dedication: to Torie, because Torie. to Beth, because, well, she's my Toni Stark.
notes: idk, I just really want fem!Tony to… you know what, I don't even fucking know.
notes2: I've actually had the first part of this summary saved for literal years. I didn't think I would ever use it, but then I guess I did.
chapter title: in the early hours, we are all ghosts
summary: Plan A didn't work out, and neither did Plan B. In which there is no Plan C, and everyone is seriously in trouble. Alternatively: Toni Stark meets Pepper Potts and Captain America, and Batman nearly has an aneurysm as a result. — fem!Tony, Bruce Wayne, Pepper, Steve/Tony.
Plan A was Afghanistan.
But that… yeah, okay, that really didn't work out. Like, that really didn't work out, and Toni didn't really like to remember it because when she did, the arc reactor in her chest purred just a little louder, humming i'm keeping you alive i'm keeping you alive i'm keeping you alive, and how was that for a reminder?
Plan B was—
Wait, wait, that didn't make sense. She really needed to explain about Plan A first, because really, Plan A set the whole thing into motion.
Plan A wasn't just Afghanistan.
Plan A was Bruce Wayne.
And to get from Plan A to Plan B, she needed to explain about the whole thing logically, and Afghanistan really only happened because of Bruce (well, okay, mostly it happened because she was trying to spite Bruce), and so to get to Plan B, she had to talk about Bruce first.
Toni Stark met Bruce Wayne in the counselor's office in her first week of boarding school. She'd stomped out of the office, long dark hair everywhere, and flipped them all off as she went. The collective gasp of indignation from all the ladies in the room made her smile.
Toni had gone through eighteen different therapists in less than half as years, and none of them had ever been able to get her to talk. She wasn't crazy, though: they'd had her tested.
She was just a genius.
(It was almost the same thing, though, in an eleven-year-old girl.)
On her way out, though, she'd caught sight of a boy in a dark suit, hands clasped in his lap. His knuckles were white, face drawn tight and white.
Toni thought he was pitiful.
She didn't say anything to him at all.
The door to the counselor's office slammed shut behind her
So really, they didn't even really officially meet like that, either, now that she thought about it. That was just the first time she'd seen him. Toni had a lot of friends—well, not really, she just had a lot of people who knew her last name and the fact that she had a lot of money, and well, okay, this was boarding school, everyone had a lot of money, but Toni was a Stark, and that sort of meant something different.
They all knew she was a genius.
Toni was eleven, and she could already tell that she hated ingratiation. It was an insult.
So that night after everyone had gone to bed, she snuck out of her room, and headed straight for the bathroom. The girl in the mirror was gorgeous. Toni took after her mother; she had her mother's perfect cupid lips and pert nose and high cheekbones and long, dark curls—but she had her father's smile and her father's eyes and her father's brain, so that was something.
She took another look at herself. She missed her mother. She missed her father. But this was what rich people did and Toni could remember them arguing—she's better off here, I can teach her more just by letting her watch me work than any of those twits at any school we could put her in—SHE NEEDS TO LEARN HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS, HOWARD—I still could do it better—
She hated everything about it.
And she was only eleven. That was what they called behavioural problems.
Toni took scissors to her hair.
There was violent, vicious satisfaction as the long curls fell to the floor in muffled thumps. She cut her hair into short, uneven tufts that fell around her face, jagged and rough and ugly.
Toni pressed her hands hard against the mirror, got up real, real close, and surveyed her work. There was hair everywhere, hanging like a slash across her eyes, sticking up at the back, atrociously asymmetric, dreadful—it was perfect.
Her mother would have hated it.
Not bad, she thought, and grinned brightly with her teeth. She thought vaguely that maybe she should dye it some hideous colour, still smiling like she wanted to eat the world. There were a lot of colours that could put people off. Like orange. Or neon green. Or bright crimson red.
Toni had always liked red.
(Behavioural problems, remember?)
It would be great.
It also meant she'd be sneaking past the boys' dorms to get to the lab, and then she'd have to mix the dye herself. Toni liked chemistry. But the sun was going to rise in—a glance out the window told her a little less than three hours. Three hours was not enough to make the right colour dye, plus bleach her hair. Theoretically she could do it, if she moved fast enough.
But if there was one thing that her father had taught her, it was that mixing chemicals was a delicate process (unless you wanted them to go boom, in which case, fuck delicacy and do as you please).
And Toni was nothing if not her father's daughter.
For now, the haircut was going to shock everyone, and she might even get a full day of peace. The thought was immensely cheering, and Toni slipped out of the bathroom with a toss of her newly-shorn hair.
She left the long dark curls behind her on the floor as a proverbial fuck you to the cleaning staff. They would know it was her—her, with her shorn hair and her bright smile—and she would know that they knew it was her, but what could they do?
She was Antonia Emilia Stark, and no one could touch her.
The sound of rushing water caught her attention. It was coming from across the hall, from the boy's bathroom, and well, that was stupid. Whoever it was was obviously trying to get caught, and Toni had no time for fools.
She didn't have a saviour complex, either, but come on. Who on earth ran water that loudly in the middle of the night without wanting to get caught? They were begging for attention. Toni was good at attention.
Taking it, at least. Being scrutinized, being watched, being adored, she was good at that. Giving wasn't her strong suit, but she was getting there, okay? Like, this was Toni trying. Trying. She was good at trying.
She shoved the door open, strode in with her stride a stom, and glared at the boy sitting under the steaming shower spray. He was wearing a suit, and Toni thought—I know you. From earlier. You were that guy.
She didn't even know his name.
"What the hell are you doing!?" she demanded.
"Sitting," he said. He was soaked and staring at the floor. He didn't move.
This was not what Toni wanted. She set her hands on underdeveloped hips, just as her mother always did when she was annoyed at her father, and she glared down and down and down. "Look at me!"
It seemed worked, because he looked up, at least for a second. Then he dropped his gaze back to the floor. "What d'you want?"
Toni squinted at him. "You're that kid, aren't you—you were at the counselor's—you're that—oh, you're that kid from Gotham, aren't you? The one who—?"
"Don't say it," he cut her off there, and he looked up at her and his eyes were a blaze of fury and grief and loss, and something tugged inside her stomach. It might have been pity. She remembered the newspaper headline WAYNE INDUSTRIES CEO AND WIFE SHOT DEAD and how loud her father had sworn.
She still remembered his fingers curling around the phone and screaming "THOMAS IS DEAD, JESUS CHRIST, THOMAS AND MARTHA ARE DEAD," into the receiver.
Things went a little blurry, after that, because suddenly her mother and father were trying to explain that they needed to leave, that they'd be back soon, but they had to go and she couldn't come with them. It was very important that she stay safe. She was five.
Toni had nodded resolutely, and clung to Jarvis' hand.
They'd been gone for three weeks.
And now, sitting here in front of her, was the boy her parents had gone to see.
(Probably. Toni could put two and two together perfectly fine, thank you.)
"Aren't you cold?" she asked.
"No," he said.
Toni made a very ugly face. Her mouth twisted up and her nose scrunched and her forehead creased and she—well, she sort of hit him. Okay, not sort of. She punched him. She punched him hard.
"Stupid!" Toni said. "Stupid, stupid, stupid, get up, you're so stupid—what's your name, by the way, that's important information because if y'don't tell me I'm just gonna keep calling you stupid—"
"What are you doing?" the kid asked as Toni unceremoniously turned him off the water, and pulled him up off the floor. He was bigger than she was, heavier, older—but Toni had always been a hard-headed little brat, and this was no different. She heaved him into standing, and glared up at him.
"I'm waking you up. Name, stupid. What is your name."
He was silent as he stared down at her, and Toni already knew what he saw: a girl with dark crazy eyes and badly-cut hair with her chin stuck out, an accidental little rebel who probably had engine grease all over her pyjama bottoms.
(Toni was her father's daughter.)
"…Bruce," he said, after a moment. "You probably already know—"
"My parents went your parents' funeral," she said. She couldn't help it, it just sort of slipped out, and Toni had never had a filter between her brain and her mouth anyway, it was what always got her in trouble, she never meant it to, but. Well. It was just one of those things.
He blinked at her, taken aback.
"Oh, shit, sorry, you're probably still not over that, um, I mean, that wasn't, I didn't—" Toni started, and clapped her hands over her mouth. She really needed to get a handle on that swearing thing.
(But really, it wasn't her fault—anyone who spent any sort of time around Howard Stark swore like a sailor, especially his little girl, his little Ironbrand, made of molten steel and brains and engine grease. Toni wasn't good at friendships but she was good at mechanics and schematics and lies, and she was still only eleven. She had plenty of time to get better at that swearing thing.)
The corner of his mouth pulled up a little bit. "You're a freak."
"Yeah, well, you're stupid," she said in reply. "Now come on, we gotta get outta here before the teachers wake up and yell at us, I've already been in trouble today and I really don't want them restricting my access to the lab again, that was torture—"
"Do you ever stop talking?" Bruce asked.
Toni brushed her bangs out of her eyes and shrugged. Her shoulders were too-skinny and birdlike, a tiny little thing who'd barely broken in her wings.
"Not really," she said.
"Huh," he said. "Okay."
"You're gonna get sick, you know," she said. They walked back to their dorms as quietly as they could—for Bruce, this did not seem to be a problem. For Toni it was, because there was finally someone who didn't only see her father's name and saw this wild wicked-smart girl underneath, and that was pretty cool.
Bruce didn't even roll his eyes. "I don't get sick."
"Everyone gets sick," Toni countered, and shoved his shoulder. "Here's my dorm, I gotta go, but get some sleep, okay? Don't blame me when you do get sick, though, because that's totally off-base and not cool and whatever. So. Just. Yeah, you know what, I'll just—go."
Toni sort of waved awkwardly at him, and totally didn't run for the door to her room. She slammed it behind her (thank god thank you god for not making me have a roommate, she thought, or wait, thank mom or dad or whoever but thank you thank you thank you).
She didn't bother peeking back out to see if he was still waiting.
Because ugh, boys.
Toni didn't sleep that night.
That wasn't really a surprise.
Toni didn't sleep a lot of nights, really. Probably why she was so short, or something, she'd read that once—kids who drank coffee and didn't sleep were growth-stunted, but she was small for her age anyway, so she didn't care too much. Too skinny, too bony, too—yeah. Whatever.
Breakfast was breakfast. She glared at one of the older girls (one who seemed profoundly offended by Toni's unsolicited hair adventure) until she caved and got her coffee, and Toni actually almost thanked her. But it was watery and not sweet enough, so she didn't.
Instead, she plopped herself down next to Bruce.
(That was how Plan A started. That morning, right then, sitting right there at a plastic table under fluorescent lights. But there was a lot more to it than that, because Plan A was. Well. Plan A was the long game. It just didn't work out, you know?)
"…What are you doing," he said.
Toni had a premonition that this question was going to be a very big part of both their lives for a very long time.
"Sitting," she said. She grinned at the irony of it, but he didn't seem to enjoy it quite as much.
"I can see that, Antonia."
"Oh, saying my name wrong. Ten points off of your score card," she said, scrunching up her nose again. She did that a lot, the scrunching thing. Force of habit, she guessed.
"Your name is Antonia, correct?"
"Technically," she replied. "That's what it says on my birth certificate, anyway."
"So your name is Antonia."
"Toni," she said. "My name is Toni. Do you want me to start calling you Brucey? Because if you do, I can, and—"
His face went dark, which Toni thought was funny for someone so pale. His eyes were like ice, and she itched to shake him. He seemed like the type that needed a good shaking every so often.
Toni smiled meanly. "Yeah, that's what I thought. So I'm Toni, and you're Bruce, and we'll be friends, and it'll be great."
"Do I have to." It wasn't really a question.
Toni shook her hair out of her eyes again. "You don't really have a choice," she said. "Deal with it."
So really, that was how Plan A started.
But that certainly wasn't how it ended.
They fought a lot. Toni had skipped a grade (three, actually, not that anyone was counting), and she and Bruce had more than a few classes together. She was top in Science and Math and Geography and Automated Mechanics (everyone always forgot she was a genius), but he was top in everything else, so no one really cared.
Toni was still eleven. Bruce was fourteen. She broke his nose twice in the first year they knew each other, both times because he'd tried to meddle with the circuit board she was working on.
No one meddled with Toni's circuit boards.
He seemed to forgive her, though, when she filched jam-stuffed donuts (the only good kind, they both agreed) from the cafeteria and left them in a red box on his pillow tied with a golden ribbon.
Gold and red. Those were her colours, Toni; red because it made her think of power, and gold because gold meant money which… also meant power. Toni wanted power. Not to be a crazy megalomaniac or anything, but just enough that she could be her own person, and not Daddy's Little Project or Mummy's Perfect Girl.
So gold and red and sometimes the dull shine of iron, the smell of antiseptic and the burn of gasoline over the stomp of heavy boots that completely clashed with her school uniform. That was Toni, alright.
Bruce just mostly wore black, which he argued was far superior in terms of workability and general aesthetics. Toni thought he was entirely too boring, and really, she had no idea why she hung out with him at all.
(Plan A. The long game. Right.)
She invited him to the Stark Manor for Christmas.
She punched him on principle, but didn't say anything else about it. He had his own demons, and so did she.
They both came back after the holidays a little more hollowed out.
Toni felt like something had split her open and scooped her insides out—she would be twelve in less than three months, and her mother was dying. She took one look at Bruce in his new suit—it fit him wrong in the shoulders, when was someone going to teach him about tailors—with his haunted eyes and his too-still features. It was almost February.
She smacked him—"You are so abusive, Jesus, Toni,"—and then wrapped her arms around him and stuck her face into his chest and muttered "Stupid, stupid, stupid, you should have come, Jarvis would have liked the company, he and Alfred coulda done that whole spooky twin-talk thing they do, and we could have had dumb presents and cake and—"
She stopped there, because he'd raised his arms and awkwardly hugged her back, and they just sort of held on to each other, desperate for some sort of contact.
"My mom's dying," she said. "I know you don't—I know you have don't have—things, and I know—issues, I mean, but I, but I, I just, I need—god, stupid, you're like the only family I have—"
He hugged her a little tighter, and that was okay. That was good.
He didn't say anything, but Toni didn't really expect him to. She didn't expect anything because this was Bruce. And as much as he made her want to scream and nearly break his nose again (for the fifth time, at last count), he was quiet and dumb and made her feel a little bit normal, and that was better than saying anything, really.
Because, yeah, okay, Toni was a little bit crazy, everyone knew that, but Bruce Wayne didn't seem to mind and one day she really was going to clonk him over the head with something hard to knock some brains into him (or some self-preservation, he had, like, no self-preservation, what was wrong with him).
"How long?" he asks.
"How long do you think she has, Toni?"
Toni swiped at her cheeks (she was not crying, she was not crying), and heaved the deepest, longest, most broken-hearted sigh a eleven -year-old could. "Dunno. A month. Two, maybe. Dad told the doctors not to tell me, but I'm not stupid."
"I know, kid."
She made a face, and shoved her hair out of her eyes again. It was starting to grow out, and she still looked ridiculous. "Don't call me that, I'm only like two years younger than you and I'm smarter than you are."
"Ouch," he said, deadpan.
"I will break your nose," Toni warned, but she was smiling again, and things sort of settled between them.
He didn't ask about her dad, and she didn't ask what he'd gotten for Christmas. Those topics were still out of bounds because they still hurt too much, and Toni understood nuance in the way only a genius-girl could: she understood how to hit where it hurt and make it stay like that. She understood how to dig in deep and get underneath a person's skin and stay there until their soul leaked out through the wound.
Her mother had taught her that.
Poison was a woman's weapon, and Toni could be a poison.
But she didn't want to get Bruce involved in that, because he didn't deserve her crazy (I'm not crazy, they had me tested) or her darkness or her anything.
And then Toni would remember that she was only eleven, and the whole thing was a ton of whale shit. Normal girls didn't think about things like this.
They lugged their stuff up into their dorms.
Toni went down to the lab before Bruce could catch her and make her eat something, and she stayed down there without leaving for three days. Didn't sleep, didn't eat.
No one came looking, either.
She didn't mind too much.
(Plan A, Toni told herself over and over again. We make the weapons, but we're careful who we sell them to, princess, her father muttered at the back of her skull. Plan A.)
By the end of the third day, it seemed like Bruce had had enough. He hacked into her lab-lock—when had he learned to do that, not even the professors were good enough with computers to do that—and picked her up and pulled her out of there right while she was in the middle of finally beginning to set the algorithm for AI leaning programs.
Toni was not pleased.
(Except, you know, secretly, she kind of was.)
"I hate you," she said.
"You need to eat," he replied, and carried her up into the buildings that were actually above ground, where normal people resided. Toni didn't like normal people, they had normal parents who didn't expect her to live up to dead men and women that she couldn't have been even if she tried.
"No, like, I really hate you, Wayne," she said.
"Sure," Bruce said.
But he hoisted her into a piggy-back, and she didn't fight it, so that was something. Or maybe nothing. But Toni dropped her head to his shoulder because she, okay, yeah, she was exhausted and she was hungry and no one in this damn placed cared enough about her to make sure that she ate and slept expect Bruce Wayne, of all people, and wasn't that just the weirdest fucking thing in the world.
Saviour-complexes, Toni remembered. She didn't have one. Bruce did.
(Or maybe they'd just finally reached the point where they were enough like brother and sister that things like this were okay.)
They made it up to the cafeteria, and Bruce deposited her at one of the tables. If anyone saw something strange about this, they didn't say so—Toni was infamous and Bruce was Bruce, so most people just kept their mouths shut.
He looked down at her. "Stay," he said.
"I'm not a dog, you know," Toni retorted.
He just eyed her, and walked to the bar. Three minutes later, he came back with three different plates of food, and set them all in front of her.
She wrinkled her nose. "Why did you have to get Brussels sprouts? I hate Brussels sprouts."
"Toni," Bruce said. "Shut up and eat."
"Fine," Toni sighed heavily. She glared at him as she ate, but she did eat. She ate everything he put in front of her, all three plates of it. She even ate the Brussels sprouts. She wouldn't have done that for anyone else, not even Jarvis, and Jarvis had managed to get her to eat mashed peas, so that was saying something.
"You're a hateful person," Toni said, when she was finally finished.
"Drink this," he said, and held up a cup of something that was clear and liquidy and…
"Is that water?" Toni asked.
"Yes," said Bruce.
Toni grimaced. "I don't like water."
"Drink it, Toni."
She made a sound that was sort of like a snarl, and downed the whole thing in one go. It didn't taste like anything, it was horrible; who in their right mind would drink this on a daily basis?
"I hate you," Toni said.
"You're going to bed," Bruce replied, and was about to reach around to pick her up again.
This time, she managed to fend him off.
"What are you doing," she said.
"Forcing you to get some sleep," Bruce said, voice mild.
"Don't even go there, Brucey," Toni said. She bared her teeth at him in a way that more animal than human, but then, she wasn't feeling very human right then. Three days persisting on coffee and little else had left her—well, something that was not very human. "I left my lab—"
"Because I forced you to leave."
"Because I forced you to eat."
"And now I'm going to bed—"
"Because I'm forcing you to sleep."
"—But I can walk on my own! You're not my keeper, or, or my dad or something, or whatever, just—UGH."
Bruce snorted. It might have actually been a laugh, except that, you know, Bruce didn't laugh. Ever. Like, it was just not a Thing That Bruce Way Did. Toni knew that Bruce did All Sorts of Things, but laughing? Laughing was not among them.
"You're stupid," she grumbled.
"You always say that," he said, and set a hand on her shoulder. The touching thing, that was something they did. A little. Not much. But enough that it didn't freak her out and Toni just sort of nodded.
"S'cause you are stupid," she replied. She swayed a little on the spot.
Eleven year old girls were not meant to live on coffee and machines. It just wasn't healthy. Toni sort of leaned against him as they headed for the dorms, half-asleep on her feet. Food did that to her—made her body remember that it was human, and that humans needed to sleep and eat and see the sun to keep going.
Bruce had to drag her up the last few stairs, and she didn't even care that he picked the lock. Toni stumbled in after him and flopped down on her bed. There was something very wrong with this picture, she shouldn't have been this tired—
"You drugged me, didn't you," Toni slurred at him.
"Yeah, I did," Bruce nodded. "Go to sleep, Toni."
Toni tried to tell him that she hated him, again, because he would have at the very least deserved that, but, well, she couldn't quite get the words out.
Her last conscious thought was that this was probably what having an older brother was like.
Toni's mother died three days before her twelfth birthday.
"…You okay?" Bruce asked.
Toni glared at the floor. "Were you okay when your mom died?"
That was a low blow, and they both know it. Neither mentions it, though, because Bruce understood how much Toni wanted to break things right then, break things and build them and break them again, because that was how Toni dealt with things like this.
She didn't talk about it, she didn't even want to think about it, she didn't—she couldn't—
God damn it.
"Just leave me alone, Wayne," Toni said, and shoved herself away from him.
Bruce watched her go, and come after her.
Good, Toni thought bitterly. Good riddance.
(Toni had gotten pretty good at lying to herself. Plan A. Whatever that was supposed to mean.)
She holed herself up in her room until her father came to pick her up. She didn't look at him. He didn't look at her. They didn't even touch. Toni didn't know if Bruce was watching, but frankly, she really didn't give a fuck. They were going to have her mother's funeral on her twelfth birthday.
What the fuck.
New York was crawling and ungodly and Toni hated everything about it. Jarvis looked down at her with old, sad eyes, and Toni thought you're going to die soon, too, aren't you, just like everyone else, and then I'll be alone with dad, and god, this is such a mess, what do I even do—
That first night home, Toni did something she had never done in her life. She picked the lock on her father's liquor cabinet, pulled out the first three bottles she could find, and she got staggeringly, blubberingly, disgustingly drunk.
It was horrible.
She had no idea why her father liked the stuff, not at first.
But she kept drinking.
And suddenly everything was numb around her, gone fuzzy and silly and she thought of dumb Bruce with his stupid hero-complex, like sometimes he wanted to save her and sometimes not, and how maybe he'd be way better off without her.
Actually, Toni was pretty sure he would have been way better off without her, but she was pretty sure she was too drunk to tell.
For the first time in her life, her head wasn't spinning with equations and biomechanics and algorithms that didn't make sense to anyone but her, and she was almost normal and wow, if this was what being drunk was like, why hadn't she done it before?
Toni had resigned herself to dying young, so she was going to enjoy the hell out of it.
Her phone was somewhere around, and she wanted to call Bruce to share this experience with him, because weren't older brothers supposed to take your drinking the first time it happened? That's how it always went in the books that Toni sometimes secretly read when no one was looking, the ones about dragons and princesses and princes.
A lot of the time, thought, she didn't, because the princesses were always prissy little bitches and almost-twelve Antonia Emilia Stark had no time for that, either.
She held her phone and squinted at it, and she couldn't remember his number. It was almost two in the morning, anyway, and hey, it was her birthday now, wow, she was twelve, and that was so messed up, this whole thing was so messed up. Toni flopped backwards between the bottles (small and brown and was she this trashed off just beer? Was this how college kids did it? She was going to be one, soon, because she was too smart for this and for that and she was just too smart for her own fucking good. She was too smart for her own fucking good), and stared up at the ceiling.
She wasn't going to call him.
He wasn't her real brother.
Too bad for that, she thought.
Toni stood slowly, and thought ooookay, maybe this was a bad idea, and she wanted to call for Jarvis or her mother because Jarvis and her mother were what made her feel better when she was sick, and her father was never home, and, oh god, she was going to pass out or vomit or something horrible.
But nothing happened, and Toni shook a little, and wobbled her way to the roof.
The fresh air cleared her head some and for the first time in a long time, Toni thought of her mother.
Soft hands and pearls and long perfect curls that fell around her face, and the constant perfume of Chanel No. 5 that followed her around everywhere she walked. There was way she was laughed, a gentle little lilt and would break into snorts and hiccups when she was actually amused, and how her mother was just perfect in every way. And Toni thought god, god, how am I going to grow up without her, how am I going to live without her, she's my mom, this shouldn't have happened, I should have been better than this, smarter than this, something, anything—
Toni goes back inside, drinks some more, and passes out.
This is the first time, but it will not be the last.
And she is a mess the next morning.
Should've expected that, Toni thought darkly. She stared down at the array of make-up that had belonged to her mother, and the perfume, and the vanity and the desk, and every inch of her wants to destroy the whole thing.
But this was all she had left of the woman.
The girl in the mirror looked back at her with her father's dangerous deep eyes, ringed darkly from the hangover and the lack of sleep, tangle-hair still so badly cut and she knew that she'd never been the daughter her mother wanted.
Yes, Toni was her father's daughter.
The only thing she took from the vanity was the perfume. She tucked it into the pocket of her jeans, and it stuck it out like a sore thumb, but it was hers, now.
The rest, she knocked to the floor.
She didn't want it.
She didn't want any of it.
Toni turned and left the room. She closed the door very quietly behind her, shut the ghost of her mother in that quiet place and she was determined that one day, she was going to destroy this whole place and put them all to rest.
There were ten different black dresses hanging in her closet.
They hadn't been there the previous day.
And Toni thought of his sad old eyes and his old hands and the sarcastic, biting way he'd taught her so much in so little time. Toni was twelve today, still too skinny and too fast and way too smart for her age, and going to her mother's funeral, for god's sake.
The shortest dress still reached past her knees.
"I'M NOT A CHILD," she screamed.
No one replied.
Toni snarled, pulled one off the rack (they all looked the same, it was like they were giving her a choice between monkshood and wolfs-bane and they were the same fucking plant), and went to hunt for scissors.
She'd done this before.
Toni cut the dress the same way she cut her hair. It was a hack-rough job that had no care to it, no precision, and it was dumb and stupid and ugly. It was exactly the way she wanted it. She cut it short, so short, and cut the sleeves off entirely.
It was a funeral.
It was also her birthday.
And she was damn well going to do exactly as she pleased. She left the edges ragged-jagged-tattered and when she slipped it over her head, it gaped loose in the front and looser in the back, the long pale lines of her bones just beneath the film of her skin visible, knees and thighs and she thought good, good.
But missing something.
Something colourful. Something to strike fear and passion and to show that she was still powerful even without her mother, even without Jarvis, even without her father. She was Antonia Emilia Stark, who needed nothing and no one to help her control her world.
Red, she thought.
She needed red.
Her mother's things were still scattered all over the floor when Toni peeked inside. There was nail polish and eyeliner and lipstick, and she sorted through them all fast, fast, fast as she could, and—there.
It was the perfect shade.
Toni looked in her mother's vanity mirror, and carefully painted the lipstick onto her mouth. It was a slash of crimson on an otherwise blank canvas, and when she smiled, her lips curled up cruel and cold.
She brushed her bangs out of her eyes.
"I'm gonna eat the whole world, mom. Promise," she said aloud.
Toni didn't believe in god.
Toni didn't believe in much of anything.
But it felt good to say out loud. Tony looked down at her hands, rough from working with metal all the time. She was tired of being a child, tired of being away from her father and her butler and missing her mother's last days.
That stupid school wasn't going to hold her.
Toni was going to raise hell, and if that meant leaving Bruce behind, then that was what it mean. He was probably already leaving, anyway—he had inheritance rights to his stupid company at eighteen, and that was only two years away.
She had 'til she was twenty-one. That was years and years and years. She could do anything. She could go wild, go crazy, go dancing through Manhattan's streets with too much money and too little dignity, and the funny thing was that her father probably wasn't even going to care.
Howard Stark didn't give a shit about anything.
So why should his daughter?
Toni ran her fingers through her shorn hair. She'd make weapons, too, weapons that could eat the world because Toni? Toni was smart like that. Toni could do things like that.
She was twelve and she was going to eat the world.
Fuck Plan A.
Toni had better things to do.
Like dealing with her mother's funeral.
She wore black heels and her ruined dress, knobbly knees poking out from beneath the cropped hem and when she raised an expectant eyebrow at Jarvis, he simply raised an expectant one in return. She tottered (but only a little) because heels were something she'd not often tried to wear before.
But then again.
There were a lot of things that Toni hadn't tried before the day before yesterday.
But she would master them like she mastered everything else.
What else was being a genius good for?
Jarvis opened the door to the limousine and Toni slid in. The leather was black and slick underneath her fingers, and not for the first time, Toni wondered what it would be like to sink into the vehicle, become one with it. Girl and machine—she never really knew quite which one she was.
Bruce did a good job of reminding her she was human.
She didn't even know how that worked.
As it was, twelve-year-old Toni sunk into the seat, crossed her legs, and waited for Jarvis to drive her to the church.
Toni hated churches.
Toni hated a lot of things.
She hated that it wasn't raining. She hated that the sun wasn't shining. She hated that this had even happened in the first place—hated that the sky was nothing but white-grey above her, and she pressed her finger to her lips to assure herself that they were still red as blood.
They were, and so she stopped worrying.
Toni wiped the lipstick away on her dress.
It didn't even leave a mark.
A tiny little smile crossed her lips. Maybe Wayne had something there, about the black clothing—nothing showed up on it, at the very least.
(She had no idea why she was smiling. Shouldn't she be crying, or something? Sad? Angry? Something? Anything? But no, all she had was a deep empty hole inside of her chest that wanted to eat the world, eat the sun, consume anything and everything whole. Maybe that was how she was going to die. What a morbid thought.)
The ride was smooth and slow, and she thought Jarvis was trying to give her time to compose herself. But Toni had nothing to compose—she was no musician, she was technical. A very technical girl; music was beyond her except for techno and dubstep, both of which she could accept only because they came from a computer, and even that was stretching it.
Toni danced to the hum of engines, tiny but awkward in her father's workshop and her mother's laughter like bells in the background. But then she'd got surly and angry because she was too smart and she hated that they kept her so protected.
And then they sent her away.
So the time when they'd been a family (a real family, whatever that meant)? That was over now. Toni wished it would rain. That would have been cliché. If her life was a movie, it would be raining. But her life wasn't a cheesy chick-flick romance, and it wasn't raining, so she went with it, because what else could she do?
She didn't even realize it when they got to the church.
Toni suddenly really, really, really wished she was drunk again. It had to be better than this. Jarvis opened the door for her, and she stepped out—high heels first, the spindly legs, knobbly knees, too-short ruined dress and ruined hair, and the flash of cameras were so bright in her eyes that she had no idea what to do. She stood stunned still, for a moment, before she plastered on a weak smile, and began to walk forward.
Heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, she told herself over and over. Her stride was long and they were still taking pictures and she wanted to turn around and scream at them DON'T YOU GET IT MY MOTHER IS DEAD LEAVE ME ALONE.
But she didn't, and she walked straight past the usher without even looking at him. He reached out to catch her arm, "Er, miss, this is a private function—"
Toni turned to look him straight in the eye, and she set the death in her gaze to its highest level. "This," she enunciated, "is my mother's funeral. And you, you tiny, pitiful little man, you're not gonna stop me from being let."
She brushed past him with all the grace a twelve-year-old spitfire on heels could manage, head held up straight, the crimson line of her mouth sharp and out of place against the white of her face. She could do this. She was going to show them all that she was Howard and Marissa Stark's daughter, that she belonged in this world, that she could own this world.
Her father looked a mess.
He'd been drinking again.
(They said alcoholism was hereditary, and Toni thought thanks dad, you fucked me up more than I thought.)
And right beside him was Bruce Wayne.
He looked up and caught her eye and muttered something to her father, probably an excuse, because Howard didn't even look up. Toni crossed her arms over her meager chest.
"Can you really not buy a suit that fits you properly, Wayne? Like, what, you suddenly don't have like a bagillion dollars to buy one fitted suit?"
He looked like he was about to bite back, but instead, he reached for her, and set his hand down on her shoulder. "This sucks."
And that was when Toni started to cry.
"You—you stupid—stupid—I wasn't gonna cry—I wasn't—this is all—I hate you!" she got out, and Bruce awkwardly patted her head and then she was sobbing snot and tears all over his badly-fitted suit, and he sat her down next to her father.
Sitting there, it was all Toni could do to cry herself out.
Howard didn't even look at her.
Toni didn't blame him.
Not really, anyway.
Bruce sat on her left and her father sat on her right, and Toni stared at the coffin with eyes like hard black diamonds, cold as chips of ice. Her nose was red as her lips and the rims of her eyes, but that was that and this was this.
Toni didn't remember much of the service.
All she could think of was the fact that they were putting her mother in the ground and that there would be no more proper Christmases, and hey, maybe now she and Bruce could actually just get drunk together on eggnog and watch bad Christmas movies.
(She would have thought they should make out, but ew, Bruce and kissing? Ew.)
But she did remember this:
"Your parents came to my parents' funeral. I thought I should return the favour."
"That is the most fucked up thing you've ever said to me."
"You're so stupid."
And she sort of smiled and affectionately punched him in the shoulder. Because this was good. This was okay.
Bruce Wayne had a saviour-complex and Toni Stark really didn't (because she wasn't the girl to put herself on the line and hope and pray to the God-that-wasn't that that shit didn't blow), but that was okay. This was okay. She was going to be okay.
So that was Plan A.
Plan B was meeting Pepper Potts.
That didn't happen until two years later, but it did happen. In the meantime, Toni pulled pranks and dyed her hair ridiculous impossible colours and blew shit up, and Bruce mostly tried to keep her alive.
It seemed to work, because by the time she met Pepper, Toni was still breathing.
So that was a thing.
Toni had kissed girls before. She'd kissed boys before, too, obviously, (but never Bruce, because, uh, ew, remember?), but she didn't really have a preference. People were people and they were all the same.
She'd believed that for a very long time.
And then Pepper walked in.
This thing was, Toni didn't know Pepper was Pepper at that point. At that point, Pepper was just a really hot chick who had red-blonde hair and a popped-out hip-swagger that Toni sort of wanted to make out with.
Bruce totally disapproved, which somehow only made it better.
That was the cool thing about being fourteen and a teenage genius living at a private boarding school for rich kids. She could kiss whoever she wanted, and never get in trouble for it (at least as long as she didn't get caught, but Toni was pretty good at not getting caught).
Toni's hair was pink, that week.
Gouge-your-eyes-out pink. That may or may not have contributed to the reception she received.
"Hey," Toni smirked at her, gave her the come hither eyes that made people fall at her feet like the princess that she was.
The girl looked her up and down. "Hi."
Toni did not like the short, clipped tone. That was sad. Life was sad when pretty people didn't like her—and Toni tilted her head at the girl, and said "What's your name, darling?"
"Pepper Potts," the girl replied. She didn't look very impressed.
Toni pulled out her very best pout.
It didn't do too much. Pepper inclined her head, and said "Pardon me, I need to get class."
Toni stared after her. She whirled, and stared at Bruce. "But—but—did she just—"
"She did not just turn me down," Toni said.
"Toni," Bruce warned.
"No, this is totally depressing! She turned me down, and, let's be honest here, no one turns me down, I'm Toni Stark!"
"Toni," Bruce said again.
And Toni looked at him, and thought you were Plan A, but now you're more like my brother so Plan A didn't work out, obviously, so why can't I have a Plan B?
But Bruce was giving her the my parents are dead look that always shut her up, because it was kind of hard to argue with a guy who spent three-quarters of his time brooding and the other quarter studying astrophysics (which was a stupid area of study, Toni thought, there were way better ways to waste time—like getting drunk).
"Fine," she sighed at him. She did that a lot, sighed at him like that—Bruce was probably the only person on the entire planet who could get Toni to tone her dramatics down.
"Be nice," he said.
"Get a nice suit," she countered, and ran her fingers through her pink hair. She'd bleached it to death, done terrible things to the once-beautiful dark curls, but she didn't mind. Not anymore. Because changing her hair was her reinvention, and when she wasn't spending time building robots in the lab, she was reinventing herself.
She'd done it so many times that it was starting to get tiring.
"What colour should I go next?"
"Natural," said Bruce.
"Bo-ring," she said. And she didn't say I'll look like my mother again and my father won't look at me anymore and can we just not, okay, can we please just not. She didn't really have to; he would get it anyway.
Toni was beginning to think that they were starting to know each other too well. Or maybe it was just a kid-with-dead-parent(s) thing. Coulda been that, too, for all Toni knew.
Either way, they were both sort of fuck-ups.
(Toni more-so than Bruce, but neither was about to admit that.)
"Can I at least make friends with her?"
He gave her that my parents are dead look again. Twice in one day; that was kind of a feat, mostly because Bruce only pulled it out when he really wanted to shut her up.
Toni tossed her head. "Fine. Be like that. I'll make friends with her on my own."
"Don't get your heart broken," he said. He was still bent over his dumb astrophysics book, but she knew he was looking at her from under his eyelashes—he was such a girl, sometimes.
She tossed her head, pink hair flickering around her face like fire—Ironbrand, her father muttered in her head, my little Ironbrand—and she stalked away. Toni threw a wide grin over her shoulder. "Don't worry about me, Brucey. My heart's made of iron!"
Bruce dropped his head to the table.
She was such an idiot.
Toni kept grinning, and didn't look back.
"Hey, Pep! Pepper!" she called.
Pepper was a swish of strawberry-blonde hair and gold-brown eyes, arms clasped tightly around her books. She was pale and lanky with her skirt kept down to a respectable length, and Toni was a little bit breathless about her. She was just really pretty, okay, and Toni liked pretty people.
"Look, I'm sorry, I, um, sometimes I say things that I shouldn't, and I—well, I never mean to, I mean, it's just, look, I'm sorry, can we be friends—oh wow, I totally forgot how bad I am at talking to people that aren't, you know, computers or Bruce but I guess Bruce is almost a computer—"
"You're rambling," Pepper said. Her lips were twitching the tiniest bit, and Toni could sense a smile beneath the marble exterior.
Toni grinned and shrugged, miming sheepishness (Toni Stark did not do sheepish, not even for pretty girls and potential friends). "Yeah, I—I um, I do that. Kinda bad at this, uh, in-person thing. But uh. Hi! I'm Toni Stark."
"I know who you are, Miss Stark," Pepper said. Her voice was incredibly even.
Toni went very still. "If you're here on behalf of my father, you can stuff it—"
And then Pepper laughed, and Antonia Emilia Stark fell a little bit in love with her. "I'm not working for your father, Miss Stark."
"Then who are you working for?"
Pepper shrugged. "No one. I saw you in the paper."
Toni was in the paper every three weeks, mostly because she'd done something stupid that Bruce hadn't quite been able to talk her out of. Especially during the summer, when he went back to Gotham and Toni was left to her own devices: that was when the tabloids took pictures of fourteen-almost-fifteen-year-old Toni Stark swinging her hips on some dingy bar top table, drunk off her face just because she could be.
(Howard Stark didn't know his daughter anymore. No one knew Howard Stark's daughter anymore, not even Howard Stark's daughter. The alcohol was starting to get a little bit out of hand, but she could handle it. She always did.)
"Which time?" Toni asked.
"When your mother died," Pepper replied.
And Toni shut down, shut down completely, everything inside clicking into frozen silence, because her mother was not a topic of conversation. Not now, not ever, and she wished desperately for Jarvis or Bruce or even her dad, god, even her father was better than talking to a total (pretty) stranger about her mother.
"Oh," Tony said. "Yeah. Well."
"I'm sorry," Pepper said quietly.
"It was a long time ago," Toni responded automatically, and she tried to get her inner gears to unfreeze. She thought of the hum of radioactive material and stupid robots that never quite did what she made them for, and slowly, the ice receded from her soul.
"Not long enough, I don't think," Pepper said.
"Yeah, maybe not," and Toni had no idea why she was agreeing with this (pretty) stranger, but she was, and that was okay. Toni could do this, she could, she could make it work like how did with Bruce, and they would just be friends because friends were better than lovers, any day.
(A lot of the time, Toni forgot that she was only fourteen. The empty place in her chest was only getting emptier, and sometimes the only thing that filled it up was the brilliant slosh of vodka or whiskey or gin, and then she didn't remember anything anymore. She just felt so old sometimes, old in her bones, older than dirt and all the trees in the Amazon. Sometimes, she felt older than the sky.)
"Come on," said Pepper. "Let's get some lunch."
And so they did.
And that was how Plan B came into existence: eating lunch with a pretty strawberry-blonde. It seemed that most of Toni's better plans came into existence when food was involved.
(Or alcohol, but whatever. Same difference.)
Toni Stark accidentally made friends with Pepper Potts.
(That was how she seemed to make all her friends, actually. That was pretty sad, when she actually thought about it, so she didn't think about it all that much.)
Quite frankly, Pepper Potts was a much better influence than Bruce Wayne was. Everyone could acknowledge that—Pepper could give Toni a single look, and Toni would freeze and stop whatever it was that she was going, which was great.
There were way fewer explosions in the chemistry labs.
Pepper's power was mystical. If the school allowed cults, there would have been one dedicated solely to her magical ability to control Toni's ridiculousness and channel it into things that were actually useful.
As such, Toni realized pretty quickly that she did not want to make out with Pepper at all.
Pepper was terrifying.
But she got along with Bruce as well as anyone could get along with Bruce Wayne, and so the pair of school loners (freaks) became a trio (still freaks, but Pepper terrified everyone within a thirty-mile radius. Toni was so impressed with this ability that she was determined to hire Pepper to keep her company in order, once she got her hot little hands on it. Seven years, and she was counting down the days).
And for once in her life, Toni Stark thought things were going to be okay.
Which was great, really. Toni didn't often have many chances to just feel okay. But with Bruce in the background being all broody and protective and Pepper on her right colour-coding her notes and screeching at her underlings, things were really… okay.
Things were really good.
(Toni still didn't believe in God, but sometimes at night when no one was looking, she prayed that things would stay like this always and forever.)
That went to hell precisely eight weeks later, when Bruce turned eighteen in February.
Because that was Bruce took control of Wayne Industries.
Because that was when Bruce left school.
"Why didn't you tell me!?" Toni thundered. "Why didn't you tell me you were leaving? You should have told me weeks ago, I would have started figuring out a way to sabotage it—"
"That's precisely why I didn't tell you," Bruce said. He looked like he wanted to pinch the bridge of his nose. That was normal, acceptable Bruce Wayne behaviour.
But all Toni could see was red, red and gold, red boxes with gold ribbon stuffed with filched jam-filled donuts and why, why hadn't he trusted her with this?
Pepper stood to the side and stared between the both of them with sad-moon eyes, hands up in something that was a cross between defensive and calming, but Toni was so mad. Toni was so, so mad—she could taste the bile on her tongue, and jesus, where was the alcohol, she needed a shot or two or eight to deal with this because Bruce wasn't supposed to leave without telling her, he just didn't do that, he was the responsible one in this relationship—
Except the fact was, he was the mature one in the relationship.
And whether Toni admitted it or not, everyone was better off having only told Toni five days in advance.
"So you're going back to Gotham," she sneered at him. "Run back home to mummy and daddy, huh?"
There were lines that they'd never crossed with one another.
That was one of them.
Toni watched as he shut down, just the same as when she'd shut down on Pepper for mentioning her mother, and Toni wanted to apologize and punch him and whisper I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry into his chest like she always did when she fucked up, but god, she was getting so good at fucking up that it was an almost tragedy to ruin something so absolutely terrible.
Toni Stark fucked up, and Bruce Wayne fixed it.
That was how it had been for a very, very long time. Almost four years.
But after what she'd just said, she didn't think he was ever going to try to fix her again.
And that was good, right, that was really good, because Toni broke everything she touched—she broke Happy and she broke Jarvis and she broke her father and her mother and it was actually sort of amazing that Bruce had lasted this long without breaking.
(Toni didn't have to worry about breaking Pepper. If anything, she had to worry about Pepper breaking her.)
So instead, Toni folded her arms and looked down her nose at him.
"Go on then," she huffed out through her nose. "If you're leaving, just go. Clearly none of us are important enough to keep you here for the rest of the year—god, I actually thought you were going to wait until my birthday, like I actually thought that maybe you'd stick around long enough to graduate, but I guess I was wrong, and—and—god, stupid, I hate you!"
Toni whirled—orange, this week, bright orange, jailbird orange—hair whirling behind her fast as a merry-go-round, and she stomped away as hard as she had the first time she'd ever seen him, leaving that stupid counselor's office when she was eleven and he'd just been sitting there looking small and sad and fragile and—and you know what, she didn't even want to think about it.
She really, really didn't even want to think about it.
Her stomach clenched.
There were three bottles of strawberry vodka tucked underneath her bed (the memory was fuzzy but went kind of like this: keep it classy, ladies, we don't drink straight from the bottle), and Toni needed it, needed it.
Oh, she thought, that must be the alcoholism talking.
She tried not to think about too much, and slammed into her dorm.
Four gulps straight from the bottle later (classy, who needed classy, she was Toni fucking Stark), and she felt a little calmer.
Not calm enough to think straight, but that was probably just the alcohol talking.
Stupid Bruce was leaving.
Stupid, stupid, stupid Bruce.
There was a quiet knock on the door.
"Fuck off, Bruce," Toni said.
"It's me," came Pepper's voice.
"…Okay. You can come in. But not if he's there, because he's stupid and I'm mad at him and I'm not ever not going to be mad at him—"
Pepper opened the door and cut Toni off mid-rant. She just stood there with her hip popped out and her hair tucked out of her eyes, and she shook her head.
"You idiot," she said. There was affection in her voice.
"It's not fair, Pep. He didn't even tell me," Toni could only croak at her.
"I know," Pepper said. She sat down on the edge of Toni's bed, and pulled the bottle of vodka from her hands. "I know. He should have told you."
"Did you know?" Toni asked.
After a long minute, Pepper sighed. "Yeah. I knew."
"You didn't tell me either, huh," Toni said.
"I would have if I could, Toni, you know that. He made me promise not to say anything," Pepper said softly.
"He didn't want to upset you."
Toni snorted. "Yeah. Well. Fuck him. Fuck him and his stupid broody-boy-saviour-thing, fuck him, fuck him, fuck him so hard, I never wanna talk to him again, I hate him—"
"Come here, silly," Pepper said.
She wrapped her arms around Toni's shoulders—god, Toni was so small and so fragile and he really should have told her, Pepper thought furiously—and pulled her close.
"It's okay," Pepper murmured. "You can cry, if you need to."
Toni's lip wobbled, and her fingers curled into the collar of Pepper's uniform shirt.
"I hate him," she croaked again.
And then Toni Stark cried for the first time since her mother's funeral, still in the arms of her best friend, but everything was different now. She cried for a long time, and finally Pepper put her to bed, tucked her in, and let her sleep.
When Toni woke up in the morning, Bruce Wayne was gone.
notes3: help I just wrote ten thousand words in one sitting