disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: to Annie even though she's a dickwad.
notes: so uh. yeah. this is a thing. a big thing.

chapter title: the antidote for irony
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.

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Things were… not so great, after that.

Toni spent her time cooped up her in lab and rarely left. She knew that Pepper and some of her favourite teachers were worried, but what could they do? At best they could force her to eat and sleep.

That seemed to happen a lot, with Toni.

The not eating and not sleeping thing, anyway. The not-going-to-class thing was just par for the course that was the Stark heir; she took the exam, aced it without trying, and then went back to whatever it was she'd been doing in the first place.

She didn't tell them about the shakes and the worries and the nightmares, because those were things that had no business in Toni Stark's life, anyway.

She wasn't the girl who was afraid of the dark, no matter what the dark things whispered at night. She wasn't the girl to take things personal, not the girl to take things too easy, not the girl to take the shit the world threw at her.

Because she was like a monkey.

Throw shit at me, and I'll throw it right back, Toni thought.

She couldn't bring Jarvis back from the dead. She didn't want to bring her mother back from the dead. There was only so much any one person could do, and Toni understood biology. Once something died, there was no plausible to even begin to bring it back to life.

She'd always hated Frankenstein, anyway.

So she'd stopped trying, and moved on to better projects.

AI technology.

She could do that. She could totally, totally do that. It would take, like, a decade of work, maybe, but she could totally do it. Or maybe half a decade if she was drunk, because being drunk seemed to be conducive to Toni's thinking processes. It slowed everything down just enough that she didn't have to worry about forgetting details (not that she ever did in the place, but whatever).

Whatever, the point was that she totally had it down and it was something she could definitely get done. She had the motivation, now—not having Jarvis around to scold her was a little lonely.

Pepper, on the other hand, thought that this was one of the worst ideas Toni had ever had.

"Are you crazy, Toni? There's a reason AI tech hasn't seriously been attempted before, it's just—it's not possible!"

"I'm not crazy," Toni said absently. "My mother had me tested."

(She was always telling someone that.)

Somehow, Toni thought that Pepper wasn't surprised in the least. She had make-up down, now, and she understood how to work a room—but she still couldn't match Pepper for sheer scary, and it was funny and sad because Toni was pretty sure she was never going to match Pep on that level.

It was good, though.

This way, she could still hire Pep when she got the fuck out of dodge.

And really, Toni didn't know what she was waiting for—she could blow this joint any time she wanted, end up back in New York. She could go to MIT, that wouldn't be a problem, she was Howard's kid, right? She'd take the SAT, and then she'd go to MIT and then she'd wait for Pepper to graduate and then they could totally get married and it would be great.

Except that Toni was pretty sure Pepper never wanted to marry her, and really, she couldn't blame her at all.

Honestly, Toni wouldn't have wanted to marry Toni. Why on earth would she blame Pep for the same thing? All Pepper had ever been was good.

Also, Toni was pretty sure that if she introduced Pep to Happy, it would be the end of any other relationship for either of them.

These were the kind of things Toni thought about when she was standing in the shower. It was the only time she'd allow herself to be dumb and stupid and girly and not work on things that might benefit or destroy humankind—showers were her girly time.

Anyway.

So that was kind of the end of Plan B.

Toni didn't really have a Plan C.

There'd never been a need for Plan C.

So… now what?

Toni slipped out of the shower and toweled off. It was a strange thought—did she even really need a Plan C? Well, she supposed, she wasn't one to do things with plans, normally, but the thing was that not many people could stand Toni. In fact, there were a lot of days when Toni couldn't stand Toni.

So people Plans were probably a good thing, on her count.

The problem was that creating another Plan involved actually meeting someone else, and Toni didn't really want to do that. It would involve work, and personal investment, and let's be real, okay; Toni was not good at either of those things. She didn't do that whole kissing ass thing.

Not even to Bruce. Maybe to Pepper a little bit, but that was Pepper and Toni was prepared to kiss ass when it came to Pepper, at the very least.

Besides.

She had a Bruce (even if said dude was a huge douche who did stupid things that only made her want to hit him and who lived in a different city despite her very best efforts).

She had a Pepper (even if said lady was probably going to command militaries one day).

Toni didn't want another Bruce or another Pepper, she just wanted Bruce and Pepper. That was it. She didn't think it was too much to ask to have them at her every beck and call, was it? She loved them. They loved her.

Mostly, she just wanted them to be around.

She didn't know how that was going to work, though, what with Bruce in Gotham.

It was such a pain.

(And this, Toni would realize later, was her almost-sixteen-year-old-self trying to be normal. This was her trying to concentrate on something that wasn't home and empty New York mansions and the fact that her father hadn't even come back for his butler's funeral. This was her doing whatever it was she could to build something that could actually be a home in someone else so that she didn't have to be alone—because that was what normal was, normal was not being alone. She didn't do alone very well, did she; she always came back from it a little left of sane.)

So there it was. Her Plan A was a douchebag, her Plan B wasn't interested, and, well, there was no Plan C. What was she supposed to do with that?

The only thing she could do with that was…

Well, go with it.

Toni figured she could do that. She could go with it. She could make it okay. Yeah, she'd probably have to build herself a mate, and that make take a while, but hey, it would mean she could at least use the AI tech more than once. But, ew, she'd have to program in a personality, and really, of the three men she'd had semi-regular contact with, Bruce was probably the most normal (oh god, how even was that possible? How was that even possible, honestly, Toni didn't even really want to know).

To take stock: one was dead, one was her father, and one was across the country.

That was not the greatest ratio in the history of forever, Toni was pretty sure.

Okay, so there were no supervillains involved. That could have made the projections significantly worse—the betting pool probably would have been a lot larger if there had been, and with Toni's luck? She'd probably accidentally program the AI to blow the Empire State building up, and that would be… not good.

Well, that was nothing new.

There was probably a reason Pepper kept warning her that the AI tech was going to be the death of her; that one day she was really going to regret it and rue the day she'd ever been born, but Toni pretty much did that all the time, so she figured she didn't have anything to lose at this point.

Basically, everyone sucked and Toni needed to build herself a boyfriend who wouldn't try to take over the world.

That would have been Plan C if Toni had ever gotten around to naming it.

Except it took her all of two weeks to forget about and move onto more interesting prospects, so that made it sort of moot. It was late November, suddenly (where had the time gone?), and everything outside was turning grey. Toni loved autumn, she really did; the springtime of death and all that. And when everything turned red-gold and the crunch of leaves under her boots—that was the best.

But that never lasted long, and she had to wait the greyness out.

Sometimes, just before Toni went to bed, she could see New York's glinting lights out of the corners of her eyes. She'd press her face into her pillow and take deep, slow breaths to will them away.

(Mybe she was crazy. Healthy people didn't see city lights and cringe.)

"Hey, Pep?"

"Hm?"

"Are you still coming for New Years?"

Toni was expecting an exasperated sigh and the whole holidays are family time, Toni rant that Pep had had down for years now. She understood, really, she did—Pepper had a family that loved her and wanted to spend time with her and needed her.

But Toni needed Pepper, too.

(Toni needed a lot of things.)

It was selfish.

Then again, Toni had never claimed to be anything less. Selfish, bitchy, impossible-to-live-with… the list went on, she was pretty sure Jarvis had left a list somewhere in the mansion—

She winced, but pretended she hadn't.

And so when what she got was a crooked sort of half-grin, she nearly took a step back in surprise. Pepper did not do launching-and-tackling-to-the-ground, that was Toni thing, but she did something that could have been an imitation of it. They toppled backwards onto Toni's bed, legs tangling up, and Pepper looped her arms around Toni's shoulders and laughed into her hair.

"…What are you doing."

"You're a dweeb, Toni. Of course I'm coming for New Years, I'm not leaving you alone—do you want to come stay with me for Christmas? My parents will understand, they always do."

Toni went still and lax in her best friend's grip, and tucked up into her. It was an easy thing, as easy as it was with Bruce; Toni was just small, and people were always tucking her away and trying to protect her and she loved them, she did, but they made her crazy with it, sometimes.

"It's okay, Pep," Toni said softly. "I'll be okay for Christmas."

She wanted to say she was lying and that Pepper should force her to come so that she wouldn't be all alone in that dead big house in that dead big city, but she didn't. Family time.

Toni could understand that.

Pepper sighed into the top of her head. "You're impossible."

"I know," Toni replied.

She thought she could feel Pepper smile.

This was good. This was okay. She could do this, she could do this, she could do this, she could—or, well, maybe she couldn't, but whatever, she was going to do it anyway. She didn't have a choice.

Howard probably wouldn't be home for Christmas. Toni couldn't even remember the last time she'd spoken to him face-to-face—the most Jarvis had gotten out of her was an irregular phone call where both she and her father had listened to static for ten minutes after saying hello.

Somehow, she couldn't bring herself to care.

The days passed.

Toni continued to be absolutely definitely not over Jarvis' death, but she'd gotten pretty good at hiding it and the times that Pepper rescued her from shaking quietly in the bathroom slowly reduced from daily to weekly, and it seemed that things were getting better.

Maybe they were, on the outside.

On the inside, Toni was still buried in the rubble of the hurricane of emotions that had torn down the fragile bits of her that she'd build up. But Toni was her father's daughter (always, always, always Daddy's Little Ironbrand), and she set about to fixing up her insides as she would anything else.

She cauterized the wounds and tidied the inside of her own head until there was nothing left but the quiet hum of engines and generators and the lightning-quick firing of neurons in her brain as she hummed her way through writing quantum physics on a chalk-board in her lab.

Toni came out three hours later, covered in chalk dust and swaying drunkenly and feeling comparatively better.

Strange, that.

It was like she'd bled it out, only she hadn't—she'd written it out in chalk and left it there, and maybe no one would see it except the janitors before they washed it away. She'd left an empty bottle of vodka down there, too, but that was something different. Pepper looked her up and down, and didn't say a word.

Toni was okay with that.

She was getting to be okay with a lot of things, these days.

They didn't talk about the pink bottle of vodka Toni kept under her bed for emergencies—they certainly didn't talk about how there were three empty ones, already. This was most probably because Pepper didn't have a clue, otherwise there would be no pink vodka and no pink fuzzies and Toni liked the pink fuzzies.

They made things easier and harder all at once.

Talking was harder. Cleaning up her insides was easier. Things balanced, Toni figured blearily.

Everything eventually balanced.

Toni was not okay for Christmas.

Toni wore expensive clothes and crashed someone else's Christmas party, sloshed and giggling and tipping over on her stupidly high heels. She wore short jackets and shorter skirters, and she was dumb and easy and she had everything she could have ever wanted.

New York loved her.

Toni loved New York in return.

She sketched out on the bathroom floor on harder drugs than weed and the burn of alcohol down her throat. But it was pretty much the same thing, right? She vomited in some girl's closet once, and managed to make it out of the place unscathed. She danced and laughed and looked dead sexy but thankfully not sexy dead because that would have been unfortunate.

This was Toni Stark at her very finest.

And sometimes she caught herself scanning whichever ridiculous party she'd found herself at for a badly-fitted suit and a stupidly cut jaw line, but she didn't find him. He probably had better things to do than play nice at parties with little girls—hell, she had better things to do than play nice at parties with little girls.

But it was so easy to lose herself in the lights and sounds and the glamour of this city that she didn't even mind the faux-smiles and the back-stabbing bitches that graced its dirty streets.

Toni thought of the rest of the world, and wondered what it thought of her.

Did it even think of her?

Probably not.

Or maybe it did.

Maybe it thought of her father and his weapons and the death that ate along the highly-pressed seams of his suit. Maybe it thought of her on her spindly heels and her thigh-length shirts and her belts and her gold and her red and thought better luck next time. Maybe it thought of the death that ate at Toni, too.

Maybe it wondered if she wondered about it.

She shook it off.

Metaphysics weren't really her thing, anyway.

Toni was a technical girl.

She didn't wonder if the world needed to breathe.

Time did funny things when Toni was alone, though. The sun never quite was where it should have been in the sky, and she couldn't always tell what day it was. Nighttime she understood because the sky got all dark and New York turned to brightness—that was when it was time to go out!—but sometimes she worked through it and forgot.

She'd wake up in the lab, bones aching, having completely forgotten where she was. She'd take a shot of vodka, and then she'd work herself into exhaustion all over again and this? This wasn't living; this was waiting, only she could barely remember what she was waiting for.

This house was too big and too full of ghosts. Toni didn't think she could stay here much longer without breaking something precious. A little left of sane, she thought, with shaking fingers. She traced out something complex in the frost on the window, and then watched it melt away.

Her phone rang from far, far away.

"Mmm… 'lo?" Toni said.

"Where are you!?" came Pepper's furious voice.

Toni thought oh, oh god, is it New Year's already, oh god, she's gonna skin me alive, she is, I'm so done, I'm dead, bury me now and pretend that this whole thing never happened.

"I—I'm on my way. Or, um, Happy is, he'll be there in a little bit, the roads are like ice, it's shitty out here, I mean, c'mon, Pep, this is New York—"

Pepper sighed. Toni could hear the disappointment in it and it itched at the back of her eyes, in a spot that she couldn't quite get to but knew was there all the same. It was a terrible feeling.

Worse, Toni was still three-quarters of the way to black-out drunk, and that was probably not the greatest way to welcome Pepper Potts to New York City.

"I'll call you back, don't worry Pep, he'll be there in a bit. Love you, bye!" and Toni snapped her phone shut and dialled Happy's number as fast as she could hit the speed-dial.

"You need to go to the airport right now," she said in a rush.

"What?" he asked. "Now?"

"Yes, now, Pepper's at the airport and I'm—I'm kinda—you're my driver, you're supposed to do things for me!"

He sighed, too, and Toni thought yeah, they're gonna get married and have like a million babies and it's going to be gross, why do I even do such nice things for such terrible people.

And this was Toni being generous.

(She hadn't overloaded her quota of temper tantrums on Happy this month, yet. He totally owed her.)

"Alright," he said wearily. "Toni, you know I'm not Jarvis, right?"

Toni's mouth snapped shut. She nodded, and then remembered that he couldn't see that, so she opened her trap again and tried for words. "Yeah, Hap, I—I know."

"I don't think you do," he sounded frustrated.

Toni tried valiantly not to care. It worked, but only a little. "No, Hap, I do know. And y'know how I know? Because that old man loved me, and you don't. So I know, okay, I get the difference. Just go—go pick up Pep, and then when she leaves, we'll talk about, I don't know, getting me a new driver or something."

"No, Toni, that's not—"

She hung up on him before he could say anything else.

Well, there was nothing for it.

She needed to get sober, and that meant water. Cold water. Dunking her head in ice water, in fact. Add a really cold shower and some greasy-ass food, and she would be right as rain.

That was what they wanted, right?

That was what they all wanted.

And yeah, okay, Toni was shit at giving people what they wanted because she was a selfish bitch, and like, how many times had she had this conversation with herself, it had to be getting up into the thousands at this point, she was a selfish bitch, she didn't care about anyone or anything except that she did, she did, that was the real problem, she did care.

Not that she was ever going to tell anyone, but whatever.

It was a thing.

Toni turned the shower on to ice, and stepped in.

She screeched. "GODDAMN IT, MOTHERFUCKER, I HATE—"

The phone rang again.

This was really not her day. Toni shivered under the icy water, hair slicking down against the sides of her throat, curls dripping wet—she really needed to get that AI thing working, she needed someone to field her calls. Or just Pepper, except that Pepper would never take well to being a secretary, she was too busy scaring everyone into obedience.

"GOD, JUST LEAVE A MESSAGE, THAT'S WHAT IT'S THERE FOR—" Toni shrieked as the phone rang into voicemail. Whoever it was probably hung up just as the recorded you've reached H. Stark, please leave a message after the beep ended, and she groaned.

She was just going to kill everything.

Toni stayed in the shower for half an hour, and came out with her lips blue. She wrapped herself in a towel—goddamn, she needed to hire someone to do the laundry, she couldn't go on like this—and trudged to her bedroom to glare at the phone. It didn't instantly burst into flames the way she wanted it to. It just sat there and blinked innocently at her.

Toni sighed, and hit the button to let the message play.

The machine crackled to life.

Silence, for a moment. There was nothing but static.

Then someone took a deep breath. "Hey, Ironbrand. It's your Pop. When you get this, you should call me. You know the number."

It beeped, and then went silent.

Toni smiled nastily.

"Sure, daddy, I definitely will."

She deleted the message, and never looked back.

Toni found underwear and a relatively-clean, darkly faded t-shirt (relatively, okay, it was better than nothing, it had only been on her floor for what, three days? Something like that, anyway. Point was. Relatively clean). She slipped into them and sashayed out, hair still dripping wet. She probably looked absolutely ridiculous, and couldn't bring herself to care at all.

Dear old Pop could choke on it.

She had better things to do.

Toni didn't bother putting anything else on. Pepper had seen in her less, and Happy—well, whatever, they were definitely not interesting in each other and that was okay, too. She flopped down on the couch, flicked the TV on, and let it take her away.

It let her not-think for a while.

And maybe, Toni thought, this was where Plan A crashed into Plan B and sort of ruined everything—because half an hour later, Pepper stomped through the mansion's front door, dragging Happy and fucking Bruce behind her.

Pepper dumped them both in front of Toni, dusted her hands off, and glared.

"You have some explaining to do, Antonia," she said.

And Toni?

Yeah, Toni was in trouble.

"I didn't invite him!" she practically yelled, waving her arm grandly in Bruce's direction. "I did not!"

Pepper glowered. "I know you didn't, Toni. I did. Imagine my surprise when I got a call from dear old Bruce that you'd been spotted in some dingy nightclub with some girl between your legs!"

"I was… drunk?" Toni tried weakly.

"YOU ARE SIXTEEN, TONI," Pepper screeched, and Toni had a terrible feeling that if Happy wasn't holding Pep back, she'd be shaking her by the shoulders so hard that her teeth and her brain would have rattled in their respective holdings, and wouldn't have that been such a shame. "WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO GET THAT IT'S NOT— YOU CAN'T JUST DO THINGS LIKE THAT!"

Toni whimpered something that might have been help, but no one paid her any attention.

And Pepper continued. "OH MY GOD, HOW ARE YOU EVEN GOING TO LIVE WITHOUT ME, I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH YOU—!"

"Give her a break, Virginia," Bruce said, quietly. It cut through the room like a knife, and Toni was prepared for Pepper to turn her fury on Bruce (because honestly, that was basically the most hilarious thing Toni had ever had the privilege to witness), but she didn't.

Instead, Pep's shoulders slumped, and she just looked at Toni like she was looking for some redeeming factor in her but.

Ha.

Toni would have told anyone who asked: redeeming features of Toni Stark?

Not existent.

She was like the antithesis of redeeming features; hi, there were girls and boys and alcohol and Toni was pretty good at all those things, and also soldering things together with a blowtorch, she was good at that, too—but she. Well. She wasn't the greatest at being nice and playing nice and knowing when to shut her fucking mouth.

But maybe that was part of the growing process.

Or maybe that was just Toni Stark.

Probably both.

So that was a thing.

"Let us in, it's cold," Pepper said, and Toni sort of blindly moved out of the way so that Pep could rush past her (just like usual). Hap was next, and he kind of nodded at her, too, and he followed Pepper inside and then suddenly it was Bruce and Toni and this could have been less awkward, she was pretty sure.

"Uh. Hi," Toni said.

"Am I allowed in?" asked Bruce.

Toni's face pulled into a grimace. "I'd rather you not," she said, but she also grabbed him around the waist and pressed her face into his chest and the air was icy against her legs but this? This was okay. This was okay.

"What are you doing," Bruce said. "You're going to freeze."

She was only going to kill Pepper a little bit.

"Yeah, well, you're a dumbass. And I hate you. So there," she muttered into his shirt.

Toni thought that if he had been anyone else except Bruce, he would have laughed. But he wasn't anyone else, he was Bruce, and so he wasn't and he didn't. Stupid Bruce.

But he did pick her up and sling her over his shoulder like a goddamn sack of potatoes, and Toni screeched really loudly.

No one paid her any attention, though.

(Really not new, with this group.)

Bruce deposited her on the couch—practically on top of Pepper, thanks so much, asshole, Toni thought—and flopped down next to them. Hap was on the floor, poking at the carefully-constructed castle-of-empty-alchol-bottles that Toni had been working on steadily for a week.

"Don't touch that!" Toni squawked. "That's important research—!"

It teetered a little, and Hap scrambled backwards just in time to avoid the castle crashing all around his ears. There were bottles everywhere suddenly, and though none broke, Toni groaned and Pepper and Bruce just sighed.

"Oh, God, Hap, why do you touch everything? See, this is why I pushed you in the pool, I was waiting 'til the end of break to ruin it, it was gonna be so good—Pep, why is he here, I only invited you, remind me to never invite you again 'cos you seem to come with clingers and I am so not down with that—"

Pepper shook her head, and mostly looked bored. "Harold's nice, Toni, and Bruce is our best friend!"

Toni caught the hesitation, though. Plus the slight rush of colour in Pep's cheeks… called it, Toni thought, and grinned wickedly. When they get married, I better get a present or something, because I totally deserve it after all the shit they've put me through.

(She conveniently forgot all the shit she put them through on a more-or-less daily basis. She'd never asked that they stayed—they just sort of did. Except Bruce, of course. But Toni didn't want to think about Bruce leaving, because it would just make her mad.)

"So… what now?"

This was a decent question, though none of them quite who posed it.

"Jenga?"

"Ew, no, that's the least okay game in this house."

"A movie."

"Not everyone is as boring as you are, Bruce."

"Strip poker?"

"No."

"Poo. You ruin everything, Pepper."

"No, I'm just realistic. No one wants to see your skinny, freckled behind, Toni."

"Aw, but it's so pretty! Seriously, have you seen me naked, I am hot as fuck—"

"Can we not talk about this anymore?"

"What, is my ass not good enough for you, Hap?"

"No, it's just—"

"Leave him alone, Toni."

"Why do you two always ruin my fun?! I mean seriously, you two never let me get a word in, and you ruin my fun, and ugh, why am I even friends with you—"

"Because your fun is usually dangerous. And you talk more than any of us."

"Shut up, Bruce."

And so Toni had the only solution that was a varying level of acceptable between them. And really, it wasn't even acceptable at all—it was just the one that made the most sense. It was New Years. Getting fall-down-drunk was almost a condition for a bunch of teenagers, especially when it was the good shit (which, as Toni would tell you, was all that she owned because what was the point in drinking if you were just going to vomit it up in half an hour).

And so they drank.

They did end up playing poker, but not the strip kind.

That was totally a downer, as far as Toni was concerned. What a waste. She needed to steal a pair of Bruce's underwear, if only because she could say that it'd happened. Also, she was pretty sure the Upper East Side bitches would sell their souls for Bruce Wayne's underpants.

Toni totally collected souls, so that was cool.

The four of them sat on the floor surrounded by empty bottles and the brilliant drip of gin, and they drank when they won and they drank when they lost. Bruce held his liquor as well as Toni did, but five shots in, Pepper was giggling into Happy's shoulder, and the ugly knot of jealousy in Toni's stomach had her jumping up and looking for a way to escape.

Yeah, she'd totally called it.

Didn't mean she necessarily had to like it.

Bruce found her.

(Just like always.)

"Are they making out, yet?" Toni asked. She was the picture of lightheartedness, wrapped up in a blanket in the window nook.

The open window and the bottle of vodka gave her away, though.

She didn't invite him to sit, but he did anyway. It was basically a standing invitation, anyway. Bruce draped his arm around her shoulders, and Toni let him because some part of tired of kissing people she didn't know and Bruce was—Bruce was Bruce.

He was going to be the death of her, whether she was prepared to admit it or not. Except yeah, okay, she'd admitted that like a hundred times. Mostly to his face. It made him go all sorts of colours and probably he just rage-quit. It was always a funny image.

Toni leaned back against him. Her neck cricked uncomfortably, and she shifted until her legs were splayed across his and she was able to look him in the eye.

"Hey, answer me," she said, and poked his side. "Are they making out, yet?"

"Probably," Bruce shrugged.

"You're a tool," Toni said. She dropped her gaze to her lap, and went over quantum dressing-downs in her head to avoid having to see his reaction. He'd heard her say that before—Toni didn't mince her words, not ever—but she'd never really meant it.

She wondered if he'd be able to tell the difference when she actually did.

Probably not.

Bruce might have been stupidly observational, but he didn't really understand people. Or maybe he did, and he just didn't understand Toni-speak (despite having known her for how many years? What was that, like, seriously). So he probably wasn't going to get it and she was probably just going to get mad and then she'd throw things and that would be the end of that.

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. Toni broke out in goose bumps and silently cursed New York's winter air.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"No, you're not," Toni muttered.

They had conversations like this way too often.

Seemed to be all they could talk about, these days.

Toni was pretty much done with it, honestly. There was movement to Bruce, even after all this time—a pulling, raging line between them that kept them both face down in the water, and Toni had been drowning for so long that she didn't know what breathing was like, anymore. Pepper was her fresh breath of air, but Pepper liked Happy, and Toni wasn't looking for long-term, anyway.

Her hands closed into fists, and then she was knotting her fingers through his hair and pulling him down and Toni pushed her mouth against his like a lie. He tasted smoky like old money and good cigars, late nights and shitty airplane fare. It should have been terrible, but it really wasn't. Alcohol desperation bubbled on the edges of her senses and something told her she was really going to regret this in the morning.

Yeah.

Really going to regret this in the morning.

Toni was half in his lap and half up in her own head, and Bruce—being Bruce—was completely stiff beneath her (and not in the good way).

"Uh," she said. "Sorry."

"Toni. I. That…"

"Yeah, okay, Brucey, I get it," Toni said, and climbed off him. She didn't let it phase her (don't let it hurt, don't let it hurt, god, don't let him see that it hurt), because she was Toni Stark, and drunk or not, that never changed.

He didn't let her get far.

Bruce Wayne's hand closed around Toni's Stark's wrist and her brain went no no no no no spare me this you asshole can you just seriously not if you just quit it that'd be so appreciated

He looked at her with wounded puppy eyes, like she'd just stabbed him in the gut after he'd offered her fresh-made cookies or something. Like she'd fucked his best friend in his bed (which, okay, was more a Toni thing to do, anyway), or snorted his last line of blow when he wasn't looking.

Not that Bruce did blow (Toni things), but it was the thought that counted.

Somehow, it only made her feel worse.

"Fuck you, too," she said with a huff, and flopped back down next to him.

"Toni…" he trailed off, trying to find the right words and failing spectacularly.

They were both getting a little too good at that. Toni expelled all the breath in her body in one great rush, and tipped her jaw up just to feel the satisfying way her neck went crack.

"It was kind of gross, anyway," Toni tried for casual. "You should work on that—what, haven't you kissed any girls?"

(Failed, too, but whatever.)

"You've kissed too many," he said, voice dry as thousand year old bones and all the sand dunes in the Sahara. He visibly shuddered, and went on. "You're like my sister, Toni."

"Haven't you ever read Flowers In The Attic?" she asked, too-sweet.

"No, and I probably never will," he replied. He slipped his arm around her shoulders, warm, wary, weak.

The movement was so old and so familiar that it almost made her want to cry.

"You suck at letting people down easy, Bruce," Toni sighed out. She let him jostle her closer; close enough that the crook of his shoulder made for a decent pillow-space, and she sort of flopped there like a fish. She tried not to let herself think in algorithms, frameworks for AI creatures who spoke like her dead butler, for all the things she'd lost.

She definitely didn't look up at Bruce out of the corner of her eye and watch as he watched New York City fly by far beneath them.

His fingers dug into her shoulder. His nails were a blunt pain in her flesh.

The window stayed open, letting in the moon and the night and the whole world, all wrapped up in a New Yorker's muddy layer of snow and string-up Christmas lights.

Neither Toni nor Bruce moved to close it, and that was okay.

Pepper made them all pancakes in the morning.

(Morning was a relative term in the Stark mansion—none of them had been up before two in the afternoon, and the sun was already sinking below the horizon.)

The pancakes were chocolate chip-raspberry. It was probably the first decent meal Toni had had in a week, and wasn't that just the saddest thing? She fell on them without manners—Happy snorted, Bruce rolled his eyes, Pepper smiled so wide that Toni thought her face was about to break in half.

"'Ow long 're ou guys sta'in'?" Toni asked around a mouthful of chocolate chips and whipped cream.

Bruce, Happy, and Pep all eyed each other. Toni watched as they had a silent conversation over her head that they thought she wouldn't understand. But Toni understood everything, and she definitely knew those looks; they were all silently talking about how long she could go on her own.

Which was completely unfair, because Toni could totally take care of herself. At least as well as any of them could, at any rate, and that was what mattered, right?

She didn't even wait for them to finish their conversation. She swallowed down her pancakes, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and rolled her eyes at the three of them.

"Oh my god, don't tell me you're actually trying to figure out what to do with me, like, come on, don't you guys know me better than that by now? Oh, wait, you probably took that into account—or at least, Pep probably did, but seriously, guys. I'm not a child."

They all sighed heavily.

Toni was deeply offended.

She didn't let it show (much). Instead, she just narrowed her eyes, and glared at them all like they'd personally stabbed her favourite stuffed animal to pieces and then left the fluff on the floor for her to clean up.

"Okay, so, time-out. I am not a kid, no matter how many temper tantrums I've had," Toni said.

"We know that, Toni," Pepper said, soft, soothing. She moved around the table and ran her fingers through Toni's hair. "That's not what we're worried about."

But of course they would go behind her back and worry about her.

That was so them.

Toni tried not to vomit up all the wonderful pancakes she'd just consumed. That would just be a waste. And she tried, she tried to take this as a compliment, because they loved her, they did but—well, whatever, she'd never claimed to be any good at love.

Clearly, last night should have been the pinnacle at Toni sucking at love.

This—none of this—was new.

Toni looked around at them all. The way they all watched her with the same tired eyes like she was a mildly-irritating but strangely beloved side-show freak on TV had her itching at her skin, trying to rip it off and climb out of herself.

The psychobabble was already setting in.

She shook it off, and smiled at them, bright and empty-headed. That was what they wanted, and Toni could give them that. They wanted her bright and empty-headed and pretty, because those were easy things.

And Toni had never been an easy thing.

"You know what? Never mind. Stay as long as you like," Toni said.

She stuffed another pancake in her mouth to keep herself from screaming.

Later, Toni would tell herself that it was all for the better. They weren't leaving her, not even Bruce, and his speciality was leaving her.

But she'd had it up to here with them and their molly-coddling. It was like an ultimatum: make no sudden movements, and no one will get hurt.

She left the table as fast as she could, stomach rolling.

Toni would blame the retching on all the alcohol she'd drank the previous night.

Pepper and Happy cloistered themselves in the spare bedroom early on the evening, and Bruce disappeared early on, as well. Toni sat in the flickering light of the TV on mute, and did what she did best.

She would blame the phone conversation on her conscience.

"Hey, daddy, it's Toni. Um, MIT. I want to do MIT. That—college, I want to go to college. I want to do the college thing."

The line crackled with static.

Toni held her breath, and prayed to a god she didn't believe in.

"…Alright, kiddo. Lemme get things set up. Sit tight."

"Okay," Toni said into the receiver. "Thanks, dad."

"No problem."

She didn't tell him she loved him.

She didn't even say goodbye.

But Toni set the phone back in its cradle, hands infinitely gentle. She sat back against the couch, feeling more serene than she had in a long time. This was probably one the stupider life decisions she'd made recently (and that was saying something), but whatever.

She couldn't go back to school.

She couldn't.

It wasn't going to be okay, no matter what Pepper said.

It just wasn't.

She didn't fit there, anymore. She didn't fit there with Pepper. She couldn't stand it here in New York, and she'd never really fit with Happy, anyway. And she didn't even want to contemplate going to Gotham, so she didn't really fit with Bruce, either.

Maybe she'd never really fit anywhere.

(Boarding school was no place for genius girls and their emotional baggage, anyway. Just saying.)

Toni dug her fingers into the couch, and thought that it was about time that she start building herself a place to fit.

After all, that was maybe the only survival skill her father had taught her:

If you can't figure out where you fit, you break and bleed and destroy and build until you do have a place of your own. And if that doesn't work, you start over again, even if it's from scratch.

And Toni could do that.

Toni could break and bleed and build and destroy.

She was a Stark.

Destroying was one of the things that she did best. It was hereditary, after all, and weapons of mass destruction were sort of her family's thing. So there was that.

Toni turned the TV off, and closed her eyes.

She just needed to rest for a while—

And then it was the morning, and Toni had sun in her eyes, and she had no idea where the night had gone. Bruce was probably hiding away from the sunlight (freakin' cavedweller, Toni thought with a snort), Pep was still hiding away in some forgotten room with Hap (um, ew), and Toni had only the dust and silence for company.

She pushed herself off the couch, snapped the cricks out of her neck, and wandered into the kitchen. There was some instant coffee around, she was pretty sure. Coffee was her rock—coffee was great, Toni totally knew nothing else in the entire world could compare because it was like perfect, it kept her from going crazy and all of those other horrible things.

She reached for the Baileys, too, because why not?

"You're too young to drink," Bruce said.

Toni flapped her hand at him, poured herself three-quarters of a coffee mug full, and said "Your face is too young to drink."

"That doesn't even make sense, Brucey."

He made a long-suffering noise, and eyed her when she plopped down next to him. Toni slurped down the milky coffee-con-alcohol down, and didn't raise her eyes from the countertop.

"What d'you wanna do, while you're here?" she asked the granite.

He grunted.

Toni rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. "God, you're so helpful, Bruce. Is that what you tell all the girls?"

"It's too early for this, Toni," he said. He was probably rubbing his forehead and being totally let down at her general existence. "Can't we just have quiet?"

"Think about who you're talking to," Toni said kindly, and patted him on the shoulder as sympathetically as she could. "Oh, hey, did you know there's a law that says I can go outside without a shirt on? I love Manhattan."

"What."

"Yeah! It's—"

Toni rambled about topless women and law for fifteen minutes, clearly to distract him from questioning her about any phone calls she may or may not have made the previous night. Of course, he probably wouldn't ask about her cell history, but really, she wasn't about to chance it. There was no telling what Bruce would pull to keep her away from college.

(There were boys at college.)

"Toni," said Bruce.

"What?"

"Quiet time, now."

Toni rolled her eyes. Quiet time was boring time.

But that was how they spent the rest of the day. The rest of the week, for that matter—they spent it in quiet companionship. Happy baked cookies with cooking regalia that Toni didn't even know she owned; Pepper tried to get her to do all the homework she'd so far ignored; Bruce pretty much ignored her.

Toni was not okay with any of this.

(Except the cookies. Toni was so down with the cookies. Happy was a decent baker; she was dually impressed. She was definitely going to keep him around, even if Pepper didn't.)

Regardless, it was how things went.

They built themselves a little shelter in Toni's mansion for a week, an almost-family but not quite.

Toni could feel them watching her at odd moments, like they were all waiting for her to snap.

God, didn't they know by now that she had breakdowns when she was alone?

Jesus, gimme a little credit, Toni thought wearily when Pepper snuck into her bedroom and beneath the sheets to curl up as close as she could. But she couldn't begrudge Pep this, not right now, at any rate. There was no telling when it was going to happen again, if it was going to happen again at all.

Pepper was going to live her life.

And that was cool.

That was totally cool.

"Hey, Pep?" Toni whispered.

"Hmmngh?"

"I love you."

"I know, Toni. Go to sleep," Pepper murmured sleepily into her hair.

"'Kay."

And Toni did try.

But the sleep didn't come.

"Pep?"

Silence.

"I'm sorry," Toni said.

(Toni only did apologies when no one could hear. It was easier on everyone that way.)

Pepper didn't reply.

Relief.

They got ready to leave in the morning.

Bruce, back to Gotham and the high towers of his empire; Pepper, back across the country to her family; Happy, back to his mother down the street.

They went to the airport together, though, later; Hap and Pepper clung to each other desperately while Toni made gagging noises and Bruce just rolled his eyes. Everything was kiss kiss love love marriage marriage we'll see each other again i promise and Toni definitely didn't feel sick at all.

But it was good, it was okay, things were moving.

Happy waved frantically as Bruce and Pep went through airport security. He waved until he couldn't see either of them anymore. Toni didn't say anything, because there was a part of her that thought she was going to lose it if she opened her mouth at all.

"Take me home," Toni said.

Neither said a word the entire ride back.

So this is how it's gonna be, huh, Hap, Toni thought.

Well, at least it made sense.

He dropped her off and then he went home.

Toni took a deep breath, and then went upstairs to her bedroom to pack.

.

.

.

.

.

tbc.