I know nothing changes in this world
Every day the muezzin calls
Sun comes up and Baghdad falls
Before the eyes of storytelling girls
- Anais Mitchell, Before the Eyes of Storytelling Girls
“So, Tasha,” the reporter asks, smiling too brightly. “What does it feel like, having everything in life handed to you?”
Tasha Stark is twenty-five and an old hand at this. The bitterness on her tongue never registers on her face. All she gives the reporter, the camera, the world, is a slash of red lips.
“Why,” she drawls, tracing a bitten down fingernail up her bare thigh, “fabulous, of course.”
After the interview, she gets so drunk Pepper needs to peel her off the floor in order to pour her into bed, where she stays for three days, staring at the ceiling. She played the game. She won the battle. The reporter’s expression was one of abject disappointment when he failed to rail her.
She should have told the truth, she thinks. Later. She should have said, “How would I know?”
Should have said, “Everything I am, I made myself.”
That’s the only thing you really need to know about Tasha Fucking Stark: everything she possesses, she bled for.
She builds her first robot when she’s six, and the only reason it takes that long is that chubby toddler fingers aren’t meant to operate delicate tools. As it is, her nanny tuts over her burnt hands for weeks, wanting to take everything away and force Tasha to play with dolls instead.
As if she ever has.
But Howard interferes, the only time he ever really does, when anyone tries to impede his daughter’s genius. “Let her do it,” he says, all the time. For the longest time she thinks that means he cares. She builds the robot for him, but he never even looks at it.
And still he calls her his biggest creation, thirty years later, and Tasha melts the tape to scrap with her blow torch and throws it into the ocean. Coulson watches her from the terrace as she returns, asks, “What was that?”
“He thought he created me,” she spits as she stalks past, voice steady, sunglasses hiding swollen, red eyes.
She’s almost by the door when Coulson says, almost too quietly to hear over the wind, “He didn’t.”
Tasha hates herself for how much those two words mean to her, coming from the mouth of a monkey in a suit, no less.
Obie has the robot painted fire engine red for her and when Howard doesn’t want it, she names it Robo and programs it to totter after her wherever she goes.
School bores Tasha.
Her peers bore her. Her teachers bore her. Her extra classes bore her after three weeks. She’s fifteen when she hits MIT like a hurricane blowing through and everyone looks at her like she’s a little girl, like she’s some kid that accidentally wandered onto campus and she hates it.
She hates it so much that she steals one of her professor’s chunky cell phones and turns it into a GPS system in under an hour. She throws it on his desk as she leaves the lecture and never goes back to the class.
And she’s fifteen, but everyone looks at her with pity and envy and spite and so she finds bars that don’t ask for ID, finds parties with dim lighting and unlocked upstairs bedrooms, finds boys who never look too closely. They call her a child so she proves to them she’s not, all the while outsmarting them without anyone ever being any wiser.
That’s the most frustrating thing. She dances naked in tabloids and reinvents the technological worlds in her spare time and they don’t even notice. All anyone sees is the Stark heir gone crazy.
Louder then, she tells herself. Tries again.
Pepper is an accidental find, like opening a cereal box and finding a real crown in it, or expecting a bike for your birthday and getting a Ferrari.
She’s waitressing at a restaurant in Malibu only a few months after Tasha finally flees the East Coast because it’s either that, or murder the next person to tell her how much like her father she is.
Natasha Stark, that’s what it says on the fucking cards. Natasha. Tasha. Not Howard. Female. Not male. Inferior. Not good enough. Copy.
Pepper’s waitressing and Tasha hits on her because she can and as she delivers dessert, Pepper says, cool as a cucumber, “I don’t know how things work in New York, Ms. Stark, but here we call what you are doing sexual harassment and sue people for it.”
“Are you threatening me?” Tasha asks, still amused.
Pepper’s smile is glacial. “I don’t make threats. I make promises.”
Tasha loves all the time, things and people and ideas, loves them like it’s cheap, like it doesn’t hurt. But the only thing she’s ever been in love with before Pepper was a circuit board. She thinks that’s what the warm, fuzzy feeling in her belly is. Being in love.
It takes her three weeks and thirteen more visits to the restaurant before Pepper agrees to come work for her.
Three months after that, Tasha fucks up royally and has a total breakdown in front of her for the first time. Pepper tucks her in, gives her a bucket and a glass of water and asks, “What am I going to do with you, Tasha?”
It’s the first time she’s ever called Tasha by her first name. “You’ll quit in the morning, if you’re smart,” Tasha slurs, half crying into her pillow because sometimes she just can’t take it and she’s so drunk she wants to die.
Pepper, being Pepper and thus being… everything, simply says, “I’m not leaving.”
“Don’t waste it,” Yinsen says. Tasha closes her eyes so tightly she sees stars and doesn’t.
Obie, who raised her when Howard was too busy.
Obie, who picked her up when she was too drunk to drive.
Obie, who had her robot painted for her.
Obie, who helped her when SI threatened to collapse and bury her under its bulk.
Obie, whom she kissed, once, when she was seventeen, because she wanted to know what being loved felt like.
Obie, who sells her out to the men who lock her in a cave for three months, beat her, starve her and make her build them a weapon to blow the world apart.
Obie, who gives those same men what they need to rip out her heart, who sits next to her on the sofa and rips out her second, mechanical heart, the one she built for herself from nothing but scraps and ashes.
Obie, who dies a lot easier than he deserves, for loving her, for betraying her. For thinking he can break Tasha Fucking Stark and walk away from it.
She pours fifty-year-old scotch on his grave, once. Then she pulls out her lighter and sets it on fire.
“Why red?” Pepper asks as she watches Tasha paint her lips crimson.
It matches her black hair and pale complexion. Snow White allusions have been made aplenty. She likes the way it looks on others, on the men and women she kisses, marking them.
“They want blood,” Tasha tells Pepper’s reflection, whose hair is red, too, in its own way.
She smiles wolfishly. “And I always give them what they want.”
Here’s what no tabloid will ever tell you:
Under the armor, the designer clothes, the lipstick, under her skin, Tasha isn’t a girl.
She’s a wolf.
She has sex with Rhodey after her first serious boyfriend breaks up with her. She’s seventeen and he told her she’s too much, she’s just too fucking much, can’t she tone it down? She can’t. She won’t. Same thing.
She’s still pretty new to the whole mind-altering substances thing and can’t hold her liquor very well and he’s there, dependable, solid Rhodey. He doesn’t have the heart to push her away, not when she’s crying and babbling and clutching the bottle to her chest because the bottle doesn’t care that she’s too loud, too brilliant, too hard to love.
“I’m not,” she grumbles into Rhodey’s shoulder, where she’s resting her head. “I’m not, right, I’m not, he’s just a fucking pussy, and I’m not, I mean, I tried and…”
“Hey,” Rhodey says, “Hey, yeah, of course.”
She kisses him, abruptly and sloppily and he wants to push her away, she can tell later, he wants to, but she’s in itty bitty pieces on the floor, so he doesn’t.
They have awkward, terrible, uncoordinated sex and when Tasha wakes in the morning, she’s alone in her bed. There’s a note on her pillow, with a bullshit excuse, and Tasha forces the tears down ruthlessly on her way to the bathroom.
She pukes her guts out with her eyes closed and thinks, I am.
Fury is an asshole. That’s no secret.
Tasha hates him. Also no secret.
She marches into his office at least once a week, on heels that would kill a lesser woman, slaps her demands on his desk and rants and raves and argues with him.
And every time she does something particularly brilliant, outthinks him, outtalks him, or simply invents something impossible, he smiles at her, benign and paternal, like a proud father.
She responds to that expression like Pavlov’s fucking dog and despises herself for it, with every fiber of her metal heart.
“Fuck you,” she snarls at the end of every meeting, feeling like she’s fifteen again and just crashed Howard’s Bentley into a tree so he would. just. look. at. her.
“You’re dismissed, Stark,” Fury answers every time, thumbing through whatever files the flung at him upon entry.
She always slams the door on her way out.
She sleeps with Pepper exactly once, a year after Pep starts working for her. They’re both tipsy, life is good for once and the tabloids aren’t eating Tasha alive.
So they fuck like the young, flexible and brilliant women they are and afterward lie on the floor next to each other, staring at the mirrored ceiling of the living room. It’s better, so much better than it was with Rhodey. Tasha knows herself now, knows better than to expect anything but crinkled notes on the back of a restaurant bill in the morning.
“Good, right?” Tasha asks, fingers itching for a cigarette.
“Yeah,” Pepper agrees, her hair a red halo around her head, face flushed the same color.
For a second, their gazes meet in the mirror, then, by silent agreement, they both nod at the same time and say, loudly, “God, yes.”
Tasha never figures out if either of them is lying.
Natasha glares at Tasha a lot, which might have to do with Tasha’s refusal to call her anything but Nat. Because they have the same name and that obviously makes them besties.
Right. Mostly, Natasha just looks obscenely hot when she’s angry.
But then, two weeks after the Vanko debacle – she was dying, shut up – she sees the footage of Black Widow wiping the floor with Hammer’s goon collective. She builds an improved version of the steel cable contraption Black Widow uses on the tape and walks up to her the next day.
“Teach me how to use that,” she says, holding it up.
“Why would I?” Natasha asks, eyebrow raised in that way that makes men fall in love and protectively grab their crotches at the same time. It’s beautiful.
Tasha slings her cable around the other woman’s neck and draws them closer together. She has absolutely no illusions that Natasha isn’t indulging her right there. “Because I can think of at least a dozen ways, off the top of my head, to turn this beauty into an accessory that absolutely no-one will notice.”
She’s thinking hair band, belt, gladiator sandals and purse straps.
It’s better than thinking, without the suit I’m only flesh and bone and those break too easily.
Natasha cocks her head, considers.
“I want something that explodes,” she says.
Tasha grins. “Deal.”
Nick calls them the Tashas behind their backs and half of SHIELD picks up the moniker. It’s almost cute, how they think the women aren’t perfectly aware of it.
She stands naked in front of the bathroom mirror, taking in the scrapes and bruises of the latest battle, the steady, triangular glow of the arc reactor, its thrum of energy vibrating in her bones, every second of every day. Her hair hangs down her back, still damp and curling every which way.
Her lips are, for once, not red as blood.
She looks like a victim, like a freak of nature, like a fucking cyborg.
One hand rises, presses against the reactor, covering it. The blue light turns pinkish through her flesh and she can see the bones of her fingers, if she looks closely enough.
She blows herself a kiss and reaches for her lipstick before she reaches for her clothes.
These days, Natasha tends to be there whenever Iron Woman goes out. The Avengers aren’t officially a go yet, but Natasha is always around, as PA and as SHIELD liaison, so she tags along.
Tasha also suspects that, somehow, they’ve become friends. She hasn’t gotten threatened with bodily harm for calling Natasha Nat in almost three weeks.
But here they are, Black Widow running crowd control while Iron Woman flies circles around the Hulk, trying to goad him into following her away from all the nice people he wants to smash.
Then, suddenly, there are armed SHIELD agents getting ready to fire and that’s just… no. No.
Tasha doesn’t think, just gets rid of the helmet and says, “Hey there, big guy.”
Miraculously, the Hulk stops his rampage look enough to look at her. Clearly, Tasha better talk fucking fast. Luckily, she’s an expert. “Look,” she starts, “I know you’re angry and confused, probably, since you sort of explode out of a perfectly harmless guy and everything, but these guys over there,” she points at the agents getting ready to fire, “They just don’t want you to hurt anyone. You don’t want to hurt anyone either, do you?”
The Hulk cocks his head to one side, drops the tree he was about to throw and frowns. “Pretty,” he says.
Ten minutes later Tasha is sitting in the middle of Central Park in her armor, head of a naked man in her lap, humming AC/DC to calm him down. Even if she destroys all digital evidence of this, she will never live it down.
“Hey, Nat,” she asks idly via comms.
“Yes?” Natasha returns, crisp as always. Tasha still hears the smirk in her voice. Bitch.
“How the fuck is this my life?”
Her armor is the exact same shade of red as the lipstick she’s worn since she was sixteen.
You don’t actually believe that’s coincidence, do you?
The tabloids call her the Hulk Whisperer.
The next villain of the week teases her about it, right up until she says, very sweetly, “Hulk, darling, would you smash this assclown for me?”
The Hulk roars in response and attacks.
Tasha smirks behind her faceplate. She does so love to give the tabloids what they want.
Steve is amazing, Steve is sweet, Steve is good and Tasha loves him for it.
She loves him easily, because that’s what he is.
But he looks at her and sees damage, looks and sees Howard, sees all the differences and, more importantly, the similarities. He tells her how she speaks like him, laughs like him, moves like him. She is more brilliant than Howard ever was, but Steve simply smiles and says, “Yes, but in the same way.”
Tasha hates him for it.
She loves and hates in the same breath, the same space. She always has. She loves something and applies pressure until it breaks; she hates something and flings herself at it until she shatters, has to glue the pieces back together like she glued a metal heart into her chest, perverse and artificial and the angles never quite line up again.
So she steals Steve away from SHIELD to take him out for hotdogs in Central Park and later, months later, she hitches her skirt up around her waist and sits herself in his lap, smears lipstick on his face, refusing to stop before one of them goes to pieces.
“Tasha,” he moans when she mouths at his neck. “Tasha.”
Her name. Not Howard’s. She smiles cruelly into his skin and then sucks until he bruises, however fleetingly.
“You’re fucking him,” Tasha observes as Natasha calmly watches Clint leave the room, her eyes on his ass.
Natasha blinks at her, slow and languid, like a big cat. “Yes,” she says, a bit smugly. “You’re fucking Steve.”
“So you are the closest thing to royalty this pitiful country has to offer,” Loki sneers, the first time he faces Iron Woman across the ruins of a building.
Tasha inclines her head as well as she can with the armor on and says, “That I am, sweetheart.”
The God of Lies sneers and flings her into a heap of rubble off to one side. She rolls with the landing, shoots straight into the sky and mocks, “Is that all you’ve got?”
He roars, angry and jagged in a way she recognizes, oh, so well. They fight until he has her under him, armor dented enough to impede her movements and help still too far away. Loki’s face is half an inch from hers as he hisses, “I will break you into pieces, little mortal.”
Because she has no weapons left except bravado, she meets his blue gaze cooly and answers, “There isn’t much left to break.”
He rears back, surprised, his face smoothing out into something almost boyish with it. Then Thor crashes into him like mountains colliding and his face is all rage again.
She dreams, that night, of a man with blue eyes and black hair, sitting at the foot of her bed, watching her.
In her dream, she rolls onto her back, one hand on the arc reactor and tells him, “They ripped my heart out. So I built myself a new one.”
She doesn’t know if the smoke attracts Steve, or if someone tells him where she is, but he finds her in the garden, steadily feeding memories into the fire.
He picks up a photograph of Howard, leaning against one of his flying cars, turns it in his hands. “Why are you burning these?”
She shrugs, throws another stack of letters onto the flames. “Because it’s the fastest way to destroy them.”
“I don’t understand you sometimes, Tasha.”
Angrily, she pokes at the fire, snarls, “I am not my father.”
“I know that,” Steve answers, calmly, because he’s long since learned that it’s the only way to weather her.
“Really,” she drawls, reaching for the bottle leaning against her legs. He takes it from her, grabs her by the arms and spins her around like she weighs nothing.
“Yes,” he says, intently, openly. She wonders if he’s ever scared at all. Then he adds, “I was never in love with your father, Tasha.”
She blinks at him stupidly.
Oh, she thinks.
Justin Hammer escapes from prison and has her kidnapped by a bunch of goons not worth the space they take up. It takes Tasha five minutes to get out of her bindings, five more to crack the door lock and only one to break Hammer’s smug fucking face with a single, well-placed punch.
That’s for ruining her thousand dollar dress by having her dragged over filthy concrete.
The kick in the balls is for when she was twelve and he stuck a hand down her panties at his mother’s annual garden party.
By the time Coulson show up with a SHIELD extraction team because the Avengers are busy keeping Doom from incinerating Manhattan, she is sitting in Hammer’s swivel chair, legs crossed at the knee, inspecting her ruined make-up.
“Were you busy watching Supernanny?” she asks.
The way he laughs, quietly and honestly, almost makes her like him.
She’s not entirely surprised to find Loki sitting in the center of her bed one night, all kinds of knickknacks from the room spread around him.
“You hated your father,” he divines from the pieces of her life, looking up at her, because Loki always, always, looks you in the eye.
She shrugs as she sits down cross-legged opposite him. “Not enough to give up on wanting to please him.”
She picks up Robo, dented and aged, but still working, and sets him to walking toward the god. “I built this for him,” she tells him as Robo totters across the bedspread. “He never even touched it.”
He’s still looking at her when he says, “Did it make him love you?”
She’s aware that he’s trying to hurt her. Or make her angry. One and the same.
“Did trying to end a world make Odin love you?”
Every glass surface in the room shatters, shards raining down on her from all sides. She screams, involuntarily and Loki disappears in the noise of a million shards refracting the light. The Avengers come pouring into the room only moments later.
Tasha stares at the spot where he dented the bedspread and can’t think anything beyond, He didn’t kill me.
Sometimes Tasha thinks that she lost the ability to feel fear in a cave in Afghanistan, along with everything she knew.
Sometimes she thinks she’ll never stop being fucking terrified ever again.
“Tasha,” Pepper says occasionally, when they talk business over the phone and it degenerates into Tasha whining and Pepper being a lot more patient than she should be.
“Tasha,” she says, something bled out and gentle in her voice, “it’s okay. It’s okay.”
Tasha wants to ask, every time, what ‘it’ is, but she never dares.
Loki appears sometimes, out of mirrors, out of dreams. He sits and watches her as she ignores him, goes about her business. Sometimes she offers him some of her lunch, like he’s a stray dog.
One day, he wanders through her living room, picking up things at random. He can no more keep his hands still than she can. Eventually he says, “Isn’t it interesting, how differently we turned out? One of us trying to save the world, the other trying to destroy it.”
Putting down her tablet computer, she pushes her reading glasses further up her nose and raises an eyebrow.
“Is that what we’re doing?” she asks, because she honestly doesn’t know.
Steve and Jarvis are collaborating against her so whenever she falls asleep somewhere while working, Steve appears within minutes, cradling her to his chest and carrying her upstairs, into bed.
Her bed. Their bed. Lines blur.
He takes off her shoes if she’s wearing any, her jeans and grease stained tank top, her bra, if she could be bothered that morning.
She wakes enough to blink at him with blurry eyes and smile, dopily, tiredly, because she’s been awake for far too long. He smiles back, tucks her hair behind her ears and strips off his pants and t-shirt to crawl in next to her, no matter what time of day it is.
She never has to ask him to stay.
They’re having a press conference in five minutes and Tasha is rushing to hide fresh bruises under heavy concealer while Bruce stands in the doorway, watching with quiet eyes.
Anyone else she’d kick out, but this is Bruce, who happens to also be the Hulk, and he’s… Thor is her favorite, Steve is just hers, Natasha is her best friend, bar Pepper, and Clint is himself, but Bruce is different.
He has no edges for her to cut herself on, so she lets him watch her put her armor on, one brush stroke at a time.
She steps into four inch heels she nabbed from Pepper and uncaps her lipstick, aiming carefully and painting herself scarlet.
Bruce makes a small moue of distaste in the mirror and Steve calls, somewhere, “Guys, come on!”
“Why always so aggressive?” Bruce wants to know.
For a guy with an enormous green rage monster living in his chest, he understands surprisingly little about the nature of violence, Tasha thinks, giving him the same answer she gave Pepper, so long ago. “They want blood.”
Bruce cocks his head to one side. “You know you don’t have to give people everything they want, right?”
Tasha tucks the lipstick away, straightens her pencil skirt and wipes a speck of mascara off one cheek.
“Yeah,” she says, blowing her reflection a kiss. “No.”
Then she shrugs, links her arm with his and drags him out to face the masses.
There is still a cave, somewhere in the Afghan mountains, that has her blood soaked into the dirt.
Everything she took from it is hers.