The morning she announces the reopening of the Stark Expo, she rolls out of bed and pukes for two hours. There’s blood in it. She lets it sit in the toilet bowl, just stomach acid and water and blood, and stares at it for a long time. As soon as she hears the doorbell ring, she heaves herself up and slashes on makeup, heavy mascara, heavy eye-shadow, red, red lipstick. It’s the hue that some woman she fucked a decade ago called blood of your enemies red. Toni thinks a better name for it would be poisoned by palladium.
When Pepper comes in, she hooks a hand around Pepper’s waist and kisses her on the cheek, leaving a livid print on the skin there. Pepper smells like shampoo and a soft perfume that she doesn’t know the name of but smells familiar anyway. Pepper pulls back and looks at her questioningly, her eyes searching Toni’s face. She asks, “What’s wrong, Toni?” And it’s at that moment that Toni thinks—Christ. I might love this woman.
She should have died on the bathroom floor, if only so she doesn’t think that ever again. After all, how can she be dying when Pepper Potts is worried about her? How can she be dying when Pepper Potts is in the world for her to love?
Truth: she’s horrifically, unquestionably, green-as-grassy-calf-shit jealous of Natalie Fucking Rushman.
It’s not that the woman’s fucking gorgeous. Toni’s never jealous of pretty people. She’s hot and she knows it, in a silvering fox kind of way. (The one picture she has of Maria shows a streak of early silver just at her temples. Toni has that gene too. She likes it, actually. The first interview after they show, the guy asks her if she’s planning on dyeing it. She laughs in his face and says she loves it, because it makes her look like some kind of kickass skunk. He doesn’t quite know how to react to it, and the gossip pages the next day all scream TONI STARK A FURRY? She laughs so hard she fucking cries.)
So it’s not like Natalie Rushman makes her feel inadequate or anything. Actually, she kind of feels superior. Natalie Rushman is hot: her hair is gorgeous, her face is perfect, and her tits are fucking gifts from Aphrodite, but she still fades into the background like a ghost no matter where she is. Toni likes the spotlight, and she owns it. Natalie Rushman seems to like the shadows.
No, it’s so much simpler and so much more complicated than that. Natalie Rushman is Pepper’s assistant. Natalie Rushman gets to stay with Pepper. Natalie Fucking Rushman is there and sane and there. Toni Fucking Stark is there and crazy and dying.
It’s so fucking stupid, because Natalie Rushman isn’t going to stay with Pepper. Natalia Fucking Romanova doesn’t give a shit. Toni Fucking Stark is jealous anyway.
It’s getting harder for her to get up in the morning. It’s not that she doesn’t want to get up. It’s that she can’t. It feels like her muscles are falling off the bone, some mornings, and she can’t physically carry things anymore. She’s never carried a purse, but she thinks that if she did, she would have to start giving it to Pepper. Even that much weight is hard for her.
One night she drinks too much (well, more than too much, it’s not like her liver’s gonna be the thing to kill her anyway) and takes off her shirt, looking down at the reactor in her chest. She screams at it, and throws her glass of whiskey at the nearest window. She wants to shriek and scream and cry. She wants to curse Yinsen, for saving her, for damning her. But she still has that dream, where she reaches out, where she tries to save him from his necklace of blood, and the reactor sucks her down, down, down.
It’s eating her alive. The reactor. The Iron Lady. It’s eating her, and she can’t stop it.
The next morning she wakes up flat on her back on the floor. Sunlight glints off of shattered glass. There are bits of it in her palm, like tears.
“JARVIS,” she says. “Erase all footage from last night.”
“Yes, Miss Stark.”
Maybe, she thinks, if she dies at the Grand Prix, Pepper and Rhodey will never learn about the palladium.
Ivan Vanko kind of fucks that up. Like, a lot. She wants to get back in the car and run the fucker over for it, but there are cameras.
She plays with the idea of building whips like Vanko’s to go with the Mark II—she has a sudden flash of a dominatrix Iron Lady, whips and heels and chains and all—but she’s dying, so what the fuck does that matter?
She starts building it anyway.
Contrary to what he tells people, she has never fucked Justin Hammer. First of all—gross. As in, she’s quite literally puking blood every morning, and the thought still makes her nauseous. Secondly, it’s demeaning. His machines fall apart at the touch of a bullet. Why would she want to fuck an inventor who can’t invent anything worth shit?
So when Rhodey shows his face at the wrecked Expo, his stolen Iron Lady suit covered in Hammertech, Toni wants to bend at the waist and laugh until she cries. And then she wants to go find Hammer and rip his balls off. Because she loves Rhodey—she loves Rhodey, the way she loves very few people, and for Hammer to put her best fucking friend in danger is to put himself to death.
One morning she starts reading all the fanmail and hatemail that she gets at her Stark Industries address.
There are people—there are a lot of people, actually—who think the whole Iron Lady thing is a stunt. And really, she thinks. Before the palladium, isn’t that what it was? Vengeance—vengeance for her weakness, for her stupidity, for Yinsen. Destruction, just for the sake of it. Destruction as revenge. Hate—she hates, she’s always hated, what’s a little more gasoline on the fucking fire? After all, she’s always felt bigger than other people, more important. She can’t not. It’s who she is. She is more important, she thinks. She’s Toni Stark, Antoina Esther Stark. She was born better. She is better. Harder better faster stronger.
But the palladium tells her that she’s not, that she’s just as fucking fallible, that she’s just as fucking mortal. She thinks about the women in Afghanistan, when she blew up their villages. She thinks of the hate in their eyes.
She is not a hero. She cannot be. She is human and she is dying, and nobody asked for her to be what she became. Nobody other than herself.
She does not cry when she reads about the six-year-old in Austin with no legs who hopes to someday get a suit like the Iron Lady’s. But when Pepper comes back into the CEO’s office, Natalie Fucking Rushman at her heels, there’s mascara smeared over her cheeks.
The worst thing about her birthday party is not that she’s getting older just to die with her hair falling out and her guts disintegrating inside her. The worst thing is the look on Rhodey’s face when they fight. He hits her just as hard as he would have a man, harder maybe, and she fucking loves it. She’s falling apart at the seams and she can still take a hit from Rhodey. She’s better.
And she hates it, because she’s never seen him look at her with disappointment.
He looks like her father in that moment and it hurts worse than the palladium ever could.
She only realizes when she’s 85% finished with the Mark III (she hasn’t been working on it as much as she wants, because she’s so tired, she’s so fucking tired she can’t lift the screwdriver most days, but she forces her way through it, ignores the way her hands shake, lets U do the delicate work even though it makes her feel like she’s dying, and not just physically) that she hasn’t made it to her physical specs.
She’s made them to Pepper’s.
When it’s done, she has DUM-E paint it blue and gold, because she can see Pepper’s hair laid across it, strawberry blonde and gorgeous. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do with it. She just lets it sit on her worktable, and she goes down most nights to stare at it with a glass of whiskey in her hand.
If Pepper notices it’s too big for Toni Stark, she doesn’t say a word about it.
People she would like to punch in the face: Nick Fury.
Her dad, too. Actually, mostly her dad. But her dad’s dead and his body’s dust and bone fragments in the grave. So she fantasizes about punching Nick instead.
This changes when her father’s ghost gives her the element that saves her life. She doesn’t wonder why. She just throws her father’s favorite vase out of the window of the Malibu house, and watches it shatter on the rocks.
God fucking damn you, old man.
It’s kind of really apt that she comes back to life in the fire and flames of the Expo’s destruction. Her father’s legacy isn’t this, it’s in her skin, it’s in her marrow, her bones. It’s the new reactor in her chest; it’s the DNA woven into her cells. She hates her father, she hates him more than anyone, but at the same time she’s had to thank him twice over now, for saving her life, for giving her one in the first place. But as she slams into the Hammertech suit ripoff she doesn’t think of Howard Stark much longer. She thinks of Maria, she thinks of her mother, with the sharp silver streaks at her temples and the smile and the smooth hands down Toni’s back when she had nightmares.
“Bitch,” hisses Vanko in his rough Russian, “fucking cocksucking bitch whore—” and it’s words she’s heard since she was fourteen, since she started fucking her way through her boarding schools and her bodyguards. She hears them every time she picks up a magazine and they don’t hurt her anymore, they can’t, they never really did because the morals of a regular person are not the morals of Toni Fucking Stark. But at the bottom of it all is the hate of man for woman, the stuff she’s been hearing since she was five years old and cutting off her pigtail braids with her mother’s sewing scissors. Her father’s legacy is her mother’s legacy too, more so, blood and bone and organs and that fucking awful womb that Toni’s father hated her for. She’s never going to have kids—she took care of that years ago—but she’s a woman and she’s finally going to stop feeling ashamed of it.
She decides that she doesn’t want to be like Howard Stark any longer. She decides, as she tangles with Vanko, that she is not going to live up to the name of Howard. She is going to try to live up to the name of Maria.
She thinks her mother was a better person than her father, all told, and even if Toni Stark is more like her father than she ever wants to admit, it’s her mother that Toni wants to live for.
Kissing Pepper is like nothing but kissing Pepper. Her breasts fit perfectly into Toni’s hands, her hair makes a curtain around them as Pepper bends down to suck a hickey onto her neck. Pepper, Toni realizes, smells of cinnamon. That’s what that perfume is, cinnamon and skin. Freckles trace down her back, between her breasts.
She still can’t believe that the kiss turned into this, that Pepper turned into this. She still can’t believe that she was right to wonder. That they are not Pepper, and not Toni, but Pepper-and-Toni, now, in a way that Toni has never wanted from any other person on the planet. She licks a trail down Pepper’s skin, and even if she never thanks God or Allah or the fucking dwarf in a teapot behind the moon for anything else, she’ll thank it for this, that she is alive to play connect the dots with Pepper Pott’s freckles.
She decides to give Pepper the Mark P (which is what she’s called it, now that she’s gone through and remade it, all by hand, because she can carry a screwdriver, because she can make it herself) for Pepper’s next birthday.
Pepper, she decides, is more of a hero than Toni Stark can ever be.