Tony was shaking like a leaf. His father stood behind him, looking on in disgust.
“Weak,” Howard spat, shoving Tony harshly to the side.
On a tear filled breath, “I did what you asked.”
“Barely. This is sub-par work at best, and you were blubbering like an infant the whole time.”
The sound of flesh striking flesh rang through the room, but this time Tony did not cry. Unlike the man with the metal arm, this Tony was familiar with. Howard had always been a bit… heavy handed.
“Clean up your face, and then you will watch how it should be done.”
Just like that, Tony had been dismissed. He hastily wiped his face and watched his dad carefully. Morbid fascination, as well as Tony’s extreme fear of his father, ensured that Tony could not look away. Even when the man was screaming as Howard began to dig into the inner workings of that metal arm, Tony could only watch. Howard was precise and careful of the delicate parts, as he always was, but he seemed to have no inclination to ease the pain of the man who was digging his fingers into the armrests so hard that his finger nails were separating from the skin, leaving bloody flesh in their place.
It seemed an eternity before Howard was finished with the arm. The man in the chair, having screamed himself hoarse, was staring silently at something Tony could not see. But the Stark patriarch was obviously not finished with the man, because when he stood he pulled a contraption over the man’s head. It covered a good portion of his face, and Tony would bet his first circuit board that some of the bruises he had seen earlier were from that very machine.
A bite guard was placed in the man’s mouth, and then Howard walked over to the main power bank of the computers. He fiddled around a bit, typing codes and flipping a few switches. Suddenly, all of the air was knocked from Tony’s lungs, as the room lit up and the man on the chair began convulsing, screaming. It was unlike any human sound Tony had ever heard, but more akin to a terrified animal. It reminded Tony of a cat he had once taken in. Almost exactly like this man, the cat had screamed when Howard had gotten his hands on it.
Tony was only six, but he knew that a person on a cocktail of drugs made up of what he had seen on his way in, shouldn’t have been able to jerk like that. Their muscles should have been too lax. But the chair obviously pumped enough electricity into the man to stimulate his muscles into rigidity. And that terrified Tony, because he knew exactly how much electricity that would take. Enough electricity that the man should be dead .
He didn’t know it was over, he didn’t know he was even crying, until another sharp slap landed upon his cheek. “Shut up." To himself he muttered "Sniveling child," before speaking directly to Tony.
"I’ve talked to Zola,” Those words were what brought Tony's attention to the fact that another man had joined them in the room. “and he has given me a suggestion about how to toughen you up. You enjoy ballet, don’t you, Tony? Those sissy classes your mother has been insisting I pay for will finally be of some use.”
Tony was confused. He had no idea what his mother and ballet had to do with what was happening in this clinically cold and disinfectant smelling room. Too late, Tony realized his dad had still been talking. He only caught the tail end of what Howard said.
“You’re going to ballet school, Tony. In Russia.”
Mama was so happy, and she rarely ever was. Too often Tony found her staring out of windows, her eyes dull and empty, or swallowing those tiny pills with swigs of wine. Tony knew what addiction was. He knew that his maman and father both suffered from addictions of their own. He may have been six, but he wasn’t dumb.
Despite her defects, Tony loved his maman. And so he tried his hardest to be happy as well. It was a good thing the smallest Stark was a good actor, because he wasn’t happy. He was terrified. Howard had told him not to tell anyone about the man with the metal arm, and he wasn’t dumb enough to test what his father would do if he defied that particular order.
But Tony knew that being “accepted” to this school was not an accomplishment, it was a punishment. He had always believed his father would eventually send him to boarding school, like most members of New York’s Elite did with their children, when he came of an age that it was acceptable to dump one’s child off on another person. He never suspected he would be sent to a ballet academy.
For one, his father hated the fact that Tony was in ballet. The only reason he had even started was because Maria had insisted. Though if asked, everyone could admit that two years of ballet had taught Tony a certain respect for discipline and authority.
Another thing was that Howard had been clear this was to “toughen him up” for not having handled the Metal Armed Man’s maintenance well. There was absolutely no way that this school was what Maria thought, but Tony had no idea what it actually was. Hence his terror.
Smile. That was the thought running through Tony’s head on repeat as Jarvis packed his single suitcase in the car, and his maman tittered about what a wonderful opportunity this was.
“My Antonio, chosen to dance at a prestigious Russian ballet academy.”
Tony’s face must have done something, because his maman rushed to reassure him. “It’s alright dear. No need to worry about all of these rumors about Russian spies and the like. You’ll be perfectly safe. This is such an honor, bambino. You’ll be so good. You’ll dance around the world.”
Maria’s eyes got a far away look, and when she placed her hands on his shoulders so she could steady herself as she leaned in to kiss his forehead, Tony noticed they were shaking. Inwardly, Tony shouted. Why couldn’t his maman see what was happening? Why did she have to be so deep into those little pills that she couldn’t help her only son?
Before Tony’s happy mask slipped Jarvis stepped in, precise and subtle as always. Tony smiled gratefully at him, and then was gathered into the arms of Ana Jarvis. The kindest and most attentive woman Tony had ever met. A woman who loved wholly and was fierce in her protection of her family. Tony felt lucky to be considered a part of that.
“My sweet Antul,” she whispered into his hear, her beautiful voice lending a soothing quality to her native Hungarian. “Do well. And do not forget that Edwin and I love you very much. With all of our hearts, little one. Remember that.”
As Ana walked away, heading back into the house to prepare Howard and Maria’s lunch, Tony could not help but think that Ana knew something that she was not telling anyone.
“Alright Anthony, it’s time to be going,” Jarvis startled Tony by speaking from directly behind him.
Swallowing hard, the child nodded and waved to his maman. For some reason, this all felt so final. However it was that he had this knowledge, Tony knew this would be that last time he’d see his maman. A single tear fell down his cheek, quickly being wiped away before anyone could see.
Jarvis buckled him in the back of the car, then rounded it to get in on the driver’s side. Tony didn’t look back, didn’t wave again to his maman. He was afraid if he turned around, he would turn to find his maman had already gone back inside.
When Tony arrived at his academy, a place in the middle of nowhere that was surrounded by pristine white snow, it was already dark outside.
The man who had picked him up had gotten rid of Tony’s suitcase, telling him in gruff Russian that he would not be needing anything. The academy would provide it all.
Watching his things be thrown to the wayside, Tony was suddenly glad he had tucked the locket with the picture of Ana and Jarvis into his shirt.
A rough shove to his back got Tony moving quickly down the stone path that seemed to be cut into the snow.
He was freezing, not having worn heavy enough clothes onto the plane, and his shoes were making soft slapping sounds on the stone. In contrast, the man behind him was dressed in heavy furs and seemed to glide over the stone, his steps making no sound.
When they reached the door, the man stepped in front of Tony and rapped sharply five times, and then softly three more times. The door swung open to reveal a tall, thin woman with sharp grey eyes and black hair pulled back in a severe bun. She was wearing a high collared dress, the dark green fabric stiff and rough looking. She simply nodded at the man, and then Tony was led down a hall way to a room with a drain set into the floor, and a large hose attached to a spout on one wall.
“Strip,” he was instructed.
Confused and scared, Tony began pulling off his clothes. It was not something he was used to, undressing in front of a watchful stranger, but he figured he should get used to it since he was about to live in a house full of other boys who would be sharing his space.
Once he was naked, the man lifted Tony's arms, instructing him to hold them up where he had placed them. Then, he was searched. Since he was naked, Tony could only assume the man was looking for injuries.
Tony didn’t have any, unless you counted the bruises littering his thighs and arms.
Apparently, the man came to the same conclusion, because he stood from his crouch and looked at Tony a moment. So quickly Tony didn’t have time to register the movement, the man ripped the locket right off, the broken clasp catching and ripping the sensitive skin on the back of his neck.
“No need for sentiment here. No need for feeling. Only calculation.”
Tony definitely would have filed that under his ever growing list of red flags, maybe would even have figured out what would be in store for him here, but his train of thought was interrupted by a cold and harsh blast from an industrial hose.
The water was frigid, but the almost burning feeling of too cold skin was preferable to the harsh scrape of the horse hair brush that the man used to scrub his skin until it was red from the blood that was dragged up to just below his skin.
This time, Tony was able to brace himself for the cold water, so although it was just as chilly and stinging, Tony’s body didn’t immediately lock up from shock.
Apparently dubbing Tony sufficiently clean, the man turned the hose off and approached Tony with a worn looking towel. His dry job of the shaking six-year-old was slapdash and barely effective, but Tony ended up mostly dry in the end.
To his absolute humiliation, Tony was marched through the halls completely naked. His feet were numb on the cold stone floor, and he could feel every individual, freezing drop of water that lingered on his skin. Discomfort his main focus, Tony was startled when the man put a rough hand to his chest and effectively stopped his forward motion. A quick look up revealed that they were stopped in front of a laundry room, with lines and lines of hanging clothes and big washers.
“You sleep in these. On Saturdays, you will bring them here to be washed, and collect a new pair.” A pair of thick flannel pants with a buttoned shirt of the same material, a pair of wool socks, and thin underwear were thrust into his arms. “Your day clothes will be in the chest at the end of your bed by morning.”
Tony was allowed just enough time to put the clothes on, then was ushered out of the door and down a long hallway. The man opened the door onto a large room, with large pane windows and three rows of beds, with nine beds in each. The rows were spaced evenly so that there was a wide path between the rows as well as between the rows and the walls. Enough space for two adults to walk through comfortably.
In every bed but one, there was a boy handcuffed to the bed frame and sleeping on their back. Tony looked at each of their faces, and sizes, and came to the conclusion that he was likely the youngest and smallest boy there.
“You will sleep here.” The man led Tony to the only empty bed, and stood beside him as Tony got under the covers.
As he went to turn on his side, the man roughly shoved him onto his back and grabbed his wrist tight enough to bruise, adding to the ring of abused flesh. Without a sound, the man put one side of a pair of handcuffs around his right wrist, and clipped the other around the bed frame.
The sound of the tumblers in the locking mechanism turning and connecting was so final, so tangible, that Tony could no longer hope that this was just a dream.
His father had not sent him to a school, but to a prison.