She's born breech, feet kicking out before the rest of her screams free; she's born breech, and never stops running. It's a talent of hers, eventually, bringing the country to its knees with her stilettos leading a charge. She slips out of dark cars with her legs freshly waxed and her calves pressed together, bright red heels making the only statement that matters.
"I've arrived," says Tony Stark, and if no one hears her, well. That's not such a problem, is it? She'll just have to say it louder.
Howard Stark wanted a son; Howard Stark wanted a successor. Howard Stark got Tony, and never forgave her--it's not like that's her fault, really. It's not like she didn't try.
Maria tried too, in her way, unsure what to do with a daughter so like her father (high cheekbones and hot tempers and never, ever satisfied). Maria tried, and Tony tried, and Howard rolled his eyes and cleared his throat and didn't look up from the workbench.
Four years old, and she showed her nanny the circuit board. Six years old, and she showed her favorite teacher the engine. Fifteen years old, and she showed her professor the door, tears on her cheeks and fire in her eyes. By the time her parents die, she is seventeen and furious, and she shows Rhodey the eulogy she wrote on the back of a napkin while she waits for the car to pick her up.
"'I'm busy, sweetheart,'" Rhodey reads, the question riding in his tone. "You give me the wrong napkin or something?"
"Nope," Tony says. If she's cried herself to sleep for two nights running, if her hands are shaking in her pockets, if her fingernails are torn bloody from working frantically at her latest project, as though this, this, this would be enough to impress the bastard, as though people could be impressed from beyond the grave--well. Turnabout's still fair play, isn't it, one way or another?
"A little sparse," Rhodey decides, careful, and Tony grins.
"Welcome to my childhood," she says, and makes sure to flash thigh, heel, at his worried fucking frown as she climbs into the car.
When she's eighteen, Tony enters the Miss America pageant and wins. The entering is a joke, meant to throw Rhodes a curveball for assuming she was holed up in Boston, building motorcycles and fucking everything with two legs. That is, indeed, what she was doing, but it hurt a little bit to have him spell it out like that, matter-of-fact and concerned over the phone. So she threw her name into an old, tired hat, figuring they'd get a few laughs out of it later. Tony Stark, the glowing beacon of American femininity--yeah, that'd be one for the history books.
The winning thing is a surprise, although, then again, maybe it's not. Tony's brilliant, but common sense hasn't ever been her area of expertise--she hadn't thought it through, the heiress to one of the largest fortunes in the world, nothing on her rap sheet but a long trail of previous photo ops. She's the perfect candidate, trained in the art of wearing a smile and forever comfortable being trotted out for the cameras, used to backstabbing and its consequences, prepared (always) for underestimation. She sleeps with half the competition and ruins the other half, and by the time the closing ceremonies roll around, the win isn't actually a surprise at all.
There is fire in Tony's eyes, a crown resting atop her dark hair, and blisters rubbing up beneath the straps of her too-tight shoes. She is America's sweetheart on a whim, the same way she was Howard's by mistake--it's not a word anyone who knows her would ever think to apply.
When Tony is eighteen, she is crowned Miss America. When Tony is nineteen, she builds a bomb out of stereo parts and a stripped-out Toyota, the kind of bomb that casually revolutionizes modern warfare. When Tony is twenty, she swear at the President of the United States, drinks herself sick every third night, and redesigns every last Stark handgun.
When Tony is twenty-one, she takes her company back by the balls. There's a dozen ways to wear a crown.
Getting kidnapped goes like this: there is an explosion, and then there is darkness, and then there is an ache everywhere and a hole between her breasts that someone has stuffed a car battery inside. Whoever it was had to take a little off the edges, sutures whipped through tender flesh that Tony will have to get someone to clear up later--of all the questions she doesn't want people to ask, "Who the hell botched your implants?" is pretty high up there on the list.
Of course, there's the question of the damn car battery, but as far as Tony's concerned, that's just mechanics. Let it try for anything else and it'll be the monster under the bed, and Tony's got enough of those, thanks. Better that she worry about the reputation of her cup size than how the hell she's going to survive this--there's distractions even Tony can't work through, after all.
"This is a very important week for you, Ms. Stark," Yensin offers, and Tony bares her teeth for lack of other options.
"You shock me," she says, "I am shocked," and builds just the kind of weapon her father always wanted from her--isn't it funny, how life works out.
"Tony," Rhodey says, when he finds her on her knees in the sand, and she can't look at him, and she can't get up, and she can't look at him because she can't get up. He makes his team turn their backs before he picks her up, and she hides her face in his neck and hates the nice, upstanding boy at MIT who wouldn't fuck her because she was underage. She hates the nice, upstanding man he became, too, the one who won't fuck her because he knows that if she could, she'd fuck herself, up down and backwards until nothing was left. God knows she's tried, and it's funny, isn't it, that she fought so hard to survive--she wonders if Rhodey's surprised to have found her, if Rhodey was expecting to come across a corpse, if Rhodey, too, would tell her not to waste her life.
"You are not allowed to die," Rhodey says, when the hatch has shut behind them, and she can't look at him, and she can't breathe, and she can't look at him because she can't breathe. "For god's sake, Tony, it's one fucking rule, you can follow one fucking rule, can't you? No dying, and I swear on my life that I won't hold you to anything else," and god, it'd be nice to believe him.
The papers call her lots of things--Iron Man until she comes out and admits it, then Iron Woman when she's lucky, Iron Maiden when she's not. Page Six runs with it, catches her after a bender and titles the story Iron & Wine. Pepper says they think they're funny; Tony hopes they all got a nice, warm chuckle out of it, and reminds herself to order more scotch.
It's funny, the suit is so funny; inside of it, she's a superhero, the first honest-to-god superhero since Captain America's heyday, and still no one takes her seriously. Oh, they do when she's wearing it, of course--wrapped in metal she's a force to be reckoned with, the sort of figure people cower and whimper before. Out in the world, she still has to prove it every time. She does, of course, grinding out cigarettes on the back ends of her stilettos and spending money like it'll prove something, red lipstick slashed across her mouth and deep gold paint coloring her nails, but still. She'd really fucking love it if "Didn't Cut It" wasn't written on her tombstone. She'd be really fucking pleased, actually, if the last thing she heard wasn't, "Hey, Tony, can we get a smile?"
She saves the world, though, because it matters. She's not going to waste her life--it seems to be what everyone expects her to do, after all. That kind of eliminates it, as an option.
The United States government wants her to hand over her suit, and it's Rhodey who makes a scene at the hearing. Tony pouts at him about it afterwards, hiding her eyes behind her sunglasses like it'll do any good; Rhodey rolls his own eyes, perfectly visible, and wipes at the water he got all over his dress blues when he upended that pitcher in waving his hands.
"That was supposed to be my scene to make," she says, eventually. It's easier than saying, Thank you for refusing to read specific selections of your report, or Thank you for risking your job to save my ass for the hundredth thousandth fucking time, or Thank you for finally losing your cool, I was afraid I wouldn't get to see that before I die. There are so many things Tony's been trying not to say to Rhodey, so many years she's spent trying not to say them, that she can't take the risk. "That's how it's supposed to work, right, me and you, I make the scenes and you, uh, behave like a responsible adult--"
"I know something's up, Tony," Rhodey says, matter-of-fact like he was when she was eighteen, like he was when she was fifteen, like he's always, always been. "I know you have this whole lone wolf thing, but I am telling you, as your friend, that it's unnecessary."
"You know what I am so sick of," Tony says, like it'll help, "is people assuming I don't know what I'm doing," and Rhodey just looks at her and looks at her, like he's not assuming anything at all.
("What's with the high-tech crossword puzzle on your neck," he asks eventually, military down to his spit-shined shoes, and Tony opens her mouth to lie to him and finds the truth tripping out instead, stripped bare and half-sobbed. True to form, Rhodey's eyes only widen for a minute; eighteen hours later, Tony's father has left instructions addressed to "Whoever is capable of following them" and Rhodey's eyes are angry as he helps her build a particle accelerator in her basement. She knows it's not anger at her, the same way he knows she's not swearing at him, and when the room catches fire and then glows bright blue, it's nice--a relief--to share the smile.)
"Shall I call Colonel Rhodes, Ms. Stark," Jarvis asks, and there's a nuke in Tony's arms and a city in ruins beneath her, but she still spares a minute to wonder how Jarvis knows. It's not like she's ever said it out loud--oh, well. It probably doesn't matter, now.
"Might as well," Tony says, and holds her breath as the phone rings once, twice, three times--
"Tony!" Rhodey snaps, and Tony is so relieved she could scream, or cry, or choke on it. "What the hell is going on out there, there's a no-fly zone over the whole area, I can't get clearance to--"
"Gonna have to break the rule," Tony says, and does choke on it. Surprise, surprise. "Sorry, buddy, it's me or the world. And I just, there's some stuff I've been kind of holding back, and I don't think I'm gonna get another chance, so--"
"If this is a goodbye call I am fucking hanging up on you," Rhodey says, his voice thick, "because are you crazy, it's every other week with the near-death experiences, being your friend is riding the edge of a heart attack all the time and I am not going to let you call me up and--"
"I love you," Tony snaps, "alright, Jesus, things you don't want to have to say with a nuclear missile strapped to your back, the least you could do is--"
"You what--a what--"
"Could you just," Tony starts, and then she looks up and the stars are yawning out in front of her, cold seeping in and Rhodey's voice loud in her ears, the nuke drifting away and….
"Please tell me nobody kissed me," Tony says, opening her eyes.
"Guilty," says Rhodey, and there's War Machine standing beside Steve, bullet holes fresh in his breastplate and one of his dirty Hammer guns smoking orange. Tony remembers him saying something about clearance, and wonders how much friendly fire he took for her. The thought is…unusually heartwarming. Maybe she's got a concussion. "Somebody had to, and I was a little afraid headlines like 'Captain America & The Missus' might make you pull another melodramatic stunt--"
"Hey!" Tony snaps, narrowing her eyes, "that title was Miss America, okay, and when I mature it will become Madame America--"
"You know what, though," Rhodey says over her, in musing tones, "I'm pretty sure a kiss is the standard response to declarations of love, so I don't think I'm sorry at all."
Flat on her back, Tony stares up at Rhodey. He stares back, a faint grin playing at the edges of his mouth, lines around his eyes she could swear weren't there the last time she saw him, and something snaps into place, a loose wire finally coiling home. Tony was born breech and has been running all her life, and Tony has wanted the man in front of her for as long as she's wanted anything, and Rhodey doesn't look like he minds. Hell, Rhodey looks like he's happy, and an entire world of possibilities that Tony's been keeping locked away and secret unfolds under her immobilized hands, pooling warm, and then hot, in her chest.
"Huh," Tony says, "you know what, you've got a point, maybe this calls for a repeat performance," and Rhodey grins, rolls his eyes, and smiles a promise at her before Steve can say, "Wait, you were Miss America?"