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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.

Chapter Text

His first memory is of cold and hunger.

He doesn’t have the words, the knowledge, to name either of those things as what they are but he still feels them.

He still feels.

~~~

He cries and cries and cries.

There is no comfort.

No warmth.

Just the cold and the hunger.

That and a sadness he cannot yet name.

But he will.

~~~

He cries because he’s hungry and cold.

He is always hungry and cold.

And so he cries and cries and cries.

~~~

He cries.

There’s a sharp pain in his face and it too is familiar now.

He stops crying.

There’s a rush of mumbled words he doesn’t understand.

Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo.”  He knows the voice, knows it from the rare times he’s not hungry.  Knows it from the pain that comes when he cries now.  It speaks and he doesn’t understand but he knows it.  “Santificado sea tu nombre. Venga tu reino. Hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo.”*

He’s cold and hungry and frightened.

He wants to cry but the fear of the pain that always follows stops him.

There is no comfort.

There has never been comfort.

~~~

The world begins to shift around him, begins to become sharper, clearer.

He doesn’t cry anymore.

Instead he watches.

Instead he learns.

Instead he slowly starts to become.

~~~

The voice leaves.

There’s someone else who comes to look at him but they don’t stay.

Another voice replaces the first one.

He grows.

He learns.

He is still cold.

He is still hungry.

There is still pain.

There is still no comfort.

~~~

The world shifts again, solidifies firmly in his mind.

He is aware.

~~~

The first thing Anthony learns, besides his name, is to be quiet.

It is the first, most important, lesson the second voice that he now knows as Ms. Bellissa teaches him.

Ms. Bellissa doesn’t like it when he makes noise.

Ms. Bellissa doesn’t like him very much at all.

~~~

“Anthony,” Ms. Bellissa barks at him and he looks up at her instantly, hands stilling on the toy he’s been slowly taking apart.

He knows better than to take too long to look at her.  Knows better than to disobey.

Disobedience is the only thing she hates more than him making a sound.

He’s learned to obey her as quickly and as best he can.

If he wants to eat, wants his warm blanket at night, wants to not hurt, then he has to do as she says.

Be quiet and obey.

“It’s time for you to learn to read,” Ms. Bellissa’s face is pinched in a thin line, the flower in her hair too bright against her drawn face.

It always draws his eye, that flower, but he knows better than to touch it, to touch her.

The last time he’d tried …

His arm had hurt for days and days afterwards.

He’d never tried again.

“Not sure what good it’ll do a little monster like you but you’ve got to learn,” her eyes are narrowed and her mouth is pursed in displeasure.  It’s always pursed in displeasure when she looks at him and he isn’t even sure why.

Maybe it’s because he’s a monster?

He’s not really sure.

He doesn’t know what a monster is, except, of course, for the fact that he is one.

He doesn’t focus on that though.   Can’t.

Instead he shuffles over and settles at her feet like she’d taught him to.

~~~

She teaches him how to read.

He picks up on it as quick as he possibly can.

There are pictures, bright and vibrant, small books and flashcards.

There’s also the ruler.

He doesn’t like the ruler.

She hits his hands with it until they ache and turn colors if he points to the wrong picture during their lessons.

He learns not to be wrong very quickly.

The pain isn’t worth it.

~~~

Anthony doesn’t speak.

He could.

He knows he could.

He mouths words to himself at night sometimes.  Words that he knows, words that he’s quickly, determinedly, begun to learn to read on his own.  He pours through the small, colorful books rapidly, moves on to the thicker, harder ones as fast as he can.

He learns a lot of words.  Learns a lot of things.

So, he knows he could speak.

Knows he could say the words he only allows himself to say in his head.

But he never does, never says them outloud into the stillness of his room.

He’s too afraid Ms. Bellissa will hear him.

Is too afraid of the pain that will follow.

Because it always follows.

He’s already so tired of hurting.

~~~

When he’s older, when he can no longer remember what his tears taste like but his blood is fresh on his tongue, he will have a moment of realization that will hurt.

It will sting so sharp it will almost be sweet, like the bite of a blade pressed down to bone.

I was born to sadness,’ he’ll think one day.  ‘ I was born to cold and hunger.  I am a monster stitched together by thread made of wanting, a container filled to the brim with loss.’

The tragic truth of it is this:

He will not be wrong.

~~~

There are other people in the house.  Anthony’s always known that even if he doesn’t see them often.

He learns to watch them.  Learns to watch everything and everyone.

Learns to watch the maids and the gardener and the man named Jarvis.

Anthony watches but he still doesn’t say anything.  Still doesn’t try and get closer to any of them because Ms. Bellissa taught him that was bad too.

Getting close means they can touch him.

And he doesn’t like pain enough to do that more than he has to.

So instead he watches and learns.

Then his attention is caught because there are Sir and Ma’am, two always leaving figures he only sees rarely and who never seem to look directly at him.  Two people who, he learns from Ms. Bellissa, are his parents.

He learns a bit after that what exactly parents are.

He wonders if they hate him too because he is a monster.

~~~

Monster - noun.
1 : a strange or horrible imaginary creature.

No, that doesn't sound right.

2 : informal : something that is extremely or unusually large

That either.

3 : a powerful person or thing that cannot be controlled and that causes many problems.

Maybe?

4 : a : an extremely cruel or evil person.  b : a person (such as a child) who behaves very badly.

Oh.

Anthony thinks he might understand now.

~~~~

Anthony is cold and hungry.

Ms. Bellissa hadn’t let him eat that day or the night before.

He’d made too much noise when she’d taken the ruler to him again last time.

But he is too hungry to care about how much it’s going to hurt if he gets caught.

He’s quiet when he makes his way downstairs.  Silent as a shadow as he creeps into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator.

There is so much food and there’s no one there to stop him.

The meat in the container is the first thing he goes for because he knows what it is.

He’s shoving bits of it into his mouth as quickly as he can when his entire world freezes.

“Master Anthony?”  Jarvis’ voice comes from behind him.

Even if Jarvis has never touched him in the past Anthony can’t help the way he hunches, the way he tenses, because he’s been bad and now he knows he’ll be punished.

Ms. Bellissa always punishes him if he’s bad.

And he’s bad often.

Just like the dictionary had said.

Only that’s not what happens.

Instead, Jarvis feeds him.  Warm oatmeal with apple chunks and warm milk.

It might be the best thing Anthony has ever tasted.

Anthony has never felt so warm, deep inside his chest where before there’d only been a hollow feeling to keep him company.

He likes it.

He thinks he might like Jarvis.

~~~

Jarvis sends Ms. Bellissa away, tells Anthony he’ll never have to see her again.

Anthony thinks this might be what love feels like.

~~~

He makes Jarvis the dragonfly because he still can’t bring himself to speak even if Ms. Bellissa isn’t there to hear him.

It's the only way he knows how to say thank you.

~~~

Jarvis is … warm.

Kind.

Anthony looks at him and aches deep inside.

Sometimes, when it’s dark in his room and no one can see him, he lets himself think about reaching out to Jarvis.  About talking to him, about maybe even seeing if Jarvis would pick him up again like he did that first night.

He doesn’t though.

Can’t.

It’s safer this way.

~~~

Jarvis’ pocket watch catches his eye just like Ms. Bellissa’s flower had.

It glows just a bit in a way Anthony’s never seen anything else glow.

Like it’s lit from within somehow.

It’s beautiful.

Anthony tracks his eyes from the watch to Jarvis’ face over and over again, a question bursting in his mind.

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

Anthony’s brow furrows in confusion as he stares at the watch because he doesn’t understand what Jarvis means.

“Did Be-," Jarvis cuts himself off sharply in that way he always does when he goes to mention Ms. Bellissa.  Anthony isn’t sure why he does it but he doesn’t dwell on it either.  Not when Jarvis is still talking.  "Has no one told you of heart-lights?”

Anthony shakes his head no because he’s never heard that word before, not even in his books.

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.

Something like fear begins to pool deep in Anthony’s stomach.

He looks up at Jarvis again before he lifts a hand that shakes and points to the watch in Jarvis’ hands and then back to himself.

Anthony thinks he already knows the answer he’s going to get but he doesn’t want it to be true.

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

Agony rails through Anthony, sharper than any pain he’s ever felt before.  He’d rather have Ms. Bellissa and her ruler back than this.

“It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you,” Jarvis rushes out but Anthony’s already turning, already running.

He can’t stay, won’t stay.

Not now, not when he finally knows.

Now Anthony knows exactly what it is that makes him a monster.

~~~

Anthony throws himself into his books, reads and reads and reads and then takes things apart and builds and builds and builds.

He's different and he doesn't want to be.

He's different and that's what makes him the monster Ms. Bellissa had always called him and he hates it.

He goes and goes until exhaustion claims him and he collapses on the floor of his room.  Until Jarvis comes and picks him up to put him to bed or brings him food and sits with him until he eats.

He has more food now than he ever has before, Jarvis is always bringing it to him, but Anthony finds that he doesn’t always want it.

But it’s nice, having it there.

It’s almost a comfort.

~~~

There is a burning in his chest.

An ache.

It’s been there since the day he made Jarvis the dragonfly and it’s only grown and grown.

He doesn’t feel cold anymore.

Instead he feels over hot and filled to bursting.

Like something is writhing inside his chest and just waiting to come spewing out.

~~~

And then … it does.

~~~

Jarvis is there by his bedside when he wakes up weak and shaking.  His face is pale and his expression is twisted in shock but his eyes are locked onto Anthony’s chest.

His chest where there is a glowing ball of fire trapped just beneath his skin.

It burns.

And then it begins to move.

Anthony screams and cries as it happens, wordless shrieks of agony and fear.

It hurts so much.

Worse than anything.

Worse than everything.

It wells up in his chest, grows brighter and brighter.  Anthony can feel it as it claws its way up his chest and towards his throat, can feel it as it burns its way upwards until it's lodged in the back of his mouth.

He twists on the bed until he’s on his hands and knees and he coughs and coughs.

He can’t breathe, the light is in his mouth and he can’t breathe.

Jarvis is with him then, one knee on the bed as he hovers at his side, voice urgent and frightened as he tells Anthony to, “let it happen Master Anthony, let it happen.”

Anthony’s trying.  He’s trying to.

He is.

He wants to obey.

Wants to be good.

Wants this to stop.

Because it hurts so bad.

“Sweet boy, Anthony, you have to breathe.

He can’t.

It’s in his mouth and he can’t.

Tony,” Jarvis’ voice is directly in his ear then, his hand is large and warm but gentle against the knobs of his spine, “just breathe.”

He hacks out another cough, ragged and deep, and then suddenly he can.

It’s gone, the heat and the pain, the thick feel of something burning in his mouth.

It’s gone.

Anthony collapses down onto the bed, barely aware of the way Jarvis rolls him over onto his back, hands still so gentle and warm.

Beside him Jarvis sucks in a shuddering breath and Anthony manages to pry his own eyes open.

And there, hovering just beyond the tip of his nose, is the most beautiful ball of blue light he’s ever seen.

Anthony reaches up a shaking hand and pokes at it.  The light quivers, like a giggle almost, and then it moves.

In a move that rips a startled yelp out of Jarvis it zooms around Anthony’s head like it has a life of its own and then settles down into his open palm.

It’s so warm.

Anthony is in awe of it.

“A heart-light,” Jarvis breathes from beside him.  “Never in all of my years …” He trails off for a moment before he turns a almost blinding smile in Anthony’s direction.  “You have a heart-light now Tony.  God knows I have no idea how … but that’s undeniably what it is.”

Anthony blinks in confusion at the shortening of his name but, after a long moment, he manages to twitch a small smile up at Jarvis.

Tony.

He thinks … he thinks he might like that.

Tony turns his attention to the warm ball of light in his hand, his heart-light.

But, before he can do anything else, there’s a sharp, searing pain across the arch of his left rib cage.  He hisses, a low and broken sound, and presses his free hand against the fresh hurt automatically.

Jarvis is there in the next second, hands fluttering to pull up his night shirt.

Tony watches as his eyes go wide and then the little bit of color in his face seems to drain away.

Impossible,” Jarvis whispers as he stares at Tony’s skin.

Tony blinks, looks down, and is surprised at what he sees.

There, etched into his skin in what looks like thick, vibrant red ink, are two names.

Steven Grant Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes.

~~~

Soulmates.

That’s what Jarvis tells him those names mean.

He has two soulmates.

Tony doesn’t understand what that means but Jarvis explains it to him as best he can.

“They would …” Jarvis looks pained, looks grieved in some way Tony can’t explain.  "You should not ... it's too early ..."

He sighs, clenches his eyes closed, and goes silent for a long moment.

“A soulmate,” Jarvis eventually continues gruffly, “is someone who will love you.  Someone who will complete you.”  Jarvis shows him his own wrist then, shows him where the name Ana Pfeffer sits, just as vibrant and red as the two now on Tony’s ribcage.  “I loved my Ana until the day the Lord took her from me.  I love her still, even after all these years apart.”

Tony stares at Jarvis’ name with something that feels like awe.

Love.

Someone, two someones, who will love him.

Him.

It’s almost too good to be true.

He beams a tired smile up at Jarvis who only looks back down at him with a sort of sadness Tony doesn’t understand.

He’s too tired to question it though, too exhausted.

Tony slips off to sleep, his heart-light cradled against his chest with one hand and the palm of the other pressed gently against his names.

He can’t wait to meet them.

Chapter Text

“Master Ant- Tony,” Jarvis corrects himself with a small grimace.  He’s taken to calling Tony that constantly in the few days since he’d coughed up his heart-light.

Tony likes it, thinks it fits him better than Anthony ever had, better than the name Ms. Bellissa had called him in the rare times she didn’t call him a monster.

Better than the name that had been given to him by parents he does not love and barely recognizes.

Tony looks up at Jarvis questioningly, hands still cupped around that large ball of light that is his heart-light.

Jarvis just stares down at him, expression conflicted, before he sighs and shakes his head.

“It’s time for lunch, Master Tony,” Jarvis tells him.  “Come along now.”

Tony follows after Jarvis as he turns and walks away but he can’t help but feel as if that wasn’t what Jarvis was going to say to him.

He brushes the feeling off and turns his attention back down to his heart-light with an obsessive kind of joy.

~~~

A week after Tony coughs up his heart-light Sir and Ma’am come home.

Tony knows this because Jarvis brings him downstairs to meet them.

Tony stands, silent and still, at his side as his parents come in through the front door.

They both freeze when they notice him standing there, his heart-light floating lazily around his head like a tiny glowing satellite before it settles down on top of his messy hair.

“Sir,” Jarvis dips his head in acknowledgement, “Ma’am.  There’s been a development I did not feel would be … appropriate to tell you about over the telephone.”

“What in the hell is that, Jarvis?”  Sir practically snarls as he strides across the entrance hall until he’s crowded into Tony’s space.  He reaches down and wraps a large hand around Tony’s bicep and drags him up onto his tiptoes with a bruising yank.

Tony doesn’t make a sound even though it hurts.

“A heart-light Sir,” Jarvis says quickly.  “He was sick, feverish, about a week ago and then he … well he coughed it up, Sir”

When Tony chances a small look in his direction Jarvis’ face is pinched and his eyes are locked on the spot where Tony’s skin has gone white beneath the pressure of Sir’s grip.

Sir just stares at Tony for a long moment, eyes narrowed and expression dark, and then he reaches up towards Tony’s heart-light with his free hand.

Tony reacts without thinking, without even realizing that he’s moving.

He lunges forward and bites down on Sir’s exposed wrist.

He won’t, can’t, let him touch his heart-light.

Sir bellows, the hand that’s wrapped around Tony’s bicep clenches down harshly for a second and then lets loose.

There’s a burning pain against Tony’s cheek then as the thick Forged gold ring Sir wears impacts with the arch of his cheek, splitting the skin instantly.

Tony just grunts and curls in on himself when he hits the ground.   His heart-light is there in the next second, pressed against his neck beneath his chin like it too is trying to hide.  Tony just curls down tighter around it, determined to protect the one thing he has that is his.

There’s yelling outside of the little cocoon Tony’s created around himself but he doesn’t move, doesn’t do anything but wait.

Eventually the noise dies down, there’s stomped footsteps and the distant slamming of a heavy door.

And then there’s a familiar and gentle touch against his spine.

“Oh Master Tony,” Jarvis sounds sad and weary, “you should not have done that.  This should have never happened.”

Tony knows that.  Knows that he shouldn’t have disobeyed, shouldn’t have touched Sir or tried to stop him.

He knows.

But he doesn’t care.

The only ones he wants to touch his heart-light is him and, one day, if they want to, his soulmates.

~~~

Tony lays in bed that night, long after Jarvis has left and the mansion is quiet, and watches his heart-light circle above his head like a tiny little planet.  Watches as it zooms back down to land on the tip of his nose, as soft and gentle as butterfly wings.

It’s as warm as anything Tony has ever felt.

Tony reaches up and takes it in his hands, pulls it close to his chest, and feels the way it pulses.  The way it almost seems to hum, like a distant lullaby sung just for him.

The thought is sweet enough to send Tony to sleep, curled around his heart-light, a small smile on his face.

The bruise on his cheek and the throbbing in his arm is of little concern.

Tony learned how to handle pain from the cradle after all.

~~~

Weeks pass, Sir and Ma’am both leave again, and Tony becomes more and more obsessed with his heart-light.

He can stare at it for hours at a time.  Can be as still and quiet as Ms. Bellissa had always wanted him to be as long as he has it in his hands.

It’s warm and bright and comforting.

He loves it.

He also loves the names on his ribs and the promise that they give to him.

The promise that one day he’ll meet two people who will love him in return.

Monster or not.

~~~

“I had not thought to ask,” Jarvis speaks up one afternoon over lunch in the kitchen, “but you can talk, can’t you?”

Tony goes still, frozen, unsure of how to handle being confronted with his silence.

Finally he gives Jarvis the smallest of nods.

“I thought so,” Jarvis finally sighs after a long moment.  “Perhaps, one day, you will trust me with your voice.”

Tony just shrugs and turns his attention back down to his book and his barely nibbled upon apple slices.

He already trusts Jarvis more than anyone else.  So his silence isn't a matter of trust where he’s concerned, not really, not anymore.

Maybe it never has been.

~~~

The next day Jarvis presents him with a book on sign language.

“You’ll need another way to communicate if you refuse to talk,” Jarvis tells him seriously.  “I won’t force you to speak Master Tony, but I will insist you learn this.  I’ll learn with you if you’d like, that way you’ll have someone to practice with.”

Tony just blinks up at Jarvis and then slowly reaches out and takes the book.

~~~

Tony picks it up quickly.  His hands are fluid and nimble and his vocabulary is surprisingly large after a relatively short time.

The lessons are all the easier given the way that Jarvis doesn’t use the ruler, not even when Tony makes a rare mistake.

But, even then, even with a solid grasp on the language, Tony barely uses it outside of their daily lessons.

He has no interest in talking, not even with his hands.

His voice works fine, he knows it does, but he just … doesn’t want to use it.

And his hands?

His hands have better things to do than talk.

~~~

In the quiet of the night Tony’s heart-light almost whispers to him.

Murmurs to him about the things he could create, about the wonders his hands could build if he tries hard enough.

His sleep is restless, broken.  Bits of half finished equations and rough schematics haunt his dreams.  All of it is tinted that same shade of electric blue that now defines his soul.

When he wakes he feels as if a fire has been ignited beneath his skin again.

His hands shake when he pulls himself out of bed in the early dawn hours but he ignores it, too focused on the images that linger in his mind.

There is something he wants to build.

Something he has to build because he knows that he can.

So he does.

~~~

Jarvis stares at the circuit board with an expression Tony has never seen before.

It doesn’t look happy or proud like Tony had thought hoped it would be.

“Come Master Tony,” Jarvis tells him after a long second, face grave and shoulders tense, “we must show your father.”

Tony abruptly freezes.

His father ?  That stranger he doesn’t know?  The man who’d hit him when he discovered Tony has a heart-light now?

He doesn’t understand what that man has to do with this, with anything Tony does.

But Jarvis insists and Tony … well he’d learned early on to obey.

And even if Jarvis is never anything but kind and warm to him it’s still a lesson he hasn’t been able to shake yet.

~~~

Sir stares down at the circuit board, thick brows furrowed on a face heavily lined from both age and drink.

Tony stares at him silently from where he’s standing just behind Jarvis, his heart-light cupped in his hands behind his back, it’s blue glow muffled and hidden.

Safe.

“The boy made it?”  Sir asks gruffly as he leans back in his chair, a thick crystal tumblr in one hand and Tony’s circuit board in another.

“Yes, Sir,” Jarvis dips his head in a nod.  “Master T-Anthony has proven himself to be rather talented in such things.”

“Not that talented,” Sir scoffs harshly as he tosses the circuit board down onto the desk.  Tony watches, frozen and silent, as it hits the thick wood and breaks, pieces scattering across the polished surface.  “You’ve got a week to make me another one boy.  Something better than this garbage to show the press.  You understand?”

Tony, unsettled by having Sir’s attention focused solely on him for once just dips his head in a short, jerky nod.

“I said do you understand ?”  Sir practically snarls as he slams the now empty tumbler down.  “I’m not going to be disrespected a second time by some little freak in my own house.  So you’d better answer me when I speak to you, you little bastard.”

“He doesn’t speak Sir,” Jarvis takes a half step forward, slots himself between Tony and Sir’s burning gaze.  “Not to me, not to anyone.  He can, there’s nothing wrong with him, but he won’t.  Perhaps he’ll grow out of it with time.”

“He’s a fucking mute too?”  Sir scoffs in disgust before he slumps back down in his chair and pinches the bridge of his nose between his fingers.  “Figures.  Get him out of my sight Jarvis.  And remember, one week.  If he doesn’t have something better than this junk to show for it he’ll be sorry.”

Sir waves them both away and Jarvis wastes no time in ushering Tony out of the study.

Tony doesn’t protest.

All he can think about was how easily Sir had destroyed his circuit board.

About how he’d called it, and Tony in turn, trash.

About how the heavy gold ring he wears had burned when it had cut the arch of Tony’s cheek open.

In that moment Tony slots Sir firmly into place beside Ms. Bellissa in his head.  Categorizes him in a way that not even that first hit had made him do.

Because that pain had been easy to overcome but this, this disregard of something he’s built?

That puts him firmly into place in Tony’s mind as someone to be watched and studied but never ever trusted.

~~~

Time will prove him right.

Oh God.

Time will prove him right.

~~~

Tony makes a new circuit board in three days, that drive to obey in order to not be hurt pushing him to be faster than before.

Plus, now that he knows what he’s doing the second one is better, sturdier, than the first one he’d made.

Sir still looks at him with that furrowed brow and slight sneer.

Tony is confused because he’d done exactly as he’d been told.  He’d obeyed but it still hadn’t been good enough.

But then, he’d never managed to be good enough for Ms. Bellissa either.

He's almost used to it by now.

~~~

There’s a press conference.

It’s all bright lights and shouted questions and Tony hates every second of it.

Hates the way Sir’s hand on his shoulder gets tighter and tighter every time someone asks Tony a question he only shakes his head to answer.  Or how his grip goes brutally tight when someone says something about the son surpassing the father.

Tony doesn’t want to surpass Sir.

Tony just wants to go home, back to his room and Jarvis’ quiet kindness.  Just wants the comforting warmth of his heart-light that even now sits hidden in his pocket, its glow muffled by the small black box Jarvis had given him.

He doesn't want any of this attention, any of these people.

~~~

That night Sir hits him again; a vicious, open palmed strike to the face.

Tony takes it like he always had before with Ms. Bellissa.

Just bites down on any sound that wants to creep out of his mouth and lets his mind drift until it’s over.

In some ways this is nothing more than a return to the normal for him.

~~~

“I’m sorry, Master Tony,” Jarvis’ voice is thick when he comes to him that night but his hands are still gentle when they brush across the fresh welt on his cheek.

Tony smiles up at him as best he can, even when it makes his split lip twinge.  He isn’t sure what, exactly, Jarvis is sorry for.

“I should have kept it a secret,” Jarvis whispers.  “I had thought they would … I am so sorry, sweet boy.  Forgive me, please forgive me.  I’ve failed you again.”

Tony reaches out slowly and cautiously presses the tip of his finger to the back of Jarvis’ hand, the first touch he’s ever initiated.

Jarvis looks shocked and when he smiles back down at Tony his face is wet with tears.

Tony snatches his hand back and curls his fist against his chest as he tries to swallow down his disappointment.  He hadn’t meant to make Jarvis cry, hadn’t meant to hurt him.

He should have known better than to reach out.

~~~

“You must make me a promise,” Jarvis tells him abruptly a few days later after Ma’am and Sir have left again.

Tony looks up at Jarvis, his curiosity a living thing in his chest.

Jarvis has never asked him for a promise of any kind before.

“Your names,” Jarvis falters for a split second, “the names of your soulmates.  I want … you need to keep them secret Master Tony.  I do not … Sir would not …” Jarvis trails off, face creased in frustration and worry.  “Just promise me you’ll keep them to yourself, at least for now.  And especially from Sir.  Promise me.”

Tony nods his agreement slowly.  He doesn’t know why this is so important to Jarvis but he’ll do it.

Especially since it’s Sir that Jarvis wants him to hide his names from.

Tony doesn’t want to think about what he might do.

Especially since Jarvis is so obviously afraid of even the thought.

~~~

Time skips forward.

Tony is five and going to school now.  He’s in classes with children almost twice his age and three times his size.  There is so much to learn and Tony is thrilled at the opportunity.  The only problem is that the other students don’t like him much.  Don’t like the way he’s so small and quiet and so much smarter.

They don’t like the fact that he doesn't talk.  Don't like how he doesn’t pull his heart-light out to show it off in between lessons like the rest of them do.  Don’t like the way he doesn’t wear it in a necklace cage or carry one of the special lanterns designed to showcase it like many of them do.

Instead he keeps his heart-light in a small black lacquered box with golden filigree that Jarvis had given him when he'd signed the request at him.

After the first time one of the boys in class tries to swipe it off of the corner of his desk Tony keeps the box and his heart-light in his pocket.  Tony had bit that boy too, just like he had Sir.  Had latched onto his arm with his teeth and refused to let go until the teacher had grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and tugged.

The fact that he had barely gotten into trouble over the whole thing hadn't done him any favors with the other children.

It had, in the end, just made them meaner.

Made them more prone to point and giggle when the teacher isn't looking.

Eventually they also start to whisper that, maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t have a heart-light at all.

‘Lightless', they giggle with each other, voices low with something like delighted fear.   ‘Maybe he’s a lightless and that stupid box is empty.  If he is, my parents said we should stay away from people like him.’

Tony just tucks a hand into his pocket, wraps his fingers around the box, and focuses on the warmth even the lacquered wood can’t completely contain.

He was a lightless but he isn’t anymore, no matter how much hiding his heart-light makes him feel as if he still is.

He’s not.

But that’s not any of their business.

His heart-light is for him and his soulmates alone.  He won't take the chance of anyone else possibly touching it like Sir had tried to do.

If that means hiding it from everyone else then he will.

No matter how much he wishes he could make the whispers stop.

~~~

Even though he hides his heart-light from everyone but Jarvis that doesn’t mean that Tony doesn’t watch the other children.

He studies them and their heart-lights, the colors, the sizes, everything he can think to make a note of.  He even takes the time to look at the pale grey book the quiet, mousy haired girl in the back of the class has already Forged when he’s sure no one else is paying attention.

There are other blue heart-lights in his classes but none of them come close to the electric shine of his own.  None of them are active and vibrant like they have personalities all their own.

The other children’s heart-lights are still, static things except for the rhythmic pulsing each one gives off.

But Tony?

Tony’s heart-light is a thing of blue flame.

A bundle of cerulean lightning.

A celestial body cupped in his tiny hands.

He doesn’t understand why it looks so different from everyone else’s.

~~~

One day he will.

~~~

Eventually one of his teachers, a young sweet faced woman with a heart-light Forged into a length of silken black ribbon she wears wrapped from wrist to elbow on her left arm, sees the ring of bruises Sir left around his wrist.

She asks Tony about them but he stays silent, just stares over her shoulder and clutches his backpack so tightly his knuckles turn white.

Her lips purse but she lets him go back to his seat and his work with a smile and a pat on the head that makes him flinch ever so slightly.

She watches him after that though.  He can feel her eyes on him constantly throughout the days that follow.

But she also lets him stay inside during breaks, lets him eat lunch with her at her desk.

She even slides him a book here and there about magic and knights when he’s only supposed to be reading about math and science.

Then, when she catches him in the library one afternoon, she even slips him a book about soulmates and heart-lights that he’s been eyeing but the librarian has been refusing to let him check out.

Tony hides it in his bag and spends the rest of the day trying not to fidget in his seat.

He doesn’t trust her but he think he almost likes her.

She’s kind.

Like Jarvis.

~~~

Sir comes back to the mansion in a black mood that night.

The door to Tony’s room flies open and slams against the wall so hard that the knob leaves a hole in the plaster.

Sir’s face is clouded over in thunderous rage.

Tony feels fear, real and true and vicious, trace down his spine.

For the first time in his life he tries to run.

~~~

He doesn’t make it far.

~~~

There are tears on Jarvis’ face when Tony wakes up again but this time Tony doesn’t reach out.  Doesn’t try to touch him.

He hurts too much to try.

The book on soulmates sits forgotten where he’d hidden it beneath his mattress.

~~~

Tony goes back to school a week and a half later.

There’s a cast on his left wrist and his limp hasn’t completely faded yet.

His teacher, the one who’s always been so kind to him, is gone.

In her place is a dour faced man with a heart-light Forged into a long emerald colored cane with a obsidian colored raven’s head acting as a handle.

He doesn’t call on Tony in class, not even to go up to the board and solve equations.  He barely even seems to realize Tony exists except for when it’s time to take his papers and hand out his grades.

The school breaks ground on a new library a few weeks later.

Two days after that Tony is informed that he's being pushed forward another grade.

None of his new teachers even glance at Tony’s bruises.

~~~

He's six, almost seven really, and he’s in history class when it happens.

They've been discussing World War II and all of its horrors for the past two days.

“This,” his teacher drones on, “is where Captain America and the Howling Commandos finally come into play.”

The rest of the class cheers but Tony just tilts his head in confusion because he's never heard of either of those things.

But then ...

There's a picture of a smiling blonde man with his arm thrown over a smirking brunettes shoulder on the projector screen and Tony feel his entire world freeze.

Something about them grabs every inch of his attention and refuses to let it go.

“Steven Grant Rogers and his soulmate James Buchanan Barnes, fought against HYDRA and the Axis powers until their deaths …”

The teacher's voice fades out, no match for the buzzing in Tony’s ears or the black spots that quickly begin to crowd his vision.

He knows those names.

He knows them.

He knows.

There's a surge of warmth against his hip as his heart-light rattles in the box it’s hidden in.

Tony’s chest goes tight and no matter how hard he tries he can’t seem to breathe.

He slams his palms down against his desk with bang, barely aware of the high pitched keen he's giving off, and then tries to stand.

At the front of the room the teacher is stunned to silence.  The rest of the class turns to stare at him but no one moves to help.  

They just stare and whisper.

In that moment Tony thinks he hates them all.

And then the black closes in and Tony’s world goes dark.

~~~

Jarvis is there when Tony wakes up again, just like he always is, but Tony barely even acknowledges him.

He's still too lost in the reality of what he's just discovered.

In the truth he's trying desperately not to believe.

Jarvis bundles him up, makes their excuses, and takes him home early.

In the backseat of the car Tony clutches his now freed heart-light close to his chest and rocks back and forth, back and forth.

‘Please,’ he begs silently to himself, ‘please don’t be true.’

~~~

Tony spends the next two days on his bedroom floor reading that soulmate book and every previously ignored history text he can find in the mansion's library.

He doesn't eat, he doesn't sleep.

He just reads and learns.

And with each new book, each new paragraph, each new fact, his world slowly begins to crumble around him.

~~~

In the end Tony learns two things.

First is the fact that his heart-light has already settled.  That it had somehow emerged from his chest fully formed and solidly Forged.

Despite Jarvis having never mentioned that fact, and despite how impossible it sounds according to the books he's read, Tony knows it's true.

Soulmate names only appear after a Forging after all and his are vibrant and red on his rib-cage.

The second thing he learns is that both of his soulmates are heroes.

They were heroes, legends, and none of that matters to Tony when stacked up against the fact that they are dead.

They are dead, dead, dead and never coming back.

They'd both been taken by ice and cold in a war that had ended decades before he was ever born.

~~~

He is six years old when he learns this terrible truth:

Tony’s soulmates are dead and he is going to spend the rest of his life alone.

~~~

“Master Tony, you must rest, eat, do something other than this.” Jarvis is pale and worried as he hovers at his side.  “If you don't return to school soon I'm afraid they'll call Sir.”

Tony’s been buried in his room and refusing to leave for almost a week now.  Buried in books and tools and the churning chaos of his own mind.

He knows Jarvis is right but he just … doesn't care.

His soulmates are dead.

He's never going to meet them.

He’s never … they’re never going to …

They’re dead.

Dead.

“They’re dead,” the words come out raspy and jagged, his voice is a rugged and unconditioned muscle.

“Master Tony,” Jarvis is on his knees beside him in the next moment, hands cupping his shoulders as he pulls Tony around to face him.  “You spoke.”

They’re dead,” Tony repeats again and when he looks up at him he sees the way Jarvis’ eyes go wide and his face abruptly pales.

“Who?”  Jarvis asks the question but Tony knows that Jarvis already knows what he’s talking about.

“My soulmates,” Tony stares him directly in the eyes as he talks, “they’re dead.  You knew.”

“Yes,” grief is stark and heavy on Jarvis’ face.  “Yes I knew.  I knew and, sweet boy, I am so very sorry.  I wanted to give you time … wanted you to be a bit older before you had to face that grief.”

“They’re dead,” Tony says again and the words taste just as bitter as they had the first time.  “They’re dead and you knew.”  He tugs himself out of Jarvis’ hold.  “I don’t want to talk to you anymore Jarvis.”

Tony ignores the way Jarvis pleads with him to understand, ignores his attempts to get Tony to focus on him again.  To speak again.  Instead he turns back to his slowly forming engine, the thing he’s been pouring his grief and his half formed rage into so far.

For the first time in his life he chooses not to obey Jarvis.

It feels wrong because Jarvis is so kind to him even if he had kept this secret from Tony for over two years now.

But it also feels just a tiny bit like freedom.

~~~

Sometimes at night, when everything is silent and still in the mansion, Tony will pull his shirt up and stare at his names in the blue glow of his heart-light.

“You're dead,” he tells the ghosts of two men he'll never meet.  Two men who were supposed to love him but died instead.  Two men who had existed in a time he can never touch.  “You left me alone."

It's one part accusation and one part plea.

"Please come back," Tony whispers, desperate and aching and too young for this in ways he can't even begin to understand.  "I don't want to be alone.  Please."

There is no answer of course.

But then, Tony wasn’t exactly expecting one.

‘At least', Tony thinks as he curls around the comforting warmth of his heart-light, shoulders shaking but face dry.  'I will always have this.’

~~~

Here is a secret, almost too terrible to tell:

Time will take this from him as well.

Chapter Text

Grief torn and exhausted Tony finishes the engine he’s been working on.

He collapses bonelessly on the floor beside it and sleeps for two days.

When he wakes Jarvis is at his side, face pale and expression pinched with worry.

Tony doesn’t speak to him again no matter how much Jarvis begs in those first few days.

Instead he just ... drifts.

~~~

This time, when Sir’s hand bites into his shoulder as they stand in front of the press Tony barely even feels it.

Just like he barely even feels the backhand he gets later on that night or the way Sir’s ring burns as it splits his skin open yet again.

It’s a familiar kind of pain after all.

It doesn’t hold a candle to the agony that is knowing he’d lost his soulmates before he ever had a chance to have them.

Tony is sure that nothing will ever be able to surpass that level of desolation.

Nothing will ever be able to hurt him as deeply as this soul searing despair.

~~~

He’s wrong of course.

He just doesn’t know it yet.

But he will.

~~~

Tony’s eight when he’s taken for the first time.

He doesn’t say a word the entire time, just curls his hand around the box holding his heart-light and stares blankly at the wall of the closet they’d shoved him in.

They give him a bottle of water sometime during everything and one of the men takes him to the bathroom a few hours after that.

They don’t feed him and Tony doesn’t bother to ask or complain in any way.

But, after the first time when he makes no sound and just stares at the man responsible, they don’t hit him again either.

Instead they put him back in the closet, shoulders rigid and faces pinched with unease.

Tony barely even notices.

Instead he just focuses on his heart-light, on the way the electric blue glow of it lights up the small room when he finally lets it out of its box.

It’s warm and bright and Tony knows that as long as he has it with him he doesn’t have to be afraid.

~~~

The place he’s being kept in falls quiet around him hours and hours later but Tony stays in the closet.

He doesn’t even bother to check the door and see if it’s still locked.

A part of him doesn’t even care.

Instead he stays where he’s at, heart-light cupped in his hands, gaze fixed unendingly on that bright electric blue glow.

In his hands his heart-light pulses and hums.

Tony watches in awe as it seems to grow just a bit bigger for a split second before it shrinks back down to it’s regular size.

~~~

The apartment is empty when he finally leaves the closet, the people who took him are nowhere to be found.

Tony wonders out of the apartment and then out of the building.  He’s in the city he realizes quickly enough.  Is in a run down neighborhood he’s never seen before.  The pavement’s cracked and there’s graffiti on every other building.

Tony just shrugs, tucks his heart-light back into its box and sets off down the street.

He finds a phone booth eventually and while the phone itself is missing the phone book is still intact.

It’s simple enough to look up the address of the nearest police station.

Tony knows that’s what he’s supposed to do if he’s ever lost.

Find the police.

Jarvis had told him so.

And, despite the secret he’d kept from Tony, Jarvis is still the person he trusts most in the world.

~~~

The police try to get him to talk.

Tony just sits in the chair they’d ushered him into and stares blankly at the wall behind the officer’s shoulder.

He doesn’t say a word.

~~~

In the end it’s Jarvis who comes for him.

Jarvis who is pale and thin faced, eyes red rimmed and hands shaking as he checks Tony over carefully.

“Master Tony,” Jarvis breathes as he pulls him close and wraps him in a tight, desperate hug.  “You’re safe now, sweet boy.  You’re safe.”

Tony honestly isn’t sure why Jarvis is so upset.

They’d only hit him the once after all.

Sir does that on a regular basis.

~~~

“Like a bad penny,” Sir sneer at him a few days later.

Tony understands the reference.

He knows then why the people who’d took him from his school had up and left him alone in that closet.

Sir had obviously had no intention of paying to get him back.

Tony’s not exactly surprised.

~~~

Tony’s nine and he’s in high school.

He’s nine and he’s been hiding his heart-light from everyone around him except for Jarvis for years now.

He’s nine and he’s collecting every scrap and shred of information about his soulmates he can get his hands on and safely hide.

He’s nine and his soulmates are heroes and legends and they are both dead dead dead and never coming back.

He’s nine and the whispers about him being a lightless won’t stop.

He’s nine and he almost wishes they were true sometimes.

He’s nine and he’s sure that no matter how much he loves his heart-light being lightless again would be better than this.

Would be better than the ache of knowing that the two men who were supposed to love him had left him far behind.

Tony is nine the first time he thinks that death might be the best option all around.

At least then he could be with them.

~~~

One night Tony has a nightmare.

In the dream Ma'am, Maria, hovers over his bed with a pillow in her hands and mascara smeared across her cheeks from where she's sobbing raggedly.

In the dream Jarvis is there too, hands wrapped around her arms as he shakes her and practically slings her across the room and way from Tony.

In the dream Tony's chest hurts, his vision is spotted and his head throbs.

In the dream all he can hear is the way Maria sobs and shrieks about how, "he's a monster, a filthy little monster.  We should have gotten rid of him when he was born."

But, thankfully, it was just a dream.

~~~

Wasn't it?

~~~

Now when Tony goes to sleep he wedges a chair beneath the knob of his bedroom door.

He doesn't want that dream to repeat itself.

That is one nightmare he'd rather not face again.

~~~

Tony learns about Sir’s obsession with his soulmates the winter before he turns ten.  Finally finds out why exactly Jarvis had been so adamant that day that Tony keep his names hidden.

That winter Tony learns all about how Sir’s spent decades and millions of dollars in his search for Captain America.

Tony learns about how Sir had met Steve during the war, learns about Project Rebirth and Sir’s hand in it.

Learns about the rescue of the 107th and the formation of the Howling Commandos with Steve and James at the helm.

Learns about everything that came in between and after wards.

Learns in even deeper detail exactly how he lost both of them.

Learns how Sir, how Howard, was there through all of it.

Tony learns how this man who should be his father but isn’t in anything but name, this man who hurts him, who makes him bleed, has done the one thing Tony would give up everything to do.

Howard had met Tony’s soulmates decades before Tony was ever born.  Had spoken to then, known them, had been there.

It’s a truth that makes something ugly and spiteful roar to life in his chest in a way that not even broken bones and bruises ever could.

‘This', Tony thinks, ‘is something worth hating the man for.’

~~~

Maria is gone again, away at a special kind of spa for an extended stay.

Tony hasn't seen her in months unlike Howard who's home now more than he ever was in the past.

He never has that nightmare again

But he still sleeps with the chair beneath his doorknob.

He just feels safer that way.

~~~

He’s ten the first time he meets Peggy Carter.

She’s a beautiful woman made up of red lipstick, a spine of steel, and a heart-light Forged into a small silver pistol she wears tucked into a lovingly embroidered leather shoulder holster.

She whirls into the mansion one afternoon and spends the day closed up with Howard in his study.  She doesn’t come out for hours, neither of them do.

But, later that evening, Tony watches her curiously from behind the kitchen door as she talks with Jarvis.

He can’t hear everything they say but he sees the way she goes pale as Jarvis speaks in a low, rushed tone.  Sees the way a hand reaches up instinctively to rub at the skin behind her right ear.

Her face is twisted in what looks like sadness and when Jarvis opens his arms she steps into them willingly.

~~~

That night, when Howard has gone to bed smelling of scotch and cigars and the mansion finally begins to quieten down, Jarvis brings her to Tony’s room.

Tony watches them both curiously because Jarvis never brings anyone to his room.  Not even the maids are allowed inside.  Jarvis is the one who cleans everything and changes the bed.

“Master Tony,” Jarvis says softly, carefully, as he sits down on the edge of Tony’s bed.  His face is earnest and open but Tony feels unease begin to stir to life in his chest.

He nods to show Jarvis that he’s listening.

“I know that I …” Jarvis clears his throat gruffly, “that is to say I’m aware that I asked you to promise …”

“Oh for heaven’s sake Edwin,” Peggy huffs before she moves across the room until she’s standing in front of him where he’s sitting near the head of his bed, knees tucked up against his chest.  His heart-light is in his box and clenched tightly in his fist to keep it safe from this stranger.

Tony can’t help the way he hunches in on himself as she towers over him.

“Oh ducky,” Peggy sighs before she goes down onto her knees beside the bed, her hands splayed out on top of the comforter beside him.  “I’m your Aunt Peggy and I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time now Tony.  I know you don’t know me, and I know that Edwin made you promise to keep it a secret, but I’d like it very much if you’d let me see your soulmate names.  I swear to you it won’t leave this room.  But … I’d like to see them, please.”

Tony shoots a mildly betrayed look in Jarvis’ direction.

She’d said them, plural, which means she knows he has more than one.

Which means Jarvis must have been the one to tell her.

“I know I told you to keep it a secret but you can trust her, Master Tony,” Jarvis speaks up immediately.  “I trust her with my life and, more importantly, with yours.  She won’t breathe a word of it to anyone.  I promise.”

Tony bites at the inside of his cheek hard enough that he tastes blood before he nods sharply in her direction.  He unfolds himself slowly and reaches down to lift the side of his shirt up.

His names are there, still that vibrant red against his skin.  Still the names of two men dead long before his time.

When she bends close to him to get a better look Tony sees that, behind her right ear, the name Angela Martinelli is etched delicately across the skin there in vibrant red.

God,” Aunt Peggy breathes out shakily, “it’s true.  I had thought you were mistaken but it’s true.  There was never any record but this ... this is undeniable ...”

“Sir can’t know,” Jarvis tells her solemnly.

“Howard’s a fool and a drunk,” Aunt Peggy bites back sharply.  “He was a fool then and he’ll die a fool but I can’t believe …”

“He can’t know,” Jarvis repeats.  "Margaret, you have to promise me, promise Tony.  Sir can't know."

Aunt Peggy’s expression twists, goes terrible for a long second, and then smooths out.

“He won’t hear of it from me,” Aunt Peggy finally agrees with a sigh.  “Already promised that he wouldn’t.  I won’t break that trust.”

There's a long moment of charged silence.

“I thought,” Jarvis starts softly a moment later, “that perhaps you could tell Master Tony a few stories about Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes.  Real stories about the kind of men they were.  I think he deserves to have that at least, the truth of them instead of the lies and the propaganda.”

Tony’s attention immediately focuses laser like on Aunt Peggy.

She’d known them too.

Sometimes Tony wonders if everyone around him had met the men he’d been destined for but him.

“I want to know them,” Tony rasps the words out and ignores the sucked in breath Jarvis takes or the wide eyed surprise on Aunt Peggy’s face.  He’s aching and desperate to hear about them, to hear something more than what’s in the history books and the documentaries.  To hear more than Howard’s drunken ramblings over the phone to Uncle Obie.

He’ll beg if he has to.

Will beg for these scraps of knowledge, for even an echo of an intimate sort of knowing that’ll never be enough no matter how many shards of it he cobbles together because they will always, always, be second hand.

Please.”  The word pulls itself up from his throat, rips itself out of his chest and batters its way out from behind his teeth.

It’s as close as he’s ever gotten to a prayer.

“Of course,” there’s something sad and soft in Peggy’s voice then, a sorrowful light in her eyes.  “Of course I will Tony, sweetheart.  It’s the least I can do.  It’s … it’s less than you deserve, than they deserve.  They would have … they would have wanted me to tell you I think.”

~~~

Aunt Peggy tells him all she knows, all she remembers, about Steve Rogers and James Barnes.

She tells him about Steve’s spirit, about his will and determination.  About his heart and how it had been too big and too beautiful for the thin, sickly body he’d been born into.

She tells him about James’ quick smile and easy laughter.  About his steady hands and that solid core of loyalty and strength that had run through him soul deep.

She tells him about their courage and the love that had shined between the two of them, bright and obvious and so beautiful to witness.

“Steve was my friend,” Aunt Peggy tells him softly, sadly.  “More so than Barnes but they were both … they were precious to me.  They treated me like an equal.  I didn’t know … they never said anything about another soulmate but it was rarer in those days to be open about one’s name before you’d met your matches.  Was considered bad luck by many.”

Anguish clenches sharply in Tony’s chest at that fact.  Something like hurt wells up within him at the idea that they’d never said anything about having his name.

‘Maybe they didn’t have it at all, ’ some dark part of Tony’s mind hisses, ‘maybe you were never their soulmate like they're yours.  Or maybe they just didn’t want you.  Maybe that’s why they both died.

He pushes the thoughts away violently and refuses to focus on them.

And then she says something that makes him feel sick to his stomach.

“They would have been so good for you ducky, because they both loved so deeply.  You could see it when you looked at them, when they looked at each other.  Even their heart-lights matched believe it or not.  Supposedly they Forged them together when they were kids,” Aunt Peggy tells him with a small smile.  “Steve’s was this beautiful white star pendant, it was as wide as my palm and absolutely flawless.  Barnes had a red one that matched it and it was stunning.”

The world is a rush of noise in Tony’s ears and her voice suddenly sounds far away.

“I’ll never forget what happened when the Commandos formed and Howard made Steve his shield,” Aunt Peggy continues on. “We were all surprised when Steve pressed his heart-light against the surface of it and it sank right down into the metal like that was where it had always belonged.  That shield was always so amazing after that.”

Their heart-lights had been stars, had matched for some reason.

Tony’s heart-light isn’t a star.

Tony’s heart-light doesn’t match theirs.

Tony doesn’t match.

Oh.

~~~

Before she leaves almost a week later Aunt Peggy slips him a small envelope.

Inside are three pictures he’s never seen before.

One is a picture of who he now knows is Steve pre-serum.  He’s slender and gaunt looking but Tony traces his finger over his face with awe.

The second is a picture of James, serious faced and handsome.  He's dressed in his military uniform but unable to hide the sparkle of good humor in his eyes.

The third makes Tony’s breath catch in his chest.  It’s the two of them standing together, arms around each other and heads tilted back in laughter.  They’re dirty, faces streaked with what looks like soot and their uniforms are obviously singed, but their smiles are blinding and their eyes are so warm in a way that not even the old, black and white photo can hide.

Tony presses calloused, ragged nailed fingers against those smiles with a shaky kind of reverence and aches.

~~~

Tony spends a lot of time staring at those photos.  Spends hours tracing those smiles by the glow of his heart-light.

It’s as close as he’ll ever get to them after all.

It’s all that he has.

It’ll never be enough.

"I love you," he whispers to those smiles because he needs to say the words out-loud for once.  "I never got to meet you but I miss you.  I never got to know you but I still love you.  Please, come back."

~~~

Tony wakes from a dream about circuit boards and engines to the sight of his room awash in a familiar electric blue glow.

Above his head his heart-light hovers.

Only it’s five times its normal size and it pulses with more than just his heartbeat.  It hums and rotates like something inside of it is shifting.

Growing.

Changing.

Entranced Tony reaches both hands up towards the light.

Some kind of inborn instinct guides his movements as he places his fingertips on on opposite sides of the sphere and pulls.

His heart-light thrums and then there is an explosion of electric blue light.

Tony blinks the spots from his eyes and immediately goes breathless with a giddy sort of awe.

Around him, covering the entirety of his bedroom, is his heart-light.

Tony stares up at the swirling patterns and designs and feels his heart skip a beat in his chest because …

That’s his circuit board design.

His engine.

The robot he’s been dreaming about making.

The computer he plans to build.

The dragonfly he’d made for Jarvis.

Tony reaches out and carefully, cautiously, touches the half finished schematic of the handgun he’d just started working on at Howard’s insistence.

It spins at his touch and then blows wide, the gun disassembling down to parts like he’s got it laid out right in frot of him.

Tony flings himself out of his bed in the next second and turns a circle in the middle of his bedroom floor, mouth dropped open in delighted awe as he takes in the other things he can see.

There, playing like a video clip against his closet door, is Jarvis looking at him with that soft smile that always makes Tony feel warm inside.

There, against the far window, is Aunt Peggy’s brilliant laughter.

There, on the bed he'd just left, is Steve and James, arms wrapped around each other and faces alight with joy and love.

There, spread out across his walls and ceiling and floor are his designs, his schematics and his codes all displayed around him.

His thoughts, his dreams, his mind laid bare and open for him to see.

His heart and soul all written out in electric blue, hanging in the air like stars in the sky.

Like a galaxy made up just for him.

~~~

Tony keeps it a secret, this new discovery of his.

He doesn’t even show Jarvis.

He wants to keep this one thing for himself

Wants this one thing that no one else can touch, that no one else knows about.

He can’t have what he really wants so this … this will have to do.

~~~

Now, at night when Tony is alone in his room, he takes his heart-light in his hands and flings it wide open.

He spins round and round in circles until he’s dizzy and then he falls to a breathless laughing heap to the floor and spends hours staring up at this impossible galaxy birthed from his mind and soul.

He spends hours learning to work the designs like they’re a physical thing in front of him, learns to manipulate them like he would the real things.

Learns to create with nothing more than his heart-light to guide his way.

Nothing has ever felt so right.

~~~

For a while Tony is as close to truly happy as he’s ever been.

His heart-light is even more of a comfort than it had always been.

It’s a source of joy and fascination and it helps him build, helps him visualize in a way he’d only ever dreamed about.

It’s beautiful.

~~~

Then, the worst comes to pass.

~~~

Jarvis gets sick.

Gets achy and feverish and weak.

Tony sees it and feels worry bubble up in his chest no matter how many times Jarvis pats him on the head and tells him it's just a small cold, that he'll get over it in no time.

~~~

And then, of course, Jarvis doesn’t get any better.

He gets worse.

~~~

‘Lung cancer,’ the doctors say a month after Jarvis finally gives in and goes for an exam.  'Late stages.'

Jarvis holds him tightly to his chest when he tells him, tucks Tony’s face into his neck and rocks him back and forth, back and forth, and apologizes all the while.

Tony doesn’t want Jarvis’ apologies.

He just wants Jarvis to live.

~~~

Here is a truth too sad to speak:

Tony rarely gets what he truly wants.

This will be no exception.

~~~

Time presses forward as it always does.

Tony is eleven now and he’s clinging to his composure with jagged teeth and splintered nails already half worn to the bone.

He is eleven and his mind is a whirling cacophony of sound and light and the restless, insistent pounding of creation.  He spends his nights surrounded by his heart-light and trying to battle back the despair that’s rapidly eating him away inside.

That bitter, ragged monster that’d bloomed to life in his chest months ago when he realized Howard had known his soulmates has only doubled in size.

Every time Howard hits him, every time that ring of his burns against his skin, every time Jarvis grimaces in pain or coughs weakly, wetly, into his handkerchief Tony can feel it grow just a little bit more.

The anger is better than the heartbreak of knowing that he’s going to lose Jarvis just like he’d lost Steve and James both.

The anger is better than the realization that there’s nothing he can do to stop it.

~~~

Tony is eleven and Jarvis is doing his best to keep up his duties, insistent on the fact that he wants to keep working.  That it provides him with a sort of comfort to go about his daily routine despite everything else.  Despite the way the treatments aren’t taking, despite the way he grows weaker day by day.

Tony is eleven and trying not to focus on how thin Jarvis has gotten, on how his hands shake now when he pours their afternoon tea.

Tony is eleven when he learns to make tea himself, when he learns to cook small meals, to clean, to do a million small tasks in an effort to take some of the burden off of Jarvis.  The burden that Jarvis refuses to give over to anyone else in the household staff.

Tony is eleven and he’s trying to keep the only person he has left alive for just a bit longer.

Just another day.

Just another month.

Just another year

Just another lifetime.

Please.

~~~

Tony is twelve and he’s graduating high school with honors and will be attending MIT in the fall.

Tony is twelve and he’s standing by Jarvis’ bedside, shoulders straight and determination heavy in his chest.

Tony is twelve when he folds a brand new dragonfly into Jarvis’ paper-thin skinned hand just to see the way his worn face lights up with a smile.

Tony is twelve and he’s whispering, “I love you” for the first time in his life to someone who isn’t his two soulmates that are long dead and gone.

Tony is twelve when Jarvis cups his cheek in a thin worn hand and says with surprising strength, “I love you like a son Tony.  My sweet boy.  I’m so sorry to leave you behind but you’re going to be alright.  You’ve always been so strong.  You’re going to do so many great things.  I know it.”

Tony would trade all of those great things he might one day do away in a heartbeat if it would keep Jarvis with him.

~~~

Tony is twelve and he’s standing frozen and shattered as they lower Jarvis into the ground, two dragonflies tucked safely into his vest pocket.

Tony is twelve and he’s screaming, howling and clawing desperately at unforgiving marble as Howard grabs him by the arm and rips him away from the headstone.

Rips him away from his father.

He’s twelve and he’s spitting rage and heartbreak with every breath as he's dragged out of the now empty cemetery until Howard’s hand snaps out and hits him hard enough that his mouth slams shut.

Tony goes abruptly and completely silent.

Tony is twelve when he looks up at Howard Stark and speaks to him for the first time in his entire life.

“When you die,” Tony tells Howard evenly as he stares up into his shocked face, “I’m going to make sure that the entire world forgets you ever existed.”

It’s worth the pain of the beating that follows once they're back at the mansion because it’s a promise that Tony is determined to keep.

~~~

Tony is twelve when the lesson that he has been learning his entire life in agonizing increments finally solidifies inside his bones:

Death is not a tragedy.

True tragedy is being the one left behind to deal with the sorrow.

With the absence.

With the ever present ache.

Grief, not death, is the true end of a life.

Chapter Text

In the weeks after he lays Jarvis in the ground, in the weeks after his father is taken from him, grief is all Tony knows.

He lives it, breathes it, lets it fill his empty stomach and hollow heart.

He had thought nothing could hurt more than the soul deep ache of knowing he would never meet his soulmates.  Of having lost Steve and James before he ever had the chance to have them.

He was so very wrong.

This pain is unlike anything he’s ever felt.

True grief, Tony knows now with an aching sort of clarity, is a poison.

And yet Tony swallows it by the bloody handfuls, bites chunks of it out with too sharp teeth and chokes them down with a ragged sort of desperation, glutton-hearted and somehow faintly pleading.

It goes down rough, is almond scented and bitter on his tongue like cyanide.

It defines him, becomes him.  Twines its way into and around his very soul until he isn’t sure what it feels like to live without it anymore.

Grief grabs him by the heart and drags him down into cold dark waters and icy snow until he’s drowning on it, frozen in it, dashed upon the rocks of its cruelty.

Just like the soulmates who have left him so far behind.

Just like Steve and James who fell and drowned and froze by turns.

In this, at least, he might finally match with them.

So Tony is twelve and bitterly alone and grief has made a shell of him.

Ragged edged and hollow at the core.

~~~

One of the maids, a sweet faced woman named Jocelyn tries to feed him after … just after.  She knocks on his door and then pushes it open slowly, cautiously, even though he doesn’t answer her.

Tony stares up at her blankly from his place on the floor, face bruised and eyes unblinking.  He’s surrounded by metal and wire, nuts and bolts and components from a million different things he’s spent his days and nights ripping apart and building into something new over and over again.  His hands are bloody from cuts and scratches because he’d needed to work with something solid and real instead of the projections his heart-light produces but he can’t bring himself to care enough to be careful about it.

“Master Anthony,” she barely whispers, face drawn and eyes filled with what Tony thinks might be pity, “I’ve … I’ve brought your breakfast.”

Tony just stares at her.  He knows he should be hungry, it’s been days since his last meal and he’s still healing from Howard’s last beating, but he just … isn’t.

Food doesn’t have the same small appeal it once had.

Not now that it doesn’t come accompanied with Jarvis’ warmth or company.

“It’s been days,” she clears her throat, hands tightening around the wooden edges of the tray so hard her knuckles go white.  “Mr. Edwin wouldn’t want …”

Get out,” Tony rasps, the first word he’s ever spoken to or around another member of the household staff.

He can’t bear to hear her say Jarvis’ name.  He can’t bear the pity in her eyes.  Can’t bear her shallow kindness when he remembers the way she’d flinched from him once when he’d walked too close to her when they passed in the hallway.

Jocelyn goes pale at the sound of his voice but she still sits the tray down on the table by his door and backs away slowly.  Tony can see the way her hands shake when she twists them in the front of her apron, the colorful Forged charmbracelet on her left wrist chiming quietly as she moves.

After that she leaves the tray of food outside his door, three times a day like clockwork.

Tony eats maybe one in every nine.

If it wasn’t for the faint whisper of Jarvis in his ear pleading with him to, “eat, you must eat Master Tony, please, for me”  he wouldn’t do that.

~~~

Tony is twelve and fatherless and he is going to MIT.

Tony is twelve and fatherless and he is going to MIT but his soulmates are dead, dead, dead, and never coming back.

Tony is twelve and his desire to see thirteen is flickering like a candle flame trapped in a hurricane.

~~~

Tony is matchstick thin and dead-eyed beneath his shaggy black hair by the time fall rolls around.

He stands by Howard’s side while the man talks to Dean Mitchell about Tony’s living arrangements and how the security for the building has been significantly increased in advance of his enrollment.

Howard makes approving humming noises as he looks at the abnormally large dorm room Tony will soon be living in and the security system that’s been specially put into place for his protection.  The place is, honestly, more of a small apartment than an actual dorm with its small kitchenette and private bathroom, but money has a way of making things happen.

Still, Tony knows that Howard doesn’t actually care too much for his safety.  Knows that this choreographed show and tell of concern and demands about housing and security is a lie.

Howard thinks of Tony like a bad penny after all but appearances must be kept.

The hand he has on Tony’s shoulder is heavy and cruel, fingertips biting into his shoulder so deeply that Tony knows he’ll have bruises.

Tony doesn’t actually care.

Howard’s cruelty is a old, worn out tradition to him now.  His heavy handed disdain as familiar as the fluttering beat of the heart-light that rests hidden in Tony’s pocket.

Any bruises, any hurts, that Howard leaves behind him won’t be a shock for Tony.

They’ll just be something to add to the collection of blue/black/yellow he already has hiding beneath his long sleeves.

~~~

“Step a toe out of line and I’ll make you regret ever being born, boy,” Howard snarls at him a few hours later, hand tight around Tony’s chin as he looms over him.

They’re standing, alone, in the middle of Tony’s new home, the dorm room that’s large and empty except for the unfamiliar furniture and the few boxes of Tony’s stuff that sit piled carelessly in the corner.

Tony just stares up at him blankly for a long moment before his mouth curls itself into a jagged, tooth filled sneer.

It’s all he’ll give Howard these days no matter how often Howard tries to provoke him into speaking again.  No matter how hard he hits him or how loud he screams.  No matter how he tries to force the words out of him with fists and feet and threats.

There is one thing Tony had never been able to make Jarvis understand.

His silence isn’t about trust, isn’t about fear.

It’s about control.

Tony’s voice is his and words have power and Tony gives both only when he chooses.

Howard finally huffs in disgust, shoves Tony away from him, and straightens.  Tony watches from where he’s pressed against the counter in the small kitchenette area as Howard reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out his billfold.

“Here,” Howard flicks a card in Tony’s direction but he makes no effort to step forward and catch it.  It lands with a small click on the tile at his feet.  “You’re not a child anymore, you can take care of yourself.  You’ll stay for every break and long weekend possible, except for Christmas as we’ll need you for the gala then.  Otherwise call the manor and have someone send a car for you when the term’s over.  And remember, fuck up and I’ll make you sorry.  So your grades better be perfect.”

Howard tucks his billfold back into his pocket, turns on his heel, and walks away.

The door to Tony’s new home shuts behind him with a deceptively quiet click.

Tony stares at the closed door for a long moment before his knees finally give out on him.  He slides down the side of the cabinet until he’s sitting on the cold tile.

Ignoring the credit card Howard at flicked at him Tony digs a shaking hand into his pocket and pulls out the black laquered box that contains his heartlight.

Like always it zooms up to press against the tip of his nose when he opens the top and lets it out.

Once Tony would have smiled, would have been unendingly delighted at his heart-light’s unique type of enthusiasm.

But now, greif worn and hollow, all Tony does is draw his knees up to his chest and wrap his arms tightly around his legs.  He turns his head, rests his cheek against his bony kneecap, and stares sightlessly at the wall across from him.

His heart-light circles his head a few times before it comes down and nestles itself into his hair.  But still Tony doesn’t move.

Instead he sits there, curled in on himself against the wall of his silent dorm, long after the light fades and dark presses in on him from every corner.

With only the electric blue glow of his heart-light to comfort him Tony doesn’t cry.

Instead he just … sits.

~~~

Here is a truth, almost too cruel to think:

Tony already regrets being born.

He almost always has in one way or another.

~~~

It’s, unexpectedly enough, the silence that finally gets to Tony.

His dorm, set off so far from the main bustle of the campus as it is, is so so very quiet.  Far quieter than even his bedroom in the manor had ever been.

Here there are no maids walking past his door as they tend to different areas of the house.  Here there’s no rhythmic, distant ticking of the large antique grandfather clock that has rested in the hall in the manor for as long as Tony can remember.

Here there’s no Jar-

Tony cuts that thought off sharply because it’s something he’ll never have again no matter where he goes.

He pushes himself to his feet and staggers his way towards the bed.

He collapses down onto the bare mattress and immediately rolls onto his side and curls himself into a ball.  When his heartlight floats down to rest against the back of his knuckles Tony unclenches his hands and slowly reaches up to cup it in his palm.

A second later he shifts, presses his fingers against either side, and pulls.

His heart-light explodes outwards and Tony slides his fingers across the blue tinted projections until he finds what he’s looking for.

With a flick of his wrist the picture is projected against the wall in front of him.

Tony stares at Steve and James, arms wrapped around each other and faces alight with laughter, and just aches.

Please,” Tony whispers, voice hoarse and raspy with disuse.  “Come back.”

His fingertips are exquisitely gentle when he brushes them across the sweet curve of first James’ smile and then Steve’s.

I love you,” Tony practically begs.  “I need you.  I don’t want to be alone.”

As always, there’s no answer.

It’s just a photo after all, a snapshot of a time that Tony will never touch.  A reminder of what the universe had taken from him before it had even had the decency to give them to him first.

It’s not much in the scheme of things, but it’s all Tony will ever have.

In a way it’s almost fitting.

He’s already so used to surviving off of so little.

Why should this be any different?

~~~

‘At least', Tony thinks hours later as he curls around the comforting warmth of his heart-light, shoulders shaking but face dry.  'I will always have this.’

~~~

MIT is different than life at the manor and his years in school.

But, that being said, there is also much that has stayed the same.

MIT is large and cold and everyone is bigger than Tony, older and stronger.

And none of them want anything to do with a stick thin, too smart little boy who doesn’t make a sound and has no sign of a heart-light.

He’s utterly alone.

At least the classes are interesting and not so uncomfortable once the professors stop trying to ask him questions and the other students get too caught up in the lectures and work to stare at him.

At least here Tony has to pay attention to what he’s learning in his classes even if it’s only for a little while compared to the other students because he learns so so fast.

At least here there’s no Howard and the only blood Tony spills is when his hands slip against his latest project.

~~~

Tony spends his free time in the library or in the lab space Howard had paid to have reserved for his use.

Only occasionally will he scuttle down to the cafeteria for food even if he never eats there.  Mostly he buys things he can take back to his room with him, things he can hoard to himself and eat without being stared at.  Things no one can take away from him even if no one has come close enough to him to try.

When he isn’t there he’s in the room that’s mainly empty of personal effects except for his scattering of parts and blueprints and stacks and stacks of books.

The parts because working with his hands is soothing.

The blueprints because he has projects Howard has assigned to him and paper lets him put his ideas down outside of his brain without having to show anyone his heartlight.

The books because, despite everything else, reading is the closest thing he has to a hobby outside of building.

There’s not much else in the room because Tony, contrary to popular belief, has never had much else.

He’s never needed much else as far as he’s concerned.

He’s always been fine with just the essentials, with only his books and his building, with his heart-light and Jarvis.

Now that one of those essentials is missing?

Well Tony does his best to bury himself in what remains.

~~~

Two months in and Tony stands at the counter in his kitchenette and has a staring contest with a kettle and a box of tea bags.

It’s a familiar, much loved brand but he can’t make himself reach for the kettle, can’t make himself go through the long familiar motions.

He’s cold and thirsty, and Tony’s always handled thirst better than the fleeting sense of hunger he only sometime gets, but suddenly making tea seems almost overwhelming.

It’s so much work for so little return, not like his reading or his projects, not like the things he can lose himself in, and Tony just ...

He’s just ... tired.

But then he’s always tired these days.

Has been since Jarvis di-

Has been for a long time now.

~~~

Tony is twelve and fatherless and he’s at MIT but his soulmates are dead, dead, dead, and never coming back.

Tony is twelve and he’s old before his time.

Tony is twelve and most of the time thirteen seems like too much work.

~~~

The kettle stays empty on the stove, the box of tea stays closed.

He doesn’t move either or throw them away.

The sight of them is a painful sort of reminder of something he can never get back.

But then painful reminders is all Tony really has these days anyways.

What’s one more in the scheme of things?

~~~

Coffee, Tony learns soon after that, doesn’t help him with the tiredness the way the other students groan it does.

But it’s hot and soothing so he drinks it black most of the time or he drinks it with too much sugar and cream when he discovers the wide variety of flavors that there are and he can remember to put them in.

A month after his discovery one of the previously bare cabinets in his kitchenette is filled to the brim with different coffee blends and powder creamers.  The refrigerator is dedicated to liquid creamers and five pound bags of sugar.

Tony doesn’t get thirsty anymore.

It’s not perfect but it’s better than the way he wants to curl in on himself everytime he catches a whiff of the scent of tea.

~~~

Four months in and someone touches him for the first time.

Tony’s leaving class and the professor of his applied mathematics class, a younger man with wavy black hair and a familiar English accent, drops his hand on Tony’s shoulder as he scurries towards the door.

“Please stay after, Mr. Stark,” Professor Eades tells him softly and the hand on Tony’s shoulder doesn’t move despite the way that Tony had gone stiff enough to shatter the second the man touched him.

Head bowed, hands clenched around the books he’s holding to his chest, Tony stays.

“You’re a very smart lad aren’t you?”  Eades asks him, face creased in a smile and green eyes glinting once the rest of the class has filed out.  “I’ve noticed you don’t have many friends though.”

Tony doesn’t say anything, just keeps his eyes locked on the man’s desk.

“Quiet too.” Eades hums.  The hand on Tony’s shoulder flexes for a second before it falls away.  “I’m a bit worried about you, to be honest, all the professors here are even if no one says anything.  You’re so … young.”

There’s a stuffed animal on the edge of Eades’ desk, a cute little thing with puffy white fur and green glass eyes.

Tony’s never seen a Forged heart-light like that before.

“I volunteered to keep an eye on you since you’re in two of my classes this semester.”  Eades tells him.  “So I’d like you to drop by my office at least twice a week.  We don’t have to do anything specific.  We could talk or you could do homework.  Or we could get to know each other.  Either way it’s been agreed that, for now, keeping an eye on you might be best.”

Tony’s brow furrows with displeasure at the idea of being forced to spend time with anyone.

“I know, I know,” Eades sighs sympathetically.  “It isn’t fair but if it’s found you’re not healthy here then we might have to send you home given your age.  We can’t be held responsible for neglecting such a prized student’s health afterall.  But, if things work out with the two of us I’ll make sure the rest of the faculty knows you’re fine.  Sound like a deal?”

Tony’s nod is a small, barely perceptible thing but Eades sees it all the same.

“Good,” Eades says happily. And Tony just manages to hold back his flinch when he brings a hand up to ruffle his hair.  “Good.”

~~~

“You’re very smart,” Eades tells him again three days later when Tony’s settled into the large chair on the other side of his desk.  The office Eades uses is bright and cheerful, there’s colorful abstract paintings on one of the walls and bookshelves filled to the brim on the others.  “You’ll go far in life I think, especially with your father backing you.  MIT’ll open a lot of doors too, for you and the company when you’re older.”

Tony can’t help the way his eyes track Eades across the room as the man moves around him.

When the hour passes he can’t leave fast enough.

~~~

A few days later a tall blonde with broad shoulders bumps into him in the hall between classes.

Tony’s breath catches and his heart skips a beat because, for a split second, he reminds him of Steve.

But then he turns and his face is wrong.  But Tony can’t stop staring because for a single, perfect, moment he’d thought ...

When he slaps Tony’s books out of his hands and calls him a freak Tony doesn’t even flinch.

That split second of hope hurts far more than anything this stranger could ever say or do to him anyways.

~~~

On the days Tony has to meet him in his office Eades touches Tony.

A hand on his shoulder there, fingers picking at his hair here.  Small brushes of hands across the length of Tony’s spine.

Tony stares into the air over his shoulder or finds his eyes drawn to the cold green glass eyes of the man’s heart-light without fail.

He hates every second of it.

~~~

Someone bumps Tony’s shoulder in the hall again and when the impact makes him stumble someone else reaches out and slaps his books from his hands.

Before he can reach down to pick them up another hand plants itself right between his shoulder blades and shoves him.

Hard.

Tony goes sprawling.

He can taste blood in his mouth from where he hit the tiled floor.

Tony waits a second, aware of how people are staring at him, how they’re whispering.

He hears the quietly hissed lightless that somehow still sounds as loud as a gunshot in the hall.

Tony sits up, picks his books up, and leaves.

~~~

Tony wonders if it would make it better or worse if he bit the next person to touch him.

He wonders if it would matter either way.

He wonders if he should care.

He wonders why he doesn’t.

~~~

“I don’t mind you being a lightless,” Eades tells him softly and Tony goes still, flattens his hands across the pages of his book.

For once he looks Eades directly in the eyes.

“You’re a beautiful, smart boy Anthony,” Eades smiles when he says it and then he reaches out a hand and smoothes the pad of his thumb across the swell of Tony’s lower lip.  “Very … special.”

Tony stares up into Eades’ green eyes and realizes that he’s seen that cold, glass like look before.

The man’s heart-light has it too.

~~~

Tony goes back to his dorm, drops his bag directly by the door, and walks with a single minded sort of determination to the bathroom.

He steps into the shower fully clothed and turns the hot water on high.

By the time he finally steps out his skin is raw and red and his lip is bleeding from where he’d scrubbed at it over and over.

He can still feel Eades’ hands on him though.

~~~

Tony knows what this is.

He’s not good with people, doesn’t understand them, can’t connect with them, but he’s a genius and he knows what this is.

Jarvis had, after all, quietly slipped Tony a few choice books when he turned eleven.  Had spent an afternoon having a long, serious talk with him when he got accepted into MIT despite the way his hands had shook and he’d coughed every few words.

There’d been something desperate and frightened in Jarvis’ eyes that had made Tony pay extra attention.

So Tony knows just where all of this is headed.

The question is this:

Does Tony care?

Or is he too tired to do anything about it?

~~~

The answer is this:

Yes and no.

Tony does care.

No he’s not too tired to do anything about it.

Tony’s lost … so much already.

Has had it taken from him, ripped from his grasping hands as he screeched denial and heartbreak with every other breath.

He won’t allow this to be taken from him too.

Not without a fight.

~~~

It takes Tony a three days to get what he needs together but he doesn’t panic.

Instead Tony feels calm, feels smooth and sharp all at the same time.

Feels more focused than he has since Jarvis di-

Fells more focused than he has in a long time now.

He has a plan, all he has to do is wait for the right moment.

~~~

The next time he meets Eades he carefully positions his backpack on the table beside him, front facing just so.

~~~

He does it again the time after that and the time after that.

~~~

Every time Tony leaves Eades’ office he ends up in his dorm, doors locked and shower on full blast.

~~~

“Such a darling boy,” Eades breathes as he bends down and presses his lips against Tony’s.

It’s dry and harsh and Tony feels bile rise up in his throat but he doesn’t fight him.

Not yet.

Instead he waits for Eades to pull back, to rub that customary thumb across his lower lip and move back towards his desk to sit down on the other side.

“That’ll be our little secret won’t it Anthony?”  Eades smiles at him.  “It’s your fault really, for being so special.  I wouldn’t want either of us to get in trouble.”

Tony doesn’t answer him of course, just reaches over towards his backpack for a moment before he straightens up and stands.

Eades watches him curiously because normally Tony doesn’t do anything but sit and read when he’s in Eades’ office.

But now Tony’s up and moving.

“Is there something you need?”  Eades tilts his head curiously as he watches Tony move.

When Tony makes his move it’s so fast and so unexpected that all Eades can do is yelp and surge up from his chair.

Tony scuttles back away from him, back over towards his backpack, the fluffy white fur of his heart-light clenched tightly in his hand.

It burns just a bit, touching someone else's heart-light, burns like Howard’s ring against his face always burns.

He can’t imagine how it feels to Eades.

He doesn’t care.

“Anthony?  What in the fuck are you doing?”  Eades spits at him, face pale and all traces of kindness gone like they’d never been there at all.

He goes to round the desk, fury written in every line of his face, only to freeze when Tony lifts his other hand up in front of him.

With a small, well practiced flick the self-igniting butane torch in his hand sparks to life.

Tony holds the hot blue flame dangerously close to the side of the stuffed cat’s ear.

“N-Now Anthony …” Eades looks half panicked then, sweat beading on his face and eyes alight with desperation.

“Resign,” Tony rasps, the first words he’s ever spoken on campus.  “Or I’ll tell everyone what you did.”

“You filthy little freak,” Eades snarls then.  “No one will ever believe you.”

Tony moves backwards some more and then he places the cat on the table in front of him, torch still lit and ever so close to its fur.  He reaches his now free hand down towards his backpack and works the zipper until the front falls away.

Eades’ face goes even paler at the sight of the video camera Tony’d rigged inside of the bag weeks ago and has been carrying faithfully ever since.

Resign,” Tony half snarls.

Yes,” Eades practically whimpers, “yes anything.  Just … just please … my heart-light.  Please.”

Tony inches the flame closer to the stuffed animal’s ear, so close that Eades keens, knees weakening as he throws a hand out desperately in Tony’s direction.

Please,” Eades sobbs.

Tony blinks at him slowly, coldly, and inches it just a bit closer once again.

With a choked off cry of pain, Eades passes out in a dead faint.

Tony stares at him for a long moment before he clicks the torch off and sets it down.  He grabs a piece of paper and a pen, writes a single word in large block letters across it and drops it onto the table beside the stuffed cat.

RESIGN stares up at him from the paper, letters jagged edged and sharp, the black ink practically gouged into the paper.

Then he re-zips his backpack, settles it on his shoulders, picks up his torch, and leaves.

The door closes behind him with a deceptively quiet click.

~~~

Tony never sees Eades again.

The man flees the campus that night with no warning and it’s all the students and staff can talk about for the next week or so.

Tony doesn’t forget him though.

Tony will never forget him and what he tried to do.

And, one day when he’s able, when he has the power, he’ll come after the man again.

~~~

A week later, days before winter break is due to start, someone trips Tony in the hallway again.

He goes sprawling across the tile but this time … this time Tony grabs his thick physics text, pushes himself back up onto his feet, turns, and slams the book full force into the guy’s stomach.

When he automatically hunches forward and down Tony rears back and hits him again in the face.

His nose breaks with an audible crunch.

Tony stares down at him where he's hunched on the floor, bleeding and crying, and then he turns, picks the rest of his stuff up, and walks away.

The hallway is dead silent.

~~~

“Why did you leave me?”  Tony stares at the still of Jarvis, his face is creased in a familiar warm smile that reminds Tony of warmth and oatmeal with apple bits.  Reminds him of safety and care, of his first brush with love of any kind.

He misses him so much sometimes he can barely breathe.

“Why didn’t you take me with you?”

His dorm is silent and dark except for the bright, electric blue glow of his heart-light.

“I should have went with you.”  Tony whispers the confession into the softness of his pillow as he reaches out and pulls his heart-light close again.

The room goes dark around him.

Tony barely even notices.

~~~

Tony comes back from winter break that year with a cast on his left arm.

No one pushes him in the halls anymore.

But the stares, the whispers … well they never stop.

~~~

“I wish I’d been born when you were,” Tony whispers to Steve and James, fingers tracing their smiles with an aching sort of reverence.  “I wish I’d been born with you or never at all.”

Their smiles are warm and open, are bright and gorgeous and full of love.

They’re the most beautiful thing Tony’s ever seen.

But they’re not meant for him.

Not really.

Not ever.

Those smiles aren’t meant for a soulmate born decades after they were gone.

Born too small and too smart.

Born lightless and above all else too late.

Tony loves them so so much but sometimes …

Sometimes ...

~~~

Tony makes it to thirteen.