Hello! Look! I've managed to get this done! And it didn't run away with me! HOORAY!
Thanks again to everyone who has been reading and reviewing these little lumps; it means a lot, and it motivates me to write. With that said, onto the story!
He lives in a big house a little way away from a big city, but he prefers to think of it as a zoo, with the different species wandering around. There are the Maidicus Monochromaticus, in their black dresses and white aprons, which they complain are 'sexualised' (and while he knows a lot of big words, that's one that no one will explain to him). There are the Arbouris Homos, the groundsmen who get very angry when he calls them homos, even though he's pretty sure it's the plural of homo- man. Or perhaps it's homes, he doesn't really know; even at five he knows that no one speaks Latin.
There are the Tutorus Useless, a wholly unnecessary breed because he can teach himself, thank you very much. There are the Nannius Dumbici, who talk about how they're prettier than the maids and tell him he can't have chocolate because it will make him spotty. Him, the Childus Prodigem, a type of super smart gazelle that is stuck being smaller than everybody else. There is the Mater Timidus, rarely seen without her prey, the Ethanol Consumabilis.
And there is the king of the jungle (or is this a zoo? He doesn't have an English tutor, so his capacity for similes (metaphors?) isn't great): Pater Supremes, who rules over his domain like a very clever, very angry, very drunk lion.
A sighting of the Mater or the Pater is rare to say the least, and an acknowledgement is rarer still. If his father is a lion then his mother is a snake, not because she is lying or mean, but because she is silent and smooth and elegant, feared by the other animals but generally keeping to herself. Occasionally she'll start to cry on the shoulder of his father's secretary, or do that angry-whisper thing and fire one of their maids because of something to do with their sexualised outfits, but mostly she is silent.
His father is the opposite- everyone knows where he is at all times. He slams the doors, he shouts if you're in his way, he revs his cars when he's on the driveway. Tony can usually say exactly where he is in the house at any given time. He used to use this knowledge to try and seek him out, but now that he's five he understands that his father- despite his noise- generally doesn't want to be found. He is a lion, and Tony knows to leave well enough alone, instead choosing to stay in the little lab they have built him, adjacent to his bedroom, and tinker.
/They live in a little house, identical to all the other houses on her street and the next three streets besides. She thinks they're like cookies, all shaped with the same cutter, and she wonders what is on the inside of each. What do the people without kids put in the room that she sleeps in? Is their TV in the same place? What if they have goldfish- where do they put the bowl?
Her parents can't answer this, so she gives up asking them and instead draws picture after picture. Mr Lee down the road, she's sure, has a room filled with jelly beans, and she is nearly completely entirely sure that the man who always wears a dark green coat (even in the summer) is a villain.
Her parents nod when she tells them and her mother ruffles her hair. One of their shows is on, has been on for hours as far as she can tell, and their eyes are glued to the screen.
"So can I become a super hero and stop him?" she asks, tugging at her father's knees. He sends her a quick glance before his eyes flick back to the man with the gun, who is screaming and yelling at another man in a suit.
"Sure thing, honey, just make sure you're home in time for dinner."
Her parents have their own bedroom, but she doesn't know why. They live on the sofa and the TV is like their teddy bear. Her mother sits on the right and her father sits on the left, and there in a Pepper sized gap in the middle for when she wants to come watch too. Sometimes her father goes to work and sometimes her mother cooks dinner. Then there is a Pepper sized gap and a mom sized dent, or a Pepper sized gap and a dad sized dent, or two parent sized dents and a Pepper, sat in the middle of the sofa and feeling very, very small.
/He is taken for a walk with one of the nannies, who all agree that fresh air is very important for a growing child and smoke a lot while they walk. Tony helpfully reminds them that this will kill them, but for whatever reason they do not heed his advice.
She pauses for a second to dig around in her purse, maybe to give him a lolly, but probably to find another thing to smoke. In that second, he is suddenly flying through the air, carried by strong hands, and then the world goes black.
When he wakes up the have left him underneath a desk in some old fashioned looking offices, and he knows immediately that he is a long way from home. One of the men in the room- for they are all men, and he isn't quite sure why that is- notices that he is awake, and they start to laugh. A different man stamps on his hand and he thinks he hears something break. He starts to cry.
When the men have had their laugh, they leave, except for one who needs to guard him. Tony can smell him from under the desk, and he smells like Howard's office. The small child knows that that means he'll fall asleep very soon, and- as always- he is right. As soon as this happens he steals out of the room, steals out of the building which is in a town he's never seen before, goes to an ice cream parlour and asks the lady behind the counter to please phone his parents. It later turns out that he was gone for a full day.
"There you are," is all Howard says when he is deposited, dishevelled, teary and with a broken hand, before the man. "Someone tell the nanny that was crying; perhaps now she'll shut up."
"Didn't you look for me?" asks Tony, and no, his voice doesn't wobble; he is five years old and his voice does not wobble. His father looks at him severely over the top of wire rimmed reading glasses.
"Anthony, anyone who can't get themselves out doesn't deserve to be rescued."
/ At school she has one best friend called Lisa, and that's it. None of the boys ever want to talk to her because she's got freckles and her hair is red, and the boys only ever want to talk to people like Betty Ross, who doesn't have freckles and has very pretty brown hair instead. None of the girls will talk to her either, because the boys told them not to, and for some reason that matters.
No one will talk to Lisa either, because Lisa's got a lisp and glasses, and her mother shouts a lot when she comes to pick her up from school. At the start of the year the teacher puts them at the front of the classroom, but after she sees them dusting the spit balls off each others' backs she lets them sit in the back row instead.
But Lisa lives on the other side of town, which is too far away to walk to, and Pepper's family can't afford a bike. Lisa doesn't know how to ride a bike (Pepper doesn't either, but she could, if she had one), so the redhead spends her afternoon playing in her room or the garden by herself, or watching TV in the Pepper sized space on the couch between her parents.
"I need you to be real," she explains to her unicorn plushie, "so I can ride you to Lisa's house and we could all play together after school. That way, I wouldn't be so lonely." She pauses, thinking about it. "And so that you can stab people who are mean to me with your head. But, you know, mostly to ride you to Lisa's. So can you do it?" The plushie doesn't budge and she frowns. "So what if we don't know the way? We can work it out!" There is still no response. "Fine. You're right, I guess. I'll get my book instead."
/He lives in a big flat at the top of a very tall building in the middle of a different city. He also lives in a room lit by fluorescent lights on the eighth floor of a different building, but he only lives there during the day. Tony is seven years old, and because he has already finished the AP courses the tutor brought in for him, he has all day to work on the cars and the bikes and the machines that a different tutor brings in.
"What do you want to do today, Tony?" the man will ask. Sometimes the young genius programs, and sometimes he fixes up a vintage Harley, and one day, just because he really, really wants it, one day the tutor lets him build a spud launcher, which he shoots at the portrait of Captain America his father has hung up in the hallway outside.
After that he isn't allowed to do anything but write programming for two months, by the end of which he is willing to never go near a potato again, not even in the form of fries, even though fries taste so good.
At the end of the day a chauffeur comes to take him and his nanny (who has been absent since they first get to the building) back to the flat. His father takes a different car, and he's never known why. Sometimes his father doesn't come home at all, and on those nights his mother seems happier. Sometimes she even goes out and doesn't come home all night either. Tony doesn't really care- it's not like it affects him.
/"Hey, carrot head! Carrot head! Oi, carrot head, I'm talking to you!" The boy's eyes gleam with mischief as he reaches forward and pulls one of Pepper's plaits... hard.
"Ow!" she yells, and whirls to face him, tears springing to her eyes. "What do you want?" The back of her head is stinging and she can feel her lower lip start to tremble. His nose wrinkles.
"Want? Why would I want anything from you?" With this, he runs off again, off to join his friends as she desperately tries to swallow. When she gets home, she goes straight to her book shelf and rummages, rummages, why can't she find it? It should be here, she only read it a few months ago, it should still be here, and here it is! The young redhead clutches the battered old copy of Anne of Green Gables tightly to her chest, simply taking comfort from the book, before she opens it up and starts to read.
/The worst thing is that getting kidnapped is, by far, not the worst thing that happens to Tony that day.
"Hello, son," says his father, the fancy new doors they've put everywhere in the building sliding open with a zoosh noise. He wants nothing more than to take them apart, piece by piece, and see how they work, but his tutor has told him that he isn't allowed- something about them costing $10 000 each. Tony doesn't care, 'cause it's not really that much, only apparently it is.
"Hello, father," the nine year old replies, confused. Two men follow his father into the room, one with a camera around his neck, one with a pen and notepad. The first immediately starts snapping away and the second immediately starts scribbling. Tony isn't sure he's comfortable with that, especially with the way his father is smiling that forced, tight smile he gets whenever Tony needs to be in a magazine.
"These men are from Forbes- they've come to see what I am up to, and apparently that includes what you are up to. So, Tony- what are you up to?" Tony glances down at his project and feels the hot flush of shame creep up his neck. He is meant to be fixing the engine of the old Harley that came in last week, but his tutor has come down with flu, and he may have gotten... sidetracked.
"It's a machine," begins the prodigy. Howard's eyebrow goes up.
"We can see that, Tony- what does it do?"
"It's going to be above my bed... and it's... it's gonna drop a square of chocolate into my mouth every 63 seconds... because I timed it and that's how long it takes for a square to melt." The photographer is eagerly snapping pictures while the journalist scribbles, but all Tony can see is the tight little line that was once his father's lips, and he knows that Howard is angry.
/"I'm moving." Pepper stares in shock at her only friend, who has tears welling up in her dark blue eyes.
"I'm moving, to Arizona. My daddy got a new job, and we're leaving in five days." Pepper's eyes bulge- five days? How does one person, let alone an entire family, uproot their whole life and head to a different state in the space of five days?
"But we were going to play together this summer," is all she says, voice quavering. "Daddy was going to teach us to fish in the lake." Tears begin to roll down Lisa's cheeks.
"I don't think there are any lakes in Arizona." Suddenly they are both crying, wrapped up in each others' arms.
"You're my only friend," Pepper whispers. "What am I going to do without you?" Lisa sniffles and shrugs, and they both cry harder.
/ "A chocolate dropper?" The journalists have left, something Tony is desperately unhappy about as Howard bears down upon him. "A chocolate dropper? You are my son, Anthony, my son- you are not allowed to waste your life on frivolities like chocolate droppers!"
"I... I just..." Tony tries to explain, but what can a scared little gazelle do against a lion? Howard steps forward, grabs the machine and smashes it against the workstation once, twice, three times before dropping it at his son's feet.
"Put that brain to something useful," he tells Tony, "and don't ever embarrass me like that again."
Later that day he is snatched from the parking lot while he waits for the chauffeur to arrive. It takes him five days to get out, and this time when he arrives home Howard doesn't even bother to come out and see him.
/ The first thing she notices when she gets home is that she can't hear the TV. This in itself is unusual enough that she wanders through to the kitchen to find out what is going on. Her eyes feel raw and gritty from crying, but she doesn't have a chance to tell her mother about Lisa's departure, because her mother is looking very worried, and her father is looking very worried, and suddenly Pepper is feeling very worried.
"Yes," her mother is saying into the landline as her father watches from the couch, lips a thin line. "Yes; two days, you say? Oh no, no problem; yes. Yes. Goodbye, Mr Jarvis." She hangs up.
"Mom?" asks the redhead. "What's going on?" Her mother gives her a tight, forced smile as she sits back down on the sofa. Pepper crawls into the Pepper sized gap and looks between them, bewildered and more than a little scared.
"You know your cousin Anthony?" asks her mother, and she wrinkles her nose.
"The one that was in the newspaper last year?"
"Yes, him; well, he's coming to stay with us this summer, and you two can play together. Won't that be fun?" Her father doesn't look like it will be fun. Her father's mouth is a downward pointing crescent moon, but Pepper's stomach gives a little flip anyway. A friend to play with at the summer?
"The most fun ever," she announces, beaming.
/He is done with simple circuits now. Has long since mastered the art of fixing up broken cars, and has moved onto programming and university physics courses. He is interrupted, however, halfway through a moderately difficult paper on super conductors by Jarvis, who has been his nanny ever since the second time he got snatched. Jarvis sits him down and explains the kidnapping threat, before leaving to make some hot chocolate for the boy.
Awfully nice of them Tony thinks bitterly, sweeping the papers off his desk in frustration and anger. Now I can reschedule my dentist's appointment. The lamp smashes into the wall. Thank god, I can cancel my trip to the Bahamas. The chair strikes the floor. I do appreciate it. This time, one of the chair legs splinters. So much more civilised than that other lot.
The door swings open, and Jarvis is prying the small robot he made aged eight out of the trembling prodigy's hands. Thank god they're in one of the country houses at the moment, otherwise Howard might have heard, and then Tony would have been handed over to the kidnappers by the old man himself.
"They've found a solution, sir," Jarvis tells him a few hours later. The young boy is in the attic, as the butler had known he would be- Tony always sought higher ground when upset.
"I've never heard of them," says Tony when Jarvis has finished. "I didn't know I had a cousin. Why can't you and I go hide somewhere, Jarvis? Take me to Botswana, or Zanzibar! They'll never find me there!" He turns away so that he doesn't have to see the pity in the old man's eyes. "You're going to say no."
"I'm sorry, sir," sighed the butler; "I'm afraid that I'm not in charge."