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Nurture the Child, Redeem the Man

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Maria Carbonell knew that when she said yes to Howard Anthony Walter Stark on their wedding day, she was marrying a somewhat eccentric, work-obsessed man. Even when they had been dating, he'd go radio silent for a few days, later always skimming over her concern with the excuses of being busy with his newest inventions for his flourishing company. This doesn't mean that he'd ignore her during their time together, oh no. In fact, he'd pull out all the stops to take her out to the fanciest places and lavish her with the finest things she'd ever laid eyes on. He was sweet, charming, and they'd sometimes have these intellectual conversations that would bring out such curiosity and enthusiasm from the pair of them, they'd end up smiling at each other over the candlelight from their seats.

And though at times their marriage wasn't perfect, she could deal with his tendencies and pretend at times to be the perfect trophy wife in front of the usual dinner party crowd they would be forced to interact with.

What she didn't know was what kind of father Howard would be, not until she had her little bambino, Tony. Anthony Edward Stark, "it's a fitting name for a Stark" Howard claimed, but to her, the little bundle of joy would always be just Tony. Howard had never gave her anything more precious than Tony. When she first held him in her arms, little peach fuzz poking up from his tiny head while peering at her with the same warm honey brown eyes, she thought-no, she knew she'd give her life in an instant if it meant it would keep her little bambino safe. And as she watched Howard carefully maneuver their son until he was cradled gently in the crook of his arm, awe-filled eyes glued down at the small bundle, she thought he felt the same.

All to slowly, however, she learned how wrong she had been.

Things had been good, even great those first few years. It was amazing to see a person that Maria had carried for 9 months in her womb, grow into a beautiful little boy, taking his first tiny steps, starting to talk by the age of 1 and never seem to stop. And oh his laugh was so delightful to hear, she couldn't get enough. Tony had all the staff wrapped around his little finger from day one, and as long as he was happy and laughing, the loyal and trusted employees were happy to work for the Stark family.

She didn't realize how much the beautiful sound of her son's laughter meant until it slowly started ceasing. 

She never could have pictured when she said yes, that as a father Howard could be so cruel, so harsh, and so unforgiving towards their son. Since the day their son turned three and could firmly grasp a tool in his little hand, Maria watched in slowly-growing horror as Howard became more rough with him. Instead of encouraging words and gentle guiding hands, there would be harsh shoves and tight grips. She was never there to witness it, only heard the concerns coming from some of the house staff, including their faithful butler Edwin Jarvis.

At first, she didn't want to believe it. How could Howard, the sweet charmer who doted on her constantly, do such things?

But one night she came across some dark bruises beginning to form on Tony's arms when she helped him dress into his pajamas, freezing when she noticed Tony's face pinch up tightly after she accidentally pressed on them. When she asked Tony what happened, he went real quiet, snuggled under the covers while holding his stuffed wolf, and said 'I'll be good mama, I pwomise. Stark men not sappose to cwy." 

Horrified and angry, she distractedly kissed Tony's head, turned off the light, and then marched straight to Howard's office. She barged in and demanded to know what he did to his son. For unknown reasons as of late, Howard would be drunk, that night no different as he said that it's nothing and that his father before him taught him the same thing.

"He's has to use his mind Maria. He could be something great and he needs a little....push," he slurred out.

"He's threeHoward," she argued with thinly-veiled disbelief.

"My dad became firm with me when I was three," like it's supposed to be normal and validate his actions towards their son.

Maria seethed quietly, before stalking over to stand in front of her husband. She placed her hand on his shoulder, leaned forward so he had no choice but focus on her. Her voice was quiet that night, but it held a deadly edge. "Listen here darling, I don't care if you want to be like your father. If you so much as lay a hand on Tony that causes a single bruise, I'll make sure you'll regret it. I promise you."

Howard looked sobered up by the end of her speech, so she left him in his study that night.

She wished that the moment had snapped him out of whatever fit he had landed himself in. Sadly, it did not. Yes, Howard stopped being physically rough with Tony, but he also stopped being physically there.

He started taking long trips usually lasting a week or two, some even as long as three months. And when Howard came back, he'd lock himself up in his study, pouring over maps of the Northern Hemisphere with filled notebooks and heavy doses of liquor. He never even stopped to ask about Tony in the off-chances he was home. At nights he actually came to bed, Maria would spend hours awake trying to relay to him everything that he missed involving his son while he was away, but she could tell it fell on deaf ears as he scanned through his journals, occasionally grunting or humming in reply.

The hardest part though was having to watch Tony sit outside his father's office with a new little invention or even some drawings, waiting for his father to come see. He would sometimes sit there for hours on end, refusing to allow the house staff to move him, because "I half to way for daddy. Its bery impotant." 

The staff frequently wore faces that looked ready to either yell or cry on his behalf, even if Tony couldn't understand why.

Maria would come home from dreaded social meetings, and find her heart slowly breaking at the familiar sight of Tony sitting in front of the closed study door, playing a game of Monopoly against Jarvis. He would be wearing a look of such concentration on little his face, little tongue peaking out of his mouth with his arm hugging his stuffed wolf tightly. Little trays of food would be scattered around them like a picnic, Ana or one of the other maids combing their fingers softly through his hair. 

Maria didn't have the heart to tell him that more than half the time, Howard was not even in the country. 

So instead, she'd drop her bags and lay down on her side right next to Tony, hugging her son close to his chest and kissing his curls as he played his game. Though the games would sometimes be difficult for his age, he could play with the best of them; her little boy was so brilliant and it made her proud to be his mother. She would ask him all about his day and what he made, listening to her little boy tell her with such joy about his inventions or the pictures he worked very hard on.

And every time he asked if his daddy would like them, she would smile and say, "Of course bambino. He's gonna love them."

This same occurrence went on for almost a year and a half, until a 4 1/2 year old Tony slowly started to realize what they all had tried so hard to distract him from. The laughter grew sparse and the atmosphere grew dim with each passing day that Howard was away or "busy". Maria swore she was going to say something the next time Howard came back, that she would put a stop to this neglect and make her little boy happy again. 

Only the next time Howard back, Maria discovered she didn't have to say anything. Howard came home and picked Tony up from where he sat, ignoring the drawings as they were smushed under his shoes, and announced that they were close to making a big discovery. Apparently, this whole time Howard had been trying to find Steve Rogers, the heroic Captain America she had come to hear about from Howard more often than not. Maria felt a pit of anger swell in her gut at this news.

Tony, oblivious to the what the announcement meant and finally getting attention from his father, wrapped his little arms around Howard's neck. "What Captan Amawica, daddy?"

Howard laughed, the kind she was charmed by when they first started going out on dates. "Well, let me tell you about the greatest superhero that ever lived!"

He carried Tony over to one of the living room chairs, sat down with Tony in his lap, arm wrapped securely around his back. And for hours, Howard retold stories of Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos, exaggerating the tales to the point they started to sound ridiculous. But to Tony, who watched his father with the whole time with wide adoring eyes, the stories were like gold.

The sight made the anger she had felt slowly ebb away and be replaced by relief. Maria's attention drifted after the first few tales, as she noticed some of the staff were watching the pair as well with clenched jaws and tight mouths. They walked away when they saw her looking at them, too polite to say what's on their mind, but she noticed the muted looks of displeasure thrown her way as well. She was no fool to know what they all were thinking. 'How can she let this go on?' 'Why does she let her child suffer?' 'What kind of mother is she?' 

The relief she had experienced now felt fake, like most things Maria had come to realize where a constant in the lifestyle of the rich and infamous. And as she turned back and watched her husband and son, she couldn't help but feel wary of this sudden good mood, wondering how long it would last. 

Only 6 months later, on a night she will never forget, she would come to wish that her husband had never come back.

 

-/- 

 

It's late as Maria pours herself the second drink of the night, hoping that if she'd make this one good, she wouldn't need another to forget that godawful congressman's wife who just loved talking to the Mrs. Stark, the wife of the famous Howard Stark, as if her husband was all she needed to live a prosperous and happy life. She would love to know who started that absurd lie.

They had just come back from another dinner party and Maria can feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. She doesn't want to smooze anymore uptight socialites, she doesn't want to smile until her cheeks hurt at the jaded complements these people give her, and she doesn't want to hear another goddamn word from Howard's mouth that involves Captain America. All she wants to do is change out of this uncomfortable dress and shoes that always seem to pinch her toes, put on her fluffiest robe, and cuddle with her son. 

And with that plan, she decides to pour the drink out, opting to go check on Tony and make sure he's sleeping well. She knows a few days ago Howard had been particularly harsh towards their son, her stern reprimands falling once again on her husband's boxed ears. It's become a daily occurrence to catch snippets of Howard talking down to their son, questioning his intelligence and worth, sometimes even going so far as yelling at him. Maria has started to make Howard sleep in a guest room, preferring to lay next to cool sheets than someone who was becoming a stranger to her. The past months have been just a downward spiral she cannot seem to get out of, watching her son slowly become less lively, all because of her husband's ever flaring temper and cruel words while she stands idly by.

She sighs guiltily, walking away from the minibar to head upstairs when she passes by the office. 

"Godammit Tony!" Howard's raised voice projects through the semi-closed office door, the only sign of his overzealous drinking is caught in the slight slur at the end of his words.

Maria halts and moves to peek through the crack, pushing the door slightly more open. Howard's yelling at Tony who is standing by the wall, dressed in his pajamas, head bowed in shame. On the floor are some scattered war posters that lay haphazardly astray, one held by the corner in her husband's clenched fist, tight enough to cause the picture to crease. This specific poster is a picture of Captain America, posed in a proud stance with his hands on his hips, looking off into the distance; where there is supposed to be empty space next to him, it's now sporting two drawings, one of a tall stick figure and another of a small stick figure, both etched in the same stance. Her heart melts and aches at the writing above each figure, one that says 'Tony' with the n written backwards, and the other that says 'Daddy', with a smiley face beside it.

She walks further through the doorway, tries to intervene calmly. "Howard, he was just trying to-"  

Howard ignores her, hand gripping his drained glass tightly as he casts the now 'ruined' poster aside. "I told you not to never touch these things! Are you fucking stupid?! These are sacred pieces of history of the most important hero who ever lived. Captain America is worth every night pouring over maps and old videos. Captain America is everything the world needs! Captain America is someone you will never measure up to! Not with you're absurd drawings nor your stupid robots. You're so fucking useless Tony!"

The next thing she knows, her husband throws the glass at the wall directly where Tony stands.

As if in slow motion, Maria can only watch in horror as the glass barely misses him by inches, instead smashing into the wall right of his head. Her son crouches down with hands above his head as the shards explode around him onto the floor, his little body starting to shake in fear. She stands frozen to her spot, looking between her petrified bambino and the man who had once held him with such tenderness. This moment, this disgustingly low moment is the straw that broke the camel's back and instantaneously, the patience and forgiveness Maria had for Howard Anthony Walter Stark evaporates into nothing.

She rushes over to Tony and scoops him up, shushing his quiet whines, her heart breaking at the sniffing sound her son tries to control. "Non piangere il mio bambino. La mama sta andando a fare tutto bene." {Don't cry my baby. Mama is going to make everything alright.}

"Mrs. Stark, what happened?" Jarvis' voice asks from behind her.

She turns and finds herself trying to hold back tears. The older butler stands partially in the doorway, looking at her with concern. His inquisitive eyes turn a shade darker when he spots Tony in her arms, face hidden in her chest and still trembling like a leaf. She moves towards Jarvis and carefully hands Tony over, the man immediately taking her son without hesitation and cradling his head. 

"Take him upstairs. I'll be right up," she orders.

Jarvis nods silently and goes back out into the semi-darkened hallway, a few other staff members standing in the living room, trying to see what happened. She closes the door and rounds back to look at her husb- at Howard.

"How dare you," she whispers fiercely, not even trying to keep her voice from rising.

Howard doesn't even seem to react, instead he's bent down, picking up the scattered posters. 

She takes a step forward, chest heaving. "You fucking bastard!"

There's the barest flinch in Howard's shoulders, but even then he still continues picking up the posters, not daring to look at her. 

She marches over and yanks the posters from his hands, fingers ripping them to shreds until there is nothing left but little worthless pieces.

But she's not satisfied yet.

She proceeds quickly around the room, ripping pages out of scattered journals, tearing down maps and pictures from where they hang, and destroying any goddamn memorabilia she can get her hands on. She might be screaming as she does it, not caring in the slightest who hears her. Let their neighbors know that her husband has left their son in tatters over a simple drawing; let everyone know her husband is just as fake and cracked as these rich snobs she has had to play good little trophy wife for. She wants to smash everything in this goddamn fictitious world she's been existing in until she can see the ugliness peak from beneath the cracks, because only then will she be certain that anything in these past few years was real.

But all to soon, the fight in her gradually wanes as she realizes there's too much stuff; on the walls, lining every book case, and wedged in nearly every crevice of the office. There are too many countless reminders that her husband has collected of the long gone war hero, who he cherishes more than their own son.

She turns to stare at him with watery eyes and sees that he finally meets her gaze, demeanor resembling something helpless. She shakes her head, clenching her fists until the nails bite into her palms painfully. "I can't forgive for this. I've tried making excuses over and over again, tried to tell Tony that you love him despite your actions saying otherwise," she swallows down the emotions building in her throat. She see Howard try to open his mouth and talk, but she cuts him off harshly. "But after this....I refuse to."

"Sei diventato un mostro, e ve ne pentirete," she spits out. {You've become a monster, and you will regret it.}

Without saying another word, she walks towards the door and wrenches it open, going out into the hallway and slamming it behind her. The living room is now deserted as is the main hallway, so she hurries up the stairs to Tony's room. There she finds the house staff standing in the hallway, looking back at her solemnly. A young man, the gardener she recalls, places a hand on her shoulder in attempt to help her calm down; she didn't even realize she had been shaking.

She brushes off the concern and moves towards Tony's room, the only light coming from his beside table. She halts when she see Jarvis kneeling in front of her son, carefully wiping something from his face with a white cloth that comes back red. She feels nauseous at the sight of the bandages on Tony's tiny hands and left forearm. Ana sits beside him on the bed, rubbing his back gently, looking numb. Maria finds her feet moving, too slowly for her liking, until she bends down near Jarvis to look at her son. 

There's cut, two inches in length, reaching from Tony's left temple to just above his eyebrow that Jarvis is cleaning as tenderly as possible. Her son's so usually lively eyes, appear dull and red-lined as he looks up at her presence. When he talks, his voice is soft, "Mama, I tried to draw daddy a nice picture, but I made him mad."

Her hand comes up to rub against her mouth to keep in the sobs she wants to release. She breathes in and out, removing her hand to plaster on the best smile she can muster. "Oh no baby. You did nothing wrong."

Tony sniffles, a little bandaged hand comes up to rub at his eye. "Daddy says Stark men not supposed to cry. But I did mama," his little head bends down in shame. "I real sorry."

She hears some of the staff choke on their emotions, and Ana has to turn away to hide her wet eyes.  Maria places a hand under Tony's chin, lifting his head up to look at her. "Il mio piccolo bambino, it is ok to cry. There is nothing wrong with crying. Do you understand?" 

Tony nods.

She grasps one of his hands and bring it up to her mouth, pressing little kisses to the bandages. "I love you so much. And I promise that what happened tonight will never happen again. Ok?"

"Ok", Tony says softly. "Anche io ti amo mama." {I love you too mama.}

She closes her eyes and can't help the tear that escapes. Her little one still loves her after she has let it get this bad; the forgiveness of a child is incomprehensible. She leans forward and kisses Tony's forehead firmly before standing up. She looks at some of the staff who watched the exchange silently with mournful faces. 

"Where's is he?" she asks, the name remaining unmentioned. 

"He left with one of the cars ma'am," a young woman who cleans regularly says. "I think he's heading down to the factory."

She nods. "If one you could please call Jeffery and get a private plane ready. And if someone else could please pack a bag for Tony, only necessary items."

More than two immediately set to the task as she heads out into the hall and down to the master bedroom. She goes into her closet and pulls out a large duffle bag she had from back when she was a single gal studying at the University. She starts stuffing clothing items that she'll need and any few valuables she can't dare to leave behind, like heirlooms that belonged to her mother and old family photo albums. She takes off her jewelry including her wedding ring, all gifts from Howard at one time or another, and leaves them on the dresser along with the dress and shoes. She puts on pants and a sweater, along with an old pair of tennis shoes. She then opens one of Howard's drawers, filled with mostly socks, and searches until she comes upon the one card she knows is always here. Her fingers find it, pulling it out to take with her. It's wrinkly and the edges are frayed, but one can still make out the writing on it.

With a deep breath, she puts the card in her pocket, picks up her full bag, and heads out to Tony's room.

Jarvis has put little tennis shoes on Tony and a warm jacket over his pajamas, holding his tiny hand in his own. One of the workers holds his little bag, looking packed to the brim, while another reaches for her own bag, both disappearing out into the hallway and down the stairs. Tony looks up at her, now sporting a thick bandage on the side of his forehead that peaks out from under a few of his brown curls. 

"Where we going mama?"

She bends down, taking his free hand in her own. "We're going on a trip bambino, just you and I."

"Where?"

"Somewhere far away.

Tony is silent as she picks him up, hugging him close to her as little arms wrap around her neck and a small head rests against her shoulder. She takes one last look around the room, relieved to see Ana already has her baby's stuffed wolf in her hands before turning to head towards the stairs. As she walks through the darkened house, passing distant memories of playing the piano in the living room and laying down near the office door as she watched Tony engage in games with Jarvis, she knows she's leaving much behind, but she hopes they're heading towards someplace that both her and her son will have much to gain from.

Outside in the driveway, she's taken back by all the staff waiting there to say goodbyes. Maybe they too know this is an end of sorts.

Tony lifts his head, frowning at the sight. "Everyone come with, mama?"

She rub his back. "No Tony. They want to say goodbye."

"Bye bye?"

She nods. "Yes. We are going on a long trip and they will miss us, especially you."

"Oh," Tony accepts the explanation easily, wiggling in her arms until she lets him down. He runs over and hugs the first pair of legs he comes across, which happens to be the gardner who quietly laughs. He lifts Tony up and squeezes him tightly, telling Tony "Take care little one. Don't make too much trouble for your mama."

And soon Tony is passed from person to person, hugged and kissed on the head repeatedly. Each person looks to be trying very hard not to cry, until it finally comes down to Ana and Jarvis. 

"We are coming to see you off," Ana says on she smiles at Tony in her arms, handing him his stuffed animal. 

"Really?" he asks with a small smile.

Jarvis nods. "Really, young sir," voice barely holding back emotion.

Maria takes her que and heads towards the car, all falling silent.

She stops for a moment, wanting to express how grateful she has been for their work, and all they've done to make Tony feel so loved when the feeling has been abhorrently absent at times. But all she can manage is, "Thank you so much, for everything." 

They smile at her as one of the men opens the car door. She nods in gratitude and gets in, sliding over as Ana gets in beside her, still holding Tony in her arms; Maria smiles, allowing Tony to remain with her for as long as possible. Jarvis takes the driver seat, starting the engine and slowly backing away from the house and away from a life she never really knew until the cracks in it caused it to shatter.

The drive to the airport is a quiet one, full of things left unsaid and reflections of times when things were good. Tony watches the world passing by, eyes glued to the window as Ana combs through his hair, occasionally kissing his head. Maria watches them fondly, a part of her hating herself that as she lacerates any ties to the old life she also tears things like the two of them away from each other.

It's not long before they arrive at the private airstrip, the small jet waiting for them on the tarmac. Jarvis slowly brings the car to a stop, putting it in park before getting out to help with the bags.

Bags. There's only two of them. Her and her son's whole life is now packed in two duffle bags, and it makes her feel utterly lost.

But then there's Ana still holding Tony carefully in her arms, whispering last goodbyes and placing tearful kisses on his cheeks before handing him over to Jarvis to do the same. Maria doesn't have to say goodbye, she gets to have the whole world along with two packed duffle bags.

She's very, very lucky.

Jarvis walks quietly over to her, Tony's head resting on his chest. Tony is too young to understand the concept of forever, too young to know that this will probably be the last moment he'll see his favorite butler whose been there since his birth. But something in his small face, something akin to sad by understanding comfort makes her think he is so wise beyond his years. When did her little boy suddenly grow up so fast?

Jarvis tilts his head down, eyes somber and tone melancholy. "It's now time that I have to have to say goodbye young sir. I will miss you endlessly."

Tony lifts his head and looks at Jarvis. "I will miss you too J."

Jarvis gives a sorrowful smile. "Take care of yourself and your mother."

Tony nods determined. "I will."

"Good," Jarvis looks at him with pride, as if he knows Tony will do just that.

Finally, after a few seconds, Jarvis hands Maria her son, thin fingers brushing his head in finality. The butler then looks at her imploringly.

"Please be safe ma'am, wherever you go."

She nods, not able to speak past the lump that has lodged itself in her throat. So she takes the small set of stairs up to the jet, turning back to wave one last time to the pair who've been crucial staples in their life.

Tony waves too, small voice saying "Bye bye Ana, bye bye J."

Maria turns away, not bearing to stand and watch the sight of Ana beginning to cry and Jarvis looking less than composed. She heads inside and sits down in the leather seat across from where their two bags rest. Everything seems to be moving slowly, like time is crawling forward.

"Ma'am?" a masculine voice calls.

She looks up out of her daze at the pilot.

"Where would you like to go?"

Where would they like to go? Where can they go? She fishes the card out of her pocket before handing it to him, watching as his eyebrows rise a fraction. "Are you sure? This is pretty far from your home."

Home? They have no home any longer. In fact, it was barely a home to begin with. 

She nods. "Yes, that's the only place we want to go."

The pilot concedes without further argument, pocketing the card. "Ok, strap in. It's gonna be a long ride." He then heads towards the cockpit, disappearing behind the door.

She buckles in, adjusting her grip on Tony until he's resting back against her chest, head tucked under her chin and cradling his fluffy wolf. Her arms circle around him to come to rest on his tummy.

As the engines of the plane roar to life and the jet begins to move she finally cannot suppress the tears that have been building any longer. Her chest starts heaving as she cries, cascades of water falling onto her son's head. She tries not to make noise, because she doesn't want to upset Tony. But then a little bandaged hand pats her arm softly.

"Its ok mama. You can cry, it's ok to cry" he reiterates her words back to her kindly.

She chokes on a sob, the noise echoing in the cabin as she buries her face into her sweet little boy's shoulder, crying harder as he leans silently against her.

She'll take this private plane and fly as far away from the place she once referred to as home. She'll give up what's considered everything, but take her everything. She doesn't care if she'll never live in luxury again nor if she'll ever feel whole again. She'll do anything for Tony.

Anything.