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Build A Heart To Life

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When a child is born it is with their heart, their very soul, clasped in their hands and shining out through their fingers or pressed against their fragile little chests.

Those small, brilliant, bundles of light are called heart-lights, a simple name for an indescribable phenomenon.

Heart-lights pulse in time with their owner’s physical heartbeat and they shine a multitude of colors right up until they undertake the Forging.

The Forging is the moment when a person takes their heart-light in hand and shapes it into whatever object suits them best.  Whatever object resonates best with who they are.  There is no limit to what they can be, no limit to the shape or the color, although the size usually stays small enough to carry.

Beyond that they are as unrestricted as time and space itself.

But, that’s not all heart-lights do.

During the Forging, as a heart-light takes its true shape and settles, it grants its owner a single gift.

The name, or names as the case might be, of their soulmate.

It’s considered a blessing, completing the Forging and gaining your names.

Parents throw parties and celebrations for their children, take out announcements and enter them into the database that’ll help them find their missing pieces.

It is, normally, a time of joy and congratulations.

But when Anthony Edward Stark finally wails his way into the world his hands are empty.

His chest is bare.

The nurses and doctors are frantic as they search him from head to toe, his cries unheaded, his distress unattended.  They even check the bed and Maria herself before they realize the horrible, horrifying truth.

His heart-light, his soul, is nowhere to be found.

‘He’s a monster’, the nurses who refuse to touch him after that whisper as they slink out of the room, ‘a bad omen.’

Lightless.

Soulless.

“That boy will bring death,” the doctor warns Howard, unprofessional and uncaring all at the same time because he’s never seen a soulless child before and he is shaken.  “Nothing good will come of him.”

Howard sneers, pulls out his checkbook, and does what needs to be done to keep the secret that could cause damage to the Stark name.

He doesn’t hold his son, never even looks at him.  Instead he twists the large gold ring he’d Forged around and around on his middle finger.  A comfort gesture he’ll never admit to having.

Maria turns on her side as best she can and stares resolutely at the wall as pain and exhaustion pull her down into sleep.  She closes her eyes to the world, one hand wrapped tightly around the thick strand of pink pearls she’d Forged and always wears.

In the corner of the room, nestled in his bassinet, Anthony cries and cries and cries.

No one comes.

~~~

There is one thing the hospital staff forgets as they do the bare minimum to keep him healthy and fed in the days that he’s there.

One thing that Howard and Maria cannot bring themselves to remember about Anthony, about their lightless son who is not the child either of them had wanted.

Anthony is, above all else and despite his lack of a heart-light, just a boy.

Innocent.

But he won’t stay that way for long.

There is no place for innocence inside of the home he’s been born into.

~~~

The boy, Master Anthony, unsettles Edwin.

In truth he has precious little to do with the young master for the first six months of his life after Sir and Ma’am bring him home.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hear the whispers, doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the looks the maids trade or the way the wet-nurse grits her teeth every time she hears him cry over the baby monitor.

The boy is a lightless.

His soul nowhere to be found.

Edwin is British to his bones but his Grand-mère had been from the old country and had held to their ideals until the day they laid her body to rest.

Among her stories of harvest festivals and the glory of the Parisian countryside before the Great War had run through it she’d had stories of villages and families who had lightless children born to them.

“The enfants maléfique cannot be trusted,” she would tell Edwin, accent still heavy even after so many years in London.  “We’d drown them in the river to keep the blackness from spreading.  To keep the esprit malin from cursing the harvest and the other babes.”

Evil children.

Evil spirits.

They used to drown the lightless like unwanted pups.

It is a horrifying, terrifying, prospect.  It is the kind of cruelty and cleansing he’d went to war against when he was decades younger and Ana was still alive.  The kind of evil he’d followed Sir headfirst into the fight against back when Howard had been younger and softer and not half so cold.

Edwin would sit at her knee for hours listening to those tales of hers, enraptured as only a child could have been by such stories.  By such casual, almost fantastical cruelty.

He’d been old enough to shiver in delight at the idea of something so scary as a lightless child.

He’d been too young to realize that what she was really talking about was murder.

Edwin hates himself just a bit for wondering if she was right.  He knows she wasn’t, knows that nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever justify the murder of an innocent child.  Not even a lightless one.

And yet ...

‘Perhaps’, a small part of him whispers as he watches the way Sir’s drinking grows heavier and Ma’am's pill bottles grow in number, 'perhaps the lightless were bad luck after all.  Perhaps they really were nothing more than evil spirits, evil children with lightless souls'.

Just … perhaps.

~~~

Seven months in and the wet-nurse Lupita refuses to stay any longer.  She crosses herself over and over again, dark eyes wet with tears as she kisses her Forged violet colored rosary desperately and tells him she can’t stay, won’t stay.

Not with a lightless child.

Not with a soulless little creature with too blue eyes who stopped crying two weeks ago and hasn’t made a sound since.

Edwin pays her for her services in full to assure her silence and sends her on her way.

He sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose between his fingertips, and heads up the stairs and towards the nursery.

Master Anthony is there, wide eyed but silent in his crib, too thin hands clutching the bars as he stands all on his own and stares up at Edwin with the bluest eyes he’s ever seen.

Edwin stares back at him for a long moment before he turns on his heel and walks back towards the door.

He feels the child’s stare on his back like a weight that’s been placed upon his spine.

~~~

Edwin hires a nanny, a stern, thin mouthed crow of a woman named, ironically enough, Bellissa.  She carries a heart-light Forged into a palm sized white oleander flower that she wears clipped in her up-swept hair.

He turns Master Anthony over to her without much thought and goes about his business of running the manor and doing his best to keep Sir in line when at all possible.

Eight months pass.

Master Anthony learns to walk, learns to run.

He is still a silent specter of a child though.

Still hasn’t said a word to anyone in the entire manor as far as Edwin knows.

There are whispers that his voice is as absent as his soul.

Edwin isn’t so sure that’s true.

It’s something in the way Anthony watches things.  Something in the way he watches Edwin, watches Bellissa, watches everyone else who gets near him with those too blue eyes.  The entire time his gaze shines far too brightly with a cunning far beyond his years.

Edwin thinks the boy will talk eventually and he almost dreads the words he’ll say.  Is almost frightened of what will spill from his lips.

Edwin clutches the vibrant silver and indigo pocket watch he’d Forged his heart-light into when he was fourteen and does his best to erase his Grand-mère’s whispers from his mind.

The boy is strange, there’s no denying that.  That doesn’t mean he’s evil.

It doesn’t.

Edwin is no longer a child.  No longer so easily pulled into ghost stories and swayed by silly superstitions.

And yet ...

~~~

Master Anthony is two when Edwin first notices the bruises.

The backs of the boy's hands are swollen and welted, purple stripes vibrant and angry against his golden skin.

Edwin furrows his brow but shakes his feelings of unease off.

It's nothing to be concerned about.

Really.

He’ll have a word with Bellissa, tell her she’s being too heavy handed, and it won’t be an issue.

He ignores the small twinge of guilt he feels at his own willful blindness.

Nothing in this house is right.

Hasn't been for two years now.

~~~

He'll regret that moment for the rest of his life.

He just doesn't know it yet.

By the time he does his regrets will have only grown and grown and grown.

~~~

Master Anthony is three and he is silent and thin.  A tiny, blue eyed ghost of a child who is barely seen and never, ever heard.

Sir and Ma’am have little to do with Master Anthony, have hardly seen him at all.  Sir travels a great deal and spends the remainder of his time either with Mr. Stane or in his workshop.  Ma’am flits about to spas and gala’s and this vacation spot or this concert or another.

Bellissa remains Master Anthony’s main point of contact with the world, Edwin himself has little place in his life.  The boy doesn’t come down to the dining room or the kitchen for meals.  Instead he eats, as he does everything else, in the nursery under Bellissa’s stern eye.

It is, Edwin knows, not so unusual in certain social classes for there to be such a distance between parents and child.  Especially in the younger years.

And yet, that hint of uneasy in Edwin’s chest has only grown.

~~~

Master Anthony is three and a half when Edwin’s outlook shifts drastically.

It’s cold in the manor and Edwin’s up late thanks to the book Peggy had recommended in their last chat.  He’s in between chapters and in search of another cup of tea as he pads through the manor in his dressing gown.

He turns the corner into the kitchen and notices that the refrigerator is open and its light is the only thing illuminating the room.

He steps forward, mouth open to say something to which every one of the staff it is, when he freezes.

There, standing in front of the refrigerator, nightclothes bagging on his tiny frame, is Master Anthony.

He’s eating, tiny hands shoving bits of sandwich meat into his mouth with a feral kind of desperation that makes Edwin’s heart stutter and his gut clench.

“Master Anthony,” Edwin calls out softly, carefully.  He watches, heart in his throat and dread building in his chest, as those tiny shoulders stiffen and hunch as Anthony freezes, goes still like startled prey.

‘Oh God,’ Edwin thinks to himself with despair, ‘what’s been done to him?  What has my blindness allowed to happen in this house?’

Slowly, so achingly slowly, Edwin makes his way over to where Anthony is standing hunched in on himself like he’s expecting a blow.

Edwin thinks of the bruises and knows the unavoidable truth.

“If you’re hungry,” Edwin tells him softly as he determinedly pushes that thought away for the moment, “I’ll make you something proper to eat.  Is that alright?”

Anthony stares up at him with those blue eyes of his and slowly, carefully, nods.

Edwin reaches out to touch his shoulder and feels his heart break just a bit more when Anthony flinches.

He squeezes his eyes shut tightly for a split second and forces himself to stay calm.

He has never hurt a child.  Would never hurt a child.  Lightless or not.  To have one, especially this one who should, technically, be under his care, flinch from him in fear is almost more than he can bear.

“Come,” Edwin gently pulls the container from Anthony’s hands and sets it back on the shelf in the refrigerator.  With his hand hovering just over the boy’s head he herds him back to the counter and watches as Anthony climbs onto the stool all by himself.

He’s so small and yet so independent.  The reason for that makes Edwin’s teeth grind and his hands fist in the loose folds of his robe.

Edwin makes him oatmeal with bits of real apples and cinnamon.  Gives him a tall glass of warm milk and watches like a hawk as he carefully eats every single bite like he thinks he might not get another.

Every second Edwin’s anger grows.

When Anthony’s full and obviously sleepy, Edwin is able to get close enough to carefully pick him up and take him back upstairs to the nursery.

The room is a mess, toys shoved to one side and obviously forgotten except for the ones that’ve been mangled and taken apart.  There are books too, strewn across the floor and stacked in leaning towers.  Bellissa had, supposedly, been teaching the boy to read already but Edwin isn’t sure of how much progress has been made.

He doesn’t focus on that though, instead he settles Anthony down on his messy little bed and smooths his hair away from his face with a gentle hand.

He sits there looking at the sleeping boy until dawn eats the night away from the sky.

~~~

The next day Edwin fires Bellissa.

The woman will never work with another child if he has anything to say about it.

And she’ll keep her mouth firmly shut about Anthony if she knows what’s good for her.

Edwin will protect the boy now as he should have from the very beginning.

~~~

Two days later Anthony slinks into the kitchen while Edwin is preparing his afternoon snack.  The boy doesn’t eat much despite everything and Edwin’s made it his mission to put some proper weight on him.

“Do you need something Master Anthony?”  Edwin asks with carefully projected cheer.  “I’ll be up in a moment with your tray.”

Anthony just shakes his head and creeps closer to the counter, small hands cupped close to his chest.  Edwin watches him curiously as he reaches up and, just barely able to reach, slides whatever it is he’s holding onto the counter beside Edwin’s elbow.

Then Anthony turns on his heel and dashes silently out of the room.

Edwin looks down at the item the boy had left behind.

There, on the counter, is a palm sized metal dragonfly.  It’s roughly done but the shape of it is clear enough.  The pieces that make it up look as if they’ve been cannibalized from other things.

When Edwin nudges it with his fingertip the wings move.

Oh, ’ he thinks as his heart clenches sharply.  ‘Oh, Anthony, sweet boy.’

~~~

Caring for Anthony is, Edwin learns, a bit like caring for a skittish cat.

The boy doesn’t like touch even as he seems to crave it.  Doesn’t like to eat when someone is watching him.  Doesn’t like it when Edwin steps behind him.  Doesn’t like loud noises.

Edwin should have seen the signs sooner but he’d been purposefully, willfully, blind to them.

Hopefully he’ll be able to erase the damage Bellissa had done.

But, staring into the too bright blue of Anthony’s eyes, looking at the cunning and intellect he can see there and remembering the dragonfly that even now rests in his vest pocket, Edwin isn’t so sure.

He thinks he might already be too late.

The boy might already be irreversibly damaged.

And if so it is all Edwin's fault.

~~~

Edwin’s cleaning his pocket watch one day when Anthony slides up beside him, just out of arm’s reach as always.

There’s a look of open curiosity on his face that’s slowly becoming more and more normal to see.

Anthony tracks his eyes from the watch to Edwin’s face over and over again, the question in his expression easy enough to read.

“I Forged it into a pocket watch when I was fourteen." Edwin explains softly.  "My mother was rather proud.”

Anthony’s brow furrows in obvious confusion as he stares at the watch and Edwin has a moment of realization that turns to dread.

“Did Be-," he cuts himself off sharply and swiftly changes tracks, "has no one told you of heart-lights?”

Anthony shakes his head no.

The dread solidifies, becomes heavy in his chest.

He explains, tells Anthony about how children are born with them, about how they Forge them into items when they’re around thirteen or fourteen.  How Sir had Forged his at eleven, an uncommonly early age, and how Ma'am had Forged hers at fourteen.

He dreads the next part of his explanation worst of all.

But, when Anthony looks up at him with those bright blue eyes and then points to the watch in Edwin’s hands and then back to himself, Edwin can’t lie to him.

“You were born … different Master Anthony,” Edwin tells him carefully.  “You’re lightless.  There was no heart-light to be found when you were brought into this world.”

There’s something like devastation on the boy’s face then and Edwin fumbles to make it go away.

“It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you,” Edwin rushes out but Anthony’s already turning, already running.  All Edwin can do is call after him helplessly.  “Master Anthony, please!”

It’s too late.  He’s already gone.

Edwin curses himself for a fool.  He should have handled that better.

By this point there are a lot of things he should have done better.

~~~

Anthony is morose in the next few weeks.

He’s red eyed and so very grim for such a young child.

But then he’s never been a normal boy, never been loud and happy and bright.

Edwin is beginning to believe it might not have anything to do with him being lightless at all.

Not if the small things Anthony has begun to build from the cobbled together bits and pieces he can get his hands on are anything to go by.

No, Anthony’s unique and Edwin’s almost sure that it has nothing to do at all with his lack of a heart-light.

He thinks that might just be who Anthony is.

~~~

Everything shifts and changes on Anthony’s fourth birthday.

Edwin goes to wake him that morning, breakfast tray in hand and a small present tucked in his apron pocket.

He pushes the door to the nursery open and finds Anthony sweaty and fever flushed in his bed, tiny body tangled in the damp sheets.

That isn’t what makes Edwin freeze though.

That isn’t what makes him drop the tray he’s holding and rush forward with a bitten off cry.

Edwin falls to his knees beside the boy’s bed.

He is completely undone.

Beneath the thin cloth of his nightshirt, like someone has pulled the sun itself down from the sky and set it beneath his skin, Anthony’s chest glows.