Maria Stark screamed.
It wasn’t unusual, really. She was giving birth, screaming was part of the process, everyone always said so.
Maria expected it to hurt, but she hadn’t been screaming, not really. Not until the doctor pulled out a shiny needle, the barrel filled with a strange blue liquid, one drop glistening from the end of the cannula.
“Here you are, Mrs. Stark, that’ll make that nasty old pain go away,” the doctor said.
She didn’t know him, and there was something generically humiliating about being naked in the same room with a man she’d never even met. Although she’d expected that, a little bit, too. Her girlfriends who’d already had their heirs had said that once she started the labor process, she became a non-entity. No one would look at her twice, but the doctors would come in and out, their only concern not her grotesquely stretched and displayed vagina, but the child that would soon be entering the world.
Maria thought they meant to reassure her that no one would be paying her nakedness any mind, but she felt an odd frisson of unease, instead.
“What is that?” she demanded, staring at the needle.
“Darling,” Howard said, and Maria jerked her head to the other side to stare at her husband, the man she trusted. Who was, in fact, the only other person in the room. She wasn’t sure how that happened; weren’t there supposed to be nurses and assistants and -- hadn’t she said she wanted her mother to be here? She’d called her mother when the first pains started. “Just take it easy, everything’s going to be just fine.”
She’d been worried, but not scared, until he said that.
Why wouldn’t everything not be fine?
She wanted to demand more explanations, any explanation. She’d been too busy listening to the urges of her suddenly tumultuous body to notice how strange all of this was until now.
Howard had driven her. Howard had. Not the driver, not an ambulance. Howard put her in the back seat of the car as soon as she’d gotten off the phone with her mother, and driven her. Not to the clean, white hospital she’d expected, but somewhere else. A… smaller building.
“It’s just the lab, don’t worry, special arrangements,” Howard had said.
But Maria wasn’t sure where she was. She wasn’t sure who this man was who was offering her a needle.
And Howard… Howard wasn’t meeting her gaze.
She’d become a non-entity. Not a woman, not a wife. But an incubator for a child.
Maria reached for her husband, determined. She would drag his arm closer and bite him if she had to, but she was going to get some answers.
Except she felt the needle prick her other arm while she’d been distracted, and…
She woke up and there was no one there. Scared. Alone. She couldn’t remember anything around the swelling fear. Not even her name.
She ached all over and her chest hurt like someone was laying on it. Over the aches -- or under it -- there was a sticky, sweaty patina. She gradually noticed that her thighs were wet, her breasts ached, and she had hair in her face.
She went to brush her hair from her face and couldn’t. Her right arm was strapped to a board, an IV in her elbow. The skin around it was dark and bruised and puffy. She followed the line up to an empty bag on an IV stand.
Turning her head, she discovered that her left wrist was held to the bedside with a chain, the shiny handcuff bracelet around her left wrist. What was going on? Where was she?
Her belly was… weird. Numb, somehow, and oddly empty in a way that didn’t remind her of hunger. She struggled to sit in the confines of her bonds. Managed to get upright. Her legs were spread and she didn’t seem to have any control over them, numb and useless from the hips down.
What was going on?
She opened her mouth on a sob, her voice harsh and ragged. She’d planned to scream for help, but-- who would help her? There was no one here, there was nothing here, and… someone had brought her here. Someone she trusted.
Maybe not to care for her, not exactly, but the--
Where was her baby?
She struggled against her bindings, squeezing her left hand as narrow as it would go and, slippery with sweat, she managed to get it free. She picked gingerly at the tape around the IV line, each tug of sticky stuff painful, but not half as painful as the fear in her chest. Where was her baby in this horrible place?
She drew in a deep breath and pulled the needle out. It splattered blood and then leaked. She grabbed a bit of the sheet and put pressure on the wound, trying to stop her elbow from bleeding while she tried to figure out what to do next.
Her legs were gradually waking up, so she wasn’t paralyzed, she’d just been drugged.
She lowered one side of the bed, the bleeding sluggish now. She had no idea how much time had passed, how much time she had. Where anyone was. Were they just going to leave her to die here, having stolen her baby?
Where was Howard?
She rolled out of the bed, keeping hold of the side to steady herself. She needed it. She needed more than the bed, but that was all she had. Her legs were still so weak, and she--
Her stomach roiled and there was hot, wetness between her legs. She was still bleeding. They couldn’t have taken the baby that long ago, could they have? How long would she keep bleeding after birth?
There was a shiny, steel tray on the table nearby, full of wicked looking tools and sharp, stabbing implements. A scalpel, she thought, and gripped it, holding the razor edge out. She was going to find her baby, she was--
The door opened, and the doctor came in, followed by a nurse who had another IV bag. “You are so much trouble, Mrs. Stark,” he said. “If your husband was not paying so very well, allowing me such opportunities, well. Women die in childbirth all the time. Tragic…”
“Who are you?” she demanded, brandishing the scalpel.
“No one you will remember,” he said, and the nurse grabbed her, disarmed her with a bare twist of the wrist.
“You’re not a nurse,” Maria said.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Stark,” the woman who was not a nurse said. “You won’t remember any of this. It’ll all be a bad dream.”
“Where is my baby?” Maria demanded as the nurse held her tight, keeping her standing, “please, where is my baby, what do you want, let me go--”
“Your son, Mrs. Stark?” The doctor smiled, creepy, his puffy lips stretching in an unfamiliar expression. “He’s fine. Very tough. Stark men are like iron, I have been informed.”
The woman who wasn’t a nurse spoke to the doctor in a language Maria didn’t know. Maria struggled to understand, to get away, to get some answers, but she was held firm.
Just an incubator. No one cared about her pain or her fear or--
Her legs went out from under her, and she saw an opportunity. Gravity assisted her, and the fact that they weren’t treating her like a person at all; they underestimated her. Stark men might be iron, but Carbonell women didn’t surrender. She grabbed the scalpel as she sprawled on the floor, and as the woman who wasn’t a nurse continued to talk in that strange language reached for her, to yank her back up, Maria stabbed her in the shoulder.
But that bit of defiance and rage was the last she had in her. The nurse didn’t even scream, she just retaliated, and Maria felt a puff of pain against her cheek. Familiar, somehow.
Darkness chased her.
When Maria Stark woke up again, she was in the hospital. An actual hospital with nurses and doctors and her husband, and…
Her son, her tiny, perfect son who lay on her chest.
Maria looked down at him, and then put the boy to her breast, letting him suck.
“Howard?” she asked. “What happened?”
“Oh, don’t you worry,” Howard said. “You had a difficult birth. They had to sedate you. The doctor said you had a bad reaction to it, that you might have hallucinated for a while. But nothing happened. We came in, Anthony was born--”
“You named him?” Maria cuddled the child closer.
“After your brother, yes,” Howard said. “I thought you would approve.”
“And nothing happened? There was no strange lab, no-- no doctor who wanted me to die?” The details were slipping away, even as she nursed Anthony. Antonio. Tony.
“Of course not, dear. Don’t be silly,” Howard said. “Everything’s just fine. Get some rest. The doctor said you could have some pills for the pain, if it was particularly bad.”
“I’m fine,” Maria said, faintly. “Why wouldn’t I be fine?”
“Well, you should take them anyway,” Howard said, and when he handed her the tablets, she didn’t object.
But when she took the cup of water-- there was a bruise on her wrist that looked remarkably like a handcuff had been fastened there, too tight.
She didn’t say anything. She drank the water, took the pills.
Nursed her son.
Everything was going to be fine.
Howard said so.