not language but a map

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thirty two flavors (and then some) [antonia stark/pepper potts]

Tony Stark builds her first circuit board at four years old. At four and a half, she blows out the power grid of half a city block, laughing as she does it. Most kids get told not to play with matches; for Tony Stark, a fire might actually be an upgrade.

"Antonia," her father says, always the full name, always dripping with disdain, "for god’s sake, control yourself."

It is the first rule Tony Stark breaks. It is far from the last one.

She meets Pepper Potts on a Wednesday afternoon in June, Malibu showing off in the background. It’s a beach party that Tony shouldn’t even be at—politics, politics, and always Obie’s warning voice ringing in her ears, try not to make too much of a mess—and Pepper’s a caterer working the pool, serving drinks, taking orders. She’s young, twenty-two, maybe twenty-three, legs for years and fire in her eyes, and when Tony grins at her, she grins back.

"Ms. Stark," she says, a Southern hint to her accent that Tony will remember fondly later, "did you want something to eat with your Scotch, or will that be all?"

Fifteen minutes later, a man tries to pull Pepper into the poolhouse and winds up with a broken wrist. Tony wouldn’t see it if she wasn’t looking for something else; she’s been following that ass around the party with hungry eyes, sunglasses tipped low. She’d thought Pepper might be a nice score; a dessert plate, if you will, a warm body to kick out of bed in the morning. Instead she bends back the arm of the kind of jackass Tony’s been wiping the floor with for years, walks away like it was no trouble at all.

It’s a hell of a selling point. Tony’s been looking for a new assistant anyway.

"There are three rules," she says a few hours later, Pepper loaded into the back of her limo and looking less shell-shocked than she should. "I take my coffee black, and I take everything else as fast as they make it."

"And the third rule, Ms. Stark?" Pepper says, not even missing a beat, fingers flexing against her thighs.

Tony grins. “Spell my name with an ‘i’” she says, “and you are fucking fired.”

Tony wears her hair short because it’s less likely to get caught up in the engine of her Lambo. Tony keeps her nails cut because she bites them, actually, thanks, have you never heard of a nervous habit? Tony wears her shirts low and her jeans lower, because she knows what she wants and she’s not afraid to take it. Tony wears sunglasses, because she knows her fucking tells.

Tony wears her lips red, red, red, rich and full, painted on like armor, because she likes to. Because it looks good. Because no one expects it of her. Because it’s the right call.

In a world where your private life is public and your public life is news, you take whatever advantages you can get. There’s a thousand ways to scrawl a signature, a thousand more to leave your mark. Tony Stark builds bombs and paints her lips the color of blood. Tony Stark makes her own rules.

The first time she’s called a bitch, Tony is eight, and she doesn’t know what the word means. She’s rebuilt half of a vintage Triumph by herself, can do math tenured professors would stumble over, looks up at the night sky and sees only physics involved, but no one’s ever told her what that word means. When she gets older, it’ll go on the long list of her father’s oversights: didn’t love me, didn’t like me, didn’t think to warn me that I was more than just a little girl.

Genius is genius, but innocence is something else entirely. There’s no corollary relationship; the one you either have or you don’t, and the other eventually gets lost.

It’s another girl who says it, a sophomore at the boarding school Tony’s been shipped off to like so many spare parts, “Hey, bitch, you want to shut your mouth in class and stop making us look bad?” She’s talking about Mr. Tressel’s 4th period math class, and Tony agrees readily enough; it’s boring anyway, and she usually spends most of the period puzzling over one of the endless workbooks her mother’s always sending her. She only speaks up in class to throw Mr. Tressel off the scent, and, with her head half-buried in a toilet that flushes and flushes, she’s pretty sure she can live with any trouble he might dish out.

(She’s wrong, of course, but that’s a lesson Mr. Tressel won’t teach her. A professor at MIT will make it quite clear, the shift of power, the delicate balance that isn’t delicate at all; everybody says goodbye to their innocence eventually. It’s not Tony’s fault she’s always ahead of the curve.)

The afternoon doesn’t stick with her—Tony’s head’s in the toilet more days than it isn’t when she’s eight, when she’s nine, when she’s so much younger and so much smarter than everyone else in the room—but the word does. Bitch, bitch, bitch; she doesn’t know what it means, but she knows it’s an insult. A slap in the face.

A title.

Two weeks in: “Ms. Stark,” Pepper says “will that be all?”

Six weeks in: “Ms. Stark,” Pepper says, “are you sure that that’s wise?”

Twelve weeks in, and about fucking time, too: “Tony, god fucking damn it, you can’t do that, are you crazy?” Pepper snaps, and Tony grins at her, raises her eyebrows.

"That word’s not in my dictionary," she says, and Pepper scowls.

"Can’t?"

Crazy,” says Tony, and takes a long pull from her drink. An ice cube slides into her mouth, and she crushes it with satisfaction, relishing the way it shatters against her teeth. The human mouth can exert up to 120 pounds of pressure, according to some data; given something to push down on, Tony imagines she could set some kind of record. She is, after all, known for her bite.

"Is that so, Ms. Stark."

"You got my kind of money," Tony says, "you’re eccentric at worst. And no one’s ever crazy, Pepper; they just haven’t figured out how to use it right."

The first time she presides over a Stark Industries board meeting, she is twenty one years old and there is motor oil on the side of her neck. Obie reaches out to brush it away, and Tony glares at him from her side of the limo, curls away from him, wishes that human vocal cords could produce a proper snarl.

"I’m just trying to help you here, Antonia," Obie says. "If you’re going to insist on taking over as CEO—"

"Sorry," Tony says, "whose name is it on the door, again?"

"I’m just saying," Obie says, crooning now, pacifying—Obie is her last remaining link to her father, to her childhood, and Tony knows she shouldn’t hate him. "It might be hard to get them to take you seriously. Presentation’s nine-tenths of the law."

"Huh," Tony says. "Learn something new every day. I had no idea you had a law degree, for one thing; I’ll talk to legal. I’m sure we can find you an opening."

He’s right, though, because Obie’s long been the reigning monarch of unpleasant truths. Tony barely has time to introduce herself before someone says, “Yes, yes, Ms. Stark, we know who you are,” and starts talking over her; Tony narrows her eyes, sits back in her chair, and pulls out the brick of wires and plastic Stark’s been trying to market as a phone.

It’s a worthless hunk of technology, but it’s got a screen and signal, and that’s all Tony really needs from it. It takes her ten minutes, which is disappointing. It should’ve taken five.

"Mr. Bramshell," she says smoothly when she’s done, interrupting his rant about the last quarter’s earnings. "Edwin Bramshell, addresses in Malibu, Texas, and Cannes—but Cannes is under another name, that’s funny. Keeping a mistress, Edwin? That’s alright, I’m sure you’ve all got at least one, I mean, I know I keep several on hand—you can go now."

"I," says Edwin Bramshell, "what?"

"You," Tony says, enunciating clearly, grinning like she’s lost her mind, "and your defeatist attitude and your shares of my company, can go. I’ll have you bought out by the end of the day. It won’t even be hard. Last quarter is old news, and so are you. In three weeks, we’ll be releasing the first in a line of semi-automatic incendiaries that will make my old man roll over in his grave, but only because he didn’t think of them first. I don’t work with idiots. Get. Out.”

Edwin Bramshell blinks, and blinks again; Tony leans across the table, fury curling the edges of her lips, and he huffs out a breath of irritation before picking up his briefcase and leaving with as much dignity as he can muster. The room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop, and Obie’s face is a picture Tony would like to keep next to her bed at night.

"Right," she says, "is there anyone else who’d like to ignore me?"

No one volunteers. Tony smiles.

She builds Jarvis by accident, mostly out of a desire for someone to talk to. She’s seventeen and her parents have died, and some dick reporter has started a story about why she didn’t cry at the fucking funeral; Tony was cute as a baby girl genius, interesting as a big-breasted teenager with a degree from MIT, but there’s always going to be this thing underneath. Give us a smile, Tony; show us what you can do, Tony; cry a little already, Tony, what are you, heartless?

Everyone wants something from her, and that’s fine. That’s great. Tony will give them hell and then some; she just needs a little time.

Jarvis is supposed to be a turntable, and that’s the truth. Jarvis is supposed to be a software that predicts the kind of music she wants to hear and then plays it; Jarvis is supposed to be internet radio before the internet properly exists. It’s the mid-eighties, and Tony has an apartment that reeks of old pizza and mostly contains her, alone in a bra and a long-abandoned pair of boxers, writing strings of code and rebuilding bikes.

But she’s lonely, and that’s not the kind of thing she can say. Lonely is a weakness, the way sad would have been, the way heartless tries to be, the way everyone is always hinting (but never saying) that female is. She’s lonely and that’s her lookout, that’s her shit to deal with, that’s her mountain to climb, and she means to make Jarvis understand her taste in music, ends up building him to figure out everything else.

Hi, she types one night, a green cursor against a black screen.

Good evening, Ms. Stark, is returned after a minute of whirring. It’s something. It’s a start.

"Tony," Pepper says one night, a few years into their working relationship. They’re eating Chinese food and watching the latest ‘Leaked Tony Stark Sex Tape’; it’s not Tony in the video, just a convincing look-a-like, but she’s pretty hot, and Tony’s kind of enjoying herself.

She’s never been above narcissism, after all. She’s been below it, once or twice, but that’s another story.

"Yeah?" she says, while her doppelganger moans on-screen. "Sorry, we can turn this off if it’s bumming you out, I just, y’know. Like to know who they say I’m fucking."

"Doesn’t it ever get to you?" Pepper says, and oh, that’s a dangerous tone. Tony actually leans away from her a little on the couch, trying to put as much distance between them as possible while she raises an eyebrow. "This kind of thing, I mean. The stuff the news says about you—"

"Is all lies and slander," Tony says easily. "Or, well, it’s not all lies and slander, actually almost none of it is lies and slander, whoever put this video out is a fucking moron, god knows if you just spent a little time hacking, you could—”

"Tony."

"No," Tony says, "it doesn’t get to me."

That’s a lie, but it’s alright. Pepper probably knows that; she does have an uncanny talent for hearing what Tony isn’t telling her.

When she gets back from Afghanistan, everyone asks the same question: “What happened over there?”

There are so many answers to that question that Tony doesn’t know where to start; she supposes the easiest place would be at her cleavage, because that’s, you know, typically the simplest spot. The arc reactor sits nestled between her breasts, overtop the bra she’d had to design herself and have custom-made; it glows over the top of her shirts, low-cut as ever, because Tony’s never been one to hide. She could start with her cleavage and work back, to the suit she’d built because she’d had to, to Yensin and the kindness she’d needed so badly, to Yensin and the death he hadn’t deserved; she could start with her cleavage and land on the words don’t waste your life, Stark, since it’s all she’s been able to think for days.

She doesn’t, though. She doesn’t start anywhere; she doesn’t answer the question. “What happened over there?” everyone asks—there’s only one response, and it’s not one Tony can bring herself to give.

"What happened over there, Tony," Pepper says, not a question, the fifth night running that Tony hasn’t slept.

"What do you fucking think," Tony says, and Pepper sighs, takes her hand, doesn’t let go.

The papers call her Iron Man, which cracks her up, which pisses her off. The papers call her Iron Man because they can’t imagine it’s a woman underneath that shiny armor; the papers call her Iron Man because of course they do. Tony’s not sure why she’s surprised.

She’ll tell you who shouldn’t be surprised, though, and that’s Agent Coulson after the press conference that’ll go down in infamy. Obie’s blood is still on Tony’s hands and the screaming rush of questions is still in Tony’s ears, and neither one of those things is as good as the words that linger on her tongue, I am Iron Man, the best sentence she’s ever uttered and, at the same time, the worst.

"That wasn’t necessary," Coulson says, looking like he swallowed a lemon.

"Gonna have to agree to disagree on that one, bucko," Tony says, giddy with tension and grief she shouldn’t be weathering, and lets Pepper lead her out to the car.

She wears six-inch heels to the Senate hearing, thick black eyeliner under her sunglasses, her blouse buttoned to just below the arc reactor, her trademark red lipstick slashed across her mouth. It’s a statement, because everything is. That statement, in this case, is “Go fuck yourself.”

It takes Tony ten minutes to ask Senator Stern if he’s feeling threatened, and fifteen to slip the word “emasculating” into the discussion. Pepper shakes her head from the back of the room, but Stern says the Iron Man suit is a weapon that should be in more capable hands, and Tony knows just what that means. Her company, too, has been said to need more capable hands; why should the superhero business be any different?

Tony Stark’s hands have built a good half of modern technology. She’s not sure how much more capable they’re asking for here, but she’s quite certain she doesn’t care at all.

Justin Hammer gets called to testify. He mentions her father; he calls her Antonia. There is a device in Tony’s chest that is simultaneously keeping her alive and killing her, and somehow that is less irritating than Justin Hammer’s fucking face. He has plenty of reasons to dislike her—professional competition, Hammer Industry’s constant inability to perform the Tony’s standards, the fact that she considers any day she doesn’t publicly humiliate him a day wasted—but Tony knows what Hammer is. She knows that, at the heart of the matter, she’s an interloper in his Boy’s Club; she knows that, deep down, he’s pissed that she walked past the sign that said “No Girls Allowed.”

Pulling up the footage of Hammer’s failed attempt at her technology is petty. The way she slips $500 into his jacket pocket, whispers, “Buy yourself something nice, sweetheart,” into his ear, is downright stupid—but then again, Tony is dying, and it’s nice to have a little fun.

"What did you say to Hammer?" Pepper says, when Tony sails past the reporters (Give us a smile, Tony, does nothing ever get old) and meets her at the car. “That’s…an interesting shade of purple he’s gone.”

"Your inquiries are doing nothing to hide your disapproval," Tony says breezily. "Read me the riot act, go on, I know how you like that."

Pepper just looks at her, eyes scary-perceptive and something else too—Pepper’s scared for her, and doesn’t know why. Women’s initiation, probably; Tony’s always set less store by that then she should, but she’s aware it’s weird that she was mostly born without it.

"I just think you should be careful," Pepper says finally, and there’s a whole goddamn essay on the tip of Tony’s tongue….but.

She gives Pepper the company. It’s nice to know, Tony thinks (as she climbs behind the wheel of a race-car, as she gets gets drunk and tears her house to pieces, as she sits hungover inside of a donut) that sometimes, she makes the right call.

The worst thing about Vanko—aside from his hair, which Tony, who knows from hair, feels justified in calling a tragedy—is the way he speaks to her. He’s the worse for prison, for a lifetime of bitterness and vodka, and she’s been voted the most powerful woman on earth twelve times; where does he think he gets off, exactly, talking down to her?

"You come from a family of butchers and thieves," Vanko says, "and now, like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your own history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed."

"Try again, pal," Tony says, eyebrows up. "Because I’m not a man, I’m not guilty of shit, and it’s not rewriting history when I do it. It’s telling it. Get it right. And hey, speaking of thieves, where’d you get this design?"

"My father, Anton Vanko."

"Never heard of him."

"My father is the reason you’re alive," Vanko says, and Tony’s whole body coils around her snarl, the anger old and thick in her mouth.

"No," she says, "I am the reason I’m alive. Me, and a guy named Yensin, and a woman who really shouldn’t put up with my shit—but mostly me, buddy, me and a box of scraps. You took a shot and missed; don’t flatter your family, and definitely don’t fucking flatter yourself.”

"If you can make God bleed," Vanko says, and he’s laughing now, laughing at her from inside of a prison cell, Tony is going to kill him, “people would cease to believe in him, there will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.”

"Right," Tony says, "well, thing is, I’ve been bleeding for years, and the world hasn’t consumed me yet. So good luck with that one; enjoy watching them try from your prison cell."

She stalks toward the door, and Vanko laughs again, calls after her: “Hey, Tony. Palladium in the chest—painful way to die.”

Tony doesn’t have a comeback for that, which isn’t fair. It’s a far sharper sting than those damned whips had been; life is so much easier when she can just throw a fucking punch.

Nick Fury wants her to help save the world, and that’s fine. Natasha Romanov wants her to live, and turns out to be a secret agent—that’s unsettling, but also fine. There’s a huge fucking metal case that is definitely Stark Industries property that’s apparently been in some SHIELD basement for twenty years, and that’s fine, but only in the sense that Tony’s resisting the urge to file a lawsuit.

Her father wanted her to know that his greatest creation was her, and that’s not fine. At all. That’s so far from fine that Tony throws a full-scale temper tantrum, smashing already busted windows and throwing her glass into the wall, cranking Highway to Hell out of every speaker in the house and screaming along with it, tearing at her own hair. She’s always known, on some level, that he viewed her as something he made, as an extension of himself and nothing more, but having it confirmed sits like bile at the back of her throat.

She wonders, for the hundredth thousandth time, if he would’ve liked her better if she was the son he’d always wanted. It’s hard to know; if she’s honest with herself, the answer is probably not.

So she creates a new element; fine. It’ll get her heart working again, even if it won’t help her remember that Pepper’s allergic to strawberries. It’ll let her save the world, and that’s all that matters. It’s not like she’s ever been great at saving herself.

She kisses Pepper for the first time on a rooftop in the wake of an explosion, which is stupidly fitting on a ridiculous number of levels. Her suit is dented every which way, pressing uncomfortably against her breasts, sending off white-hot sparks whenever Tony moves wrong; she doesn’t care.

Tony Stark has been in love with Pepper Potts since she saw her break a man’s wrist in Malibu. She’d denied it at first, and then she’d ignored it, and then she’d forced herself to forget about it—Antonia’s first word was want, but she’s smart enough to know when that kind of thing is pointless. The fact that it turns out not to be, in this case, is more than Tony could ever have hoped for.

"If you ever," Pepper says, naked and lazy with it, so far into the night that’s it’s long since the next morning, "lie to me about dying again, Tony, I swear to god, I’ll—”

"You’ll what?"

"I’ll kill you," Pepper says, a serious, fierce whisper, her eyes as hard as Tony’s ever seen them. "I’ll ruin your life. I’ll spell your name with an I."

"You’re crazy," Tony tells her, and Pepper almost smiles, rolls her eyes.

"There’s no such thing, Ms. Stark," she says, and her voice carries this time. "I learned how to use it a long, long time ago."