The first time it happens, Tony is two. Howard and Maria are entertaining guests in the living room, neatly sweeping their toddler son away from mention by handing him off to the butlers and maids, who largely ignore the boy. Used to this routine by now, Tony quietly sits at a table in the corner of the kitchen with a pad of paper and a pencil. He wished for crayons, but Father said they were for babies who couldn't even count, and Tony was too big for that. So instead, he drew with a pencil, careful not to cause a ruckus and distract the adults.
Tony is in the middle of drawing a series of windows on his skyscraper when the pencil lead snaps and rolls across the table. Sighing, he hops down from his chair with his pencil in hand and opens the door to the kitchen slowly, so as not to make a sound. He knew his way to the room with the pencil sharpener, and he was confident that he could get there without getting lost. Unfortunately, the way he knew passed the living room where his parents and the guests were, so he'd have to be silent.
Coming up on the doorway to the living room, he holds his breath and listens. He hears his father laughing with another man, the unfamiliar woman's dainty words apparently entertaining the both of them. Tony puts his ear to the door so he can hear more clearly.
“-amazing, truly! There's not a sign of a toddler in this house!” The woman says, a light laugh attached to the tail end of her sentence.
“Yes, well, Anthony is very well-mannered for a child his age.” That's his mother. Her melodious voice was something he'd recognize anywhere. It seemed strange to Tony that his mother or father would be talking about him; they very rarely spoke to him at all, or even acknowledged his existence.
“What she means is that Anthony knows his place. He knows to respect his elders, and he knows what happens if he doesn't,” his father states imperiously. The man's voice sent shivers down Tony's spine. It wasn't too terribly long ago that Howard had had to “show him his place.” Again.
“Isn't that a bit harsh, Howard?” A deeper voice: that of the man. “Tough love, I understand. But the way you talk about him-”
“It isn't tough love, James,” his father interrupts. “Tough love is what parents call it when they yell at their children for a few minutes and don't let them have dessert after dinner. Tough love is what they call it when they send their children to their rooms and ground them. Anthony was raised with discipline, with a heavy and steady hand. Some parents want their children to respect them, some to fear them. Truth is: the most optimal result stems from a mixture of both.”
It wasn't the words his father spoke that scared Tony, for he couldn't understand most of them, it was the tone. Cold, hard, so like the one he used when punishing him. Tony remembered the pain of his father's hand hitting his face, the things he yelled when he cried. He could almost feel the slap coming, stinging his cheek and bringing unwanted tears to his eyes. Before he could be completely immersed in the memory, he heard shifting from inside the room, and panicked. He fled, running as quietly as possible down the hall, trying to keep from crying, lest he be hit again.
Ten minutes later, Tony was curled in a corner of a random hall, lost. He couldn't remember the layout of the house anymore, he didn't know where he was. Phantom yells echoed in his ears and his eyes stung with the force of holding back tears. Panic welled within him, and he curled into a ball on the floor, pressing himself up against the wall as tightly as possible. Help! He screamed in his head. Please! Help!
A blue glow flashed in his vision, but before Tony could notice it, it was gone, racing out of his sight and out of his mind.
In the West Wing of Stark Mansion, Jarvis was loosening his tie after a long day of work. The Starks kept him moving all day long, ushering the younger maids and butlers through their duties, making sure the schedules of both Howard and Maria didn't overlap, and, in the words of his employer, “managing that rowdy toddler.” It wasn't hard to tell that neither of them had spent very much time with young Anthony, as “rowdy” was the last word Jarvis would use to describe the boy. The child was brilliant, reaching far beyond the minds of those twice his age. But Jarvis was beginning to suspect foul play: Tony would flinch at sudden noises, and when his father was in the room, his face became an almost emotionless mask. The older Tony got, the more pronounced these things became.
Jarvis had planned to go to Child Protective Services multiple times, but he could never gather enough concrete evidence. A claim made against the world's most well-known businessman wouldn't stand on suspicion. He needed to be able to prove his allegations, but he wasn't able to yet. Letting out a sigh, he sat down on his bed at the same moment his lamp flickered.
Looking up as the flickering continued, he tapped the bulb lightly, which seemed to fix the problem. Just as he was ready to write it off, he overhead light did the same. Jarvis stood up, and the light returned to normal. Under the crack in the door, he saw the hall light blink on and off. Slipping on shoes, he opened the door to find a fixture a few feet down blinking. Curious, he began to follow the path of flickering lights.
Ten minutes later, he was wandering the East Wing, feeling like an idiot. Following lights, he thought to himself, rolling his eyes. He was ready to turn around and head back to his room when he noticed something moving in the corner of his vision. Turning around, he let out a gasp as he saw the curled up form of Tony Stark in the corner, shuddering and shaking. Rushing over, he pulled off his suit jacket to cover the small boy before gathering him into his arms.
“Shh, Tony, it's alright. You're safe, you're fine,” he whispered to the child, rubbing his hands over his arms to get him to warm up. Tony's face came up, tear-streaked and eyes full of pain.
“D-don't tell Father. P-please, Jarvis,” he croaked out, his voice hoarse. The butler's heart broke for the little boy, but he closed his eyes and nodded slowly. Tony let out a sigh of relief, resting his head on his shoulder lightly, eyes closing. Jarvis sighed, hugging the small body close and turning on his heel, returning to the West Wing, to put the exhausted child to sleep.
Jarvis paid no more mind to the flickering lights.