Characters: Tony, Howard, Jarvis, Stane, Maria, Peggy, dæmons
Warnings/Triggers: swearing, bullying, a child running away, assumptions of kidnap and worries related to it, family dysfunction/drama, implications of alcoholism, brief reference to the non-tragic death of a spouse
Spoilers: Basic ones for the structure and past of the Stark family as laid out in the Iron Man movies, and Captain America related media.
Word Count 7,692
Summary: Tony runs away from school, leading Howard to realize just how out of touch he is with his son.
Author's notes: This is part two, part one is here.
Brief note, because I realize I never made this clear anywhere, Haddie's full name is 'Hendrina', but she doesn't get called that, ever. Except by Jarvis, at the end of this fic, which I realize is a bit out of nowhere, but he decided to do it and I said he could.
Howard left Jarvis behind at the house, in case Tony called or showed up there, and drove himself back into New York. Which was not something he did regularly and remembered why as he hit the traffic. Dejeni started yelling at everyone that Howard was going somewhere important and everyone else was ruining lives by not getting out of the way.
“Do you think he'll be there?” she asked, her paws knitting themselves in anxiety.
“I don't know,” Howard said. “God, I hope so. If he isn't, I'm calling in reinforcements.”
“Including Maria?” Dejeni asked.
“Including Maria,” Howard said. He tried to loosen his grip on the wheel. It was making his knuckles turn white. “Whether he's there or not, I can't sit around waiting for him to show up somewhere. At least going there I'll have done something to help.”
All of his anger seemed to be ebbing away, and now he just felt sick to his stomach. Tony was the only thing in the world he would care if he lost. Him and Maria. Take away everything else, he could rebuild, but Tony was the only thing he'd made that was worth anything and losing him would be beyond any imagining. He tried not to imagine. It wouldn't help.
He pulled up to the Clifton and jumped out of the car, picking up Dejeni to allow him to move as fast as possible. He left the car out front and ran past the doorman and the concierge and headed straight for the elevator.
“There's a light on in your office,” Dejeni said once they got in. She leaped out of his arms to go and look.
“Tony!” Howard called.
“Demira!” Dejeni yelled.
No answer. Howard followed Dejeni into the office. Someone had definitely been in. Jarvis wouldn't have left Howard's desk with anything out of place on it, and the phone was in the middle, with a notepad on it. Dejeni hopped up onto the desk and hovered over Howard's arm as he grabbed a pencil and rubbed it over the paper to see what had been written on it. It was a time and a train platform.
“Find the number for Penn Station,” Howard ordered Dejeni.
She opened a drawer and pulled out the phone book, paws flying through the pages.
“I'm waiting,” Howard snapped. “You're moving like molasses, Jen, hurry.”
“Phone books were made for humans! You're the one with hands!” Dejeni said. “Here we go.”
Howard dialed information and asked about the train indicated on the notepad. It went to Chicago, with several stops along the way. He asked to be transferred to the ticket office.
“Were you working when the 29 Lake Shore Limited train left?” Howard asked.
“Yep,” the seller said.
“Did you sell a ticket for that train to a young boy? He's about eight years old, black hair, brown eyes,” Howard said. “He was probably wearing a school uniform— a blazer with a crest and blue trousers. He would have been on his own, no adult with him. His dæmon is unsettled, but she likes to be...” He knew he knew what Demira liked to be, but it took a long pause before his brain decided to transfer the information to his mouth. “A hummingbird. And an otter.”
“Platypus,” Dejeni chimed in.
“And a platypus. Sometimes a raccoon."
“Nope,” the seller said.
“You didn't sell him a ticket?” Howard said. “You didn't see him?”
“Nope,” the seller said. “Can't say I would have remembered, but it doesn't ring a bell. Let me ask the rest of us here.”
The phone was muffled and other voices were heard. Howard tapped his foot impatiently. The consensus was that no one had seen Tony. If he'd gotten on the train, he'd done it quietly. Which was a distinct possibility. Howard hung up the phone and glared at it.
“You need to call Maria,” Dejeni said.
“Let me just call Poughkeepsie first,” Howard said. “That's the next stop on the train. I'll give them a head's up, they can look when it stops there.”
“Then you'll call Maria?” Dejeni said.
“Then I'll call Maria,” Howard said, his stomach roiling at the thought of explaining to her that Tony was missing.
Dejeni used the other phone to start dialing while Howard took care of calling the train station. It was, as Howard predicted, quite a wait for the message to get down to where Maria was working and for her to get back up to a phone.
“Has something happened to Tony?” Maria asked, without saying hello. “You hate when people pull you out of work. You wouldn't do the same to someone else unless it was important. Something must be wrong. Is it you or Tony?”
“Tony is—” Howard said. The other phone rang. “Uh, hold on a sec, babe.”
“Do not call me babe, and I will not—” Maria said.
Howard put the phone down on the desk and let Dejeni listen to the complaints while Howard answered the other phone.
“Mr. Stark, this is Jarvis,” Jarvis said. “Master Tony has just contacted me.”
Howard felt the whole world fall out from under him in relief (he didn't know you could get that feeling from relief) and then he slammed hard into it again. “Is he okay? Where is he?” Dejeni came over and stuck her ear to the receiver, her fur tickling his chin.
“He's quite upset and a little scared,” Jarvis said. “I will keep his whereabouts to myself for the moment.”
“You will fucking not! Where is he?” Howard demanded.
“I made a promise to Master Tony that I would be the one to pick him up, and that you would not,” Jarvis said. That was a sharp, unexpected sting to Howard's heart. “Giving you that information will encourage you to go yourself, which would break that promise. I will retrieve him and deliver him to you.”
“Jarvis,” Howard said, in warning.
“I have yet to break a promise to Master Tony,” Jarvis said. “That is the end of the discussion, sir, with all due respect.”
“Fine!” Howard said. “Pick him up, bring him here, and then you're fired. There's your goddamn respect.”
“Very good, sir,” Jarvis said. “I shall be there shortly.”
The phone was hung up, and Howard slammed down the receiver on his end.
“Howard Anthony Walter Stark Jr., pick up this phone, now!” Maria shouted down the other line. “Where is Tony and why did you just fire Jarvis?!”
Dejeni shot him a nervous, relieved smile. “See, I told you if you called Maria everything would be fine.”
Tony hadn't cried very much, but Mim still felt very ill, like she always did when Tony cried. Like her whole body was cramped up and she couldn't move. She shifted into a platypus and snuggled into him until his few tears were done. He'd wiped them away and pushed her off. They didn't talk as they waited for Jarvis, but Mim hoped he would come soon as there were people starting to appear on the streets that looked like they wouldn't be the kind of person Tony should be talking to or looking at or knowing existed. Mim shifted into a bear and stationed herself at the door to the phone booth, just in case she needed to defend herself. Tony crouched against the inside of the phone booth, his arms folded, and anger and misery rushing through him.
“There's the Daimler,” Mim reported, a very long time later. Longer than she thought she'd ever waited for anything to happen in her whole life. “Jarvis is here.”
Tony rose and raised his chin to face the music. Jarvis pulled the car to a stop and hopped out, Haddie racing ahead of him. He stalked over to the phone booth, and Tony stepped out.
“Jarvis, I—” he began.
Jarvis wrapped him up in a tight, ferocious hug that made Mim's sides hurt. Haddie leaped on Mim and knocked her right over, then licked at her and nipped at her and nuzzled her before picking her up by the scruff of her neck and setting her on her feet again. Jarvis stepped back, pushing Tony to arm's length.
“Master Tony, that was extremely bad form,” he said, sternly.
“Miss Demira, you should be ashamed of yourself!” Haddie said to Mim. “You are certainly old enough to know that you should have prevented Master Tony from running away. I expected much more from you. What were you thinking? I am very disappointed.”
Haddie was the only dæmon Mim had met who used titles in front of other dæmons' names. She always called Mim 'Miss Demira', and Mim always felt like it was a sort of burden placed on her; like if Haddie thought she was Miss Demira, she should be acting more like Miss Demira, even if she wasn't quite sure who Miss Demira was.
Mim shifted into a dog and laid down on her belly, apologetically.
“I couldn't stay anymore,” Tony said to Jarvis. “I had to go. I couldn't stay. I hate it there. Please don't take me back.”
Jarvis was back to his usual starched self. He let go of Tony and tugged his coat back into place. “That is not my decision to make,” he said. “You will have to discuss it with your father.” He reached out and lifted Tony's chin to look at the scratches that had turned into bruises. “Where did you acquire this?”
“A wall,” Tony said, defiantly.
“Where was the wall?” Jarvis asked.
“School,” Tony said.
Jarvis made a small, dissatisfied noise in the back of his throat that he usually made when Tony needed to tuck in his shirt or brush his hair. He exchanged a brief look with Haddie. “I will see to the care of it once we get somewhere more savory,” he said. “Please get in the car. In the front seat, there will be no hiding in the back.” He and Haddie went over to the car and opened the door.
Tony slouched into the seat. Mim hopped into his lap and made herself into a very small mouse. Jarvis hurried around to the other side of the car and opened the back door for Haddie, then climbed into the driver's seat.
“This is not the sort of car that does well in this neighborhood,” Jarvis said. “Let's remove it before someone takes a liking to it.” He put the car in gear and drove off with a screech, before slowing down once they were on their way.
Haddie sat on the occasional seat in the back and put her nose over the front bench. Mim wanted to go up and sit with her but was afraid she might keep scolding her, so stayed sitting with Tony instead. Tony stared straight ahead, his eyes darting looks at Jarvis once in a while. The car was very quiet, and Mim didn't like it.
“Where are we going?” Tony asked, after a few minutes.
“Your father is at the Clifton Penthouse. I am taking you to him,” Jarvis said.
Tony and Mim exchanged 'uh-oh' looks. “He knew I was there?” Tony asked.
“I believe he suspected you might go there,” Jarvis said. “He went to look for you there.”
“He left work?” Tony asked.
“You were missing, Master Tony,” Jarvis said. “He left work.”
Tony and Mim once again exchanged looks of doom. Pulling Howard out of work was even worse than if Tony had run away on his day off. He was going to be furious. Tony had survived whatever would have happened if he'd stayed on the street and now Howard was going to kill him--or come very close.
“Does Mom know?” Tony asked.
Haddie murmured something about 'I sincerely hope so' under her breath, but Mim didn't catch it all.
“I don't know,” Jarvis said. “It would have been up to Mr. Stark to notify her.”
“I was trying to go to see her,” Tony said. “I thought maybe she'd let me stay if...I could explain.”
“You can explain to your father,” Jarvis said.
“Will you stay when I talk to him?” Tony asked.
Jarvis' face tried to show an emotion, but kind of failed. Mim couldn't figure out what it was he'd been trying to do. He always looked so tight, like all his muscles needed oiling.
“I will if I'm permitted and that's what you want,” Jarvis said. “However, it may not be possible, as I have been fired.”
Mim sat up, shifting to a rabbit in alarm, putting her ears up tall in case she'd misheard.
“What?!” Tony said. “No way!”
“Way,” Jarvis said. He looked over, and his eyes were twinkling a little. “However, this is the...fifteenth time I've been fired over my career with the Stark family. In no instance has it lasted more than twenty-four hours. I suspect I won't be on the dole just yet.”
“Why does he keep firing you?” Tony asked.
“Oh, quite a variety of reasons over the years,” Jarvis said. “Once because I served a loaf of stale French bread.” He looked ashamed. “I still don't know what led to that mistake. I think I must have mistook the previous days loaf for the current day's loaf, which was very poor service on my part.”
“He fired you over bread?” Tony said.
“There was quite a lot going on at the time. I expect the bread was just the breaking point,” Jarvis said. “However, he hired me back fifteen minutes later. I still feel very bad about that bread, though. It was a low-point in my career.”
Mim hopped up to the top of the bench next to Haddie and put her paw on Haddie's nose. “If Howard really fires Jarvis, I'll make Tony hire him again when he's grown-up,” Mim promised.
“Thank you, Miss Demira, that will help him keep hope alive,” she said.
Mim giggled, and Haddie nudged her, gently.
“Did he fire you about me?” Tony asked. “Does he think it's your fault? Because it's not. I'll tell him.”
“No,” Jarvis said. “No, it was about something else entirely. Quite unrelated to any of this, I assure you.”
Tony leaned back in his seat, and Mim put her head on his shoulder. “Do you think he's going to send me back to school?” he asked.
“It's not my job to speculate,” Jarvis said. “But I do think you should be quite clear about why you don't want to return. You have a great many words in your vocabulary. I suggest you decide how best to use them.”
“Stop pacing,” Howard snapped.
“I'm not pacing,” Dejeni said, hopping over the phone on the desk and walking to the other side. She turned and came back. “Why aren't you pacing?”
“Because I trust that Jarvis will bring Tony here,” Howard said. “And pacing won't make them get here any faster.”
His fingers drummed on the table and he eyed the wet bar in the corner, but didn't make a move to go to it yet. Dejeni wouldn't mind him to have a drink; it might settle him down and stop them transferring all their nerves to one another, but Howard still had Tony to deal with, and he tried not to drink too much in front of Tony. He'd promised Maria that. And Maria was none too happy already. Howard had managed to talk her down somewhat. She wanted to get on the next plane to New York, but Howard had pointed out that by the time she arrived it would be dealt with anyway, and she'd just have to return to California. He'd negotiated it down to what she'd called a 'very long, in depth discussion' to take place after he'd seen Tony.
Which would hopefully be soon. Dejeni hopped over the phone again and moved to the other side of the desk.
The front door opened, and there were murmured voices.
“Mr. Stark?” Jarvis called.
“In the office,” Howard said.
Dejeni leaped to the floor as Jarvis ushered Tony in. Demira was hiding beneath Haddie in the form of a Welsh Springer Spaniel puppy. Haddie primly moved so that Demira was exposed, and Demira shifted into a dove.
“Are you hurt?” Dejeni demanded, hurrying in a circle around her and then patting her up to make sure she was all there. “Did you get hurt? Did anyone try to talk to you? Did anyone try to take you? Where did you go? Is Tony hurt? Is he cold? Are you cold? Is he hungry? Should Howard tell Jarvis to bring food? No, he can't do that because he fired Jarvis and...you do not get food after running away! What the hell were you thinking?! You are the most—” Dejeni threw up her paws, unable to express everything she was feeling. Demira looked at her in utter bafflement mixed with terror.
“Come here,” Howard said to Tony, pointing to the desk in front of him.
Tony slunk over to the desk. Demira flew after him. Dejeni climbed back up on the desk and sat in front of Howard.
“Straighten up,” Howard said. “Don't look at your feet, look at me.”
Tony raised his chin.
“Are you okay?” Howard asked.
“What's this?” Howard asked, pointing to Tony's face. It was scratched all down one cheek and had bruises all over it. “Did this happen while you were on the run? Did someone hurt you?”
“No,” Tony said. “It happened before I left.”
“I see,” Howard said. “And is that what made you run away?”
Tony was losing his meekness and starting to get defiant. “No,” he said. “It was just...the stale French bread.”
Jarvis made a peep of something that might have been amusement, but with Jarvis, it could have been any other emotion or reaction; they all sort of looked the same. Howard's eyes looked between the two of them, annoyed at not knowing what Tony meant and that Jarvis did.
“Didn't I fire you?” Howard asked Jarvis.
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. “Shall I get my things?” Haddie looked politely expectant.
Dejeni tugged on Howard's jacket sleeve. “You know you're an idiot and that you're going to need him to deal with Tony,” she said. “Hire him back.”
“I'm pretty sure I need to give you written notice of termination,” Howard said. “I think that's in your contract.”
“It is, sir,” Jarvis said.
“I don't have the time to write it up today,” Howard said. He smirked slightly. “Let's say I put it down as a mark on your record and we move on.”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said.
“You can go,” Howard added.
Tony looked over his shoulder to Jarvis, almost panicked. Jarvis hesitated.
“Master Tony has expressed a desire for me to hear what he has to say,” Jarvis said. “He'd like to explain to us both, sir.”
“Master Tony doesn't have much of a leg to stand on for requests today,” Howard snapped. He sighed. “Stay, go, I don't care.”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. He put his hands behind his back and put himself up against the wall, Haddie sitting discreetly at his feet.
Howard made an inviting gesture to Tony. “Let's hear it then,” he said. “What's it that you'd like to explain?”
Tony bit his lower lip. Demira murmured in his ear. “I don't like it at school."
“No one likes it at school, Tony, it's school,” Howard said. “That's no reason to run away. Do you have any idea how much anxiety you've caused? I was pulled out of an important board meeting, your mother was pulled out of an important project. There were police looking for you in Westchester. For all we knew, you could have been another Lindbergh baby!”
“A what?” Tony said.
“He was—never mind,” Howard said. “We thought someone had taken you. There are people who might want to do that, you know that. We've discussed with you about how to keep yourself safe, and you just wandered off! Anything could have happened out there!”
Tony squirmed. Demira murmured again. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I didn't think about—”
“No, you didn't think,” Howard interrupted.
“Howard, let him ta—” Dejeni tried.
“You didn't think about the consequences,” Howard said. “Not just for you. People have had to fill in at work for me. Because my son ran off because he had a bad day at school. That's embarrassing, Tony.”
Dejeni tugged at his sleeve, but Howard was angry and she could feel the anger and she couldn't tell which was his anger and which was hers, and she wanted to tell him to stop yelling so Tony could explain, but then Tony started yelling instead.
“It wasn't just a bad day, Dad! It's awful there. It's horrible. I don't have any friends. No one likes me, not even the teachers. Everyone hates me. The older boys pick on me, the boys who are my age don't even know my name because I never see them. All the teachers either tell me I'm not working hard enough or I'm working too hard and should let the other kids have a chance. I can't win! I'm smarter than everyone there, I'm richer than everyone there. I just...stick out.”
“Do you want me to apologize for you being richer than everyone there?” Howard asked. “Because I've worked my ass off for that money, Tony, so that you could have the opportunities that you have.”
“I don't want those opportunities!” Tony yelled.
Howard was on his feet and leaning over the desk now. “Then you're even more of an ungrateful brat than I thought!” he said. “Do you know how many people out there don't have food or money or a place to live? You have everything in the world, Tony. You should show a little gratitude!”
Tony's face was bright red. and Demira had jumped to the floor, shifting into an angry lion cub mid-flight and landing in a pouncing position. “Why should I be grateful to you?” Tony said. “When you just ship me off because you don't want me around?!”
Dejeni felt like Howard had just been punched in the stomach. She wished everyone would stop yelling. It didn't seem to be doing anything. But Howard just kept yelling and she didn't know how to get him to stop. He was ignoring her entirely.
“I did not ship you off,” Howard said. “I spent days looking for somewhere where you could go to get an education that would keep up with you! Alton was the only school willing to let you work four grade levels above your own. The maximum anywhere else allowed was one grade level, and I knew you'd be bored out of your mind.”
Tony faltered slightly, then seemed to get even angrier. “But you didn't say that! You didn't tell me! You never tell me anything! I wrote and you didn't even write back. You never listen! You never listen to me!”
Howard finally seemed to be losing some steam. He sat back down and Dejeni was relieved. She was dizzy with the force of his emotions, and she just wanted very much to curl up and go to sleep for a little bit. She went forward to check on Demira, who was still a lion, but a less ferocious one. Her eyes were very large, and she shrunk away when she noticed Dejeni, slipping around behind Tony.
“I have a lot to do, Tony,” Howard said. “Sometimes things slip through the cracks. I do my best. I don't want to hear any more. Go to your room.”
“But, I'm trying to—” Tony said.
“Go to your room,” Howard said, sharply. “You've caused enough trouble, just do what I tell you to do for once, goddamnit!”
Tony turned on his heel. “See, I told you,” he said to Jarvis as he passed by. “I tried.”
Jarvis didn't respond, but Haddie gave Demira a very soft nudge out the door. Dejeni heard Tony's door slam a few moments later. She turned to look at Howard.
“I don't think you did a very good job handling that,” she said.
Howard looked tired. He pulled the scotch out of the top drawer of his desk. “Me either."
Tony had been so furious that it made him cry. He had actual tears falling, like a little kid. He'd curled up in a ball on the bed. Mim had turned into an otter and lay in his arms, wiping his tears away.
“He didn't mean it,” she said. “He was worried, that's why he was angry.”
“Yeah, he was worried about work,” Tony said. “Worried about how it would look. Worried about the papers reporting that his son was unhappy and had run away.”
“I don't think so,” Mim insisted. “Dejeni was really scared. I haven't seen her like that. I think Howard was worried.”
“Whatever,” Tony said. “It doesn't matter anyway. I didn't accomplish anything. He's still not listening. I'll go back to school tomorrow and it will all be the same.”
Mim didn't have anything to counter that. She just snuggled in deeper with him until he stopped being angry and sad and was just tired instead.
Jarvis gave the little tap-tap knock that he did when he was going to come into Tony's bedroom. Tony sat up and Mim scampered over to the edge of the bed.
“Mr. Stark asked me to bring you something to eat,” Jarvis said, entering with a tray. “And I would like to take care of your injury.”
“I'm not hungry,” Tony said. His stomach growled loudly when Jarvis set the tray on the nightstand, though. Jarvis made really good omelets. He always made omelets when Tony wasn't feeling well or something bad had happened.
“I'm hungry,” Mim said, going over to sniff at the tray. “You should definitely eat that. It has ham in it.”
“I'll leave it here in case you change your mind,” Jarvis said. He gestured for Tony to come closer, putting his glasses on. Haddie's head cocked in unison with his as they looked over Tony's face. “It's a bit too late to ice it. A good cleaning will suffice, I think.” He put something on a cloth and held it to Tony's cheek.
“Ouch!” Tony said.
“Is this a regular event at school?” Jarvis asked. “Your meeting with a wall?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “Pretty regular.”
“And have you told anyone?” Jarvis said.
“There's no point,” Tony said. “It won't help, it'll just make things worse.”
Jarvis nodded. “Very well,” he said. “Have you attempted to defend yourself against the wall?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “And that's when the teacher showed up. I had to do lines, and so did the other kid, and I got it worse next time.”
“I see,” Jarvis said. “That is a problem.” He took out a small spray bottle from his pocket and tilted Tony's face to spray it on.
“What's that?” Tony asked.
“Witch hazel. It's a very effective vulnerary,” Jarvis said. “It helps bring down swelling and stop bleeding. Rub it into your face, if you please.”
Tony massaged his cheek. “How come you know about medicine and stuff?” he asked. Jarvis had always been the one to patch up his bumps and bruises if Mom wasn't there. Sometimes even if she was.
“I have some experience,” Jarvis said. “Your father has met with his share of walls over the years.” He smiled down at Haddie, who put a paw on her nose to giggle. “Now, if I may give you some advice, I have two options to help with your wall problem.”
“Kay,” Tony said. Mim came over to listen, pulling herself away from the omelet.
“My first suggestion would be to attempt to befriend someone older than you and keep him with you to act as a deterrent,” Jarvis said. “However, I understand that might be difficult. So, the second suggestion I have is to use your considerable intellect to find a...creative way to deter further interactions with walls. You don't need brawn to intimidate. You just need to be clever. I know you can do that.”
Tony thought this over. “Are you telling me to misbehave?”
“I would never do that, Master Tony,” Jarvis said in a scandalized voice, his eyes twinkling. “However, if that's how you choose to interpret my words, that's hardly my fault.”
Tony grinned. “I'll think about it."
“As you wish,” Jarvis said.
Mim nudged at Tony. “Tell him you're sorry,” she said. “Let him know.”
Tony cleared his throat. “I'm sorry that I worried you today,” he said. “I didn't mean to do that.”
Jarvis tilted his head forward in a nod. “Apology noted,” he said. “Do eat, Master Tony. Starving yourself won't help. It will all turn out all right in the end.”
“Okay,” Tony said.
“And do try to take it easy on Mr. Stark,” Jarvis said.
“Tell him to take it easy on me,” Tony said.
Jarvis gave a little smile. “I already have.”
“Okay,” Dejeni said, as Howard approached the door to Tony's room. “Don't mess up this time.”
“It's not like I tried to mess up the first time,” Howard said. He stretched his arms over his head. His whole body seemed to be aching like he'd been through a workout.
“Well, try extra hard this time not to mess up,” Dejeni said. “Because you're going to lose touch with Tony completely if you don't do something soon. You can't keep yelling at him and expecting him to like you.”
“I know,” Howard said. “I'm working on it.”
It was nearly midnight, but Tony's light was still on. Howard's discussion with Maria had taken a long time to get through. She was also of the opinion that he had messed up badly, though she wasn't quite so blunt about it as Dejeni was. Howard could deal with almost anyone having a bad opinion of him, but Maria being disappointed made him feel guilty. Jarvis, too, actually. They were both against him in this. They weren't really for Tony. They were just...neutral. Which was all well and good for them; they weren't the ones actually trying to talk to him. And they were better at talking to him than Howard was. When Tony was about two or so and started to talk back, Maria used to describe it as 'watching you have an argument with yourself'. It had gotten worse from then on.
Howard rapped on the door and then peeked in. Tony was on the floor, and a little, crude robot was waddling along toward the door. Demira was in guinea pig form and chasing it.
“What's that?” Howard asked.
Tony shrugged. “Just a thing,” he said. “It doesn't work properly.”
Howard crouched and picked it up, Demira scampering away from him. He looked it over. “Where did you get the parts for this?” he asked.
Tony pointed to a few scraps on the floor. “I took my clock apart,” he said. “And some other stuff.”
“The wire doesn't have a high enough resistance to be a conductor between the positive and negative terminals,” Howard said, pointing. “You're overloading the circuit.”
“But if I use the other wire, then I'm overlamping the light bulb,” Tony said.
“Do you need the light bulb?” Howard asked. “What's it doing?”
“It looks cool,” Tony said.
“Start with function,” Howard said. “Make it look cool later.”
“Whatever,” Tony said. “I was just messing around.”
Dejeni went over to explore the pile of parts. Howard put the robot back on the ground and sent it back to Tony. Demira came back to follow its movement.
“I talked to your mom,” Howard said.
“And I'm grounded forever?” Tony asked.
“No, but you came close,” Howard said. “It's—listen, could you get off the floor? I feel like I'm looming. Sit on the bed.”
Tony didn't move. Howard tried to fight down his annoyance. He sat on the trunk at the end of the bed, instead, which put him at less of a looming height. Dejeni brought a new wire over to the robot and started to take it apart. Demira shifted into a marmoset and helped her.
“You won't be getting any allowance for a while,” Howard said. “Or any extra money. You'll return to school and formally apologize to the principal and the teachers for causing the chaos you did. You won't participate in any extracurricular activities—”
“I wasn't anyway,” Tony said, flippantly.
“I am speak—” Howard began, but reined in his temper. Just like talking to himself. Yep. “This weekend and next weekend, you'll stay on campus. No going into town.”
Tony looked up. “That's it?”
“That's it,” Howard said.
He'd wanted to put Tony on permanent house arrest until he was of legal age, but Maria said to keep the punishment light. She insisted this whole thing was a 'cry for help' and if they responded by not listening, it just told Tony he wouldn't be able to get help if he needed it. Her use of 'not listening' reinforced Tony's own complaints of Howard not listening, which made Howard once again feel like he just didn't know how to do this father thing right and should leave the parenting to someone better at it.
“But if you ever pull that stunt again, the consequences will be mind-numbing,” Howard added.
“Yeah, I know,” Tony said.
Dejeni was showing Demira how to replace the wire, but got impatient and did it herself as Demira faltered. Both Tony and Howard watched them work for a few moments.
“Look,” Howard said. He shifted uncomfortably on the trunk, trying to figure out how to say what he wanted without antagonizing Tony. “I know that being at school isn't fun. I went to school. It wasn't as snotty a school as yours, but it wasn't great. The thing about being us is that we make people jealous. We're smarter and richer than everyone else. And better-looking.” Tony's mouth moved slightly at that. “We're different because we don't think like other people. It's a gift, and it's a really crappy gift. People get scared when they meet people who are different. It's easier to be the same than it is to carve your own path. But it gets easier when you grow up. School is the worst, once you get out of there everyone who hated you wants to kiss your ass to get your help. That's the way the world works. You have to get used it. You're going to run the company one day, and I guarantee the same kids who are rubbing your face in dirt are going to be your accountants and your lawyers and they're going to have had their personalities surgically removed and be unhappily married and have little sticky drone children in stupid outfits and be miserable because they don't have the brains to improve their lives. That's your revenge, you just gotta wait for it.”
Tony's posture seemed a little less on guard, but Howard wasn't sure if anything was getting through to him.
Dejeni and Demira had the robot back together now, and Demira hit the switch. It bustled along the floor, no longer waddling and uneven in its gait. Demira shifted into an excited kitten and chased after it, mewing. Howard was reminded of the 'diagrams' Tony used to bring him when he was just two or three. They were just scribbles on paper but with a whole idea of how the alleged machine was going to work, with Demira crawling over the paper to point out the major features of it. Sometimes he brought a 'pwototwype' made of out plasticine or Lego. Every once in a while, Howard still found an old diagram in a desk drawer or filing cabinet and he and Dejeni would try to remember what the original plan was. It didn't seem that long ago that Tony wasn't even old enough to draw actual pictures for his ideas, and now he was building them. And he didn't bring them to Howard anymore.
“It just needed a bit of fiddling with,” Howard said. “Your concept was sound. Nothing good ever gets built without it falling on its face a few times. If it works the first time, you should just chuck it. You can do better than that.”
“Sometimes, I—” Tony began.
There was a tap-tap on the door, and Haddie's nose peered around politely into the room. Jarvis followed. “Forgive me, Mr. Stark, but you have a phone call,” he said. “It's in regards to a manufacturing error.”
Manufacturing error was a code word for a S.H.I.E.L.D crisis. Howard glanced over to Tony, who had been looking like he might be relaxing, but was now all tight and clammed up again.
“Tony...” Howard said.
“Yep, I know, business,” Tony said. “Don't worry about it.”
Howard rose. Dejeni handed Demira back the components she'd removed from the robot and gave her a pat on the head.
“Okay,” Howard said. “Go to bed. It's a school night. Jarvis will take you back in the morning, but...” No, he couldn't promise to see him off. He'd probably be gone. “We'll talk another time.”
“Uh-huh,” Tony said.
“I'm glad you're safe,” Howard said. “I don't think I got around to saying that earlier.” He bent and held out a hand. Tony stared at it, before accepting it and giving it a shake. Howard pulled him to his feet and put his hand on his head, briefly. “Don't do it again. Ever.”
“Yes, sir,” Tony said.
“Don't call me 'sir',” Howard said. “My dad made me call him sir. I hated it.”
“Yes, sir,” Tony said, with a maddening grin.
Yep, just like talking to himself. He gave Tony a nod and went out into the hallway and towards his office to see what S.H.I.E.L.D needed him for.
“Howard Stark,” he said, into the phone.
“It's Peggy,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “You sound off, bad day?”
“Just some family drama,” Howard said. “What's up, Pegs?”
“We need to go to Washington,” Peggy said. “I'll pick you up in fifteen minutes. You can tell me your drama on the way if you're amenable.”
Howard smiled. “Sounds good. I think I need someone to push me in a river today.”
“Oh, well,” Peggy said. “I'm always happy to oblige.”
Jarvis sat down in his favourite chair, with his glass of sherry, at 7PM on the dot, as per usual. Ana was settled nearby, Hesper giving her latest sketch a critical look as she sipped at her glass.
Jarvis picked up the letter from Master Tony that had arrived earlier in the day. It was the first since he'd run away. Jarvis had had it on his mind since the post had come in that morning, but the first step in making a mistake was to alter one's routine. Master Tony's letters were read with the sherry and would have to wait until then.
“Does it look like a happy letter or a sad letter?” Haddie asked, sticking her nose up to the stamp.
“It looks like an envelope at present,” Jarvis said. He took up the letter opener and slit the top of the envelope. “He didn't take the time to find stationary. This is written on foolscap.”
“He must have been too excited,” Haddie said. “That bodes well.”
“We'll see,” Jarvis said.
He unfolded the letter. Haddie pressed herself up against the side of the chair, and he tilted the paper slightly to allow her to be able to read it as well.
“'Hey, Jarvis,' that's certainly more cheerful,” Jarvis noted. The handwriting was more expressive as well, not the stilted, upright letters of someone thinking very carefully about their words.
Master Tony's letter opened with the hope that Jarvis was doing well, though worded with more colourful language. 'Ana, too, make sure you say "hey"'. It went on to declare the punishments laid out for his running away were 'super lame', but he didn't seem too fazed by them. Jarvis had done some probing when driving Master Tony back to school and had been satisfied that he knew what he had done was wrong and would not do it again. He'd also made it quite clear that if anything should ever come to a point which was so unbearable that Master Tony felt the need to run away, he could always contact Jarvis and they would solve the problem together. Jarvis was quite aware that he was not the person Master Tony wanted to solve the problem, but he hoped that there being a person period would provide some reassurance.
Master Tony's school lessons were also 'super lame', which was oddly more positive than the 'fine' he'd been giving in his previous letters.
“'Walking between classes is nicer than it used to be, though,'” Haddie read out. “I suspect that is the lead-in to something quite ominous.”
“I concur,” Jarvis said. “I very much doubt it's just because he's enjoying the snow.”
Master Tony chose to relate an 'interesting' tale about something that had happened earlier in the week. It seemed that the boys in his science class had all developed a strange itching problem in their intimate areas.
'It's really weird,' Master Tony wrote. 'No one knows what happened. I guess maybe it was their gym clothes or something, but the school laundress says she hasn't changed anything about it. I don't have PE with them, which is good, I guess, so I didn't have the problem. The principal thinks its a prank, but no one's come forward, and he can't figure out how someone could have gotten into the laundry. You'd need a robot or something. I heard you can make itching powder out of maple seeds, did you know that? Fun fact. Anyway, as I said, it's been nice to walk between classes, and the boys are recovered now, so it didn't do any harm in the long run.'
Haddie put a paw over her mouth to hide her laughter.
“Hendrina, do not giggle,” Jarvis said, through his own smile. “Master Tony has obviously performed some sort of horrible misdeed against his peers.”
“And it's your fault,” Haddie said, delightedly.
“It was your idea for me to encourage him to get leverage, as I recall,” Jarvis said.
“Yes, and he's done a resounding job. You should be proud that he took your advice so seriously,” Haddie said.
Jarvis nudged her with his foot for her silliness and returned to the letter.
'I've started tutoring a boy in math, too. He's my age, but he's really, really big and tall. Taller than even the big kids. I help him at lunch, at his table. His dæmon's name is Pritha, and she's sort of stupid, but not too mean or anything, so Mim and her get along okay. We're not friends, but I eat lunch at his table. So that's fine.
Tell Dad I'm being good about the rules, okay? I don't think he reads my letters, and I want my allowance back soon so I can buy some new parts. Could you sneak some to me? I'll give you a list. If not, that's okay. I don't want you to get in trouble. I'll build you a tea warmer if you do, though.
Mim says hi to Haddie. I'll write next week again.'
It finished with a sign-off and Master Tony's swirling signature.
“Well, that's certainly an improvement,” Jarvis said, taking his glasses off and sipping his sherry.
“He still doesn't sound happy, though,” Haddie said.
“No,” Jarvis said. “I don't expect he will, either.”
“I want him to be happy,” Haddie said.
“We all want that,” Jarvis said.
Haddie put her chin on his knee. “I wish he could live with you."
Jarvis patted her head. “Yes, that would be pleasant,” he said. “Or quite traumatizing. Perhaps both.”
“Are you going to send him the parts he needs?” Haddie asked.
“No, of course not,” Jarvis said.
“But I'd like a tea warmer,” Haddie said, with a smirk.
“No,” Jarvis said. “Stop being silly.”
Haddie rose and trotted over to the desk. “You can write back before Wonder Woman starts."
Jarvis sighed. “I still don't see your interest in that show,” he said. He stood up and took his sherry to the desk.
“Ana likes it," Haddie said. “And I find she's like Mrs. Carter. It reminds me of the fun you had."
“Oh, was that what it was?” Jarvis said. He stretched his back. “It must have been well before all this arthritis set in. I can't imagine doing it now." He turned to Ana. "I'm going to write to Master Tony, before the telly starts."
"Yes, of course, you are," Ana said, with a smile. "He is good? Better, at least?"
"Better," Jarvis agreed. "At least."
He sat down and pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen. Haddie put her paws up on the desk to supervise the correspondence. If he began now, he could indeed be in time for Wonder Woman at 8PM, and if he mailed it in the morning, it should get back to Master Tony by Monday or Tuesday. Jarvis always liked to reply promptly. Mr Stark was not a good correspondent and never had been, and Mrs Stark was on the other side of the country, and it would take time for Master Tony's letter to reach her and her to write back. Master Tony could have some contact while he waited for her.
That way, at least he would know there was someone listening.