disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: to Torie.
notes: yo man, this took way longer than it should have. I apologize.

chapter title: fight like a girl
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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College was like this:

Toni had never seen so many people her own age (or a little older, actually, but whatever) in her life. They all rushed around her, a great river of human flesh. She stood like a rock amongst them, still and anchored to the ground.

They didn't sweep her away, but not for lack of trying.

She had the shakes, these days. At first she thought it was just some weird bug, and she turned the smile-wattage on when she moved into the dorm her father had ever-so-lovingly acquired for her.

She could do the whole sorority thing, but Toni had one of those really shitty foreboding feelings that told her that yeah, maybe the whole sisters thing was super-overrated and she needed to get an apartment like ASAP.

And that could have been cool and great and totally quiet, and she would have had a lab all to herself, except that, um, she was a freshman and usually freshies had to live in the dorms or on Greek row. And. Ew.

Her father had been a fraternity boy.

The room he had gotten her?

Yeah, that room was in a house full of boys who drank a lot of beer and probably didn't wash when they had the chance even though they totally should have. Toni was going to have to beat the sense into them, because she was definitely not going to be living like this for long.

But the dorms were long full and she didn't have a Jarvis to fix things for her, anymore.

And so a frat house it was, and Toni was a tiny girl in a world that was too big for her. She hitched on an ugly attitude and an equally ugly hair-style, and she was going to get by if it killed her.

She was Toni Stark.

She could do this.

(Except yeah, maybe not. Maybe this was one of the shittier ideas she'd had, recently. But whatever, she was going with it, because it was better than nothing.)

The boys were all bigger and older than she was, and they really seemed to have no idea what to do with a sixteen-year-old girl in their midst. Three had asked her out the afternoon she'd been moving in—and when she proceeded to knock each one of them off their feet and left them on the ground to bleed without a single fuck to give, she'd gained something like respect. Mostly they just left her alone, and that was good.

But that didn't stop them from hitting on her.

Nor did it stop them from throwing parties.

Sleeping wasn't a thing that Toni was much good at anyway, so whatever. She tossed her hair over her shoulder, popped her hip out, and dared them to come at her. Probably this reaction was going to get her killed one day, but for now, it worked.

"Hey, kid, don't drink that too fast, you'll get sick."

She was sitting on a couch holding a drink that was supposed to be cranberry juice and vodka but was really mostly vodka and a little cranberry for colour. Toni glared at the offending speaker. He was tall and dark-skinned and twice as thick as she was, but he was looking at her with someone like concern in his eyes.

Toni didn't even know his name.

"And you're one to talk?" she asked, sticking her chin out sharply to indicate the beer in his hand.

"I'm twice your size," he said emphatically.

Just to spite him, Toni knocked the rest of the drink back.

He laughed. It was a deep, charming thing that Toni had never heard anything like in her entire life, sent her cheeks up in flames, and wow, Toni Stark did not blush. It was just not her thing.

And then he flopped down beside her, draped his arm over her shoulder, and Toni didn't actually push him off.

"I'm James Rhodes," he said.

"Toni," she said. "And seriously? James?"

"That's my name, kid," James said.

"That's a terrible name," Toni said decisively. She squinted a little drunkenly at him, taking in the high cheekbones and the deep-set eyes and the dimple in his cheek when he grinned. "You need a nickname."

"You need to stop drinking, Miss Toni."

"And you need a nickname. Jamie? Ugh, no. Jam? No, jam makes me think of toast, and toast—just—no," Toni sighed. "Maybe your last name—um, what was it, again?"

She hadn't forgotten at all, but sometimes it was fun to pretend.

"Rhodes," he said, and he smiled.

"Rhodes…" Toni rolled the name around in her mouth. "Rhodes… Rhodey. I'll call you Rhodey."

He laughed, this time, and Toni shoved him just because she could.

Rhodey shoved her back, and Toni resolutely did not think about her Plans. She'd had more than enough of those. They clearly did not work out, because people weren't robots, much as she wished they would be.

That night, Rhodey half-dragged-half-carried her up the stairs to her bedroom.

"You're a mess," he said.

"Yeah, Bruce said that a lot," Toni murmured.

"Go to sleep, Miss," he murmured in reply.

"Ha," Toni said. "Ha, ha, ha. You're alright, Rhodey. You're so alright."

"Glad you think so."

He tucked her in, turned off the light, and then he left.

It was probably the nicest thing any stranger had ever done for Toni in her entire life.

And that was how Toni Stark met James Rhodes, who would become her second Pepper Potts, and would keep her from killing herself on at least three separate occasions.

So that was college. It would blur, in Toni's memory—the classes were boring, the people were boring, but the parties were decent. Because the thing about college was that she could be anyone, anyone at all. She could be one of those weird hippie chicks with too-long skirts and feathers in their hair, or one of the girls with skirts so short she could see the tops of their thigh-highs, or one of the girls with their hair in braids to keep out of their way as they worked in the quiet of coffee shops.

But in the end she was Toni, and that meant booze and bad life decisions.

It was probably never going to change.

Rhodey mostly just followed her around; he spent his time apologizing to the people she pissed off. The tagline was a contrite look and a sighed "Sorry, she does what she wants."

Of course, it got to the point where everyone just accepted that Toni Stark was a hot mess, and went with it.

She got grease in her hair just in time for prom. The year flew by so fast she didn't see where it went. The frat boys watched her dance and tried to drink her under the table, but never succeeded. New York's Upper East Side had taught her a lot of things; how to hold her alcohol was certainly one of them.

College was just like high school, only with more freedom and fewer rich kids.

Toni would have liked it if she could have stayed sober long enough to make proper memories.

It was too bad, really.

"What are you going home to, Miss?"

Rhodey always called her that. Toni stared at the ceiling of her bedroom, musing and drawing her finger back and forth in the air as she thought about fractals and homes with no souls.

"I don't really have anywhere to go, Rhodey," she said carelessly. "I was thinking of staying here."

He didn't tell her that she couldn't do that (that was still a Pep thing, and Rhodey, while great, hadn't reached Pep's level of not-taking-your-bullshit-Toni). He just looked at her like he had no idea what to do with her. He shook his head, and picked her up, heaved her over his shoulder.

"Well, I guess you'll just have to come home with me, then, won't you!"

"Hey, hey, Rhodey, how about—Rhodey, put me down, seriously—NO, RHODEY, PUT ME DOWN, PLEASE?"

He set her down.

Toni blinked at him. "I didn't actually expect you to put me down."

"Bruce wouldn't, huh?" Rhodey snickered.

Toni grumbled under her breath. "I mention Bruce Wayne once—"

"Make that a thousand times, Miss," Rhodey cut in.

"Shut up, Rhodey, your count-meter is so off, I've mentioned him like once, and you get your panties all up in a twist, like, what even is that, how am I supposed to compete with Bruce Wayne, right?"

"I always forget you're talking, it's like having my own annoying little sister here again."

"Wow, class-act, Rhodey," Toni quipped at him.

"You like it," Rhodey said, angelic smile plastered all over his stupid-smug face.

Which, excuse you, was totally Toni's thing.

If he had been anyone else, she would have punched him.

She felt like that about the people she liked, a lot. Way too much, even, but whatever, it was just a thing that she did. She wanted to punch everyone in the face, because honestly, everyone needed to be punched in the face. It was just, like, a fact of life.

And so she kind of looked at him and he kind of looked at her, and Toni nodded resolutely to herself. Even if it was just for a little while, she would go. She would go. She would go.

"Okay," she said.

Clearly they were going to be BROS FO LYFE.

If only Toni thought like that.

She wore her graduation hat crooked, and did not give a single fuck.

(Except for the ones she gave when there were attractive people involved because what, beautiful people, no judgement.)

Yeah, definitely a hot mess.

And, you know what, shit was going great. College was over in the blink of an eye, and Toni—Toni wasn't even eighteen. Toni was still seventeen, not even legal, and barely—barely even there. She didn't really do that whole being there thing. She never had. She probably never would.

Flighty Broad was totally a nickname that she worked.

"That means you'll come? My ma's been—"

Toni nodded solemnly, and cut him off. "Yeah, I know, you mom loves me, I dunno why, Rhodey, it's like really weird because I'm such a terrible influence—you know, do you think she thinks we're dating? I bet she thinks we're dating, and that's why she lets you hang out with me. Dating sucks, did you know that? Dating totally sucks. Liking people sucks. Especially dumbass rich assholes with, like, great hair—Bruce has great hair, it's not even fair, his hair is nicer than mine, what even is that?—who never smile except when there're gross papa-nazi's around—"

"You're rambling," he reminded her.

"Yeah, well, I'm not much good at anything else, right?" Toni tried for a grin.

Rhodey sighed. "C'mon, Miss, you need some sun."

Yeah, Toni thought, she kind of did.

"I should call Pep," she said, mostly to herself. "See how she's doing, y'know, I mean I haven't seen her in—"

"Toni," Rhodey cut her off with a hand on her shoulder. His brown fingers were warm and comforting, kinder and more loving than her own father's had ever been. "Toni, you need to stop."

"I don't know how," she whispered.

It was sad, because it was true.

Rhodey exhaled heavily through his nose.

"You'll figure it out," he said.

This was also true.

And then:

"Pack your stuff, Miss. We're leaving the day after tomorrow."

Toni nodded, and she smiled like a decent human being and said goodnight and sent him on his way. She managed to stave off the panic attack to get him out the door and back to his own apartment, but as soon as he was gone and the door closed behind him…

Well, uh, she freaked right the fuck out.

There were six bottles of beer plus half a bottle of strawberry vodka that she'd filched from one of the frat boys tucked beneath her bed, and Toni dove for them without another thought. There was oblivion in alcohol, oblivion and ease and if she accidentally bought a first-class ticket back to New York while she was plastered, no one would blame her, right?

Right.

Because that was totally how it would work.

So that was exactly what she did.

Toni got really, really, really drunk.

And then she proceeded to buy her way home, and probably some cats and also maybe an island in the Caribbean. She wasn't actually sure about that last point, because by then, everything was pretty fucking blurry and ridiculous. Also hilarious, and why wouldn't she buy an island in the Caribbean? It wasn't like she couldn't afford it.

Or rather, it wasn't like her daddy couldn't afford it.

Whoops, whatever!

Her flight was in three hours.

Toni stared blearily (drunkenly, rather: same difference, at this point) around her room. The only thing she really cared about was her notebook, because it had all her plans and the doodles in the margins that she liked. It had the good ideas, but the clothes and the person she'd been in this place, they weren't—they weren't—

They weren't her.

It wasn't right.

She'd come to MIT to escape.

It was only now that she was realizing that there was really no escaping yourself. Not when you were a messed up teenage girl living in an adult's world that you have no fucking clue how to handle. Not when your best-friend-who-you-were-kind-of-in-love-with was some douchebag who didn't know how to pick up a goddamn phone. Not when your other best-friend-who-you-were-kind-of-in-love-with was dating a kid you'd grown up with. Not when—

Wow, Toni thought. I have more issues than the Times. I am such a freak.

And wasn't that just the most damning thing?

She was running away again.

But hey, it was exactly what she was good at.

Toni shivered in her big cold empty room, devoid of life and heat. She built herself robots, Toni; she built herself friends, because real life people were too hard.

"Sorry, Rhodey," she said aloud. "I'm sorry I'm a shitty person. I know. It's just… it's not you. It's me."

It was the most cliché speech she'd ever given, and worse for the fact that it wasn't even in person. She'd leave him a note. He'd get it, and he'd be mad, but… At least he had some warning, right? He was better off without her. Most people were.

(And to be fair, this was more than she'd done for Bruce or Pepper, and that was saying something.)

It didn't stop her from leaving, though.

New York never fucking changed, though, Toni thought bitterly.

It was blistering hot and sick-muggy, the air all thick up with smog and something a little less attractive than the three-day coke-bender that she may or may not have gone on upon unlocking the mansion and stumbling into a building that hadn't been dusted in nearly two years.

This place was hated.

This place was home.

Toni climbed upstairs, tired in the bones. God, she was so tired. Three-day coke-bender or not, she had shit to do.

Sleep?

Sleep was not on that list.

She'd slept fitfully on the flight home—well, yeah, a forty-five minute flight was one of those things that you just didn't really sleep on, even if you were sitting comfortably in first-class with big leather seats and cheap champagne on hand.

Besides, she wasn't really that tired.

(This was a lie.)

Her lab had missed her. Or she'd missed it. Whatever, it was the same thing, because she'd missed it the way an improperly-healed wound hurt; aching, long, settling in deep over her shoulder blade and cutting into her brain stem.

It was the same way she missed Pepper. It was the same way she missed Bruce.

Toni suddenly hated the both of them.

Fiery, fierce, burning.

She would have ruined herself some more if she thought it would have done anything at all. Pepper hadn't called since Christmas. Bruce hadn't called since she'd left.

She was in no position to be doing anything that included other human beings.

Obviously, Toni was terrible at them.

And so Toni holed herself up in a lab that hadn't seen her presence in a very long time, in a house that was really mansion that hadn't seen real human habitation in longer. She didn't have this, anymore. She didn't have it.

She built her first bomb, that night.

Which, hello?

Cool.

She stayed up until the sun rose, and then she called Pepper.

"Oh my god, guess what, I just built a bomb."

"…Are you back in New York?" Pepper's voice crackled with static.

"Yeah, and, shit, I gotta call Rhodey and apologize, I sorta left him hanging—"

Silence. "…You didn't actually build a bomb, did you?"

"Uh… Maybe?"

"…You—you—oh my god, Toni, stay where you are and don't touch anything, do you understand? Nothing. Do not touch a thing."

Toni took nothing from this except:

"Are you coming to visit?"

"Yes. Just. Don't do anything. I'll be there in five minutes."

Pepper hung up on her, and Toni was left to puzzle over how on earth Pepper was going to get there in like five minutes when she lived on the other side of the country. Had Pepper invented some weird teleportation thing that she hadn't told Toni about? Had this been a thing without her knowledge of it being a thing?! Did Bruce know about it?

As an afterthought, Toni tried to remind herself that she needed to call Rhodey.

He deserved that much, at least.

(Three friends were too many. She had no idea how she was supposed to handle this. Wait, technically it was four, if you counted Happy. Somehow, though, people always forgot to count Happy. It was very strange.)

Toni held the phone, and fiddled with it for a while as she looked for the courage to call him.

He was going to shoot her.

And she actually wasn't even going to blame him if he did.

Because, like, he'd kept her from doing stupid things. He'd kept college from being more of a nightmare than it already had been—he'd held her hair back when she'd vomited, and he hadn't even complained when she got her insides all over his brand new white sneakers, he'd just held her and wiped her mouth and smiled with his kind brown eyes, and Toni had asked him once why can't I love people right, Rhodey? Why can't I love you right?

He hadn't answered her. But he probably didn't know, either.

She almost dialled the number twice, and then Pepper burst in.

"BOMB. PUT AWAY. DISMANTLE. STOP."

Toni looked at her with innocent wide eyes like who, me, and pretended that she hadn't heard her at all despite the fact that Pep looked like she was fit to breathe fire or maybe help assassinate the President. That was definitely a Pepper thing to do. Definitely.

"What? I can't hear you!"

Pepper's eyeball twitched.

Maybe this was a bad idea, Toni reflected.

"Um… Please don't kill me?"

"Fix that bomb, and I'll think about it," said Pepper, nostrils flared, breathing heavily through her nose.

Yeah, this was definitely a bad idea. Foresight was maybe a thing Toni ought to work on.

Or at least, not telling Pepper when she built weapons that could cause widespread damage and possibly mass destruction.

Toni moved slowly, the same way she would have approached a wounded tiger, and set about taking apart the nitrogen and the fuses and the casings because yeah, you know what, Pepper was kind of terrifying when she got like this.

It took her all of ten minutes to dismantle the bomb.

"See? It's okay, I'm finished, it's not—"

Pepper threw her arms around Toni's neck, and hugged her so hard that she nearly cut her air supply off.

"Can't—Pep, can't breathe—" she got out. Pepper's grip went slack for a moment, long enough for Toni to take a great gulp of air, and then her arms tightened again.

"I missed you," she said into Toni's throat. "You're so dumb, and you didn't say goodbye, and—and—don't do that again, okay? Don't do that to me, Toni."

"You know I don't do goodbyes, Pep," Toni said. She clung to Pepper, nails digging in to her best friend's arms because this was Pep.

This was Pep, and Toni still didn't know how she thought she'd ever be okay without her.

They held onto each other for a while after that, sinking down onto the couch with their arms looped around each other's necks

"So what's it like being a college grad?"

"What are you doing in New York?" Toni countered.

Pepper flushed, and Toni thought ah. Hap, right.

"I asked first," Pepper said.

"College is… whatever, you're in college, too, remember? You do the college thing! You study and you, I don't know, learn things—which, excuse me, was so boring because I basically knew it all anyway but I guess I need the proof which is stupid, I can dismantle a bomb in like half a minute, I just proved it, and, Pep, let's be real here, you probably did the better than me, because I mean I lived in my dad's old frat house and drank a lot of beer and—"

Toni rambled.

She knew that Pepper was watching her, settling back into to how they were. She didn't ask about Bruce, and Pepper didn't bring him up, and that was okay, too.

Everything was okay, except it really, you know, wasn't.

Toni imagine digging her fingers into Bruce's throat, imagined shaking him and shaking him in that little bathroom where they'd met when she was eleven years old and less bitter than she was now. She imagined it, curled into Pepper as she was, and thought of the glitz and glam of New York trembling down the empty planes of her body.

In her mind, she clothed herself in it. She wore the red glare of the Radio City Music Hall through the rain on her lips, the sharp reflection of the morning sun off wet asphalt like a slick band of yellow silk around her breasts; the hum of the air-conditioners and the streets wrapped around her waist like a skirt, and the glitter of a thousand lights in a city that never slept for her heels.

She smiled, sharp like metal glory, and thought:

Even murderers could be forever-gold.

So it turned out that Pepper had attacked Columbia's summer classes with her great grades and her great personality and her great face, and, like the fools that they were, they'd fallen ass-up in love with her. Toni couldn't blame them, not really, because hi? Pepper was actually basically perfect.

And yeah, she and Happy were still making doe eyes at each other.

It was still really gross and yet, disturbingly adorable.

Toni wasn't at all sure what to make of it.

So she decided not to make anything of it, and get to work on turning twenty-one so she could get her hands on her daddy's company. Or, well, take over her daddy's company; he didn't want it any more than she did, but Toni was young and Toni was strong and Toni was too bitter not to take things and twist them in her own image.

She was a little bit egotistical like that.

Plus, there wasn't anyone around to tell her not to.

Her mama was dead.

Jarvis was deader.

Fucking dead people, Toni thought, and wielded a blowtorch with thick gloves on her hands and greased smeared across her cheeks.

She was Antonia Stark, and she had so many things to prove.

To her father, to her teachers, to the world; because there was a difference between being smart and being beautiful and being smart and beautiful. They were separate things entirely.

And Toni?

She walked down the streets, some days, and clambered up fire escapes on old decrepit buildings that didn't belong in all of New York's high-flying fast-paced glory. They didn't really belong anywhere, but all of the books told her that this was something she was supposed to want—this was something she was supposed to love.

But Toni didn't know what love was.

Because the first time she'd fallen in love had been at eight years old, and it was with a circuit board. It was the only love that had lasted—it had lasted through boys and girls and Pepper and Bruce. It had lasted through her mother's death, and her butlers, and it would last through her father's when he finally decided to kick the bucket.

(No, she was not bitter.)

All the people she'd ever really loved had disappeared.

Wow, okay, Toni thought, enough of that. She tossed her hair up into something that could be called a bun (though really it was far too short for that), pulled her goggles down over her eyes, and turned the torch on.

This would be her armour, for now.

At least until someone invited her out, and she smeared makeup on thick like cake batter to hide her fear. She would use it like armour and like a weapon.

If MIT had taught her anything at all, it was that her most dangerous weapon was the one between her legs.

And later, she would think that this was the start—this was the first time. In the coming back, New York had eaten something of her. It had taken her heart, eaten her alive all up from the guts to the brains, and now it would take everything else that was left of her.

Pepper went back to school, and Toni tumbled back into rich people parties, and rich people parties' alcohol.

(She maybe had a problem.)

And of course, the tabloids had a field day with it, because:

STARK HEIRESS RETURNS TO THE BIG APPLE, cont. on p. A4

ANTONIA PREGNANT? a source close to the family reveals all!

STYLE TIPS FROM ANTONIA STARK—HOW TO GET THE HAIR,THE LIPS, THE LOOK! five-page spread, p. 69-73

DADDY CUT ME OFF! Her drinking, the boys, the toys—Antonia Stark on the family business!

Toni tried not to look at them.

None of them were true.

(Frankly, there was no one close enough to the family to even talk about any of it. None of her father's old advisors had access to her, and Toni hadn't even seen the main man since he'd showed up at MIT to curve his hand around her shoulder at an awards presentation, smile broadly, and make small talk with the dean. It had taken more will than Toni had thought she'd had not to shove him off. God. God.)

What did they know, anyway?

MIT had been running away from all of this, but all of this was running from something else. It wasn't anything Toni could put her finger of, because she really just didn't know.

What was she so scared of?

(A lot of things, actually.)

Summer in New York was a heady thing. She'd always known that—and right now, while she still didn't have a controlling interest in the company, she could fuck around with beautiful people and make mistakes and die over the scritch of a record skipping late at night. She'd ride the rails on high heels and higher expectations.

She would ruin everything, just to watch it all fall.

And when the city buzzed with activity, Toni hid down in her lab with suturing equipment and gunpowder, blasting shitty pop through robots with frequencies louder than was strictly legal.

She was seventeen and beautifu.

But not sweet. Not nice. Not good.

She pretended to be none of those things, thank god.

New York was shady and decadent around her at night, but during the day, Toni alternatively worked, drank, or ate.

(sleep who needs sleep pssssssh your mom needs sleep)

And it was through this ridiculous dedication (some would call it utter stupidity—or at least, Pepper would), that Toni created JARVIS.

Because she's been eight years old when she'd fallen in love with a circuit board, and it was the only love that had lasted. And she was, in fact, enough of a megalomaniac to want to raise the dead.

Toni played God.

After all, it was something she was good at.

"Hello, Miss Stark," JARVIS said.

It sounded so much like him, Toni almost started to cry.

Instead, she called Pepper.

Like most of Toni's decisions that involved Pepper and technology, this one was not one of the brightest things she had ever come up with.

Not quite as stupid as the bomb phone call, but pretty fucking close.

"Pep, Pep, you gotta come over, I just did the coolest thing, I seriously can't—you gotta come see this, I mean—!"

"Toni," Pepper voice was a crackly hiss through the phone. "I am in class!"

"Class, smash, whatever, you can blame me, but you actually need—!"

"Has anyone died?" Pepper interrupted her.

"Um, no?"

"And you're not hurt?"

"…Also… no…?"

There was a huge exhale of something that might have been relief. Pepper always was very strange. "Toni, I am hanging up now. Call Bruce, if it's really that important!"

And without further ado, Toni's best friend hung up on her.

"Rude, Pep," Toni sighed aloud.

The temptation to call Bruce Wayne was very great.

The temptation to call Rhodey was greater.

(Also it would probably hurt less. Talking to Bruce would just hurt. Rhodey would be mad but… well, mad was easier to deal with than quiet blame. Toni couldn't deal with quiet blame.)

The phone rang three times before someone picked up. "'Lo?"

"Um, hi, is Rhodey—um, I mean, James, is James there?"

"Who is this?"

"Toni," she said, something foreboding curling in her stomach. "It's Toni. We, uh, went to school together?"

Whoever it was covered the mouthpiece on the other end, Toni was sure, because she could hear someone yelling Rhodey's first name, muffled and strangely low. Something even softer—a reply, she guessed—and then:

"FINALLY DECIDED TO CALL, HUH, MISS?!"

Toni winced. "Hi, Rhodey."

She could practically feel his seething rage, despite the distance. He was probably doing that frowny-face thing he always did when he was disappointed in her, just like all the times she'd gotten drunk and confessed things that she'd never thought she'd ever tell anyone, or gotten drunk and kissed him, or gotten drunk and he'd had to carry her up the stairs, or gotten drunk and ended up in someone-whose name-she-didn't-know's bed.

(Which was a lot of her college experience, now that Toni thought about it. Getting drunk and doing stupid shit that she would later regret. You really would have thought she'd have learnt, but the thing was Toni didn't do learning very well when it got in the way of the things she wanted to do. Um, oops?)

He breathed heavily at her in response.

"I'm sorry?" Toni offered.

"Not good enough, Miss. I was worried."

"I know, and I'm—I didn't mean to," Toni said. She blinked rapidly—what were her tear ducts doing, was there was way she could remove those, they were getting in her way—and took a deep breath to fortify herself. "D'you wanna come to New York to visit? You could meet Pepper! And JARVIS—oh yeah, I gotta tell you about JARVIS, he's the best, I am a genius—"

"An' the elusive Mister Wayne?"

For a moment, Toni hated that she'd ever met Bruce Wayne. "Um, maybe, if he comes. I dunno, though…"

"You haven't called him, have ya?"

This time, Toni hated that she'd ever met Rhodey.

"You suck," she told him.

His chuckle was something simple and familiar against her ear. Toni felt a great surge of remorse for the sadness and the hurt that she'd caused him—and that she would continue to cause him. Because she was Antonia Stark, and hurting was so easy.

Hurting was so, so easy.

"Just come, okay? I'll pay for the plane tickets, you won't have to worry about anything, I've totally got it covered, especially now that I've got JARVIS, and just, like, I miss you, okay? I miss you, and I'm dumb, and I'm sorry for running off the way I did because that was a shitty thing to do, but—"

For a second, Toni was trapped in a kind of terrible déjà vu from the last time she'd had a conversation exactly like this.

Only that had been with Pepper, and she had probably been drunk.

(Because when wasn't she drunk, these days?)

"Course," said Rhodey over the phone. "You don't have to pay for the tickets, Miss, I got money of my own."

"No," Toni said softly. "No, let me. Okay? Just as… payback for all the times you took care of me. So let me. Okay? Okay. Good. Now that that's sorted, seriously, you gotta meet JARVIS, I am an actual genius and I deserve the Nobel prize for being so freaking awesome."

And she didn't mention that she had more money than she could spend in three lifetimes in her trust fund—he already knew that, and it was just tacky to bring it up. Toni might have been an asshole, but she understood how friendship worked.

(Er. Sort of. Kind of. A little bit?)

After a long silence, Toni thought she could hear him nodding.

"Alright, Miss. If you insist," he said.

"Awesome," said Toni. "Just, like, what's the nearest airport, you gotta gimme that—wait, Philly, you said Philly, right? Yeah, you definitely said Philly, I can do Philly, that is definitely a thing we can do. Just get to the airport, it'll be—"

"Waiting," Rhodey said. "I know you, Miss Toni."

Toni grinned at nothing. "Cool. See ya, Rhodey!"

She hung up before he had time to say goodbye.

"You can't just call Bruce every time I do something, Pepper!"

"Actually," Pepper said calmly, "I can."

She was shuffling through her research papers—Toni caught sight of the words market and unequivocal defense and supply and demand, and shuddered—and so didn't see the face that Toni was making in her general direction.

"Rhodey took care of me the entire time I was at college! He stopped me from jumping off a roof! Twice! Isn't that good enough for you?!"

Pepper sighed darkly. "I wish it was, Toni. I would love it to be, because then I wouldn't have to do this."

"So why isn't it?! And why does Bruce have to know? He's Batman, Pep! You know it even thought I know you pretend not to, but oh my god, you're like a less crazy version of me—"

"Excuse me," Pepper cut her off. "I am nothing like you."

"—and you're not blind, seriously, is Gotham's population just hopelessly stupid? Or what? Like do they actually not get the connection? Bruce goes away, Batman goes away; Batman gets hurt, Bruce gets hurt. I mean, Jesus, Pep, I figured it out when I was drunk, and shouldn't that tell them that they have a problem? He really needs to be more, I don't know, subtle. Subtle? Is that the right word? I don't even—"

Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose to ward off the oncoming headache that was Toni Stark at her whiniest. Or her craziest.

Both adjectives worked, currently.

Toni paced, flicking her hands the way you would to rid yourself of water. She was jittery from too much coffee, too much anxiety, too much stress, and she wouldn't quite look Pepper in the eye.

"I don't get why—I don't—Pep, why did you have to—?"

"Because he asked me to," Pepper said, still shuffling through her papers. She didn't even deign to look up.

"What. No. That is not. No. He's not the boss of me! He can't—he can't tell me who to date, or—!"

"Of course he can't," Pepper said. "But I know you, Toni. If Bruce doesn't like him, you'll keep him around just out of spite."

"I am not like that!"

"Yes," said Pepper, "you are."

Toni disliked this immensely.

And Toni, being Toni, decided to make this plain by sweeping Pepper's work off the desk, and sitting on top of her. "Take it back, Pep."

"I think you just proved my point," Pepper sighed. She shoved Toni off to land with an OW, PEP, WHAT WAS THAT FOR on the floor, and went about gathering up and fixing the destruction that followed Toni around like ducklings.

They both had a sudden sense that this was probably how the rest of their lives were going to go.

Toni grinned widely.

"You love me," she said.

"I wish I didn't," Pepper groaned.

A beat, then:

"…Do you really mean that, Pep?"

Pepper looked down to meet Toni's gaze. Her eyes with wide dark pits thread through with a horrible empty fear that ate at the inside of Pepper's eyelids. She reached out, and knotted her hand in Toni's hair.

"God, of course not," she said. She slid out of the chair to loop herself around Toni's too-skinny frame, hair orange as a forest fire. "Oh my god, Toni, no. I love you. Of course I love you."

"That doesn't answer my question," Toni said.

Pepper held her close, whispered soft shhh-shhh noises into the side of her face, and "No, Toni, I don't mean it, I don't. I always want you around, I always want to love you, shhh-shhh, it's okay, it's okay."

Toni curled her fists into the fabric of Pepper's shirt, gulping at air to control the floodgates behind her eyes.

The weirdest things set her off.

"Y'know, Pep, it doesn't even make sense. Like I don't. I don't. I don't get it, you know? I really don't. Like why do I—why am I—?"

"It's okay, Toni. It's okay," said Pepper.

They held onto each other very tightly for a very long time.

(They seemed to be doing that a lot, lately.)

Toni took a shaky breath in.

"Okay," she said. "You're right. It's okay. I'm just—I'm just—yeah, you know what, we'll not talk about what I am, because clearly it is really messed up."

"Toni, you're not—" Pepper started, but Toni slapped a hand over her mouth and shook her head violently, dark curls spilling everywhere.

"Yeah, you know what, Pep, I really am. But it's. It's okay. Because Rhodey'll be here, soon, and then you and Happy can go off and smush your faces together—and don't tell me you don't want to do that, I know that you do—and Bruce… well, he's whatever, so who cares about him anyway."

A pause. Toni pulled out her biggest, most innocent, most guileless look. It was the same one that always worked on cops and liquor store attendants. "Can we just go with it, for like, once? Just once?"

Pepper just sighed in reply.

This was probably not the acquiescence that Toni took it for.

BUT WHATEVER, NO ONE CARED ABOUT BRUCE WAYNE ANYWAY, RIGHT?

RIGHT.

This was totally how it was going to go.

(At least as far as Toni was concerned, anyway; there was no telling quite what Pepper would come up with.)

"Look, you an' Hap can come with me when I got get him, okay? So you don't—don't do your freakout thing, you can meet him right when he gets off the plane. Which, oh shit, is in like half an hour, so we got like half an hour to waste before we have to leave."

Pepper didn't ask how this made sense, as there was none to be made.

"As long as you don't go off to suck face, I don't—" Toni went on blithely.

Pepper tuned the words out, and watched as Antonia Stark put herself back together.

It was a painful thing to watch, though Pepper would never admit it. Toni brought up a sheet of fresh-minted red chrome a foot thick between herself and the world. It kept her safe, but it kept everyone else out.

Pepper ached for Toni to be okay.

Even if it was only for a little while.

Let her be okay, Pepper prayed.

When Toni wasn't looking, she shot off another text, and hoped that their old friend could get there in time to stop their glass-house hurricane girl from doing something really stupid.

Pepper may have been the most important person in the world, but Bruce Wayne knew how to handle Toni in a way that no one else quite understood. Maybe it was that the pair of them had been friends longer than ought to have been allowed, or maybe it was just that they understood each other on a level that she didn't get. Maybe it was an orphan thing.

(Toni had been an orphan since before the day that her mother died. Pepper knew that. Pepper knew that so well.)

Sometimes it made her sad.

Most of the time, though, it just made her want to vomit.

On my way, was Bruce's reply. Three words, Pepper knew, ought not have relieved her as much as they did.

She tried very hard not to feel as though she'd just betrayed her best friend.

This was the best for everyone.

Really.

And if Toni…

Well, Pepper thought tiredly, someone had to do it.

"Pep? You okay?"

"Yeah," Pepper said. "It's cold out."

"How is it cold?" Toni demanded. "It's summer—look outside, Pep, does that even look cold at all? No. Exactly. That's what I think you meant. Summer. Heat. Debauchery! Pretty people in very little clothing! All the good things in life, right?"

Pepper shuddered. "Whatever you say, Toni."

Toni grinned widely. Her insides were still all shut down, reeling backwards from the ice that Pep's throwaway comment had slipped into the base of her spine. It had frozen all her deep dark sticky places, places that were still tender-vulnerable.

A little bitterly, Toni remembered why she'd left New York in the first place.

It was just that everything she'd ever been was hard.

At least at MIT, she'd just been another girl alone at the bar, too young and too jaded for such a grimy place. But in New York?

In New York, she was Howard Stark's wild child, mood changing like candle-flame. In New York, she was too smart for her own good. In New York, her smile was shallow, vapid, and so easy she thought she was probably going to be sick with herself.

In New York, Toni could hate herself to her heart's content.

(Not that she didn't hate herself when she went other places; it was just easier in New York, though she didn't really want to think about why that was. Toni thought, perhaps a little cynical, that it was probably too much like self-introspection. And honestly? She was so not down for that.)

"Anyway, I'm gonna leave now, so if you wanna come, you should probably find your boyfriend. Or maybe a seatbelt. Or something, I dunno, what do people usually have in their cars?"

"Do you even have a license?" Pepper asked.

"Nope," Toni said cheerfully. "What would be the fun in that?"

"Do you even know how illegal that is?"

"Of course I do," Toni laughed. It was a sharp, jagged, high-pitched laugh that grated against the eardrum. No one mentioned it. "But it's more fun, this way!"

"You are going to get us both killed," Pepper said.

"Not you," Toni said. "Probably me, but not you."

And with that, she spun around on her heel, and practically skipped towards the door. It was such a show. Toni didn't believe for a second that Pepper had bought it, but Pepper buying it wasn't the point.

As long as she acted alright, she would be alright.

It's how she'd gotten along before this, and how she would get along after.

She was Antonia Stark, she thought. She had places to be, and bombs to build, and boys to kiss. She had girls to press against walls, skirts to shimmy down her hips, alcohol to let linger on her breath.

She was Antonia Stark, and there was nothing in the world that was going to keep her back.

Not fuckin' now, she thought.

Not fuckin' anymore.

.

.

.

.

.

tbc.