I don't know if this will ever work its way into my webseries, but discussing angsty character backgrounds and plot points got this stuck in my head. And it runs through my head every time I see that look on Tony's face in "Avengers" where Bruce confesses to his suicide attempt. Angsty drama, but a hopeful resolution. Also, www. Earthsmightiestwomen .com is our site; we just finished the first weekend of filming! All dialogue from the movie is credit Joss Whedon. Some lines have been edited to fit this AU's version of the characters.


Antonia Stark loved being an agent of chaos. Especially if SHIELD was involved. So as Stephanie Rogers sniped at her, Antonia let her smart mouth run on autopilot. Thora and Fury were arguing about the threat (or lack thereof, from Thora's perspective) Asgard posed. Nikolai Romanoff was not-so-patiently trying to explain the gravity of the situation to Bridget Banner, who was not in the mood. All in all, it was pretty entertaining, actually.

Antonia's distaste for Stephanie went back decades, and somehow in the short time they'd known each other, Stephanie had learned to push most of Antonia's buttons. She got up in Antonia's face, staring her down. "Smooth-talking woman in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?"

"Naked" was the first thought that popped into Antonia's head, but she decided to save that one for later. "Genius, billionaire, socialite, philanthropist." She smiled as she saw Nikolai shrug and smirk. Antonia still didn't trust the man entirely, but he wasn't half bad once she'd gotten over him infiltrating her company.

Stephanie was remarkably unimpressed, and Antonia was thinking she should have gone with her first instinct. "I know people with none of that worth ten of you. I've seen the footage. The only thing you fight for is yourself."

Antonia glared as Stephanie continued her lecture, quite clear in her opinion that Antonia was no hero. And that wasn't what pissed Antonia off. It was the attitude, the arrogance, that the woman her father spent his life searching for instead of paying attention to his only daughter was now challenging her. Antonia narrowed her eyes. "Oh, a hero like you, huh? You were nothing but a flashy USO girl, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle."

That didn't sit well with Stephanie, and Antonia smirked as the captain crossed her arms. "Why don't you put on the suit and we'll test that?"

Thora apparently found that amusing. "You people are so petty. And tiny."

"Yeah, this is a team," Bridget muttered, and Antonia was about ready to kick all the others out of the lab, seal it, and refuse to work with anyone but Banner until this situation was resolved. And then Fury asked Nikolai to escort Bridget out. Antonia opened her mouth to lay into Fury, but Bridget beat her to it. "Aren't you renting my room?"

Fury spread her hands, trying to calm Bridget. And that was the thing. Everyone was so terrified of the Hulk. And she was dangerous. But Antonia knew that the Hulk was a force to be respected and embraced, not locked away forever. "The cell was just a precaution. In case-"

"You needed to kill me," Bridget finished, her complexion gaining a tinge of green and her face stone. "But you can't. I know. I tried."

Everyone turned to stare, and Antonia felt her jaw clench involuntarily. She froze, overwhelmed by a surge of sudden emotion, a rush from the past and a sense of heartbreak for her new friend.

"I got low," Bridget continued, backing down a bit. "I didn't see a way out. So I put a bullet in my mouth and she spit it out."

Antonia barely heard the rest of Bridget's story, at least not consciously. She wanted to run over and hug Bridget, but that wasn't her way. She was fully aware she was still staring, even if her mind was temporarily elsewhere. Bridget rambled about trying to make something good out of her life, and boy, did that strike a chord. Antonia knew exactly how that felt, to be so low. To realize even death wasn't an option. It was the worst place to be. But she'd found her way out, and Antonia felt compelled to make Bridget realize she could do the same.

"Dr. Banner, put down the scepter." Stephanie's voice brought Antonia back, and Bridget looked down with shock as she saw Loki's scepter in her hand. Antonia took a step back. And then the computers alarmed. And then there was an explosion, and suddenly, Antonia and Stephanie were thrown backwards in a flash of fire, glass, and shrapnel. God, Antonia hated shrapnel.

Stephanie looked up, the antagonism gone from her expression. "Put on the suit."

Antonia crawled to her feet. "Yeah!" The shit had hit the fan, and it was time to work together.


Shawarma was actually kind of amazing. But when all was said and done, Antonia wanted nothing more than a handful of painkillers and her favorite cocktail. She had Dummy fetch those and she collapsed onto her bed, the one place where she was guaranteed to be alone. Paintings and photos had been knocked off the wall, but Antonia paid people to deal with that. Repairs could start tomorrow. She'd found relatively intact rooms for the rest of the team to crash in until they could deal with shipping Loki home. No one had the access code to Antonia's room, and JARVIS was under strict instructions to hold her calls. Antonia rolled over, pulling her favorite vintage quilt over her shoulder, and closed her eyes.

"Antonia Maria Stark!"

Antonia startled awake. No one ever used her full name like that. Ever. Except Pepper, when she was really, really mad. And that certainly sounded like Pepper. And Pepper was the only one who had access to Antonia's private rooms. Antonia groaned a curse into her pillow. She was screwed. "Hi, Pepper."

Pepper sat on the edge of the bed as Antonia rolled over gingerly. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"I was thinking nuking Manhattan might end badly." Antonia shrugged. "I did try to call you."

"What, to say goodbye?" Pepper hissed, and it was that kind of angry where she really was scared. Which made Antonia actually feel kind of bad, considering.

Antonia sat up. "I – this isn't like that, Pep. I...it's like Wrath of Khan. The needs of the many versus the needs of the few, yadda, yadda."

"I know," Pepper said quietly, taking Antonia's hand. They'd been best friends for so many years, and it made Antonia squirm inside every time she upset Pepper. Antonia had a reputation publicly for being a callous bitch, but once someone got under her skin, they stayed there. "I'll never turn my ringer off when you're out there ever again."

Antonia allowed herself to be hugged tightly, ignoring the protests of her abused body. They both needed it. "I've sworn off alien portals, okay? We're good here."

Pepper smiled at her affectionately. "Get some rest. We've got a lot of PR to do in the morning."

Antonia settled back against her pillows, pulling the Sunbonnet Sue quilt up to her shoulders. "Just cut Damage Control a check." Just before Pepper slipped out the door, she called out to stop her. "Pepper?"

Pepper looked back over her shoulder. "Yeah?"

"I'll see you later, okay?"

Pepper smiled warmly. "You'd damned well better."


After they'd sent Thora and Loki home in Central Park, Antonia figured she was finally going to get a break – and possibly some alone time with Bridget, who was staying with her. Stephanie was off on her motorcycle to see what had become of today's America; the master assassins were off to wherever it was they went when they weren't killing people. Thora was in Asgard. Time to relax.

The tower was still mostly in shambles above the sixtieth floor, but repairs were going well and there were auxiliary labs and sleeping quarters spread across levels twenty-five to forty. Antonia considered taking off with Bridget to her place in Malibu, but they hadn't gotten as far as the New Jersey-Pennsylvania line before Antonia had gotten exactly forty-three phone calls requiring her input on the tower renovations. Bridget didn't seem too upset. "Probably best for me to get used to one big city at a time."

The two scientists were happily at work on a prototype for a Hulk-proof workout room, when Antonia found her opening. Bridget had been musing aloud about maybe finally finding some way to make her dark side behave. Antonia seized the opportunity, but with uncharacteristic tact. "Nice to know the Hulk is bullet-proof. That came in handy for us."

Bridget snorted. "Yeah, I guess."

Had it been anyone else and had Antonia not known on a deeply personal level how sensitive a subject it could be, Antonia would have pushed ahead with all the subtlety of a freight train. But instead, Antonia shrugged and had JARVIS pull up a Jonathan Coulton tune, one she'd specially selected. Bridget might not have shared Antonia's love of heavy metal and Love Handel, but they could both get into Coulton. And while it was a silly, catchy song about a businessman dealing with zombies, Antonia knew the line that would be sure to catch Bridget's attention, even as she hummed along cheerfully.

"I sure appreciate the way you're working with me...I'm not a monster, Tom – well, technically, I am..."

Bridget winced visibly. "JARVIS, cut the music."

If they'd just been bantering as had become their habit, Antonia would have immediately found an even more obnoxious song – probably "Robot Riot," simply because Bridget apparently got tired of it after the first fifty times. But Antonia had more important things in mind. "You're not a monster, you know."

"Maybe not," Bridget admitted, "but she is."

"I don't know about that." Antonia shrugged. "Savage, pissy, maybe not super-intelligent, but...well, hell, she did save my life. And yours."

"What, the lab accident?" Bridget blew air between her lips, rolling her eyes. "That's how I got stuck with her."

"Seems to me there might have been another time," Antonia said, growing serious.

Bridget caught on quickly and turned back to her computer. "I don't want to talk about that."

"Oh, good." Antonia adopted a faux-casual air. "Because neither do I. But at least you've got someone on hand to save your ass. Me, I'm just lucky I pissed off Pepper enough for her to come looking for me."

Bridget froze for a moment, then turned slowly. "You mean you...?"

"Yeah." Antonia looked down at the carpet. It wasn't a subject she discussed, ever. Even with Pepper, they did a careful dance around the details. "I'm just saying, I've been there. I've been low. And sometimes you have to get there before you realize you have a lot worth living for."

Bridget moved to sit down, and Antonia followed. "I didn't."

"Maybe not then," Antonia said, "but you do now. We have a team...even if it's kind of messed up. And, hell, I kind of like you."

Bridget smiled, then put a hand on Antonia's wrist. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"About as much as you do," Antonia admitted, "but maybe it needs to be said." If only to convince Bridget that her life was valued.

It still wasn't easy to talk about. But even as Antonia only gave Bridget the outline, with a few sketchy details to set the scene, she remembered everything.


Five years earlier...

Antonia had no idea why she was bothering as she took phone calls and scheduled appointments. For minor things, that was Pepper's job, but for major demonstrations, Antonia was expected to set her own schedule. She had a speech at the Pentagon next week, a Jericho missile demonstration in Afghanistan in April. Neither of which she had any intention of attending, but it had to be business as usual.

At precisely five o'clock, Antonia shut down her computer, instructed JARVIS to provide the passwords to Pepper if necessary, and walked out the door – only to be met by Pepper. "What now?"

"We have to talk about the Emerson merger," Pepper said, crossing her arms. "You've been dodging me all day."

Antonia smiled and patted Pepper's arm. "I have faith in you. Handle it."

Pepper made a low sound of frustration. "Forgive me for asking you to do your job."

"Couldn't do it without you, hon." Antonia gave Pepper her best cheeky smile. "I have plans tonight." She smiled at Pepper, the only person besides Rhodey she considered a true friend. It almost made her have second thoughts. But, no, she'd decided this a long time ago. She might have been the face of a billion-dollar company, but she was worthless. She was nothing, a rich girl who played at pretending she was accomplishing something. Sure, she was a genius, but California had plenty of those. "Goodbye."

Pepper cursed and stormed into Antonia's office, giving Antonia plenty of time to escape to her room. She stood in the spacious attached bathroom, staring at herself in the mirror, wondering one last time if she was anything worth redeeming. The mirror didn't answer.

The Ides of March. No one remembered it outside of the literary reference, at least not its importance to Antonia. Occasionally, someone would see it in a "Today in History" blurb and send her a sympathy email. But on March 15, 1991, Howard and Maria Stark had died in a fiery plane crash. A plane their nearly eighteen year old daughter was supposed to be on, except she'd ended up in a screaming match with her father, and paused only long enough to hug her mother goodbye before packing up and returning to MIT in a huff. She'd ignored the phone calls she got half the night, assuming it was her father and screaming at the phone every time it rang. It wasn't until she ventured into the rec center hoping to pick up someone for a quick lay that she found out what happened. The room hushed and several girls ran over to hug her. Antonia had been baffled, until she looked up between smothering hugs and expressions of sympathy and saw the news. Howard Stark and wife, dead in a plane crash – and Antonia's world changed forever. Her last word to her mother had been innocent enough - "Goodbye." As for her father, in her anger, she had hissed her favorite dismissal of the moment - "Go die in a fire." And he'd done just that.

From that moment on, Antonia never told anyone goodbye, ever, unless she really, truly thought should would never see them again – or was at least hoping for it, in the case of some rivals. "See ya," "later," "sayonara," those all worked just fine. For years, Antonia had fueled her guilt into keeping her father's company running, a shining star of American industry. She buried her pain in meaningless sex, alcohol, and a wild lifestyle. But some days, it was just too much. The self-loathing and feeling that the world could go on without her and no one would care got overwhelming. And so Antonia was going to put a stop to it, finally.

Antonia fixed her makeup and hair – she was still vain enough that she wanted to look good in case the maid that found her snapped any tabloid photos. She honestly didn't care if they did; someone might as well get something out of her death. She'd updated her will, leaving control of the company to Pepper – which was really going to piss off Stane, but Antonia knew Pepper cared about the mission more than the money.

There were two types of Rich Girl Suicides. The flailing attempt for attention that ended tragically, done with multiple emo notes and dramatic means. And then there was the "guess money really can't buy happiness" type. Antonia could testify to the reality of that sentiment. Money was fun, but it meant nothing unless you had a life you actually valued. Antonia had left no notes, no calls, no texts. She swallowed a handful of prescription sleeping pills with a glass of her favorite rum, and moved to her bed. The alcohol and medication overtook her sooner than expected, and Antonia stumbled on her way out of the bathroom, lacking the strength to get up. She closed her eyes and accepted her fate, waiting for death to free her.

Antonia was on the verge of losing consciousness when she heard someone screaming her name – Pepper, she realized distantly. Pepper's beloved PDA hit the floor, shattering in Antonia's blurry line of sight. The last thing she saw was Pepper's face – horrified, tears streaming down her cheeks. And when she regained consciousness in the ICU, Pepper was at her side, looking as if her heart might break at any moment – and Antonia realized she could never do that to her best friend again. Pepper didn't deserve that. So she fought to recover and went to the inpatient psych unit – deemed "rehab" for the purposes of PR, something the world was all too familiar with. And she swore she would never tell Pepper goodbye again.


Present

Though Antonia had given a Cliff's Notes summary of the situation, she could tell it had impacted Bridget. "You've always seemed so terrified of dying."

Antonia shrugged. "I am – now. Dr. Yinsen gave his life for me to live." She tapped her arc reactor for emphasis. "And Pepper...I can't do that to her without a damned good reason." Her life had purpose now, to make Yinsen's sacrifice mean something. To prove his trust in her hadn't been misguided. Until Yinsen died, Antonia had fought only to get back to Pepper, to prove she was keeping her promise. Then Yinsen changed everything. Antonia still struggled with doubt and self-hatred, but ultimately, there was too much depending on her. And she had to make Bridget feel the same way.

Bridget nodded. "When I realized I couldn't kill myself, I guess I tried to make my life count for...something. Calcutta needed me."

Antonia put a hand on her shoulder. "And so does Manhattan. And the world, now."

Bridget shook her head. "The Avengers need the Hulk. Who needs me? Pretty sure I scared Eli off for good."

Antonia shrugged. "Hey, he might come around. And if he doesn't, forget him. I need a gamma radiation expert on my team."

"I can name a handful," Bridget countered, but with less certainty.

Antonia rolled her eyes. "God, you're gonna make me say it, aren't you? I. Need. You."

Bridget smiled, looking genuinely surprised. "You do?"

"Hell, yeah." Antonia smiled. "And if you really feel the need to give up this sweet tech to rescue orphans in Wherever-Stan, it's not like you're chained up here. Just don't say goodbye, okay?"

Bridget's grin widened. "Deal."


The next morning, Nikolai and Caitlin strolled into the lobby. Caitlin looked around and in typical Barton fashion, declared, "Nice place. We'll take it." Within a week, Thora had returned, announcing the Tesseract had repaired the Rainbow Bridge and she would love to enjoy cohabitation with her comrades. Stephanie returned from her roadtrip a few days later, asking if Antonia knew any good places to stay, since she was ready to ditch her SHIELD apartment. At that point, what else could Antonia do but lay down ground rules, give everyone their own space, and hope like hell this didn't blow up in their faces?

Besides, they really were starting to grow on her.