“That’s good little duck. One more time.”
Tiny clumsy fingers hit on keys. The tune is not perfect – it’s playful, it’s pure.
“Good job little duck. Good job.”
She begins to croon and it’s lovely. Even when his notes are wrong, the song was beautiful. And he never felt more loved. He smiles up at her, brown eyes sparkling with joy. She smiles back and sings. And sings…
There’s a piano in the corner of his every house.
Fingers, no longer clumsy – burnt and scarred but never clumsy – play perfectly now. But the notes are more somber. No one sings. He simply plays and remembers the time when someone did. That was a long time ago.
He plays once maybe twice a year – on her birthday, on that day. There’s always a piano and no one actually plays but him. Just him. It sits there quiet the rest of the year.
Today he plays and hears her say, “It’s okay little duck. You’ll do better.” He asks how. No one answers. There is no one in the building. It’s just him and his piano and his question, “How?”
The next day he plays again but the notes are hard. It’s forceful and clanging, like a punch, like the ricochet of a vibranium shield. He pounds, he pounds and he pounds. There is no melody. There is just the loudness that echoes through the halls. Clang. Clang. Clang.
The strings break.
He sat there and watched them remain broken.
His hands are no longer clumsy, but sometimes they destroy.
He goes to his workshop. He blasts loud, deafening rock music with the guitar riffs and heavy bass and thunderous drums and no piano. There is nothing gentle in the music and he pushes on. This is his sanctum, his bubble, his purgatory.
He gets work done. He hammers and solders and create. He emerges with a working prosthesis in 48 hours.
Rhodey smiles for the first time after the fall.
He smiles back for the first time after the break.
She would sing him lullabies.
She would sing them during thunderstorms. She would sing them after being gone for so long. She would sing them when he has nightmares, when he’s throwing tantrums, when he’s quiet, when he’s home. She would sing just cause.
And he would play the piano with her just cause.
Sometimes he would get the urge to play. He gets as far as lifting the cover.
A flash of her smile. “Go on, little duck.”
He walks away.
He plays once maybe twice a year – on her birthday, on that day.
A year ago, so long ago, he sat down and played. Just simple Christmas songs, she used to love them. She would serenade him, one after the other, until they left.
(and never came back)
A year ago, on that day, he had an audience.
His fingers flowed over the keys as he plays old, familiar carols. He remembered warm hearths and warm cocoa and even warmer arms. He sat on the left side of the bench where he always sits. The right side was cold.
He plays her favorite Christmas song.
“My mom used to sing that to me.”
He startled. The music halted. Slowly, as if waking up from a dream, he turned to see Steve leaning against the counter.
“Sorry, don’t stop on my account,” Steve said sheepishly, one hand in his pocket, the other rubbing the back of his neck. Small smile. Sad eyes.
He opens his mouth to speak. His tongue holds but his fingers move. A moment of silence and he began to play again. Hesitant at first and then as perfect as he could make it. Steve moved forward, slowly, humming under his breath.
Steve is quiet. For a large man, he can move without much noise. The seat beside him dips.
And Steve began to sing.
They were nothing alike. There was no lilt to the tune, his voice was softer, barely above a whisper. It was lower, rougher, less polished.
It was warm. And he felt at home.
He played and Steve sang.
They would fight. Oh how they fought.
He would play harsh, frustrated tunes that hurt his hand but never more so than his heart. Until Steve sings again and the melody loses its edge, lost in sincere hums and soothing baritone. Moments of peace when the vicious refrains tone down to tranquil harmonies. And they learned to live with each other.
Until they learn to live with each other and be content.
He would play and Steve would sing.
There was a new song in the air. It was vague but simmered like a storm. He understood the notes; the notes played like the cries of the innocent. Of casualties. Of their mothers and fathers and children.
His fingers trembled. They were stained red. The notes cry out to him.
I had become a part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.”
He waits for Steve to sit beside him as he usually does. Sometimes it takes a while, but it happens.
Except when it doesn’t.
It was quiet save for the brewing storm.
Old wounds reopen and new ones fester. Memories of her evoke memories of him. The piano stood mocking in the corner; black and white keys stained with so much red.
“Come now, little duck. Play me a song.”
“Hey Tony, will you play?”
He closes his eyes and shuffles forward.
The strings are still broken. He lets himself cry in the absence of music.
A package arrives for him.
He leaves it by the piano and shuts himself in his workshop.
The workshop door shuts on his face. His father’s stern, “Go away!” echoes through the halls (and in his head for years more to come). He doesn’t cry because Stark men don’t cry.
His mother finds him later, making himself small and inconspicuous outside his father’s workshop. Close enough to pretend he’s actually inside, away enough to not be driven away again. He fiddles with his toy motorcycle, a Captain America plushie helping him out.
“Hey little duck.”
He rans to her and she hugs him tight. She’s not always home but when she is, she helps him practice. Even when he falters, she smiles as though he’s perfect. Not second-best. Not a super soldier. Not a hero.
Her little duck.
He plays his best, a way to say it was enough. And that each note, as he learns them, makes everything better.
He opens his mouth to speak. His tongue holds but his fingers move.
He remembers – his mom, the war with friends, the lie, the blows exchanged.
“If you need me...”
It’s not perfect.
But it gets better.
The music plays on.