Maria Stark wrestles her squirming son into her arms with practiced ease before he can make a bolt for the workbench. "I think we have a new favorite word, dear."

"If he's anything like me, Em," says Howard, loud, but still muffled behind the welder's mask, "that'll always be his favorite word." Sparks fly from the steel he's working, scatter and die on the concrete floor. "'Course, he'll have to know better than to let it on. Not a very dignified favorite word, now, is it?" Tony wriggles, loops one arm round his mother's neck, and makes grabby hands.

"Well, I'd better take him upstairs before he starts trying to catch them like soap bubbles." Maria turns for the door, nearly bumps into Howard's secretary.

"Er, sorry, ma'am. Message for Mr. Stark, from Mr. Stane."

"Eh?" The racket and the sparks die. Howard flips up his mask; Tony burbles something indecipherable, and Maria bounces him, trying not to frown at the perfectly coifed girl with the clipboard. "From Obadiah, did I hear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Gotta take that, then. Sorry, Em."

Secretary and boss hustle upstairs, leaving Maria abruptly alone, arms full of toddler, in the echoing, empty workshop.

"Well," she says quietly, with a faint sigh, and peels Tony's small hand off her necklace.

She picks her way over to the table that's slowly, inadvertently but inevitably, become Tony's. Piles of spare parts, nothing too sharp. Abacus, slightly cracked; square-ruled notebook in which he obstinately scribbles wordless lines on the diagonal, only there because Howard thinks it's funny; little bottle of mercury and a dish, so he can flick about droplets and watch them shine. She plunks her son down on the high bench and watches him grab at broken things.

Howard never runs out of the workshop for her messages.

"Sparkly?" Tony asks, looking up at her with wide spaniel eyes. They used to be blue. He's fitting gears together; they grind and spin in his hands.

"No, sweetie." She kisses the top of his head, wonders when the nurse last brushed that unruly hair. "No more sparkly."


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