When Tony Stark, age zero years, zero months, zero days, and zero minutes came screaming into the world on the 29th of May, 1970, it was a bright, sunny day in Manhattan, New York.
Brought into the world by some of the cities finest doctors and nurses, from the very start, he was inducted into a life of comfort and luxury.
His father waited anxiously in the corridor, preferring to leave the business of childbirth to his wife. Seeing her in such a state could potentially damage their professional relationship, and instead he paced up and down, gnawing at his nails, as he waited for the sex of the child to be revealed.
When Tony Stark, age zero years, zero months, zero days, and zero minutes came screaming into the world, his mother would not hold him and his father got drunk.
It was not the first attempt.
Maria and Howard, in the early days of their marriage, had once been in love.
Not deeply in love. Not the sort of love that gets songs written in it’s honour. Not man and woman, together, into the sunset. Howard, after the traditional period of courtship, had admitted that women were not hit forte. But that he had money. And that was something she wanted.
They shared a companionship. Ambition. A certain greed for power. Howard, older and not young as he used to be, had seen in Maria more than voluptuous curves and ruby lips, more than the olive skin and the ebony hair, he had seen a wit and raw intelligence, a characteristic he admired in anyone, particularly his soon to be 'wife'.
And Maria, young and beautiful, had seen in Howard, a man old enough to be her father, a chance to escape her own domineering family. A chance for power, for something else. A strong character, she had always known what she wanted. She was Italian. A staunch catholic, when she chose to be.
A whirlwind romance. A marriage. Howard Stark, semi-eligable bachelor, was off the market, and hundreds of greedy socialites wept into their martinis as Maria Collins Carbonell, Italian nobody and daughter of a criminal, swept away with the main prize.
Not that the deal was sealed, obviously. Howard needed something first.
Maria had no idealistic ideas about why exactly Howard had married her. She knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t her smarts. She was young, attractive. Howard needed an heir. From the start, an unwritten contract of sorts was drawn up between them: ‘I can give you what you want if you can give me a son.'
Maria had no interest in children. She was young and the idea of being pulled down by a child, a screaming, crying, puking child, did not appeal. The idea of her life being put on hold was not one that she had interest in. She married Howard for the status, for the chance to do something right by her life. Charity was her passion, a strange choice, maybe, for a woman so shrewd. But she followed the values by which she had been raised.
To be honest, the only other way she was going to get out was to become a nun.
When she had felt the first baby swell inside her, like a cancerous growth, Maria had panicked. She did not, could not, would not, have this child. She could not give her life to this baby. She was too young, and Howard was too old, and he drank too much, and they would both be terrible parents. It was a bad, bad, idea.
Two months later, when she woke up with bloody sheets and a burning in her gut, she felt ill, so so incredibly ill, and evil, that the only emotion she could conjure up was relief.
But Howard had been kind. It had brought them together, that first failure, the child that never was. Maria planted a tree in their garden, in the back, right by the spot where she would sometimes read in the summer, so that in the coming years she could rest under the shade.
“We can try again,” Howard had assured her, as if that was supposed to be a comfort, a reassurance we’ll try again, even though Maria did not want this.
In the mean time, she set up the Maria Stark Foundation. It tackled poverty abroad, mostly, in the developing countries, but very quietly offered aid to woman escaping abusive relationships.
After that, Howard’s drinking got heavier. Always a steady drinker, in the summer of 1961, he took a downward turn. Maria made allowances.
Howard killed people for a living. She wouldn’t begrudge him his method of escape. Life was stressful, for him, always had been. She was not their to offer comfort.
The next attempt ended in a child carried to six months. This time, it was far along enough to go into labour, and she gave birth to a very dead little boy.
Howard was not so forgiving. He was not cruel, and he never blamed her, but the loss of the son that could have been jarred something inside him. After the customary period of comfort was done, he began to drink more. Work took up too much time. Sometimes, he would be gone for days, and Maria wouldn’t know where he was, or what he was doing. Men started to visit the house on ‘private business’, and Howard would drink and drink and drink until the morning, when they would slip out the front door, sometimes giving Maria a knowing tilt of the head or a sly smile.
The third baby was carried to term.
It was an easy birth, and Maria, even after seven years, did not feel ready to have this baby. She did not want it. But holding her daughter in her arms for the first time, she felt something so profound.
It was like a light. There was a light inside her chest, and it was blooming.
Every little gurgle, every tiny whine. She kept counting her fingers, her toes, everything about her little baby girl, so perfect in every single way.
They had taken her home, and even Howard had been happy. He had, for the first time in years, slung his arm over her shoulder. He was disappointed, yes, he had admitted, but there was always next time. And their little girl was so perfect it didn’t matter anyway. For two days, Howard Stark was the ideal of a doting father.
Their daughter never got a name, though, because when Maria went to pick her up the next morning she was dead.
Maria had cried. She had wept. And Howard, he had gotten so, so drunk.
She hated him. Maria hated him. He drank and drank while she cried and cried, and he turned cruel, so easily, he switched, his usual affable humour and charisma lost under a sea of vodka and delusion.
“I’m glad,” he slurred, spitting over the table “I’m fucking glad she’s dead, so she didn’t have to put up with you as a fucking mother.” And then he had downed his glass in one, and flung it at the wall where it narrowly missed her head.
After that, life slowly descended into hell.
Maria was stubborn, but so was Howard. Neither could see eye to eye. They began to despise one another.
Yet neither of them ever filed for divorce. Howard got older, Maria grew more desperate, and as her biological clock ticked down Howard grew crueler and crueler. He would apologise, afterwards, always. Because he had a problem. Because he was under pressure. Sometimes, after an argument, there would be days of peace, where they would sit together, where there were no fights. It was during these times that Howard would try again to conceive a child while she lay there, like a thing, nothing more, and let him.
He never hit her. Maria did not care. She grew up on the streets where marital violence was an accepted part of life. She almost wanted him too, if only because she could slap him back.
One night, Howard had got drunk. Very drunk. And he had left, run away, driven off into the night. Maria didn’t stop him, because if he died then she would inherit the fortune.
He nearly did. He was saved by a man, young, an ex-soldier who had served in Vietnam. He was living on the streets at the time, he had no family, he explained. And Howard, always impulsive, always with that twisted vein of kindness that endeared Maria to him at the very start, hired him on the spot.
Edwin Jarvis, he said his name was, and he said he was from England, originally. A little village in the south. He had emigrated to the US in the hopes of finding his fortune, of chasing the American dream of which Howard was so fond. Maria had laughed, because her family too had come in the hopes of finding a better life, only to be dragged into the seedy underbelly of New York.
Maria was the clever one in her family.
But Edwin had fallen on hard times. Young, and without money, he had enlisted. Vietnam, he had hoped, would be an adventure. Surely, Maria had asked, you couldn’t have been that naive. And Edwin Jarvis had shrugged and said that the alternative was worse. You have to make the best of a bad situation, he had said with wisdom beyond his years, because otherwise living is pointless.
Jarvis was a few years younger than Maria, and he made life bearable.
With Jarvis in the house, Howard stopped drinking so readily. He toned down the arguments. They formed an uneasy peace. Howard was fond of him, and they became good friends. Ever paranoid in his old age, Jarvis was one of the few people Howard claimed he could trust.
And so finally, in the August of 1969, Maria conceived one last time.
She and Howard, with tentative hope, were drawn together by the small miracle inside her stomach.
Whereas before she had feared having a child, having to give up her life, that was now no longer the case. She longed for a baby, she was desperate for a chance to raise a little girl, a little girl like her beautiful baby, the one she had lost. And in the back of her mind, she knew that this baby would not be that one, that this was no substitute. But Howard was happy. He stopped drinking, that summer. They did not pretend to be in love, but they were able to re-kindle the friendship, and then ambition, that had tied them together.
It took a while to decide on a name. For a while, before the birth, Tony was not Tony. He was Howard Jr. And then he was Antonio. And then, after the idea that the child could conceivably be a girl crossed Howard’s mind, he was Natasha. And then Elizabeth.
Eventually, there was compromise.
“If it’s a girl,” Howard had said, smiling over his amber glass “then you get to pick. Square deal, Maria.”
And Maria had spat.
“Bah,” she had said with a coy grin stretched out over red lips “the child will be saddled with your name, Howard, no matter what. I get pick of the crop.”
“Honey,” Howard had said in the deprecating way he was so fond of “if it’s a girl, the name’s gonna change anyhow. That’s not gonna matter, then. You pick, either way.”
“You have no interest in a daughter, Howard,” Maria’s accented voice had lilted, as it was prone to do when under strain “so I choose the son. I’m the one doing to work, honey, you try squeezing a water melon from your tight little ass and then we’ll see if you’d be keen for it to take an American name.” She took a deep drag of her cigarette, one hand poised gently on her swollen belly.
“An American name?” Howard had raised an eyebrow “what’s wrong with a good, strong name? Kid’s gonna be up to it in crap, Maria, he’s gotta’ be strong. No namby-pamby crap, come on, be reasonable.”
Maria had stood firm, stubborn. “My child,” she says “mine. I’ll choose the name,” another long drag “Antonio, if it’s a boy, like my brother. Natasha if it’s a girl.”
Howard had snorted. “Antonio’s a fucking waster and Natasha sounds like a prostitute.”
Maria had fixed him with cool eyes. Of course Howard thought that. Howard, like many other things about her, chose to ignore her native country as another blip in the road. He ignored the fact that this child would be more Italian than American, if Maria had her way.
“Honey, if it’s a girl,” she drawled “you’re going to be pimping her out as soon as she hits eighteen. Let’s not pretend you have the moral high ground.”
“It won’t be a girl,” Howard had said, confidently “I know it. But if it is, then she can be Natasha.”
There’s something unspoken between them, about the baby, the first baby that they brought home and never saw grow up.
She would be five, now.
“And if it’s a boy,” Maria had continued “it will be Antonio. Antonio Stark.”
Howard had snorted, downed a small glass of amber liquid. “If it’s a boy,” he said “then he’ll get a good, strong name. One that I can be proud of.”
Maria had arched an eyebrow. “So you decided on Howard? You want a good, strong name and you chose your own?”
Howard had frowned. “That, you’re insulting me.”
“Caro Dio,” she had rolled her eyes “dear God, Howard.”
They decided on Anthony. Worthy of praise. A good, strong name.
It was a difficult birth. Very, very difficult. Maria spent 48 hours on that bed, the contractions tearing her apart, screaming while Howard paced outside. This baby was a monster, it wasn’t coming out and Maria thought, she was scared, she thought maybe that she was going to die because the pain was so intense and nobody did anything, there was too much risk, too much risk of the babies life.
Howard was willing to let her die if it meant getting a shot at a son. And it didn’t surprise her but goddam if she was going to die like this, sweating and bleeding and screaming while her husband drank martini’s from the hospital suite’s private bar.
Dear God, she was going to die, she had thought she was going to die. She felt like every part of her was tearing, and the nurses kept wiping her brow and feeding her ice and telling her to push, push, push and she screamed at them in her own language, coarse and undignified. There was no room for dignity in childbirth.
“Get it out!” She screamed “Get it out of me!”
She heard people talking, heard the doctors murmuring, as someone fed her ice chips. She heard her husbands voice as she writhed, “Howard!” She screamed “get this thing out of me!”
“You’re crowning!” Someone had shouted, and Maria had been exhausted, she had been so tired, and the nurses told her to push, one last time, just push, and so with a final, monumental effort she pushed the baby from her sweaty, bloody body, and he slid into the world, his first moments captured inside a humid, sweaty hospital suite, heavy with the stench of birth.
“It’s a boy!” The doctors had said “It’s a healthy boy, Mrs Stark.”
And Maria, exhausted, and broken down, and wrung out, had cried because she did not want a boy, she did not want an Anthony, she wanted her girl, all she wanted was her little girl and this had all been for nothing, her last chance and she had blown it, she had screamed here for days and all she had to show was a child, a little boy, who would grow up to be just like his father, an American warmonger, and Maria sobbed, screamed, she wouldn’t hold him, he was not hers.
The next thing she remembers is lying in a different bed somewhere in their suite, and Howard is sitting beside her in his chair, the little boy in his arms, and he’s smiling, grin stretched wide across his face. “Jarvis went home,” he said “he’s getting everything ready, we’ll have a party, we need to celebrate.” Howard said, eyes fixed intently on the thing in his arms.
“No party,” Maria had said, voice hoarse “no party, Howard.”
He had frowned. “Maria,” he started “sweetie—”
“No party!” She had spat “I don’t want a party, I don’t want one, I want my baby, Howard, I want my baby, I don’t—”
“Here,” Howard said, quickly “here, take him, look at him,” and he pushed him forward, tried to lever him into her arms.
She had backed away “Don’t.” She had said, eyes screwed shut “I don’t want him,” she hissed “I don’t, I won’t,” she gasped “he’s not my child, he’s yours, he’s yours!”
Howard looked at her, eyes wide. “Maria,” he said quietly “what the fuck is this. What are you doing, hold him. He is your son, what is wrong—”
“I don’t want him!” She had screamed “get him away from me! Get away from me! All of you, leave, I don’t—”
The baby had started to wail, Howard wasn’t holding him right, his little arm was pressed tight against his chest as he made a shrill noise of discomfort.
“You’re delirious,” he said, coldly “you need to sleep.”
“I don’t need to sleep,” she had cried, hysterical “I don’t need sleep, I don’t want that baby, he’s not mine — Doctor!” She screamed “Doctor, take it away, I don’t want it, I don’t want it—”
They sedated her, after that. A few days later, a nurse talked about the birthing blues in a calm, warm voice, talked about how it had been a difficult birth, she was all shaken up, but if she would just hold her child she would see that he wasn’t evil, he was just a baby, that it wasn’t his fault that the birth had been so troublesome.
Maria doesn’t care. She spits in the woman’s face an crosses her arms. It’s Howard’s baby and she wants no part of it. She wants no part in a baby that will grow up to be a monster, just like his daddy.
One day, some months after the birth, Jarvis isn’t home. She didn’t know why, he just wasn’t, and Howard was at work, and even if he hadn’t been it’s not like he would have helped. But the baby is crying. And crying. And crying. And Maria is trying to play the piano and she can hear it down the corridor, screaming and screaming and screaming and it won’t shut up. She jams her fingers into the keys, plays an ugly, discordant melody, and the baby continues to bawl.
Eventually, she stands in front of the cot, looking down. It’s face is crumpled and wet, it’s still crying, and Maria wonders vaguely if anyone has fed it yet. It’s almost breathless, face turning blue with exertion, and Maria feels sorry for it, in a disconnected way. It’s not fair to have had this baby, to bring it into a world with an alcoholic father and depressed, insane mother.
The baby keeps screaming and Maria keeps watching.
She feels disconnected entirely, like she’s walking though a dream. She wants to let it scream. Let it scream and scream and if it’s still alive when Jarvis gets back then well, so be it.
It would be so easy to just bring a pillow down over it’s face.
It coughs. Drags in a deep shaky breath. It’s eyes crack open and it mewls pathetically, legs shifting and fists clenching.
It’s not fair. It’s not fair for either of them. Maria does not want this baby.
But it’s not his fault.
They have a common enemy, she realises, her and this boy. She has to protect him. She has to stop Howard from sinking in her claws before it’s too late. She needs to stop this boy from growing up to be just like that man, a war monger, broken, and empty inside. Maria starts to cry.
She cries because she is alone, because there is no one who loves her. Her family abandoned her and she hasn’t said ‘I love you’ to her husband since their wedding night. If she died, nobody would care. She cries because this baby is equally alone, because if she doesn’t do something, if she does not help him, no one else ever will. Because Howard is a drunk and a fanatic and it’s own mother was contemplating his own murder just moments ago.
It’s not fair. None of this is fair.
The baby coughs, drags in a shaky breath. Opens it’s mouth to bawl.
She picks up her son.