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The Limitations of Wax

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When Maria finally falls pregnant Howard isn’t so much happy as he is satisfied.

His dynasty is ensured now.  He’ll have an heir, a son to groom and mold in his image to carry on his life’s work.  A son he can teach to build, to create, to engineer and push the boundaries of science ever outwards.

A son to rear into a proper Stark, a son who will be Howard’s greatest creation.

When the time comes Howard sits with Obadiah in the plush waiting room of the hospital.  They have fine cigars in hand and cut crystal glasses of scotch at their elbows, far removed from the delivery room and all it contains.  He has no interest in the process of his son’s birth, only in the final product.

“Mr. Stark.”  The doctor looks tired, grim faced with exhaustion but ultimately pleased.  “Congratulations sir, you have a beautiful, healthy new daughter.”

Ah.”  Obadiah hisses out a displeased sound beside him that Howard distantly hears himself echo.

There’s a long beat of awkward silence before Howard waves the doctor away, picks up his glass, and drains it in one long, burning gulp.  A daughter.  Not a son, not his son.  Christ.  What use is a fucking daughter going to be to him?  To Stark Industries?

“Well at least with Maria as her mother she should be a beauty when she’s older.”  Obadiah slaps him roughly on the back.  “You can make sure she marries well, someone who’ll be useful to SI’s growth.  Plus Maria’s still young so there’s time to get a proper heir out of her yet.”

Howard hums in agreement and it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn towards the latest defense contract Howard’s managed to weasel out of the government.  All thoughts of his new daughter are pushed away for more important issues.

Obadiah’s right after all.  Maria’s still young and even though Howard’s never been fond of children there’s still time to have another, to get the son that both he and SI needs him to have.

~~~

Natasha Antonia Stark is born wailing, a small destructive bundle of flailing limbs, thick black hair, and too bright eyes that almost kills Maria in the process.

She screams and cries and it takes the nurses forever to calm her down, to get her settled and sleeping and above all else quiet.

Even as a newborn there’s some part of her that knows she needs to be loud, knows she needs to scream scream scream until her lungs feel fit to burst so that the whole world can hear her, so that no one can ignore her.

She sets a precedent that night that follows her the rest of her life.

~~~

Maria holds her newborn daughter exactly twice.  Once directly after the birth, too drugged to really focus on what’s going on but blissed out enough with that new glow of motherhood to still want her child in her arms.

The second time is the next day, freed from the harsh haze of sedatives and eager to look at her son.

“A daughter.”  Maria’s face is a study in disappointment as she picks at the luxuriously soft blue blanket she’d specifically ordered and brought to the hospital for her son herself.  “Howard must be so displeased,” she sighs as she hands the girl over to the nurse and waves her away.

Maria isn’t looking forward to having to get pregnant again to give Howard the son he so desperately wants but she’ll do it of course, as is her duty.

As far as the girl is concerned, well at least they’ll be able to make sure she’ll marry well one day so it’s not a total lost cause.

~~~

Natasha is bundled into the lavish nursery that had been designed for the son Howard had wanted but not received.  It’s decorated in soft blues and golds, there’s a rocket ship mobile hanging over the crib and a thick padded chair in the corner.  A broad shoulder blond man salutes her with a smile from a glass covered poster on the wall.

Howard and Maria hand the girl over to Jarvis and a wet nurse and go about their lives, back to SI and galas, back to scotch and spa days and other, more important things.  They only stop to deal with Natasha when there’s a photo shoot to be had or an opportunity to appear like a blissfully happy family for the press to be found.

~~~

Natasha’s first word is Jarvis.

Her second is listen.

Her third is look.

Anything to break the quiet of the nursery she barely ever leaves now that her nurse is gone.

She hasn’t seen either Maria or Howard at all for six months, only Jarvis and the blond man who smiles down at her from his place on her wall.  But she’s too young to understand why that’s wrong, why that’s a problem.

After that she’s speaking in full sentences because it seems as if once she starts speaking Natasha can’t stop.

She grows quickly, runs almost as soon as she’s able to stand, transitions into full sentences so fast it’s almost scary how she skips the developmental speech phase.

But those three words are still the ones she says most often.  Jarvis look.  Jarvis listen.  Jarvis.  Jarvis.  Jarvis.

Please someone look at/listen to me.

~~~

She realizes that she’s different quickly enough, realizes it in the way that the books that line the blue walls of her room at all too simple for her, how she doesn’t like her toys unless she’s taking them apart, how everything around her is so boring.

Somehow she just knows she’s different, that she’s … not right.

Maybe it’s the way the maids all look at her, how they whisper about her behind their rags and feather dusters until Jarvis scolds them and sends them on their way.

Maybe it’s the way that Ma’am and Sir never seem to want to look at her, never seem to want her around.

Or maybe it’s the way her mind whirls, how the inside of her head screams and pounds and just goes so so fast when everyone else is so so slow.  When everything else is just too slow for her.

Jarvis is the one who’s there for her just as he is with everything else.  He’s the one who holds her at night, her tiny hands fisted in his nightshirt as she sobs against his neck.  He’s the one who helps her when she’s frantic and screaming because her head feels full to bursting with things she can’t properly express, with ideas and images and thoughts that she can’t properly say even with all the words she knows.

Jarvis is the one who soothes her with hot milk and cool hands, with long, strong fingers smoothing through her short cut cap of hair as he kneels by her bedside and tells her stories until she finally calms down.

She’s three when she looks up at him, face swollen with tears, hands white knuckling his apron, and asks, “Jarvis what’s wrong with me?”

Nothing young miss.”  Jarvis sounds unexpectedly fierce and that makes her pay attention to him with the sort of focus she can so rarely achieve.  “There is nothing wrong with you.”

“I’m a freak.”  She knows that word now too, has caught more than one maid whispering it when she has a screaming fit because her mind just won’t quiet down, because she can’t focus, can’t sleep, can’t breathe.  Jarvis had been coldly furious the last time he caught one of them whispering about her like that and Natasha hasn’t seen that maid since.

“You are not a freak young miss.”  Jarvis cups her face gently and smiles down at her in that way that makes her chest go warm.  “You are perfect as you are.  Different yes, special but not wrong.”

“I wish I was normal.  I wish you could fix me.”  She manages to choke out past her sobs and can only watch as something in Jarvis’ face seems to crack, can only see how his eyes go dark and just slightly wet.

“You are as you were meant to be young miss.”  Jarvis tells her softly, sadly.  “There is nothing there to fix.”

She wants to believe him but she can’t.

~~~

There’s a set of tools waiting for her the next day when she gets up.  Tools and books on math and machines that she actually has to pay attention to, books that actually capture her attention in a way nothing ever has before.

And in that moment Natasha suddenly feels as if the world makes sense, as if these are the things that can finally help her make sense of her own mind.

Tools and books and Jarvis.

“There is nothing wrong with you young miss.”  Jarvis tells her again when he comes to wake her for breakfast.  She’s already up and buried in the remnants of the large stereo system that sits in the corner of her room, books and tools sprawled out around her because she needs to see how it works in person instead of just in her head now that she’s read about it.  “You simply have different needs than others.  There is no shame in that.  I will help you find your way.”

So Jarvis is the one who pulls her up onto her feet, presses a tool into one hand and a book into the other and tells her to create.  Tells her that if the numbers and the shapes and images in her mind hurt so bad then she should build them, should give them form so that they can finally leave her alone.

Jarvis is the one who finally teaches her how to breathe.

~~~

Her room transforms after that.  Tools and books clutter every available surface.  Jarvis gets her a small work table and a chair that she has to use a stool to get onto because she’s small even for her age.  He gets her pencils and paper and spare parts to build the things that clutter her mind more and more now that she’s learning the math, the mechanics, the language of the world inside her head.

It’s still not right, not perfect, her mind still whirls and the words don’t all line up right with the images in her head but it’s an improvement.  She’s sleeping semi-regularly now, doesn’t scream and cry as much, can stand to eat and sit calmly for more than a minute at a time.

It’s not perfect but it’s better than everything she’s ever know.

The blond man on the poster that proclaims that ‘Captain America wants you’ smiles at her from the wall and Natasha can’t help the way she looks at him before she goes to sleep each night and smiles back.

~~~

The circuit board she builds at four isn’t perfect but it’s far beyond anything she should be able to build.

Jarvis looks at it in awe, something like pride in his feature as he takes her by the hand and leads her to Sir’s office.

Sir’s there, glass in hand, alongside the tall, broad man Natasha has been told to call Uncle Obie whenever there’s a reporter within hearing distance.

“Jarvis I told you no interruptions.”  Sir flicks a glance in her direction and then away again.  Natasha knows he’s her father, knows that Ma’am is her mother, knows what those things are supposed to mean, but doesn’t really care, can’t really feel for them as she knows she should.

She has Jarvis though so she doesn’t really think about it too much.

“I’m aware Sir but the young miss has done something rather extraordinary and I thought it best to bring it to your attention.”  Jarvis holds out the circuit board in Sir’s direction.

“What’d the little brat break this time?”  Sir reaches out his free hand and grabs the board roughly from Jarvis with a derisive snort.

“Nothing Sir.”  Jarvis shakes his head.  “She built it.”

Sir and Uncle Obie go still.

What?”  The question is sharp, cutting and hard like the edges of the tools Natasha uses now.

“She built it Sir, without help.”  Jarvis is calm, as still as the pond in the garden he sometimes lets Natasha play in.

Sir’s other hand tightens on the glass he’s holding but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move towards her.  He just looks at her instead, stares at her quietly without saying a word.  There’s something in his eyes though, something cold and dark that makes her shiver, makes her huddle closer to Jarvis’ side.

“Well,” Uncle Obie says softly, smugly.  “There just might be a use for you yet.”

~~~

Eventually, when Natasha has become Toni and Sir has become Howard, when she has a bit of distance and clarity, she will remember that moment and realize that was the first time Howard had wanted to hit her.

The first but most certainly not the last.

When she’s older she’ll think that maybe that circuit board was her first mistake.  That maybe it was the reason Howard could barely stand to look at her unless he was hurting her.  That maybe by showing her brilliance so early, so honestly, she’d made some kind of mistake.

That maybe if she hadn’t shined so brightly so young that Howard might have learned to love her.

But, deep down in that place she puts those memories so she can pretend like she has the luxury of forgetting them even if only for a second, she knows better.

Her first mistake was being born female.

And it’s the one thing that neither Howard nor Maria could ever forgive her for.

~~~

Her life changes after that.

There’s a press conference and photo shoot.  Ma’am and Sir smile wide and bright, talk about how proud they are, how she’s their pride and joy, so smart, so creative.  A prodigy just like her father.

Natasha stands stiffly in front of them, circuit board in hand, and smiles as best she can for the cameras just like Jarvis had told her to.  The lights hurt her eyes, make her mind scream, make her breath catch unpleasantly.  She wants to run, wants to cry, wants to hide until Jarvis finds her because he always finds her.

It’s only Sir’s harsh grip on her shoulder that keeps her still.

~~~

Later, when Jarvis helps her out of the fancy, multi layered dress Ma’am had stuffed her into for the press, he hisses out a sharp breath at the sight of the bruises on her shoulder.

Sir’s handprint is stark against the delicate cream of her skin.

Neither of them say anything, but Jarvis is a shade too pale and Natasha is tired and her shoulder throbs.  Instead he just rubs cream across the bruises and carefully runs a brush through her still short hair.

Once again a precedent has been set but neither of them know it just yet.

But they will.

They will.

~~~

“Have I told you the story of Icarus yet young miss?”  Jarvis asks her when he tucks her in that night.

“No.”  She shakes her head, tired but still eager because she likes Jarvis’ stories, likes the fact that he takes the time to tell them to her at all.

“Well I think you’ll find it interesting.”  Jarvis smooths her hair back from her forehead gently.

Natasha falls asleep to the sound of his voice telling her the story of a boy with wax wings who flew too close to the sun.

~~~

After the circuit board comes to light there are tests.

So many tests.

The word prodigy becomes realer, becomes fact, solid and true.

Natasha Stark is a prodigy.

Sir just looks at her and that same shiver traces its way down her spine without fail.

~~~

“Jarvis?”  Natasha whispers against her pillow, tired from a day spent hunched over tools and metal with Sir breathing down her neck.

“Yes young miss?”  His hand is a warm comfort on the thin line of her spine.

“Tell me about Icarus again.”

“Of course young miss.”

~~~

They send her to school as soon as she turns five.  An expensive private school because as much as Ma’am and Sir discuss boarding school Sir and Uncle Obie are strangely reluctant to have her too far away.

The other kids are all bigger than her because she’s so much younger than they are but Natasha wants to make friends.  She’s read about them, heard about friends in the stories Jarvis tells her at night before she goes to sleep sometimes and she thinks she’d like some.

The only problem is none of the other kids want to be friends with her.

She’s too small, too young, too smart for all of them.

She tries though, tries as best she can.

The first time she comes home with a bloody nose it’s because she tried to be helpful and correct Bobby Winston’s math.  He hadn’t appreciated that even though afterwards he swore to the teacher that he didn’t mean to hit her in the face with his book.

Natasha knows better.

Jarvis cleans her up, face grim and pensive.

By the time she’s fixed up there’s a determined set to his shoulders that has her curious even though he doesn’t say anything to her.

She hears him on the phone that night when she creeps out of bed and down to Sir’s workshop to sneak another soldering iron from his tool chest.  After she’d burnt her wrist last week Jarvis had confiscated hers and she needs one to finish her current project.

“-loody nose Peggy.  You’re the only one I know who can be trusted to teach the young miss anything helpful.  She’s so small.”  Jarvis sounds sad and Natasha hates the fact that she’s the one who’s made him that way.

She sneaks back to her room, shoulders hunched and chest tight.

She would be bigger for Jarvis if she could, if it would make him feel better.

~~~

Peggy Carter is a whirlwind.

She’s all straight shoulders, red lips, and strength.

She bursts into the mansion as if she owns it, all confidence and command, bowls over Sir’s complaints and attempts to get her attention with a, “not now Howard” and a wave of her hand.

Natasha instantly, hopelessly, adores her.

“Hello ducky.”  Aunt Peggy as she’s been instructed to call her, grins at Natasha as she kneels down until they are eye to eye in that way that only Jarvis does.  “I doubt you remember me but I met you when you were just a baby.”

“Hello.”  Natasha feels shy in a way she never has before, can’t help but duck her head and bite at her bottom lip.

“Such a gorgeous little thing aren’t you?  Smart too from what I’ve seen.”  Aunt Peggy grins, lips a bright red curl.  “We’ll get along swimmingly I think.”

~~~

Aunt Peggy teaches her how to make a fist, teaches her where to hit someone bigger than her to hurt them even if she’s not very strong yet.  Aunt Peggy tells her that if someone’s bigger than her, stronger, then she should use anything and everything she can get her hands on to hurt them.

But, above all else Aunt Peggy gives her something else.

She gives her Captain America.

She gives her Steve Rogers.

“He was so small in the beginning, before it all happened.”  Aunt Peggy tells her softly that night after Natasha’s been tucked into bed.

Natasha stares at the poster of the broad shouldered blond man on her wall in awe.  “He was small?”

“Thin and sickly too, so small but so very brave.”  Aunt Peggy confirms.  “The bravest man I ever knew ducky.  The best man I ever knew.  So when you’re frightened, when you’re upset because everyone else is so much bigger than you, just remember that Steve was small once too but his mind, his heart, those were the parts of him that really mattered.  Those were the things that made him truly mighty.”

~~~

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

“Will you tell Aunt Peggy and me about Icarus?”

“Of course young miss.”

~~~

After that Natasha can’t get enough of Captain American, can’t get enough of him or his Howling Commandos.

Aunt Peggy indulges her while she’s staying at the mansion, tells her stories that Natasha is smart enough to know are edited a bit but she doesn’t care because she loves to hear them.  Jarvis pitches in too, buys her comics and books and more posters with the Captain and the Commandos on them all.

Natasha devours everything she can get her hands on, hugs the Captain America action figure Aunt Peggy got her to her chest as she huddles beneath her blankets and reads when she should be sleeping or building.

She decides with a solemn sort of certainty that she doesn’t want to be called Natasha anymore and wants instead to be called Toni.

When Jarvis and Aunt Peggy ask why she tell them it’s because she wants a nickname like Bucky and Dum-Dum and Gabe all had, because Toni sounds friendlier, and maybe that’ll make the other kids like her better.

They both go soft and slightly sad but they call her Toni after that and that’s what matters.

And every night, before Toni goes to bed, she kisses the palm of her hand and reaches up to press it against the star on the middle of Steve’s chest.

Because he was small just like she is and look at what he became.

~~~

At night she dreams about flying.

About wings made of wax and how the heat of the sun burns them from her back and sends her tumbling through the air.

Captain America catches her just before she hits the water.

~~~

A month into Aunt Peggy’s stay Ma’am comes home from a gala early enough to catch Toni awake with Jarvis and Aunt Peggy in the kitchen.

“Margaret dear,” Ma’am sweeps into the room, elegant as always in her black dress, “you should have come out with me tonight, you must have been dreadfully bored stuck here all alone.”

“Nonsense Maria,” Aunt Peggy smiles slightly, “Toni’s been keeping me company and I must say she’s excellent at it.”

“Toni?”  Ma’am flicks her eyes in Toni’s direction, lips curled just slightly at the sound of the nickname.  “Hmm, I’m sure Natasha proved to be a fascinating conversationalist.”

“Better than being forced to grit my teeth and endure unnecessary flattery and condescension from men who think they know better.”  Aunt Peggy’s voice is just a shade too sweet.  “You and Howard must be proud of this one, she’s so young but already smarter than half those fools who swan around each other, flashing their tails like peacocks.”

Ma’am comes closer then and grabs Toni by the face.  Her nails are sharp against Toni’s skin and her breath reeks of peppermint and alcohol.

“Howard did so want a son you know.”  Ma’am murmurs almost to herself.  “He was absolutely outraged when it was discovered I couldn’t carry again.”  Ma’am turns her face slightly with a sharp press of nails against Toni’s jaw.  Toni forces herself to stay still as her mother this stranger who birthed her inspects her face with the exact same expression Toni once saw her wear when scrutinizing the new china she’d ordered for the mansion’s greater dining room.  “Well at least you’ve got my cheekbones even if you do have Howard’s mother’s ghastly hair.  And at least keeping it short seems to suit you.”

Ma’am lets her go, flicks her hand in Toni’s direction like a dismissal and turns back to Aunt Peggy, seemingly oblivious to the displeased purse of her lips or the stiff set to Jarvis’ shoulders.

A cold sort of understanding dawns over Toni then.  Sir had wanted a son, had wanted a boy, and instead he’d gotten her.

Toni is smart and this, well it explains … so much.

Ma’am carries on chatting like she hasn’t just sent Toni reeling with her casual statement.

~~~

Aunt Peggy has to leave eventually but she calls often, sends letters and gifts for Toni.  New Cap comics and toys, a pretty hair barrette shaped like a pair of ivory wings for the hair that Toni refuses to cut now.

Small things really but they warm Toni in a way that only Jarvis and Cap can, in the way only building does.

Makes her feel warm and soft deep inside her chest in a way she thinks is supposed to be love.

She likes it.

~~~

Toni is two days shy of seven the first time she gets in trouble at her private school.

She’s stopped trying to be nice by then, stopped trying to make friends with the other students.

Bobby Winston tries to hit her with another book and she picks up her own thick text book and smacks him dead in the face just like Aunt Peggy told her to.  She’s still so very small but Bobby is sitting down so he’s eye level with her and she hits hard enough now that she feels it when his nose breaks beneath her swing.

The slap Sir gives her when he finds out about it later that afternoon leaves her tasting blood.  Ma’am only tisks, reminds Sir not to damage her face, the press Howard, and goes back upstairs.

And that, that hurts in a way Toni can’t deal with because even if she doesn’t really consider them her parents she had hoped …

Jarvis is the one to get her ice afterwards, the one to comfort her where Ma’am Maria Toni thinks to herself viciously, Maria and Howard, not Ma’am and Sir, not mother and father, not now and not ever again had only walked away.

~~~

“Icarus again tonight young miss?”

“Please.”

~~~

Six days later she builds her first engine.

Howard looks at her and then smiles as they present her latest accomplishment to the press two days later.  Just smiles, and smiles, and smiles.

Afterwards, when everyone else is gone, when all the reporters and photographers are finally out, Howard gets roaring drunk.

He’s loud, all vicious curses and sharp snarls that echo throughout the mansion.  Toni hides in her room, Cap at her side, wrench in hand as she works on what she hopes will be a robotic dog eventually.

That doesn’t save her though, doesn’t stop Howard from lumbering up the stairs and into her room.  Doesn’t stop the tumbler he hurls in her direction from shattering on the wall and peppering her arms and neck with slivers of crystal that sting.  Doesn’t stop the tight grip of his hand around her arm or the bruises he leaves behind.

Toni tries not to cry, tries to just stay still and quiet and not draw more of his attention, too frightened to move.

Afterwards, when Howard finally stumbles away, Jarvis comes and lets Toni cling to him as she cries.  He lets her huddle against him as he brushes her down, picks slivers of crystal from her skin and patches her up.

Toni wishes fervently in that moment that Howard and Maria didn’t exist, that Jarvis and Aunt Peggy were her parents.

She wishes so much that were true but she doesn’t let herself say it aloud, doesn’t take the chance of anyone hearing it or worse of saying it and Jarvis looking at her the way Howard does.

~~~

She dreams of flying.  Dreams of feathers and wax, of the smell of salt and the heat of the sun.

Dreams of the pain of her wings melting against her back as the wax scalds her skin.

~~~

She gets up the next morning, stiff and sore, and Howard is still there.

Wishes, Toni learns quickly enough, very rarely come true.

~~~

The dog she was building is little more than a jumble of scrap now from where Howard had stomped it.

That … that almost hurts worse than her body does.

Almost.

~~~

Toni learns and creates more and more and Howard gets more and more violent like some sort of sick positive correlation equation.

At least he manages to avoid her face for the most part just like Maria told him to.

Still she develops a fondness for long sleeves quickly enough because she’s a patchwork of bruises from the neck down.

~~~

She gets kidnapped when she’s eight.  She doesn’t like to think about that much.

~~~

He breaks her arm one day when she’s nine and Jarvis rushes her, grim faced and quiet, to the nearest hospital.

Toni just tangles the fingers of her good hand in the hem of her Captain America t-shirt, turns her face into the thick tangle of curls that’s slowly creeping further and further down her back, and doesn’t say a word.

Jarvis sits at her bedside that night and tells her the story of Icarus over and over again until she finally falls asleep.

~~~

She's kidnapped again at ten but they're nice this time.  So nice that she almost wants to ask them to keep her.  Almost.  The only thing that stops her is the fact that she wouldn't get to see Jarvis again if they did.

If she could bring him with her she would.

She gets out on her own that time and she's not even sure if Howard even noticed she was gone.

But at least she knows Jarvis did.

That's all that really counts.

~~~

She’s eleven when Howard knocks her down and something inside her snaps.

Her mind, her bright, loud, chaotic mind, goes quiet, goes still.

She pushes herself back up onto her feet, tilts her chin up stubbornly, and stares up at him.

He sneers and knocks her back down again hard.

She gets back up.

He puts her down again.

She gets back up.

Over and over again until she’s clawing at the wainscoting in order to pull herself back up.

Mouth bloody, body aching, she gets back up.

And when Howard finally huffs at her in disgust, turns on his heel and walks away, Toni smiles because that right there tastes like victory.

She likes it.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The euphoria and terror of the fall.

The joy of being caught just before she crashes.

~~~

She graduates high school at twelve and offers from universities around the world pour in.  Toni has her heart set on MIT though, wants it in a visceral, sharp way she’s never wanted anything before.

She wants to build, wants to create, and MIT will make her better at both.

Beyond that she wants to leave, wants to be away from Maria’s indifference and Howard’s fists.

She doesn’t want to leave Jarvis though, doesn’t want to be away from him, but they’ve talked about it and they both agree that it’s the best course of action.

Howard of course, says no.  He wants her to go somewhere else, his alma mater maybe, or one of the posh finishing schools Maria is always raging on about because there’s very little about Toni she considers truly refined.

Jarvis slips into Howard’s study after Howard dismisses Toni, his spine straight and face blank.  He comes out an hour later, Howard pale and shaking behind him, and Toni can barely believe it when Howard thrusts the admission papers to MIT in her direction.

“How did you do that?”  Toni is close to awed in a way she hasn’t been since the first time she met Aunt Peggy.

“I simply informed Sir of the benefits of allowing you to attend the school of your choice.”  Jarvis ushers her back towards her room with a warm hand between her shoulder blades.

“Thank you.”  Toni whispers as she whirls around and wraps her arms around Jarvis’ waist in the sort of tight hug he so rarely allows her, especially not out in the open where Howard or Maria might see.

Jarvis just reaches out, tucks one long, thick curl behind her ear and smiles.

~~~

“Jarvis?”  Toni whispers quietly into the quiet dark of the kitchen the night before she’s scheduled to leave for MIT, a mug of warm milk in hand as she watches Jarvis from across the counter.

“Yes young miss?”  His voice is that same warm velvet it’s always been for her.

Toni bites her lip for a long uncertain moment.  She’s too old now to be tucked in but Jarvis is still more than willing to tell her stories if she asks and she so desperately wants to ask.

“Would you perhaps like to hear the story of Icarus again young miss?”  Jarvis breaks through her quiet.  Toni puffs out a relieved breath and smiles into her milk because Jarvis always knows what she needs.

“Please.”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The breathless joy of flight and freedom.

That night she doesn’t dream of falling at all.

~~~

Toni takes her clothes, her tools, bruises the shape of Howard’s hand, her books, an assortment of comics, a sprained ankle, Cap, the wing barrette Aunt Peggy gave her, and the glass framed poster from her wall with her when she leaves.

She doesn’t think she’d be able to sleep without Steve on her wall, without being able to press that kiss against his chest.  Without the reminder that no matter how small she is now one day she’ll be mighty.

It’s going to hard enough without Jarvis as it is.

~~~

She’s assigned a one person suite and required to check in each day with the RA as a safety measure.  Jarvis promises to have food and anything else she needs delivered to her weekly but beyond that she has a credit card, a in room phone, and great deal of know how.

She’ll survive.

That doesn’t stop her from crying herself to sleep that first night, lonely and frightened, missing Jarvis, missing his stories and his scent, fresh bread and lemon furniture polish, or the way he still helps her brush out her long hair every night.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The harsh scent of salt and the fear of no arms there to catch her before she hits the water.

~~~

Classes are good, some still too simple but overall they’re mostly interesting.

The other students are at first amused and then a strange mix of angry and almost frightened when they realize she’s a student and not someone on the staff’s child.

She doesn’t make friends.

She doesn’t even bother to try.

She’s thirteen and going to MIT and Howard’s already beaten her wary and skittish, beaten her into this brittle sharp thing that would rather bite than smile.

~~~

“Jarvis?”  Toni clutches at the phone, white knuckled and shaking.  Her minds a bright whirl of colors and sounds and she can’t make it stop no matter how much she tries and she just wants to sleep.  It’s been four days and her hands shake too much to try to use her tools anymore and she’s so exhausted she wants to cry but she couldn’t even if she tried.

“Yes young miss?”  Jarvis talks to her like she’s a wild thing, something to be soothed.

“T-Tell me the story of Icarus again.”  Toni breathes out a shaky exhale.  “I-I can’t sleep Jarvis. I-please, please tell me the story.”

“Of course young miss.”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The freedom of flight.

The euphoria of the fall.

~~~

MIT is a whirl of no sleep, too much coffee, too loud music and work.  Of research and building.  The bright, blinding euphoria of creation.  Of inventions and arguments with professors who don’t want to listen to her because she’s young, because she’s female.

Idiots who think her lack of a cock makes her stupid, makes her lesser somehow.

Toni isn’t less than them in anyway except for size.  But just like Steve, just like Captain America, she might be small now but one day, one day she’ll be mighty.

Some things don’t change though because Howard takes every opportunity to hurt her when she’s home.  Breaks and vacations where she’s required to return to the mansion are a study in torture as he hovers over her, all rage and scotch and violence as he pushes her to build faster, better, smarter.  As he tries to take the one thing that’s hers and twist it to his own purposes.

Toni hates them/him/it all.

Those first two years are hard.

~~~

She’s fifteen and there’s a boy in one of her advanced mathematics classes.  He’s twenty-one and tall, all blond hair and broad shoulders.  He doesn’t bring up money or what she can do for him, doesn’t outright try to convince her to fuck him like a few people have in the past despite her age before she started tearing them apart verbally.

She likes that about him.

She likes the way he looks at her, the way he actually talks to her, the way he says her hair, a wild riot of black curls that falls to her waist now, is beautiful.

She likes him right up until the moment they’re outside and he fists his hand in her hair and refuses to let go.

She likes him right up until his other hand dives down the front of her shorts.

She likes him right up until she tells him no and he doesn’t listen.

She likes him right up until he tries to take.  Because Toni’s had enough of being taken from and she won’t let this be taken from her too.

She stops him though, fights like a wild thing just like Aunt Peggy taught her to, punches and kicks and bites at every bit of him she can reach.  He’s surprised by her strength, strength she’s built from days of tireless work with heavy machinery, and stumbles back and away.

Toni doesn’t let him go though, her shirt’s ripped and gaping at the front but she’s screaming at him, all fists and feet and bared teeth, when someone else grabs her from behind and yanks her away from him.

“Woah!  What the hell’s going on here?”  A deep male voice shouts from behind her and Toni sees dark skin and large hands when she looks down at the arms holding her back.

“The little bitch is crazy man.”  Stone slurs through the blood on his face.  “Fucking whore wanted it, prancing around here in those little skirts and shorts, pretending like she’s better than everyone else.”

“Oh you sick son of a bitch.”  The hands that were just holding her back are suddenly gone.

Toni can only stare in a confused sort of awe at the young black man who wraps his hand in Stone’s collar, tugs him up off the ground, and punches him directly in the face again and again.

Stone’s a whimpering mess by the time the other guy is done with him.

Toni cocks her head to the side and stares when the stranger walks over to her, panting slightly, face flushed, and asks her if she’s alright, if she needs a doctor or anything else.  If there’s anything he can do to help her.

The panic on his face when she breaks down laughing might make her feel bad if she could bring herself to feel anything other than the rush of joy that suddenly shoots through her.

~~~

Someone, probably one of the paparazzo who slink around the campus periodically, gets pictures of the whole affair.

The headline reads:  Stark Heiress Involved in Drunken Brawl.

There are testimonials from classmates she’s never met who all describe her extensive partying and budding promiscuity in elaborate detail.  Its all lies of course, bullshit made up by angry, jealous assholes, but everyone’s so ready to believe it anyways even if she is only fifteen.  They don’t like her, don’t like how smart and fast she is, don’t like the way she’s ready and eager to argue, vicious and loud, with any of the professors if she knows they’re wrong about something.

Toni just laughs.

But she also stops wearing her hair down, starts piling it up on top of her head in a messy bunch of curls or pulls it back into a ponytail and winds it into a bun.

It’s harder to grab that way, harder for someone to control her with it.

It’s her only option because Maria still hates her hair so Toni refuses to cut it on principle alone.

~~~

James Rhodes takes all of two days, six cups of coffee, and an appalled screech of “you’re how old?” followed by a harsh “I’m gonna hunt that bastard down and fucking kill him”, the realization that he doesn’t want her money or to fuck her, to officially become her fourth favorite person in the world.

He ranks just below Captain America who ranks below Jarvis and Aunt Peggy.

Toni think privately to herself, when they’re curled on opposite ends of the couch in her suite eating pizza and drinking shitty coffee, that she’s done rather well for her first friend.

~~~

“Sir was most displeased with the article young miss.”  Jarvis tells her softly on their weekly scheduled call.  He’d called her immediately after it had been printed of course, had listened to what happened and offered to escort her home if she needed to take a small break from university.  She’d turned him down but he’d sounded pleased when she described Rhodes to him.

“Oh I bet he was.”  Toni can just imagine how pissed off Howard probably was.  Probably still is.

“Will the project we spoke of last week be keeping you occupied over the winter holidays young miss?  I would be more than happy to have any parcels couriered to your suite if you’d like?”  Jarvis asks her quietly in a barely subtle change of subject.  She hears the thinly hidden message in his words loud and clear.  Don’t come home.  Don’t leave school.  Stay where you’re safer.

“Sounds like a plan to me Jarvis.”  Toni curls the disappointment of not being able to spend Christmas with Jarvis down and away.

“Very good young miss.”

“Hey Jarvis?”  Toni slides down the wall until she’s huddled in the corner, phone tucked against her ear as she winds the cord around and around her finger.

“Yes young miss?”

“Tell me the story of Icarus?”  At least she still has this.

“Of course young miss.”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

Salt on her face that she pretends is from the ocean.

She screams right before she hits the water.

~~~

Rhodes looks at her funny when she only gets two packages for Christmas that year but he doesn’t say anything which only makes her like him more.

One’s from Jarvis, a pair of bright gold angel wing hair barrettes that actually help to hold her thick curls in place and go well with the ivory one Aunt Peggy had given her all those years ago.  At the bottom of the box is a beautiful crimson sundress because it’s his favorite color and he’s always said it looks splendid on her.

The other’s from Aunt Peggy herself.  She sends Toni a tube of blood red lipstick, an exact match for the shade she herself always wears, a set of slender brass knuckles, and a pair of brilliant ruby studs.  The letter that’s enclosed is one that Toni reads over and over again.

“Fuck them all ducky.”  Aunt Peggy’s elegant script tells her.  “Be loud. Be bright.  Make them listen. Don’t give them a choice.  They’ll try to beat you down, try to make you small.  Don’t be small Toni, be mighty.  P.S. I framed that headline.”

Rhodes doesn’t say anything when her laughter turns to tears, just wraps his arms around her tightly and holds her close.

It’s unexpected but she likes it.

~~~

She pierces her own ears a second time in the quiet of her suite one night, shoves a needle through the thick cartilage with barely a hiss.  The ruby studs go in high in the arch of her ears where they’re hidden easily by the curls that always manage to escape her barrettes and hair ties.

Once they heal she never takes them out.

They match her lipstick after all.

~~~

Rhodes touches her casually, a hug, a hand on the shoulder, tugging gently at a loose curl, and Toni doesn’t always know how to handle that.

Only Jarvis and Aunt Peggy ever really touch her without trying to hurt her so it takes a while before she realizes, really truly realizes, that Rhodes is the same.

He won’t hurt her, not like that.

It doesn’t really sink in until she’s three months past sixteen and fresh from a mandatory stay at the mansion and they get in their first argument.

She’s brittle edged and bruised beneath her long sleeve top, her ribs ache, and there’s a tremor in her hands she can’t get rid of because she can’t sleep.   Rhodes is all flailing hands and anger because she’s not eaten or slept since she got back on campus and he’s worried that her next experiment or project is going to leave her hurt or fucking dead.

“You can’t keep doing this Toni.”  He scrubs his hand across his face in a violent, rough gesture.  “This shit’s not healthy.  I swear for a genius you’re a fucking idiot.  I could just,” he makes a sharp gesture with his hands, “choke you sometimes you drive me so crazy.”

Toni flinches.

Rhodes goes abruptly still, dark eyes sharp and aware.  “Toni?”

Toni smiles, that bright vacant thing she learned at Howard’s knees so long ago, that perfect mask that he pressed into her with bruises and heavy hands.  “You’re right.  Time for sleep.  Foods overrated but sleep, that’s a thing I could do, will do, right now as a matter of fact.  Toodles.”

She’s blabbering, manic and rapid fire in that way she gets when her mind won’t stop, as she shoves herself up and off of her chair.  She sways, skirts around the hand Rhodes extends in her direction and puts the length of her worktable between them.

“Toni …” There’s something almost anguished in Rhodes’s voice but she ignores it, just powers through until she’s safely behind her locked bedroom door.

Rhodes knocks and talks through the door at her but she ignores him.

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The pain of her wings melting against her back as the wax scalds her skin.

~~~

“Listen,” Rhodes corners her two days later, “we’re going to fight.”

“Aw you know I can totally take you.”  Toni snarks because she’s uncomfortable but rested so she’s less inclined to flee and more inclined to bite if she has to.

“Don’t deflect Toni.”  Rhodes seems determined to be serious.  “We’re both assholes and we’re going to fuck up.  I’m going to be a dick and you’re going to drive me insane with your inability to realize you need basic things like sleep and food.  We’re going to want to tear our hair out and just run screaming into the night to get away from each other.”

“This friendship is sounding better and better by the minute.”  Toni mutters only to throw her hands up in surrender when he glares at her.

“But yeah, we’re gonna argue cause we’re both stubborn assholes.”  Rhodes reaches out and slowly, carefully, cups her small shoulders in his wide palms.  “But I will never, never, hit you Toni.  No matter what, I will never ever hurt you like that.”

~~~

Two weeks later when she calls him Rhodey for the first time and darts into his space for a quick hug, the first she’s ever initiated, his smile is bright enough to light the city.

~~~

She grows into her friendship with Rhodey.

They hug and touch and talk more than she’s ever done with anyone but Jarvis.  He starts calling her Tones and she calls him darling and ducky and honey bear, sugar pop and bonbon a thousand and one ridiculous nicknames that make him smile. 

People on campus gossip about them, about her.  About how close they are, about how she drapes herself across him at every given opportunity.  There’s more than one new article about her and her promiscuity, about her drinking, about anything real or imagined they can use to paint her as some sort of deviant.

Rhodey hates it all, gets angry and embarrassed.

Toni just laughs though because she likes touching Rhodey.  She likes the feel of his skin, the warmth of his arms, the strength of his chest and shoulders.  She doesn’t want him but she loves touching him.  It makes something small and starved inside her chest sit up and buzz happily.

Plus Aunt Peggy had warned her and she refuses to let these assholes make her small.

She is and will be mighty.

Fuck them all.

~~~

Her ribs are sore and the pain meds the doctor had given Jarvis for her dislocated shoulder make her head fuzzy but Jarvis had made sure she promised to take them.

“Rest young miss.”  Jarvis’ hand is cool against her forehead as he brushes back her hair.  “I’m afraid I’ll be driving Sir and Ma’am to the gala tonight but should you need anything Henrietta will be available until I return.”

“Jarvis?”  Toni turns her face just slightly into the calloused palm of Jarvis’ hand.  She loves him, loves him so so much even if she’s never been able to tell him.  She likes to think he knows though, because Jarvis always knows.

“Yes young miss?”

“Will you tell me the story of Icarus before you go?”  She needs that familiar comfort, the soothing rhythm of his voice telling her the story that has become theirs over the years.

“Of course young miss.”

~~~

Wax.  Feathers.  Heat.

The agony of gravity reaching out and plucking her from the sky.

~~~

“Young miss!  Young miss please wake up!”  Henrietta’s panicked voice pulls Toni from her sleep.

“W-What’s wrong?”  Toni’s groggy, fuzzy headed and sore, but she blinks the sleep from her eyes and forces herself to focus on the distraught maid leaning over her.  “Henrietta?  What’s going on?”

“Oh young miss.”  Henrietta looks close to tears.  “There’s an officer waiting for you down stairs.  T-there’s been an accident.”

Toni doesn’t know it yet but those are the words that destroy her entire world.

~~~

“Hello?”  Rhodey sounds rough, sleepy and annoyed.

“Rhodey.”  Toni can barely get the word out.

“Toni?”  He’s immediately alert.  “Toni what’s wrong?”

“Rhodey.”  It’s just a shade off a sob this time.

“Toni sweetheart talk to me.”  He’s almost pleading.  “Baby what’s wrong?”

“There’s been an ac-cident.”  She’s numb and she sounds young in a way she never has before with him.  She can hear Obie in the background talking loudly with the cops who’d driven her to the hospital.

“I’m coming.”  Rhodey is serious she can tell.  “Where are you Tones?  Tell me where you are and I’ll be there.”

“Mercy General.”  Toni tells him softly.  “Rhodey … hurry.”

“I will sweetheart, I will.”

They hang up but all Toni can do is stand there and stare at the wall.

Howard and Maria are gone and Toni knows she should feel something about that but she can’t.

Because … because …

Jarvis is dead.

That’s the only thought swirling in her mind.

Jarvis is dead and she’s never going to see him again.

~~~

Rhodey shows up a few hours later, storms past the cops and a scowling Obie and wraps her in his arms.

“Shh.”  He whispers into her hair, loose down her back for once, as he holds her to his chest.  “I got you Tones.  I got you.  It’s okay.  I’m so sorry baby girl.  So sorry.”

“I-I need to see them.”  Toni manages to croak and saying the words give birth to a sudden burning desire inside of her.  “I need to see them.”

“Toni you don’t need to see that.”  Rhodey protests.

But she does.  Howard and Maria are dead and Jarvis is gone and she needs to see.

The cops want to argue, they say that Obie can identify the bodies just fine but Toni fights them.  It’s her right to see them she practically screams.  It’s her right and they can’t stop her.

And they don’t.

~~~

Toni doesn’t really feel anything at the sight of her parent’s bodies.

Maria looks as cold in death as she was in life.  There was never any affection between them but Toni thinks she could mourn Maria in a distant sort of way if she let herself.  There’d be no real grief involved of course, because you don’t really grieve for a stranger, for someone you saw once or twice a year at photo shoots or press junkets.  For someone who sat back and let their daughter be abused.

So she doesn’t feel grief for Maria’s loss.  Instead there’s just an absent sort of longing in her breast, a whimsical sort of mourning for the idea of what could have been between them had she been enough, had she been what either of them had wanted her to be.

Howard looks small on the table, looks washed out and ugly and she’d slap him if she could bring herself to touch him willingly.  For Toni there’s only relief at the sight of him.  Only gratitude that he’s gone, that he’s finally, finally gone and he’s never coming back.  That he’ll never hurt Toni again.  Howard’s dead now and she’ll never have to see him, never have to smell him again, never have to hear or feel him ever again.  She’ll never have to suffer through his words or his fists, through the pain of being the daughter he’d gotten instead of the son he’d craved.

Howard is dead and Toni is just so so grateful for that.

It’s the sight of Jarvis that breaks her.  Strong, gentle Jarvis who’d loved her and raised her.  Jarvis who’d tended her hurts and her wounds, who had stood her on her own two feet and taught her to create.

Jarvis who taught her to breathe.

“Jarvis?”  She whispers.

For the first time in her life there’s no response.

For the first time in her life he doesn’t answer when she calls.

“You weren’t supposed to leave.”  Toni whispers to the shell of the only father she’s ever known.  “You were never supposed to leave me.”

~~~

Rhodey is the one who pulls her away, who wraps her up and holds her, who tells her it’s okay to cry.

Toni doesn’t though.

She can’t.

She’s too numb to cry.

~~~

Toni has no interest in going to Howard and Maria’s funeral but Obie and the backhand he gives her for being disrespectful pushes her into it anyways.

It’s the first time he’s ever hit her and Toni wants to say it’ll be the last but she’s not eighteen yet and despite being on her own for years now they both know Obie has control of her at least until the will is read.

He’ll probably get the company but at least she might be able to get away from him and SI in the end because it’s doubtful Howard will have left her anything but a trust.  The money doesn’t matter to her though because she’s brilliant and MIT and a million other schools or companies will pay a mint to have her name attached to theirs.

Howard and Maria’s funeral is a nightmare.  The nation is in mourning for the great Howard Stark and the whole thing devolves into a three-ring circus with Toni and Obie at the center.

Rhodey and Aunt Peggy stand at her sides, all hard lines and stiff shoulders the both of them, bookends or sentries Toni can’t decide which.

Toni is cold, aloof in her expensive black dress, wide lensed sunglasses and crimson lipstick.

She looks like every other shallow socialite ever but the glasses hide the fact that she’s dry eyed and calm.  She has the not so sneaky suspicion that Rhodey and Aunt Peggy both know anyways.

She doesn’t have any tears to waste for either Howard or Maria and her hands are steady when she drops a rose onto each of their caskets.  She only does that because she knows it’s a good photo op and she needs to hedge her bets where Obie is concerned.

~~~

Jarvis’ funeral the next day is smaller, just the mansion’s staff, Aunt Peggy, Rhodey who comes for moral support, and Toni.

She’s pale and shaking, brittle edged unlike the icy calm of yesterday.

She wears her hair down, clipped back from her face with the wing barrettes he’d given her but otherwise spilling down to her waist in a riot of curls because Jarvis had always loved her hair.  She doesn’t wear black.  Instead she wears the sundress he gave her for Christmas and clutches a bouquet of white chrysanthemums so hard the stems threaten to shred.

It’s watching the casket being lowered into the ground that finally breaks her.  Toni crumples and it’s only Rhodey’s strong arms that keep her from hitting the ground.  Chrysanthemums scattered on the ground in front of her Toni shatters and sobs so violently she thinks she might be sick.

Rhodey and Aunt Peggy hold her there for a long time, long after the funeral is over with and everyone else has left.

~~~~

Jarvis’ will is read two days later by a portly lawyer in a small office downtown.  Aunt Peggy and Rhodey are with her again as they’ve both been for the past few days.

They both seem almost frightened to leave her alone.

“Mr. Jarvis named only two people in his will I’m afraid.  Ms. Margaret Carter and Ms. Natasha Stark.”  Toni hears him speak as if from a distance.

Jarvis leaves Aunt Peggy a few sentimental things, books and photos from years before, trinkets that make Aunt Peggy tear up and laugh wetly when the lawyer reads them off.

Everything else Jarvis leaves to her, to Toni.

“There was also a letter enclosed Ms. Stark, as well as a recording.”  The lawyer slides a long, slender box across his desk in Toni’s direction.  Her hands shake when she reaches out and picks it up.  She can’t bring herself to open it, can’t bring herself to see what Jarvis has written.

Not here in this cold office.  Not where anyone else can see.

~~~

Howard and Maria’s wills are read at the end of the week thanks to all of the paperwork and red tape the Stark lawyers have to go through in the process.

Maria leaves everything to Toni as is expected of a high-society wife with a daughter.  The only exceptions are a few charitable donations and the instructions for the creation of the Maria Stark Foundation whose actual management and direction is up to Toni to arrange.

In a fit of vindictive spite she tells the lawyer to set something up that benefits abused children and washes her hand of the situation for the moment.  She’ll deal with it later.

The real surprise is Howard’s will.

He leaves her everything.

Everything.

Money, properties, rights and titles to everything.

He leaves her his search for Captain fucking America which is to continue indefinitely.  It's the one thing she doesn't mind because she learned about his obsession years ago and it rivals her own.

He leaves her Stark Industries too.  It’s in trust with Obie until she’s twenty-one but then it’s hers.

The one thing she never thought she’d get and he’d left it to her.

Somehow it only makes her hate him more.

~~~

Rhodey goes back to school, Aunt Peggy goes back to her own home and her work, and Toni stays at the mansion.  MIT is understanding, gives her an extra month because she’s grieving and rich and already so far ahead of her classes that it’s ridiculous.

So, one night after everyone’s gone, after the house staff has bedded down and the mansion is silent, Toni takes the box Jarvis left her out of her dresser.  She swipes a bottle of Howard’s scotch and the keys to a car.  She pulls on the overcoat that still smells like Jarvis and drives out to the cemetery.

The cemetery is eerily quiet but brightly lit so Toni doesn’t care.  She makes her way to the still fresh dirt that covers Jarvis’ grave and sits down until she’s leaning against the headstone.

She pops the seal on the scotch, takes a long burning pull, and then sets it to the side.  Her hands still shake when she finally opens the box Jarvis’ lawyer had given her.

The letter inside is only one page and it’s written on heavy cream colored stock in Jarvis’ flowing script.

Young miss, it starts and the words seem to jump off of the page to her.  She can almost hear his voice saying them, almost but not quite and Toni feels fresh tears well up in her eyes as she bites back a sob.

 

Young miss,

If you are reading this then I have passed.  I hope that I was old and grey in my bed, after many years of service to you and a family of your own, but I fear that might not be the case.  You would then, more than likely, be reading a different letter if such had come to pass.  

I am not ashamed to admit that I have many regrets in my life even now.  Yet the one that I hold above all others is my inability to keep you safe.  I wish that I had been able to protect you, to shield you from the horrors you faced so young.  Perhaps if I’d been less of a coward I would have been able to but fear was a vicious motivator for my silence on the things you endured.

I feared to try and fail.  I feared what would happen to you if money and power ruled over justice and you were forced to remain in the mansion regardless of any evidence brought forth.  I feared what would happen without me there to offer you what comfort and care I could.  

Again, fear kept me silent in so many ways and it is my harshest regret that you suffered in my silence.  Now, in death, I find the courage to tell you what I could not in life.

I love you, dear girl, like the daughter I never had, like the daughter I could never claim.  I love you.  You are brilliant Toni, a bright light in this world.  Your mind is a thing of beauty, awe inspiring in its glory.  Your heart shines just as brightly.  Please, if you remember nothing else remember that.

You once said you wished I could fix you and I will tell you now what I told you then.  You are as you were meant to be, child.  There is nothing there to fix.

Please remember that, my sweet Icarus.

You are as you were meant to be.

Love, Edwin Jarvis

Toni can barely see the end of the letter, her eyes too clouded with tears.  She clutches it close to her chest, buries her face in the collar of Jarvis’ coat, and sobs as if her heart is breaking.

Because it is.  Because it’s been breaking since the day Jarvis died and she doesn’t feel as if it’ll ever heal.

It’s a long time before she can bring herself to fold the letter back up, to set it aside and reach for the small tape recorder that’s also in the box.

Hands shaking she picks it up, cradles it in her lap, and hits play.

“Jarvis?”  The sound of her own voice startles her so badly that Toni jerks and bangs her head against the gravestone behind her.

“Yes young miss?”  The sound of Jarvis’ voice makes her keen, a soft, wounded sound in the back of her throat, because she knows where this is going.  She’s a genius and she knows exactly what Jarvis has left her.

“T-Tell me the story of Icarus again.”  The Toni on the tape breathes out a shaky exhale, one that speaks of exhaustion and a screaming, sleepless mind.  “I-I can’t sleep Jarvis. I-please, please tell me the story.”

“Of course young miss.”  Jarvis sounds warm, fond, so achingly familiar and loved that Toni can barely stand to listen.

But she does.  She listens to the whole tape, listens to Jarvis tell her the story of Icarus.  Listens to this gift he’s given her.

He loved her.  She knows that now.  He loved her.  There’s no doubt in Toni’s mind now, no doubt in any corner of her soul.  The tape proves that even more than the letter.  Jarvis had loved her.  He’d loved her enough to take the time to record their familiar exchange so that one day when he was gone he could help her to quiet her mind.

He loved her just as much as she still loves him, will always love him, and now he’s gone.

Toni hits the rewind button, waits and then presses play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

She listens to it again.  Rewinds it.  Presses play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Listen.  Rewind.  Play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Listen.  Rewind.  Play

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Listen.  Rewind.  Play.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes young miss?”

Listen.

Rewind.

Play.