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The Masks We Wear

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Anthony Stark was born on May 29, 1970 in a small private hospital in California. His mother wept slow, happy tears when she held him for the first time, his father nowhere to be seen. The newborn had been worryingly small, the doctors warned. And to the dismay of the CEO of Stark Industries, this came with a long list of possible ailments in the future. This was currently the reason why he had yet to even touch his child before he was off and discussing matters with the medical staff. There was no way that any child of his would grow up to be just another invalid. Maria, however, couldn’t care less. She knew instantly as she looked into her son’s bright and shining eyes that, no matter what anyone said, he would grow up to be one of the strongest people she would ever know.

“You are strong, my little Antonio," she crooned softly to him, "You will do great things, darling. I just know it.”

The woman looked up at the sounds of her husband making his way down to her hospital door. He was talking in fast low whispers to the doctors, looking less than pleased. Gaze rising to meet hers’ for just a moment, eyes showing not even the slightest bit of warmth, he gave her a cold nod in acknowledgement and then returned to discussing matters of seemingly more importance. The happiness that fluttered in the woman’s stomach dimmed slightly. But as she turned her gaze back to the gurgling, sleepy child in her arms, it came back fuller than ever.

“But for now,” she murmured, voice cracking slightly, “I will be your shield, your protector. No one shall dare touch you while I am still here. I promise.”

And no one did. For four blessed years, no one did. Not even her husband. Maria Stark made sure of it. She was a Stark now. And even before her marriage, her spirit was already made of iron. No matter what the consequences, she always made sure that the majority of her husband’s growing ire was directed towards her. Anyone who wished to fling her son’s unique qualities in the boy’s face and mock him for his strange quirks, mostly from his growing ability to pick up subjects too advanced for his age, were quickly dealt with by her. Her boy was smart, smarter than her husband even, and she could see it in Howard’s eyes that he was intimidated. But as long as she was there, no one, and she meant no one, would touch her son. Howard knew that the only thing keeping her there was Tony. But she also knew that, no matter how hard she tried, she would never be the one to keep the boy if the marriage was annulled. 

So, for four years, she protected. She stayed. She shielded.

It wasn't until that fourth year came that Maria fell and Edward took her place.

***

The night Edward was born, Tony had been hiding and his father had been drinking. The occurrence, though not exactly uncommon, was increasing in frequency; and the young boy had simply grown up with the idea that it was normal for an adult’s breath to constantly smell rancid with alcohol and that being called a ‘useless bastard’ was what daddies always called their children. However, from the growing tightness around his momma’s kind eyes as she sang him to sleep and the black and blue bruises that Tony saw from time to time on his sweet momma’s skin, his growing mind was beginning to think that it wasn’t all that normal after all.

It had started out like any other night in the Stark household. His father had come back from work tired and irritated and, as always, he turned to the bottle to drown away his frustrations. However, this time, the whiskey did not turn his mind sluggish nor did it simply turn his grumblings to horrid, yet harmless, jeers toward his son. This time, the irritation became full blown anger, and Howard Stark’s eyes blazed with a burning fury that Tony had never seen before.

The boy had only wanted to show his father the circuit board that he had created and had been working on for days. Growing up, Tony had come to realize that none of the other boys his age could do what he could, see what he saw when presented with complex math equations. The numbers just seemed to fly off the pages and his teachers had been so amazed that they were debating whether to have him skip a couple grades. He heard whispers that it was only to be expected. He was Howard Stark’s son after all. The boy had felt elation at being compared to his father and very much wanted to follow in his footsteps.

And so, he tried to build just like his father. Worked hours in the engineer’s workshop to create something that would make his father proud.

However, it was becoming obviously clear, that his hopes were for naught.

For a moment, after Tony shyly presented the circuit board to his father as he sat nursing a drink, the man simply stared at the board of wires and lights. Then, as seconds past, his dazed expression turned hard as stone and he callously grabbed the board out of his son’s tiny hands. The usual cold-hearted insults swiftly turned into cruel threats.  

“How dare a little shit like you go near my lab!” he accused, rising from his chair, “I ought ‘a beat you black and blue for trying to steal from me!”

The irate drunkard suddenly reached out to grab him and the little boy cried out in distress, running behind the doorway to his father’s study. His mother, having the foresight that this would happen, was already near, swiftly stepping between them like she had always done for years now. With soft, soothing murmurs, she quietly tried to placate her husband. However, this did nothing, and the man’s anger simply changed targets. The boy watched with horror as his father struck his mother with a bruising force, causing her to cry out and topple over, hitting her head on the edge of a table with a loud crack.

Tony let out a quiet scream as his momma crumpled to the ground. This wasn’t the first time the boy had seen his father hit his mother, but it had never been done this violently and with so much red. Tony stared as a pool of blood begun to form near her head. The moment of shocked silence as both father and son looked down at the fallen woman was unsettling. From his view from the entrance, the boy could clearly see the limp body, void of any life—and after a moment it became very clear.

The woman wasn’t moving.

The tentative silence broke as the boy gave out a shaky whimper.

“Momma?”

This was clearly the wrong thing to do for it only caught the attention of his father once again. The man, seemingly stunned for a moment at the picture of his fallen wife, suddenly zeroed in on his four-year-old child with an acid glare. His face scrunched up in ugly anger as he accusingly pointed the hand still holding the circuit board at his son.

You did this! Look at what you’ve made me do, you piece of fucking shit!”

Tony’s heart jumped into his throat and he bolted as his father rushed towards him, not even chancing looking back at the man. The child’s fast, little feet carried him down the winding hallways of the mansion. His father’s accusations rang clear in his ears, only making him sprint faster and away from the drunkard. It felt like a life time before the boy found himself standing before the only place that he felt was safe.

Jarvis’ room.

Unfortunately, the butler was nowhere to be seen and the little boy let out a silent cry of helplessness as tears continued to drip down his frightened young face.

“Where are you, you coward?” his father’s voice echoed, far too close for comfort.

The boy paled and dashed into the elderly man’s room anyway, closing the door as quickly and quietly as possible. Tony, still feeling too exposed, sought out Jarvis’ closet and speedily crawled into its reassuring darkness. Curling up into a ball, the boy shut his eyes tight and cupped his hands over his ears, willing the noise of his father’s screams to go away. His heart kept beating a terrible rhythm and his breath came quick and shallow. However, the picture of his mother’s fallen body kept whirling behind his eyelids, flashing to the growing puddle of blood spilling from her temple.

I will always protect you, my Antonio.

Her sweet voice murmured in his ear.

Tony clamped down a hand over his mouth to stop the sobs that shook through his body. The tears just refused to stop and a dark, murky pressure was starting to take form in the back of his mind. His momma was hurt. This was all his fault, he thought painfully. He shouldn’t have shown daddy father his new project. He shouldn’t have thought it would make him happy. It was—it was just that father was always just so angry whenever he came home. And it made his momma and Jarvis sad all the time. (They had tried to hide it, but Tony could tell.) And—and he just wanted the man to be proud of him for once.

Another sob shook through the boy and he tried his hardest to keep it in, but this time a little whimper escaped from his lips. The noise, although small, seemed to echo in the deafening silence. Tony froze and his face turned even more ghostly white as his father’s footsteps paused and seemed to come closer. He had been too loud.

Father didn’t like it when he was loud.

Jarvis’ door slammed open, the back of it hitting the wall with a bang. Tony automatically flinched away and he couldn’t hold back his cry of dismay. Howard’s eyes narrowed at the sound, and he took two drunken strides to the boy’s hiding place, yanking the doors open to reveal the shaking form of his teary-eyed son.

“Come here, you little shit!” his father snarled, roughly grabbing him by the lapels of his shirt. Tony felt a chill go up his spine as utter fear began to settle in his stomach and the dark presence in his head began to grow in size. His father had never touched him like this. His momma had always stopped him before he had the chance—had even taken the hit in his stead a couple of times.

Just like she had done tonight.

The boy froze up as his feet began to rise from the ground and his body limply dangled from his father’s grip.

“No,” Tony whimpered meekly, not even daring to struggle, tears still streaming down his face.

“Father, please.”

His words met deaf ears and Howard’s face, already twisted in anger, creased even further in fury, eyes hardening. He violently shook Tony in the air, causing the boy to cry out in pain as hands then grabbed his arms hard enough to break. His vision went black and the darkness took over completely for just a second.

No, no, no, where is momma? The boy’s mind raged as he outwardly whimpered. His momma had always protected him.

“Shut up, you weak little shit! This is all your fault!” the drunkard’s voice roared, shaking him again and again and again, causing Tony’s head to whip back and forth so fast he was seeing stars. His mind felt like it was about to literally shatter. The dark pressure was encroaching, spindling its way through every part of him, growing rapidly at every violent jerk.

“Stop. Pl-please,” the boy sobbed out.

The harsh hold on his arms hardened even further and for a moment the shaking ceased. However, before the boy could even sigh in relief, he was flung to the ground, his small frame hitting the floor—hard. Sharp pain shot through his body and the darkness instantly overtook him, a high-pitched ringing in his ears taking control of his senses. The pressure in his head seemed to burst, licking at the edge of his consciousness like a wave on the sand, lingering like a great chasm into oblivion.

Momma! His mind still pleaded weakly, drowning in itself, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Help me. Momma!

Your mother isn’t coming, a voice within the darkness whispered.

Mentally staggering back at the new presence, the boy had no time to answer back before a hand gripped a chunk of Tony’s hair and pulled him into the light. Tony screamed. His eyes shot open as his body was forced upward by the roots of his head.

“Father…” he gasped.

His neck was being forced to bend in a painful angle, making the boy meet the acid gaze of Howard’s once again. Helplessly looking into the man’s cold, steely glare, it felt like ages, as brown locked onto brown. Despite the man’s obvious drunkenness, his eyes still held slivers of the genius’ natural intelligence, seemingly analyzing every part of Tony’s face. The man didn’t seem to like what he saw, however, for he gripped the boy’s hair even harder. Pulling Tony’s face so close he could smell the putrid smell of alcohol as it was puffed against his skin, the man all but hissed.

“You are no son of mine.”

Tony felt like he was about to break. The ache surging through his body and the painful grip in his hair was nothing compared to how shattered the child felt at those words. Hot tears prickled against his cheeks once again as Howard Stark finally released him. Falling limply to the ground, the boy had no energy to avoid the following kick that was going straight for his stomach. Blacking out once again, the darkness seemed to be a nicer place to go than reality at the moment. Even as his body crumpled as it was hit once more, the shadow deep within his mind was already enveloping him in an embrace and, instead of shying away, the boy willingly went into its comforting hold, the pain turning into nothing but a simple echo. And just as he was about to tip over the edge into its deep chasms, the voice rose once more—low, and seething.

Your mother isn’t coming. It growled. So, I will protect you instead.

Tony leaped into the dark.

And from the pit roared a burning anger against injustice in memory of a mother’s love.

***

The night both Maria and Tony Stark fell, Edward was born.

***

Headline News:

MARIA AND TONY STARK FOUND BEATEN IN THEIR OWN HOME

Everyone was horrified to hear the news that both Maria and Tony Stark had been found brutally beaten in their mansion in California. The assailants have yet to be caught, however the CEO of Stark Industries, Howard Stark, is working his hardest to find those who dared beat his wife and son.

“I will do everything in my power to catch the bastards who did this,”—H. Stark.

Both victims are currently in the Intensive Care Unit and all visitations have been blocked. From what could be gathered; however, Maria Stark suffered a hard blow to the head and is in a coma. Insiders from the hospital state that she might never wake again. In the case of Anthony, America’s four-year-old darling, his injuries were said to be even more severe, suffering trauma to both the head and the abdomen. Any more details have yet to be disclosed at this time, but the world waits with baited breath to hear more about the health of its favorite billionaire family.

 

Chapter Text


Maria Stark did not die of her wounds, though she did remain in a coma. Tony, against the orders of the exasperated medical staff, stayed by her side the entire time. As soon as he, himself had woken up and was able to stand, he refused to leave her side for a second. No matter what the staff tried to do or say, the boy would just not listen. As a result, the doctors had no choice but to bend to the whims of the four-year-old child. They reluctantly set up another bed in her hospital room and transferred him to her quarters.

They did this for three reasons.

The first was that there was no way they could ever argue with the child of the hospital’s biggest benefactor. Mr. Stark didn’t seem to care either way, seeing how he was never present; however, the staff allowed the boy’s stubborn actions all the same just in case.

The second reason was more for the child’s benefit. He looked so sad and worried as he looked at his mother. Whenever the nurses checked up on the two of them, their hearts broke just a little bit more at the sight of such a young kid barely holding himself together as he clutched his mother’s hand, silenlty willing the woman to open her eyes. He also still needed to heal; and the amount of time the boy spent with his mother instead of concentrating on his own health was bordering on ridiculous. At least this way he could be laying down.

The third reason, if anything, was for their own benefit. As heartbreaking as the picture of mother and son seemed, the same nurses had become very wary of the child the longer they interacted with him. Though he was usually passive and sweet, it would all change whenever anyone tried to separate him from his mother’s bed. His tear-filled eyes would harden in an almost animalistic fury and his small presence would seem to grow in size, darkening like a shadow in the night. He never spoke when he was like that, but his stare glared enough daggers to get the point across. No one was to separate them. It was unnerving how easily a four-year-old child was able to cow a group of adults and send shivers down their spines, but the boy’s gaze spoke promises of distruction if they even dared to come between him and his mother.  

So, they let him be.

And so, it came as a relief to everyone involved that Maria Stark’s coma did not last as long as expected. In just over three weeks, her eyes had fluttered open, landing immediately on her son’s pale face. The boy, of course, burst into tears as soon as he took notice of his mother’s warm gaze. No words were exchanged between the two as the nurses and doctors began running around gathering data and taking blood tests. Mrs. Stark simply held her son in a tight embrace as he cried into her shoulder, murmuring the Italian lullabies that she always sang to him before he went to sleep. There was no sign of that terrifying boy in sight as Maria held her overjoyed son, and those around them sighed in relief at the sight.

However, the respite didn’t last for long as the boy began to whisper sharp and terrifying words in his mother’s ear.

“I swear to you, momma. I swear to you on my love for you,” he murmured bitingly, “I will make the person pay for what they did to you. It will be I who will be protecting you from now on and I will not rest until that person has fallen so far from grace that not even God can find them.”

The utter silence that followed was almost tangible. The nurses had stopped their test-taking and the two doctors had paused mid-argument, all eyes settling on the back of the child who had just been breaking down in tears minutes before. They all just stood frozen in shock at the boy’s words, horrified at how someone his age could even talk in such a manner. Yet somehow, it became even more disturbing as the woman holding him only seemed to tighten her hold more, her face grim yet proud.

“I know,” she whispered back.

After that, the staff didn’t seem to know what to do, automatically going on autopilot to finish the rest of the check-ups. Internally, they were all screaming, worried beyond belief for the sanity of the boy before them. They had taken his odd behavior as simple protectiveness from a person who had gone through a traumatic event, but now they weren’t so sure anymore. The pure anger and ferocity, with a hint of madness, that simmered just beneath those words had no place being spoken by a toddler. They weren’t sure the woman had woken up quite sane either. Her response to his declarations were mild to say the least and could have even been read as supportive.

None of them knew what to think. So, they just continued working. They couldn’t do anything about it either way anyway, especially if it involved the Stark family. Even when they saw evidence that the attack had not been as it seemed. What with Howard Stark’s absence in the hospital altogether and the bruises on the kid’s arms fitting a bit too closely to the size of the billionaire’s own hands for comfort. It was all a bit too...suspicious.

But they all knew very well that they could do nothing. These people were the untouchables of society and that became even more abundantly clear when Maria and Tony Stark were eventually discharged without much fuss, and the SI company lawyers immediately came marching in to make sure that everyone’s lips were sealed. So, there was really no point in bringing up the boy’s frightening declarations in the first place. It would only bring scrutiny on the hospital. Even when they saw the looks, the changes in the little boy’s expression when his father was in his vicinity or when the man’s back was turned. It was during those moments when the child seemed to warp back into that dangerous animal that they’d only seen glimpses of before, dark and predatory—simply waiting for the right time to strike.

It was also during those times, that any suspicions on the true identity of the attacker were fully answered.

Thus, the staff remained silent. Most of them, willingly so. Howard Stark would pay for what he did. They had no doubt.

Of course, years later—after Tony Stark inherited Stark Industries, earned himself the infamous name of Merchant of Death, and became the most hated supervillain in the world—these same people who got to know the toddler-version of the man would claim that they saw it coming from miles away.