Chapter 1: (i)
“Come on, Toni, throw the dice!”
Toni bites her lower lip in concentration and carefully pitches the dice onto the craps table.
“Six, jimmy hicks.”
Toni pumps her fist. “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about! We should stay till the morning.”
She looks at the crowd gathered around her expectantly.
They all cheer, just as she had predicted.
“You are unbelievable.”
Toni grins and turns around.
Rhodey looks so put out that she knows she’s in a hell of a lot of trouble, but he looks so handsome in his dress blues that she has to reach out and pinch his cheek like he’s a five-year-old.
“Oh, no! I didn’t know they roped you into this.” she pouts.
“Nobody roped me into anything!” Rhodey protests, huffing and swatting away her hand.
Toni hugs him, laughing. “I’m so sorry.”
“But they told me that if I presented you with the award, you'd be deeply honoured,” Rhodey says, snidely.
“Of course, I’d be deeply honoured,” Toni nudges him in the side. “It's you, that's great – no , that’s fucking awesome, babe. So, when do we do it?”
Rhodey shoves a crystal figure into her hands. “It's right here. Here you go.”
Toni stares at it. It’s a gaudy thing.
“There it is. Well, that was easy.” Rhodey is still unhappy. Toni sighs. “I am so sorry,” she says, sincerely.
Rhodey sighed (it’s not the first time Toni has done this, and this won’t be the last). “Yeah, it’s okay,” he waves it off.
Toni is glad for her six-inch heels, because all she has to do is tip herself forwards just a little bit to kiss him on the cheek.
“You’re the best, sugarplum.”
“Yeah, I am, and don’t you forget it,” Rhodey warns.
Toni holds a hand to her heart and gasps loudly. “Such blasphemy. I won’t hear of it.”
“You look hot, by the way,” Rhodey admits, grudgingly.
Toni looks down at herself. She can barely see her feet through the tufts of her dusky blue dress, but she knows she looks hot. Her tattoo is bare, for all the world to see, the head of a monstrous-looking dragon with a jaw full of sharp, pointed teeth looming out of the back of her dress; she’s lacking jewelry and layers and layers of makeup and even her hair’s a bit of a hot mess by now, but she knows she looks gorgeous.
“I do, don’t I?” she waggles her eyes, with no small amount of arrogance.
Rhodey can’t help but laugh – it’s a hysterical thing. “I can’t believe you. You’re even dressed for it, for God’s sake.”
Toni shrugs. “I saw the craps’ table. I got distracted. It happens.”
Rhodey raises an eyebrow. “Only to you .”
Toni pouts, visibly. “Don’t hate me, Cabbage Patch. You know I’ll die if you hate me. I really am sorry.”
Rhodey rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah.”
Toni palms the heavy glass figurine. “Wow! Would you look at that? That's something else. I don't have any of those floating around,” she muses. She leans in. “How many people do you think I’d brain if I just threw it?”
Rhodey’s head slumps forward. “Can you please not start a casino fight? ‘Cause then you’ll just expect me to clean it up.”
“Bold words from the guy who trashed that bar in Boston in ’87,” Toni retorts through a red mouth and a smile.
Rhodey makes a disgruntled face. “You swore you’d never mention that again,” he hisses.
“When did you become so boring?” Toni drawls, disappointed. She waves her dice-ridden fist under his jaw. “Come on, babe, give me a hand, will you? Give me a little something-something.”
Rhodey rolls his eyes. “Throw the damn dice, Toni.”
Toni sighs. “So boring,” she comments. She turns to the scantily-dressed brunette who’s still fluttering her eyelashes like she’s a wind-up toy who just can’t stop. “Why don’t you give it a shot, honey?”
The girl sinks her teeth into her lower lip and stares at her through lidded eyes. She puckers her lips, in a way that begs Toni to consider the other ways her lips could be used (potentially accompanied with an invitation back to Toni’s luxury mansion overlooking the beach), and blows lightly on the dice.
“Okay, now, you,” Toni looks at Rhodey, expectantly.
Rhodey simply crosses his arms over his chest, unimpressed.
Toni looks like she’s seconds away from stomping on her feet. “Come on, honeybear,” she whines.
Rhodey knocks Toni’s hand out of his personal space, causing Toni to accidentally drop the dice onto the craps table.
“Whoops,” he mutters, unrepentant.
“There it is,” Toni exclaims, delighted. “Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes rolls! And...” She looks at the dealer, expectantly.
“Two craps. Line away.”
Rhodey grins at Toni, vindicated. “ That's what happens,” he says, smugly.
Toni shrugs. “Worse things have happened. I think we're gonna be fine. Colour me up, William.”
Five minutes later, despite her many protests and insistence that he is such a downer and to go away ‘cause you’re harshing my buzz, sour patch , Rhodey is bodily dragging her from the craps table, citing that she needs to be in Afghanistan early tomorrow morning and a night of gambling isn’t exactly conducive to an early morning trans-Atlantic journey.
“This is where I exit,” Rhodey motions to the lift that will take him up to his room.
Toni gives the hotel lobby a disdainful look. “You know, you could just stay at the mansion,” she says, pointedly. “Standing room, amazing service, and the greatest leaps in engineering and technology known to anyone. Not to mention, the pièce de résistance , moi .” She exaggeratedly waves her hand in her own direction.
Rhodey’s lips twitch. “While that does sound tempting, the Apogee Foundation paid for the room, babe. I’m gonna milk it for all it’s worth.”
Toni sighs, waving him off. “Such a downer. Bye, baby cakes.”
Happy follows her dutifully as she and Rhodey diverge towards the entrance.
“See, this is why people think we’re screwing!” Rhodey calls out after her.
Toni snorts. “You should be so lucky,” she retorts (even if she knows it’s really the other way around).
“Tomorrow, don't be late.”
Toni grimaces. “Yeah, you can count on it.”
She doesn’t turn her head. If she turns her head, Rhodey will know she’s completely and utterly faking it.
“I know, I know, dad,” Toni mutters. She passes by an actor in full legionnaire armour, taking overdone photos with tourists who have clearly never been Las Vegas before, and shoves the Apogee into his startled hands. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Go nuts.”
It’s a little chilly when she steps out of the hotel and she wishes she had brought a jacket to go with this dress. Happy rushes ahead of her to open the car door, so she can get inside first, even though she’s told him like fifteen times she can open her own damn doors. She gives him a little more leeway than any other person (read: man) in his situation, because she knows it doesn’t come from a place of condescension, rather than his genuine belief that it’s included in his job description as her driver – poor thing .
“Ms Stark! Excuse me, Ms Stark!”
Toni sighs. She turns around, only to be faced with an intrepid but proficient blonde, clutching a tape recorder like it’s her lifeline.
“Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair magazine. Can I ask you a couple of questions?” Christine stares her down.
Toni pastes on her flaky socialite smile: the one she knows simultaneously endears people to her and makes them want to kill her; the one she inherited from Maria Collins Carbonell, long before she needed a glass of wine to deal with her anymore; the one she practiced in the mirror for months when she was five until it came as easy as breathing, just so she could be used to maintain the charade that they were some happy Brady-Bunch-esque family, and pretend her father wasn’t a functioning alcoholic who spent whatever miniscule free time he had left to search the Atlantic for some dead super soldier.
But she is most certainly not bitter at all.
“Hi,” she greets like she’s excited.
“You've been called the Da Vinci of our time. What do you say to that?” Christine asks her, curiously.
Toni exhales, thoughtfully. “Absolutely ridiculous. I don't paint.”
“And what do you say to your other nickname? The Merchant of Death?”
Christine’s eyes are like sharp points, watching for the moment where her face will crack open.
Too bad, honey, not happening.
“I actually quite like that one,” she muses. “It’s very… monumental , wouldn’t you say?”
Christine is as unimpressed as ever.
“Let me guess, Berkeley?” Toni asks, dryly.
Christine grits her teeth. “Brown, actually.”
“Well, Ms Brown,” Toni openly mocks her. “It's an imperfect world, but it's the only one we've got. I guarantee you, the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I'll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.”
Christine raises an eyebrow. “Rehearse that much?”
Toni grins just to fuck with her. “Every night in front of the mirror before bedtime.”
“I can see that.”
“I could show you first-hand?” Toni offers.
Honestly, she’s not all that interested (she doesn’t normally fuck people who’d put a knife in her throat if they could) – she just wants to see what Christine will do.
“All I want is a serious answer.”
Toni’s lip curls. “You want a serious answer? Fine. I think you come after me, because it’s easier to criticise the one female CEO of a weapons manufacturing company than attack all those assholes on the Hill that think it’s a good idea to invade another country. I’m just doing business.”
Christine crosses her arms over her chest. “You’re saying I’m sexist?” she asks, incredulously.
“I’m saying anti-capitalism is all the rage nowadays. Guns don’t kill people, sweetheart; people kill people. Why don’t you redirect your anger at someone a little more culpable than I am?”
“You’re telling me you’re an innocent vendor of goods and the big bad government is to blame?” Christine scoffs. “I think your privilege is distorting your view of reality, Ms Stark.”
“Firstly, I’m a Jewish-Latina pansexual genius businesswoman in a world that prioritises brawn over brain, men over women, white over non-white, and heterosexuality over anything else; how much privilege do you really think I have?” Toni retorts. “Secondly, I have never , in my life, lobbied the United States government to start or continue a war, just so I could peddle my weapons and get rich, and I take exception to that. I make it a point to stay away from politics, just so I don’t have to deal with any conflicts of interest. Thirdly, look – Christine, was it? – if it weren’t me making the weapons, it’d just be someone else. My weapons actually keep our soldiers and military personnel safe,” Toni snaps. “Fourthly, do you plan to report on the millions we've saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intellicrops?”
Christine purses her lips.
Toni knows she has her, and smiles. “No, of course not. Why would you? That kind of news doesn’t sell, does it?” She leans in, enjoying the way the muscles tighten in Christine’s face like she’d lunge for her and start ripping her hair out of the roots if she could. “Now, who’s the sellout?”
Christine makes a loud noise of disgust. “Do you ever lose an hour of sleep your whole life?”
Toni gives her the once-over, just so Christine knows what she wants from her. “I’d be prepared to lose a few with you.”
Christine’s the type to play for dominance, but Toni has been doing this for a long time.
So, when the blonde tries to pin her wrists down, she uses a move Jarvis taught her a long time ago (simultaneously praying for him to forgive her for bringing him into her sex games, however indirectly) and flips them over such that she’s crouching over Christine and holding down her arms.
It’s been a long time since someone got the better of her in bed.
“You are such a control freak,” Christine hisses.
Toni snorts. “Look who’s talking,” she sighs. “Everhart, we can do this one of two ways. One, you let me take care of everything and I promise you will have the best orgasms of your fucking life. Or two, we have a pointless pissing match and both of us go unsatisfied and disappointed. Now, which would you prefer?”
Christine narrows her eyes. “You’re pretty sure of yourself.”
Toni runs her eyes down miles of milk-smooth skin and smiles, slowly and deliberately, running a pink tongue over a red lip and watching as Christine’s eyes are automatically drawn to the motion. She splays her hands across the inside of Christine’s thighs and opens out her legs. She props the other woman’s hips in her lap and thumbs the crease between her thigh and pelvic bone.
“Ready?” she taunts.
Christine grits her teeth. “I thought you promised me the best orgasms of my fucking life ?” she retorts.
Toni tuts. “Would it kill you to have some patience?”
Christine folds her hands behind her head. “I’d have patience if I got what I came here for.”
Toni rolls her eyes. “Everhart, do me a favour: shut the hell up and enjoy the ride.”
Christine opens her mouth to bark something at her, but she loses speech altogether when Toni lifts her hips in the air and licks a stripe across her cunt.
“J, give me the exploded view,” Toni murmurs absentmindedly.
“The compression in cylinder three appears to be low, Miss Antonia,” JARVIS tells her.
“Log that,” she informs him.
The roar of her music turns down to a volume that she can barely hear, and she turns around to see Pepper letting herself into the workshop (she’s beginning to regret giving other people a code to her safe space, but it was a deal she made with Rhodey after her last three-day inventing binge and Pepper had freaked out so hard she almost called emergency services).
“Please don’t turn down my music,” she tells Pepper as politely she can be.
Pepper ignores her. “You’re supposed to be halfway across the world now.”
“I’m aware of that,” Toni retorts. “And again, please don’t turn down my music.”
Pepper rolls her eyes. “I can’t have a serious conversation with you if AC/DC is actively removing my ability to hear.”
“Firstly, that was Suicidal Tendencies, not AC/DC. Get your facts right. Secondly, Pepper, I can’t stress this enough, but don’t turn down my fucking music,” Toni snaps.
“Fine,” Pepper flings back.
“ Thank you ,” Toni sighs. “You know, sometimes, you just suck at listening.”
Pepper’s eyes go comically wide. “ I suck at listening?”
“Yes,” Toni insists.
“ I suck at listening? Are you kidding me?” Pepper demands.
Toni rolls her eyes and turns back to the engine. “How’d she take it?”
Pepper gives her a withering look. “Like a champ.” She pauses, closing her eyes as if she questions the sense of her asking her next question, but it’s like a train wreck and she just can’t stop herself. “I thought you were strictly-escort-service nowadays?”
“I am,” Toni concedes. “But she pissed me off.”
Pepper grimaces. “Well, if there ever was a reason to have a one-night stand,” she mutters under her breath.
Toni waves her wrench in Pepper’s direction. “Pepper, honey, you’re way too uptight. You need to get laid, like pronto.”
Pepper raises an eyebrow. “You know, some would call this a hostile work environment.”
“Would you ?” Toni raises an eyebrow.
Pepper sighs, long-sufferingly. “Why are you still here?” she demands.
“Why are you trying to hustle me out of here?” Toni puts her hands on her hips.
“Your flight was scheduled to leave an hour and a half ago,” Pepper points out.
Toni raises an eyebrow. “That's funny, I thought with it being my plane and all, that it would just wait for me to get there,” she says, dryly.
Pepper tucks a stray lock of strawberry-blonde hair behind her ear and looks down at the files in her arms.
“Toni, I need to speak to you about a couple things before I get you out of the door.”
“Now you’re just contradicting yourself. I thought you wanted me out of here?” Toni points out. “And doesn't it kind of defeat the whole purpose of having your own plane if it departs before you arrive?” she muses out loud.
Pepper ignores her stream of consciousness. “Larry called. He's got another buyer for the Jackson Pollock in the wings. Do you want it? Yes or no.”
Toni doesn’t even pretend to think it through. “Is it a good representation of his spring period?”
Pepper’s brow furrowed. “No. The Springs was actually the neighbourhood in East Hampton where he lived and worked, not ‘spring’ like the season,” she explains.
Toni fiddles with the cylinder, only half-listening. “Pepper, I don’t really care. So?” she pushes.
Pepper knows her well enough to understand her monosyllable expectations.
“I think it's a fair example. I think it's incredibly overpriced,” Pepper amends.
Toni pauses. “I need it,” she says simply.
Pepper makes a sound of protest.
“Buy it. Store it.”
Pepper takes a deep breath. “Okay. The MIT commencement speech-”
“-is in June. Please don't harangue me about stuff that’s like way, way, down...”
“They're haranguing me, so I'm gonna say yes.”
“Deflect it and absorb it. Don't transmit it back to me,” Toni argues.
Pepper shoves a wad of papers into Toni’s arms. “I need you to sign this before you get on the plane.”
Toni rolls her eyes and holds out her hand, expectantly, in which Pepper drops a pen. She skims over the contract briefly, recalling the shipment she had approved a few days ago. She signs her name with a flourish where it indicates her name and hands the document back to Pepper, along with the pen.
Pepper sighs. “Please tell me you’re going now?”
“Fine,” Toni huffs. “But only because I’m done here; not because you want me to. Got it!” She points her wrench at Pepper, warningly. She jumps off the table and makes for the door, blowing a kiss to the three bots playing in the corner. “Mama will be back soon, babies. Don’t miss me too much.”
DUM-E chatters something in robot talk and waves his arm in her direction.
Her heart melts.
Oy, I’m going soft.
“J, keep an eye on them. No parties,” Toni warns.
“I will attempt to curb their mischief to the best of my abilities, Miss Antonia,” JARVIS replies, dryly.
“Such sass, J-baby,” Toni laments. “I have no idea where you get that from.”
“Are you absolutely certain, miss?”
“Very well. Then, I am content to follow you in your delusion.”
“You know, I think the most stable relationship you have is with your AI,” Pepper comments.
“That’s how I roll,” Toni mutters. “And besides, who needs real people? Real people suck.”
“Wow, thanks,” Peppers says, sarcastically.
“Yeah, but you’re not really real people, are you? You’re one of my people. That’s very different,” Toni reasons (frankly, it makes a lot of sense to her; how is it her fault if no one else gets it?).
“Does being one of ‘your’ people come with a pay raise?” Pepper asks without missing a beat.
“Oh, I’m sorry, the $4000 you spent on that blue dress wasn’t enough of a raise?” Toni raises an eyebrow.
“Yes, I do look at my bank statements, Ms Potts,” Toni brags.
“Well, we learn something new every day,” Pepper murmurs under her breath.
“Don’t be so bitter, dear. Knowledge is good.” Toni stops in the doorway to her workshop, turning her head and sending Pepper a wicked smirk. “Oh, and you know, if you want to make use of my standing arrangement with Marcella, I’d be okay with that. Call it an extra birthday present between girlfriends.”
She runs up the stairs before Pepper can throw her shoe at her or something.
“I’m going on a vacation after you come back!” Pepper screams after her. “And you’re paying!”
Toni cackles to herself.
It’s a bit of a thing with her, but she can’t help but overtake Happy on the road to the airstrip where her jet is located. Her Audi R8 is beautiful and deserves to be treated like it’s beautiful, so she harbours no regret when she has to wait a couple of minutes for Happy to catch up in her Rolls Royce.
She beams at him when he jumps out of the car, making his way to the boot to grab her luggage and garment bag so she can change out of her workshop chic into something a little more presentable for a weapons demonstration in an Afghanistan military base.
“You're good. I thought I lost you back there,” Toni can’t help but tease.
“You did, ma’am. I had to cut across Mulholland,” Happy grins back at her.
She slings the Louis Vuitton duffle across one shoulder and takes the garment bag in the other hand.
“The Hermes or the Prada, miss?” Happy asks.
“The Hermes, I think,” Toni tells him. “These military types seem like they’ll appreciate the austerity of my fashion choices.”
She manages to slip the handles of her bag onto one of her wrists (Happy doesn’t offer to carry them in for her, because he tried it once, when he first started working for her, and he’s regretted it ever since) and strides over to the airstair leading to her jet. Rhodey is waiting for her at the top, in his dress blues, his arms folded across his wide chest and looking down on her with a stern expression.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he demands.
“What?” Toni asks, innocently.
“Three hours,” Rhodey says, slowly, as if that explains everything.
To be fair, in his defence, if it were anyone else standing on the other end of that conversation, it would.
But it’s Toni, after all, and she’s made a career out of making people wait for her (frankly, she’s been on the other end before and she got nothing for it, so it’s better this way).
“I got caught doing a piece for Vanity Fair,” Toni says, blithely, shoving her luggage into his arms as she pushes past him into the jet.
“For three hours. For three hours, you got me standing here,” Rhodey snaps after her.
“Well, I’m waiting on you now,” Toni points out. “Let's go. Come on.” She looks at the crew who are waiting for her to give the go-ahead. “Wheels up! Rock and roll!”
Toni sighs, finishing skimming through her emails.
Obie wants me to cheap out on the milling machine. But we don’t even know anything about this company and I’m not going to pay through my teeth for some schmuck to make some second-rate machine that’ll make second-rate guns that’ll just get soldiers killed. I’ll just make it myself. But I’d have to extend my forecasts for the new Modular Tactical Vests for at least six months.
I’ll need Pepper to send me the workup on that factory in Pennsylvania.
Maybe I should just make the lathe too. And the factory will need a vibration isolator and a cold forming press too. Oh, hell, I might as well just make it all.
But the Marine Corp may actually kill me. Nah, they need me too much.
Man, it’s good to be indispensable.
Toni looks up, only to find Rhodey stubbornly looking at some file and avoiding her gaze.
“What are you reading, platypus?” Toni asks, curiously.
“Nothing,” Rhodey replies, curtly.
Toni’s shoulders slump. “Come on, sour patch. Don’t be mad,” she urges.
Rhodey gives her a fake smile (not as good as hers, but good enough – he’s learnt her ways well). “I told you, I’m not mad. I'm indifferent, okay?”
“I said I was sorry,” Toni moans.
“Good morning, Ms Stark,” A stewardess looks at her with hearts in her eyes.
“You don't need to apologise to me,” Rhodey mutters. “I’m just your man.”
“Hi,” Toni winks at the stewardess. “Hi. I told him I was sorry, but he...”
“I’m just indifferent right now,” Rhodey continues.
The stewardess either is completely lost as to what is going on between Rhodey and Toni in front of her, or so committed to getting her job done that she’s content to ignore the tension.
“You don't respect yourself, so I know you don't respect me,” Rhodey says, insolently.
Toni sighs. “Now you’re just being passive-aggressive. I respect you. You know I respect you, honeybear.”
“I'm just your babysitter. So, when you need your diaper changed...” Rhodey looks up at the stewardess as she hands him a coiled, damp towel. “Thank you.” He returns to glaring at Toni. “Let me know and I'll get you a bottle, okay?”
Toni ignores him. “Hey! Heat up the sake, will you?” She gives Rhodey a belligerent smile. “Thanks for reminding me.”
“No,” Rhodey immediately protests. “I'm not talking...” He clears his throat. “We're not drinking. We're working right now.”
“You can't have sashimi without sake,” Toni protests.
“You are constitutionally incapable of being responsible,” Rhodey snaps.
There’s an urge to bite back (it’s not like I’ve run a fucking Fortune 500 company since I was 21 years old; it’s not like I’ve singlehandedly been responsible for at least 87% of Stark Industries’ gross revenue since I started working there; it’s not like I’m the one making the body armour and weapons that keep your boys in the Air Force and the Army and the Marine Corps fucking alive ; but, hey, if you want to call that being constitutionally incapable of being responsible, you fucking do you).
But it’s Rhodey, after all, and she’s incapable of lashing out at him. She wouldn’t be the Antonia Margaret Stark she is today if a gorgeous-grinned, guileless nineteen-year-old James Rupert Rhodes hadn’t asked her (tiny, terrified, false-confident and perpetually-lonely that she had been), if she wanted to be his lab partner in Mechanics and Materials I – frankly, she had been convinced for that whole first week that he was only screwing with her because no one, not ever , had wanted to be the freaky genius fourteen-year-old’s lab partner.
But he had, and she thinks she’ll die loving him for it.
So, she can stomach her affront for him.
Toni rolls her eyes. “Hopefully the sake’ll dislodge that stick from your arse,” she retorts.
The stewardess brings around a small opaque glass bottle. “Hot sake?” she offers.
“Yes, two, please,” Toni agrees.
“No. I'm not drinking. I don't want any,” Rhodey insists.
Toni is pleasantly vindicated when not half an hour later, he is utterly captivated by the sway of the stewardess’ hips as they dance around the poles, their shirts tied in a knot just under their breasts, baring their taut stomachs.
Toni is not that interested, if she’s being honest. Instead, she’s staring at the ceiling, thinking about the specs for the new body armour and where she’ll have to source the materials to build the machinery for the Pennsylvania factory, only half-listening to Rhodey’s diatribe in her ear.
“That's what I'm talking about,” Rhodey blathers on. “When I get up in the morning and I'm putting on my uniform, you know what I recognise? I see in that mirror that every person that's got this uniform on got my back!” He insists.
Drunk Rhodey is adorable, but Patronising Rhodey is not fun at all, and she tries very hard to tune him out.
Toni sighs. “Hey, you know what? I'm not like you. I'm not cut out...”
“No, no,” Rhodey pats her on the leg, fondly. “You don't have to be like me! But you're more than what you are.”
Toni turns her head and blinks at him. “Can you excuse me if I'm a bit distracted here?”
“No!” Rhodey barks. “You can't be distracted right now! Listen to me!”
Toni groans and lets her head fall back against couch.
Oy, this trip is going to last forever.
Chapter 2: (ii)
Toni finishes changing her clothes into something a little more appropriate for a weapons presentation in front of the military, while Rhodey handles all the paperwork she wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole if she were given another choice.
She touches up her makeup in the mirror one last time, making sure that her lipstick isn’t smudged beyond the lines of her mouth and her mascara hasn’t already left black specks on her unblemished eyelids.
She blows out a frustrated breath through her teeth and checks her outfit once more. Her slim-fitting, long-sleeved black top, subtly exposing enough of her dark olive skin through the keyhole neckline, is tucked into taupe-checked tailored pants which end just an inch or two above her ankles. She’s taller now, due to her black loafer heels that put her at around six feet tall, which means that stuffy military types will find it very, very hard to make her feel small, just so they can be proven right that there should be a man in her place (as if she is some soft creature to be kept at home; as if she has ever looked upon any man as her equal in anything).
When she saunters down the staircase, the general in charge of the base is waiting for her, with Rhodey by his side.
“General,” she greets with her trademark charming smile that makes men blush like they’re twelve years old and prone to spontaneous crushing all over again.
“Welcome, Ms Stark,” the general inclines his head. “We look forward to your weapons presentation.”
She looks at him through her eyelashes. “Why, thank you. It’s good to be here.”
The general is clearly affected, and he has to clear his throat, a sudden tinge of red colouring his cheekbones.
Toni considers that win and barely resists the urge to pump her fist.
The general leads them to a convoy of jeeps that will take them to the site where they want her to conduct her presentation (she doubts it would be conducive to good diplomatic relations if the Taliban were to see missiles firing from a United States military base). Once they reach their destination and Toni climbs out of her vehicle, she slides her hand inside Rhodey’s arm, thumbing the inside of his elbow back and forth, as she’s escorted to the site where they want her to conduct her presentation.
“You look good, babe,” Rhodey nudges her hip with his. “Like you’re ready to conquer the world.”
Toni waggles her eyebrows. “Thanks, buttercup. You want to be my second-in-command?”
Rhodey narrows his eyes. “You gonna pay me?”
Toni holds a hand to her heart. “Are you saying that your allegiance to me is based on monetary compensation?” she asks, mock-hurt.
Despite her teasing tone, there’s a grain of truth in her words and there’s a part of her that needs to know what his answer is – she refuses to believe that he’s been taking her for a ride for more than two decades because that does not make any sense.
Rhodey snorts. “Babe, if my allegiance to you was based on money, I wouldn’t still be paying half the bill when we go out after knowing you for twenty-four years.”
Toni grimaces. “Fair enough,” she concedes.
“You ready for this?” Rhodey asks, curiously, cocking his head at the group of soldiers they were approaching.
Toni scoffs. “Oh, please, I wouldn’t be surprised if the half the men are imagining me straddling that missile without any clothes on or getting myself off, as opposed to actually listening to what I have to say. I’m an illusion to them. I make weapons sexy, hot, appealing. I’m like the weather girl of weapons’ production.”
Rhodey screws up his face. “Bad mental image, Toni,” he says, horrified at the prospect.
“They’ll probably add it to their highlight reel and jerk off to it too, later,” she adds, just to fuck with him.
“Toni!” he whines.
Toni rolls her eyes. “Don’t be such a prude, honeybear,” she hums and sends him a sly smile out of the corner of her eyes.
“Seriously, though,” Rhodey pushes.
“Sugarplum,” Toni sighs. “I have to work twice as hard, be twice as good,” her voice goes thick with venom. “Just to be considered half of any man in my place. Here, in this world, it makes everything I do so much harder than it should be.”
Rhodey looks at her, thoughtfully. “You know you’re not half of anything to me, right? You’ve always been the real deal.”
Toni swells with emotion. “You’re always so sweet to me, honeybear,” she teases.
Rhodey chuckles. “Good luck with the presentation.”
Toni tosses her hair back and gives him a devastating look. “When have I ever needed luck?” she teases.
Rhodey rolls his eyes (she’s beginning to think he needs to do that at least once a day when he’s around her or his eyes might just fall out of their sockets). “Just go,” he says, long-sufferingly.
Toni blows him a visible kiss, much to Rhodey’s embarrassment and the interest of the soldiers watching their interaction, and marches, past the general and other commanders are waiting for her, to where her Jericho is located, taking her place a good hundred feet away from the missile.
The soldiers are all chatting amongst themselves, either uninterested that she’s ready to begin her presentation or assuming that she’ll wait until they’re done with their morning gab-fest.
She clears her throat.
They don’t stop talking.
She taps something into her phone and a high-pitched whistle rings through the air from the speakers. The soldiers jump in their skins and their heads all swivel to where she is tapping her foot, unimpressed.
“I’m just going to assume you’re all done shooting the breeze, if you don’t mind, of course,” Toni says, dryly, and watches in amusement as a number of the soldiers, including the commanders (good), shift on their two feet in embarrassment. “I could start if you’re all ready? I mean, it’s not like I just flew twenty-two hours across the Atlantic Ocean so that I could show you some respect by making this presentation in person or anything.”
They wouldn’t be doing this if I were a man, she thinks bitterly.
You have to work twice as hard, be twice as good, Antonia, to get half of what they get, her father had told her time and time again (he had wanted her to be ready, almost pitying for the injustice he knew she would have to face).
She sees Rhodey’s mouth stretch into a broad but brief grin, and pride blossoms inside her (it’s always good to be reminded that Rhodey has her back like he always has).
“Now, is it better to be feared or respected?” Toni drawls, cocking her hip dramatically. She smiles, showing her white teeth. “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. It's the first missile system to incorporate our proprietary repulsor technology.”
Toni presses a button on the remote for the Jericho, which hums and shifts inside its chamber.
“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,” Toni declares, sharply. “That’s how Dad did it. That’s how America does it. And it's worked out pretty well so far.” She points out. She takes a deep breath. “Find an excuse to let one of these off the chain, and I personally guarantee you the bad guys won't even want to come out of their caves.” She promises.
She raises her remote such that her audience can see exactly what she’s doing.
“For your consideration, the Jericho,” she says, lightly.
She presses the button and watches the faces in front of her go slack in awe as the missile launches, crashing into the mountains behind her with a tremendous resonance. The reverberation sends smoke and dust and gravel flying through the air, reaching even the soldiers at their back of the congregation. They all flinch, covering themselves from the prick of the grime that floats around them, while Toni simply stands there, immune to the sting, her eyes wide open.
She strides over to where the cases upon cases of missiles are sitting, her hips swaying, and opens one of them, which hisses sharply. She bats her hand through the cold fog to get her hands on the decanter of Laphroaig Quarter Cask casually sitting inside. She pours herself a glass and takes a wistful sip, letting the general and his men come to their own conclusions about her missile.
“I'll be throwing one of these in with every purchase of five-hundred million or more. To peace!” she tips her tumbler in the air, scathingly.
Her phone chimes and she reaches for it, pursing her lips when she sees Obie flash across the screen. She sighs and answers the call.
Obadiah’s face appears on her screen, where he’s lying in bed on his side with his sheets coming up to his broad shoulders.
She softens inwardly and gives him one of her genuine smiles (he’s one of the few that’s earned her smiles).
“Obie, what are you doing up?” she asks, gently.
“I couldn’t sleep till I found out how it went. How’d it go?” Obadiah demands.
“It went great,” Toni smiles, lacklustre. “Looks like it's gonna be an early Christmas.” She gives him a thumbs-up.
“Hey! Way to go, baby girl! I'll see you tomorrow, yeah?” Obadiah asks, warmly.
Toni beams down at the picture of him on her phone and tucks a lock of her hair behind her ear, all shy-like, like she’s still five years old and Obadiah’s handing her a Rubik’s Cube, which she promptly solves in just over three seconds, and he tosses her over his shoulder, roaring like a monster, while she squeals and pretends to get away.
“Why aren't you wearing those pyjamas I got you?” she teases.
Obadiah rolls his eyes. “Good night, Toni.”
She hangs up the phone, slipping it into one of the pockets in her slacks, and is led to a Humvee by another soldier escort, his face slightly obscured by the depth of his helmet and where his uniform is swathed thickly around his neck. She slips into Humvee, feet first, and not for the first time since she landed in Afghanistan, curses the social preconception that expects women to wear heels that could very well result in a broken neck if they were to trip – at least in her case, she had been wearing heels (albeit small ones until she was ten) since she was six years old and walking in them comes like second nature to her now.
She rests her forearm against the car window rim, just as Rhodey strides up to her.
“Hey, Toni,” he begins.
But Toni hasn’t quite forgiven his whole lecture routine in the jet.
“I’m sorry, this is the ‘fun-vee’,” she sniffs. “The ‘hum-drum-vee’ is back there.” She points to the Humvee parked behind the one she is in.
Rhodey narrows his eyes, but ultimately squeezes the hand that’s still resting where the window is lowered.
“Nice job,” he murmurs. “See you back at base.”
She reaches out and pinches his cheek, laughing when he bats her hand away, making a face at her.
Toni sighs and leans back against the seat, eyeing her escort – her very silent escort.
She can’t stand silence.
“I feel like you’re driving me to a court martial,” she complains. “This is crazy. What did I do? I feel like you're going to pull over and snuff me.” The soldiers remain silent. “What, you're not allowed to talk? Hey, Forrest!” She nudges the soldier sitting next to her (he was young, so young).
“We can talk, miss,” he replies.
“Oh,” Toni’s eyes widen. “I see. So, it’s personal?”
“No, you intimidate them,” the driver (the very female driver) explains.
Toni makes a noise of surprise and leans forward. “Good God, you're a woman,” she says, delighted. “I honestly... I couldn't have called that.” She muses. “I mean, I'd apologise, but isn't that what we're going for here? I thought of you as a soldier first.” She points out.
“I’m an airman,” the soldier corrects.
“You have – actually – excellent bone structure, there,” Toni offers, shifting in her seat. “I’m honestly kind of having a hard time not looking at you now. Would you like to have dinner with me tonight? Is that weird?”
The soldiers in the Humvee all laugh.
“Wait, am I like violating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by asking you out? I’m sorry; I’ve been told I have like no filter whatsoever.” Toni pauses. “Or are you straight? Again, sorry, I don’t have much of a gaydar. I just see pretty people and I ask them out to dinner, or back to my place. Whichever works. I’m not really picky. I don’t have a place in Afghanistan, but my jet’s got a pretty bitching bedroom.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the soldier woman in the front smiling, while the rest chuckle.
“Come on, it's okay, laugh.”
The soldier in front of her opens his mouth to say something to her but closes it halfway through like he’s almost afraid to speak to her – she doesn’t know what it says about her, but frankly she likes the thought of being that daunting a figure.
The soldier ultimately finds the chutzpah to say what’s on his mind. “Ms Stark, I have a question to ask,” he stammers.
Toni raises an eyebrow (she wants to maintain her air of intimidation). “Yes?” she says, imperiously.
“Is it true you went twelve for twelve with last year’s Maxim cover models?” he asks, something akin to wonder colouring his voice.
Toni bites her lower lip, thoughtfully. “That is an excellent question. Yes and no,” she replies. “March and I had a scheduling conflict, but fortunately, the Christmas cover was twins. Anything else?” She looks around, expectantly.
The soldier next to her, the one she called Forrest, raises his hand.
She gives him a withering look. “You’re kidding me with the hand up, right?”
“Is it cool if I take a picture with you?” he asks, hopefully.
“Yes, it’s very cool,” Toni flutters her eyelashes.
He pulls a camera out of a pocket in his uniform and gives it to the soldier sitting opposite to Toni. He huddles closer to Toni, who leans in and gives a warmer smile than she would to any other camera.
“I don't want to see this on your Myspace page,” she jokes.
The soldier puts up a peace sign for the photo.
“Please, no gang signs,” Toni says, blithely, her face smooth and impassive. Her face cracks open into a wide grin when the boy’s drops his hand lamely. “No, throw it up. I'm kidding.” The boy smiles and puts up the peace sign again. “Yeah, peace. I love peace. I'd be out of a job with peace.” She muses.
Months later, Toni will be thinking of this moment and that boy’s smile immortalised in a photo that becomes dust in Afghanistan, because this is the moment when the entire convoy is attacked. Something unseen to her eye hits the vehicle in front of them, which turns into pieces in a rain of ash and fire. Toni presses herself against her side of the Humvee, curling forwards, as the sharp crack of gunshots and bangs barrage them on all sides, crashing into the ground surrounding them and the sides of the vehicle.
“What’s going on?” she demands. “Who’s attacking us?”
Clearly the soldiers ignore her.
“What have we got?” she snaps, but she gets no answer in return.
The driver she had been flirting with gets out of the Humvee to brawl with their attackers but barely manages to get both her feet on the dirty path their truck is on before she is abruptly shot in the head with a whetted hiss. Toni doesn’t flinch the way other women (hell, even other men) would in her position; this is not her first murder, nor her first death, but she feels a stab of grief for the woman she would’ve likely enjoyed conversing with during dinner or spending some satisfying time with in her bed.
She regrets not learning her name, at the very least.
The soldier who had been sitting opposite her curses under his breath when he sees his companion go down and fiddles with his gun, slipping out as well. He turns to the boy sitting beside Toni, his expression resolute.
“Jimmy, stay with Stark!”
Jimmy nods, raising his gun, aiming the barrel right out of the window, as he looks for any possible assailant at whom he may be able to fire.
“Stay down!” he tells her.
Toni rolls her eyes. “Give me a gun. I can help,” she insists.
But he doesn’t really believe her; all they think she’s good for is playing with wires; what she does will never be the same as a real war to them – little do they know that she’s been fighting a war since she was old enough to string two words together.
They think her weak, gentle, soft, but she made her first gun when she was seven and Aunt Peggy thought it foolish that a maker of weapons couldn’t shoot one herself, and she’d been a dead shot by the time she was twelve.
The soldier who had been sitting opposite to her, firing his rifle just outside Toni’s side of the Humvee, keels over, and Jimmy goes white with anger and fear.
“Son of a bitch!”
He jumps out of the car, full of foolish bravado, much to Toni’s irritation (because boys are always full of piss and vinegar, never thinking, reckless, so stupid)
“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! Give me a fucking gun!” Toni shouts, frustrated.
She can’t die here. She won’t die here.
“Stay here!” Jimmy insists.
When Jimmy turns around, he pitches forward as he is gunned down as well, the mortar shells leaving deep gouges in the side of the Humvee.
Ordinarily, Tony loves being proven right.
But today, there is no satisfaction.
He was a boy and now, he’s dead.
If she had any sort of maternal bone in her body or if she had been just a little more reckless during her teenage years, she may have even had a son his age.
She wonders what his mother will think when she puts his body in the ground.
Then, she remembers that there is no one to put her body in the ground.
Because Rhodey is there with her in this nightmare, and he’s the only one would have anything to say over her corpse.
God, Rhodey is there with her.
What if he’s already dead?
No, if he were dead, she would know; she would’ve felt it, in her bones; she would know.
He’s not dead.
The onslaught around her is so loud, so deafening such that her hearing becomes smothered, in a way that makes her want to rub at her ears frantically until her ears pop. She fumbles for the door handle and trips her way out of the truck, regretting, not for the first time since she landed in Bagram, that her choice in outfit includes heels. She looks around; there’s a carbine lying on the ground beside the front tire (she ignores the corpse beside it) and she props the barrel up on the hood of the car.
She tries to fire it, spotting a shadow in the midst of all that smoke in the distance, from where the barrage is coming, but the rifle jams and she curses, tossing it aside. She slides back against the door and looks around, spotting Rhodey manning the machine gun mounted on top of the Humvee beside hers.
“Rhodey!” she screams. “Rhodey!”
Logically, she’s known that, as a soldier on active duty, he has always been in danger. But she’s always just been terrified of that call from his mother or sister; she never thought she’d actually be there to watch him get hurt.
She’s completely helpless here and she hates it.
Rhodey turns his head and he starts just for a moment, seeing her there, like he completely forgot who had been in that first Humvee.
“Get down!” he shouts. “Get down, Toni!”
There’s a blast from right behind him and Rhodey’s forced to duck. For one brief moment, Toni’s heart stops, thinking he’s gone down, but then goes right back to firing the machine gun and her heart starts beating again. He turns back to her, swiping his hand insistently.
She ducks a mortar shell careening through the air and lunges over a large rock, ducking behind it for cover. She pulls out her phone, dialling the number for the air base to call for help, to do something, when a shell lands right next to her.
Toni tries to scramble away, run before the blast hits her, because it will hit her (she’s never made anything that didn’t do its damn job and do it well).
But she’s too slow.
The bomb blows up right in front of her and sends her flying through the air with a shriek. She hits the ground hard and pain lashes through her where her back hit the ground. Her skin is wet underneath her clothes and that just doesn’t make any sense, because she’s supposed to be wearing a bulletproof vest (the general had insisted).
Her chest hurts, like someone’s run her straight through, and it hurts to fucking breathe. She chokes something out, her throat tight, and fists her hands in the thin material of her top, tearing it open in the middle to expose the dark body armour stained a slick, warm red, the colour of blood.
Because it is blood.
The pain swells and Toni gives into the darkness, with one last thought.
Who’ll take care of JARVIS and the babies?
She’s not as dead to the world as they think she is.
She wishes she is.
There is something (someone) inside her.
She doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, but she knows there aren’t supposed to be hands inside her chest cavity, unspooling her insides until she is choking on blood. She struggles because it fucking hurts and it’s just like Ty all over again and she promised herself a long time ago, when she was nineteen and splintered on the inside from yet another broken heart, lying on a gravel path, her head ringing from his blow to her cheekbone, while he screamed down at her and she cringed on the ground, that she’d never let that happen to her again.
They hold her down, their hands meaty and damp with sweat, leaving marks of filth on her skin (she can feel it and it makes her sick because people only touch her when she wants them to). The sight, albeit hazy, of people looming over her (just like Ty did, she thinks) doesn’t make it easier and she cries out when whoever’s hand is inside her shifts.
The pain becomes blinding and thankfully, mercifully, she goes back into the darkness.
The darkness is kinder.
When she wakes up next, her vision is still fuzzy at the edges. Her mouth tastes like metal and there’s something dry coating the skin around it.
Blood, she realises.
She feels twice as heavy as she knows she weighs, when she tries to lift herself off the lumpy cot she is lying on top of. In the end, it doesn’t matter because when she tries to breathe, it feels like there is gravel in her lungs, scraping into tissue and membrane, like they’re going up against a cheese grater, and her sternum and ribcage feels like someone has gone inside and broken off piece by piece until she was cracked wide open.
Now, she wants to vomit (oh boy).
She pants low, wheezy, short, agonising gulps of air, staring up at what seems to be just rock, instead of an actual ceiling.
So, not the Hôtel Ritz Paris then.
She turns on her side, seeing a jug of water sitting innocently on a small, makeshift bench beside her cot. She reaches for it, with a great deal of struggle getting her arms to work as they should, but her hand catches on wires and she knocks the jug down instead, the water sloshing onto and rippling across the dirty floor.
She wraps a chilly hand around the thicket of wires and tugs.
Fuck, she wants to whimper, but resists the urge.
Her vision goes white from the pain and she swears she blacks out momentarily before coming to and realising that maybe, just maybe, pulling those wires isn’t a very good idea.
She tracks the wires to where they climb onto her chest, slipping underneath the shirt she had not been wearing when she had stumbled out of the convoy. This one is a dark violet and she’s wearing soft, thin brown pants that billow out at her ankles. She takes a deep breath, ignoring the stab of pain the movement warrants, and rolls up the hem of her shirt, exposing a swaddle of white bandages wrapped around her chest.
Toni shakes, the unease making her stomach curdle in protest.
With strength she is able to find within her, she tears at the bandages frantically, exposing a wide, rusted-over metal cylinder right in the middle of her chest, between her breasts, blood caking the rim, and she can now feel the bulk of it grinding down inside her chest cavity, like those hands she had hoped to hell were just nightmares that she could drink away (apparently not).
Now, she knows why it hurt when she pulled at the wires.
Because the wires are fucking inside her.
Chapter 3: (iii)
Warnings specific for this chapter: body horror, non-consensual body modification, graphic descriptions of injuries and torture, the use of the 'c' word, non-consensual touching, sexual assault, threats of rape/non-consensual sex - the sort of thing that would happen if a woman was trapped in a cave with terrorists who were prepared to kill her if she didn't do what they said.
She leans over the side of the bed and promptly retches out the contents of her stomach, which is mostly bile and spit and blood. When she’s done, she leans back against the flimsy pillow and closes her eyes, counting to ten again and again until she knows, in her bones, that she won’t have a panic attack in some fucking cave.
She tugs at the wires again, sliding her hand down the length of them, where they lie connected to a decent-sized metal box – a car battery, she registers.
“I wouldn't do that if I were you.”
Only then does she realise the man sitting in the corner, with his back to her, stirring a pot of something over a red-hot glow. She briefly curses herself for allowing herself to be caught off guard so easily, but with a great deal of effort, she manages to push herself upright and off the side of the bed, making sure her feet don’t touch the sludge of vomit and blood and water that’s congealing on the ground.
“What the fuck did you do to me?” she demands, her voice coming out like sandpaper, sore from hoarse from disuse except for screaming when they cut her chest wide open and anchored in a fucking car battery.
The man finally graces her with his face. He is much older than her, a good twenty-thirty years at least (Jarvis and him would’ve been the same age, she thinks and immediately puts the thought away because it’s an injustice to compare Jarvis, her Jarvis, to this man who literally carved her up like a Thanksgiving turkey), hair shaved close to his scalp, with a grey-streaked goatee and silver-rimmed, round-eyed spectacles.
“What I did?” The man raises an eyebrow. “What I did is to save your life.” He slides to his feet. “I removed all the shrapnel I could, but there's a lot left, and it's headed into your atrial septum,” he tells her, his voice slightly accented, as he puts down large blacksmith tongs. “Here, want to see? I have a souvenir. Take a look.”
He snatches up a small vial with small, jagged pieces of metal inside and shows it to her, shaking it such that they clink against the sides of the vial. He throws it to her, which she lets fall into her lap before she snatches it up (her irrational but very understandable trauma always shows up at the most inopportune of moments), peering at the metal – she recognises the alloy as the one she’d used in the same line of explosives as the one that struck her on the road back to Bagram, discoloured though the shrapnel may be.
“I’ve seen many wounds like that in my village. We call them the walking dead, because it takes about a week for the barbs to reach the vital organs.”
The words curdle her blood as soon as Toni processes them. She bites down the urge to start shaking like a leaf – they cannot see her afraid; they will not see her afraid.
We don’t negotiate with terrorists, Antonia.
As much as it makes her mouth thin, her father’s words will get her through this.
He would never stand to see her so weak.
Starks are made of iron, Antonia. Remember that. It may save your life one day.
She reaches behind her, grappling for the car battery until she can get a good handle on it and pulls it forward, so that it’s lying on the cot beside her. As long as she doesn’t stretch the wires too much, she can stomach the pain.
“What is this?” she asks, quietly, tapping the cylinder gently such that it doesn’t jostle in her chest.
Whoever this man is, threat he may be, he saved her life.
For now, he is her best, if not only, ally.
“That is an electromagnet, hooked up to a car battery, and it's keeping the shrapnel from entering your heart,” he explains, patiently.
Toni doesn’t react; instead, her mouth purses into a thin, impassive line. She rolls down the folds of her shirt, such that she is no longer casually flashing him her breasts, even though he doesn’t seem to care (she doesn’t know whether to be offended that he hasn’t been staring – most people consider her tits to be works of art and she takes pride in that because they are fucking beautiful and she’s not just being arrogant – or to be comforted by the fact that he seems to be utterly uninterested in fucking her, which makes her think that he probably won’t take advantage of her current predicament, at least for now, because men always take advantage).
As she rights her clothing, she notices a compact surveillance camera zeroing in on her (fucking perverts).
The man sees where she is looking, and he hides his grimace with a lacklustre look of amusement.
“That's right. Smile.” He nods at her. “We met once, you know, at a technical conference in Bern.”
Toni clears her throat, her brow furrowing as she tries to place his face.
“I don't remember,” she confesses.
“No, you wouldn't,” he smiles at her, gently (his smile reminds her of Jarvis – fuck, that hurts). “If I had been that drunk, I wouldn't have been able to stand, much less give a lecture on integrated circuits.”
Toni makes a face.
“Where are we?” she asks, looking around.
Before he can answer her, there is a sound coming from somewhere beyond the large slabs of metal that clearly act as doors, and loud, angry, very male voices come from the other end, speaking in a language that she can’t understand.
Her companion storms over to her, seizing her by the arm and pulling her to her feet.
“Come on, stand up. Stand up!” he insists.
She bites back the cry of pain when the wires go taut and the electromagnet inside her jars inside her chest. It takes everything inside her to keep standing, as black spots fill her visions. She takes deep breaths, wrapping an arm around her stomach, and hobbles on her feet.
“Just do as I do,” he tells her. “Come on, put your hands up.”
Toni does as he tells her to, just as the metal doors swing open, and three men enter their chamber, two of which, fencing the man in the middle who Toni assumes to be the head honcho, aim familiar-looking rifles at Toni and her companion.
Toni inhales a sharp breath.
“Those are my guns. How did they get my guns?” she demands, lowly.
Has the government been reselling my weapons? That’s breaching our contract. And even so, these are two-bit thugs out for a quick ransom. How would they have gotten their hands on my weapons?
Her companion glares at her. “Do you understand me? Do as I do,” he snaps.
The leader steps forward, while more men gather behind him. He stretches out his arms, magnanimously, and declares something in Arabic (at least she assumes it’s Arabic) that Toni doesn’t understand.
She does however know he said her name at some point.
Her companion leans into her. “He says: welcome, Antonia Stark, the most famous mass murderer in the history of America.”
Toni reels back in affront.
The man continues in Arabic.
“He is honoured. He wants you to build the missile. The Jericho missile that you demonstrated.”
They were watching, she realises. They planned this.
The head thug hands her companion a small piece of paper, curled up at the edges, which he tilts in her direction, revealing a monochrome photo of the Jericho missile she had just demonstrated in front of the US Army.
Toni takes a deep breath.
Fuck this. Fuck them. Fuck everything.
The men drag her from the cavern, unceremoniously, by the hair. She bites at the hands that take the chance to grope at flesh she unwillingly presents to them, to which they laugh like her struggle is the biggest joke they’ve ever heard.
She doubts they’re used to women resisting.
They stop laughing when she knees one of them right in the crotch and he goes down like a sack of potatoes.
Aunt Peggy always said go for the balls.
But it’s a long drag from where she woke up and wherever it is they’re taking her, and the bruisers get their licks in.
She grits her teeth against the humiliation, and remembers each of their faces, remembers the way they jeer and paw at her breasts and between her legs (because apparently Toni Stark, wild, willful, fetishised Latina and openly pansexual, which they apparently translate to mega slut who wants to fuck everyone, is asking for this, the fucking cunts).
It doesn’t matter what they do to her now – when she gets out of here, she will burn all of them to the ground, happily and with a smile on her face, because she doesn’t know or want to know anything else, anything better.
They haul her to another alcove in the cave, in which there’s a long trough in the centre, overflowing with murky water.
She doesn’t even have time to process what’s about to happen to her when they’re wrapping their hands in her hair (she’s going to need about ten hot sterilising showers to get the feel of their hands off her) and shoving her head into the water.
They hold her arms as she screams into the water, the blood roaring in her ears. It goes in her eyes and ears and nose and mouth and into her hair and spills down her neck and front and she can’t breathe, they won’t let her breathe; why won’t they let her breathe?
She’s flooded with panic and struggling, but they hold her arms firm against the trough, as her throat slowly opens, letting in pint by pint of water, even if she gags.
It fucking hurts, too.
Her lungs already feel like someone went at them with a meat tenderiser, but now it’s just like someone’s gone in and wrenched them out completely, leaving empty, burning rents in her chest cavity. Her stomach curdles in fear and nausea and she bites back the urge to vomit (she doubts she could, even if she wanted to – there is too much water and it’s everywhere).
“Tonia!” someone screams.
God, she wants out now.
She wants to wake up.
Please, please, let this be a dream, a nightmare.
Please let her wake up in Malibu.
When they pull her out, she promptly throws up the lining of her stomach, because it’s not like there’s anything else in there. She pants, loudly, a high-pitched wheeze to every breath she takes, as she claws desperately at the air. Her throat is raw and swollen on the inside; her eyes feel like they’ll fall out of their sockets at any point in time (she’s lucky that her face is soaked because if she had the strength to cry, at least it would be hidden); the wound on her chest feels skinned and abraded; and each breath feels like swallowing a lit candle.
She has never loved oxygen more than in this moment.
They ask her again.
She says no.
They do it to her again.
Her ears, nose, and eyes are on fire; her lungs hack up blood; she sees black spots in her vision; the electromagnet short-circuits; and her wound gets infected.
But she says no.
This follows like a routine: once, then twice, then thrice, then four times, then five times, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
She tells them to go fuck themselves every single time.
The threats escalate. Guns are shoved in her face and they threaten to cut off parts of her body. They scrape knives against her ankles and stomach and breasts and between her legs, reminding her that she only needs her arms and her head to make the Jericho for them – the rest of her is expendable.
The head thug warns her that his men have not had a woman in months, and if she doesn’t cooperate, he will give her to them as an incentive for their continued loyalty.
She spits in his face and smiles.
He backhands her, splitting open her lip.
Finally, after the tenth time they’ve drowned her, after she tells them to fuck off, she collapses into exhaustion and darkness.
She wakes up on the cot.
Wow, déjà vu.
“You are very stubborn,” the man says, half-disapprovingly and half-in-awe, carefully sponging her wound clean.
“I am,” she agrees.
“You should do what they ask of you,” he tells her.
“I can’t,” she whispers.
“They will hurt you.”
“They already have,” she points out.
“There is much more they can do to you,” he says, solemnly.
“They can torture me. They can rape me. They can kill me,” she hums. “They won’t kill me, because they need me to make the Jericho. Rape… rape is the best threat a man has against a woman. It’s an ace-in-the-hole, a guarantee that a woman will do anything he asks of her if only to escape that fate. But they’re bluffing; they won’t rape me, because they won’t take the chance that I’m not fit for purpose anymore.” Her mouth twists in disdain. “And they’re already torturing me.”
“The abuse would stop,” he offers.
While the drowning is new, the harassment and assaults are nothing that she hasn’t already been through. She endured that; she can and will endure this.
“It won’t,” she shrugs. “I’m a novelty to them. They thought I’d break because I’m a woman, and I haven’t. Now, they have to see me break. It’s a matter of pride.”
“Will they see you break?” he asks her, curiously.
Toni bares her teeth in a bitter rendition of a smile. “No.”
They try being good cop next.
They lead her and her companion outside the cave, where all of the men are gathered. They pull the burlap sack off her head, even though she’s already counted the exact number of steps it took from the doors of her and her companion’s little den to the entrance of the cave where give her back her sight.
The sun is blinding, and it hurts her eyes, to the point that she wants to pass out. It’s too bright; frankly, she prefers the cave, but they’ve clearly brought her out here for a reason. And once she can see with clarity, she understands why.
It’s a camp, a terrorist camp.
One of the men shoves her and she almost trips (at least they keep giving her pants to wear). Her companion follows her as they proceed down the small slope.
It’s not the camp that interests her.
It’s the hoard upon hoard of weapons that have Stark Industries neatly daubed on the shell of every bomb, every missile, every mortar, every flamethrower, every gun, every crate.
God, there’s so many.
She can only imagine what they’ve done with her brainchildren.
The leader says something in Arabic.
Her companion translates for her again. “He wants to know what you think.”
She faces the leader, bravely. “I think you got a lot of my weapons,” she tells him, coldly.
How? How do you have my weapons?
The leader continues.
“He says they have everything you need to build the Jericho missile.”
Toni looks at her companion, waiting.
“He wants you to make the list of materials. He says for you to start working immediately, and when you're done, he will set you free.”
The leader holds out his hand, expectantly.
Toni feels sick to her stomach as she takes it, smiling her illusive smile.
“No, he won’t,” she says, knowingly.
“No, he won't,” her companion agrees, joining in smiling.
The leader grins and Toni’s smile feels like cement.
“I'm sure they're looking for you, Ms Stark. But they will never find you in these mountains,” her companion tells her, as they sit in their little den, the fire blazing between them.
“Toni,” she says, immediately, wrapping her shawl tightly around her shoulders. “People who save my life call me Toni.” Her lips tug up at the corners.
Her companion can’t help but give her an amused look. “Toni,” he concedes. “Look, what you just saw, that is your legacy, Toni. 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 Antonia Stark? Or are you going to do something about it?” her companion demands, urgently.
“Why should I do anything? They're going to kill me, kill you, either way,” she points out, wearily, staring into the wisps of the flame. “And if they don't, I'll probably be dead in a week.” She taps at the electromagnet hewed into her breastbone.
“Well, then,” her companion says, meaningfully. “This is a very important week for you, isn't it?
“If this is going to be my work station, I want it well-lit. I want these up,” Toni snaps at the thugs who are carrying in various weapons she had asked for.
It feels good to be in charge again, in her very bossyboots, crack-the-whip ponytail, and yes, she does take a great amount of pleasure in imposing her will upon men who had been roughing her up not a day ago.
Her companion is by her side, translating her instructions to expectant henchmen.
“I need welding gear. I don't care if it's acetylene or propane. I need a soldering station. I need helmets. I'm gonna need goggles. I would like a smelting cup. I need two sets of precision tools.”
Toni bites her lip in concentration as she uses an Allen key to unscrew the base of the missile.
“How many languages do you speak?” she asks, curiously.
“A lot,” her companion sniffs, while she pulls out the inside framework of the missile from out of the shell. “But apparently, not enough for this place. They speak Arabic, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Mongolian, Farsi, Russian.”
Toni grimaces. “Who the fuck are these people?” she mutters.
“They are your loyal customers, dear girl. They call themselves the Ten Rings.”
She moves over to another missile and drills at the pointed tip, until the whole front part comes off. She reaches inside the missile-housing and pulls out a similar framework as the one she had been working on before.
“You know, we might be more productive if you include me in the planning process,” her companion offers.
Toni hums, noncommittally.
She surveys the framework and uses her forceps to carefully remove a strip of metal.
“Okay, we don't need this,” she mutters and throws the rest of the framework over her shoulder, upon which it crashes to the ground, much to her companion’s bewilderment.
He peers down at the metal strip between the forceps. “What is that?” he asks, confused.
“That is palladium, 0.15 grams. We need at least 1.6, so why don't you go break down the other eleven?” Toni looks up at him with a smile and a flutter of her eyelashes.
He narrows his eyes, but does as she asks, albeit long-sufferingly.
Once again, he reminds her of Jarvis.
Toni kneads the burnt-orange power and pats it into a small dish, smoothing it over until it’s all perfectly level and lays it out on the table. She then takes an iron tumbler and presses the rim into the powder, etching a perfectly-circular groove in the surface. She tips the palladium strips into the tumbler and hands it to her companion, which he proceeds to smelt in the fire, holding onto the vessel with the pair of blacksmith tongs he usually uses for cooking. After a while, Toni peers into the fire and sees that the palladium has sufficiently melted, thin, silvery and glimmering in the cup.
“Okay, it’s done,” she tells him.
Her companion carefully extracts the brimming cup of liquified palladium from the fire, turning around and carrying it towards the table.
“Careful,” Toni warns, shifting the car battery, which she has balanced over one of her shoulders, when the weight becomes too much for her spine to bear. “Careful, we only get one shot at this.”
She would run her fingers through her hair if she had full use of both of them.
He smiles, gently. “Relax. I have steady hands. Why do you think you're still alive?” he points out, smugly.
Toni places the car battery on the table while her companion bends down, stooping over the table and pouring the fluid into the groove incised in the murder.
“So, what do I call you?” she asks, wondering why it had never occurred to her to ask before.
My companion does have a nice ring to it, she thinks, amused.
“My name is Yinsen,” he replies.
“Yinsen,” she repeats. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Toni, but you already knew that.”
Yinsen looks at her with a smile. “Nice to meet you too,” he murmurs, his eyes twinkling.
Once the metal cools, Toni takes her forceps and extracts the thin ring of palladium she has shaped, and fits it onto a larger, circular metal plate.
It takes her a while, a lot of handwork and a great deal of smithing, but she finally constructs the casing with which she plans on replacing the electromagnet in her chest. She connects the wires extending out of it to her car battery, using it as an energy source to power the mechanism.
It lights up like a star in the sky, like the sky she hasn’t seen in weeks.
Toni just stares at it.
This could save me.
This could save us.
We could leave this snake pit.
Yinsen comes up behind her. “That doesn't look like a Jericho missile,” he comments, dryly.
Toni swallows hard. “That’s because it’s a miniaturised arc reactor,” she tells him, lowly. “I got a big one powering my factory at home. It should keep the shrapnel out of my heart,” she muses.
“But what could it generate?” he asks, curiously.
Toni takes a deep breath, running over the calculations in her head once more. “If my math is right, and it always is, three gigajoules per second.” She licks her lips.
“That could run your heart for fifty lifetimes,” Yinsen points out, in awe.
“Yeah,” she concedes. She bites her lower lip and gives him a deliberate look. “Or something big for fifteen minutes,” she says, slowly, evenly.
In response to his bewilderment, Toni brings over her sketches of the Jericho’s blueprints, carefully drawn onto sheets of thin, flimsy onionskin paper. She lays them down on the table and takes a step back, allowing Yinsen to carefully pore over them through his spectacles, his eyes narrowed.
“This is our ticket out of here,” she tells him, firmly.
Yinsen pulls back, his thick brows furrowing in the middle. “What is it?”
“Flatten them out and look,” she advises him, a small, satisfied smile threatening to curve across her mouth.
Yinsen frowns but does as she says, flattening the sheets out on top of each other. Her sketches weren’t drawn in random places as would be the first, immediate assumption. Once Yinsen had flattened the sheets, he can see a methodical, highly-technical design of what he believes is a suit of armour, suited for a woman’s body.
“Oh. Oh, wow,” he breathes. “Impressive.”
This time, it’s worse.
Maybe it’s because she’s not unconscious and very much aware that Yinsen is performing complicated cardiothoracic surgery on her without any of the proper tools, equipment, sanitation or support; maybe it’s because the casing for the arc reactor needs to go deeper than the electromagnet did; or maybe it’s because no one’s ever miniaturised an arc reactor before and she’s very much aware that Yinsen is installing a highly powerful, highly unpredictable energy source in her fucking chest cavity.
Maybe it’s because, shocker, it fucking hurts when he cuts into her, prises her chest cavity open (still corrosive and sore from her first open heart surgery), detaches the rusted electromagnet (which Toni is certain has given her some kind of disease), scoops out even more of her thorax (at one point, through damp, bloodshot eyes and hazy, indistinct vision, she sees bits of her sternum and her ribs and her lungs in his hands), just so he can put in the arc reactor casing.
She thanks God when she passes out from the pain.
When she wakes up, Yinsen has his fingers entwined with hers, as he thumbs an arc back and forth across the skin on the back of her hand.
She wonders if he does such a thing for his daughter. She wonders what it’s like to have a father so gentle with her.
“How’d it go?” she asks, roughly.
“As far as I can tell, it was a success,” he tells her, gently, squeezing her warm hand.
Toni’s lips twitch in relief (she’s much too tired to actually smile) and sinks back against the pillow. “Can I get up yet?” she asks, curiously.
“Not quite yet, I think. There is still a great deal of recovery left, Antonia. The procedure was no laughing matter. Frankly, it’s remarkable that you survived it at all; you are truly formidable, my dear.”
Toni huffs out a short laugh. “That’s what I do,” she teases.
Yinsen pats her hand, as she lets herself fall back asleep.
Before she completely loses herself to unconsciousness, the realisation comes to her like a blow.
She trusts him.
Chapter 4: (iv)
warnings for this chapter: menstruation talk (if that squicks you out - so judging but not judging), creepy touching by terrorist guy, attempted torture, character death (but expected).
Toni looks down at her thighs, streaked with blood.
Wow, her uterus cannot give her a goddamn break for once in her life.
In any case, it comes much later than she had expected, most likely due to all of the trauma to her body in past weeks.
“Fuck,” she says, definitively. She looks at Yinsen, hopefully, her nose wrinkling. “Don’t suppose you have any pads here, huh?”
Yinsen stares back at her, thoughtfully.
“What?” Toni raises an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those men who cringes at the thought of vaginas being used for anything but sex. Menstruation, the horror,” she mocks.
Yinsen can’t help but smile at the sheer disgust in her voice (at least, she guesses). “No,” he murmurs. “I am not.” He jumps to his feet. “And no, there are no sanitary napkins here. But I will find you supplies.”
“By all means, take your time,” she grunts, shifting on the cot, as the backs of her legs slide across the still-wet blood congealing on the mattress.
She’s going to have to do this God knows how many times before she and Yinsen get the hell out of here.
Toni clenches her thighs together, shifting in discomfort. Even though she’s worn the rag inside her underwear for two days now, it’s still not the most comfortable or the most hygienic method to absorb the flow of blood (she’s already making plans to a reusable cloth sanitary napkin that women can use indefinitely after Yinsen explained to her the plight of so many women in this region – she remembers Ayushma telling her the same thing after a spontaneous trip to Bangalore in 1992 but she fell into a pit of weapons soon after and never quite resurfaced).
She lets the dice roll, sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, between her teeth, as she does so. She smiles, bitterly, when she sees the result.
Her dice are always loaded.
“Good roll,” Yinsen hums.
“So, you still haven't told me where you're from,” Toni says, casually.
Yinsen snatches up the dice. “I am from a small town called Gulmira. It's actually a nice place.”
“You got a family?” Toni wonders out loud.
Yinsen nods. “Yes, and I will see them when I leave here.”
The image of him, with children and a woman who loves him, comes easily to her mind – Yinsen is just that kind of person.
She wonders then, what she’ll do first when she’s free. She resolves then and there to take care of Yinsen and his family, buy him a house, so they can all be together. Maybe even a clinic, she thinks, so he can practice. She’ll pay for his kids’ education. It will never be enough to repay what he’s done for her; she will always fall short. And somehow, she doesn’t want a debt between them; she wants to do this because she likes the man.
She likes his kind eyes and his kind smile and dry humour.
“And you, Antonia?”
She thinks of Rhodey.
He’s dead for all she knows, and she already has so many ghosts.
She never wanted to add Rhodey, Rhodey of all people, to that graveyard, and now he’s dead because of her.
But she can’t mourn him. Not now, not yet.
Not until she’s turned this place to ash.
“No,” she says, firmly.
If she thinks of those she loves, who still live, she will never be able to do what needs to be done.
She’ll see them when she gets out of here.
Aunt Peggy, John, Rebecca, Sharon, Ayushma, Pepper.
She carves the list of names into her heart and puts it away.
She can’t afford to linger on them.
“No?” Yinsen raises an eyebrow.
Toni shrugs, impassively.
Yinsen sighs. “So, you are a woman who has everything and nothing.”
Toni laughs like it hurts her to breathe (and it does). “That sounds just about right.”
Purim goes by and it feels like she’s disappointing Ana so fundamentally, by not being able to celebrate it. It’s unfair, but she stomachs it.
But she can’t help but think of everything she would’ve done at home, if Ana had been alive to do it properly with her: using groggers and heckling when Haman’s name is read; getting drunk; making hamantaschen and going to give gifts to the poor.
The worst blow, however, is missing Passover.
That day, she thinks of how many years, as a girl, she curled up on Ana’s lap, even when the woman grew ill, with four cups of wine and a Seder plate, as they went through each of the steps, as Ana threaded her fingers through Toni’s hair while narrating to her all of the stories in a low, haunting voice.
Kadesh. Urchatz. Karpas. Yachatz. Magid. Rachtza. Motzi. Matzah. Maror. Korech. Shulchan Orech. Tzafun. Barech. Hallel. Nirtzah.
The steps are etched into her brain.
Hell, even her father paid attention during the Seder.
She just hopes Ana will forgive her.
They are so close to finishing the armour when the thugs storm into their den. This time, however, the head terrorist Toni had become accustomed to, takes a backseat while a definitely-more-menacing bald man takes the lead.
He stares at her for a moment, standing there, with her hands on top of her head. His eyes travel downwards, focusing on the sharp blue light of her arc reactor, or perhaps her tits, she can’t be too sure.
“Relax,” he nods at her, casually.
Toni is startled, and she looks at Yinsen briefly before dropping her hands, steadily. He prowls towards her, like a wolf, stopping just in front of her. His fingers run down her wide neckline, grazing over the notches in her ribs, before slipping inside the dip between her breasts (so, tits, then). They travel down the front of her black dress and tap against the arc reactor.
Her skin visibly crawls where he’s touching her.
He steps back, abruptly.
“The bow and arrow once was the pinnacle of weapons technology,” he begins, grandly. “It allowed the great Genghis Khan to rule from the Pacific to the Ukraine.” He walks over to the missile that they had cannibalised for parts, fiddling with one of the wires. “An empire twice the size of Alexander the Great and four times the size of the Roman Empire.”
He finds his way over to one of the tables, upon which the sketches that form Toni’s blueprints for the armour are lying. He picks them up, while Toni grits her teeth and deliberately avoids Yinsen’s nervous gaze. But the man doesn’t seem to find anything in his perusal and he puts the sheets of onionskin paper back onto the table.
“But today, whoever holds the latest Stark weapons rules these lands.” He turns to her so that she can see the drive in his dark eyes. “And soon, it will be my turn.”
He stares at her, head-on – he wants her to falter, but she won’t.
He’s never met anyone with the resolve she has.
He says something in Urdu, which she fails to grasp. Her knowledge of the language is based on a bunch of Hindi movies she used to watch with Ayushma so many years ago, and it doesn’t help her the way it should now. She understands a few words, here and there, but it ultimately doesn’t do her any good.
Yinsen replies. He’s fidgeting, and Toni wishes she could tell him to stand still before he blows their cover.
The man turns around and stalks over to Yinsen, continuing the conversation.
It all comes to a head when the man orders his henchmen to seize Yinsen by the arms.
She watches as the man takes a piece of red-hot coal from the fire between the blacksmith tongs, smoke curling around his face.
“What does he want?” she asks Yinsen, sharply.
Yinsen can’t reply because the guards shove his head down onto an anvil while the man holds the burning coal precariously close to Yinsen’s face.
Toni clenches her fists, to the point where her nails dig into her palm.
“Your Jericho,” Yinsen replies, still in Urdu, but Toni understands that.
The man demands Yinsen tell him now, and Toni steps forward.
She’s had enough of the toxic masculinity routine.
“You want a delivery date or something?” she demands, crossing her arms over her chest.
They don’t like it when she starts walking towards Yinsen, and the henchmen all shout something in warning and point their guns at her.
Toni rolls her eyes. “Oh, please. You kill me and you don’t get your damn bomb, so why don’t you do your whole dick-measuring contest somewhere else?” she snaps and the henchmen all look to their new leader for further instructions.
He nods at them and they take a step back.
She gestures to Yinsen with a broad wave of her hand. “I need him,” she huffs like they’re all stupid for having made her explain all of this to them (they are stupid, but not for the reasons they think she thinks). “He’s a passable assistant, and I, as you’ve probably guessed, as a frail, delicate woman, lack the upper body strength to make a bomb,” she says, sarcastically.
The new leader narrows his eyes – they both know she’s screwing with them (ha, like she’s ever needed a man to do her work for her, manual labour or not), but she’s been in captivity for three months now.
She doesn’t really give a fuck.
The man drops the blistering coal on the anvil beside Yinsen’s smushed face and tosses the blacksmith’s tongs somewhere over his shoulders, nodding at his men to release Yinsen and leave with him.
“You have till tomorrow to assemble my missile,” he warns her, smoothly, threat lacing his voice.
Toni hammers at the scorching metal plating, her hair and face damp with sweat, until she sees some sort of curve towards the edges and it finally starts to resemble the front side of a helm. The effort makes her chest hurt, where the arc reactor squeezes her lungs in tight, her ribs throbbing, but she pushes through it. Once she is content with the shape, she picks it up with larger blacksmith’s tongs and carries it over to a pail of water, promptly dunking it inside and dodging the steam that floats upwards.
Once it sufficiently cools, Toni pulls it out of the bucket and drops it unceremoniously on top of the table at which Yinsen is working.
This was the last piece, and now it’s done.
“Ready?” she raises an eyebrow.
Yinsen sighs and stands. “Are you?”
“We’ll have to see, won’t we?” Toni murmurs, vaguely.
There is a great deal of preparation before Toni can even put on the suit. The metal would serve no true protection if it were just her skin underneath the armour, so she puts on a jacket underneath and thick, dark welding gloves to protect her hands from the heat and clout of the blasts her armour is capable of. Yinsen wraps thick strips of leather padding around her neck to account for the soft spot of her throat, which the armour won’t cover.
Yinsen helps her bring the armour over her head and settle it around her torso, such that the bright lustre of her arc reactor fits neatly into the centre plate and all the pieces clink into place. He ties her hair into a loose braid, which he then tucks into the leather straps swaddled around her neck, so that it won’t get in her eyes or compromise the helmet’s balance on top of her head.
Yinsen adjusts the breastplate. “Okay?” he queries. “Can you move?” He mimes squeezing his hand, to which she does the same.
Toni nods, taking a deep breath. Her breasts feel a little squished underneath the metal plating, but she can’t do much about it, not here, at least. She’ll have to bear the discomfort for just a while longer (she hopes). The entire armour is heavy, but she has experience and physical strength on her side – she has pretty much done her own forging since she was four years old, and she has so much more muscle than what people expect of her, lithe as she looks.
“Okay, say it again,” Yinsen tells her, firmly.
“Forty-one steps straight ahead,” Toni begins. “Then sixteen steps, that’s from the door, fork right, thirty-three steps, turn right.”
“Yinsen! Yinsen! Stark!” There are shouts on the other side of the door.
Yinsen’s hands speed up.
“Open the door!”
The guards continue to shout at them in Hungarian. This time, Toni understands completely and thanks Ana fervently for being most insistent that Toni learn her mother tongue after she successfully became fluent in her mother’s native Catalan and Argentine Spanish and her father’s native German and Polish (much to Howard’s disapproval, since his and Toni’s non-Anglo-Saxon past was something he had tried very hard to shake off, but she didn't really care about pissing him off – it was Ana who taught her Yiddish and Hebrew, ensuring that Toni wouldn’t lose what was her birthright, what she, Howard and Ana shared, and what Ana held so dear).
“What’s going on inside? Hands up!”
“Say something. Say something back to him,” Toni insists.
“He’s speaking Hungarian. I don't...” Yinsen protests.
Toni growls under her breath. “Egy perc, egy perc,” she yells out.
She looks down to see Yinsen staring at her.
“You speak Hungarian,” he says, slowly.
Toni shrugs. “My accent is shit though.”
The men on the outside are clearly unimpressed by her keeping them waiting (they should take a page out of the books of the idiots she dates), so they attempt to open the door forcibly, unaware of the makeshift bomb Toni had rigged to the other side of the door, which detonates upon the disconnection of the doors. The cloud of fire that spirals from the bomb sends the men flying and cuts right through to their muscle tissue and bone.
If they’re still alive, which in itself is highly doubtful (because Toni is always very good at whatever she does), they’ll die miserably.
She can’t bring herself to care.
“How’d that work?” Toni asks, curiously.
Yinsen peeks his head out and sees the two dead (or nearly dead) men lying on the floor, quite some far away from the doors through the smoke.
“Oh, my goodness,” he mutters and returns to bolting the armour closed. “It worked all right.”
Toni’s lips twitch. “That's what I do,” she says, smugly.
Yinsen’s hands are shaking with nerves when he tries to return to securing the various bolts and screws that need to be in place for the armour to work.
“Let me finish this,” he mutters.
Toni hushes him, seeing his panic. “It’s okay; initialise the power sequence.”
But he stays still.
Toni sighs. “Now!” she barks.
Yinsen jumps like he’s just been restarted and rushes over to the computer. He fiddles with his glasses for a moment and braces his fingers over the keyboard, ready to tap at Toni’s go-ahead.
“Tell me. Tell me,” he says, quickly.
“Function 11,” Toni soothes. “Tell me when you see a progress bar. It should be up right now. Talk to me. Tell me when you see it.”
“Yes,” he declares. “I have it.”
Toni inhales. “Press Control and then I,” she instructs.
“Got it.” Yinsen swipes at his sweat-ridden forehead.
Dust and sand rattle from above as heavy footsteps creak behind the door to their chamber.
“Good, now, come over here and button me up,” Toni orders.
“Okay. All right.”
Yinsen rounds on her and begins drilling the screws in.
“Every other hex bolt,” she advises.
“They’re coming!” Yinsen exclaims, his voice going thready with panic, as he shoots the open door a nervous look.
“Nothing pretty.” Toni’s voice becomes firm (she won’t get anything done, they won’t get out of here, if Yinsen loses his nerve now). “Just get it done.”
“They're coming,” Yinsen bites out, loudly.
“Make sure the checkpoints are clear before you follow me out, okay?” Toni demands.
Yinsen is staring at the computer screen, on which the progress bar is still around a miserable halfway.
“We need more time,” he murmurs. He turns around. “Hey,” he calls out, catching Toni’s attention, who looks up from the gauntlet she was adjusting. “I'm gonna go buy you some time.” He says, adamantly.
“Stick to the plan!” Toni shouts as Yinsen ignores her, running out of the den and grabbing one of the dead men’s rifles (at least she thinks so, by what she can hear). “Stick to the plan!” She hears wild gunshots and her heart thumps in her chest like a racehorse because she can’t fucking see anything. “Yinsen!” She calls out, helplessly.
For fuck’s sake, just answer me.
I can’t have another person die for me.
She stares at the progress bar on the computer.
Come on. Hurry up.
It feels like years, but the progress bar finally hits 100%, whatever electricity there is in the room humming with the effort of powering her armour. Once the calibration is completed, Toni pulls free of the apparatus that acted as the framework for the armour, just as the entire den goes dark.
She doesn’t move when she hears the sound of soldiers running into the den.
Her fist clenches.
Her armour creaks and they all immediately begin firing into the centre of the den, where they think the sound came from. The men start to peruse through the room, until one squints his eyes into the light of her arc reactor.
She backhands him, fiercely, sending him crashing into a wall, upon which she hears a sharp snap. The others begin to fire their guns, randomly, shooting at an empty den, until she looms out of the darkness, like Batman, and swipes them out of the way with a satisfying smack. The lone guard starts firing at her frantically, but he isn’t able to pierce the metal plating anywhere on her body. She stalks forward, clunky and very obvious, and hits him right in the jaw with her metal fist and he goes flying.
God, she hopes he’s dead.
The thugs continue to run at her, bombarding her with bullets, but it’s all very futile, because not only is she a fucking badass, but they threatened her.
They put their hands on her.
They held her down and tried to drown her in a trough of dirty water like she was a fucking rabid dog.
They threatened to kill Yinsen.
They tried to use Yinsen to strong-arm her into doing what they want.
Fuck it. They have it coming.
She literally just pounds her way out of the cave. The men roar and rush at her like some charging mob as they come out of the woodwork, but she swats them out of her way like they’re nothing more than irrelevant flies to her. She follows them through the cave tunnels until they shut a pair of metal doors on her, hoping that will be enough to stop her, inadvertently trapping one of the men on her side. He bangs on the door, screaming in a language that she doesn’t understand, and finally realises his release is futile. He turns around, his terrified, sweaty face illuminated in the glow of her arc reactor.
She knows that face.
She memorised all of their faces.
And she remembers what she promised.
She seizes him by the scruff of his neck, lifting him bodily off the ground, and he screams a high-pitched, keening sound, as his legs scramble ridiculously in mid-air.
Anyone who ever thought her soft would be blown into the water if they could see her now, slamming the thug into the metal doors, until it starts to cave outwards under the strain. The metal finally bursts apart with a loud crash, rock and dust falling from the rickety ceiling. The thugs are smart enough to run away from her, rather than engaging her when they know they’ll lose. Toni lashes out with her bulky metal arm, but just her luck, it jams inside the rock wall. One of the thugs is brave enough to stop running and instead, he points the barrel of his handgun at Toni’s head.
Just his luck, because as soon as he fires the gun, the bullet hits her helmet and snaps back, cutting through skin and bone and muscle, until it splits through his brain and kills him instantly. Toni turns around and forcibly yanks her arm out of the wall and stalks forward, stepping over his corpse.
When Toni rounds the next corner, she sees Yinsen writhing on a bunch of filthy sacks, blood splattered across his clothes.
“Yinsen!” she cries out.
“Watch out!” he warns through clenched teeth and pain.
Toni turns and sees the bald man from earlier, training a grenade launcher on her. She ducks as the grenade hurls right towards her and it hits the wall behind her, turning it into dust.
Thankfully (and unfortunately for the jackass who threatened to burn Yinsen’s eye right out of his socket), she is unscathed.
She flips open a panel on her left forearm, revealing a mounted rocket launcher. She smiles and lets it fly with extreme prejudice, raising her arm just slightly, such that it hits the ceiling and the stone breaks away easily, burying him under strewn rubble instantly.
Toni doesn’t stop to stare and lumbers towards Yinsen, casting aside one of the sacks lying on top of him. She lifts her helm away from her face, so that he can see her face, and kneels beside him.
“Yinsen!” Her hands hover over his body, anxiously.
There’s so much red.
“What-what can I do?” she demands, hurriedly.
“Antonia,” he murmurs, reaching for her hand, sluggishly.
Toni takes it without missing a beat, squeezing.
“We have to go,” she insists. “Come on. I need you to-to get up and-” Something unpleasant twists in her chest. “Move for me, come on. We got a plan. We’re gonna stick to it.” She reassures herself more than she does him.
It shows on his face, because he gives her a sad, pitying smile.
“This was always the plan, Antonia,” he intones.
Toni shakes her head, desperately. She tugs on his hand. “Come on. You want to see your family, right? Well, you’re gonna. But you need to get up first.”
“My family is dead.”
The impact of his words knocks the air right out of her lungs.
“I’m going to see them now, Antonia,” he soothes, touching her cheek. “It’s okay. I want this. I want this.”
Her eyes are damp with tears.
“Thank you for saving me,” she whispers.
“Don't waste it.” His hand tightens around hers, his long, thin fingers threaded through hers. “Don't waste your life, Antonia.”
Toni yanks off the glove and splays a hand on Yinsen’s chest, feeling it go still under her palm, and it comes away slick with blood.
For the first time in years, Toni feels like crying, because for the first time, in a very long time, she’s feeling thick, cloying, agonising grief.
She forgot how much she hated it.
But she pulls it together and flings on the glove, rounding on the thugs that have scurried out of the cave, in fear of her.
They’re waiting for her when she emerges from the cave, crouching down with their guns lined up against her. As soon as they can see her silver, heavyset form in the entrance to the cave, they begin firing. The bullets come in contact with the armour, knocking against her skin somewhat painfully, but her adrenaline is enough to ignore it for the time being.
Finally, they realise it’s all in vain and take a step back, their guns going slack in their hands.
“My turn,” she rasps.
Fire gushes from the flamethrowers installed in the base of her vambrace. It envelops all of the men, either burning them horrifically such that they’ll probably die of infection or swelling and tissue damage in their airways and lungs, or their entire body just simply turns to dust then and there, in the desert.
She turns on her feet, making sure that the fire converges with the hoard of weapons (her weapons) the Ten Rings had accumulated for themselves.
She watches them burn and smiles under her helm, because she isn’t their fucking dealer (loyal customers, Yinsen had said and it still makes her sick to her stomach).
Her smile falls.
She never wanted this.
They were right. I am a murderer.
What she’s done here isn’t enough. She needs to make sure that something like this never happens again, not because of her.
She needs to do more.
She will do more.
Toni leaves the camp in a cloud of flames, as the men continue to shoot at her (they’re using her weapons, so when the machine guns start colliding into her, no matter how much armour she’s wearing, no matter how strong it is, it fucking hurts). She escapes the onslaught by flicking a red switch in the innards of her vambrace and jettisoning into the air. Unsurprisingly, the rocket fuel in her boots don’t last long, having been scavenged from the propulsion systems in missiles that Toni had cannibalised, and she careens in an arc towards the ground.
Joy, she winces and braces for impact.
Toni hits the sand with a scream and a burst of sand clouding in the air. The armour falls apart, the pieces scattered around where she is buried in the sand. She shakes her head free of the helm and the remaining scraps of metal still clinging to her. She spits out a mix of blood and sand onto the ground as she stumbles to her feet, her entire body aching with the effort (it doesn’t help that her whole upper body hasn’t quite recovered from half of her thorax being pulled out of her chest cavity to make way for an electromagnet and later, a miniaturised arc reactor).
Toni winces. She can feel the arc reactor shifting slightly inside her chest, the sharp sting dissolving into the ever-present ache that she thinks has and will be her constant companion for the rest of her life. She rubs her breastbone where the arc reactor sits and plods away from the scraps of her armour. She looks up and the sun burns her eyes to the point of tears.
She winces and looks down at her feet immediately, wiping at her eyes furiously.
She hasn’t seen the sun in three months.
And now, even with it right there, she still can’t look at it.
Chapter 5: (v)
no specific warnings for this chapter, i think.
again, thanks to my lovely meg for betaing this chapter!
Toni’s pretty sure she’s been schlepping through this desert for hours.
Or, at the very least, it feels like hours.
My people spent forty years in the desert. I’ll be fine, she reminds herself.
Her jacket is draped over her head and neck like a cowl, shielding her eyes from the sun. There are blisters stretching across her body, rubbing against the insides of her tank and pants. She ignores the sting, just as she does her throat, which feels like razor blades are scraping down the raw tissue and cartilage, chafed from the lack of water and the dust and sand she has inadvertently swallowed throughout her long slog through the desert.
She pants her way over another hill, with one arm wrapped around her abdomen, even though pain blooms in her throat and chest and stomach with every breath she swallows down. The mangled organs in her chest burn and clench with each gulp of hot, sticky air, and the still-healing incisions stretch painfully around the arc reactor, which jostles inside her torso with every step she takes.
It’s when she finally crosses the dune that she hears a familiar whirring sound. She turns around to see two Pave Hawks flying right over her.
“Hey!” she screams, waving her free hand in the arm, stumbling forwards at a run.
Her heart sticks in her throat as the helicopters finally set down some ways away, and she laughs in disbelief and gratitude. It all overwhelms her so much that finally she just sinks onto the sand in a heap of weary flesh, trembling as she watches Rhodey run towards her, accompanied by four other airmen.
He’s not dead. He’s not dead. He’s not dead.
Rhodey slows to a stop when he’s not more than a foot or two from her. His eyes rake up and down, frowning at the light leaping from her chest. He falters slightly when he narrows in on the arc reactor, paling with realisation, and winces at the blistering sunburn scaling across her exposed skin.
“Hey, Legs, long time, no see,” he teases, lightly. “How was the fun-vee?”
Toni gives him a dull, unsteady smile, baring just a hint of her white teeth, her dry mouth straining and splitting under the effort.
Rhodey kneels in front of her, curling a large hand around the back of her neck.
“Next time, you ride with me, okay?” he rumbles in her ear.
He pulls her close and she goes willingly, clutching at him and sinking against the warm skin of his neck that she can burrow into through the folds of his uniform.
Rhodey. Rhodey. Rhodey. Rhodey.
You came for me.
The weight of him feels so good, so warm, so comforting that she’s not ashamed that she starts to cry.
She hasn’t cried in years, not that she’s ever had much of a reason to. To be honest, she hasn’t known many people to waste her tears on. Tears have always been a weakness in her eyes, something that could later on be used against her. In fact, Jarvis (the first Jarvis), Ana, Aunt Peggy, her mother, they had all told her that you were always such a happy baby, Antonia.
She’s crying now, though.
“I thought you died,” she mumbles.
“I thought you died,” he retorts. “God, you’re such a bitch.”
She nods into his shoulder.
“Come on, let’s get you out of here,” Rhodey says roughly in her ear and helps her to her feet.
Rhodey leads her to the helicopter, into which she climbs, stumbling as her feet finally land on the floor of the helicopter. A large hand stops her from tumbling to the floor, steadying her. She looks up at the person both nimble and brave enough to catch her, and holy sweet mother of fuck, he’s beautiful.
He’s tall and broad and whiskey-brown-eyed and there’s miles and miles of dark, gorgeous skin (at least, she’s guessing because his uniform is covering most of it). There’s a slight gap to his front two teeth and a neatly-shaped goatee, with his black hair shorn close to his scalp in the standard military cut.
He holds his hand out. “Staff Sergeant Samuel Wilson, ma’am,” he introduces himself with a broad grin stretching across his handsome face.
Now I know what I want for my birthday.
But Toni doesn’t have much in her to flirt right now. Nonetheless, she gives him a weary smile and a flutter of her eyelashes in return.
“Hey there, soldier, how goes the day?” she croaks out.
He chuckles, smoothly. “We should get you to sit down, Ms Stark. We still need to check you over.”
“I’ll bet,” she says, dryly, finding the strength somewhere inside her to waggle her eyebrows.
She sees Rhodey roll his eyes out of the corner of her eye. She turns her head and manages to muster a winning smile.
“Yeah, yeah,” he mutters, leading her over to a seat.
She sinks down with a lot of pain, her muscles still aching after her violent fall in the armour. One arm is still wrapped around her abdomen, in an effort to keep the arc reactor where it is sitting in her chest – she can’t do much about her insides spasming with pain, but she can make sure that the arc reactor doesn’t shift too much, such that the reactor casing doesn’t scrape against anything else inside her chest.
Rhodey takes a seat beside her (frankly, she’s surprised that he’s shirking his responsibilities as Lieutenant Colonel to tend to her, but she can see the heaviness, the helplessness, the hopelessness in his dark eyes – these three months haven’t been easy for him either).
Sergeant Wilson kneels in front of her. He eyes the arc reactor with trepidation and then leans in, looking as though he’s steeling himself for the conversation he’s about to have. He eyes Rhodey nervously.
“Quick question, ma’am, should we be concerned about that thing in your chest?”
Toni looks down at the vivid blue light in between her breasts.
She smiles, wryly. “It’s not a bomb, if that’s what you were thinking.”
Sergeant Wilson waits for a moment, searching her features carefully. Then, he clearly sees something that makes him trust that she’s telling the truth, nodding, and the tension is broken just like that. He flashes a small torch in her eyes, from which she cringes, visibly.
“Your pupils are dilated. Your eyes haven’t adjusted to the light just yet,” he muses. “It’ll take a bit longer for your retinas to desensitise again, but they should be fine. You’re also very pale,” he comments.
Toni shrugs, despite the ache in her ribcage and the unpleasant stretch of her scorched skin. “I didn’t get much sun these past three months,” she explains.
“Hm, I’m betting it’s the lack of Vitamin D and the dehydration as well, so it shouldn’t be too much of a worry. You have quite a bit of sunburn, but you walked a good long way from where they were keeping you prisoner, so it’s to be expected.”
Toni gives Sergeant Wilson a sultry smile that makes him grin, red blossoming over his cheekbones. “I’m tenacious.”
Rhodey narrows his eyes and Sergeant Wilson clears his throat, avoiding his superior’s gaze. “It should peel in a couple of days. Just in case, I’d advise you get the physician at the base to give you the once-over.”
Toni looks up at him through her eyelashes. “That’s not something you can do for me?”
Sergeant Wilson winks at her. “Unfortunately, it’s not.”
Rhodey groans beside her. “Wow, I didn’t miss this at all.” He levels a flinty look at Sergeant Wilson. “Sergeant, I believe you have work to do,” he warns.
Sergeant Wilson clears his throat and jumps to his feet, the red blush stark on his face, making his way to another airman, who whistles from his spot near the helicopter doors.
“Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him blush like that before,” he teases, elbowing Sergeant Wilson in the abdomen.
Toni’s lips twitch. “What can I say? I have a gift.”
“Well, ma’am, clearly we’ve recovered a national treasure,” the other airman says, charmingly.
Toni raises an eyebrow. “And who’s we?” she asks, belligerently.
He approaches her, slightly cockily. “Staff Sergeant Riley Maddox, Ms Stark. We’re all glad to see you’re okay. Probably no one more than the Colonel here.”
Rhodey clears his throat, levelling them with a warning look. “I’m sure you men have work to do,” he points out, flatly.
Sergeant Wilson and Sergeant Maddox shift on their feet, awkwardly, and go back to helping the rest of their squadron ready the helicopter for departure.
Sometimes she’s still wonderstruck (and frankly entertained) when she sees soldiers quiver in fear in front of Rhodey, her honeybear, the guy who once bumped into his own reflection in the mirror when he was drunk and kept apologising to whom he thought was another person.
“You’re so dominating, buttercup. I love it,” Toni teases.
Rhodey groans, his head slumping forwards. “Why do you always have to make everything non-platonic?”
“Because I love screwing with you,” she admits. “And you missed it. Don’t lie.” She wags her finger in front of his face.
“Yeah,” Rhodey says, quietly, bumping her shoulder with his. “I did.”
Toni ducks her head, so he can’t see her smile, shy as it comes.
One of the airmen makes a sound and Toni looks up, expectantly.
“Quick question, ma’am,” Sergeant Maddox begins, and then hesitates visibly.
“Sergeant?” she prompts.
“I just wanted to know, that smoking crater we saw a couple of miles back, where the Ten Rings’ operation was, was that you?” he asks, curiously.
Toni just winks at him.
He and Sergeant Wilson exchange equally-awestruck looks.
“Wow,” they both mutter in unison.
Toni’s mouth lifts in a smug smile.
Toni steadfastly declines all of the considerable attempts by the base physician to examine her chest, waiting out her forced recuperation for a day or two before the higher-ups deign to allow her to leave.
Rhodey stays with her the entire time, sleeps in her bed at night, curled around her (she can’t sleep on her back or on her stomach anymore because the arc reactor hurts too much), clutching at her as if he’s afraid that if he lets go, she’ll fade away right there in his arms. The first night, she woke up and immediately cringed because she didn’t know where she was; the room was too bright, the sheets were too white, and she felt sterile.
The second day, she has guests.
Sharon strides into the room she’s kept in, with John and Rebecca, her mother and uncle and Aunt Peggy’s only two children, a certain amount of flurry to their walk. When they see her lying in the bed, their faces crack open.
Sharon rushes over to the side and throws her arms around her.
Toni winces. “Careful. Sunburn.”
Sharon pulls away, slightly, her eyes crinkled in concern. “Sorry. I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
Toni smiles, weakly, at her and snatches up her hand. “It’s all good, Share Bear.”
Sharon grimaces, tucking a lock of her blonde hair behind her ear. “You promised you wouldn’t call me that anymore,” she complains.
Toni’s eyes crinkle, kindly. “I lied,” she teases. She snatches up the water bottle on the table beside her cot, taking a swig. “How’d you guys even get here?” she wonders out loud.
“James brought us,” Rebecca tells her, taking a seat on the bed beside her thighs and smoothing her thumb across Toni’s palm.
“Plus, I have some street cred now,” Sharon says, smugly.
Toni raises an eyebrow. “Share Bear, believe me, you have zero street cred.”
Sharon makes a mock-hurt sound. “Rude.”
Rebecca squeezes Toni’s hand. “How are you feeling, Tinkertoni?” she asks, concerned.
“I’m good, Becca,” Toni soothes.
John scoffs from where he’s standing. “You were just kidnapped for three months, and you’re good?” he demands, disbelievingly.
Toni levels him a withering look. “What d’you want me to say?” she retorts.
“Why don’t you tell us the truth?”
“John-” Rebecca chides, quietly.
“It’s fine, Becca. Okay, Johnny, you want to know how I’m really feeling? I’ve had serious thoracic surgery twice in the desert, so I could have an electromagnet and later a dangerously-unstable power source installed into my chest. I’ve been tortured, threatened with rape, starved, assaulted and treated like a dog for the better part of three months. Is that what you wanted to hear?” she asks, snidely.
John stares at her, grimly, for a moment before approaching her. He leans down and wraps his arms around her. She sinks in briefly, before patting him on the back.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” he says, roughly. “Please don’t put us through that again.”
Toni huffs out a laugh. “I’ll try my best not to get kidnapped by terrorists again.” She looks at the three. “Does she know?”
John, Rebecca and Sharon all exchange guilty looks, but John elects to speak on their behalf.
“We decided to keep it from her. We weren’t sure how she’d react to the news. She’s… she’s been getting worse, these last couple of months.”
Toni pats John’s hand, comfortingly. “It’s okay. I understand. I’ll pay her a visit once they let me out of this joint,” she hesitates. “Unless you think it’d set her back?”
“She’d kill us if she knew we kept you from her,” Rebecca teases.
“I may need backup,” Toni points out, dryly. “If she finds out, she may go for my eyes.” She looks down at her lap. “Thank you for coming.” She says, roughly.
John rolls his eyes. “Toni, don’t be an idiot, of course we came. You’re family.”
Toni hides her smile as quickly as it comes.
The Carter-Jones family can’t stay for much longer, so they leave a few hours later. Finally, the powers that be tell Toni she can leave. Rhodey comes to pick her up and leads her to the airfield where a military plane is waiting for them – Rhodey had told her earlier that he flew her jet back to Malibu a week or so after she was taken. Her chest still rattles with every step she takes, and she still feels like someone’s put her entire torso through a meat grinder (Yinsen had warned her it would take longer than a few months to heal from the surgeries), but she somehow manages to make it up the staircase.
Once she is in her seat, Rhodey wraps a blanket around her shoulders, to which she gives a withering look.
“Stop treating me like a fucking doll,” she snaps. “I’m fine.”
Rhodey snorts and gestures to her chest. “You’ve had multiple, seriously invasive cardiothoracic surgeries to put that thing inside you. You are not fine.”
Toni rolls her eyes. “Don’t be such a downer. I told you before, that’s how you get premature wrinkles and grey hairs.”
“No,” Rhodey huffs. “The way you get premature wrinkles and grey hairs is by being friends with you.”
“Ouch,” Toni whines. “That hurts me right in the feels, cabbage patch.”
“Just relax, would you? It’s a long flight from Bagram to Malibu.”
Toni’s jaw clenches. “No rest for the wicked, huh?”
Rhodey purses his lips, reaching for her hand. “You don’t have to go back to work immediately. You can take a breather, babe. Get back on your feet.”
Toni gives him a flat look. “I don’t need time to get back on my feet. I’m already on my feet.” At Rhodey’s questioning look, she sighs. “There’s work to be done. Let’s just say that for now.”
More than twenty hours later, they land in Malibu. Rhodey strongarms her into a wheelchair, despite her many protests, and rolls her towards the cargo door, which opens out ominously. Once the ramp lands on the ground, Toni pushes herself out of the wheelchair, elbowing her way through the pain as she does through everything in her way, despite Rhodey’s many protests this time around. She does, however, slide her hand through the crook of his elbow for his own peace of mind.
They come down the ramp slowly. Toni cringes away from the gleam of the day, which is slowly becoming a shtick for her, but braves through it, her jaw clenched, and her eyes narrowed, limiting the amount of sunlight that can set her retinas on fire.
Out of the corner of her eye, she can see a few men leading a stretcher towards her.
She balks, immediately. “Are you kidding me with this? Get rid of them,” she demands, waving them away.
Rhodey gives her one of his trademark, why are you being so dumb? look, which she promptly ignores and makes her way over to a beaming Pepper, who’s rocking back on her heels, and Happy, who’s clearly holding back all effusive emotion (the mensch he is).
Toni eyes Pepper carefully. She’s more than a little heartened by the dampness she can see in Pepper’s eyes, the way her cheekbones are drawn, and her lips are thin and pale.
She sniffs. “Your eyes are red. A few tears for your long-lost boss?” she teases.
Pepper snorts. “Tears of joy. I hate job hunting,” she retorts, chewing on her lower lip through her smile.
They both know she’s lying through her teeth.
Pepper leans in. “Would it be really unprofessional of me to hug you right now?”
Toni frankly is aching for the physical comfort. She isn’t much of a touchy-feely girl, so used to the backlash of being labelled emotional and soft and having her want for affection so easily used against her (Ty had done that a lot, used it to rend her, piece by piece, until he could get what he wanted from her, be it affection or attention or a warm body). But she wouldn’t mind a hug from Pepper – Pepper’s had too many opportunities to put a knife in her back and hasn’t taken one (that being said, it’s always the people close to her that hurt her the best, so she’s still waiting for the Judas kiss).
“If you must,” she relents, as if it’s such a capitulation.
Pepper hugs her fiercely, just for a moment, but it’s enough to feel some of the uneasiness in her stomach fade away. Toni’s hands hang awkwardly by her side, but she knows that Pepper won’t think badly of her, waiting until Pepper sees fit to release her.
Toni clears her throat. “So, did you end up going on that vacation?”
“Bahamas, two weeks,” Pepper answers, promptly.
Toni makes a face. “Oh, please, that’s weak. I would've gone to Venice for like a month. You've got a lot to learn, young Padawan.” She pauses. “Did you at least bill it to me?”
“Flights and accommodation,” Pepper agrees, but it comes out a little reedy, as if she didn’t want to admit it.
She wonders if Pepper searched for her. She wouldn’t blame the younger woman for needing a vacation if she looked like she does now – all thin and pale and tired – for the last three months.
Toni sighs. “Oh, well, vacation’s over, come on.”
Pepper leads her to her Rolls Royce Phantom and Happy gets into the driver’s seat.
“Where to, ma’am?”
Pepper answers for her. “Take us to the hospital, please, Happy.”
Toni scowls. “No,” she cuts her off.
“No?” Pepper exclaims, incredulously. “Toni, you have to-”
“No is a complete answer,” Toni waves her off.
“-go to the hospital. The doctor has to look at you,” Pepper insists.
“I don't have to do anything,” Toni disagrees, vehemently. “I’ve been in captivity for three months. There are two things I want to do. I want an American cheeseburger, and the other-”
Pepper rolls her eyes. “That’s enough of that,” she snaps.
Toni scowls. “-is not what you think,” she says, sharply, to which Pepper’s face screws up in regret. “Although, orgasms release oxytocin, adrenalin, dopamine, prolactin, nitric oxide, DHEA, endorphins, which can alleviate pain, accelerate healing, relieve stress, help with insomnia, stimulate your brain. Hell, steady orgasms can help you live longer.” She muses and then shakes her head (she gets distracted too easily with sexy science talk). “I want you to call for a press conference now.” She informs Pepper.
Pepper blinks. “Call for a press conference?” she clarifies, confused.
“What on Earth for?” Pepper demands.
Toni ignores her (she’ll find out soon enough). She taps the driver’s seat in front of her. “Hogan, drive.” She pauses. “Cheeseburger first,” she amends.
“You could wait, you know,” Pepper’s voice is muffled from outside the bathroom door.
“Oh, please, Pepper, you know if those camera-wielding vultures see me in anything that isn’t couture, they will burn me at the stake,” Toni huffs. “Better I get this over and done with.”
“Well, do you need any help?” Pepper calls out.
Toni finishes snapping the button on the belt encircling her wide-leg, mustard-yellow slacks, ensuring that her thin, black turtleneck is tucked inside with nary a crease, smoothing down the material of her blouse and pants, which leave her ankles bare with their height. She strides purposefully towards the bathroom’s exit, in her black scarpin heels, pushing open the door and closing it behind her.
“Believe it or not, I’ve been capable of dressing myself since I was around fifteen months old,” she tells Pepper. “How do I look?” She strikes a pose.
Pepper bites back a smile. “Like the Alpha Bitch.”
Toni sniffs. “You got that right.” She tosses her hair, bravely. “Did you get my cheeseburger?”
“You know, I thought about you while I was there,” Toni begins, casually.
She looks down at the half-unwrapped cheeseburger between her palms, and momentarily mourns the fact that it’s as far away from kosher as one could get.
She’ll have to make it up to Ana some other way.
Pepper’s head tilts in her direction. She raises in eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Yeah, I thought about who’d get my stuff if they killed me,” Toni replies and takes a large bite of the burger, moaning.
Pepper goes stark-white (pun unintended), and the suddenness of it makes Toni want to laugh, but she thinks it would be terribly inappropriate.
Pepper recovers quickly because she’s resilient and clears her throat. “So, what did you decide?”
“I decided that you would get my wardrobe,” Toni explains. “You’re the only one who’d actually appreciate it. Plus, I don’t really like much people, so the list is already pretty short.”
“That makes me feel so special, Toni,” Pepper says, sarcastically.
“It should. Do you have any idea how expensive that wardrobe is?” Toni demands. “Fashionistas all over the world would fight to the death to get their hands on what I have inside my closets.” She pauses. “Hey, maybe I should start a reality show.”
“I can think of five reasons, just off the top of my head, as to why that is a very bad idea,” Pepper says, slowly.
“You are like the most un-fun person I have ever met,” Toni says, long-sufferingly. She brightens. “Hey, did you contact Marcella?”
“No, I did not contact Marcella!” Pepper hisses, shooting Happy a wary look in case he had been listening.
Toni groans and tips her head back against the seat. “You are so boring,” she sighs. “Hey, what happened to the factory in Pennsylvania?”
“Oh!” Pepper’s eyes widen. “Well, we got the permit to start constructing, and it’s already around a third finished. But we haven’t managed to accumulated the machinery for the interior yet since you’ve been… away.” Pepper hesitates as if she’s unsure if that’s the right word to accurately describe the situation. “We needed your signature on a lot of contracts and purchasing statements before we could source the machines.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about that too much,” Toni murmurs, absentmindedly, looking out of the window.
“What do you mean?” Pepper’s brow furrows in confusion.
Toni doesn’t reply.
The car rolls up to Stark Industries’ Headquarters and Toni slides out of the car, hiding her eyes from the sun, only to be seized in Obadiah’s thick arms, while a number of people applaud in the background. The breath rushes out of her in a swoop as he crushes her to him, and she bites out a pained laugh, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Toni,” he rumbles in her ear.
“Obie,” she says, gently, as he releases her and her feet land on the ground.
“We were going to meet at the hospital,” he chides her, gently.
Toni waves him off – Obie always cares too much. “No, no, I’m fine.”
“Look at you!” Obadiah says, proudly, as she searches for Happy who brings her cheeseburger from around the other side of the car.
“Thanks, Happy,” she mutters, taking it from the bag.
Obadiah shakes his head in fond amusement. “You had to have a burger, yeah?”
Toni shrugs in reply, as he leads her into the headquarters with a broad palm on the small of her back.
“You get me one of those?” Obadiah asks, curiously.
Toni pauses and licks her lips. “There's only one left and I need it to live,” she says, innocently.
Obadiah rolls his eyes.
“Hey, look who's here! Yeah!” he shouts upon their entrance into the atrium of the headquarters.
Immediately, the crowd gathered there start cheering and clapping loudly. Toni proceeds through the crowd, nodding politely at all of the familiar faces and reluctantly accepting all of the pats on the shoulder from people who really shouldn’t be touching her, but for some reason are. She makes her way to the podium and climbs up the few steps, flopping to the ground, such that her legs are curled underneath her and her back is resting against the front of the podium.
Toni can see everyone’s eyes shifting from her to Obadiah standing behind the podium, above her.
“Hey, would it be all right if everyone sat down?” Toni offers, waving her hand in front of her. “Why don’t you guys just sit down? That way you can see me, and I can...” She takes a hearty bite out of her cheeseburger. “A little less formal and...”
Obadiah takes a hesitant seat beside her on the stairs. He gives her such a warm, broad smile, his eyes crinkled, that she finds herself melting on the inside.
Dad never looked at me like that.
She had seen disappointment, resentment, exasperation, fury, exhaustion, hell, even concern and fondness very infrequently, in his eyes, but he had never given her a smile like that.
Hell, she doesn’t think he’d ever given her mother that smile.
“Good to see you,” she murmurs.
“Good to see you,” Obadiah returns, just as kindly.
“I never got to say goodbye to Dad,” she says, suddenly. She blinks and turns to those gathered there, on the edge of their seats for a word from her. “I never got to say goodbye to my father.” She says a little louder, so they can hear her. “There's questions that I would have asked him. I would have asked him how he felt about what this company did. If he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts.”
She bites her lip, remembering one distinct memory, when she was around three years old, of her father carrying her in his arms, as he showed her how to open up the hood of a 1964 Aston Martin DB5.
Her father found it hard to spend time with her, after that.
“Or maybe he was every inch the man we all remember from the newsreels,” she says, bitterly, in the end. “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them.” The face of the boy who had taken the picture with her before her Humvee was bombed flashes before her eyes. “And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.”
They all shout for her attention, but she chooses one of the men, crouching in the front.
He’s always treated her fairly in his articles.
“Hey, Ben,” she says, quietly.
“What happened over there?” he asks her.
“I had my eyes opened,” Toni declares, jumping to her feet and walking behind the podium. “I came to realise that I have more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries-”
Everyone dissolves into chaos and Obadiah practically lunges for her, trying to get her away from the microphone.
But she can’t be stopped.
Not on this.
“-until such a time as I can decide what the future of the company will be.”
“I think we're gonna be selling a lot of newspapers,” Obadiah interjects, smoothly.
But she isn’t having it.
This is her time.
Not her father’s.
And she’ll damn well do it the way she wants.
“What direction it should take, one that I’m comfortable with and is consistent with the highest good for this country, as well.”
Toni lets Obadiah take over for her then and strides back down the steps, ignoring the number of cameras flashing insistently in her face and people shouting in her ear, until she’s at the edge of the crowd.
“What we should take away from this is that Toni’s back! And she’s healthier than ever. We’re going to have a little internal discussion and we’ll get back to you with the follow-up.”
She passes by a disappointed Rhodey (that stings) and a shocked-beyond-belief Pepper (she doubts Pepper thought her capable of that kind of moral culpability; she knows what people think of her – married to the job, ice queen, capitalist bitch, heartless cunt, it goes on and on).
But she doesn’t care.
Those bastards took her weapons, the weapons she made to protect the decent, hardworking soldiers keeping her country safe, and used them to terrorise innocent people.
They don’t get to win any more than she’s allowed them to.
This is where she draws her goddamn line.
Chapter 6: (vi)
warnings: some creepy behaviour by obadiah that makes toni uncomfortable, implied/referenced past partner abuse.
thank you again to meg for betaing this chapter!
Obadiah finds her, later, staring at the swirls of blue in the arc reactor.
His hands are on his hips, a cigar between his teeth, as he strides over to her. “Well, that... That went well,” he says, slowly, as if he’s being kind.
Toni’s mouth lifts in the flicker of a smile. “Did I just paint a target on the back of my head?” she asks, dryly.
Obadiah snorts. “Your head? What about my head? What do you think the over-under on the stock drop is gonna be tomorrow?”
Toni scrunches up her nose. “Optimistically, forty points.”
“At minimum,” Obadiah stresses.
Toni sighs (she can’t do much about that and it’s a price she’ll have to pay). “Yep.”
“Toni,” Obadiah begins, reasonably, as if he’s gearing up to persuade her into something (she knows exactly what something is and she’s not having it – her decision is the decision and everyone else can go fuck themselves). “We're a weapons manufacturer.”
“And?” Toni challenges.
Obadiah sighs. “I know you take after your mother, Toni. But, right now, I need you to be more like Howard.”
Toni grits her teeth, because she has always been like Howard.
And if Obadiah had known her mother as well as he thought he had, he wouldn’t dismiss her so easily – it was her mother who taught her to be fierce.
In any case, she knows what he thinks of her. She knows he once thought she was too soft to play this game, to be this person, to be the savage her father had been, but she’s proven him wrong. She’s proven all of them wrong.
She hasn’t just suddenly lost her nerve for arms-dealing. She isn’t running scared from her own shadow just because she had a bad couple of months. And she won’t allow him to set her aside until she stops being so controversial.
She isn’t just some spineless little milksop and she isn’t that fucking delicate.
This is the right thing to do, and no one will sway her.
“Obie, I just don't want a body count to be our only legacy,” she returns, calmly (it takes everything in her to not to go straight for the jugular).
Obadiah sighs heavily and he puts his hands on her shoulders, squeezing as if to make his point. “That’s what we do,” he points out, gently. “We’re iron mongers. We make weapons.”
Toni wants to retort that I fucking know that; I want to stop.
But it’s Obie, after all. He always means well, and he really does love her.
“It’s my name on the side of the building,” she reasons instead.
“And what we do keeps the world from falling into chaos.”
Toni snorts. “Not based on what I saw,” she says, bitterly. “We're not doing a good enough job. We can do better. We're gonna do something else.” She promises.
Yinsen. You hear me? I’m going to make things better.
Obadiah raises an eyebrow. “Like what? You want us to make baby bottles?”
Toni eyes the blue swirls of energy in the arc reactor beside her. “I think we should take another look into arc reactor technology,” she says, simply.
Obadiah’s laugh comes like a boom that rings through the entire chamber. “Come on. The arc reactor, that's a publicity stunt!” he scoffs, gesturing broadly to the giant ellipsoid-shaped reactor in the centre of the chamber. “Toni, come on. We built that thing to shut the hippies up!”
“It works,” Toni insists.
“Yeah, as a science project. The arc was never cost effective. We knew that before we built it.” Obadiah clearly sees something uncertain in her eyes, onto which he latches. “Arc reactor technology, that's a dead end, right?” he pushes, coming into her space.
“Maybe,” she hedges, not meeting his eyes.
“Am I right?” Obadiah insists. “We haven't had a breakthrough in that in what? Thirty years.”
“That’s what they say,” Toni concedes, turning around to face him but still maintaining her innocence.
Obadiah raises an eyebrow, a smile burgeoning on his face, and they remain at a standstill for a few minutes before Toni sighs, relenting.
“Could you have a lousier poker face? Just tell me, who told you?” she asks, curiously.
She wants to know who to kill.
Obadiah shakes his head. “Never mind who told me. Show me.” He wags his cigar in the direction of her chest.
“It’s Rhodey or Pepper,” Toni guesses.
“I want to see it.”
“Okay, Rhodey,” Toni decides.
Thank you for that, BFF.
Obadiah waits, expectantly.
Toni bites her lip, her hands hesitating around the hem of her shirt, which she untucks from her slacks. She rolls it up, forcibly shoving down the embarrassment that comes at baring so much skin in front of her godfather, until he can see the casing and vivid blue light that comes from the reactor.
It becomes awkward quickly and she smooths her shirt back down once Obadiah has had enough of a peek.
“It works,” she says, simply.
Obadiah smiles at her, satisfied, and throws his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close into his much broader body.
“Listen to me, Toni. We’re a team. Do you understand? There's nothing we can't do if we stick together, like your father and I.”
Toni bites back the instinctual displeasure at anyone remotely comparing her to her father and smiles gratefully back.
It’s not fair of her to take her frustration out on Obie – he’s always been in her corner, even when no one else was.
“I’m sorry I didn't give you a heads-up, okay? But if I had...” Toni trails off, shamefaced.
Obadiah shakes his head. “Toni. Toni, no more of this ‘ready, fire, aim’ business. You understand me?”
Toni snorts. “That was Dad’s line,” she reminds him.
“You gotta let me handle this,” Obadiah cajoles her. “We’re gonna have to play a whole different kind of ball now. We’re going to have to take a lot of heat.”
“I can handle it,” Toni says, immediately.
She’s made for this game. She’s good at this game.
Obadiah shakes his head. “I think it’s better if you lay low for this one, honey,” he reassures. “They’ll come after you hard. Let me protect you. Let me protect us.”
Toni takes a deep breath and finally, nods.
Because, after all, Obie would never betray her.
It’s late afternoon by the time Happy drops her off back at her mansion. He asks her if she’d like him to stick around, but she lets him know that she doesn’t intend to leave her house until she’s had a decent number of hours of sleep in her bed.
When she strides into her mansion, it’s dark and bare of any noise, dead the way she imagines it will be after they finally put her into the ground.
But then, as if sensing her grand entrance, it comes alive. The lights flicker on and the windows become transparent once again, showing the brilliance of the ocean on the other end. The TV switches onto some daytime soap opera, which she’s pretty sure is some joke on JARVIS’ end.
“Welcome home, Miss Antonia,” JARVIS’ voice rumbles, warmly.
Something loosens in her chest and she bites back the well of emotion.
She has missed him.
She grins. “Thank you, kindly, J-baby. It’s been a long time.”
As she walks down the steps, the fountain in front of the staircase starts to ferociously pour, the patter of water like rain.
“Based on news reports, I calculated your safe return at 0.25%, even with my assistance with Colonel Rhodes’ investigation. Satellite images and heat signatures were not of much use,” JARVIS tells her, primly, but she knows he’s biting back a lot of emotion she knows he’s capable of (she was the one who asked him to keep the emoting to a minimum because she doesn’t know what she would do if someone tried to take him away from her).
She knows that percentage would have dropped and dropped as the days went by with no word from her, and it feels like someone has reached down her throat to fist whatever’s left of her lungs to imagine JARVIS here in this empty house just waiting for her, wondering if she would ever come back to him and the bots loitering downstairs, wondering if anyone would even bother to tell him if she came back in bad shape or even in a body bag.
She wonders if JARVIS told the bots what was happening – she doubts he did; JARVIS is always such a good big brother.
Oy, these three months must have been hell for him – he loves her so.
Toni lets herself smile for him. “Yeah, I missed you too, baby.”
She makes her way to the couch in the living room, spotting a beautiful pair of diamond earrings sitting a square-shaped black velvet box. A note is rolled up in the top half of the box, which she picks up and straightens out.
Thank God it wasn’t your time.
She smiles to herself and clips the earrings to her ears, closing the box with the note inside.
She’ll thank Obie later.
She abruptly stands up, biting back the instinctual flinch at the arc reactor jostling in her chest, and walks over to the clear windows, tapping a particular spot to bring up the interface, swiping her way through hundreds of emails, internal memos, meeting minutes, orders for shipments (cancelled), invoices, tax returns, balance sheets, registers, deeds and the list goes on.
No rest for the wicked indeed.
“You have 1713 new voice messages, Miss Antonia,” JARVIS tells her. “How shall I categorise for you?”
“Delete all,” Toni says, absentmindedly.
“Are you quite sure, miss?”
“Yeah, anyone who left a message but hasn’t seen me yet can’t have left anything super important anyway. I’ll deal with it later,” she tells him. “Delete them.”
“As you will,” JARVIS concedes. He hesitates again, audibly. “Miss Antonia, I am detecting the presence of electromagnetic energy in the house,” JARVIS says, slowly.
Toni hums in agreement. “We’ve got some work to do, babe.”
She saunters down to her workshop and keys in her access code. The glass door parts with a hiss and she steps over to the threshold into the part of her home that is truly her home.
For a moment, Toni worries there is something wrong with his code, but then he continues, and she realises it was nothing more than hesitation (her baby is growing up).
“I have missed you a great deal, Miss Antonia. I am glad to see you safe and at home, with us, where you belong.”
Toni’s throat is thick.
“Me too, babe. Me too.”
The bots come for her the second they see her standing in the doorway, beeping exuberantly, as they nudge their struts against her, making her laugh. She wraps an arm around DUM-E’s support brace, while patting U and BUTTERFINGERS on the head, who roll into her touch.
“Did you miss me, babies? I missed you,” she croons.
DUM-E babbles something to her in robot talk, which she takes to be where the hell have you been for three months?
“Did you miss me?” she asks DUM-E, a smile playing on her mouth. “And language, young man. I did not raise a delinquent.”
DUM-E nods, his strut slumping just the slightest at her admonishment, which makes her soften inside.
“I’m sorry, babe. Mama had a presentation and got caught up with some work, but that’s all done, and I won’t leave you alone like that again, okay?”
DUM-E beeps like he acknowledges her apology and reluctantly forgives her.
Toni rolls her eyes. “Thanks, babe. Now, let’s get back to work. You guys have been getting pudgy without me here. You’ve been slacking off, haven’t you?”
U and BUTTERFINGERS warble in argument, but she cuts them off.
“No, no, this place is a mess. I thought we agreed you all had your chores. DUM-E’s job is to clean all of the tables and shelves. U, you’re supposed to organise all my tools. And BUTTERFINGERS, you’re meant to sweep the floor. Do I need to go and take stars off the chore board?”
She gestures broadly to where there’s a whiteboard screwed onto the wall, with the bots’ names written in her handwriting and bright gold star stickers in a neat row beside each of their names.
All three bots protest at this, beeping loudly, and she waves at them.
“Okay, fine,” she concedes. “I’ll give you one more chance. You can keep the stickers you have, but if you don’t do your chores now, you will be starting from square one, got it?” she warns, her hands on her hips.
The bots slump forwards in unison, bobbing their struts in acquiescence.
“Good. Now, hop to it,” she ushers them off.
She strides over to her main work bench, seeing another black velvet box sitting on top – this one is much larger than Obadiah’s, fit for something bigger than earrings. Her brow furrows, and she thumbs the edge of it. She snaps it open more out of curiosity, only to find a string of diamonds set in a lariat cut that would drape elegantly between her breasts if she were to put it on.
There’s a card on the inside of the box and she draws it out.
You’ve got nine lives, I swear, Annie.
I’m glad you’re safe.
Don’t let the bastards get you down.
All my love, now and forever,
Her stomach drops right out from underneath her.
A fucking necklace.
Another fucking necklace.
She has dozens more of those apology pieces sitting in a jewellery box upstairs – she hasn’t touched them since she was nineteen and she closed the door on Tiberius Stone, once and for all.
“Miss Antonia, your heart rate and blood pressure levels are rising,” JARVIS warns.
Toni wants to laugh, but she knows it’ll come out more like a scream of rage at the bastard’s audacity, so instead, she focuses on the shape of her hands, propped up against the countertop, and counts each line on each finger on the back of her hands, until she can feel her heartbeat slow in her chest to a comfortable rhythm.
“How am I doing, J?” she asks, roughly.
“Your heart rate and blood pressure levels are returning to normal now, miss,” JARVIS reassures her.
Not for the first time in her life, she’s tremendously grateful that JARVIS doesn’t change – for a moment, she had feared he’d treat her like some wilting flower just because she’d been held prisoner by a terrorist gang for three months, but JARVIS has exceeded all of her expectations once more, rolled with the punches, and she has never been prouder.
“Perhaps a glass of water will help?” JARVIS offers.
BUTTERFINGERS, determined to be helpful, rolls towards her with a glass full of water poured from the sink at the back of the workshop. She smiles and takes it from him, downing it in one gulp.
“Thanks, honey. Just for that, you can have another star.”
BUTTERFINGERS trills in happiness and rolls around to face other bots. If BUTTERFINGERS had a face, Toni knows he would be sticking his tongue out at his siblings.
DUM-E and U beep something that Toni translates as no fair!
“Hey, don’t kvetch at me. When you guys start pulling your weight around here, you can have more stars too,” Toni chides, gently, returning her attention to the necklace sitting ominously in the case.
She shuts with a bang and shoves it aside, unable to even look at it for a moment longer.
“Miss Antonia, I believe there is someone approaching the perimeter. Shall I send them away?” JARVIS queries.
Toni is glad for the distraction. She straightens. “Who is it?” she asks, curiously. “If it’s a reporter, tell them to fuck off.”
“I would never presume to use such language,” JARVIS replies, affronted that she even thought him capable of such incivility. He pauses. “I believe it is Miss Bindingnavale. Shall I allow her through the gate?”
Toni almost falls off her chair in surprise. “Yush?!” she exclaims. “Yush is here?” She clears her throat. “Yeah, sure, let her in.”
She breaks out in a run, out of the workshop, and throws herself up the staircase until she’s racing for the entrance, only slowing when she’s around the corner from her front door. She hurriedly checks her appearance in the closest mirror and smooths down her hair and clothes, before shaking her head at her own silliness.
It’s only Yush, Hashem save me, she berates herself.
When she slides opens the door, Ayushma is climbing up the stairs at the front.
The breath comes out of her like a rush.
“Hi,” she says, gently.
“Hi,” Ayushma returns, her voice rough with emotion.
She strides forward, purposefully, until she’s throwing her arms around a surprised Toni, who barely has any time to react before she’s almost bowled over.
“Okay, wow, we’re hugging. I… I didn’t know we were doing hugging now. But that’s cool. Hugging is cool. I love hugging,” Toni babbles.
“Tonia?” Ayushma’s voice is muffled in her shoulder.
Ayushma pulls away and Toni cherishes the redness in her eyes.
“Come in,” Toni says, quickly, the sun blinding her (her eyes burn, like salt water in a still-bleeding cut, and she thinks she may vomit, but that’s between her and Hashem and no one else can ever know). “We shouldn’t stick around here. There might be reporters scouting the place and the last thing you need is to be named as another fling of that loud-mouth slut, Toni Stark.”
Ayushma snorts. “That ship sailed a long time ago.”
Toni waves her off. “That was different.”
They make their way to Toni’s living room, where Ayushma takes a seat on her couch, slipping off her heels and tucking her legs underneath her, while Toni proceeds to the bar, pouring the two of them a glass of wine each. She joins Ayushma, handing her one of the glasses, and matches Ayushma’s position on the couch, but instead sits cross-legged with her feet bare.
“So, why are you in Malibu?” Toni asks, curiously, taking a sip of her wine. “Or did you just come here to give me your well wishes?” Her voice turns sardonic.
“I’ve been here for three months,” Ayushma answers, slowly.
Toni almost spits out her wine. “What? Why?” she demands.
“Rhodey called, after you were kidnapped,” Ayushma begins.
“Because he was concerned that-” Ayushma stops short, looking as though she’s unsure of how to continue.
Toni shifts on the couch, straightening, an intrigued light appearing in her eyes. “Concerned that what?”
Ayushma looks down at her lap and then back at Toni. “He was a little concerned that Obadiah might declare you dead while you were gone,” she finishes heavily.
Toni inhales. “And did he?” she asks, lightly, but she feels as if she’s on the edge of a cliff.
“He attempted to file paperwork, but we stopped him,” Ayushma explains, gently.
Toni ignores the stab of hurt. “Oh,” she says, lamely. She shakes her head. “That’s just business.”
Ayushma scowls. “That’s not business, Tonia; that’s greed.”
Toni licks her lips. “You don’t understand, Yush. Obie was just doing what was best for Stark Industries. He couldn’t very well continue running SI without knowing if its CEO was dead or alive.”
Ayushma flinches at the word dead and grits her teeth. “You have too much faith in him.”
Toni narrows her eyes. “He’s been there for me since I was born. He’s my godfather, Yush. And he really stepped up and showed me the ropes after my dad died. That’s not fair,” she says, disapprovingly.
“I think you give him too much credit,” Ayushma pushes.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Toni says, shortly.
“Tonia, I’m just trying to-”
“I know what you’re trying to do,” Toni cuts her off, sharply. “And don’t.”
Ayushma backtracks. “Fine. Let’s change the subject, shall we?” She drags her teeth over a plump pink lip. “So, Christine Everhart seems to think your kidnapping was a ploy for attention,” she says, casually.
Toni snorts into her wine glass. “She would. I had Pepper kick her out the morning I left for Afghanistan.” She looks up to see Ayushma’s eyes narrowed at her. “What?”
“Christine Everhart? Seriously, of all people?”
Toni raises an eyebrow. “Are you judging me?”
“Because we’re not together, Yush,” Toni reminds her, somewhat sharply. “We haven’t been, not in a long time.”
Ayushma flinches with hurt. “You’re still my friend, Tonia. I wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.”
“Yeah, well, it’s nothing like coming back from the dead to have all my exes come out of the woodwork,” Toni says, flatly.
“All your exes?” Ayushma raises an eyebrow.
“Ty bought me a very lovely diamond necklace as an I’m glad you’re not actually dead gift,” Toni explains.
Her hands begins to shake but she forcibly stamps it down.
He has no power over her anymore.
“Why is Tiberius Stone contacting you now? I thought he was in Europe?” Ayushma wonders out loud.
“He was,” Toni murmurs. “He must have come back.”
Ayushma had never actually met Tiberius Stone before (he was before her time, by just a year at most), but she had heard enough and seen enough from Toni to know that their relationship was complicated at best and motherfucking abusive at worst.
“Are you okay with that?” she asks, cautiously.
“As long as he doesn’t show up on my doorstep, I’ll be fine,” Toni says, coldly.
Ayushma looks as though Toni slapped her across the face. “Is that a dig?”
Toni sighs. “Of course not. I didn’t mean-” She tips her head back against the sofa. “Thank you for coming to visit me, Yush. I’ve missed you.”
“I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through. I don’t want to ask you how you’re doing but-”
“Let’s just say that my stay in Afghanistan was nothing like our time in the Bahamas, summer of ‘91?” Toni nudges her in the side.
“God,” Ayushma groans. “I’d forgotten about that.”
“No, you didn’t,” Toni snorts. “No one could forget that. That was amazing. All we did was drink and fuck and swim and shop. It was peace.”
Before everything went to hell.
“It was,” Ayushma agrees, softly. “So, what went wrong?”
“I don’t think anything went wrong. As much I hate to say it, I think we made a very mature, responsible, adult-like decision,” Toni protests. “We both knew that our respective careers didn’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t reconcile with each other’s. We didn’t want to be pulled in different directions, and we didn’t want to grow to hate each other for things we couldn’t help. What we did… it fucking hurt, and I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but it made sense.”
“You’re being very sensible about it,” Ayushma comments. “I kind of hate that.” She confesses, miserably.
Toni shrugs, but there’s something sad to her entire bearing. “I’ve had years to think it over. Did I hate it when it happened? Of course, I did. But what can we do about it now?” she asks, wryly.
“You stopped weapons’ production,” Ayushma says, suddenly.
“Well, I’m trying to. Let’s see what happens,” Toni concedes.
“I don’t get it. You believed in what you were doing so much. What made you change your mind?” Ayushma asks, curiously.
“Well, you start to look at things differently when you get blown up by one of your own weapons,” Toni points out, dryly.
“Tonia-” Ayushma begins, her dark-skinned face etched with softness and hurt.
God, Toni forgot how beautiful this woman is.
She shakes her head. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just say Afghanistan was enlightening, to say the least.”
The blandness of her tone is enough to inform Ayushma that further conversation on this particular subject matter will not be welcome (it’s a pity, because there was a time in their lives that Toni would have been happy to spill her guts to Ayushma).
“While I can’t deny I’m glad you’re shutting down weapons’ manufacturing, I hate that it had to happen like this,” Ayushma confesses.
“Yeah, me too,” Toni gulps down some of her wine because it’s the only thing she can do.
“You think there’ll be a lot of backlash?” Ayushma asks, curiously.
“My board is filled with old white men from my father’s generation who think violence is the best policy, so, yeah, there will be a lot of backlash,” Toni reasons.
“Do you think you’ll still manage to push it through?”
“I still have controlling interest in the company, and they need my money and skill. It’ll be a tough ride, and I’ll have to stand my ground, but… this is the first time I’ve ever been sure of anything to do with what my dad left me, Yush. I can’t falter now.”
Ayushma stares at her long enough that Toni feels like shifting in her seat, like Ayushma’s cracking her open to find out what she looks like on the inside. Her heels are slipping on the edge of a cliff and frankly, she could go either way, depending on what Ayushma says.
If yet another person thinks she’s an idiot, a coward, thinks she’s looking for attention, if Ayushma thinks that, it will be a heavier blow than most.
Chapter 7: (vii)
Warnings for this chapter: post traumatic stress disorder symptoms, implied/referenced torture, explicit body horror/body modifications.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this,” Ayushma muses.
Toni frowns. “What are you talking about?”
“I’ve just never seen you so indignant.”
Toni snorts. “My mother liked to say that I was born raging at this world, her little quilombera, so I don’t know how you’ve never seen me like this before.”
“What does it mean, quilombera?” Ayushma stumbles a little around the pronunciation.
“Someone who likes to fuck things up.” Toni gives her a broad, toothy smile.
“But that’s different.” Ayushma shakes her head. “I’ve never seen you so… unyielding, I think is the best word. And if this is what you want to do, if this is what you think you need to you, I’m with you all the way, as much as it’s worth,” she says, finally.
Toni’s mouth lifts in a flicker of a smile. “That does mean a lot. Thank you.”
Ayushma sips at her wine. “And that’s not just me saying that because you proved me right in the end.”
Toni rolls her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. We all can’t be as enlightened as you are, Yush. So, thank you very much for the support.”
“You’re welcome.” Ayushma beams.
The conversation falters between them once more, and the two of them drink from their wine glasses. Somehow, the silence is comforting and it reminds Toni of days in her dorm room, shared with Rhodey, with Toni fussing with DUM-E’s circuitry, while Ayushma lounged on her bed, reading from a textbook.
“I’m sorry. I have to ask. You had sex with Christine Everhart?” Ayushma demands.
Toni groans. “Do we really have to have this conversation? Isn’t there some rule where exes shouldn’t talk about the people whom their exes have fucked since their relationship ended?”
“Probably,” Ayushma waves off. “But who cares about that? I want to know.”
Ayushma speaks with all of the dogged determination that Toni remembers from when they were younger and Ayushma wanted to save the world single-handedly (Toni would’ve just brought her down; in retrospect, Ayushma would never have achieved what she had with Toni, the merchant of death, by her side).
“Look, it wasn’t serious or anything. She cornered me outside Caesar’s Palace, after the Apogee Award ceremony, and she just pissed me off. So, I invited her back to my place.”
“If you didn’t like her, why’d you have sex with her in the first place?”
“Well, I could give you the meta explanation about how genuine affection and lust are two separate concepts and can’t be interlinked and a fake connection can’t be used to shame people for giving into their natural, bodily desires even when said bodily desire is for someone you realistically couldn’t stand to be around for longer than the time it takes to have a few orgasms.”
“But?” Ayushma pushes.
“I just wanted to prove to her that despite her very strong opinions against me, she was capable of sacrificing her principles in the name of sexual satisfaction and she, of all people, shouldn’t be throwing stones at other people.”
“So, basically, charitable reasoning, then?” Ayushma teases.
Toni shrugs. “Pretty much. Hey, she came with me of her own free will. There was no alcohol involved, or anything else that would inhibit consent. She enjoyed herself, plenty. If she didn’t like me in the morning, that’s her own problem. I can’t be blamed for her regret.”
“I shouldn’t be asking this. It’s more morbid curiosity than anything. But was she good?” Ayushma asks, hesitantly.
Toni screws up her face. “Really? Are you absolutely certain you want to have this conversation?”
“As much as I hate to admit it, I think I am,” Ayushma says, grimly.
“Fine, but remember, you asked for it,” Toni brandishes her empty wine glass at her, warningly. “She was… conflicted.”
“Conflicted?” Ayushma asks, confused.
“I don’t know if it was because she hadn’t had sex with many women, or because she was angry at herself for wanting to have sex with me, but honestly, she wasn’t that good.”
“Oh,” Ayushma says, lamely.
Then, a smile begins to spread across her face.
“Don’t,” Toni warns. “That’s not cool.”
Ayushma laughs. “It’s kind of funny, you have to admit.”
“It’s not. It’s sad and kind of ironic, but it’s not funny,” Toni insists.
“Oh, please, you’re telling me if our situations were reversed, you wouldn’t be laughing?”
Toni sniffs. “If you must know, I wouldn’t.”
Ayushma leans forward. “Bullshit.”
“This is mean,” Toni says, sternly. “We shouldn’t be making fun of her behind her back.”
“She routinely calls you a capitalist, warmongering bitch. I think she’s earned this,” Ayushma retorts.
“I’m not talking about this anymore,” Toni says, stubbornly. “You’re just using it to make fun of me.”
“And you wouldn’t?” Ayushma exclaims.
“Do you have any one-night stands I can mock?” Toni asks, attempting to maintain a certain level of disinterest, but miraculously failing.
“No one interesting enough for you to mock,” Ayushma replies, simply.
Toni shifts. “Are you seeing someone?” she wonders out loud.
“Not for a long time.”
“You know, you’re not giving me much to go on,” Toni complains.
“What do you want me to say? There was a woman, around three years ago. We dated for about a year, and then we broke up.”
Toni looks down into her empty wine glass. “Why?”
“The official reason is that she worked in Chicago and I was based in Cambridge, so it became too hard to do the long-distance thing.”
“And the unofficial reason?” Toni knows it’s a bad idea, but she pushes on.
“It probably has something to do with the rich genius engineer girl I met in a bar in Massachusetts almost twenty years ago.”
“Right,” Toni says, lamely.
Ayushma grimaces. “I didn’t mean to make things awkward,” she offers.
“We broke up like fifteen years ago because I made weapons for a living and you’re a human rights lawyer, and I was just kidnapped by terrorists for three months and now, you’re in my house, drinking wine. I think we passed awkward a long time ago,” she points out.
Ayushma laughs. “Good point.” She sobers up quickly. “We aren’t getting back together, are we?” she says, heavily, like she already knows her answer. “For a moment, I thought… now, that you’d ended weapons’ production…”
“… we could finally make it work?” Toni guesses and then smiles, bitterly. “As much as I would like that, I don’t think so. Honestly, Yush, if we really wanted to make it work, we would’ve done it sometime in these past fifteen years. It’s not that I didn’t love you, that I don’t love you still, it’s just…”
“Our time’s passed, hasn’t it?” Ayushma says, knowingly. “I wish it hadn’t, but it has, hasn’t it?”
There’s still something hopeful to her voice, something that wants Toni to vehemently deny that their time is over, and it hurts even more than any of her surgeries in that cave ever could.
“Yeah, I think it has.”
They fall silent once more, and this time, it feels so decisive between them that Toni has to stamp down the urge to cry (she’s loved Ayushma for so long that putting an end to them now seems so fucking unfair – she doesn’t know who the hell she pissed off in a former life, but she’s clearly paying for it now).
“I heard you, you know?” she says, suddenly.
Ayushma frowns. “What are you talking about?”
“When I was in Afghanistan, in this cave where they held me prisoner, the Ten Rings wanted me to make one of my missiles for them. I refused, so they tortured me. They were drowning me, to be precise, in this dirty little trough full of filthy water that I’m pretty sure had ebola in it. I heard you scream my name when I was suffocating.”
Toni doesn’t mean to be graphic, but she needs Ayushma to know what she means to her, what she has always meant to her, even if it means that they close this chapter of their lives absolutely.
“Tonia-” Ayushma begins, roughly, like she’s barely holding back the urge to cry (in fact, Toni can see the shadow of tears in her eyes).
“I’m not saying this to make you upset. I just… I wanted you to know that you’re important to me. And it means a lot that you’re here with me now.”
Ayushma’s hand slides across the sofa and entwines her fingers with Toni’s, her dusky brown, slightly-lined skin a striking contrast against her warm olive colouring.
“Even if Rhodey hadn’t called me to help out, I would still be here,” she promises.
It becomes easier to talk to each other after that, and they sit there, on the couch, long into the night. Past midnight, they stumble up to Toni’s bedroom and flop down onto the mattress, Toni on her side because there’s no other way she’ll ever get sleep, not with this damnable arc reactor pressing down on her lungs and her heart and her ribs. It’s there that Toni learns that Afghanistan has left scars deeper than the ones marking her body, and Ayushma has to wake her up from the nightmares, smoothing back her hair and whispering in her ear.
It’s a fitful sleep, but Toni’s glad she’s not alone for her first night here and Ayushma feels like a softer piece of life, a life she should’ve had but never quite reached.
The next morning, Ayushma leaves and it’s both tragic and heartening to see her go – Ayushma made her smile in a time where she didn’t think there was anything to smile over, and she thinks she will die loving this woman, this woman who dropped her entire life to come protect a possibly-dead woman whom she broke up with over a decade ago.
She kisses Ayushma one last time, on the mouth, and wishes she could just pull her back inside, so they could go back to bed and relearn everything they forgot all those fifteen years they spent apart.
But she can’t.
She has work to do.
<<<INSERT LINE HERE>>>
Toni stares at the arc reactor in her chest.
It mocks her.
It’s not that she can’t do this herself, but the casing goes quite deep into her chest cavity and from her vantage point, she can’t see inside properly.
“J, connect to Pepper’s tablet, would you?”
“As you will, Miss Antonia,” JARVIS intones.
There’s the sound of some man shouting in the background and Toni’s paid enough attention to television these last few days to know it’s a segment of Mad Money, urging everyone to sell of their stocks in SI.
Cramer, that fucking paskudnik.
There’s the sound of scurrying before Pepper’s face appears in the hologram in front of Toni.
“Pepper. How big are your hands?” she asks, curiously.
“What?” Pepper’s brow furrows.
“How big are your hands?” she repeats her question, patiently.
“I don't understand why...” Pepper trails off, bewildered.
“Get down here. I need you.”
A minute later, Pepper is keying her code and entering the workshop. She takes one look and stops in her tracks, spinning on her feet in the opposite direction.
“Hey,” Toni greets, casually, as if it’s incredibly normal for her to be lying back on her recliner chair, completely topless.
Pepper steadfastly refuses to turn around.
“Oh, come on, don’t be such a prude, Pepper,” she calls out. “You have tits too. You’re not seeing anything new here.”
“This is so unprofessional,” Pepper insists, her voice at a higher pitch than normal. "Your breasts are like right there.”
“My breasts are a national treasure, so you're welcome. And suck it up. This isn’t a picnic for me either,” Toni says, dryly. “Let's see them.”
“My breasts?!” Pepper shrieks.
“No, not your breasts. Of course not. Ew. Gross.”
Pepper makes a sound of affront. “My breasts are not gross.”
“No, they’re not. They’re beautifully shaped, not that I was looking, of course. They defy gravity. I’m sure they make men pant like dogs. Are you done fishing for compliments on your spectacular tits? I was referring to how gross it would be for me to make a sexual advance on my PA. It’s like the worst cliché ever, although the whole woman-woman thing does sort of add an interesting dynamic to it,” she muses.
“Toni, can we please stop having this conversation?” Pepper begs, with her back still to her.
“Hey, you were the one who brought breasts into this,” Toni retorts.
“I’m not the one lying topless on a dentist chair!”
Toni groans. “Will you please just show me your hands, you uptight puritan?”
Pepper slowly turns around and holds out her hands to them.
Toni’s eyes look them over, carefully.
“They are small. Very petite, indeed,” she comments, absentmindedly.
“I feel like that could still be feedback on my breasts,” Pepper mutters.
Toni rolls her eyes. “For the final fucking time, I am not talking about your breasts!” she snaps. “I just need your help for a sec.”
Pepper hesitantly walks over to her, her eyes dragging from where tail of the dragon on her back snakes over her shoulder, edging towards her collarbone, before zeroing in on the arc reactor between her breasts.
“Oh, my God, is that the thing that's keeping you alive?” Pepper exclaims.
“It was,” Toni corrects. “It is now an antique.” She raises her hand so that Pepper can see the new arc reactor she has in her hand. “This is what will be keeping me alive for the foreseeable future.”
And hopefully not give me angina and bronchoconstriction every time I fucking move.
“I’m swapping it up for an upgraded unit, and I just ran into a little speed bump.”
“Speed bump,” Pepper repeats, cautiously (she’s worked for Toni long enough to know that speed bump could be anything from get me more staples, Pepper to I may have inadvertently turned the microwave into a sentient, self-directing, non-binary sewing machine and they’re a real fashion whore). “What does that mean?”
“It’s nothing,” Toni says, defensively. “It's just a little snag. There's an exposed wire under this device. And it's contacting the socket wall and causing a little bit of a short.”
Toni grimaces when said short activates and the resulting current of electricity stings like a bitch.
“It’s fine though,” she reassures her assistant (and remembers to casually add a ten percent raise to her next pay check; Pepper won’t blink, she knows that).
Pepper takes a deep breath. “How deep does that go inside you?” she asks, in a way that suggests that maybe she doesn’t want to know the answer.
“Well, they had to pull out like half my chest cavity just to put the original electromagnet in, and then half of the rest of it was scooped out when the arc reactor was bolted to my sternum.” Toni says, matter-of-factly, and she briefly wonders if she’s a sociopath because Pepper’s look of shock-horror is enough to make her start her laughing like a hyena.
It takes Pepper a minute or two, but she makes a full recovery. “So, deep?”
Pepper squares her shoulders, ever-prepared for whatever Toni throws at her. “What do you want me to do?” she asks, with a resolute look in her eyes.
Toni performs a complicated, twisting manoeuvre and removes the arc reactor out of the casing, handing it to Pepper without missing a beat.
“Put that on the table over there. That is irrelevant.”
“Oh, my God!” Pepper breathes.
“Now, I want you to reach in, and you're just gonna gently lift the wire out,” Toni explains.
Pepper bites her lip and her hand overs the hollow casing. “Is it safe?”
Toni hums. “Yeah, it should be fine. It's like Operation. You just don't let it touch the socket wall or it goes beep.”
“What do you mean, ‘Operation’?” Pepper demands.
“It’s just a game,” Toni insists and then shakes her head. “It's just a game, never mind.” Pepper’s hands reach into the socket. “Just gently lift the wire. Okay? Great.”
“Okay,” Pepper exhales, finding a grip on the wire. Her hand withdraws almost immediately, wincing. “You know, I don't think that I'm qualified to do this.”
“No, you’re fine,” Toni soothes. “You're the most capable, qualified, trustworthy person I've ever met. You're gonna do great.”
“Is it too much of a problem to ask? 'Cause I'm...” Toni trails off, pointedly.
Without the arc reactor, she estimates around fifteen minutes before she goes into cardiac arrest.
“Okay, okay,” Pepper huffs, almost to convince herself more than anything.
“I really need your help here.”
“Okay.” Pepper dips her hand into the casing and Toni wants to laugh when it encounters something squishy inside, and Pepper’s face screws up, comedically. “Oh, there's pus!” she whines.
“It’s not pus,” Toni corrects. “It's an inorganic plasmic discharge from the device, not from my body.”
“It smells!” Pepper retorts, her lip curled.
“Yeah, it does,” Toni exhales. “The copper wire. The copper wire, you got it?” she cranes her neck.
“Okay, I got it! I got it!” Pepper exclaims, triumphantly.
“Okay, you got it? Now, don't let it touch the sides when you're coming out!”
Pepper falters when she tugs upwards and the wire comes into contact with the side of the casing, sending a white-hot shock of electricity up Toni’s back, to which she yells out, glaring at Pepper.
“I'm sorry. I'm sorry,” Pepper hisses.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you before,” Toni grits out.
“Sorry,” Pepper moans, as she slowly raises her hand with the syrupy wire gripped between her fingers.
“Okay, now make sure that when you pull it out, you don't...”
Pepper yanks the wire out with a firm twist of her wrist and a large bronze magnet dislodges from the base of the casing, causing Toni’s chest to cave inward.
“… pull out the magnet at the end of it!” Toni exclaims, incredulously. “That was it. You just pulled it out.” She shoots Pepper a withering look.
“Oh, God!” Pepper shrieks.
“Okay,” Toni wheezes out. “I was not expecting…”
Pepper moves to slot the magnet back inside the casing, to which Toni growls her displeasure.
“Don’t put it back in!” she snaps. “Don't put it back in!”
Pepper sends her a glare. “Okay, what do I do?” she demands.
Toni is momentarily unable to answer because her lungs have erupted into fire and the pain in her sternum is reaching unbearable levels.
“What’s wrong?” Pepper asked, fretfully, seeing a new ashen tinge to Toni’s face, the sweat on her brow and the way her hands are jerking slightly at her side.
“Nothing,” Toni chokes out. “I'm just going into cardiac arrest.”
“What?” Pepper shrieks.
“‘Cause you yanked it out like a putz...”
“You said it was safe!” Pepper snaps.
“We have to hurry,” Toni retorts. “Take this. Take this.” She pushes the new model for the arc reactor into Pepper’s hands. “You gotta switch it out really quick.”
“Okay. Okay,” Pepper mutters to herself. She pauses and lays her hand on Toni’s forehead. “Toni? It’s going to be okay?”
Toni looks up at her with bleary eyes. “What?” she mumbles, unfocused.
“It’s going to be okay. I’m gonna make this okay,” Pepper swears and smooths back Toni’s brown hair, her hand lingering on the crown her head.
“Let’s hope,” Toni chokes out, as Pepper drops the wire into the casing, reaching inside to make sure that the ends connect. “Okay, you're gonna attach that to the base plate. Make sure you...”
Toni yowls as the contact end of the wire attaches to the base plate, and she seizes on the stretcher-like chair.
“Holy shit!” she exclaims, shaking her head, as the pain recedes, and Toni finally finds it easy to breathe.
She slowly raises upright and miraculously (but expected, nonetheless), this new arc reactor doesn’t jolt inside her chest cavity, adding to the persistent ache that Toni assumes will be with her for the rest of her life.
She turns to her assistant, who is standing there, her hands outstretched and her complexion paler than Toni has ever seen it.
“Was that so hard?” she asks, reassuringly. “That was fun, right?” she says, brightly. Pepper releases the arc reactor, and Toni takes over, making sure that the arc reactor I installed inside the casing correctly. “Here, I got it. I got it. Here.” She mutters, absentmindedly. She twists it slightly, hearing a click, and moves her hands away. “Nice.”
“Are you okay?” Pepper whispers, her hands outstretched and gooey with the discharge.
“Yeah, I feel great,” Toni beams. “How about you? You okay?”
Pepper glares at her and it’s enough to get her cackling again like a mad hyena.
Moments later, Pepper’s face cracks up and she starts giggling in unison with Toni.
“Don't ever, ever, ever, ever ask me to do anything like that ever again,” she warns.
Toni takes a deep breath. “I don't have anyone but you,” she confesses, biting her lower lip.
Toni has never forgotten the ten years that Pepper has remained at her side, out of loyalty for the Antonia Stark she is today – the Antonia Stark who rules Stark Industries with an iron fist, who has engineering blackouts that last for days and who routinely makes use of escort services in hotel rooms under an assumed name. She isn’t like Rhodey, who met a shy, brilliant, hopeful, yet somewhat broken, teenage girl at MIT, who karaoked up a storm every night during Spring Break, who flipped some drunk jerkwad who got a little handsy over her shoulder the way Aunt Peggy taught her, and opened her textbooks for the first time the night before the final exams (much to Rhodey’s eternal displeasure, but it’s not like she never helped him study). She isn’t like John and Rebecca, who grew up with an imaginative, affectionate and opinionated little girl who liked to read the Captain America comics she smuggled out of her father’s study and drew up schematics for engine parts on her Magna Doodle.
Pepper stayed for the woman she is today – jaded and unbridled and brutal and formidable that she is.
Toni will never forget that Pepper stayed for this Antonia Stark.
“Anyway…” Toni trails off, awkwardly, sliding to her feet.
“What do you want me to do with this?” Pepper looks down at the old model of the arc reactor Toni had removed from her chest.
Toni turns around, once she had removed the electrodes from her chest and wiped off the sticky discharge still smeared across her chest, now wearing a black t-shirt over her bright yellow shorts. She eyes the old arc reactor with distaste.
“That? Destroy it. Incinerate it.”
Pepper’s brow furrows and she stares at the snuffed-out reactor in her palm. “You don’t what to keep it?” she offers.
Toni snorts. “Pepper, I've been called many things. ‘Nostalgic’ is not one of them,” she points out.
Pepper sighs. “Will that be all, Ms Stark?” she simpers, mockingly.
“That will be all, Miss Potts,” Toni retorts without missing a beat.
She watches as Pepper sashays out of the workshop (hey, she has eyes and Pepper is hot as fuck, but she’s always been a stickler for maintaining professional boundaries). She spots DUM-E loitering in the corner, simply turning on his axis back and forth like a kid sitting on a swivel chair for the first time.
Silly bot, she rolls her eyes.
“Hey, DUM-E, get over here.”
DUM-E rolls over, dutifully.
“What's all this stuff doing on top of my desk?” she asks, slowly. “Do I need to take a star off?”
“Well, get to work, mister. That’s my phone. That’s a picture of me and my dad.”
Toni fingers the frame of a much younger Howard Stark lifting gap-toothed, pigtailed, four-year-old Toni in the magazine photoshoot to commemorate the first time she built a circuit board from scratch.
If she didn’t know better, she’d almost think he was proud of her.
“Right there. In the garbage. All that stuff,” Toni tells DUM-E, absentmindedly.
DUM-E makes to snatch the photo frame from Toni’s hands, which she holds close to her chest.
“Not the photo, you schlump,” she exclaims, offended.
DUM-E chooses to ignore her and goes back to carefully picking up every item remaining on the table and placing it delicately in the bin like it’s made of glass.
Just then, U drops an entire box of screws onto the ground. She immediately rears up, staring at Toni like a deer caught in headlights.
Toni huffs. “I swear, you three are like bulls in a china shop,” she mutters.
The way U turns to her, she bets U would’ve pouted if she could’ve.
Toni sighs. “Come on, let’s get it cleaned up,” she offers, walking over to where the screws are all sprawled across the ground, kneeling down.
U’s support strut gestures in the direction of the chore chart.
Toni rolls her eyes. “No, I won’t be taking a damn star from your name.”
Some translations for this chapter:
quilombera: someone who likes to fuck things up (Argentinian Spanish).
paskudnik: a revolting, disgusting, evil person (Yiddish).