Natasha Antonia Stark is born wailing, a small destructive bundle of flailing limbs, thick black hair, and too bright eyes that almost kills Maria in the process.
She screams and cries and it takes the nurses forever to calm her down, to get her settled and sleeping and above all else quiet.
Even as a newborn there’s some part of her that knows she needs to be loud, knows she needs to scream scream scream until her lungs feel fit to burst so that the whole world can hear her, so that no one can ignore her.
She sets a precedent that night that follows her the rest of her life.
Maria holds her newborn daughter exactly twice. Once directly after the birth, too drugged to really focus on what’s going on but blissed out enough with that new glow of motherhood to still want her child in her arms.
The second time is the next day, freed from the harsh haze of sedatives and eager to look at her son.
“A daughter.” Maria’s face is a study in disappointment as she picks at the luxuriously soft blue blanket she’d specifically ordered and brought to the hospital for her son herself. “Howard must be so displeased,” she sighs as she hands the girl over to the nurse and waves her away.
Maria isn’t looking forward to having to get pregnant again to give Howard the son he so desperately wants but she’ll do it of course, as is her duty.
As far as the girl is concerned, well at least they’ll be able to make sure she’ll marry well one day so it’s not a total lost cause.
Natasha is bundled into the lavish nursery that had been designed for the son Howard had wanted but not received. It’s decorated in soft blues and golds, there’s a rocket ship mobile hanging over the crib and a thick padded chair in the corner. A broad shoulder blond man salutes her with a smile from a glass covered poster on the wall.
Howard and Maria hand the girl over to Jarvis and a wet nurse and go about their lives, back to SI and galas, back to scotch and spa days and other, more important things. They only stop to deal with Natasha when there’s a photo shoot to be had or an opportunity to appear like a blissfully happy family for the press to be found.
There’s no one there to see the way pink camellia petals mix with her tears as they slide down her cheeks when her eyes well up, turning to dust before they ever hit the mattress.
There is no one there to see her longing spilling out around her as she cries and cries and cries.
Natasha’s first word is Jarvis.
Her second is listen.
Her third is look.
Anything to break the quiet of the nursery she barely ever leaves now that her nurse is gone.
She hasn’t seen either Maria or Howard at all for six months, only Jarvis and the blond man who smiles down at her from his place on her wall. But she’s too young to understand why that’s wrong, why that’s a problem.
After that she’s speaking in full sentences because it seems as if once she starts speaking Natasha can’t stop.
She grows quickly, runs almost as soon as she’s able to stand, and learns words by the bucket fulls almost faster than Jarvis can teach her.
But those three words are still the ones she says most often.
Jarvis look. Jarvis listen. Jarvis. Jarvis. Jarvis.
Please someone look at/listen to me.
If no one notices the flower petals that sometimes stick to her hair or her face, if no one says anything about the blossoms sometimes found littering her bed and her sheets?
Well it’s just one more thing that’s so easy to overlook
To see but not understand.
One more secret in a house built on top of secrets far more terrible than a few misplaced blooms.
The last time Natasha cries real tears she’s four.
Four with a broken circuit board in hand and broken crystal peppering her skin.
Jarvis cleans her up and rocks her back and forth, back and forth, as she cries and cries and cries.
She feels it when he sucks in a sharp breath, hand freezing on her back.
Natasha looks up, blinks helenium petals from her eyes instead of real tears, and watches the way his eyes go wide and almost frightened.
His hand shakes as he brings it up to press gentle fingertips against the corner of her mouth.
There’s a perfectly formed harebell blossom held between his fingers when he pulls his hand back. And when Natasha looks down she sees that his lap is covered with a mix of helenium and harebell blossoms.
Her tears and grief spilled out across the both of them.
“Young miss,” Jarvis’ voice is quiet, urgent and almost frightened, “you must tell no one. Sir and Ma’am … they must not find out. Please. You … you are beautiful and there is nothing wrong with this but you must keep this secret, keep this safe. Promise me, Natasha. You must promise.”
Fear and trust waring in her heart Natasha nods slowly.
“Okay Jarvis,” she tells him.
Because in this, as in all other things, she trusts Jarvis to keep her safe.
Natasha grows and grows and grows.
She builds a new circuit board and doesn’t stop there. She devours every book on flowers she can get her hands on, memorizes the language and then keeps going. She builds and learns and builds some more and learns that there’s a heavy kind of price for all of it.
An engine here, a new computer there. She finds a flaw in one of Howard’s new blueprints, and learns to deal with the feel of his knuckles cracking across the arc of her cheek. Learns to accept the taste of blood and basil on her tongue.
She doesn’t cry, doesn't let the petals she can feel welling up in the corners of her eyes spill over.
She'd promised Jarvis after all.
So she swallows ever bloom she can taste down, one after the other, one part terrified of letting her secret be known and one part determined to never give Howard the satisfaction of seeing her hurt.
Petunias cutting at the insides of her mouth, peonies and orange lilies burning on her tongue, Toni swallows down blossom after blossom.
She swallows down her resentment, her anger and her hate, and she takes the name Natasha and throws it to the side.
She becomes Toni and she keeps going.
She grows fast and hard and sharp, whittled down by Howard’s cruelty and bruising fists, by Maria’s cold dismissiveness.
The only softness she has is Jarvis’ care and the desperate, aching sort of love she holds for him. The sound of his voice, soft and soothing as he tells her the story of Icarus over and over again. The taste of lavender in her mouth, her love, her devotion stifled as she bites back blossoms that would show her for what she is.
There’s also Aunt Peggy’s infrequent visits and her stories of Captain America and the Howling Commandos. Toni grows used to the feel of coral honeysuckles on her tongue soon after that and keeps her I love you crushed mercilessly between her teeth.
She dreams about flying, about falling, about Steve and Bucky catching her before she hits the ground. Dreams of their gentle hearts and their bravery. Of the kindness that Aunt Peggy swears they’d each held within them.
And when she wakes she spits snowdrops into her cupped hands and wipes jasmine petals from her cheeks, her hope and attachment seeping out of her at every turn even though she knows they’ll never be returned.
Because they’re gone, Steve and Bucky, stolen by war and time years before she was ever born.
Still Toni takes each story to heart as she grows and vows that, even though she’s small right now, one day … one day she’ll be mighty, just like they were.
Will become more than just the creature of razors and petals Howard and Maria have made her. More than this flower mouthed child with blood in her teeth and feathers in her heart that the world has forced her to be.
Toni’s eleven when Howard hits her so hard she goes sprawling. Laid out on the thick carpet of the den she can’t swallow down the blossoms that bud to life in her mouth fast enough.
She brings her hand up to her face and when she pulls it back there’s a perfectly formed hemlock blossom in her palm.
Toni stills, everything in her going quiet in that moment.
You will be the death of me.
Toni looks down at the blossom, at the omen she’s birthed to life, and knows it for the prophecy that it is.
He’s going to kill her one of these days.
Is going to leave her bleeding out on the carpet one day, her life seeping away into the floors of this mansion that will never be her home.
Toni clenches her fist around the blossom, plants her knuckles against the floor, and forces herself to stand.
If he’s going to kill her then he’s going to do it while he looks her in the eyes.
Toni refuses to die on the ground, cowering at his feet.
Refuses to die small.
By the time she’s hurtling towards thirteen and heading to MIT Toni has forgotten what life is like without the taste of blood and basil in her mouth. Has forgotten what it’s like not to have peonies and orange lilies bunch together on the back of her tongue. Forgotten what it’s like not to taste hate and anger with every other breath.
The only sweetness in her life is the taste of lavender petals crushed between her teeth, her love and devotion for Jarvis, sitting sugar soft on her tongue even if keeping it secret stings in its own way.
Better to have that secret safe just as Jarvis had told her to than to speak it and have her small bit of hope torn from her.
Better to live with not knowing if Jarvis could ever love her back than to have him turn from her.
MIT is a flurry of lupine flowers sitting in her mouth and the crunch of dead leaves between her teeth, a whirlwind of imagination and sadness.
MIT helps her build, helps her create.
It does nothing to stem the sadness of being so far from Jarvis, of feeling so alone.
Toni wakes to sheets filled with belladonna and vincia flowers.
A bed made out of silence and sweet memories, two of the things that are all that gets her through the day.
Jarvis calls her regularly but it’s not enough.
Toni feels so selfish for thinking that way, for wanting more than what she has of him.
But it doesn’t stop her from crying, wiping pink camellia from her cheeks as her longing wells up and spills over.
She huddles in her dorm bed and cries and cries and cries.
She wakes up to piles of helenium petals, her tears scattered out around her like the cruelest kind of mockery.
Those first two years are hard.
And sometimes ... sometimes Toni is surprised that she manages to turn fifteen at all.
But then …
Then there’s Rhodey.
Rhodey is like springtime.
Is sun and rain and warmth.
Rhodey is Toni waking up to a bed full of alstroemeria and lavender, sheets filled with devotion and love, because he is like nothing she’s ever known before.
Rhodey is Toni coming back from a mandatory break, sore and bruised with the taste of blood and basil back in her mouth, only to be folded gently, carefully, into his arms.
Rhodey is, “let me help you, baby girl.”
And Rhodey is hissed breaths and gentle hands against a black eye or bruised ribs.
Rhodey is, “fuck I’ll kill him. Toni, I swear to god I’ll kill him.”
Rhodey is strong, careful hands picking flower petals from her face, blossoms from her hair, smoothing blooms from her lap and saying, “look at you, I thought you were a genius. Don’t you know there’s easier ways to get flowers?”
Rhodey is Toni laughing through her tears, forehead pressed against his shoulder as traveler’s joy blossoms spill from her mouth and down her cheeks because with him, with Rhodey, she has found rest and safety.
Rhodey is blood red chrysanthemums and deep red roses, is love, is I love you, is fist fulls of rose of sharons because Toni is consumed by love for him.
Rhodey is everything she’s ever wanted and nothing she’ll ever manage to deserve.
Those next two years aren’t easy by any means.
But Toni has Jarvis, has her lavender love and devotion to him, and Rhodey who gives her roses and traveler’s joy, who gives her love and rest and safety.
And it’s more than Toni had ever thought she’d have.
Toni is seventeen and her ribs are sore. There are orange lilies curling on the back of her tongue, her hatred bitten back like always because she’s in the mansion where the secret must be kept.
The pain meds the doctor had given Jarvis for her dislocated shoulder make her head fuzzy but Jarvis had made sure she promised to take them.
“Rest young miss.” Jarvis’ hand is cool against her forehead as he brushes back her hair. “I’m afraid I’ll be driving Sir and Ma’am to the gala tonight but should you need anything Henrietta will be available until I return.”
“Jarvis?” Toni turns her face just slightly into the calloused palm of Jarvis’ hand. She loves him, loves him so so much even if she’s never been able to tell him. Even if she has to keep it secret. She likes to think he knows though, because Jarvis always knows. Likes to think that his kindness means he feels the same way about her.
“Yes young miss?”
“Will you tell me the story of Icarus before you go?” She needs that familiar comfort, the soothing rhythm of his voice telling her the story that has become theirs over the years.
“Of course young miss.”
“Young miss! Young miss please wake up!” Henrietta’s panicked voice and frantic knocking outside her locked bedroom door pulls Toni from her sleep.
“W-What’s wrong?” Toni’s groggy, fuzzy headed and sore, but she blinks sleepy poppy petals from her eyes and forces herself to focus. “Henrietta? What’s going on?”
“Oh young miss.” Henrietta sounds close to tears even through the barrier of the door. “There’s an officer waiting for you down stairs. T-there’s been an accident.”
Toni doesn’t know it yet but those are the words that destroy her entire world.
Hours later Rhodey finds her curled in a ball on the floor in the morgue viewing room, good arm raised above her as she clutches Jarvis’ limp hand in her own.
“Oh, blossom,” Rhodey sighs as he crouches down in the middle of the piles of dragon’s wort and marigolds that surround her, “you have to let go now.”
“He can’t leave,” Toni looks up at Rhodey from her bed of horror and grief, vision blurred from the constant stream of helenium petal tears that are sliding down her face. “He can’t leave me alone, Rhodey. He can’t.”
“Oh, Toni,” Rhodey reaches out and smoothes her hair from her face, sweeps dried white roses and the death they herald from her cheeks. “You’re not alone baby girl, you’ve got me okay? You’ll always have me.”
Toni makes it dry eyed and blossom-less through Howard and Maria’s funerals.
It’s watching Jarvis’ casket being lowered into the ground the next day that breaks her.
Toni crumples and it’s only Rhodey’s strong arms that keep her from hitting the ground as he barks at Aunt Peggy to get everyone out.
Mourning bride flowers come rushing forth as Toni screams, spilling out of her mouth and eyes in a wave, scattering on the ground in front of her as Toni shatters and sobs so violently she thinks she might be sick.
Because Jarvis is dead and she feels as if she has lost all.
“Toni,” Rhodey’s voice is in her ear then, “Toni, blossom, baby, you have to breathe.”
Toni can’t. She’s choking on petals, breath stolen by the blossoms spilling out of her.
“Toni, goddamnit, breathe,” Rhodey’s holding her still, arms wrapped around her as he pulls her close, uncaring of the petals and blooms that spill out over his chest and hands.
When the dark rushes up to take her Toni welcomes it with open arms and a broken heart.
Rhodey doesn’t want to leave her days later but he has to. But he sweeps her up in his arms and holds her for the longest time before he goes.
Same for Aunt Peggy who hasn’t looked at her quiet the same way since Jarvis’ funeral, something even sadder and softer in her eyes than ever before.
She hadn’t said anything about the flowers either, about the petals that Toni knows would have slowly faded into dust after Rhodey had carried her from the graveyard.
Toni thinks she’d love her more than ever, would spill coral honeysuckles like never before, if she could feel anything at all at the moment.
But … she can’t.
Toni is flowerless because her heart is empty.
Hollow eyed and swaying Toni collapses onto the ground in front of Jarvis’ gravestone, the box he’d left her in his will clutched in white knuckled hands.
When she finally brings herself to move, her hands shake when she pries the lid open.
Inside there’s a letter and a tape recorder.
‘Young miss,’ the letter starts and Toni bites down on the inside of her cheek hard enough to taste blood and forces herself to keep reading.
The letter’s short but in it …
In it Jarvis gives to her the one thing they’d never been able to have before. In death he gives her the gift that she’s pink camellia longed to have for as long as she can remember.
‘I love you, Toni,’ the letter reads, ‘like the daughter I never had, like the daughter I couldn’t claim. I love you.’
And on the recorder is his voice, whispering their story, a record of their special sort of lullaby to keep her through the dark years ahead.
“I love you too,” Toni whispers as she curls around the recorder, letter clutched against her chest and marble hard against her spine. “I love you too, Jarvis. Please. Come back.”
Curled there on top of the grave of the only father she’s ever known Toni feels as if something inside of her has broken, as if something has shifted and become unsettled.
She coughs, ragged and deep, and tries to swallow passed the burn that ignites in her throat.
It doesn’t work.
Instead she coughs again, harsh and sharp, and tastes blood as something unexpectedly heavy settles on the back of her tongue.
When Toni opens her mouth a single perfect cinquefoil blossom falls out to rest on her palm. It’s perfect little gold petals screaming the truth at her.
Toni stares at it for a long moment before she slips it into the box Jarvis had left her. She knows, somehow, that this blossom is different.
It, unlike the others before it, is permanent. It, unlike the others, will never wilt, will never turn to dust.
Because Jarvis had loved her just as fiercely as Toni had loved him, as Toni loves him still. As Toni will always love him.
And now Toni will never have to swallow down petals for him again.
Because the truth has already bloomed upon her tongue.
That was what she was to him.
That was all she’d ever wanted to be.
But not like this.
Never like this.