways.

“I love you too, Aunt Peggy,” she told her aunt, “I’ll try and visit you more often. I promise.”

“Be careful, Darling,” Peggy said gently, “The world will stand in your way and oppose any new shift to change. You’re going to face more and more difficulties in the coming years. But know that your family will always stand behind you. You are not alone, and you are very much loved and cared for. Do not let the world turn your compassion into hatred.”

She was quiet for a few moments before Peggy spoke again, “Maria?” she asked, looking at Toni. “What are you doing here? I thought you and Toni were going away to Italy for the week?”

She kissed her aunt on the forehead, knowing her Alzheimer’s had caused her to forget the entire conversation. She swallowed slightly, not wanting to cry, before standing to leave.

“Take care, Aunt Peggy,” Toni said gently, as she slipped out the door.


 

It started off slow, what with her completely dismantling the Ten Rings. And then the rest of the terrorists in the East.

It wasn’t easy; and it definitely had far more to do with than just dropping in and blowing up all their weapons as she had done the first time. Especially in countries where there was so much political turmoil.

She’d have extensive knowledge on all the areas before simply going in and getting stuff done, and each time, she’d make sure to have the permission of the government in the area. That was the whole point of coming out with the secret right? What good was holding herself accountable if she thought she was beyond the law? What good was any of it if she could just drop in, do whatever she wanted, and then leave?

She had to be better than that; she had to hold herself to a higher standard or she was just as bad as before.

She couldn’t ever go back to that point though; the point where she was blissfully ignorant to what was going on in her own backyard. She needed to be more informed, in every avenue of her life.

So she listened to the political rumours. She dug in deeper into international affairs, learning what the rest of the world thought of her and her actions. She listened, and she took note. She heard where she was needed, and she reacted.

She had Ava and JARVIS calculate the possible outcomes before she went in and she went with the route that was likely to cause the least amount of damage.

She might have been known as the Merchant of Death before but the last thing she needed was more blood on her hands. She refused to let anyone else get hurt on her watch. She refused to be the cause of the loss of any more innocent lives.

Time Magazine had named her the Person of the Year a month after she’d first come out as Iron Woman, and the world had unanimously agreed.

She wasn’t trying to be a hero.

She just wanted to make things right.

When the pilot of the Areodynamic Marvel crashed in the Congo, she had been the first to assist General Ross in saving him. Even if Ross had stated that they just wanted a superhero watchdog. She’d scoffed at him; she refused to be put on a lease for the government to control; she was not a weapon to be controlled, and she refused to allow him to do so.

She wanted to be better than what she was before. She refused to sit back down on the sidelines and let the world around her continue to crumble when she had the power to make a difference in it.

So she helped the world in any way she could. She saved kittens from burning buildings, saved kidnapped children, and fought for those who couldn’t save themselves.

She wondered if Captain America would have done the same, if he had given the chance. He’d always believed in the little guy and wanted to fight for those who couldn’t help themselves.

If he was still alive, would he approve of the things she’d done?

“Toni are you paying attention?” Rhodey asked, as she landed flat on the mat for the second time that afternoon.

“Yes sorry,” she winced, as Harry helped her back up.

It seemed as if Aunt Peggy had Uncle Daniel organize her training sessions with Rhodey and Harry behind her back, and all of them agreed that she needed more hand-to-hand training, as she clearly did not have enough experience with it.

“You seemed a million miles away,” Rhodey said, as she took a gulp of water, “Is something on your mind?”

“Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” she asked him softly, for probably the first time since she took up the Iron Woman armour.

“Do you think you’re doing the right thing?” he countered, and she rolled her eyes.

“Yes,” she said simply, “I’m helping people and making a difference.”

“Good,” he nodded, “But for what it’s worth, I agree with you. You’re grown so much in the last few weeks. You’ve made the world feel safer already. You could have just made the armour and asked someone else to pilot it. Or you could have just shut down weapons production. Both of them would have been enough to change the world. But you’ve shown the world that there are those who will fight for their interests. You’ve shown the world that there are those who care about them, even when it feels like no one’s listening. And I am so proud of you. You’ve come so far, and I’m so proud of all that you’ve done.”

“Thanks,” she said softly, and Rhodey pulled her into a hug.

“It doesn’t mean that my heart doesn’t stop every time I see you fly off into danger,” he murmured. “I’m always going to worry about you, Toni. Which is why Harry and I are going to train you to properly fight until we’re convinced that you’re capable of landing a couple of punches and doing some damage to your opponents without a suit on.”

“Which would be great to get back to,” Harry smirked at her, “If the two of you old saps are done being all sentimental.”

“Who are you calling old?” she scowled at him, “You’re not that much younger than me, old man.”

“You literally winced when you tried stretching,” Happy pointed out, as he had taken a break from trying to coach her to properly punch a bag. “You’re not getting much younger, Ma-am.”

“You’re all fired,” she glared at them, “I don’t need any of you.”

“Sure thing, Boss,” Happy nodded solemnly, “Should I take my leave now, or after you land on your ass a few more times?”

“Why do I even need to learn how to fight?” she groaned. “I always have my suit on me, and the suit has more than enough types of attacks anyways. I programmed it! It has different fighting tactics built into it!”

“What happens if you don’t have your suit?” Rhodey raised a brow, “How will you save the world then? What if you get kidnapped again and they take away your suit from you?”

“Then I’ll just build another,” she threw up her hands, “I built the first one in a cave! I can just build more of them!”

“And now the world knows you’re capable of such a thing,” Harry warned her, “You will not be given the same amount of leniency as last time if such a situation arises. Do you think they’d give you the same access to the materials you need to be able to build a suit? They’d probably just shoot you in the head if you tried anything. And what would you do then?”

She grimaced, knowing he was right. “Fine! If we must then let’s just get this over with. Clearly none of you are going to drop it until I learn how to do so anyways.”

“Teach her how to feign attacks too,” Uncle Daniel said, from where he and Ava were watching. “Peg used to do that all the time. She’d pretend to be weak because the world expected a woman to not be capable of handling herself and when they dropped their guard, she’d strike. If the world believes she is nothing without the suit, it would serve as an advantage to when they try attacking her without it.”

Ava beamed, “JARVIS, can you run different fight scenarios that we can practise? Calculate the most common sorts of attacks that could occur so Toni can learn how to fight against them.”

“Not so fast,” Harry said, as Ava pulled back up her tablet to take notes. When his sister looked at him confused, he continued, “Don’t think I don’t know that you are planning on helping Toni on this crusade of hers.”

“Of course I am!” Ava said heatedly, “If you think I’m just going to sit back and watch, then you’re wrong Harold Michael Carter-Sousa!”

Harry raised his hands, “Of course I don’t think that. But if you’re going to do this with her, then you better learn a few moves too. Your involvement increases the chances of you getting hurt and I refuse to have you in danger because you refused to learn how to throw a punch.”

“Dad,” Ava said pleadingly, looking over at her father.

“Your brother has a point,” Uncle Daniel nodded, “Ava, you should learn a few moves too, while we’re here.”

Ava groaned and Toni shot her a sympathetic smile.

She knew they were all doing this so she could protect herself in the future. But at the same time, there was nothing fun about falling down on her ass time and time again as she tried to learn how to fight hand-to-hand combat.

“You’re doing great, Toni,” Daniel smiled at her, as she finally threw Rhodey over her shoulder. Her Honey Bear winced slightly, and she beamed at him triumphantly. Maybe there was something to this after all.


 

She got home to her Malibu estate later than she had intended to. Being Iron Woman as well as CEO and Chairwoman of a Fortune 500 company was proving to be difficult, especially given all the new designs she’d been trying to push out the door.

It wasn’t uncommon for her to get less than a few hours a sleep if she even got that many in a week.

She heard the beeping as soon as she entered, and moved carefully through the house, trying to find out the breach in her Manor.

“JARVIS,” she said loudly, trying to get her AI to fill her in on just what had happened.

“Welcome home Ma-” JARVIS started, before getting cut off and shutting down.

She felt anger flow through her. Who had attacked one of her children in her own home? How dare someone try to do such a thing.

She held her phone close, ready to call the suit to her remotely if she needed to.

“I am Iron Woman,” she heard a man mockingly say as she moved closer. He was shielded by the dark, and she couldn’t make out his face. “Do you think you’re the only superhero in the world Miss Stark?”

He moved toward her and she stood ready to fight.

Perhaps those training sessions had been worth it after all.

“You’ve become part of a bigger universe,” he said, and Toni carefully moved towards him. “You just don’t know it yet.”

“Who the hell are you?” she asked, and he stepped into the light. He was wearing an eyepatch and a long black trench coat, but she recognized him before he even gave his name or credentials.

“Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD,” he said, and she knew the man all too well as one her Aunt Peggy had carefully groomed for years; teaching him everything so that one day he would take her place. Unfortunately, her disease had meant she’d had to step down far sooner than she’d liked, but it seemed to work out for the man anyways.

“I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” he said, with a smile on his face, and she gestured for him to sit down.

She knew who he was, but it was clear to her that he was unaware of that fact. For a man in charge of an intelligence agency, he clearly did not have all the intel he thought he had.

She knew it was largely in part because her father wanted her to have nothing to do with the organization, and Aunt Peggy had hid the fact that Toni knew more about them than they were aware of to keep her safe. After all, it hardly would do to have a civilian know secrets about an organization that thrived in the shadows.

“I see,” she said, “And I suppose you want me to join your little boy band?”

She pretended to feign interest, when in reality, she had no interest in joining. The Iron Woman suit did not belong in the hands of the government, no matter the organization. And while she trusted Peggy would have created a trustworthy division, she knew the hearts of men did not always have the interests of the people in them. There was always corruption, always those who sought to exploit things to work into their favour.

“You must have heard about the incident with Bruce Banner by now,” he said, handing her the tablet with the access to the Hulk Files.

Of course she had; the scientist on the top of his field who had turned into a monster overnight and wreaked havoc on Harlem? Who hadn’t heard of him?

She’d tried to reach out to the man in the days following the attack, but he’d all but dropped off the radar. There had been several inquires if whether Iron Woman would be available to help fight off the monster, but she’d refused. The Military had it under control. Besides, she had a feeling that the real monster was someone entirely different and the world might not like if she sided with him. It didn’t mean she didn’t still have her scans running to try and find the Hulk. After all, the man was on his own and needed help.

“There’s more superheroes than the world knows, Antonia,” Fury said, “And a day will come when the world needs them all to unite under one team and fight for them. A team who will save the world, to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to fight the battles we never could."

“So you want me on part of a superhero team,” she said, handing the tablet to him. “And if I refuse?”

“This is so much bigger than you or me,” he told her. “This isn’t about threats that even are contained on this world. It’s about what’s out there. What will come knocking on our door one day and whether we like it are not, we are unprepared for such battles. The world will need you. But if you want to keep fighting terrorists, then that’s your right.”

Aliens.

Like Captain Marvel?

She’d had so many questions she needed to ask, but she knew she wouldn’t get the answers, not from him directly. She knew how men like him worked; they gave her enough information to let her think she was being given insider details, but in reality, they were just giving her enough to keep her interested.

But that didn’t make the part about the aliens any less valid. If they were out there, then a day would come when the world would need to fight against them. A day would come when the world was forced to fight for their survival. And whether it was tomorrow or twenty years from now, they would need to prepare for it.

“I’m not interested,” she said. “Iron Woman is not meant to be on a part of a team. She’s not something that the government or any organization, even SHIELD, should be allowed to have control over. I appreciate the offer, but no thank you.”

She could tell from the incredulous look on his face that he was unimpressed, but she stood by her words. If a day came where she needed to band together with other superheroes, then so be it. But she would not throw away her morals on a chance.

“I’ll see myself out then,” Fury stood quickly, “I hope you change your mind, Stark. The fate of the world depends on it.”

When she was sure she was alone, she quickly brought JARVIS back online. She’d need to update his coding to ensure that no one ever turned him off again, not without her knowledge or consent.

“J, it seems like we have work to do,” she told him carefully. “Look into SHIELD for me. Find out everything you can, including my father’s work for them. They have something up their sleeves and I need to know exactly what it is that we’re dealing with if we’re going to be ready for whatever it is that’s going to come our way.”

“Search initiated, Miss Stark,” JARVIS called out.

Her father had always kept his own secrets from her, and Hawking forbid he ever bring her in on anything.

She wondered offhandedly what he would think about his and Peggy’s successor bringing her in on an organization that he wanted her to have nothing to do with. Would he be rolling over in his grave at the mere thought of such a thing? More likely than not, he’d think that she was unworthy to be working with them. He’d probably also think Iron Woman was a publicity attempt in order to gain her more fans. Not like the old man was ever thought she was capable of anything other than drinking away all her problems.

Not that it mattered anyways. Her father was a thing of the past, and she was a vision of the future.

Chapter Text

Six months had passed since she had shouted her superhero status to the world, and six months filled with missions, press tours, excitement, and fans. Six months since she had inserted the arc reactor into her chest and since the palladium had started killing her slowly.

She knew the words she spoke were meant to drum up excitement. ‘The longest period of uninterrupted peace because of me.’ Oh, how the public had eaten those words up.

And not to toot her own horn, but it was true, wasn’t it? She had risen like a phoenix from the ashes and stepped up to do what was right. She was keeping America safe, the world safe.

She had never fully understood her father’s desire for a legacy until the last few months. Sure, she had always wanted to make the world a better place. She’d wanted to change the world and sculpt it in her image. She wanted to advance it and bring it to heights it had never seen before. But she had never thought once about what she would leave behind when all of this was over.

Perhaps that was why she had restarted the Stark Expo’s that her father had thrown when she was younger. Because it wasn’t just what she could do for the world, but what all of them could do. What they could all create. What they could build. And what they could make.

She wanted to change the world. But she wanted the world to be a better place even when she was gone.

How very ironic that the device she had built to keep her alive was slowly killing her.

19%.

Her blood toxicity was at 19%. Nearly 1/5th of her blood was toxic. And she had no idea if she’d even be able to find a solution in time. She didn’t have the first clue of just what was wrong or what it would take for her to be able to turn it around. JARVIS had already run every single combination of elements, compounds, and mixtures, but nothing was a match. There was nothing she could use to substitute the palladium with a similar reaction. The metal in her chest was killing her.

She hadn’t told anyone about it, not yet. Not Rhodey who knew every dirty secret about her. Not Pepper who had her schedule managed to a tee and knew where Toni was at any waking moment. Not Ava, who all but helped Toni reach her vision of any crazy technology she was thinking of, or Harry who had all but held the governments off her back after her announcement of being Iron Woman. Not even Uncle Daniel or Aunt Peggy, who had all but raised her with the help of Jarvis and Ana, or Mama Rhodes who had kept Toni together after her mother’s passing.

Because how could she bring herself to tell them that she was dying. That the reactor in her chest was killing her with every use of the suit.

She knew what they would say; they’d demand she stop using it, but really, it was nowhere near that simple. If she stopped using it then it wasn’t as if she wasn’t still going to die. She’d just live a few more years first. And what difference did it make when she died if she was dying anyways? She’d much rather leave a legacy behind that she could be proud of, like her father had wanted to all those years ago.

And even if she never was his legacy; if that honour had gone to Steve Rogers, SHIELD, and Stark Industries, that didn’t mean she couldn’t make an impact before she passed and joined him in whatever Hell she was destined for.

She wondered if it would be better this way; easier even. Then her dying days wouldn’t be filled with mourning before she’d even passed, and at least she’d be able to appreciate her life, truly appreciate it, in a way she hadn’t ever done before.

And if she was destined to die in a few months, at least the world would be a lot safer.


 

She was getting subpoenaed. By the US Government.

If she said she was surprised, she’d be lying. If Toni Stark was used to anything, it was men trying to take away her achievements from her because they felt more entitled to it. It happened all the time at MIT, during her time at Stark Industries, and now it was happening with the Iron Woman armour.

“Ms Stark, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to it,” Senator Stern said.

“Yes Darling?” she said, shooting a smile at the man, despite wanting to strangle him internally.

“Do you or do you not possess a specialized weapon,” The man sneered at her.

“I do not,” she said firmly, and the man looked at her with disbelief, “Well it depends how you define weapon.”

“The Iron Woman weapon,” The man elaborated.

“My device does not fit that description,” she said, leaning forward, hearing the cameras click behind her. “I would begin by defining what it is. A high-tech prosthesis.”

The room laughed around her, sure that she was just messing with them, but her face did not change from the serious expression it held.

They wanted to play ball? Then she definitely would not make it easy for them.

“That’s actually the most apt description,” she said, placing her hand on the table.

“It’s a weapon, Ms Stark,” Senator Stern said again.

“If your priority was actually the American people-” she said before he cut her off.

Typical.

“My priority is to get the weapon turned over to the people of the United States of America,” he said, looking down on her. “Perhaps you cannot begin to imagine just what you have created, Stark. You invented a weapon which is capable of mass destruction, and it is in the hands of a civilian. A woman like you surely does not understand the consequences that this could have long term. Why don’t you leave saving the world to people who are actually qualified?”

She heard an audible gasp and she simply rolled her eyes. She was no stranger to the military being a pain in her ass. To men thinking they’re entitled to her inventions simply because they deemed her unworthy.

“Well you can forget it,” she said simply. “I am Iron Woman. The Suit and I are one. To turn over the Iron Woman suit would be to turn over myself which is tantamount to indentured servitude or prostitution, depending or what state you’re in. You can’t have it.”

“Look I’m no expert-” Stern started, and she cut him off as simply as he’d cut her off before.

“In prostitution?” she said flashing him a smile, knowing fully well that the Senator had just had a prostitution scandal the year before which nearly ruined his career. “Of course not, you’re a senator.”

“I’m no expert in weapons,” he said, unimpressed, “We have somebody here who is an expert on weapons. I’d now like to call Justin Hammer, our current primary weapons contractor.”

She laughed.

She knew the Military had scrambled after she’d pulled out of their weapons contracts, but Justin Hammer? Really?

“Let the record reflect that I observed Mr Hammer entering the chamber, and I am wondering if and when any actual expert will also be in attendance,” she said, holding her nose up at the man.

If the world wanted to call her petty, then so be it. She still remembered how the man stood above Rhodey and hurt him, because he was a black man in a College who dared to defy the expectations set around him.

Even if it was decades ago.

Some people never changed, and she knew that Hammer was one of them, what from all the sexist remarks he’d thrown her way over the years.

“Absolutely. I’m no expert. I defer to you, Antonia,” he said, winking at her. “You’re the wonder girl. Senator, if I may. I may well not be an expert, but you know who was the expert? Your dad. Howard Stark.”

She rolled her eyes, visibly, and knew the camera’s picked it up. So they wanted to shame her for not being her father? Fine. Her father had already held that against her for her entire life. There was nothing they could say to get her to bend.

“Really a father to us all, and to the military-industrial age. Let’s just be clear, he was no flower child. He was a lion. We all know why we’re here. In the last three years, Antonia Stark has created a sword with untold possibilities. And yet, she insists it’s a shield. She asks us to trust her as we cower behind it. I wish I were comforted, Antonia, I really do. I’d love to leave my door unlocked when I leave the house, but this ain’t Canada. You know, we live in a world of grave threats, threats that Ms Stark will not always be able to foresee. That much power is too much in the hands of a single person. It is a weapon, one that can do great things if in the hands of the US Government, and not some girl who thinks she can play dress up as a superhero. The days of the tales of Captain America saving us from the Nazis have long past. Superheroes were not here when we went to war time and time again against our enemies. The Military was. And the Military should be the one holding that power. Not a singluar woman. Thank you. God bless Iron Woman. God bless America.”

“I would like to go on record and question if Hammer’s objections to my wielding of the suit is as a private citizen or because I am a woman,” she said, and the man spluttered. “What kind of message are you sending out to all the young girls watching this, when you tell them they are incapable of playing in the same game, simply because of their gender?”

“That’s enough, Ms Stark,” Stern cut her off, “That was well said Mr Hammer. The committee would now like to invite Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes to the chamber.”

If they expected a surprised reaction from her, she didn’t give it to them. Rhodey had already called her up and told her that they’d wanted him to speak. He’d told her how they expect him to give a damning speech about how he believed she didn’t deserve the suit. And if the SI Military Liaison and her best friend didn’t even support her, it would be case closed

Stern called him up the stand, “I have before me a complete report on the Iron Woman weapon, complied by Colonel Rhodes. And, Colonel, for the record, can you please read page 57, paragraph four?”

“You’re requesting that I read specific selections from my report, Senator?” Rhodey asked in disbelief.

“Yes, sir,” Stern smirked.

“It was my understanding that I was going to be testifying in a much more comprehensive and detailed manner,” Rhodey tried, and Stark was sure they were going to twist his wording.

“I understand. A lot of things have changed today. So if you could just read-” Stern tried to pressure him.

Rhodey argued with him, but the man seemed dead set on Rhodey reading whatever was on page 57, paragraph four.

“Very well. ‘As he does not operate within any definable branch of government, Iron Woman presents a potential threat to the security of both the nation and to her interests.’,” Rhodey read, “I did however, go on to summarise that the benefits of Iron Woman far outweigh three liabilities and that it would be in our interest to fold Ms Stark into the existing chain of command, Senator.”

Rhodey finished his summary as Stern rampantly tried to get him to stop talking.

“I’m not a joiner,” she said, supporting Rhodey, “But I will be open to considering it, if you asked nicely.”

She knew the audience laughed again, but she stood her ground. The Government didn’t even try to ask her for her assistance. They just wanted to take her suit from her. And that was where her issues with them began.

“I’d like to go on and show, if I may, the imagery that’s connected to your report,” Stern said, and Rhodey stopped him.

“I believe it is somewhat premature to reveal these images to the general public at this time,” Rhodey argued, and when Stern pushed, he cued up the images on the screen. “Intelligence suggests that the devices seen in these photos are, in fact, attempts at making manned copies of Ms Stark’s suit. This has been corroborated by our allies and local intelligence on the ground indicating that these suits are quite possibly, at this moment, operational.”

She pulled out her phone and began fiddling with it, pulling up the images she had JARVIS obtain earlier before the hearing.

She hacked onto the screen as she changed the images to the ones she had, “Hold on a second buddy. Let me see something here. Boy, I’m good. I commandeered your screens. I need them. Time for a little transparency. Now, let’s see what’s really going on.”

“What’s she doing?” Stern said, looking less confident than he had a moment before.

“If you will direct your attention to said screens, I believe that’s North Korea,” She said, and on the screen showed a man in an oversized suit repeatedly falling over.

“Can you turn that off? Take it off,” Stern demanded, and Hammer moved towards the television. While this hearing might be open to the public, she knew they didn’t want the images released as it would be damning to their case.

But she was all about transparency, wasn’t she?

“Iran,” Toni said, as an image of a suit that flew, only to catch on fire a few seconds later.

“No grave threat here. Is that Justin Hammer? How did Hammer get in the game?” she said, pulling up the final video of Hammer testing on a suit which bent the man back in a position which definitely would have broken a few bones.

“Wow. Yeah, I’d say most countries, five, ten years away. Hammer Industries, twenty,” she said, leaning back, proving her point that there was no immediate arms race from her suit’s creation.

“I’d like to point out that that test pilot survived,” Hammer said quickly to the media.

“I think we’re done with the point that she’s making. I don’t think there’s any reason-” Stern tried to end the hearing, knowing all too well he’d lost.

“The point is, you’re welcome,” she said simply, and upon the look of disbelief she elaborated. “Because I’m your nuclear deterrent. It’s working. We’re safe. America is secure. A woman who you have repeatedly talked down to for her gender is who achieved that. Perhaps you forget, Senator Stern. I went to MIT when I was thirteen years old. I inherited Stark Industries at twenty-one. I’ve been a CEO of a multibillion-dollar company for over a decade. Do you think you can scare me into submission because of my gender? I am used to men like you thinking you can walk all over a woman because you do not think she belongs. You want my property? You can’t have it. But I did you a big favour,” she stood then, turning back to face the room, as she raised her arms, “I’ve successfully privatised world peace. What more do you want? For now! I tried to play ball with these ass-clowns.”

“Fuck you, Ms Stark. Fuck you, sweetheart. We’re adjourned. We’re adjourned for today,” Stern said.

Rhodey gave her an exasperated look, but she could see he was smiling despite himself.

She threw on her sunglasses and her heels clicked as she walked out of the room, head held high, to the sound of applause thundering behind her.

She knew it was far from over. But for now, she’d won.


 

She sauntered back into her Malibu mansion, exhausted, but invigorated. She might have won the case, but it wouldn’t stop the Government from pressuring her into turning over the suit.

She knew logically that the entirety of the United States Government wasn’t corrupt, but it didn’t mean that they wouldn’t keep trying to get her property one way or another.

“Wake up, Mommy’s home,” she grinned as the house turned on.

“Welcome home, Miss,” JARVIS said to her, “Congratulations on the opening ceremonies. They were such a success, as was your Senate hearing. And may I say how refreshing it is to finally see you in a video with your clothing on, ma-am.”

She laughed at that, “Who is teaching you all this sarcasm, J?”

“Who indeed?” JARVIS bemused.

“U!” she sighed, as the smoothie made it all over the walls, before knocking over the blender. “I swear to God I’ll dismantle you. I’ll soak your motherboard. I’ll turn you into a wine rack.”

U beeped sadly and she groaned. Curie, she was growing soft.

“You tried, baby,” she said, taking the smoothie from him and stroking his arm. “How many ounces a day of this gobbledegook am I supposed to drink?”

“We are up to 80 ounces a day to counteract the symptoms, miss,” JARVIS told her.

“Check palladium levels,” she commanded, as JARVIS gave her the results.

Twenty-four percent. In the last few days.

She ripped the Arc Reactor out of her chest, as it smoked up and sighed, “God, they’re running out quick,” she said, as she put in the new core. She lifted up her shirt and saw black lines emerging from the device.

That couldn’t be good.

“Miss Potts is approaching. I recommend that you inform her,” JARVIS tried, but she quickly shut him off.

“Is this a joke? What are you thinking?” Pepper stormed in angrily, “What are you thinking?”

“Hey, I’m thinking I’m busy. And you’re angry about something. Do you have the sniffles? I don’t want to get sick,” she deflected.

“Did you just donate entire modern art collection to the-” Pepper started as she followed Toni around the room.

“Girl Scouts of America,” Toni beamed.

“Girl Scouts of America?” Pepper finished exasperated.

“Yes. It is a worthwhile organisation. I didn’t physically check the crates but, basically, yes. And it’s not “our” collection, it’s my collection. No offence,” Toni brushed her off.

 

Pepper was not amused, “No, you know what? I think I’m actually entitled to say “our” collection considering the time that I put in, over 10 years, curating that.”

Toni dismissed it and Pepper pulled out a list on her StarkPad, “You know, there’s only about 8,011 things that I really need to talk to you about. The Expo is a gigantic waste of time.”

“I need you to wear a surgical mask until you’re feeling better. Is that okay?” Toni said, somewhat seriously. She was already dying, she didn’t need to die any faster.

“That’s rude,” Pepper coughed.

“There’s nothing more important to me than the Expo. It’s my primary point of concern. I don’t know why you’re against it. Think of all the girls and boys out there who will come and see something that motivates them to want to change the word. What’s egotistical about that?”

“Stark Industries is in complete disarray. You understand that?” Pepper questioned her, and Toni stopped.

“No. Our stocks have never been higher. We’ve opened several new divisions and have made incredible progress. We’ve moved past being just a weapons company. We’re so much more now,” Toni argued.

“Yes, from a managerial standpoint,” Pepper opposed her. “Okay, fine. My point is, we have already awarded contracts to the wind farm people. And to the plastic plantation tree, which was your idea by the way. Those people are on payroll and you won’t make a decision”

“Everything was my idea. I don’t care about the liberal agenda any more. It’s boring. Boring. I’m giving you a boring alert. You do it,” Toni said, turning to her friend, and saying the words she’d been trying to for the last month.”

“I do what?” Pepper paused, looking back at her.

“Excellent idea. I just figured this out. You run the company,” Toni said, hoping she’d get the hint.

“Yeah, I’m trying to run the company,” Pepper raised a brow at her.

“Pepper, I need you to run the company. Well, stop trying to do it and do it,” Toni told her.

“You will not give me the information in order to-” Pepper said, confused.

“I’m asking you to physically do it. I need you to do it,” Toni said, trying to cut her off.

“I am trying to do it!” Pepper all but yelled.

“Pepper, you’re not listening to me!” Toni shouted exasperatedly.

“No, you are not listening to me,” Pepper said in a similar tone.

“I’m trying to make you CEO. Why won’t you let me?” She said, and Pepper paused, looking stunned.

“Have you been drinking?” Pepper’s first response was, which was fair, she supposed.

“Chlorophyll. I hereby irrevocably appoint you chairman and CEO of Stark Industries effective immediately. Yeah, done deal. Okay? I’ve actually given this a fair amount of thought, believe it or not. Doing a bit of headhunting, so to speak, trying to figure out who a worthy successor would be. And then I realised it’s you. It’s always been you. I thought there’d be a legal issue, but actually I’m capable of appointing my successor. My successor being you. Congratulations? Take it, just take it,” Toni said, as Butterfingers brought over some champagne.

“No,” Pepper said, handing her back the glass.

“No?” Toni said, in shock. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t want your job, Toni. You’ve always been a good CEO regardless of what the press might think. Sure you get caught up in your work and sometimes forget the finer details of running a company but I don’t think you’re unworthy of the position,” Pepper said, sitting her down. “Toni, you were one of the first female CEO’s of a Fortune 500 company. You continue to change the world every single day, for the better. And there is no one more deserving of that job than you. I will not take your job from you because you are the best person for it, you continue to make the world shine and a better place. Do you know how many fan letters I get from young children for you? You’re an inspiration to the world, regardless of what some stuffy men in suits think.”

“Pepper,” Toni said softly, “This job is dangerous. I have so many employees to think about. What if something happens to me as Iron Woman? I need someone to be in line to take the company in a direction worthy of its name. If you won’t be my CEO, then be my COO. I haven’t found anyone since Obie, and well you were always better at running all the operations anyways. And if something happens to me, I want you to take the company.”

“Toni, I don’t know what to think,” Pepper said, looking at her carefully, “Are you okay? You would tell me if something was wrong, right?”

“Of course,” Toni plastered on her press smile, “Don’t think, drink. There you go. To Pepper Potts, my new COO of Stark Industries.”

Pepper tapped her glass against Toni’s and the two of them drank.

And later, when Pepper was gone, she asked JARVIS to leave Pepper the company. At least when she passed the company would be in safe hands.

Chapter Text

“The notary’s here! Can you please come sign the transfer paperwork?” Pepper said as she entered the room.

She was currently in the boxing ring with Harry and Happy, both of whom insisted she continue to learn how to fight, even if she’d tried pointing out just how pointless it was.

“I’m on Happy Potter time,” she said, before elbowing Happy in the face and hitting Harry in the ribs, “Sorry.”

“What the hell was that?” Happy asked, looking less than impressed with her.

“It’s called mixed martial arts,” she grinned, “It’s been around for three weeks.”

Harry scowled, “It’s called dirty boxing, there’s nothing new about it”

A blonde man walked into the room then and she saw Harry tense up slightly. She looked over at him, but he simply shook his head, indicating that he would tell her about it later.

“I promise this is the only time I will ask you to give me a promotion,” Pepper smiled, and Toni laughed. She’d already turned down the higher promotion anyways.

Happy tapped her on the head as she watched the man, “Lesson one. Never take your eye off-” she kicked him, and he flew backwards.

“That’s it. I’m done. What’s your name man?” she asked him.

“Brenton, Clyde Brenton,” he responded a bit too quickly.

She pointed to the ring, and spoke, “Front and centre. Come into the church,” she said, wanting to see what it was that Harry was so wary of. But if the man seemed to recognize her cousin, he didn’t say a word.

“No. You’re seriously not gonna ask,” Pepper gasped, looking at her like she was insane.

“If it pleases the court, which it does,” Toni shrugged.

Clyde turned to Pepper, “It’s no problem,” he said, and Toni tried to get a read on him.

“I’m sorry. She’s very eccentric,” Pepper apologised. Well that was one of the nicer words that had been used to describe her over the years.

Clyde entered the ring carefully as she took a sip of the horrible Chlorophyll which was keeping her alive temporarily.

“Can you give him a lesson?” Toni asked, gesturing to Happy to fight with him, as she stepped out of the ring.

“No problem,” Happy winced, still a little sore.

“Who is he?” she asked Pepper, wanting to know where the man had come from. Harry sat beside her, looking a bit curious too.

“He is from legal. And he is potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling him like that,” Pepper said.

She turned to Harry instead, “What do you know?” she asked him.

“We’ll talk when he’s gone,” Harry murmured.

“I need a new assistant, Pep,” Toni said, “Now that you’re gone, what do I do?”

“Yes, and I’ve got three excellent potential candidates. They’re lined up and ready to meet you,” Pepper said, trying to hand her a file.

“I don’t have time to meet. I need someone now. I feel like it’s him,” Toni said, knowing there was something about the man that she wasn’t aware of. “How do I spell your name, Clyde?

“B-R-E-N-T-O-N,” Clyde said, dodging a punch, and Toni looked him up on her table computer quickly.

“Wow. Very, very impressive individual,” she nearly whistled as half naked pictures of the man came up.”

“You’re so predictable, you know that?” Pepper rolled her eyes.

“So it would seem,” she mused, as she looked over the tailored resume, “He’s fluent in French, Italian, Russian, Latin. Who speaks Latin?”

“No one speaks Latin,” Harry said, and she nodded.

“Exactly. No one speaks Latin,” she said. “He modelled in Tokyo too.”

It was almost as if the resume was perfect to grab the attention of what someone thought she’d like based on the public persona she put out.

“I want him,” she said, and Harry looked like he was going to yell at her.

A loud thud resounded through the room and she saw as Happy fell to the ground.

“Oh, my God! Happy!” Pepper cried, and Toni looked at him curiously.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Toni said, gesturing at him.

“I just slipped,” Happy looked displeased.

“I need your impression,” Clyde said, as he exited the ring.

“I think you’re a quiet reserved, old soul,” she said, looking him over, “But there is a deep longing inside of you, to be a part of something.”

“I meant your fingerprint,” Clyde said, looking amused.

“Right,” Toni laughed.

“Will that be all, Ms Stark?” Clyde said, flirted, moving close to her, and she took a step back.

“Yes. Word of advice, Mr Brenton, don’t believe everything in the press,” she said simply. If everyone who flirted with her got a job, then where would she be?

The man looked a little off put but didn’t question it.

“Yes, that will be all, Mr Brenton. Thank you very much,” Pepper said, walking out with the man, and she turned to Harry.

“Well?” she asked, and Harry looked at her.

“He works for SHIELD,” Harry said. “Clint Barton, one of their top operatives.”

“Why is SHIELD poking around Stark Industries?” Toni mused.

“To see what they can dig up,” Harry said, “They already know I won’t reveal anything to them about you. And they’re under the impression that you don’t know as much about SHEILD as you actually do. They want to get inside information about you and the Iron Woman suit.”

“I see,” she said, standing up, “Well if I turn away Clyde Brenton, they’re just going to send more agents. So let’s hire him and control the information he gets access to.”

“If you’re sure,” Harry warned her.

“I am,” she said firmly, “Better the snake you can see than the one hidden in the grass.”


 

She landed in Monaco, ready to watch the Grand Prix as her driver raced for Stark Industries.

“Miss Stark?” Clyde asked her, sauntering up to her with a grin. He was wearing a tight black suit which extenuated his body as SHEILD probably assumed she’d like. “How was your flight?”

“It was excellent. Boy, it’s nice to see you,” Toni said, “I don’t believe you’ve met Ava here? Miss Carter-Sousa is one of my most trusted employees and helps me get all my inventions out the door.”

If the last name raised any flags in Clint’s mind, he didn’t react.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Clyde kissed her hand and Ava blushed slightly. “We have one photographer from the ACM, if you don’t mind. Okay?”

Pepper turned to her in surprise, “When did this happen?”

Toni laughed under her breath as she instructed Pepper to smile with her. The fewer people who knew about Clyde, the better.

“Right this way,” Clyde directed, as he placed a hand on the small of her back.

Well, if she was going to be flirted with in the pretense of getting her company secrets, then she’d give as good as she got.

“You look fantastic,” Toni purred, and Clyde winked at her.

“Why, thank you very much,” he flushed, and she carried on as she asked for her schedule.

They arrived at their table and greeted Elon Musk and she nearly laughed as he floundered, trying to gain a contract with them.

If men were anything, it was predictable.

And almost like clockwork, “Antonia is that you?” Justin Hammer said, emerging from behind her.

“My least favourite person on Earth,” she sighed, and Ava stifled a laugh.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he said, coming over to her and trying to put an arm around her.

“Not your sweetheart,” she reminded him, shrugging his arm off.

“How are you doing?” he said, without missing a beat, “You’re not the only rich one here with a fancy car. You know Christine Everhart from Vanity Fair. You guys know each other?”

Christine flushed as Toni winked at her, “Hi, yes.”

Pepper sighed, “Yes,” as Toni thought back to her one-night stand almost a year ago. Christine Everheart, the woman who tipped her off to the corruption in her own company.

“BTW, big story,” Hammer said annoyingly, “The new COO of Stark Industries. It’s always great when women are given positions of power you know, because of their brains.”

She wanted to throw her drink at him for insinuating she only gave Pepper the job because she was sleeping with her.

“I know,” Christine gushed, “My editor will kill me if I don’t grab a quote for our Powerful Women issue.”

Pepper looked slightly embarrassed as she turned to the woman and started talking with her about female empowerment and she wished more than anything she could be a part of that conversation and not have to look at Hammer.

“She’s actually doing a big spread on me for Vanity Fair. I thought I’d throw her a bone, you know. Right?” Hammer bragged.

“Right. Well, she did quite a spread on Toni last year,” Pepper defended, and Toni could have kissed her friend. “It was very impressive.”

“And she wrote a story as well,” Toni added.

Christine shot her a smile as Pepper stepped away, and she tried to plead with her to stay.

“Hey, Sweetheart. How’re you doing?” Justin wrapped an arm around her waist as he pulled her close for the camera. “Looking gorgeous.”

She moved away from him, smiling at the camera.

“Can I ask you,” Christine started, “Is this the first time you’ve seen each other since the Senate?”

“Since he got his contract revoked,” Toni pointed out.

“Actually, it’s on hold,” Justin countered.

“That’s not what I heard. What’s the difference between ‘hold’ and ‘cancelled’? The truth?” Toni questioned.

“Yes, what is it?” Christine leaned in, interestedly.

“No. The truth is, I’m actually hoping to present something at your Expo,” Hammer said, and she nearly laughed.

“Well, if you invent something that works, I’ll make sure I get you a slot,” she said, knowing all too well that he wouldn’t.

Clyde pulled her away then, and she was grateful to the man, for despite his untrustworthiness, at least he was good for a quick save. She slipped away to the bathroom, eager just to get a few moments to herself before she was forced to listen to another person like Hammer drone on about their own successes.

She supposed in hindsight, seeing 53% blood toxicity is what really set her off.

She knew she didn’t always make the best decisions, but really, this was one of her worst. Or at least she figured, when she stood in a racing suit, walking towards the car.

“Well, what’s the use of having and owning a race car if you don’t drive it?” she asked the press and they cheered her on.

At least if she was going to die, she’d die in style.

She sat in the car and revved the engine as the race started. She’d always loved the thrill of fast cars and fast driving. Of being so in control of something and making it bend to her will. She loved feeling the wind in her hair as the world faded away.

She knew something was wrong as she saw smoke ahead on her on the race track, and as she drew closer, she saw a man with two electrified whips, aiming straight at her car.

The front broke off as her car flew through the air, turning over, and crashing straight into the barrier.

She crawled out of the car, trying to survey the damage to her body. She had a few cuts, but nothing appeared to be broken.

The man walked towards her, as an explosion of cars lit up behind him, and she heard the screams of horror.

She moved behind him, grabbing a piece off the car that had broken off and tried to hit the man on his head while his back was turned to her. To no one’s surprise, the man barely flinched as the metal came in contact with him. He turned in rage, hitting her with one of his electrified whips, and she felt her heart race as she crashed to the ground.

Where was her suit when she needed it?

She rolled over as he brought his whip down again, burning the spot that she had been in a few seconds prior.

She vowed in that moment to never go anywhere without a version of her suit on her, and if she lived long enough to survive any of this, she would see it through.

She tried to run, get to cover, or at least wait it out until she knew what his weaknesses were enough to defeat him. Funnily enough, in all of Rhodey’s training, they never taught her how to fight hand to hand with someone who had two electric whips.

One of the whips caught her leg and she fell to the ground, the world starting to blur around her.

Was this the moment she died? Not of alcohol and drugs like the press often speculated she would, or of torture from terrorists, or palladium poisoning. But of a madman bent on killing her whom she didn’t even know.

She saw the man approach her in the reflection of the headlights of the car, gasoline spilling out of the broken car, and like that, she knew what she needed to do.

She could hear his swings begin to rapidly increase in pace, and she timed it out, waiting for him to strike, as she dodged out of the way and the race car went up in flames.

The man approached her again, looking barely fazed and she tried to move backward again, as a loud honk came and she watched as a black car crushed him into the fence, just inches from where she stood.

“Are you okay?” Toni asked, checking on the two of them carefully, “Were you heading for me or for him?”

“I was trying to scare him,” Happy shrugged, leaning to look her over.

“Are you out of your mind?” Pepper screamed at her. “Get in the car now.”

“I was attacked,” she defended, “We need better security.”

“Get in the car,” Happy demanded and she rolled her eyes as she moved towards the other door.

She opened it carefully and blinked as the door came apart in her hands, sliced in half from the remainder of the car in a perfectly straight line.

Happy reversed the car, slamming him back into the fence, “I got him!”

“Hit him again!” Toni screamed, trying to take her briefcase from Pepper.

The man began slicing into the cars amid Peppers screams. As the left side of the car came undone, Pepper threw the case at Toni, and she nearly smiled.

She stepped on the box, placing her arms in their gloves as the suit moved to attach itself to her.

This man thought he could hurt her friends without any repercussions? Well he had another thing coming for him.

She kicked the car out of the way, getting them out of his reach, and turned to face the man.

She raised her repulsors, only for him to hit them with his whips. His whips grabbed onto her suit, bring her in tightly, as he flung her onto the track. Well she would be damned if he used her own technology against her. She grabbed onto the whips, using it to bring herself closer to him. He couldn’t hurt her with whips if she had them all wrapped up around her little fingers.

She used his own move against him, and threw him onto the ground, before quickly moving to remove his arc reactor from his chest, as his suit powered off instantly.

Within seconds, the CRS had him surrounded, and she took a step back and took a deep breath for the first time since the entire fight had started.

He spat back blood at her as he was being dragged away, “You lose. You lose Stark.”

She looked down at the arc reactor in her hands and clenched it tightly, crushing it in her hands.


 

She walked into his prison cell later, despite Peppers protests, and Happy’s insistence that he went with her.

She had turned them both away; Happy would keep Pepper safe. And if “Clyde Brenton” really was a SHIELD agent, then he would keep Ava safe. She didn’t need anyone else hurt because of her.

“We ran his prints. We got nothing back, not even a name,” one of the government agents spoke to her in French.

“Where are we going?” she asked as she followed them down the hall.

“Over there. We’re not even sure he speaks English. He hasn’t said a word since he got here,” the guard responded to her.

“Five minutes,” she asked, knowing better than to try and push her luck. The guard nodded at her, as he opened the door. She walked into the holding cell as the door was closed behind her.

She walked behind him, moving to see his face, “Pretty decent tech. Cycles per second were a little low. You could have doubled up your rotations,” she said, as he barely lifted his head, “You focused the repulsor energy through ionised plasma channels. It’s effective. Not very efficient. But it’s a passable knock-off. I don’t get it. A little fine tuning you could have made a solid pay cheque. You could have sold it to North Korea, China, Iran, or gone onto the black market. You look like you got friends in low places.”

She moved closer to his face, and she finally saw a reaction.

“You come from a family of thieves and butchers. And now, like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your own history. You are no different because of your gender, Stark. And you forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed,” he said, and she wondered if he was yet another person her father had screwed over in an attempt to leave behind a legacy.

“Speaking of thieves, where did you get this design?” she asked him curiously, sitting beside him on the bench.

“My father. Anton Vanko,” he said, like the name was supposed to mean something to her.

“Well, I never heard of him,” she shrugged simply.

“My father is the reason you’re alive,” he spat, and she wondered just how he meant. Because of the reactor? Something that happened before that with their fathers?

“The reason I’m alive is because you had a shot, you took it, you missed,” she told him simply. She had long since given up on other men taking credit for own designs. And she’d be damned if he was one of them.

“Did I?” he laughed, “If you can make God bleed, the people will cease to believe in him. And there will be blood in the water. And the sharks will come. The truth, all I have to do is sit here and watch as the world will consume you.”

She nearly punched him. She had never once claimed to be a god or a perfect human. She knew who she was, with all her flaws and weaknesses. Her father had shoved them in her face every chance he got. The world had shoved them in her face.

Her gender, her lack of propriety, her intelligence.

They hated her for it but loved profiting off of it all the same.

“Where will you be watching the world consume me from? That’s right. A prison cell. I’ll send you a bar of soap,” she said, as she stood to leave.

“Hey, Toni. Before you go, palladium in the chest, painful way to die,” the man laughed, and she left the cell, not wanting to give him any more attention than he had already received.


 

She had Pepper cancel her party in the wake of learning of Ivan Vanko and the government’s displeasure in her. Rhodey already came over and let her know how the National Guard was ready to storm her door to take her suits.

Typical.

America can’t let anyone have anything nice without them trying to take it from her.

She covered up her bruises and put on a nice dress, as music played in the background, her family and her friends all around her.

If she was going to die, she wanted to die surrounded by people she loved. Not hundreds of her “closest friends” or business partners or anyone related to her because she had money.

She wanted those who had fought for her through her entire life to be there for her last birthday.

“Happy Birthday, Toni,” her uncle said, as he pulled her into a tight hug. She held him tightly, wondering briefly how he would explain to Aunt Peggy that she was gone when the palladium finally killed her.

“Thanks Uncle Daniel,” She said with a smile.

“It’s not every day my cousin turns thirty-nine!” Ava grinned as she hugged her.

Harry simply grinned as he pulled her into a one-armed hug, “Happy Birthday Cuz.”

“Now that you’re all here, the real party can begin,” she beamed, as she raised her hands and waiters and waitresses brought out carts of food and began placing it on the dining table.

“Toni, did you organize all of this?” Pepper asked her with a slight gasp. She knew her friend was wary when she said she wanted to take over control of preparations, thinking Toni wanted to throw a rager and get wasted.

“I did, with the help of Clyde,” she said, winking at her new assistant, before he nodded and took his leave. “I just wanted all of you here for my birthday. I know over the years we’ve drifted apart, because of life, school, work, family, and the different paths we are given. But each one of you mean the world to me, and there is no one else I’d rather spend my birthday with.”

She sat down at the dinning  table as the others followed suit, Ava on one side of her and Rhodey on the other.

“Toni,” Rhodey said softly, “We love you too, you know that right?”

“Aw Honey bear,” she beamed up at him, “I know how much you love me.”

Happy sniffled slightly and she could see her manly bodyguard trying to pretend like her words didn’t get to him.

“You would tell us if something was wrong, right?” Ava said suddenly, and Harry elbowed her. “What, we all know she’s keeping something from us. How long are we going to keep pretending that everything is okay? Don’t we deserve to know the truth?”

She let out a shaky breath as she looked around the room, realizing that clearly every single one of them was aware that she was hiding something from them.

“I never could fool you guys, could I?” she exhaled, and she saw her family watching her intently. “The arc reactor is in my chest to keep me alive. I was hit by my own bomb in Afghanistan, and a piece of shrapnel was embedded in my chest. There is no way to remove it without killing me in the process, and the arc reactor is the only thing that is keeping it from entering my chest.”

Ava took her hand carefully, as she explained to them just why it was important she had the reactor. Even if she had before, they needed to know that it was vital to her survival.

“But the arc reactor has a palladium core,” she said simply, and she could see Ava’s mind begin to race as she put together pieces.

“That was why it was smoking when you took it out, wasn’t it?” Rhodey said sharply, “Because palladium is toxic to humans.”

“Yes,” she said, as gasps filled the table. “The arc reactor, meant to keep me alive, is poisoning me slowly. Last I checked, my blood toxicity was at nearly sixty percent.”

“Toni,” Pepper inhaled, “Are you dying? How long do you have left to live?”

“Not long,” she admitted, “This is probably my last birthday. It’s why I wanted you all here. I wanted to be surrounded by those I love. By my family.”

“Are there no other suitable cores?” Harry demanded, “Nothing else that can be used?”

“There is no combination of known elements,” she said softly, “I had JARVIS run all the simulations. There’s nothing else I can use as a substitute.”

“So what, we’re supposed to just let you die?” Ava’s voice cracked slightly, “I can’t accept that Toni. There has to be something else we can do. Anything else.”

She squeezed her cousin’s hand tightly, “There isn’t Ava. I’ve accepted it already. It was why I tried to make Pepper CEO of SI. It’ll at least make it easier to transition from COO to CEO after. And I want you to be the head of R&D. Your mind always was brilliant, and I know you’ll be good for the company.”

“I like working there because I like being with you,” Ava said softly, “Because I love inventing with you Toni. Not because I want a title or recognition. How do I keep living if you’re gone?”

“You have to,” she swallowed, “All of you do. My death can’t mean that the rest of you just fade away. You have to keep going.”

“Easy to say when you’re not the one losing a sibling,” Rhodey said, looking broken, “Were you ever even going to tell us, Toni?”

“I didn’t want to hurt you,” she said, looking at their faces. “I didn’t want your last memories of me to be coloured by the fact that I was dying. I didn’t want to be treated any differently.”

“Screw this,” Harry said, standing.

“Harold!” Uncle Daniel said firmly, “Sit down.”

“No,” he said, “We are surrounded by some of the brightest men and women in this room, “Rhodey is in the Military and I’m a part of SHEILD. There has to be some cure, somewhere. And if you think I’m going to sit back and just let my older sister die without doing a thing to stop it, you have another thing coming. We will find something, Toni. I promise you that. You will not die if I have anything to say about it.”

She didn’t want to tell him it was futile. Hope gave people courage to go on, to keep living and fighting another day.

“We won’t let you die,” Ava nodded determinedly. “Harry, we’ll look first thing in the morning, I promise. But this is Toni’s birthday; we can wait for one more day.”

“Okay,” Harry exhaled. “But we won’t give up on you, Toni. I promise.”

She smiled at both of them.

“I can’t do it, Toni,” Pepper said shakily, “You were always meant to be CEO. Working for you and seeing you pave the way for the rest of us has been extraordinary. This is your company, your legacy. I can’t take it over.”

“You’ll be perfect at it,” she told her friend softly, “You’ve already taken to COO astonishingly well. It’s just another step up. The Board loves you. There’s no one else I can trust to keep the company safe and to honour my legacy. And you’ll have Happy and Ava with you the entire time.”

Happy grunted and she smiled at her friend.

“Toni,” Rhodey said softly, as he looked at her, “It’ll devastate my family to lose you. It’ll devastate me. How am I supposed to go on without having you in my life? You’ve changed it in more ways than you ever could know, since that day I met you all those years ago. You’re family; my sister.”

“I want you to have the suit,” she told him softly, “The world needs someone to protect it and keep it safe. I know the military wants it too, and well, this should keep them satisfied. There is no one else I trust but you to pilot the suit. I already wrote in an algorithm that won’t let anyone else fly it but you.”

“Toni,” he started.

“They were always going to try and take it, one way or another,” she said with a shrug, “At least I can control how they get it, and what they can do with it. Even if they let someone else like, Bohr forbid, Hammer, tamper with it, they will never be able to achieve what I’ve done. But I want you to be safe, when you continue to fight for us. And I know you’ll make me proud when you don’t it.”

He pulled her into a tight hug.

“This isn’t goodbye,” Uncle Daniel said softly, “Toni, none of us are going to stop fighting for you. Not now, not ever. I know if Peggy were here, she’d be so proud of everything you’ve done so far. You’ve made all of us extremely proud. We love you, and this will not be how your story ends. I promise you that much.”

“Thank you,” she told him softly, “Thank you to all of you. For everything you’ve done. No matter what happens, I love all of you so much. But enough of this sappy stuff. It still is my birthday and I have a reputation to uphold of the kind of parties I throw, and this is putting a damper on it.”

She heard laughter, as she gestured for them to dig in.

If this was to be her last birthday, then it was by far her favourite.

Chapter Text

She supposed after a night like the last one, she deserved a reward or two.

It hadn’t been easy, telling her family the truth. It was why she had been avoiding it for so long, not wanting to see the hurt or pain in their eyes, knowing that despite the fact that she didn’t hold herself with the highest regard, the people in her life cared about her.

But it didn’t make it any easier to be around them. To see Rhodey look so determined for her to find a way to live, for the Carter-Sousas’ hearts to break. For Pepper’s fury when she found out Toni wanted to pass on her company not only because she thought Pepper deserved it but because she was dying.

Even Happy had words with her.

“Ma-am,” she heard a voice call out, “I’m going to need to ask you to exit the donut.”

She looked down from the giant donut she had nestled herself in, as she attempted to eat away her feelings, and saw Nick Fury standing there, hands on his hips, and looking far less than pleased with her.

So she sighed, as she flew down and slid into a booth across from the man who had been trying to pry into her life for the last few months.

“I told you,” she said, raising a brow to look at him, “I don’t want to join your super-secret boy band.”

He laughed, “No, no, no. See, I remember, you do everything yourself. How’s that working out for you?”

She smirked at him, knowing the world’s perception of just how alone she was in the world, without a single person in her life who gave a damn.

“It’s-” she said, before changing the subject, “I’m sorry. I don’t want get off on the wrong foot. Do I look at the patch or the eye? Honestly, I’m a bit hung over. I’m not sure if you’re real or if I’m hallucinating.”

She had read the article detailing her birthday party adventures. She supposed cancelling a large party was bound to gain some suspicions. Imagine her surprise when she read all about getting wasted, talking about peeing in the suit, hooking up with her DJ, and then destroying her mansion.

He smirked at her, and she had a feeling he knew the truth, “I am very real. I’m the realest person you’re ever gonna meet.”

“Just my luck,” she feigned a sigh. “Where’s the staff here?”

“That’s not looking so good,” Fury ignored her, as leaned forward to touch the palladium pattern growing up steadily on her neck.

“I’ve been worse,” she shrugged, not wanting to go into details about it with him.

“We’ve secured the perimeter, but I don’t think we should hold it for too much longer,” she heard a familiar male voice call out.

Well, well, well.

Seemed as if they were finally going to let the cat out of the bag.

“You’re fired,” Toni said, sizing the man up as he slid into the booth, next to Fury.

“And yet, somehow I don’t think you’re all that surprised,” Clyde Brenton smirked at her.

“This is a complete shock to me,” she said solemnly.

“Toni, I want you to meet Agent Clint Barton,” Fury said, “However, I gather you’ve known about his presence for far longer than that.”

She gave him an innocent look.

“You can drop the act now, Toni,” Harry sighed as he sat down beside her, “I brought them into the loop last night after you told me you were dying.”

She glared at her cousin, “But now you gave away my advantage of knowing something they didn’t know.”

“With all due respect, Miss Stark,” Clint leaned forward with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m a SHIELD shadow. I know when someone is keeping me at arms’ length. We weren’t going to find out anything you didn’t want us to find. But once we knew you were ill, I was tasked to you by Director Fury.”

“Why?” she questioned.

“Why do you think?” Fury asked her, “You’ve been very busy. You made your girl your COO, you’re giving away all your stuff. You gave your best friend your suit. Now if I didn’t know any better-”

“Let’s just drop the act,” she sighed, growing tired of the charade, “What do you want from me?”

“What do we want from you? What do you want from me?” Fury raised his voice slightly, “You have become a problem, a problem I have to deal with. Contrary to your belief, you are not the centre of my universe. I have bigger problems than you in the southwest region to deal with.”

She laughed, “Oh, I’m sorry me saving the world has become an issue for you. I wasn’t aware of the fact that you were even responsible for me or my actions. Say what you will about the US Government. They might want to take away my suit for selfish reasons, but they never once disputed the fact that I’ve done great work for the world.”

“I found something in SHIELD,” Harry interjected, stopping the train wreck of a conversation, “It was why I brought them in. I found a possible cure.”

“But before we give it to you,” Clint said, returning to the table she’d barely noticed him having left, and placed down an injection in front of her.

“There is no cure,” she said firmly, looking down at it.

“This isn’t a cure,” Fury agreed, “It’s lithium dioxide. It’ll take the edge off so you can get back to work.”

“There’s nothing,” she said, shaking her head, “I’ve tried all the combinations. There’s nothing I can do.”

“I found your father’s notes, Toni,” Harry said, “The ones SHIELD had. And they have something in it you need to try.”


 

She sighed as she looked around her mansion as the SHIELD agent brought in boxes of her father’s research. She had known from Aunt Peg that they had taken the stuff her father had worked on to secure it, and honestly, she hadn’t cared. Her father hadn’t given a damn about her, and he had gotten her mother killed.

Except now he was apparently going to save her life.

It was laughable.

“Miss?” JARVIS interrupted her train of thought, “Colonel Rhodes is on the phone for you.”

“Patch him through, J,” she said, tapping on her earpiece as his voice filled her ear.

“Tones?” Rhodey asked, and she grew wary at the tone of his voice.

“I’m here, Caramilk,” she greeted, “Is everything okay?”

“I took the suit to the military,” he told her, “They got an official contract with Hammer Industries for him to weaponize the suit.”

She sighed, “Well we knew it would happen. As much as I hate the idea of his hands on my technology, this isn’t an unexpected surprise to either of us.”

“They also want to unveil the suit at the Stark Expo,” he told her, and she stilled. Was this what Hammer meant when he said he was working on something big? Was he trying to show her up at her own expo?

The nerve.

“Fine,” she sighed, “I did promise him a slot if he could get something working. Either way, Rhodey Bear, it’s still going to be you who pilot’s the suit. I’m the only one who can take away that configuration. And there is no one I trust more with it than you.”

“Thanks, Toni,” he told her softly, “I love you, you know that right?”

“I love you too,” she said, ignoring the looks Clint was giving her. “I’ll see you later?”

“You will,” he promised her, before ending the call, as Fury walked into her lab just then.

“Fury,” she greeted, gesturing for him to sit down.

“It’s time to talk, Stark,” he said, looking at her. “You know, I knew your godmother? She was my mentor when I first started at SHIELD. Taught me everything I know. That woman is a force to be reckoned with, and I often pitied anyone who stood in her way. You remind me a lot of her. So I really shouldn’t have been surprised to gather you know as much as you do about us, given your family.”

“Yet you underestimated me anyways,” she shrugged.

“Your father wanted you kept in the dark,” Fury told her, “He didn’t want you brought into SHIELD. He wanted to protect you from all of this and refused to let anything or anyone come near you or your mother. He wanted to keep you safe.”

She scoffed at that.

“That thing in your chest is based on unfinished technology,” Fury said, gesturing to the arc reactor.

“No, it was finished. It has never been particularly effective until I miniaturised it and put it in my chest,” she said, looking at him sharply.

“No,” Fury disputed, “Howard said the arc reactor was the stepping stone to something greater. He was about to kick off an energy race that was gonna dwarf the arms race. He was on to something big, something so big that it was gonna make the nuclear reactor look like a triple-A battery.”

“Just him, or Anton Vanko in on this too?” she said bitterly, remembering the feeling of finding out her father had taken credit for something he didn’t do.

“Anton Vanko is the other side of that coin. Anton saw it as a way to get rich. He was going to sell it to terrorists. When your father found out, he had him deported,” Fury said, leaning back, “When the Russians found out he couldn’t deliver they shipped his ass off to Siberia and he spent the next 20 years in a vodka-fuelled rage. Not quite the environment you want to raise a kid in, the son you had the misfortune of crossing paths with in Monaco.”

“You told me I hadn’t tried everything. What do you mean I haven’t tried everything? What haven’t I tried?” she pushed, trying to get more information.

“He said that you were the only person with the means and knowledge to finish what he started,” Fury said, and she nearly laughed.

“He said that?” she asked in disbelief.

“Are you that girl? Are you? ‘Cause if you are, then you can solve the riddle of your heart.

“I don’t know where you get your information, but he wasn’t my biggest fan,” she said bitterly.

“What do you remember about your dad?” Fury cut her off.

“He was cold, he was calculating. He never told me he loved me. He never even told me he liked me, so it’s a little tough for me to digest when you’re telling me he said the whole future was riding on me and he’s passing it down. I don’t get that. You’re talking about a guy whose happiest day was when he shipped me off to boarding school. He hated me from the moment I was born for being a daughter when he wanted a son. He wrote me off and turned his entire focus to finding Captain America’s body and reproducing the serum. I was nothing to him, a failure, a woman who could never make it in a man’s world. And he made sure I knew how worthless I was, every day of my life.”

“That’s not true,” Fury interjected, and she simply shook her head. It didn’t change the truth of her life to have someone disagree with how they interpreted her childhood. She knew the life she lived.

“Well, then, clearly you knew my dad better than I did,” she said with a shrug.

“I worked with your father too, Toni,” Fury told her softly, “He cared about you, in his own way. More than you ever will know.”

“What?” she asked, slightly sharply, knowing he must have been full of shit.

Fury stood then, as Harry and Coulson carried in a large crate in front of her, “I got a two o’clock. Okay, you’re good, right?”

“No, I’m not good!” she nearly yelled back at him.

“You got this right?” Fury said, as he turned to go.

“Got what? I don’t even know what I’m supposed to get!” she yelled desperately.

“Clint will remain a floater at SI with his cover still intact,” Fury said, “You remember Agent Coulson right?”

She nodded, and Fury paused for a second before turning to face her again, “And Toni, remember, I got my eye on you.”

She watched speechlessly as the man exited her mansion.

“We’ve disabled all communications,” Clint told her, “No contact with the outside world. Good luck, Stark.”

“What if someone needs to each me?” she turned to Harry, worried that her family would panic.

“I let them know we’re working on a solution and not to disturb you,” he told her gently, “Besides, they can reach me in the case of an emergency.

“Okay,” she exhaled. “Okay. Please. First thing, I need a little bodywork. I’ll put in a little time at the lab. If we could send one of your goon squad down to The Coffee Bean, Cross Creek, for a Starbucks run, or something like that, that’d be nice.”

She gestured at some of the agents, needing them to leave; to give her space to breathe. How could anyone think with so much going on around them?

“I’m not here for that. I’ve been authorised by Director Fury to use any means necessary to keep you on premises. If you attempt to leave or play any games, I will tase you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet. Okay?” Coulson told her, looking unamused.

“I think I got it, yeah,” she said slightly rattled.

“Enjoy your evening’s entertainment,” Coulson said, turning his back to leave.

“Stay?” she asked Harry, as she gestured to the box. “I don’t think I can go through all of this by myself. Especially if Howard’s left anything personal behind. Please?”

“Of course,” he told her softly, “We’re in this together, Toni. We’ll find a solution. I promise. I meant what I said, I’m not just going to sit back and watch you die.”

She took a deep breath, before turning to the box. It was time to get started.


 

She dropped the box ‘Property of H. Stark’ on her table, opening it up gingerly. There was a set of blueprints for the Arc Reactor, with her father and Vanko’s names on it. She threw it to the side after scanning it briefly, there was nothing there she hadn’t seen before, except maybe Vanko’s name in the design.

There were some clippings as well, of Vanko’s defection from the Soviet, and she scanned the article briefly, as it lined up with what she’d been told of him.

She pulled out a set of reels of tape, as she gestured for JARVIS to bring down the movie projector she had installed to watch old movies. Say what they will about updating technology, somethings were meant to be watched the old-fashioned way.

Everything is achievable through technology,” her father’s voice boomed out, Harry took her hand in his, knowing how hard it was for her to watch him when she’d tried so hard to ignore her father for over a decade. “Better living, robust heath

She picked up one if his notebooks, flipping through it carefully to see his notes with various equations in it. Harry was going through another journal, as her father droned on in the background.

And for the first time in human history, the possibility of world peace. I’m Howard Stark, and everything you’ll need for the future can be found right here. City of the Future? City of Tomorrow? City of-” he cut off, losing his train of thought, “I’m Howard Stark and everything you’ll need in the future can be found right here. So, from all of us at Stark Industries, I would like to personally… Antonia, what are you doing back there? What is that?”

Her eyes flickered back to the screen in surprise to see her father talking to her. She saw her younger self on screen, as Harry looked over at her. She didn’t remember any of this, probably having been too young to form actual memories.

“Put that back. Put it back where you got it from,” Her father yelled at her as she held a model of a building in her hand curiously, “Where’s your mother? Maria? Go on. Go, go, go, go.”

He shooed her off the screen with a gesture as a man picked her up and took her away from the camera.

Of course he wanted to get rid of her, even then. Even when she was curious and wanted nothing more than to learn. To build, to create, and to make. She had still cared about his opinion, even then, even when he wanted nothing to do with her.

All right, I think we got it-” the camera man said.

I’ll… I’ll… I’ll come in and,” Howard hesitated as the film changed to a clip of him drinking the whiskey he’d loved so much. The whiskey that had gotten her mother killed. The clip changed again, as Howard appeared to be rehearsing the same scene again.

So, from all of us at Stark Industries, I’d like to personally show you,” her father trailed off losing his direction, “my ass. I’d like to… I can’t… This is… I can’t… We have this, don’t we? This is a ridiculous way… Everything is achievable through technology

She reached the last page of his notebook and sighed. This was supposed to save her life? This? She threw it to the side and took a glass of whiskey as she sipped it. Mendel, she needed something to take the edge off.

Antonia,” her father, said, grabbing her attention. “You’re too young to understand this right now, so I thought I would put it on film for you. I built this for you. And someday you’ll realise that it represents a whole lot more than just people’s inventions. It represents my life’s work. This is the key to the future. I’m limited by the technology of my time, but one day you’ll figure this out. I know you will. You’re clever, and as much as I want to keep you safe, keep your mother safe, I know that is not the life that is meant for you. A woman in our world? Your life is going to be filled with struggle, with opposition, and with heartache. It’s why I need you to be better than me, to be stronger. You are my legacy, and I know you will change the world when you figure this out, Antonia. What is and always will be my greatest creation is you.”

Her father ended his rambles, and she felt herself shaking slightly.

“What a load of shit,” she said, sounding watery, “How dare he say he cared about me? That I was his legacy? He never even told me he loved me to my face, and he goes and leaves a clip saying I’m his greatest creation? He hated me for being a woman, for not being good enough. Who is he to re-write our history and try and pretend it’s anything different than what it is?”

“He wasn’t a good father,” Harry told her softly, “But maybe he did love you, in his own way. It doesn’t make anything he did right; not the way he treated you or how he hurt you. But you must also consider that Obadiah was his partner for years. How much did he manipulate for his own greed?”

“None of that matters now,” she wiped her eyes, “They’re both dead, and this just all proved to be a giant waste of time. We’ve learned nothing from this.”

“Or maybe we just need to look harder,” Harry told her, as he stood to make a call.

She sighed, looking down at her father’s notebooks.

It was going to be a long day.


 

It was nearly an hour later when she heard Coulson’s voice call out, “I’m sorry Miss, no one is allowed inside right now.”

“Excuse me?” Her cousin’s voice responded, “Who are you to say I do not have permission to visit my cousin? Does she know that SHIELD is even here?”

Coulson spluttered and Harry stood, “Agent Coulson, my sister is more than welcome to be here. Besides, I asked her to come.”

“And I brought coffee,” Ava sauntered into the room, “Something which I know Toni very much will appreciate.”

She perked up at the sound of her favourite beverage.

“You are officially my favourite cousin again,” she said, taking drink from her.

“Even when I’m the one who told her to come over?” Harry frowned at her. “I asked her to bring the coffee!”

“I brought more than just the coffee,” her cousin said, as SHIELD agents began dragging in the models of the Stark Expo she’d left at SI for the company to use as a basis for the expo setup.

“Why?” Toni questioned, looking at it as the agents set it up in front of her. “Oh shit.”

She stared at the globe in the centre, as understanding filled her head.

Harry squinted at the model looking at both of them.

“I don’t see it,” he frowned.

“JARVIS, could you kindly Vac-U-Form a digital wire frame? I need a manipulatable projection,” Toni commanded, as JARVIS began scanning the model.

“1974 Stark Expo model scan complete, Miss,” JARVIS said, as the projection appeared in front of them.

“How many buildings are there?” Toni asked, lifting up the model to bring it to the cente of the room as she turned it upright.

“Am I to include the Belgium waffle stands?” JARVIS asked, and Ava laughed.

“That was rhetorical, J. Just show me,” she told her AI. “What does it look like to you?”

“An atom,” Ava said proudly.

“Oh shit,” Harry echoed he earlier sentiment.

“In which case the nucleus would be here,” Toni gestured to the centre, “Highlight the unisphere. Lose the footpaths. Get rid of them.”

The model lit up, as she moved to the side the things she didn’t want to see any longer.

“What is it you’re trying to achieve, Miss?” JARVIS asked her curiously.

“I’m discovering, correction. I’m rediscovering a new element, I believe. Lose the landscaping, the shrubbery, the trees,” she said, flicking things to the side. “Parking lots, exits, entrances. Structure the protons and the neutrons using the pavilions as a framework.” It began to come together in front of her and she could shake her head in disbelief. She moved her hands up as it filled the room around her, “Dad. Dead for almost 20 years, and still taking me to school.”

She clapped it down in her hands, nearly smiling.

“The proposed element should serve as a viable replacement for palladium,” JARVIS told them, and Harry laughed aloud as Ava’s eye lit up.

“Thanks Dad,” she said, analyzing the smaller size of the element.

“Unfortunately, it is impossible to synthesise,” JARVIS told them, and Harry’s face dropped.

DUM-E’s claw reached out to her, looking distressed, but she simply stroked him.

“Get ready for a major remodel, Darlings. We’re back in hardware mode,” she said, walking out of the room to get what she needed.

She’d show them all the meaning of the word impossible.

And so, she grabbed a hammer, and with Harry and Ava’s help, she knocked down the walls of her mansion, drilled into her floor to access the power grid, as she gave her house a makeover to make way for the prismatic accelerator.

The parts went through her walls, as she screwed them together tightly.

“I heard you broke the perimeter,” Coulson said, looking far less than pleased with them, “Agent Carter-Sousa.”

“We were following Director Fury’s instructions,” Harry shrugged.

“Yeah. That was, like, three years ago,” Toni sassed back, “Where have you been?”

“I was doing some stuff,” Coulson said vaguely, with a gesture.

“Yeah, well, me too and it worked,” she grinned, “Hey, I’m playing for the home team Coulson, you and all your Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Now, are you gonna let me work or berate me further?”

Coulson pulled out Captain America’s shield from the box her father had left her and she sighed.

“What’s this doing here?” Coulson asked, looking less than pleased.

“That’s it. Bring that to me,” Toni gestured.

“You know what this is?” Coulson gave her a look as he handed it to her.

“It’s exactly what I need to make this work,” she said, needing something to support the heavy weight of the coil.  Captain America would help save her life after all. Her father’s true legacy keeping alive the one he’d never wanted. “Lift the coil. Go, go. Put your knees into it. There you go. And, drop it. Drop it. Perfectly level. I’m busy. What do you want?”

“Nothing,” Coulson sighed, looking at Harry, “Goodbye. I’ve been reassigned. Director Fury wants me in New Mexico.”

She shook her head. Of course Fury wouldn’t even follow through on his threat to keep her contained. What did her life matter in the long run to him?

“Fantastic. Land of Enchantment,” she said nonchalantly.

“So I’m told,” Coulson said simply.

“Secret stuff?” Ava asked him, curiously.

“Something like that,” Coulson said, nodding at them, “Good luck.”

“Bye. Thanks,” she said, shaking his hand. Say what she will about the man, he was nothing if not dedicated.

“We need you,” Coulson said finally, looking back at her.

“Yeah, more than you know,” she said simply.

“Not that much,” he grinned, as he left the room, and she turned her focus back to finishing the accelerator.

They built for hours, until it was finally done, and she stepped back as she turned the key.

“Initialising prismatic accelerator,” JARVIS said, as a blue light shot through the device. She turned the wheel on the top.

“Approaching maximum power,” JARVIS informed her.

Ava took a wrench as a lever to help steady the turned wheel, as it shot out holes in her wall.

Harry let out a shout, as the light began destroying her workshop, before concentrating on the triangle in the centre, and glowing blue.

She turned it off after a moment, as it continued to glow.

“That was easy,” she said, taking off her protective glasses and picked it up carefully with a pair of pliers.

“Congratulations Miss. You have created a new element,” JARVIS said.

She carefully placed it into the arc reactor, as it began to power up.

“The reactor has accepted the modified core,” JARVIS told them. “I will begin running diagnostics.”

“You did it,” Harry breathed out and Ava beamed as she pulled Toni into a hug.

It wasn’t a confirmation yet, but she knew the truth, even without the numbers.

She had done it, she had found a viable substitute to palladium and she had saved her life.

She wasn’t going to die.

And just like that, the burden that had been weighing on her for the last few weeks had lifted.

Chapter Text

Of course, the world went to hell shortly after Toni found a way to save herself. Because why wouldn’t it?

“DUM-E, U can you clean up this mess?” Toni said, gesturing to the room in front of her, with dirt and materials everywhere from their work. She sighed, as DUM-E just beeped at her, “You’re killing me, you know that?”

“You’re too hard on them,” Ava cooed as she stroked DUM-E’s arm. “They’re just trying their best.”

Ava would think that; she had been a child when DUM-E was created and thought he was the coolest thing ever.

“Miss, you have an incoming call with a blocked number,” JARVIS announced, as her screen lit up.

Harry gave her a confused look.

“I guess my phone privilege have been reinstated,” she remarked.

“They haven’t,” Harry shook his head, “I haven’t told them that you found an element. I’ve been waiting to see if it worked yet before letting them know. I don’t want them trying to reassign me to anything else until we know for a fact that this worked.”

She glanced at her screen warily; it didn’t mean that SHIELD wasn’t calling then. But it didn’t mean that they were.

“Hello, you’ve reached Toni Stark,” she answered, “Please give yourself a number on how highly you think you rank in my life.”

Well if it was SHIELD, she’d know from the unimpressed response.

Ava simply snorted and Harry smiled exasperatedly.

“Hey Toni,” she heard a familiar accented voice, “How you doing? I double cycle.”

“You what?” she asked, growing cold, as she looked over at her cousins.

“JARVIS start tracing the call,” Harry demanded, as Toni muted the speaker, and JARVIS began running numbers on the screen as Toni engaged with him.

“You told me double cycle’s more power,” Vanko laughed, “Good advice.”

“You sound pretty sprightly for a dead guy,” Toni commented, as worry filled her. Was Vanko free? Did he somehow escape the prison? Would he be coming for her? How did he get out of the explosion?

“You too,” Vanko responded, and she placed a hand over her arc reactor. “Now, the true history of Stark name will be written.”

She muted the call again, as Ava spoke up.

“JARVIS, where is he?” she said, scanning over the satellite images.

“Accessing the Oracle grid,” JARVIS replied as the map locked in on his coordinates. “Eastern Seaboard.”

“What your father did to my family over 40 years, I will do to you in 40 minutes,” Vanko chuckled.

“Sounds good,” she said, as JARVIS continued to get a better reading on the location of the call, “Let’s get together and hash it out.”

“Tri-State area. Manhattan and outlying boroughs,” JARVIS brought up.

“I hope you’re ready,” Vanko said, hanging up on her.

“Call trace incomplete,” JARVIS responded. She looked at the location it had picked up. No. It couldn’t be. Her heart raced as she looked over at the headline of Hammer’s presentation that afternoon.

She moved over to where the arc reactor was sitting and picked it up.

“Toni what are you doing?” Harry grabbed her arm lightly, “We don’t know it works yet.”

“I do,” she said, looking over at Ava. “It works, Harry. It would have burnt out already if it didn’t.

“You don’t know it won’t kill you yet either,” Ava said somberly, “What if it’s worse for you than the palladium?”

“If you both want to run some tests, then run them. But JARVIS, I need you to assemble the suit. It won’t matter if the reactor kills me or not if Vanko has destroyed the expo. If he puts innocent lives at risk just to get back at me. None of it will matter then,” she said, shoving the new arc reactor into her chest.

It glowed brightly, as Harry took a step backwards.

“That tastes like coconut,” she grimaced, feeling the raw power course through her, “And metal. Oh wow! Yes!”

“You’re not doing this alone,” Harry told her with a shake of his head, “I’ll inform SHIELD and have them stationed. We need to get civilians out of the way.”

“Okay,” she nodded, as Ava turned to the computer. “Ava, can you watch my back from here? Be my girl in the chair with JARVIS?”

“Already on it,” Ava grinned at her, as the suit began to place itself on her. “Go get him!”

She beamed back at them both, as she took off flying towards the STARK Expo. She’d be dammed if Vanko ruined her what she’d worked so hard to achieve.


 

“What’s happening?” she asked, as she flew towards the expo.

“Justin Hammer has taken the stage,” she could hear the cringe in Ava’s voice, “He’s dancing. Oh god, he looks ridiculous.”

“I’m nearly there,” she told them, as JARVIS played a clip for her in the corner of the screen, “Then maybe this atrocity will end.”

She watched as he brought out different sets of Hammer Drones, and she wanted to cringe at how bad the design was. Just from looking at it she could see ten different things that would fail, and that was from just a glance.

And then her best friend rose up from the stage, wearing her suit, as it was tacked on with Hammer weapons.

The betrayal.

Even if she knew what was happening and that Rhodey was very much not a fan of it. It didn’t mean it was any easier to see her tech defiled in such a way.

She arrived then, hovering over the stage as gasps filled the room, before cheers emerged.

“We’ve got trouble,” she told her Honey Bear.

“I’m here on orders,” Rhodey told her, “If it’s a matter of how horrid the suit looks with these upgrades, now is not the time.”

“Give them a wave,” she said simply, as she rose a hand to wave to the crowd. “All these people are in danger, we need to get them out of here. I think he’s working with Vanko.”

“Vanko’s alive?” he gasped, having read the same report of the explosion as she had.

She moved closer to Justin Hammer, the eternal thorn in her side, “Where is he? Where is Vanko? Tell me!” she demanded.

“Who?” he asked, giving her an innocent and confused look. “What are you doing here, Sweetheart?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Rhodey said, sounding worried, as a gun engaged and pointed at her from the suit.

“Is that you?” she asked frantically, and Rhodey shook his head.

“No, I’m not doing that. That’s not me. I can’t move. I’m locked up. I’m locked up!” Rhodey said, panicked. The Drones raised their arms, taking aim at the crowd, “Get out of here. Go! This whole system’s been compromised.”

“Let’s take it outside,” she said, flying up, as she tried to move the path of the shots out of the way of the civilians. And almost immediately, the shots began aiming at her, as glass rained down at the crowd below.

“Harry, where are we on evacuations?” she demanded as Harry came on her comms.

“SHIELD is here,” Harry told her, “Clint and the others are taking on some of the drones as they’re getting everyone out.”

“JARVIS, Ava I need you to break into the system. I need to own him,” she said, as the Drones came after her.

“Toni, I’m locked on,” she heard Rhodey’s voice say, “I have target lock.”

“On what?” she asked, dreading the answer.

“On you!” he said frantically, as his suit began firing on her, “On your six!”

“Clint has Hammer in custody,” Harry called out through her ear, “They’re working on it from their end to get control back of the systems. Pepper’s called the NYPD.”

“Good!” she sighed, as she flew around the expo again. She needed to get out of the firing range of all the civilians. Damn Manhattan for being so packed with buildings and with people. Couldn’t this have happened somewhere where she could just take him to the desert or some abandoned stretch of land?

“How are we doing, J? Ava?” she asked quickly, hoping they were at least getting close.

“Remote reboot was unsuccessful” JARVIS responded, and she swore under her breath.

“Clint and I are going to Hammer Industries,” Harry updated them, as she heard him drive, “Maybe we can access it from the inside. Oh fuck, Toni the drones have begun cross firing.”

“Shit,” she swore.

All this so Vanko could get back at her father.

Bloody Howard.

She panicked as she saw the drone standing next to a boy wearing an Iron Woman helmet, and knew if the tech was Hammer based, it wouldn’t be smart enough to discern that the little boy wasn’t her.

Bloody Hammer Industries and their horrible weapons. Of course they couldn’t make anything that would actually work the way it was intended. And now an innocent little child would be hurt.

When this was done, she was going to make sure that Justin Hammer had the full force of the Justice System come down on him.

If he thought the Senate Hearing that she had to go through was rough, then he would have another thing coming.

She landed behind him, watching in horror as the child rose his palm up to aim at the drone, and fired.

She would have been impressed with the way his palms lit up to mimic her repulsors at any other time. But now, she was focused solely on the child and ensuring he wasn’t hurt. She raised her own arm up and shot the drone to pieces, as the boy jumped backwards in surprise.

“That was awesome,” the boy beamed up at her, and she glanced over him to make sure he had no injures.

“Nice work, kid,” she grinned as she held him close, as a shot came their way. “Now where are your parents?”

“I came with my aunt and uncle,” the boy responded. “I lost them in the crowd though. I wanted to be brave like you and fight the bad guys! I dressed up like you, see?”

“I do see,” she laughed lightly, taking note of his costume. It was definitely beyond what she sold in her gift shop to raise money for the Maria Stark foundation, and she knew that either he or his guardian had helped him achieve such a thing. Either way it was impressive, and perhaps when all of this was over, she would learn more about it. “You did a good job getting the mask to look realistic.”

“Peter?” she heard yelling from behind her, and she figured the kid’s family had found him. Good, the last thing she wanted was to find out that the poor kid’s Aunt and Uncle had been hurt here today. If innocent people had been hurt because Vanko had some sort of vendetta against her father that he insisted on taking out on her. “Peter, where are you? Peter?”

She turned, letting the boy out of her grasp, as he ran towards the woman, as she let out a sigh of relief. The man gave her an appraising looking, before realizing what had happened.

“Aunt May! Uncle Ben! Toni Stark saved me! Did you see? It was amazing! She’s the best hero ever!” He said, as his Aunt held him tightly in her arms, shaking.

“Don’t run off like that,” the man named his Uncle Ben, scolded him lightly, “What if you had been hurt? You need to be more careful Peter and stay with us. You can’t just be running around during a crowded Expo, especially when it’s under attack. What if you had been in danger?”

“You all still could be in danger,” she reminded them lightly, the situation weighing back down on her, “The drones are still here, causing damage. I’m handling this, but please, get to safety. I don’t want anyone to be injured.”

“Thank you for keeping our nephew safe,” the man nodded at her, as he placed a hand on his nephew’s shoulder, “Go, Iron Woman. We have it from here.”

She nodded back. The family intrigued her, but it was hardly the time for her to spend time on such things. Not when her entire Expo was still under attack.

She jetted back upwards and back into the fight. She would check back in on the family, but for now, she had other things to worry about, such as ensuring that they all got out of here in one piece.

“You got multiple coming in on you,” Rhodey’s voice called out, as JARVIS showed her the incoming weapons.

“We need to get them away from the expo,” she said frantically, as she thought of the little boy, not wanting anyone to get hurt.

She flew under a bridge, hoping to minimize the damage, as one of the Drones flew straight into a leg of the bridge. The shots kept firing her way, and she dodged to ensure none of them would hit her.

To her horror, a group of drones flew away from her path.

“Listen,” Rhodey said, getting her attention, “A pack just peeled off. They’re headed back to the Expo.”

“Got it,” she said, knowing she’d need to handle them. She couldn’t risk any more innocent people getting hurt because of Vanko. Who knew what the injured count currently was?

“In closing in on you. Ordnance coming in hot Tony. Watch it,” Rhodey’s voice grew more desperate.

His suit began shooting all the cars parked on the ground under the bridge, growing far too close to her for her comfort. She shot straight upwards, as the cars exploded in a fiery rage.

“We’re at Hammer Industries,” Harry updated her, “Let’s see what we can do here. With any luck Vanko is still here and we can remotely disable the drones from here.”

She flew over the streets of New York where she had grown up and spent many days in her adolescent in. It had been years since she had been back for a proper stay, never being able to visit for more than a few days at a time before she felt the pain of losing her mother once more. Of losing Jarvis and Ana. Of the loss of Aunt Peggy, even if the woman was still with them.

She flew straight into the Globe positioned in the nucleus of her expo as Rhodey’s worry sounded in her ears. But she didn’t listen as she dodged at the last second, drawing out, as the Drones on her tail lit up.

“He’s not here!” Harry said, suddenly, and she felt herself curse in anger, “Vanko isn’t at Hammer Industries.”

Well shit.

“What’s your twenty?” she asked Rhodey, and immediately regretted it as she felt the weight of his suit crash into her from out of the blue, and they both descended into the ORACLE dome.

“James, we’re rebooting your suit,” Harry’s voice came over the comms.

Rhodey pinned her down and began shooting at her, as her head lay pushed into the pavement.

“Well can you do it any faster?” Rhodey’s voice strained out, as she struggled to keep the gun pointed away from her.

“We got it!” Clint came on, and Rhodey’s suit went black as he flew off of her. “We got your best friend back.”

“Thank you very much Agent Barton,” she said, with a hint of a sultry tone in her voice, and she heard him laugh.

“Well done on the new chest piece. I am reading significant higher output and your vitals all look promising,” Barton remarked, sounding pleased.

“Stop checking out my cousin’s chest,” Harry’s voice sounded gruff as she heard Clint let out a squeal.

“Well at the moment I’m back to not dying, thanks,” she laughed.

“Good,” Pepper’s voice came on, sounding relieved, “I’m glad you found something, Toni.”

“It was a group effort, really,” she said, as she surveyed the damage to her suit.

“As much as I’d love to continue this banter, you’ve got incoming,” Harry said, and she saw the drones on her radar. “Looks like the fight is coming to you.”

She stood up, looking over at where her brother was lying and held her hand out to him.

“Snap out of it, Sugar Plum, I need you,” she said, and he groaned as he took her hand, and stood.

“You can have your suit back,” Rhodey grimaced as he stood back up, “I don’t want it anymore.”

She laughed, and Rhodey gave her a serious look, before pulling her into a tight hug.

“I’m sorry,” he told her softly, “I nearly killed you.”

“You weren’t in control, Honey Bear,” she told him gently, as she let him hold her. “I’m fine. I didn’t even get a single scratch on me.”

“Are you?” he asked her, giving her a once over. “Did you find a suitable replacement?”

“I did,” she nodded, “I’m going to live, Rhodey. Now, they’re coming in hot, in any second. What’s the play?”

“We want to take the high ground, so let’s get the biggest gun up on that ridge,” Rhodey said, and she nodded, moving at the same time as him.

“Got you, where do you want to be?” she asked, as she continued to walk with him.

“Where are you going?” he asked her, a little confused.

“What are you talking about?” she said, looking at him, before laughing.

“I meant me,” he said, gesturing to the gun on his shoulder blade.

“Babe, you have a big gun. But you’re not the big gun,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

“Darling, don’t be jealous,” he grinned at her.

“It’s subtle, all the bells and whistles,” she shook her head at him, as she gestured down to his mess of a suit.

“Yeah. It’s called being a badass,” Rhodey retorted back.

“Fine,” she said, growing somber, knowing the drones would be here at any second, “All right. You go up to. I’ll draw them in.”

“Don’t stay down here,” Rhodey turned to her, looking unimpressed. “This is the worst place to be.”

“You have your spot, I have mine,” she stood her ground, gesturing at him to take his stop.

“It’s the kill box, Toni. Okay? This is where you go to die,” he argued, and they heard a sound that stopped their argument cold, as a Drone landed in front of them, followed by more and more.

“Well it’s Hammer time,” she said, and she knew Rhodey would have shoved her at any other moment. Instead, he shook his head and their masks went back on.

The firing began immediately, and she raised her repulsors to shoot back at them as they moved with the suit. She felt one come from behind her, as she grabbed him and flung him straight into the bot was shooting at her.

The entire dome was lit up brightly with flames as drone after drone exploded.

Well she supposed that Hammer tech was capable of causing explosions, even if unintended.

Rhodey shot down a drone, cutting through it in half, as she punched another on in the face, damaging it.

She dodged a shot aimed her way as she raised her arm and a missile divided into three, taking out the drones in front of her.

“See that?” she grinned as they exploded.

“Yeah, yeah,” Rhodey said with a laugh, “Nice job Toni.”

Curie, why were there so many of them?

The fighting continued around her as the drones kept coming and she and Rhodey kept blowing them up. And in a split second, she made a decision.

“Rhodey get down,” she demanded, as he dropped. Lasers came out of her palms and she cut through the drones in a split second, and a couple of the trees. She probably would have to make a donation to the owners.

“Wow, I think you should lead with that next time,” Rhodey remarked as he surveyed the drones in front of him.

“Yeah. Sorry Darling. I can only use it one. It’s a one-off,” she shook her head. She’d have to stock the suit back up for the future models.

Rhodey laughed, as Pepper came on the comms.

“Hammer’s been taken into custody,” she said, and Toni let out a quick sigh of relief. Good.

“Don’t celebrate too soon,” Harry warned them.

“You got one more drone incoming. This one looks different,” Clint told them. “The repulsor signature is significantly higher.”

She heard him coming as the loud whirring of the repulsors signaled Vanko’s arrival before he even landed.

His mask lifted off his face as he grinned at her, “Good to be back.”

What was it with all these assholes trying to mimic her suit then fight her with it?

“This ain’t gonna be good,” Rhodey groaned, as Ivan raised his arms and drew back his electric whips. “I got something special for this guy. I’m gonna bust his bunker with the Ex-Wife.”

“With the what?” she asked, looking over at him incredulously. A missile rose from the suit, took aim and hit Ivan, before fizzling out and landing in the water.

“Hammer tech?” she asked sympathetically. Seemed Hammer could only make things that weren’t supposed to explode, well, explode.

“Yeah,” Rhodey said, unimpressed.

“I got this,” she said, as a target appeared on Vanko’s armor through her mask. Her own tech shot out at him, before bouncing off, but at least it had more of an impact than Hammer’s.

Vanko raised his whips again, trying to hit them, as she ducked to the side. Both she and Rhodey drew fire on him, as he tried to strike again, and she flew up, before one of his whips caught her and threw her back down.

She winced at the impact, before getting up and flying straight into him as Rhodey shot the man.

Vanko threw her to the side as his whip grabbed Rhodey, to pull him in closer.

She screamed, distracting the man as she came in with a punch, as he pushed her away and wrapped her neck around his whip, then stepped on Rhodey.

She pulled him backwards, as Vanko got a matching whip around Rhodey’s neck.

“Rhodey, I got an idea,” she said, “You want to be a hero?”

“What?” Rhodey said tightly,

“I could really use a sidekick,” she told him. “Put your hand up.”

“This is your idea?” Rhodey said, unimpressed.

“Yep,” she struggled.

“I’m ready. I’m ready. Go, go, go!” Rhodey said, raising his hand, as their repulsors lit up.

“Take it!” Toni screamed, as they shot each other, causing a huge explosion in the middle, where Ivan was standing. She moved to check on the man after the blast had faded and saw his reactor flickering.

“You lose,” Vanko said simply, as his reactor turned to red and began flickering at the same time as the drones, the beeping surrounding them.

She swore, as Rhodey turned to face her.

“All these drones are rigged to blow,” Rhodey said quickly, “We gotta get out of here Tones.”

“Pepper?” she asked, trying to bring her friend back on the comms. She shot up into the air, heading back towards the centre of the Stark Expo to where Pepper was standing, flying as quickly as she could.

She saw the drone beeping, too close to Pepper, and swooped in as she picked the girl up and flew them out of there. The drones throughout the city exploded, leaving the city aflame.

They landed on the roof of a building as her helmet began to fizz, and she tore it off.

“Are you okay?” Pepper asked, looking her over carefully. “Toni tell me you’re okay.”

“I’m okay,” she said, placing Pepper’s hand over her reactor. “I’m not dying. We’re okay. It’s over now.”

“Good,” Pepper said, as she heard Ava cheer over the comms.

“That’ll show Hammer not to mess with us,” Ava said, and Toni laughed.

“SHIELD has seized all of Hammer’s tech,” Harry told them, “He won’t be able to do any more damage. Not on his own anyways.”

“He barely managed to do all of this on his own,” she pointed out and Rhodey laughed from behind her. “You kicked ass back there, Baby Boy.”

“You too,” Rhodey grinned at her. “Now, the Air Force is going to want answers, so I need to go deal with that.”

“I’ll handle the press,” Pepper sighed.

“I got this,” Toni said simply, placing a hand on Pepper’s shoulder. “You’ve helped me so much over the last few months. I can handle a little press.”


 

She sat in the SHIELD conference room a little while later, as the report for something called the Avengers Initiative sat in front of her.

She knew Fury had wanted to bring her in, to discuss everything that had happened with Hammer and Vanko, and how it turned out that no, her suit still was one of a kind, regardless of what the Military had tried to claim before.

Harry had told her it was standard procedure, and that he would be in the room when Fury briefed her, refusing to take anything else as an answer. Fury had rolled his eyes but told Harry that it was fine, as long as he agreed to be her personal handler from here on out.

“I don’t want you looking at that,” Fury said, handing her a file, “Not until you look through this first.”

She took the report, flipping through it carefully.

“Antonia Stark displays high levels of intelligence and employs masks when dealing with those she does not trust. Issues most likely stem from childhood negligence and being forced into the spotlight and having to hide her true self. She has all the makings of a true operative, except she is unable to properly follow a chain of command,” she read aloud. “Recruitment assessment for the Avengers Initiative. Iron Woman, yes.”

She kept reading, “Toni Stark: highly recommended. As displayed, the suit is just a weapon, but it cannot be handled by just anyone. Recommendation is to bring Toni Stark into the fold with her Iron Woman technology.”

“Clint Barton seems to think you would be a prime candidate for the Avengers Initiative,” he told her. “Other agents would have told you that we didn’t want you in an attempt to give you motivation to want to join. But he seems to think you would appreciate the candor.”

“And if I say no?” she raised a brow. “Just because you want me, doesn’t mean I want you. I told you no once before.”

“I told you once that you were not the only superhero,” Fury reminded her, “That you weren’t the only one capable of extraordinary things. Do you want to know where Coulson is? He’s in Mexico, investigating a magical Hammer. Turns out, Norse gods are aliens. We are not alone in this universe, Toni. You know that, and I know that. But we no longer can pretend that we are safe. Something is coming, and when it does, the world needs you to protect it. The world will need the Avengers.”

“Okay,” she breathed, and the man looked at her in surprise.

“Okay?” he asked, confused.

“My father and Aunt Peggy founded this organization. My father might not have wanted me to know about it, but it doesn’t change the fact that I do,” she told him calmly, “I am not naïve enough to believe that this organization does not have its own agendas. That those agendas might involve manipulation or coercion. But my cousin works here. My Aunt worked here. My Uncle worked here. And even my father, who I might not have had the best relationship with, worked here. Which means something. I’m not agreeing to being one of your minion spies or someone you can simply control because you wish to. But if you are right, and something is out there, then the world will need all the protection it can get. So, if such a need arises, then I will join your little boy band. But until that day, I will continue on my own.”

“We’ll be in touch,” Fury nodded at her, as Harry shot her a small smile.

“Oh, and Fury?” she called to him. He turned to face her, looking slightly confused. “Before you go. I want to call in a favour. You know, for agreeing to all this. Rhodey and I, are being honoured in Washington, and we need a presenter.”

She grinned at the man, as he knew exactly what she wanted.

Words could not describe her satisfaction at seeing Senator Stern on stage, as he talked about her.

“It is my honour to be here today to present these distinguished awards to Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes and Miss Antonia Stark, who is, of course, a national treasure,” the man said with a pained voice, looking like he wanted to murder her. “For all their bravery in keeping Manhattan safe from a terror attack.”

The man moved towards Rhodey, as he pinned the medal on her best friend, “Thank you Lieutenant Colonel, for such an exceptionally distinguished performance. You deserve this.”

“Thank you, sir,” her brother, the ever good solider responded.

She almost laughed aloud, as the man moved towards her. “Miss Stark. Thank you for such as exceptionally distinguished performance. You deserve this,” he said, before stabbing her in the chest slightly. She glared at him as he smirked. “Oh, sorry. Funny how annoying a little prick can be, isn’t it?”

Always with the dick references with that man.

“Let’s get a photo,” he said, moving to stand behind them, as he placed an arm on both of their shoulders. She beamed at the camera, not wanting to let the man get the better of her, as she raised her arms up in a peace symbol.

It was far from over. Hell, it was just beginning.

But she would be ready for whatever it was that was to come her way.

Chapter Text

Toni Stark sighed to herself as she sat back in the car Happy was driving for her down the streets of Queens. She had tried to convince him on numerous occasions that she was more than capable of driving herself.

For Galileo’s sake, she was more than capable of taking care of herself. She survived in captivity! She’d risen from the ashes when the world was just about to give up hope on her ever coming home and she’d shown them all that they were very wrong. She’d shown them that she was capable of surviving, of fighting, like she had for years for her place in the world.

But apparently, she couldn’t be trusted to visit a child and his aunt and uncle without supervision.

“I’ll be fine, Happy,” she told him gently, as he parked the car in front of an old apartment building. “You don’t need to come in with me.”

“It’s them I’m worried about,” he grumbled. “They’re the ones who have no idea what happens when Toni Stark comes into your life and changes the world forever.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” she scoffed, looking at him. “I’ve done nothing to ruin your life.”

“I never said you ruined it, Stark,” he said, giving her a gentle look, “But nothing has been the same since I met you.”

She patted him gently on the shoulder, before moving to the buzzer of the complex.

“Do you think I should hack it to let me in?” she asked aloud, and Happy quickly shook his head at her.

“You’re trying to make a good impression, Toni. You can’t just hack into people’s homes. If you want to do this, then do it the way the rest of us would,” Happy smirked at her. “By pressing their buzzer and hoping they’d let you in.”

“So archaic,” she sighed, as she pressed the button labeled ‘Parkers’.

“Hello?” she heard a male voice call out, and she responded.

“Mr Parker?” she spoke through the intercom, “My name is Toni Stark. We met briefly at the Stark Expo?”

It hadn’t been that hard for her to trace the kid and his aunt and uncle back through the footage from her suit and run facial recognition on them to receive their details.

Peter Benjamin Parker, born to Mary and Richard Parker who had died in a plane crash and had been raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben since then. He received high scores through his elementary school career and already won several science fairs. The boy was a genius.

And she knew a little something about being a child genius.

If his work on the mask he had on during the Stark Expo was anything to go on, then she knew the boy had great potential to him; he just needed the right guidance. He needed someone who could help him grow his curiosity and foster his potential in a healthy manner; one her father had never been too quick to do for her.

The door unlocked and she heard a confused voice call out.

“Please, come on up,” Ben said, and she nodded at Happy to wait in the car as she made her way through the apartment complex to the Parker’s front door.

Less than a moment after she knocked, the door threw itself open with one Peter Parker staring back at her excitedly.

“Ms Stark!” he squealed, “I didn’t believe it when I heard your voice over the intercom. What are you doing here?”

She bent down carefully and tussled his hair, “I was hoping I’d be able to speak to you and your Aunt and Uncle.”

“You came to see me?” he gaped at her, looking amazed.

“I did,” she grinned.

“Peter, let her through the door,” his Uncle Ben said, giving the boy an amused smile.

“It’s nice to meet you,” she said, as Peter sheepishly gestured for her to come in.

“It’s nice to meet you too,” Ben said, “Under far more pleasant circumstances.”

“Ben!” May hissed, as she came up from behind her husband. “Please, take a seat, Ms Stark,” she said, as she beckoned for them to sit down on their sofa.

“Toni, please,” she said, “He’s right though. I need to apologise for what happened at the Stark Expo. I never wanted to put anyone in harm’s way, and if I even thought for a second that anyone would have been in danger, I would have called the whole thing off immediately. Unfortunately, by time I knew, it was far too late.”

“We don’t blame you,” May told her gently, “It’s not your fault that a man targeted your expo to get back at your father. You saved Peter from harm’s way. Who knows what would have happened to my nephew if you hadn’t gotten there in time to stop one of those awful drones from doing something unspeakable to him?”

She felt her throat close slightly, “I was just trying to keep everyone safe.”

“Iron Woman is his hero,” Ben told her with a smile, “Peter doesn’t stop talking about you. He looks up to you, you know?”

“Iron Woman isn’t my hero!” Peter said suddenly, as he had been trying to listen to their conversation, drawing all eyes in the room to him.

“Peter!” May admonished him, and Toni shook her head.

“Kids are honest,” Toni told her, feeling a slight pang in her chest. It was nothing that she hadn’t heard before either. “There’s no need to sugar coat the truth.”

“Iron Woman isn’t my hero,” Peter told her, before adding, “You are! The suit is nothing without you behind it! You’re the one who does all the fun science and makes it work as good as it does!”

She felt her throat close slightly as the boy in front of her looked at her with such earnest and genuinely that she knew there was no insincerity in his body. There were no lies or manipulation that she had grown to use to in her business when people wanted something from her or the other.

But this child, this barely double digit in age child, wanted nothing from her.

“Kids are honest,” Ben remarked, echoing her own words back at her. “But you did not come here to apologise for what happened at the Expo. You already released a public apology to everyone who had been in attendance. And I doubt you are doing personal visits for every single guest at your event. So what brings you to our humble abode, Ms Stark.”

“Peter,” she said simply, and both of the boy’s guardians looked at her sharply. “During the Expo he was wearing a mask. One which appeared to be from our Expo, however clearly it had been altered to appear more authentic and closer to mine in appearance. He claimed he made the mask, and while I’m sure the two of you assisted him with it, I did some digging into him and found that he his test scores. He consistently scored far higher than anyone else in his year. Mr and Mrs Parker, your nephew is a genius.”

The two of them exchanged looks with each other, uncertain of where she was going with such a statement.

“He is more advanced for his age,” May said carefully, “Several of his teachers have commented that it might be beneficial for him to skip a year or two of school so he can challenge himself. But we wanted him to be with kids his own age.”

“A smart decision,” Toni nodded, “My own father wanted me to skip several grades. It was rough on me, and I had a hard time fitting in.”

“But you went to MIT at thirteen,” Peter exclaimed, looking at her in awe. “I want to go there too! Just like you did.”

“I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting in,” she said, smiling back at the boy. “Which is partially why I am here. I want to offer Peter a mentorship of sorts. I know what it’s like being a child genius. I know what it’s like to be constantly trying to challenge yourself and find ways to stay engaged. When you want to build things, but your body hasn’t quite caught up with your mind. With your permission, I’d like to give Peter an avenue to expand his horizons and to grow. I want to offer him a chance to learn, without the restrictions of traditional schooling.”

“What’s in it for you?” Ben asked, after a couple moments of silence, “As generous as this sounds, Ms Stark, I highly doubt you are offering personal mentorship programs to every smart child you meet.”

“No,” she conceded, “But maybe I should be. Children are the future after all. I don’t have any agendas, if that’s what you’re worried about. Anything Peter invents or creates in my lab will belong to him. I won’t try and patent it in my name or make a profit off of it. I’ll even help you file the patent in his name if it eases your mind.”

She paused for a moment.

“I recently got a new lease on life. I wasn’t doing so well for a bit after I escaped Afghanistan. I don’t want my legacy to be that of my weapons. I want to leave something behind that is good and memorable. I know what it’s like to be a child who is that smart and have no one completely understand. I’m not saying Peter is alone. The two of you clearly care for him very much. But I want to give him an opportunity, one that I never had, to be able to just do science, with someone who understands how our brains work. You are more than welcome to be present for every session if you wish, I would never presume to tell you otherwise. And who knows, maybe if it goes well with Peter, I can make an entire program out of it to help develop the curiosity in children.”

“Peter?” May said after a moment. “This is about you after all, Sweetheart. What do you think about all of this?”

“I would get to do science with Ms Stark?” Peter said, looking at his aunt and uncle for confirmation.

“You would,” Ben nodded at the boy. “Is that something you would like to do, Peter?”

She held her breath, as she waited for the boy’s response, as he nodded vigorously.

“Please?” Peter asked them both, “Her lab must be so cool! Think of all the things she must have in it! Would I get to see the Iron Woman suit? Would I get to work on the Iron Woman suit?”

She laughed softly, “We’ll have to see about that, Peter. There are still dangerous weapons in the suit. You could see the suit as there are safety precautions but if you and I end up working on the suit it would be one without all the dangerous stuff in it.”

Peter looked at his Aunt and Uncle hopefully, waiting for their response.

“Can we be there?” May said finally, “At least for a few sessions? I don’t think you would put our nephew in harm’s way, but I need to make sure it’s safe.”

“Would the press know about this arrangement?” Ben asked her, “Is this some sort of publicity stunt?”

“I can’t say for sure that they’ll never find out about it,” she warned them, “The press has a way of finding out things no one wants them to. But I have security protocols in place to prevent things such as this from leaking to the press. I have no intention of them finding out.”

“Okay,” Ben breathed out. “If this is what you want, Peter, then your Aunt and I are fine with that.”

“I do!” Peter said earnestly, “Thank you so much Ms Stark! I can’t wait to learn with you!”

She grinned at the boy as she handed him a card, “This is a number to my AI, JARVIS. Call him whenever you want to come over for a tour and he’ll set something up for the three of you. I look forward to seeing you all soon.”

Ben walked her to the door, as he held it open for her.

“He’s a good kid,” Ben told her softly, “I wish May and I could take credit for it, but it’s all him. He’s smart as hell too. Thank you for doing this. I know it means the world to Peter, and that you have no reason to do any of this. But thank you anyways.”

She smiled back at him, “I have a feeling I’m going to learn just as much from him as he will from me.”

He gave her a smile as she waved to Peter. As she stepped into the elevator, she pulled out her phone.

“JARVIS?” she asked him.

“Yes, Miss?” he responded instantly.

“Set up a trust for Peter Parker. Full scholarship to whichever school he decides to go to after high school. Full ride, for however many programs he wished to pursue.”

She waited less than a second, before JARVIS’ voice came through the phone.

“Done. Will that be all, Ms Stark?” he asked her, and she nodded.

“Thanks J. That’s all for now,” she said, as the doors closed.


 

She went back to Malibu after the attack, as she drew up the specs for her newest suit.

“Fancy,” she heard a voice comment from behind her, and she turned quickly to see Clint Barton standing there, arms crossed.

“Clyde,” she smirked back at him, “Nice to see you here.”

“I heard you accepted the invitation to join the Avengers Initiative,” he said, coming closer. “Fury said you took some convincing but ultimately decided to join in the end.”

“Is that a surprise?” she asked him, looking back down at her tablet as she moved around some of the numbers to change things.

“I did your profile, remember?” Clint asked her. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit surprised. I thought you would take a bit more convincing.”

“Yet you said I was a good candidate,” she reminded him.

“I was told by another agent to say that you weren’t a team player. Narcissistic, huge ego, doesn’t play with others, and the works,” he admitted to her. “To confirm that public façade you play all too well.”

“Perhaps I’m only playing it because the world refuses to see any differently,” she countered.

“That’s their own loss then,” he shrugged, “I got a different reading. What good would it do to tell you all the things the rest of the world believes about you? You already play that part far too well. No, the greater way would be to show you that I knew the truth. That beyond all your masks, you’re human too. You care for those close in your life and would do anything to protect them and ensure they did not come to harm.”

She stiffened slightly, as she looked up and met his eyes.

“Yet you didn’t think I’d accept,” she pointed out.

“I didn’t,” he admitted easily. “You knew from the start that I was trying to manipulate you. It was only logical you would be skeptical of another SHIELD related thing being thrown at you. But at the same time, I’m glad you did. I think I’ll enjoy working with you.”

“Harry’s my official handler,” she reminded him. “He’s the one I deal with directly. Not you, not Coulson.”

“And yet I cannot wait to work with you on the field,” he said, grinning at her. “The two of us? I think we’ll do some real damage together.”

“And what is it you do, Clint Barton?” she asked, stepping closer to him.

“I shoot arrows,” he said, and she nearly laughed, “Code name, Hawkeye.”

“You shoot arrows,” she said, repeating his statement. “Like some sort of medieval archer?”

“I think you’ll find I never miss,” he smirked at her. “I always hit my targets. Besides, I have exploding arrows. Medieval archers never had anything remotely that cool.”

“I don’t even know what to say to that,” she said, shaking her head.

“I look forward to working with you, Stark,” he grinned, and she laughed, as he turned to go.

“You too, Robin Hood,” she said, shaking her head, as the man exited her home.

Just what had she gotten herself in to?


 

Toni Stark looked over the specs for the tower on the hologram in front of her as Pepper walked into the room, handing her a cup of coffee.

“You are the love of my life,” Toni winked at her, and Pepped didn’t as much as flinch.

“You said the same thing to Rhodey last week when he handed you a donut from that store you covet so much,” Pepper said simply, “So clearly your love is all too freely given.”

Toni raised a hand to her heart, “You wound me oh Pepper Pot, you do. I don’t know how I’ll ever recover from your harsh words of betrayal.”

DUM-E beeped at them both, trying to sense if Toni was okay, and Toni patted her baby bot on the head.

“Your mother is just being dramatic, DUM-E,” Pepper cooed at the bot, “Don’t listen to a thing she says. She’s perfectly fine.”

“Sometimes I think that all of you love the bots more than me,” Toni said, pouting at them all.

“Whatever you say, Toni,” Pepper laughed, before turning to look at the holograms in front of them.

“Do you like it?” Toni asked, gesturing to the large tower model she had projected.

“Is this for the new Stark Industries office?” Pepper asked, as she moved closer, taking a good look at designs she had in front of her. “With all our expansion, we could use a new building sooner rather than later. God knows with all your new projects our demand keeps going up and up with each day.”

“Actually,” Toni said, looking at Pepper. “I’ve been doing some thinking, Pepper,” she said Pepper turned to face her.

She took a deep breath, and Pepper squeezed her hand.

“I want the new building to be in New York,” Toni said softly. “A tall skyscraper with my name on it, becoming a staple to the city skyline. I want it to be the first building run on clean energy and completely off the city’s power grid. I want everyone to look at the building and know my name and know that it belongs to my company.”

Pepper let out a gasp, “Clean energy? You want it to run on the arc reactor? Toni that’s absolutely incredible. Do you know how much such a thing could raise our stocks by?”

“I do,” she nodded, “I think it could be the future. If we can make clean energy affordable, then think about the future of this country. We could do so many great things if we had the means to do so. We just need somewhere to start.”

“Then why do you still have that look on your face that you get before you do something that makes my life difficult,” Pepper asked her, narrowing her eyes. “What are you planning, Toni?”

“I want to move there,” she said after a moment. “Not full time. But at least for a few months of the year. I miss New York, Pepper. I know I convinced you to move the headquarters to Malibu so that we can live here, but New York was where I was raised. It was my home, my mother’s home. And I find myself longing for it more and more each day. I miss the city and want to at least be able to spend more time in the city my mother raised me in. I’m not asking you to pack up your bags and come with me, or even move the headquarters of Stark Industries back to Manhattan. But I want to move into the Tower once construction is done. To live in there.”

“Toni,” Pepper said gently, placing a hand on her arm, “You’re like my sister, you know that right? I only every want for you to be happy. You’ve had a rough couple of years. Decades really, I could argue. And if living in New York makes you happy, then I want you to do so. Besides, you have a private jet, so you’re more than able to come back for every single Board Meeting that you need to be at in person.”

She exhaled, letting out a breath she hadn’t even known she’d been holding, as hugged Pepper tightly.

“Thank you,” she said simply. “Thank you for listening to what I had to say and for not telling me that it was a stupid idea. That the company needs me to be here and that I need to put the company over my own personal feelings. Howard and Obie wouldn’t have hesitated to tell me how foolish they thought I was being for wanting such a thing. They never really understood personal emotions and wanting to do something because it was what I wanted and not what would bring in billions of dollars.”

“Running clean energy would bring in billions of dollars,” Pepper pointed out, “It could be argued that you need to live there to help facilitate the transition, given the fact that we are setting up hundreds of new jobs and creating new departments within our company. But regardless of all of that, I want nothing more than for you to be happy, Toni. You left New York during a time of great pain. Your mother and father passed away and it hurt you. But it always was your home. So if you want to go back, then I can hold the fort down here while you continue to grow there and take our company to new heights.”

“I love you, Pepper,” she told her friend genuinely. “You’re my family. I’m not going to ask you to come with me, not this time. But I know Stark Industries will be in good hands with you here still. Thank you, for everything you’ve done for me over the years.”

“Of course,” Pepper told her gently, “You’re my family too, Toni. Now, why don’t you go over the specs of the new building with me?”

Toni smiled at her, before launching into a virtual tour of the building, explaining all the key features, showing her all the bells and whistles of the building she would call her new home in the coming months.


 

It took exactly six months for her new tower to be built from the ground up, and while it was still reliant on the city for power for the time being, she was more than pleased with the work that had been done on it.

She’d personally done some of the construction for the building, helping lift the lettering that spelled out her last name to decorate the building so that everyone would know just who it belonged to when they looked up at it.

Once upon a time, it had been her father that people thought of when they heard the name Stark. They might not have known what he did, but they knew who he was.

But now, everyone knew her name. It didn’t matter if they loved her or hated her, they all knew who she was and what she was capable of. They saw her come up with new designs and were awed, time and time again. They saw her fly around the world in a suit and save them from whatever catastrophe had come their way.

She was the Stark in Stark Industries now.

She was the one they all thought of.

“Miss Stark?” JARVIS called out, trying to get her attention, “Peter Parker, and his Aunt and Uncle are here for their tour of the facility.”

“Thanks, JARIVS,” she responded, “Let them know I’ll be right down.”

Peter had come to visit her a few times in Malibu, as she arranged for his family to take her jet down and stay with her for the weekend, as she and Peter would head down to her lab, and she’d work on whatever he’d want to with him. So far, they’d made a volcano that produced an almost scientifically accurate lava explosion, let him build his own computer from scratch with the materials of his choosing, and other ideas that he had brought to her, excited to be able to build.

And while his aunt and uncle had watched over them the first few times, they had quickly grown to trust her, taking to touring the city instead while Peter and she worked for a few hours.

Peter was a good kid, and she was amazed watching his mind work as he came up with different ideas, and she wondered if it was due to his parents having been scientists before their passing.

“Ms Stark!” Peter exclaimed excitedly, as his eyes lit up when she stepped out of the elevator. “This is incredible!”

“You haven’t even seen the labs yet, Peter,” she laughed as she smiled at his Aunt and Uncle, “I’m glad the two of you could come too.”

“Peter hasn’t stopped talking about how revolutionary your new building will be,” Ben smiled at her, “I figured we’d come by and check out your new digs.”

“No one says that anymore, Dear,” May laughed as she squeezed her husband’s hand. “But it would be nice to see where Peter is going to insist on spending all his free time if he were allowed.”

“I’m doing educational stuff,” Peter pouted, “Why am I limited in how many days a week I can come here?”

“Because Ms Stark has other responsibilities too,” Ben told him gently, “And you have homework that you still need to get done, no matter how boring you find it.”

“It’s not fair,” Peter sighed, and Toni knew what he was feeling all too well.

“If it were up to me I’d spend all my time in the lab too,” Toni winked at Peter, “But my friends Rhodey and Pepper insist I make time for other important things too. It’s important to make time for other things too Peter.”

He sighed but lit up as she called the elevator to take them up to her own personal lab.

“Peter’s been so excited to find out you moved here,” May commented as the elevator went up. “His own personal hero in his city.”

“I grew up here,” she told May. “This is my city too. It’s good to be back to where I was raised.”

“Are you going to be working with the Research and Development team here?” Peter asked her curiously.

“I am,” Toni confirmed, “In fact, my cousin Ava moved back here with me so that the two of us could work with the team here to develop new SI products.”

“That’s so cool,” Peter’s eyes lit up, as the elevator door opened.

“Go on,” Toni gestured for him to exit first. Peter all but bounced out of the elevator, stepping into her new domain, the lab she’d set up for herself in this city.

“Hi DUM-E! Hi U! Hi Butterfingers!” Peter greeted her bots as her children all but came over excitedly at the site of Peter. “Hi Mr JARVIS.”

“Hello Mister Peter,” JARVIS responded, and Peter beamed up at him. “How have you been doing?”

“I’ve been good, Mr JARVIS!” Peter chatted with her AI. “I had a math test on Friday, and I think I did really good on it. I won’t know at least until Wednesday though because Mrs Burnham takes time to mark them all and I have to wait. I’m so excited Ms Stark and all of you moved up here because it means I get to see you guys all the time.”

“Speaking of which,” Toni interjected, “What did you want to work on today, Peter?”

He grew quiet all of a sudden, as he took some diagrams he had drawn on lined paper out of his binder from his backpack and placed it on the lab table.

“I was hoping we could make a robot?” Peter asked her shyly. “It doesn’t need to be an AI, I know that must be hard to make, but I was hoping the two of us could create a basic robot that I could take home.”

Toni grinned at him, “I would love to make a robot with you. What were you thinking?”

Ben laughed, “Well, we’ll leave the two of you to it. Do you mind if May and I look around some of the levels open to the public?”

Toni nodded, “JARVIS, can you send up one of the tour guides to give them a personal tour? Actually, see if Ava is free, she’ll make sure they get the true Stark Industries experience.”

“Only if it’s not too much trouble,” May elbowed Ben. “We don’t want to pull any of your employees away from actual work so the two of us can be shown some stuff. We don’t mind waiting in here while the two of you work. God knows I don’t understand a thing either of you say, but it is fascinating to watch you both work.”

“It’s no trouble,” Toni smiled, “Besides, I have a feeling you would get along with Ava. Just send her here after you’re done so she can meet Peter.”

“See you in a few hours, kiddo,” Ben waved, and Peter waved back quickly, as the two of them stepped back into the elevator, ready to explore her building.

“Do you think the design looks doable?” Peter asked, as he turned to her. She asked JARVIS to scan it quickly as she projected it in front of them.

“I think you did an excellent job coming up with the design for this, Peter,” she praised the child, “And that between the two of us, we’ll have you going home with a little robot today.”


 

It had been nearly a year since she’d moved back to New York when she received the news.

To her defence, it had been somewhat of a busy year, between getting the reactor to be powerful enough to power her new building sustainably and setting up several meetings with the city to be able to get such a thing approved. And then came all the designs she and the R&D department were coming up with to bring in a profit, as well as the work she was still doing with the Maria Stark Foundation to give back to those who had lost so much. That coupled with visits to see her Aunt Peggy and Uncle Daniel, as well as Board meetings in Malibu, missions with Rhodey as Iron Woman, she supposed she had been wearing herself a bit thin. Which was probably why such a small blip didn’t even register on her radars until after the fact.

Of course, she’d had JARVIS running scanners on any encounters that were remotely out of the ordinary. But she supposed many things had a way of slipping in New York when it wasn’t seen as something out of the blue.

She supposed men running around New York in confusion wasn’t enough to raise any red flags, especially when she was searching for enhanced attacks, alien encounters, and the lot.

“Toni,” she heard, as Harry walked onto her floor, Ava and Uncle Daniel tailing behind him.

“What is it?” she asked, fearing the worst, “What happened? Is Aunt Peggy okay? Did anything happen to her?”

“She’s fine,” Harry reassured her, “But we need to talk. Something has happened, something that you need to be aware of.”

“Tell me,” she demanded, and she saw them all look slightly worried. “Please, just tell me what it was that happened. Whatever it is, what ever happened, I can take it, I promise.”

“SHIELD was on an artic expedition,” Harry began, “Top secret. Very few people knew about it and very few people were on the trip. Phil Coulson went on it, however. Him and a team of a few other were searching for an entire year working on Project Valkyrie.”

“And?” Toni said sharply. She was no stranger for those who went on artic expeditions looking for Steve Rogers. Hell, her father had dedicated half his life to trying to find the good captain and bring his body home. It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t mean they were successful.

“They found the remains of the ship,” Harry said, and she exhaled slightly. “Alongside the body of Captain Steve Rogers. And they brought him back to a SHIELD facility in New York.”

“Are they going to experiment on the body?” she exclaimed, a little stunned. Her mind was racing in circles, wondering what she could do to circumvent such a thing. Her father was on the project, one of the main scientists who had come up with the serum. Erskine was dead, but her father had left her everything in his will, including the ownership of all his work. That would mean she had a claim to the body.

The good captain deserved to be laid to rest. He deserved to finally be given a permanent home that wasn’t at the bottom of the ocean. She wanted to give him that much. A hero such as himself deserved a peaceful ending, not to be dissected like some sort of lab rat and tested in an attempt to try and reproduce the serum.

Of course the idea of a serum that allowed men to have super human strength was something that she could understand to be desirable. But it didn’t change the fact that the man had died trying to save them all from HYDRA. Did he not deserve to finally be at peace?

“Toni,” Harry said cutting off her train of thought, “They found his body frozen in a block of ice. Somehow the serum preserved his vital body functions as he was encased, frozen as he remained under the ice.”

“What are you saying?” she asked him, trembling slightly, unsure of what her cousin was telling her.

Steve Rogers, the man her father preferred her to her entire life. The person Howard Stark had preferred to name his legacy over her. The man her father had searched for his entire life, missing over many important moments in her life in the search of the man over. The man that her father had claimed to be worth far more than she could ever amount to.

Steve Rogers, who was everything she’d never be. Everything she could never come close to being, no matter how hard she tried, no matter how hard she worked. She’d never be good enough, not in comparison to the honourable Captain America, no matter how much she wished she’d be worth such a thing.

And here was her cousin, telling her what exactly? What was her cousin even trying to say? Because it was impossible. It was completely and utterly impossible. There was no way that the words her cousin was trying to tell her could possibly make any sense.

She was a genius, she knew far more than anyone in the room at any given time, and yet she found herself standing here, utterly speechless, unsure of what it was that her cousin was trying to say. And even though she could feel the pieces fitting together in her head, it didn’t make any sense to her. She couldn’t compute the information being handed to her.

Frozen in a block of ice, preserving all vital organs.

Oh Watson and Crick.

“Toni, Steve Rogers was frozen in the ice,” Harry told her slowly. “SHIELD had been defrosting his body for hours when they found out that his heart was still beating. Captain America is alive.”

She grew pale, as his words registered in her ears and JARVIS played the clip of him running amok in Times Square as SHIELD personnel cornered him and Fury explained that he was in the future.

Things were definitely going to get far more interesting.