A piercing cry echoes through the maternity ward. Then, silence.
“It’s a girl.”
“A girl?” Maria Carbonell Stark, sounds ragged and exhausted, a far cry from her usual composure. She’s an elegant woman of Italian descent, her eyes intelligent and dark as her hair. The dark circles under those eyes only emphasize the thinness of her face, high cheekbones forming shallow hollows in her cheeks. The pregnancy had been a hard one.
She clenches her fist, long nails biting sharply into her palm and her husband’s hand. Howard’s face is stony, but he looks almost resigned as he turns to his wife, a brilliant woman barely more than half his age. He knows that they won’t be able to try again– they’d had a hard enough time getting pregnant the first time, and Maria’s body couldn’t handle the strain of another pregnancy.
“How long until we can go home?” he asks the obstetrician, voice clipped and impatient.
The doctor looks up from her task of examining the girl. “Well, if you’re not planning on breastfeeding her, you and the baby can leave whenever you want. Maria will need to stay for a while until she gets her strength up.”
The newly inaugurated parents glance at each other. The girl, swaddled tightly in a pale pink blanket, is placed gently in her mother’s arms.
Her eyes are unusually focused for a newborn, colored like fine, aged whiskey.
“I’m taking her home as soon as we’re done filling out the birth certificate.” Howard calls the butler over with a vague gesture. “Jarvis, hold the girl–”
“What? Maria, we need to discuss this–”
Jarvis takes an aborted step forward as Maria interrupts Howard once more. “Her name is Anastasia Regina Carbonell Stark, and I’ll hear nothing more about it.” Her voice is firm, the Italian accent she’s usually able to stifle coming out in full force. “I won’t have you calling her ‘the girl,’ either.”
She speaks over him, “Jarvis, please take Anastasia to the estate. The wet nurse should be waiting there.”
Edwin Jarvis gingerly accepts the small bundle. He draws the girl close to his chest, eyes soft and awed, before turning briskly and exiting the room.
Anastasia has barely turned four when, with the watchful eye of her mother making sure she doesn't solder her hand in the process, she creates her first working circuit board. She presents it first to Jarvis (her Jarvis, as she refers to the butler), then Maria, and finally Howard when he returns from the business trip that had allowed Anastasia to use his lab unobstructed.
Jarvis and her mother are both suitably impressed by the feat, praising her accomplishment and rewarding her with her favorite ice cream. Maria is especially proud, having tutored Anastasia in mathematics and languages since she was old enough to say ‘mamma’ at 8 months.
(‘Jarvis’ - well, ‘Jarvy’ really - was her first word, but Maria is more than willing to ignore that when her daughter says her next word with such a wide, toothless grin.)
Howard is more critical than impressed, drunk on scotch and still somewhat bitter about Anastasia’s gender. He critiques the not-quite-perfectly-straight soldering on the circuit board, as well as the simplicity of the circuitry.
Anastasia doesn't cry, though she wants to. Her mother’s hand is warm and strong on her small shoulder, grounding her gently even as Maria’s other hand clenches spasmodically in response. Jarvis stands behind them in silent solidarity.
The reporters show up the next day.
Howard, despite his cold reaction to Anastasia's circuit board, hires on the best tutors he can find after that. He's the slightest bit impressed by her – not that he'll admit it – and he wants to foster that spark in her eyes. He's always been one to seek out talent; case in point, Steve Rogers.
He sets up a small corner of his workshop for Anastasia to tinker in, leaving some partially completed blueprints in the work bench just to see what she'll do with them.
It takes her two years of studying and evolving, but she finally finishes the last of the blueprints at age six: an aircraft engine which had taken her nearly a year to complete. She'd machined many of the parts herself, collecting calluses and scars on her petite hands in the process, and the final product takes up the entirety of her little corner.
She scurries across the workshop to where Howard is sitting at a brightly illuminated drafting table, tugging at his pant leg to get his attention. He turns eventually, face screwed up in a scowl.
“Papa, come look! I finished the engine!” Her eyes are bright with triumph, hands still fisted in Howard’s pants.
“Girl, I thought I told you that you’re to leave me alone when I'm working,” he slurs.
Anastasia’s brows scrunch together briefly before she sets her jaw and says again, “Please, Padre. It's the last one of those blueprints— ooph!”
Eyes wide in shock, Anastasia raises one trembling hand to her cheek. It comes away wet with the blood oozing from a cut on her cheekbone. She looks up from her place on the concrete floor, seeing Howard looking at his hand in shock, as well. The signet ring there is stained with her blood.
Howard schools his expression and grabs Anastasia's wrist, ignoring her flinch at the bruising grip. He pulls her upright, grunting gruffly, “You see what happens when you don't listen, girl? Get out.”
He shoves her lightly toward the door, and she all but sprints out of the room and up the stairs to her suite.
She doesn't cry. No, she throws herself onto the bench stationed in front of the shining baby grand piano in the parlor of her rooms. She sits still for only a moment, head bowed, before attacking the keys with a ferocity that surprises even her. Chopin’s Etude Op 25, No. 11 flows from her fingers, angry and anguished and just a bit too fast. It's just on the edge of sloppy, and she can still feel the slow trickle of warm blood on her cheek.
The door opens behind her, the low creak barely registering on the edge of Anastasia's consciousness. As the piece draws to a close, she's breathing hard, and there's a warm presence at her back. A single tear escapes her watery eyes, face still hidden behind a waterfall of wavy dark hair.
She feels the shift in the air even before Jarvis’ heavy hand falls into place on her shoulder. She turns and throws her skinny arms around his waist, an ugly sob tearing its way out of her throat.
He lets her cry, lets her exhaust herself with her full-bodied sobs. He notes briefly that he’s glad she’s not wearing eye makeup yet; if she were, his shirt would surely be ruined.
Eventually, once the sobs have subsided to the occasional sniffle, Jarvis gently nudges Anastasia’s head back to look her in the eyes. They’re red and puffy from her crying session, but that doesn’t distract Jarvis from the bloody, steadily blooming bruise high on her cheek. He brushes his fingers lightly over the wound, inhaling sharply through clenched teeth as she flinches.
“Let's get you cleaned up, young miss.”